A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

If you’ve had a toddler in your house at any time in the past 40 years you’ve probably heard of Alexander. His terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is the topic of an award-winning children’s book that teaches kids how to cope when they have one of those days when everything goes wrong. Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, gets pushed in the mud, is forced to eat lima beans for dinner and watches a favorite marble go down the drain during bath-time. Alexander decides to move to Australia until his mother explains that everyone has bad days, even people who live in Australia.

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Alexander’s mom is right, isn’t she? We all have bad days. On those days when we have the reverse Midas touch–everything we touch turns to crap–we can choose to react with grace and equanimity. Or we can choose to react like Alexander (who as a small child may have a legitimate excuse). How did you react to your last terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day? Let’s say you reacted badly, like Alexander and children often do. Now imagine that your embarrassing, child-like temper tantrum makes national news.

That’s the sticky situation in which James Beach placed himself last week. He was tired. All he wanted to do was to fly home to Colorado. Employed by a company that builds waste-recycling plants, he was on the final leg of a long business trip back from Moscow. Maybe the Russian airport authorities had been less than friendly to the American businessman. Maybe the ticket agent at the Newark airport was a bit surly when Beach arranged to fly standby back home to Denver. Maybe his bags ended up in Naples instead of Newark. What we do know is that Beach ended up in a middle seat on the Newark-to-Denver flight. We also know that instead of closing his eyes and resting while the plane winged its way toward the Rockies, he put his tray-table down and pulled out his laptop. He had to review that contract with the Russians. To make sure he wasn’t disturbed, he installed the Knee Defender, a device that prevented the passenger in front of Beach from reclining her seat. Except she was tired too. And she really, really wanted to recline her seat. Conflict ensued.

At the request of the flight attendants, Beach removed the device. He claims the other passenger then forcefully reclined her sear, almost shattering his laptop’s screen. That’s when Beach started acting like Alexander. He roughly returned the seat-back to the full-upright position and re-installed his Knee Defender. His fellow passenger reacted like an Alexandra: she threw a cup of soda in his face. The flight attendant quickly moved the woman to another seat, but Beach didn’t stop. He re-directed his ire toward the flight attendants, saying what he says were “bad words”. The pilot then re-directed the plane to Chicago where Beach and his fellow passenger were re-directed off the plane. (No word on whether they shared cocktails at an O’Hare bar.) Beach was not going to get home to Denver that night after all.

Then his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day got even worse. The Associated Press picked up the story and ran it nationally. Beach instantly became the poster-boy for bad airline-passenger behavior. Years ago Andy Warhol warned us that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 seconds. Beach was getting his 15 seconds–and then some.

What would I do if my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day was splashed over headlines all across the country? Would I accept responsibility for my bad behavior? I could do worse than follow the example of James Beach. In a follow-up story, Beach didn’t trash his on-board adversary. He didn’t make excuses about frayed nerves from a long business trip. Instead he told the Associated Press: “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what happened. I could have handled it so much better.”

Careful readers of this blog will note, however, that Beach’s response wasn’t perfect. He could have used his 15 seconds of fame to give us all an A+ acceptance-of-responsibility lesson. How about these suggestions, Mr. Beach?

  • “Happened” is an acceptance-of-responsibility red flag. Blizzards happen. Cyclones happen. They’re no ones fault. What went down on that Newark to Denver flight did not just happen. It’s something you did. Would it have been better to say this? “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what I did.” Or better yet: “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed that I did the same thing to my fellow passenger that she did to me: forcefully re-position her seat. And then I made things worse by yelling and swearing at the flight attendants. They were just doing their job and trying to clean up the mess that I had helped to create.”
  • And how about an apology to your fellow passenger? An apology does not mean that the person to whom I’m apologizing was without fault. That’s because an apology is not about what she did; it’s about what I did. She need not earn my apology with an acknowledgment of her part in this sorry episode. I need to apologize for what I did wrong, even if she never steps up and takes her fair share of the blame. It’s about me and what I did.
  • And of course an “I’m so sorry” is needed for the flight attendants who were only trying to make everyone of the crowded flight as comfortable as possible.

