How to Own Your Life

by Alisa on August 18, 2011

These flowers are so owning it.

We were playing mini golf. My daughter was hitting the ball about 10 times and then lying and telling me she’d only taken two or three strokes.

“I’m not going to keep score if you keep cheating,” I said. “It defeats the purpose of keeping score.”

“Fine!” she said.

For the next few holes, she alternated between making a huge show of counting all of her strokes (and mine) and coming up with elaborate reasons why various strokes of hers didn’t really count. For instance, if she swung hard and missed the ball, it didn’t count. If she swung and the ball only traveled a few inches, it didn’t count. If she swung and hit a line drive out into the parking lot, it didn’t count. If her ball went into one of the water hazards, it didn’t count. If it took her more than six strokes to get the ball in, every stroke after 6 didn’t count.

You get the idea.

After all was said and done and we were both happily eating ice cream, I asked her if she understood why I was bothered by it all.

“Honesty is important, honey,” I said. “You should always tell the truth. Well, not always. Almost always.”

She looked confused.

“Sometimes it’s okay to lie, but only if you are doing it to make someone else feel good.”

She looked even more confused.

“Like, if grandma were wearing an ugly shirt and she asked you if you thought it was ugly, you might tell her that it’s the coolest shirt ever even if you didn’t think so.”

“Oooooh,” she said. “And if someone has an ugly face and asks me if they have an ugly face, I should lie and say that their face is pretty.”

“Um, yeah,” I said. “But you never have to lie to me. I can take anything.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it’s almost impossible to offend me,” I said.

“It is?” she asked.

“Yeah, like you told me today how bad my hair looked and that I needed a hair cut and I didn’t get offended. And you make fun of my muffin top and that doesn’t offend me. And when you tell me that I’m embarrassing you, it just makes me smile. And when you tell me that my breath stinks, I just apologize. I don’t get mad.”

“That’s because those things are funny,” she said. “And you really do need a haircut.”

“They’re only funny because I have a sense of humor. If I were easily offended, they wouldn’t be funny,” I explained.

Then I realized that I was basically telling her that most people don’t have senses of humor. Then I spent some time wondering whether that was true or not. (What do you all think?) Then I decided that we were at a good place to just end the conversation and move on before I really put my feet in my mouth.

At any rate, it all got me thinking about a similar conversation I’d had with my kid a few weeks before about owning her quirks. That conversation had completely gone over her head, but I don’t think it will go over yours. It goes like this.

  • No one can make you feel badly about yourself except for you.
  • You will only ever feel badly about yourself if you think of your individual quirks as bad.
  • If you own your quirks and, in your mind, make them “good,” no one will ever be able to offend you, anger you, or embarrass you by calling you on them.

For instance, I have a good friend who is quite proud of his dorkiness. If you tried to make him feel bad by calling him a dork, he’d just laugh and say, “I sure am!” I tend to be socially awkward, especially when I’m surrounded by a group of people. If someone told me that I was awkward, I’d be like, “You think?” (I’m also a messy eater, have a tendency to wear the same outfit for days, and am currently walking around with a white woman ‘fro. So what? It’s all true. Big deal.) Cecily Kellogg, a fellow blogger, absolutely blew me away the first time I met her by telling me a story about a troll who viciously and very publicly attacked her and called her “fat,” among other things. She replied, “Well, duh.” She owned it. Therefore he could do nothing to destroy her peace of mind. (And if you want to see  Cecily owning it, just check out her blog.) Similarly, many people love to read The Bloggess, and I’m pretty sure that’s because she owns it. She’s not embarrassed by her anxiety, for instance. Heck, she’s not embarrassed about anything.

You get the idea. You can own more than just your quirks, though. You can also own your choices. In nearly every situation short of human slavery, you always have choices. You can choose to stay married or end your marriage. You can choose to stay in a job or find a new one. You can choose to react with anger or react with kindness. You can choose to stand on an interminable line and strew about it the whole time or stand on the same line with a pleasant smile on your face. The choice is yours. Own the choice.

