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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Today’s word was born of a mini-rant.

I decided to clean the kitchen, mostly because it looked like a war zone in a third world country, no offense to third world countries. Somehow over the course of a week during which I didn’t even cook much more than oatmeal, I managed to accumulate boxes and bags, pots and pans, nuts and seeds.

The nuts and seeds were meant for granola. So was the giant container of oats I ordered from Target. They all arrived in boxes on my doorstep because if there is one good thing that came out of the pandemic it was the realization that I never have to step foot in a store again as long as I live.

Today, as I was cleaning the kitchen, I collected the wayward boxes, put away the bags, and set the nuts in the pantry next to… the very tiny container of oats.


I bought the giant container.

I always buy the giant container.

Where was my giant container?

I logged into my Target account. It showed that I had, indeed, ordered the giant container. Those ^#*($%@#%@ messed up my order! FIRST WORLD RAGE!

It doesn’t take much to get a problem like that resolved, mostly because you never even talk to a person. You just get on chat with a bot, tell them they messed up, and they give you your money back.

I got my money back.

But not my oats.

I sulked because I didn’t have enough to make granola and I especially didn’t have enough to make muffins or anything else I was imagining coming out of the oven this weekend. If you think for a second I was going to drive to the store and go inside to get a container of oats then clearly you haven’t been listening.

I continued cleaning the kitchen.

Five minutes later, right on the counter in front of me, where I had put it as I moved things around to wipe down the counters… was my giant container of oats. Like Saint Anthony himself was having a joke on me.

The tiny one in the pantry? Kevin bought it when he was visiting so he could make oatmeal cookies.

Word of the day: idiot.

That’s the word on many days, but actually, no, that is not today’s word.

Feeling rather stupid and chastened, I logged back into my Target account and found a human representative, and explained how I was an idiot and had requested a refund on an item that I didn’t receive, except I did receive it, and could they please cancel the refund?

It took ten seconds to get the refund issued by a bot in the first place. It took fifteen minutes for a human to finally tell me that they could not undo the refund nor charge me again. They did, however, thank me for my honesty and tell me to keep it as a gift.

The word of the day is honesty.

Mama didn’t raise no liars.

It was a three buck item, but still.

And the human not-a-bot was so effusive in their praise of my honesty that it stuck in my head and became a word. It also made me feel marginally guilty for the other fifteen times I wasn’t particularly honest.

Like the time I missed a bulb of garlic in my shopping cart and got all the way to the car before I noticed it and decided that I was absolutely NOT going back inside and getting back online with a twenty cent garlic bulb. I only lost 20 cents worth of sleep on that one.

But that got me thinking about honesty in general, because this is a word project after all, and we take the opportunities that present themselves.

Some time ago (or 2016 according to Amazon) I read a book called Lying by Sam Harris. If you are not familiar with him, he is quite thought provoking and whether you agree with him or not he is exceptionally reasoned in his thinking. He has a degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in neuroscience, so that should give you an idea of where he’s coming from. He is, in fact, a man after my own heart, who can take a single word like is and expostulate on its nuances of meaning and place in the history of the universe.

Anyway, the premise of this book is to explore the idea of being completely, utterly, 100% honest all the time. It’s a daunting concept.

I think most of us like to think of ourselves as pretty honest. We’re not stealing TVs and we pay our taxes and if the steak is not good we tell the server when he asks and make him take it back and redo it. In other words, honest about the important things.

We are also dishonest about the important things, like whether or not that dress actually looks good.

In Lying, Sam Harris argues that we can improve the world radically if we expunge the white lie.

I argue that there is no way I’m telling Ralph that his meatloaf wasn’t very good.

Kidding, I’m kidding! He made an excellent meatloaf, and if he wore that dress he’d look great, too.

I think what Sam Harris calls a white lie, I would call diplomacy. And maybe he is right, maybe things would be simpler and more straightforward if we weren’t so hung up on being nice over being truthful.

Or maybe sometimes saying, oh what a cute baby! even when you really, really don’t mean it is a simple kindness.

It’s something we all have to decide for ourselves.

My grandmother was neither a liar nor a diplomat. Along with her sisters, with whom I spent all of my formative years and a chunk of my adult life, she told you things plain and simple, whether you liked it or not. They did not sugarcoat whether they liked your dress or approved of your meatloaf. It was, actually, rather refreshing, You never had to wonder. You never had a nagging doubt that maybe they were being nice. They didn’t try to be nice, but somehow they managed to never be mean.

It’s a skill.

My mother will say things like it’s okaaaaayyyyyyy which is her way of not saying that you really picked the wrong dress.

I guess, if I had to think about which end I inherited, it would be a bit of both. It’s hard to run a business without practicing some measure of diplomacy. But I’m pretty blunt with people I know.

Ralph? Terrible liar. Terrible diplomat. It’s one of the endearing things about him.

When I taught kindergarten, I learned a valuable skill: don’t lie, but make the truth sound pretty.

The kid who drives you insane all day because he’s jumping out of his seat and doing cartwheels and always neck-deep in mud? He’s the¬†energetic and tactile learner.

I think it all goes back to perspective. Librations of the classroom. Or the board room.

It’s why I learned early on that you never tell a kid oh what a great drawing! You tell them I see you used a lot of yellow.¬†Unless you’re their grandmother, in which case you get to tell them how it’s the best drawing you’ve ever seen in your life, because it probably is.

Honesty may be the best policy but nobody ever said you had to say everything out loud. Silence is sometimes the best policy.

Anyway, I think it’s an interesting philosophical question. It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine being wholly truthful all the time, with everyone, no matter what. Impractical, but interesting. There’s enough sidewalk rage on a good day, can you imagine telling the nearest stranger with a stroller that their baby isn’t actually all that cute?

Stealing a head of garlic is a whole other kind of dishonesty (ok! I feel a little guilty about it! But I was already packing up the car! And the line took forever!) But it also raises interesting questions. Like when is it ok to leave a supermarket with something you didn’t pay for? Is a three dollar item too much but a 20 cent one ok? I’m assuming you’re not a kleptomaniac and don’t just walk out of supermarkets with random items, so you might have some thoughts on the matter.

These are, of course, minor representations of honesty. There are certainly larger questions, like where were you, really, and with whom? There are bigger temptations, like peeking at your smart neighbor’s test paper to get the right answers.

And then there are the things we do and say every day that fall to the left of honesty, things like oh, sorry, your email went to spam. 

Darn. Now I can’t use that one anymore.

How many times do we blame the kids/the weather/the traffic/an imaginary flu for things we want to get out of?

How many times does someone ask you how you are, and you say fine?

I think I do my best to be honest, or as an alternative, silent. Sometimes it is actually simpler.

The last time someone invited us to do something that we didn’t want to do, we thought of every excuse in the book. And in the end just said… nah. Not interested.

In a nice way, of course. Moons didn’t melt. Stars didn’t crumble into oceans.

I didn’t start this with any intention of coming to conclusions and determining the rights and wrongs of rights and wrongs. I just wanted to ponder the subject for a while. As usual it meandered through the cobwebbed caverns of thought. It raises more questions than it answers, like how useful is radical honesty, anyway? Is there a place for a bit of hedging? Or a case for downright lies? I bet I can come up with something to justify anything. I bet you can, too.

But since the last thing someone said to me about my writing is boy you write a lot, I will end this here and not tempt anyone to rephrase that more honestly.

Photo: a 70 cent head of garlic from my last shopping trip, in 2022 prices.