I’ll give him a B-. And the lesson for me when I have that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day and “lose it” like little Alexander and James Beach–especially if I “lose it” in front of a national audience–is to step up and forthrightly accept responsibility for it. That means admitting what I did without excuse or finger-pointing, apologizing to anyone I’ve wronged, and doing what I can to make things right.

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Top Ten – Steps to Recovery from a Bad Choice

I make bad choices. I do my best to avoid them, but I make bad choices. My duty then is to accept responsibility for them by admitting them, apologizing to those whom I’ve hurt, and trying to make it right. I hope I can be forgiven by those affected by my mistake.

But sometimes the hardest person from whom to secure that forgiveness is myself. I hope I’m generous in forgiving others, in releasing myself from any lingering bitterness, in forgetting the disappointments of the past and in moving on to the greater achievements of the future.

But it’s hard to forgive myself. That’s grounded in my pride–arrogance really. While I’m willing to accept shortcomings in others, I expect more from myself. So when I really screw up badly, it throws me for a loop. I can’t believe I acted in such a fashion. I can’t let it go–even when those whom I’ve hurt have forgiven me.

I’m a left-brained, analytical person. I make lists. So years ago after a particularly poor choice had me mired in depression, I decided to devise a step-by-step process to pull myself out of the muck. Here it is:

  1. There is a God. I’m not Him.
  2. Because I’m not God, I am not perfect.
  3. Because I’m not perfect, I will make poor choices–big ones sometimes.
  4. My poor choices will hurt people, sometimes badly, sometimes the ones whom I love dearly.
  5. When I make a poor choice, I must accept responsibility for it.
  6. I accept responsibility by admitting it, apologizing for it, and trying to make things right. (Sometimes things are irretrievably broken because of me. I can’t fix them.)
  7. I will learn from my poor choice and commit not to make the same mistake twice.
  8. I will ask those whom I’ve hurt to forgive me. I’ll ask God to forgive me.
  9. Then I’ll forgive myself and move on.
  10. But I will still make mistakes. (See #1, #2 and #3 above.) 

The Laugh Test

This blog is all about accepting responsibility for our poor choices. And, as the blog’s subtitle indicates, part of accepting responsibility is this: no flimsy excuses. But calling an excuse “flimsy” gives some excuses way too much credit. They don’t pass the laugh test. “He couldn’t actually have said this, right?” Well, yes. Yes, he did.

This is where Luis Suarez makes his entrance. A striker on Uruguay’s World Cup team, last week the football star was locked in a fierce battle for position with defender Giorgio Chiellini and proceeded to bite the Italian on his shoulder. Both players fell to the ground, with Chiellini pulling his collar down to reveal obvious teeth marks. None of the four officials on the field saw the incident, but it did not escape the camera’s eye. The bite was referred to FIFA, football’s ruling body, for possible disciplinary action.

And this is where Suarez failed the laugh test. His explanation to FIFA:

In no way it happened how you have described, as a bite or intent to bite. After the impact … I lost my balance, making my body unstable and falling on top of my opponent. At that moment I hit my face against the player leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth.

The 7-member FIFA panel didn’t buy it. Not for a second. “The commission took into account that the offence was made directly against a player while the ball was not in dispute and that the offence was deliberate and intentional and without provocation. He bit the player with the intention of wounding him or at least of destabilising him.” Suarez was kicked out of the World Cup and banned from any FIFA-sanctioned event for four months.

A factor FIFA took into consideration–and one more thing that makes his defense laughable–is this: Suarez is a recidivist biter. He bit opponents on at least two prior occasions, enduring a seven-game suspension by a Dutch league in 2010 and a ten-game suspension by the Premier League–where he is a member of the Liverpool Reds–just last year.

In 1997 Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear during a heavyweight title fight and spit it out on the ring floor. (Curiously, the referee did not stop the fight until the next round when Tyson bit Holyfield’s other ear.) At least Tyson had the decency to admit the bites, claiming he bit Holyfield in retaliation for head-butts from which the referee was not protecting him. Whined Tyson: “Nobody ever has any sympathy or pity for me. In retaliation, I’ll fight back because nobody is fighting for me.”