You can also own your mistakes. At the end of each day, I think about how various things went down and whether I was the best me in each situation. Sometimes I just haven’t been. Like when I was sitting in my car waiting for a gas pump to open up and I gave a sort of meanish hand gesture to the lady who decided to drive around my car—not, as it turned out, to beat me to a gas pump but rather just to drive down the road, which I was blocking at that moment—I was in the wrong. I could have blamed that incident on the stupid configuration of the gas station or even on the lady. (She could have been more patient, don’t you think?) I didn’t. My hand gesture was my hand gesture. I could have just as easily smiled and wished her a lifetime of happiness. Next time, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Note that owning my mistakes is very different from beating myself up. I don’t tell myself I am a horrible person for falling short. I just make note of it, own it, and use that information to grow into a better me.

What else of yours can you own? Can you see how owning your life can bring you more happiness and peace of mind? Let me know what you think.

A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Vickie August 18, 2011 at 10:13 pm

A five year old once climbed up on my lap and said, “My dad teases me but he means it.” When you asked about no sense of humor, I immediately thought of that comment. My husband and I have made it a practice to not use negative humor toward each other (and others, too). It has made such a difference in our marriage.We eliminated that whole ‘teasing but meaning’ it. I know his faults, he knows mine but they are never displayed for others to see. That doesn’t quite address your question but it was the first thing that came to mind when I read the beginning of your story. Thank you for bringing up such wonderful topics!

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Wendy D August 18, 2011 at 10:51 pm

I am often left hiding my thoughts and reliving poor choices in my mind because I don’t want to defend them. I suppose if I put more effort into being okay with myself, I wouldn’t be so quiet. Many times being quiet makes others think I’m stuck up. I’m not ignoring them, I’m hiding me.

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Tim_UK August 19, 2011 at 6:22 am

I have to be honest and say all through the second half of your piece I was thinking, ‘So is this going to end with you owning your kid’s quirks about how she plays?’

I think it is probably the hardest thing for parents to do, to get the balance right when applying this letting-it-be to their kid’s behaviours and quirks too. I had a chat with my wife about this – as we don’t have kids yet – and was glad to hear she is ok with letting them make up rules. I struggle with it, but know (from the Caroline Webster-Stratton parenting research) that there are down sides to making your kids following rules in games, that it hinders their creativity and makes them feel not good enough if told what and how to do stuff all the time. That if we are playing with them we are entering their world and enjoying them explore their creativity, not pulling them into ours and instructing them on life.

(Besides, if we don’t let little girls make up rules as they go, how are little boys going to learn how to cope when they get married?)*

As to the all of us having a sense of humour? Definitely not. I say that because I do not think having a sense of humour means you find stuff funny. To me it means you are a person with Good Humour, in other words that you are kind. And clearly many people are not. I don’t think it is the majority who aren’t, but a significant number of people are simply not kind. Having travelled a fair bit in other cultures, I know that sometimes that ‘not being kind’ applies to a whole groups, and I’m talking here of men’s attitude to women in certain places of the world. It is often defended as culture, to be mean to women, but for me that only excuses a group attitude, not a personal one and I would say that the individual who treats his women folk in certain ways does not have ‘Good Humour’.

As to owning our dorkiness or quirks. I think it is essential for happiness, both personally and globally. We need individuals in this world because groups lead to ‘Group Think’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_think) and do damage. Mobs do even more so. Plus the media wants us all the same so it can treat as one big consumer, and the more individuals stands up and refuse to be molded the better it is for us. Goes for governments too.

So, all power to the Dork!! – http://youtu.be/PMHZCXJfAW8

(PS – my wife says my quirks are: being a scallywag, and making bad jokes*).

