There Is a *Big* Difference Between What You Need & What You Want

It is not an exaggeration to say that we come from different worlds. He is a single man from the Congo and I am a father from Los Angeles. We are standing next to each other watching children swim and just talking about life.

He has a fantastic accent that is melodious and full of life. He tells me that he loves the spirit of the children here and I smile. He is talking about all of the kids at the party but he is pointing to my daughter.

We’re almost 9,000 miles from his home. The equator runs through the village he grew up in. You can wear a t-shirt and shorts year round.  I am not 9,000 miles from home. We’re miles away from the home I grew up in. I can walk down the main streets and provide you with forty years of background.

He speaks seven languages. I am humbled by that. I grew up in a house where language was important. I am a Peace Corps baby. My folks met in Ecuador. When we were kids if my parents wanted to have a private conversation they spoke Spanish. We all picked up on it. I learned how to read/write speak Hebrew, but the truth is that my Hebrew has gotten pretty rough.

He speaks seven languages, but I can curse in 12. That counts for something but I am not sure what.


The boy who used to be a baby but is becoming a giant is seated just behind me. We are talking about school and how you figure out what your career is going to be. I look in the rear view mirror and I see him staring intently out the window. There is a Ferarri and a Lamborghini next to us. I have seen these cars many times before. It really isn’t unusual to see them around L.A., but they still catch my eye.

“Dad, how did you figure out what you wanted to do?”

“I am not doing what I want to do. I am doing what I have to do to get there.”

“That is not fair. You are too old to do that.”

“I am not old and life is not fair. It never was and it never will be. Stop waiting for fair because it will never come. If you want something you figure out how to make it happen and then you go get it.”

He nods his head at me and I feel my jaw clench shut. I believe every word I say but sometimes it irks me to see so many around me get so much so easily. There are families at the school who come from money. Someone worked for that but the second or third generation did not. These other parents who I stand with at the soccer games and birthday parties complain about how hard they work and I laugh.

They talk about being irritated by the service or lack thereof at restaurants and resorts I can’t afford and I laugh. When things are just handed to you it is easy to lack gratitude. It is easy not to appreciate them the way you should.

“The first thing you need to do is to figure out what you need versus what you want.”

There is a moment of silence and then he responds.

“Dad, how do you know the difference? Do you know what it is for you?”

“Yes, I know the difference. I know what it is because I have spent a lot of time thinking about it and I have a lot of life experience you don’t have.”

“How do you get life experience?”

“You live.”


Twenty years ago my city burned. I have vivid memories of the L.A. Riots. I have stories. I can tell you about the Northridge earthquake and about the time I was evacuated from a forest fire. I have lots of stories to tell and to share.

My children don’t know them all yet. Some may never be shared. Some won’t be because they just won’t. Kids don’t need to know about all of the crazy things I did in college or earlier.

“Dad, does it ever bother you that Johnny’s dad has a bigger house and a nicer car?”

“Sometimes, but most of the time I don’t care or think about it. Possessions don’t make you happy. You don’t know what happens behind closed doors. Best to focus on yourself. Be a good friend. Be a good brother and be a good son. Figure out what you need and I’ll help you figure out how to get it.”

I believe everything I have said, but now is a harder time. Now is a darker and rougher time. It isn’t as easy to just ignore some things.


The children are laughing and chasing each other around the backyard. We are still talking about life.

“Los Angeles must be a little bit different from the Congo.”

He laughs hard.

“I have been in the US for six years now. I spent the first three on the East Coast. It is much too cold there for me. The world is small and the same but different everywhere. I met white people in South Africa who only spoke Afrikanns. That surprised me. ”

He shares a few more stories, mentions Somalia and shudders.

We are from different worlds but today those places intersect.

This is part of Yeah Write.

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  1. Michelle Longo May 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    I really enjoyed this. Lots of good stuff in here – the perspectives, the shifts in the story all landing on the same notion. Great post.

  2. Kristin May 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    Incredible observations. Excellent imagery. And 12 languages of curses? Really? Excellent!

    • Jack May 3, 2012 at 11:46 pm

      Hi Kristin,

      When I was in college we used to hold International Cursing hour. I think we got up to 28 different languages. It was kind of fun.