As an unsolicited service to Suarez, let me suggest the following if–when he is called on to answer for any future bites–he wants to upgrade his response from laughable to flimsy:

  • “I was locked in the grip of an irresistible impulse.”
  • “I have lingering oral-fixation issues from being bottle-fed as an infant.”
  • “Is biting against the rules? I thought it was one of those gray areas subject to interpretation.”
  • “I have a weakness for Italian food.”
  • “It’s a sickness, really. “
  • “Have I told you lately about my charity work with underprivileged kids?”

But if Suarez really wants to upgrade, if he wants to genuinely accept responsibility for outrageous behavior by making a sincere apology, he can try this on for size:

 Mr. Chiellini , I’m sorry I bit your shoulder. Football is a difficult, rough-and-tumble sport in which opponents compete forcefully and intensely. But it has rules. And, more than that, it has a code of honor among competitors. I violated all of those and brought dishonor on the match, my team, my country, the World Cup, the entire sport. There is no excuse for my behavior.

And since I mentioned my team and my country, let me apologize to them too. Playing on the Uruguayan national team is an honor that is dreamed of by many but afforded to few. Because of that, I owed a duty to my teammates, my coaches and my country to play aggressively to the best of my ability–but within the rules. I violated the trust you all placed in me, and as a result I won’t be available to do the job you gave me the privilege to perform. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I let all of you down.

We Are Not Responsible

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We were driving down the Interstate at 70 MPH. (OK, maybe it was 72 or 73.) Just ahead of us was a dump truck with a big sign on the back. I pulled a bit closer so I could read it, assuming that if a sign was posted on the back of a truck, the sign contained important information for anyone following the truck. This is what the sign said:

Not responsible for objects falling from truck

I immediately slowed, trying to put some distance between us and the truck. But not fast enough. A clump of dirt landed with a thud on the windshield. Thankfully, it caused no damage.

First, I caught my breath and tried to will my heart down to my normal 65 beats a minute. Then I considered the irony of the sign’s placement: one could read the sign disclaiming responsibility for falling objects only if one got close enough to be at risk of damage from debris sailing out of the truck’s bed. Finally, I wondered if the truck owner’s attempt to absolve himself of liability for careless conduct would catch on and become a trend. I considered the possibilities.

Is there anyone who hasn’t seen their share of those we-are-not-responsible signs posted in retail establishments across the country. How about this sign in a restaurant: “Watch your hat and coat! We are not responsible for stolen or damaged clothing.” Or this sign at the dry cleaners: “Not responsible for damage to suede or leather.” How about this sign at a motel pool: “Swim at your own risk.”

It’s bad enough that stores turn somersaults trying to lure you inside to take your money and then once you’re inside they engage in even more contortions to avoid liability for any bad thing that might happen to you while they’ve got you inside. I suppose once I finally get a thumbs-up from the restaurant hostess that she can seat me and my wife, I can turn around and walk right out once I see the sign telling me that the place assumes no responsibility to care for my personal items while I’m paying them big money for a meal. I suppose I also have a choice to pack up my family and check out of a motel–a motel that lured us in with the promise of a swimming pool–once the kids and I are about to jump in the pool and I see that the place is assuming no responsibility for our safety while we use the pool that they built and maintain. It’s not much of a choice, but I guess I do have a choice.

But what about that dump truck? Do I really have the ability to make a choice to avoid harm from the truck owner’s failure to cover the load and protect me and other motorists from falling-object damage? Not really. Can one free oneself from the duty to take reasonable care to protect others from a danger one creates simply by posting a sign that disclaims any such duty?