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Alisa August 19, 2011 at 9:12 am

Hi Tim– I can see how the mini golf story set you up to think that now that you mention it. I, for whatever reason, feel the need to state that we usually don’t keep score, mostly because I find it bothersome to write with those tiny little pencils. But my daughter REALLY wanted to keep score this time and begged me to do it. So then when she wasn’t counting all her strokes, I was like “Really? Why bother?” And then I decided it was an opportunity to teach her about honesty.

I think with parenting there’s a balance. Kids do need some rules. After all, society has rules. If we don’t teach them how to follow directions, they won’t do it when it matters when they are older. At the same time, nothing in life is black and white, and that’s a “rule” we can teach– how to question, to think for yourself and decide whether something really makes sense, to balance a societal rule with wisdom and the idea of the greater good. We can teach them to have the courage to be different at the same time we teach them how to fit into certain societal norms, etc. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

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Tim_UK August 19, 2011 at 11:30 am

Ok, that makes sense. But I totally understand anyway, and struggle with this myself. I have a step-son who is now 17. I became his dad when he was two and a half and almost immediately role swapped with his career focused mum – meaning I stayed home to look after him 24/7 (which could include when she was travelling abroad). This went on right up until his mum and I split when he was just passed 8 (by the way, it really was 24/7 as he was home schooled, badly, by me too). So I know loads about getting stuff wrong and certainly don’t think I have the answers. Some of the mistakes I made make me wince.

When I came across the let-your-kids-make-up-their-own-rules-when-playing thing from Webster-Stratton I was unsure about it, for the very reasons you’ve listed. The best answer I could come up with is to separate when to apply it. For instance, when playing, “rules can be made up and we can be creative” because it helps kids become lateral thinkers, problem solvers, as well as self believers. But for me, it also had to go both ways, so in your scenario I would say. “Ok, I’m making up my rules too” (and I must admit my experience has been that when doing that, kids are not only totally ok with it, but it becomes huge fun – for both – as they get inspired by our creativity to think up more ways to change the game). And then at other times, when not playing (eg dinner times, bed times, shopping trips, etc), the rules have to be followed. My main one was some places we go to eat you can run around and some you can’t; some stuff is non-food we eat for fun and some is real food we need, etc.

Anyway that is my take on it. But I don’t know. When my son was young I tried to go for the natural consequence as much as possible – eg. no coat, get cold and wet; lie to me, I lie to you; hit me and I need to back away from you and you’ll be alone (not that he ever did actually) but anyway, like I said, I wince now when I think of how I got that wrong sometimes – eg. scare the other kids at nursery and I scare you. (Sigh).

Most of us parents assume our kids will understand a idea or concept the way we do, but they don’t. When we say “I need some peace and quiet”, to them it means “go away, I don’t want you”. It’s amazing how emotional parenting is. The best quote on parenting I ever read was when a mum said: “The scariest thing about my five year old, is the speed at which he can reduce me to my five year old.”

Alexandra August 19, 2011 at 9:26 am

This post really got me to thinking. My kids are grown up now, and I wonder if they would agree, about owning traits and getting on with life? My girls tell me I’m too “prideful.” I guess this means, to them, pleased with myself, confident of my own abilities. I know about this side of my personality and have owned it long ago, in fact run with it to get where I am today. They obviously do not see “prideful” as a desirable trait. So, sometimes you can own something and upset adult children. It would be nice if they could appreciate me someday for what I am.

I also wanted to comment on what a terrific mom you are, Alisa. I love the way you have these discussions with your daughter.

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Tim_UK August 19, 2011 at 11:33 am

Yes, it was a very cool and honest discussion. Made me laugh too.

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Alisa August 19, 2011 at 11:49 am

Alexandra–About the last word I would use to describe you is “prideful” in the negative sense. I wonder if they also see you as confident? It’s interesting how one word has a negative connotation, but the other positive. Yet they are close in meaning.