  3. Megan Lawing May 3, 2012 at 6:43 am

    Great job with this. I was very intrigued. And I really want to hear some of your stories now!

    • Jack May 3, 2012 at 10:09 am

      Hi Megan,

      Welcome to the blog. Thank you for your kind words. If you keep hanging out here I can promise that you will hear lots of stories. Hope you are having a great day.

  4. Katie May 2, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    Amazing how life and experiences bridge even the widest of gaps.

    I loved your talk with your son. I need to write…it also happens to be what I want…and like you, I’m doing what it takes to get there.

  5. jamie May 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Such a great post Jack. I love how you put this into perspective.

  6. WilyGuy May 2, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Nice post. I often wonder if I need 3/4 of the stuff I wanted.

  7. Delilah May 2, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Great post. I try to not tell my kids that life isn’t fair because that’s what I was told all the time as a kid. I hated it then. My mom still says it and it still drives me insane. I struggle with what the right thing to say is sometimes. And I think sometimes I just have to let my kids find out things on their own.

    • Jack May 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm

      Sometimes the best way for kids to learn is on their own.

      We can tell them about certain things but there is no substitute for experience.

  8. Louise Ducote May 2, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Love all the different settings and characters here, and especially the dialogue.

  9. TriGirl May 2, 2012 at 7:08 am

    I think the comment you made to your son about not knowing what happens behind closed doors is so important. I remember being a teenager and thinking one of my friends had the best life, with the best parents. Then suddenly they were getting a divorce. You just never know, so you’re better off concentrating on your own life rather than striving for that perfect life of someone else’s; especially when it’s not so perfect after all.

    • Jack May 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm

      I know a bunch of stories like that. From the outside they look like they have these great and amazing lives but something isn’t working for them. I have seen this happen several times recently. It is very sad, but not all that uncommon.

  10. christina May 2, 2012 at 6:56 am

    i absolutely LOVE this. i love the way you wrote this, the voice you used, and the story itself. i hope to one day have this kind of rapport with my daughter.

    GREAT great piece and i cannot wait to read more. thank you so much for sharing.

    • Jack May 2, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      Hi Christina,

      Thank you. I try to spend as much time as I can just talking with the kids. I figure time will come when they won’t be so interested so…

  11. kgwaite May 2, 2012 at 3:10 am

    This is perfect – I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this lately (Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson) and I find that I have so much more than I need…or want.

    • Jack May 2, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Hi K,

      We moved last August and I made a point to get rid of as much as I could. I only wish that I disposed of more. So much of what we have in my home is just not all that important.

  12. SisterhoodoftheSensibleMoms May 1, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    My daughter and I were lucky enough to meet a gentleman from the Congo. His stories and the comparing and contrasting of our cultures was fascinating. Ellen

  13. Billy Delaney May 1, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    We see what others have, but we don’t see what they have not? Or what they really want. I am an immigrant to this United States, and by choice, if you please.
    Within the squeeze of life and the running gun battle of wants and needs, we all do pretty good here.
    JackB, a post for thinking.
    I remember my girl wondering why I was not as rich as others. Why she did not have what others had, and many more wonderings like them.
    I told her that I could not answer that, as I was as unsure of that question as she was unsure of the reasons for it?
    I am an Ameripean!
    Born in a culture not American, living in a culture not European. I relish the dance it brings to me daily. I too like you learned Hebrew, Some Greek, English and French: which I am teaching myself yet again.
    Thanks for a post like this, and enjoy the man who easily moves among you with a conversation for the times we all are unsure in.

    • Jack May 2, 2012 at 12:05 am

      Hi Billy,

      Good to see you. I like your description of yourself as an Ameripean. I heard good things about your presentation at SoSlam.

      Unsure and uncertain times makes for interesting bedfellows but it also lends itself to much more.

  14. Chopperpapa May 1, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    “You don’t know what happens behind closed doors. ”

    That says it all.

  15. Mayor Gia May 1, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Hmm interesting. It’s all about perspective in life..

  16. kristin May 1, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Teaching gratitude, regardless of your socio-economic status can be very difficult. Sounds like you are doing a good job.

