My daughters love to compliment strangers. Maybe this is true of everybody's daughters, I don't know, but ever since our oldest, Elizabeth, was about 2 years old, she has spent most of her disposable hours telling people that they have lovely earrings, or nice watches or pretty dresses. I distinctly remember the first time she did it. I was carrying her through the Plaza in Kansas City, and she looked over my shoulder and saw the woman walking behind us. Elizabeth said: "I love your shoes."
Our youngest daughter, Katie, is 6 now, and she has taken complimenting strangers to a whole other level. She actually has a whole patter -- she compliments someone about something they're wearing or something they're doing, or just, well, whatever comes to mind. They inevitably thank her and ask her name. She goes through an involved set piece ("Well, my real name is Katherine, but people call me Katie"). And she never passes up an opportunity. Ever. This sometimes leads to somewhat baffling sequence of events. I'll give you one: Over the summer, I brought the whole family up here to State College for a few days to see where I would be based during the football season while working on this book on Joe Paterno. By pure chance, we happened to run into one of Penn State's two starting quarterbacks Rob Bolden. I'm not going to say anything here about the fact that Penn State has two starting quarterbacks -- that is pretty much all anybody writes about up here already.
Anyway, we were introduced and Katie, because she cannot help herself, pointed to a wristband Bolden was wearing and said, "I like your bracelet."
At this point, Bolden took off the wristband and said, "Oh here you go," and he gave it to Katie. Well, she was positively MORTIFIED. I mean, she was closing in on tears. She did not want the bracelet. She was just going through her compliment routine; she usually compliments people's earrings or their dresses or something and so, naturally, they never actually offer those items to her. They know her compliments are pure. But now -- though her little six-year-old mind could not quite process it -- her compliment was suddenly sullied. He seemed to think she was only complimenting the bracelet because SHE WANTED IT, which ruined the whole thing.
So she turned to me -- and yet again, I was in one of those bizarre Daddy situations that no class can teach. She's clearly about to start crying, she's holding the bracelet, and I'm supposed to figure out what the heck is going on. So I lean in real close, and she whispers, "I don't want this," and this leads to one of those ridiculous exchanges that takes an entire blog post to explain to non-parents.
Me: "Hey, Rob, (as I tried to give back the wristband) thanks for this but she just wanted to say that she liked it."
Rob (to Katie): "No, it's really OK. I want you to have it."
Katie (to me): "Um … (motioning like, 'Give it back to him please)'"
Rob (figuring this out remarkably fast for a young man): "We're wearing this bracelet in honor of a friend. It would make me feel really good if you would wear it."
Katie (now smiling): "Oh. OK."
Me (to Rob): "Thank you (thinking: You just saved me a whole afternoon of angst)."
No matter what anybody ever tells you, there is no way to predict that stuff you will deal with as a father. And no matter how Rob Bolden plays, I'm going to be rooting for that guy the rest of his life.
All this takes us to this weekend, when we all went to Rachel's wedding -- Rachel is the daughter of dear friends of ours. Rachel married Jason, and though I barely know Rachel and don't know Jason at all, their wedding was quite a fun deal. They made it their own. They had friends read from some unlikely sources -- 1984, the Simpsons and so on. Their processional was a Grateful Dead song and their recessional was Elvis' version of "Sweet Caroline." They had a 21-Nerf-gun salute. It's a tough trick to pull off a unique wedding and still make it feel warm and alive and lovely, but they very much did that, and I would say it was the girls favorite wedding ever.
And, of course, it was like a shooting gallery for Katie and her compliments. Here were all these strangers wearing nice clothes; she was in heaven. I love your dress. Your earrings are beautiful. Your shoes are nice. Of course, everyone then returned the compliment, not realizing that this was like trying to trade jabs with Ali, and she would come back with a follow-up compliment and another -- you're pretty, you're handsome, you have nice hair, I love your glasses, your teeth are so white, on and on, infinity.
I've seen Elizabeth and Katie -- especially Katie -- give so many compliments the last few years, that after a while I suppose I've just stopped even thinking about it. I mean, don't get me wrong, it thrills me to no end that they have such good hearts. But you have to understand … it happens every day, two or three times every day, and after a while anything becomes familiar. If every day, someone came by the house to drop off $100,000 in a briefcase, I'm sure after a while I'd get used to that too.
But during the wedding, I actually stopped to look. Katie gets such joy out of it; it makes her so happy to make someone else happy even for a few seconds. And the people she compliments? Yes, they really ARE happy, even for a few seconds. No, I don't think it would mean quite the same thing if I went up to complete strangers and said, "I love your shoes," or "You're pretty." But a 6-year-old can do these things and, Katie takes full advantage of this. She doesn't always hit home runs with her compliments. She has been known to compliment employee name tags or their nose-rings or football players' wristbands. But she compliments on, undaunted.
After the wedding, we went up to Rachel to congratulate her. A wedding is such a blur. Ive said this before: When you get married you know, for one day, exactly what it feels like to be Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Everywhere you go, people want to take your picture, they want to compliment you on how good you look, they cry when telling you how much you mean to them. Rachel was holding two plates of food when we walked over, and she had that happy and dazed look of brides, and she apologized to the girls because her hands were full and she could not hug them.
But food could not stop Katie. She moved in like a boxer, and she hugged Rachel's dress (which, of course, she had already complimented, along with her shoes and her glasses and so on). And then, she stepped back. And she said this: "I hope you're happy with your husband."
Everyone around her laughed a little. Ah, the things kids say. I hope you're happy with your husband. So precious. But then I realized: That's EXACTLY what we all wanted to say to Rachel. And to him we all wanted to say, "I hope you're happy with your wife." This is the best you can offer anyone just married, if you think about it. Think about what we usually say at weddings.
"I wish you both the best in life," but no marriage is only the best and no life either.
"I hope you are both very happy together," but they won't always be happy, and they won't always be happy at the same time either.
But: I hope you're happy with your husband or your wife … yes, that's a great thought. There are times when we argue, times we disagree, times we are annoyed and frustrated with one another. That can't be avoided, and probably shouldn't be avoided because that wouldn't be living. But I can honestly say that for almost 14 years now, even in the toughest moments, I've been happy with my wife.
And it's the very thing I could want for anyone else. Rachel laughed and thanked Katie and said: "I think I will be happy with him." Yes, Katie got it exactly right. I don't know if I have the guts at the next wedding to say, "I hope you're happy with your husband." But that's what I'll be thinking.