I think children can be very hard on their parents. I know I was very hard on my mom for many years. I think I wanted her to be a Goddess and I was upset by the knowledge that she was a mere human. I remember once as a teen screaming at her, “You are not perfect!” She looked at me and said something like, “Tell me something I don’t already know.”

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Andi August 19, 2011 at 1:35 pm

This philosophy or attitude adjustment completely changed my life 10 years ago and continues to do so today. I am responsible for my own happiness and I control how I react to situations. The flip side is when I try to tell my husband that he is responsible for his own happiness, he does not see it that way, there is always something or someone who is pissing him off or constraining him, and I try to tell him that is not the case…he hasn’t see the light yet, but I keep trying!

Great advice Alisa, how hope others heed it, because it certainly changed my life.

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Tim_UK August 19, 2011 at 6:10 pm

My ex wife used to say that. It’s true of course, but what I learned, and why we divorced, was that it is the kind of thing you can tell yourself, but not the kind of thing you can tell someone else – least of all your partner. Saying it kinda kills the intimacy, trust and vulnerability needed for a happy marriage. Hope you have better luck with it.

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Ginny August 19, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Great post, Alisa. Pleeeaaase can you tell me the name of the flower in the picture?

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Alisa August 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

Ginny– I actually don’t know. I personally call the flower “Horton” because it reminds me of what I imagined the flower that Horton (in Horton Hears a Who) was carrying around. But I don’t know it’s real name. I will say that I found it in Crested Butte Colo during the height of wildflower season. Not sure if that helps.

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Ginny August 23, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Thanks, that was enough. It’s called Prairie Smoke: Geum triflorum (Erythrocoma triflora) Thanks very much!!

Treven August 19, 2011 at 11:54 pm

@Tim
Re: Making up our own rules:
I do like the approach you suggested of sometimes agreeing to make up our own rules for the creative fun of it. But I also think it’s important for kids to also learn that organized games, from mini golf to chess to freeze tag, have “official” rules that are part of the game. I’m a big fan of letting kids go on journeys with their imaginations and creativity. But my kids had temper tantrums at playdates and/or preschool because they were used to mommy letting them win or take extra turns, etc. Sportsmanship, fairness, taking turns, and being able to lose are good abilities to develop, as well. So, a balance…. But you’ve gotten me thinking — I wonder if letting kids have chances to construct their own rules for games gives them more of a sense of ownership and control, so when it’s time to play by someone else’s rules, they actually do better at that — because they have had chances to control the game, they don’t need to always do so??

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Tim_UK August 20, 2011 at 4:46 am

I understand, but there’s a hard to voice feeling in me that says if we stop kids ‘discovering’ in their play it’s a bit like letting them run around a field and everytime we want them to change direction, we slam a wall in front of them so the crash into it, bounce off, and have to run another direction. They’re goning to cry and tantrum. Heck, I would. Moreover, we assume they understand and think as we do, but few coginitve abilities develope before seven, so why would they understand abstract things like rules. ‘Sharing’ and ‘turn taking’ are things they can see acted out and demonstrated, and serve them too, but the more hard to picture ‘ways of doing things’ I don’t think they would get.

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Tim_UK August 20, 2011 at 4:49 am

Correction – That last line should have read…

…the more hard to picture ‘official rules’ I don’t think they would get.

Treven August 20, 2011 at 12:20 am

Alisa,
Great post, as usual. I think you’re right that a lot of people don’t have a good sense of humor. Especially the kind of sense of humor you’re describing here — the ability to laugh at oneself. To me, that is the most profound, complete, and beautiful sense of humor. Without it, all other humor is shallow and dishonest. People who can crack good jokes but can’t laugh at themselves might be funny, but they don’t have good humor.
Thank you for talking about owning our quirks, thereby validating ourselves. I needed to hear it. I’ve always felt that way. I have a self-deprecating sense of humor that makes me happy. I love to make myself and others laugh about me. It feels like a way to redeem my deficiencies. If I can laugh at myself, I can be grateful for my faults, because they give me so many chances to laugh. In comparison, being perfect would be boring.
But my ownership of my quirks has been tested recently. Several people in my life (including my husband) have used my self-deprecating sense of humor as a weapon against me. I highlight my faults in order to find good humor, and they ignore the humor and focus on the — now highlighted, thanks to me — faults. Sometimes I just chuckle inside. But sometimes they get me and I start curtailing my sense of humor to limit their ammunition. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not the only person who lives to reveal herself rather than hide!

