December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Puritans like me

By |2018-06-21T13:09:43+02:00May 26th, 2018|"Notebook"|
The author may not be speaking at Brown, but she still has a lot to say.

t’s commencement speech season. I have never been under the illusion that any educational institution would ever ask me to give America’s answer to the papal benediction. Yet over the years I have saved up advice, just in case I might be summoned.

This may be the moment.

It turns out that Brown University, where my daughter will graduate in a few days, has the unique tradition of graduation without an outside speaker. To keep her from missing this rite of passage, I put my maxims for living down on paper.

Before I get to them, two things: First, let me confess that I don’t always follow my own advice. But when I do, life is usually better.

Carry the book boxes up in stages, floor-by-floor, instead of climbing to the top all at once.

And second, when I remember these nuggets, they remind me of where they came from: wonderful people who all made it through life just fine.

  1. Think. Long before “Don’t be evil” and “Move fast and break things,” this was the motto of the original tech company, IBM. International Business Machines gave out “Think” signs and my father had a bunch of them, which he liked to switch from one odd place to another. As a result, these exhortations to use your head would pop up by the bathroom sink, or on top of the refrigerator, or your desk.
  2. Soap is grease for wood. I used this bit of ancient (and also fatherly) wisdom just the other day to loosen the kitchen drawers at my daughter’s new apartment. After rubbing a bar of soap along the drawers’ slides, they closed beautifully. Balky drawers aren’t the only things that work better when slippery soap is preferred over brute force.
  3. Spend more time on preparation to spend less in execution. The cranky eighty-year-old French woman who taught me to really sew also taught me that shortcuts are never short. When I began working in her small haute couture atelier in Paris, I esteemed my skills highly and chafed at the elaborate basting and pattern marking she insisted on. But she was right. Whenever I try writing without an outline, sewing without basting, or anything without reading the instructions, it always takes longer and doesn’t turn out as w
  4. There is more than one way to skin a cat. I don’t know if my great-grandfather, the source of this insight, skinned many cats. I do know this saying has made me a better delegator who knows that things get done just fine, even if not my way.
  5. Life is too short to be thorough. Here’s another paternal maxim. My father was a surgeon and this refers to the thorough pre-operation scrub, which is the cornerstone of modern, antiseptic surgery developed by Englishman Sir Joseph Lister (as in Listerine). After operating successfully in decidedly unsanitary conditions in India, my father realized strictness has a lot of leeway. Hence his version of “The perfect is the enemy of good.”
  6. If asked, my Italian mother-in-law would have that life requires knowing only two things: that drafts kill and white food is good medicine (except for constipation). But she imparted a useful lesson when we moved into a fifth floor walk-up in Rome. Carry the book boxes up in stages, floor-by-floor, instead of climbing to the top all at once (two people with advanced degrees hadn’t figured this out). She was right that doing it in stages makes many a job more manageable.
  7. My mother’s answer to bathing in cold water or unpleasant cleaning tasks has gotten me through a lot. “You’ll feel better afterwards.”
  8. My mother was also wont to quote the English version of Robert Burns’ poem “To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church.” Oh, would some Power give us the gift/ To see ourselves as others see us!” Putting yourself in someone else’s position can create humility and empathy, which are the secrets to getting along.
  9. My father also loved to say, “It is a poor workman who blames his tools.” This is a humbling reminder that the fault might be my lousy work or that I have forgotten Maxim 3.
  10. And finally, here’s one I figured out myself: When in doubt take a walk. Or unload the dishwasher. Or vacuum. Puritans like me tend to grind away and view procrastination as craven escape. But when I’m stuck, these solutions always get me out of a jam. In fact, with a deadline for this column looming and no idea what to write, I grabbed the leash and the dog. And voilà, out came a commencement speech from someone who will never be invited to give one. Except to her daughter graduating from Brown.
Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."