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Friday, December 29, 2017

Annals of Successful Parenting: Amtrak and Ben Franklin

Hello, Readers. As we limp into the home stretch of this difficult year, I am inspired to think about goals and resolutions for the next year, which may be just as difficult, if not moreso. Sorry to be a downer. All this drivel is to get to something. Last week The New York Times published a quick and easy read on New Year’s resolutions that I thought was helpful for those who want to make some. I am not sure I do. I have done so in the past, and some of them are still with me. The kind of resolution that works for me is a a low-threshold resolution. That’s a resolution that has a low threshold for fulfillment. 

For example, several years ago, I resolved to do a little yoga every morning. We’re talking a little, tiny bit. We’re talking five sun salutations. Five sun salutations take less than five minutes. I figured if I gave myself something very easy to accomplish, I would be less likely to avoid it. I also told myself to do these five sun salutations first thing, before putting on my glasses. And I have. Sometimes I do more than five. Sometimes I do a lot - but not often. But I almost always do those five. I never wake up dreading an involved routine that causes me to go right back to sleep. I can always say to myself, “It’s just five. It won’t take but a few minutes.”That’s what I’m talking about when I say a low threshold for fulfillment. 

It’s been several years now, and the number of days I’ve missed my morning yoga is very few. (Usually when I’m traveling and the carpet in the hotel room is very groady.) 

Anyway, if you’re into setting goals, this little article has good advice.

But are you into setting goals? 

Or are you into evaluation and reflection and thinking more about how to be than what to do?

In that case, I have just the thing. Advice from the founding father of self-improvement, Benjamin Franklin. While on a voyage from London to Philadelphia, where he eventually became the famous Franklin we see on the one hundred dollar bill, young Ben devised a Plan for Future Conduct, which consisted of four elements. He was wordy, but I’ll be brief:
  1. Be frugal and pay all debts.
  2. Speak the truth and aim at sincerity in word and deed.
  3. Work hard and don’t be distracted by “any foolish project of suddenly growing rich.” 
  4. Speak ill of no one.

Rather puts my five sun salutations to shame, doesn’t it?

These four rules are appealing; yet I break them regularly. Then there are times when I don’t break them, but apparently, I should. For example, just the other week, the 10th grader and her friend had plans to travel by Amtrak to NYC to visit some other friends. Unbeknownst to me, although it should have been knownst, because I had once before looked into Amtrak’s rules for unaccompanied minors, there were Rules About Travel for Unaccompanied Minors. In this instance, however, the friend had purchased the tickets, so there was no fine print. 

So, I walked with the girls up to the gate and immediately, an Amtrak employee smelled an under 16 year old. Or something. I don't know exactly how, but we attracted attention. An Amtrak agent asked them how old they were. The 10th grader’s friend said she was sixteen, which she was. And suddenly, yep, I snapped to and recalled that small print about sixteen being minimum age for unaccompanied travel on Amtrak. So anyway, the Amtrak agent had apparently been around the block or spent some time with a fake ID, or had been trained, and she says to the friend, “When’s your birthday?” The friend produces this date via smooth mental recall.

Then the agent turns to the 10th grader and me and asks, “How old are you?” The 10th grader looks at me, hesitating, and I look at her, and the agent looks at me, and I say the fateful words, the words that lead to burocratic nightmare, the words that lead to Christmas razzing by family and friends and family. “She’s fifteen. She’ll be sixteen in February.”

Which meant paperwork. Paperwork naming an individual eighteen years old or older to meet her at the train, and to put her on the return train. This worked out okay on the journey there, because an eighteen year old happened to be meeting them at Penn Station. The requirement proved problematic for the return trip, and I’ll just say it involved my sister-in-law (SIL)and a lot of texting and the husband having to call an Amtrak 800 number because my SIL was not on the form, and Amtrak wouldn’t take the husband’s word for it over the phone, and fifteen minutes on hold and my SIL having to spend an hour plus of a busy Sunday waiting around for an Amtrak agent to personally transmit the 10th grader and her sixteen year old companion to the train. 

Why didn’t we just lie? I’m sure that’s what you’re asking. Because everyone else asked it. I have been the object of ridicule by family and friends and family and family for not lying. And I ask myself the same. I had a very well-thought out defensive answer at the Christmas dinner table with my BIL and MIL, and parts of it are true. To wit, that when confronted with the question of age, I thought, “I cannot lie in front of my daughter. That teaches a bad lesson,” and then when I looked at her, I realized she could not lie in front of her mother, because that gives the wrong impression. So we were trapped. 

But also, I did not lie because I was caught off-guard and just blurted out the truth, as I tend to do. I’m a fan of honesty. 

I have something in common with Benjamin Franklin, it seems. So I can’t really have done wrong. 

Furthermore, both girls were nervous about taking the train to Penn Station. I think they were secretly relieved to have the escort to and from the train. I base this on their completely benign facial expressions throughout the whole thing. Nary an eye roll or a disaffected hip thrust. 

I know I was relieved about it. 

The real lesson of this story is that if you have to fill out a form at Amtrak, and the agent, sotto voce, tells her co-worker to stick around because she hasn’t done one of those kinds of forms before, make sure she confirms everything with her coworker before you leave, stupidly imagining that the agent has done it correctly. Because, let me assure you, she has not, and there’s nothing more unmoving than an Amtrak agent at Penn Station in New York. 

So, if you choose to adopt Benjamin Franklin’s Plan for Future Conduct, be sure to leave a little extra time when traveling. Or do what he did, and bend the rules, and intend to stick to it, but forgive yourself when you do not. 

Or, make your own plan, and set a low threshold for success. 

Meanwhile, onward to 2018. May it be a good year. May we all be involved citizens working to create the world we want. And may we be in agreement about what that world is. 

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