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Wilbur August 20, 2011 at 9:16 pm

I like the piece about choosing. That is so important for all of us to remember. We choose so often, but don’t really consider it in those terms. The most important of course is do I choose to love this person hear and now with what I say and do and how I treat them. Too often love is a feeling which has to come first rather than a choice which then leads to actions and feelings.

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Sarah Liz August 21, 2011 at 3:12 am

This is fantastic!

I liked the way you told this story. I can imagine your daughter saying “And you need a hair cut.” Kids are so honest and that’s part of their charm.

The “white woman fro,” was also funny!

Honestly, I couldn’t agree with you more. The only person who can truly make us feel bad about ourselves is us. Sure, this takes a lot of years to get through to most people’s heads, but it is true.

I think a lot of hurt in life comes from expecting to get hurt. When we don’t expect to get hurt, won’t be–or at least, it’ll hurt less when we do. (I’m talking about people’s off hand comments and snide remarks here.)

I also agree that having a sense of humor is super important. I lost mine for a while, but this summer, I got it back! I am so glad! I can laugh at most anything now, it’s great!

It takes some practice and not everything is fun and games, but what a great lesson to impart upon your daughter that owning yourself is the key to most everything.

People tell me I’m short and tiny–duh! I’m 4.11′, really? They also sometimes comment on my voice (which is hoarse and soft) and I just laugh. I’ve come up with some good comebacks too. (Not mean ones, funny ones.) And when people say I REALLY like food, yes, I do. Thank you.

I think owning who you are and how you act is a great thing! I wish people would take more responsibility for themselves, but even if they don’t, I can.

Thanks for a good a story, a great reminder and insight.

Many Blessings,
-Sarah Liz :)

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Rollercoasterider August 21, 2011 at 9:31 am

Regarding rules and the mini golf…I was thinking along the same lines of Tim_UK and also not being a parent yet found the conept about rules and games interesting as well as validating.
But then I get where you are coming from too Alisa, since she asked to keep score. Maybe you should have asked for her rules first—of course she could have said something like rule #1 “I make the rules”… Rule #5 “I am at anytime allowed to change the rules.”

When I was 8 I was riding the train home with my Mom; the trip was several hours. There was another little girl on there and we played games together; she was 4. At 8 people probably still let me win—though probably did not know. And at that age I was about winning and justice. We were playing tic tac toe and guess who kept winning? Um, yeah, the 8 year old. Her Mom finally got a little miffed at me and told me I was supposed to or should let her win. I was upset and quite shocked. Mom may have been right too, but it was not a concept I understood at 8. Had I been 12 and plying with a 4 year old I would have got it, maybe if we had been (younger) siblings I would have got it because the experience would have presented itself often. But tic tac toe was a game and I wasn’t going to mess up on purpose, that would not have been fair playing; it would not have been right.

I think the point about kids needing to know and follow the rules with other kids is well made. The way I see it, it is with adults that kids make up rules. On board games we read the rules and decided together which rules to follow—sometimes there were variations—or what rules to make up. But in group play, such as at school, we knew and followed the traditionally understood rules. We also understood where there were to be exceptions. (Though apprently not for 4 yearsolds!) But if one of the special ed. Students joined us, such as a child with down’s, we bent the rules for them and helped them more. But between the rest of us tag was a cutthroat game—that made it more fun!