So, will the truck owner’s attempt to absolve himself of liability for careless conduct catch on? If the attempt to extend the we-are-not-responsible principle becomes a trend, I can see all sorts of avoidance-of-responsibility possibilities. Maybe I can get a sign myself and attach it to the rear of my car:

Not responsible for careless, reckless or drunken driving

If that works I may get another sign and attach it to the back of my shirt:

Not responsible for thoughtless, hurtful or slanderous remarks

And perhaps my Facebook page could announce to all the world:

Not responsible for unwise, ill-considered or malicious choices

I’m not sure what those signs would do for those people who are forced to come in contact with me in the course of a day, but it sure would make my life a whole lot easier.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? When I post a sign on the back of my dump truck telling the world I’m not responsible for any damage to you or your car from junk flying out of the back of my truck, it makes my life easier. I no long have to buy a tarp to cover the load. I no long have to train my driver to firmly secure the tarp to the truck bed. My life gets easier–and less expensive too! But it exposes the public to a danger which it cannot reasonably avoid. Life gets a little harder, a little more dangerous for everyone but me.

Hear the words of one of the great philosophers of our age:

A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.
–Winnie the Pooh

If, instead of looking for ways to avoid responsibility for our conduct, we take reasonable care to protect others, the world becomes not only a safer place but also a friendlier and more civilized place. That makes all the difference.

Mistakes in the Land of the Supreme Leader

Being Supreme Leader is not a bad gig. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un got the job after his father, Kim Jong Il, died two years ago. Dad had been Supreme Leader for 18 years, getting the job after his father, Kim Il Sung, passed away after 46 years at the helm. A Kim has been the totalitarian state’s Supreme Leader ever since the Korean Peninsula was split into North and South after World War II. It’s great to be Supreme Leader. Your picture is plastered all over the country. School children sing your praises daily. The country is always throwing parades and declaring holidays in your honor.

No, Supreme Leader is not a bad job at all. Except when things go terribly, tragically wrong. There’s no good way to explain mistakes in the land of a Supreme Leader because Supreme Leaders do not make mistakes. But under the communist rule of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), there is no shortage of bad news. Two years ago a United Nations report generated a boatload of bad news. It found that under the Supreme Leader’s watch:

  • “[S]ystematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.”
  • “The State has used food as a means of control over the population. It has prioritized those whom the authorities believe to be crucial in maintaining the regime over those deemed expendable.”
  • “Military spending – predominantly on hardware and the development of weapons systems and the nuclear programme – has always been prioritized, even during periods of mass starvation.”
  • “The key to the political system is the vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent. Public executions and enforced disappearance to political prison camps serve as the ultimate means to terrorize the population into submission.”

There are two ways that Supreme Leaders deal with bad news: (1) Ignore or (2) Deny. Except that last week there appeared a third option: Apologize. An apartment house under construction in the capital city of Pyongyang collapsed. For some reason, more than 90 families were already living in the partially-constructed building. In what may win the award for 2014 Understatement of the Year, the official North Korean news release revealed: “The accident claimed casualties.” 90 families. A North Korean family typically numbers four. Do the math.

Uncharacteristically, a parade of highly-placed North Korean officials stepped up and apologized.

  • Minister of People’s Security Choe Pu Il “said the responsibility for the accident rests with him as he failed to uphold well the [WPK’s] policy of love for the people. He repented of himself, saying that he failed to find out factors that can put at risk the lives and properties of the people and to take thorough-going measures, thereby causing an unimaginable accident.”
  • General Officer of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces Sonu Hyong Chol insisted that it was he who “was chiefly to blame for the accident as he was in charge of the construction. He expressed heart-felt consolation and sympathy to the victims and the bereaved families and said he was making an apology, his head bent, to other Pyongyang citizens who were greatly shocked by the recent accident.”
  • Chairman of the Pyongyang City People’s Committee Cha Hui Rim “said that the party has always called on the officials to become genuine and faithful servants of the people but he failed to have the proper control over the construction of the apartment houses as a man responsible for the living of the citizens of the capital city, thereby causing such a serious accident.”
  • Chief Secretary of Phyongchon District Committee of the WPK Ri Yong Sik “said that seeing for himself the victims in the scene of the accident, he felt as if his heart were falling apart and was too shocked to cry. He added that he could not raise his head for his guilty conscience as he failed to protect the precious lives of the people so much valued and loved by the party.”