Now about owning who you are. That makes me think of my mother. You’re a writer, so you know show versus tell. I can understand how we may get the concept and your daughter did not. She will get it by watching you live it and she may be getting it, but it may not be something she understands or is able to verbalize yet.
My mother—I love that crazy lady. Years ago I was lifeguarding and it was the end of the day. The car I was driving must not have been available and my Mom was going to pick me up from the beach. She offered to make and bring me a frozen coffee drink—milkshake I think. Okay, I’d love that. I should have thought more about who was offering. She showed up with the blender…but the drink was already made. That year I was working with another guard who had known my Mom for 14 years; so he knew her quite well. He was also picky and into fitness. Almost ZERO fat in his food and on his body and not a germy kind of guy. She offered him some of the shake. He hesitated and then gave in. Wow, I was surprised. Then my Mom turned on her usual self and said it needed to be mixed (not blended, just stirred after settling during the car ride) and she did not have a spoon. So what did she do? Just the mortifying memory makes me shiver. She stuck her hand in and mixed it around. To her, there was nothing wrong with this action. The other guard was in no way surprised—since he knew her—and just shook his head, kind of laughed and said “Oh Sue.” And then said he didn’t want any.
What was great though was that because he knew her and already loved her, that ioncident did not change his view of her. Everyone knows my Mom is quirky. It bothers few—unfortunately my husband is among the mortified few.
She knows she is quirky too. I would rather she not go around stirring milkshakes with her arm, but I love her anyway. She taught me to be me and even as a kid who was constantly being picked on for being different I did not try to fit in because I did not want to fit in with people who thought it was okay to pick on people. And at the same time I was happy to be their friends when they were being nice. But I wasn’t about to sacrifice my Self to do it. Moms are awesome.

I do have one little linguistic quibble.
“You can choose to react with anger or react with kindness.”
Almost true. But to me the word ‘react’ is something done not quite without choice, but more without control and though we can choose to not control ourselves, usually (I think) conscious choosing enables control. Yes, we can and often react with anger and kindness can also be a reaction. But when choice is involved it is a response. So we can choose to react or respond. Choosing to react rather than respond is choosing to not control ourselves and our emotions and let circumstances and other people dictate them instead.

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Lesli Doares August 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Thanks for sharing this. Ultimately, as much as we may want to blame others, we are responsible for our choices. While at first this seems scary, it’s actually quite freeing and empowering. We can’t change the facts of what’s happening but we can change our perception. How we choose to respond to anything life throws at us is completely up to us. Being secure in who you are, accepting your quirks so to speak, gives you the strength and foundation to make the choices that are right for you.

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Angela Jennings August 24, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Lovely post, Alisa. I need to own my shape/size/weight, etc. I am constantly comparing myself to skinnier people instead of just loving who I am inside…and to heck with the people who don’t like me for me. And you know what? I’m funny, if not a little irreverant, but that’s okay. If we were all the same, the world would be boring. (Am I off topic or what? LOL)

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Angela Jennings August 24, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Another note: I loved the two blog links you posted. I’m going to start following them as well!

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Drummer Guy August 25, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Loved it again Alisa. Personally I LOVE to laugh at my goofy side & the wife does as well. We do joke with each other about both of our quirky traits, but never in a mean way. Neither of us gets offended in the least. I may slip on the floor & here her say “Hey good move Gracie”. Stuff like that. I find it funny.

She gets that humor from her dad. Her parents were Frank & Marie to a tee from “Everybody Loves Raymond”. They were a riot to be around. They were always picking back & forth & neither ever went over the line. I guess they had long ago learned to laugh at themselve’s.

But it is so vital to learn to accept our own idiocencricies. We all have them. When we take ownership of them then we can learn to laugh at them. I do :-P Now there have been times I have told little white lies not to offend. My MIL is a HORRIBLE cook. But if asked how I liked the meal I would always just say I enjoyed it. Right or wrong I guess we all do that to some extent. Anyway LOVE the post

You ROCK Girl
Ron :-)

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