As admirable as it was to acknowledge the tragedy and accept responsibility for it, note what these officials did NOT do: Blame either the Communist Party or its Supreme Leader who together have held North Korea in their iron grip for more than six decades. To the contrary, the government news release began with this assertion:

It is the consistent stand of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the state to prioritize the interests and conveniences of the people and hold them absolute and protect their lives and properties.

And the Supreme Leader himself? The news release assured the world that Kim Jong Un “sat up all night, feeling painful after being told about the accident … .” President Harry Truman famously had a sign on his Oval-Office desk that read: “The Buck Stops Here”.  My guess is that no such sign has found its way to the Supreme Leader’s desk. Supreme Leaders do not make mistakes. And they don’t apologize.

Top Ten Ways to Raise a Damaged Kid

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10. Criticize the person, not the action. When she bends the rules in a board game, loudly exclaim: “You’re such a cheater!” Never indicate that you know she’s capable of doing better by saying something like: “I’m disappointed in you. It’s not like you to break the rules.” Let her know you expect the worst from her, and she’ll work at being the best. Kids like to prove their parents wrong.

9. Praise the action, not the person. Never say “Thank you for being a good helper.” If you do, your kid might start thinking of himself as a person who helps others; helping others might become imbedded within him, a part of his character. Instead, say this: “Why should I thank you? You’re just doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” Best case scenario: Ignore his helpful behavior altogether and speak up only when he’s being selfish.

8. Demand conformity. Say stuff like: “Stamp collecting! You’re such a weird kid. Why aren’t you playing video games like everybody else your age?” Her life will be easier if she goes with the flow and follows the crowd. And, after all, it’s your job to make her life as comfortable and pain-free as possible. A round-hole world is not kind to square pegs.

7. Schedule his every moment. Childhood is brief, and how kids spend those childhood hours is way too important to be left to kids. After all, he’s got a lot to learn. If you leave it up to him, he might waste those years laying in the grass watching clouds roll by or taking your kitchen clock apart to see how it works. A programmed kid is a productive kid.

6. Live vicariously through her. Thank goodness for second chances! Life unfairly prevented you from realizing your dream of dancing on Broadway, but let nothing stop you from getting your daughter there. She might think she wants to be a marine biologist, but you know how happy she’ll be when she’s a big New York star. And the road to stardom begins with dance practice before school and gymnastics afterwards. Your kid is a sculpture: you can chisel her into the person you know she’ll want to be. She’ll thank you later.

5. Protect him from failure and unhappiness. You hate to see him unhappy. And isn’t it your job to make him happy? To keep him from pain? To ease his way? To catch him before he hits the ground? He’ll have time when he’s an adult to learn how to deal with a challenging and difficult world. And he’ll find out soon enough that he won’t succeed at everything he tries. Right now you’d better call his college professor and fix things: Baby got a B- in calculus!

4. Praise intelligence, not effort. If you constantly tell her how smart she is and ignore how hard she works, she’ll learn that effort is worthwhile only if it results in victory and achievement. Challenges must be avoided at all cost because she might fail. She’ll learn that looking smart is more important than learning.  And who doesn’t want a kid who looks smart?

3. Reward only success. Let him know that failure is not an option. Discourage experimentation; it might end in failure. The world hates losers. (Do you want your kid to go through life with a big “L” stamped on his forehead?) If his worth is totally tied up in his success, he’ll make sure he never fails because that’ll make him unworthy of your affection. So he’ll only try things when he’s sure of success. And he’ll never fail. Mission accomplished!

2. Make her the center of your universe. Let her know she is the most important part of your life. That’ll send her self-esteem sky-high. Say things like: “My daughter is my whole world!” When it comes time to pick between her and your spouse, always pick her. When she whines about going to Sunday School, stay home from church with her. And never leave her with a baby-sitter; there will be plenty of time for spiritual growth or romantic moments with your spouse when she leaves home. At age 30. Or 40.

1. “Do as I say, not as I do.” Make it clear that you want him to be a better person than you, and so he should listen to what you say and ignore what you do. He needs no model to show him how a mature, emotionally-healthy adult acts; all he needs to do is shut up and listen carefully to you. After all, kids invariably listen attentively to parental lectures–no need to back up those words with actions.

Full disclosure: The author is the parent of two children who somehow turned into well-adjusted adults despite him and his mistakes.

Accepting Responsibility for “Dangerous Behaviors”

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I ate a chocolate donut Saturday morning. It had chocolate frosting. And a rich creamy filling. I didn’t need to examine a nutritional label to know that it was lousy with sugar, probably corn syrup. No doubt it contained bunches and bunches of trans fats too. But it was good. Oh so good. I washed it down with a hot cup of Starbucks coffee, dark roast loaded with caffeine, a robust brew that gives me a jolt with my first swallow.

Should I be able start my weekend with a delicious donut and a hot cup of eye-opening coffee? Or must the government step in and protect me–after a hard week at the office–from my Saturday-morning urge to eat a sugar-infused ball of fried fat? I’ve been an adult for decades now. I’m reasonably intelligent. I work out six days a week. I’ve had an annual physical ever since I started seeing age 50 in the rear-view mirror. I have run more long-distance races than I can count. And nothing hangs over my belt when I zip up my jeans. Can I be trusted with responsibility for my own food choices?

Some people say “No”. A recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Rethinking our ‘Rights’ to Dangerous Behaviors”, argues that government needs to take responsibility to make food choices for me and the rest of us. The author ominously begins his essay with these words:  “It has become increasingly clear that food companies engineer hyperprocessed foods in ways precisely geared to most appeal to our tastes.” In other words, the businesses that supply me with food are making products that taste good so that I will buy them. This, apparently, is evil.

And what’s a do-gooder scare story without some dark corporate conspiracy cast as the villain. In this tale it’s “an alliance of corporations, banks, marketers and others that essentially promote and benefit from unhealthy lifestyles”. In other words, they make money by giving me the food I want to eat. This cabal “designs products that are difficult to resist and sometimes addictive”! This tactic–Warning! Hyperbole Ahead!–“poses greater threats to our existence than any communicable disease you can name”. (Really? My chocolate donut is more dangerous than smallpox? Polio? HIV? Ebola? The Plague??) The remedy: “[R]eturn to the public sector the right to set health policy”. In other words, get the government to stop companies from selling me food that I want to eat.

How about trying another strategy that not only respects our freedom but also promotes good health and personal responsibility? Why not educate the public about healthy foods? Why not encourage easy-to-understand food labels so I know what’s in the food that companies are trying to sell me? Why not explain to me how good food choices are directly linked to longer life and more years to spend with the people I love? And then let me take responsibility for my own food choices. The problem, I fear, is that do-gooders don’t like the food choices that I–and the rest of you–are making and want to make those choices for us.

And another thing: corporations are not inherently evil. They are just amoral devices designed to give us what we want. If we decide that we want highly-caffeinated, over-priced beverages, Starbucks rises up and turns a profit. If we decide that local-produced, organic food is what we want, Whole Foods springs forth and makes a bunch of money. Apple just made news by rejecting a stockholder proposal to eliminate Apple’s environmentally-friendly initiatives. Perhaps one reason it did so is that consumers are rewarding Apple for its stewardship of our earth by purchasing more iPhones, iPads and iPods. It has learned that green is good for business. Corporations are organizations designed to make money by efficiently giving us what we want. They will offer us healthy and humanely-produced food–and make money in the process–if we demand healthy and humanely-produced food from them.

A government does its citizens no favor by accepting the responsibility to make good choices for their supposed benefit. In a free society the government educates its citizens about the impact of their choices and encourages them to make good ones. But it leaves to its citizens the responsibility for those choices. And that entails accepting the consequences of those choices if those choices turn out to be ill-advised.

I know those orange gumdrop slices have no nutritional value. But they bring a smile to my face when I treat myself with them every once in a while. And I’m not a big red-meat guy, but a good hamburger every now and then adds quality to my life. And here’s my little secret: I bought two of those chocolate donuts. I saved one for later. It’s calling to me from the kitchen. I just may say yes to that call. Right now.