  17. Emily May 1, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    This is interesting. I like the way you framed the lessons you’re trying to teach your son with the bits of your conversation with the man from the Congo.

    Really vivid and well-written!

  18. stephanie May 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Perspective is the key, isn’t it? Travel offers that, and second to that would be talking to people from other countries, as you report. Our society becomes more xenophobic by the day thanks to all the fear mongering by the pundits. So your post goes a long way to offering the perspective we would do well to consider. I enjoyed the tone of the post, the introspection of it.

    • Jack May 1, 2012 at 11:55 pm

      The smaller the world becomes the more insular we seem to get. It is sad and infuriating. I am not naive enough to believe that everyone is good or bad, but I know from experience that most people are pleasant enough.

      We live our lives and do the best we can. Travel helps to build bridges between us.

  19. Kim May 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    That was fantastic. Especially since I too remember the riots, and quake, college…great job.

    • Jack May 1, 2012 at 11:43 pm

      Hi Kim,

      That was quite a period of time here. I left out the floods, fires and mudslides that came around those days too. Biblical punishments doled out by Hollywood.

  20. Batya May 1, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Jack, here in Shiloh there are people from so many different backgrounds. I love it. And many of us don’t have enough money and live very simply. I love that, too. Your son seems to be a thinker, like you.

  21. Robbie May 1, 2012 at 9:27 am

    fantastic. I feel myself at the birthday party, beside you in the car. I am truly a part of your story. love what you say about life not being fair. From an early age my children hear me say “Life’s not fair and it’s my job to teach you that.”

    • Jack May 1, 2012 at 11:40 pm

      Hi Robbie,

      Life is one hell of a journey and hopefully a whole hell of a lot of fun. Our job is to figure out how to find the fun even it is hiding, or so I think.

  22. Jennifer May 1, 2012 at 6:57 am

    This was a really great post. I like the way you tie so many things together that could be very long stories all on their own. I always struggle with those types of talks with my kids because I want to say just the write thing and what I want to say is so different from what was said to me at that age – I want to get it just right to try to save them from some of the struggles and wrong turns I went through.

    • Jack May 1, 2012 at 11:35 pm

      Hi Jennifer,

      I hear you.I want to give them perfect advice and sound like the dad that everyone wishes was theirs. I want them to hear it and think it is so perfect they can’t help but follow it.

      Thing is you can’t screw an old head on young shoulders and sometimes they have to learn on their own.

  23. Pish Posh May 1, 2012 at 6:54 am

    Wow Jack, this is a great post! I have shared all these feelings, especially when talking to my students from the Congo, or Kenya, or Sudan, and many other places.

    My mom used to tell me “life is not fair” when I was a child and I hated hearing it. She had become bitter and when I had to do something that wasn’t fair, something just because she wanted me to do it, something because she was tired and cranky, or something my brother had done but I was getting punished for, “life’s not fair, get used to it” became her mantra. It was terrible. I was too young to understand and it didn’t help me. It only helped me resent her.

    I learned life is not fair on my own. I wish my mom had something more like sometimes you have to fight harder, work harder, play harder to get what you want.

    • Jack May 1, 2012 at 11:31 pm

      Hi Pish Posh,

      I think it is cool that your students come from all over. I love talking to people about where they come from. I find it so very interesting.

      My parents used to tell me life isn’t fair. I hated it too, but I know they used to tell me that I could let it go or do something about it.

      I figure that my kids are better served to learn some of these lessons early on. It won’t fix everything but it can’t hurt.

  24. Bill Dorman April 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Quite the contrast, but here it is you are at the same place at the same time sharing similar values with this man in spite of the cultural differences. Kind of like social, huh?

    • Jack May 1, 2012 at 8:28 am

      Very much like social. He was quite a character but a very nice/interesting guy. I could talk to him for hours. So very different and yet so similar.

  25. Jens P. Berget April 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Brilliant post Jack. We all adapt. I spent one year in the US as an exchange student. While in the US, I started thinking like a person living I’m the US. It didn’t take me many months. When I got back to Norway, I had to switch cultures, and it was a lot harder to adapt to the Norwegian culture.

    • Jack May 1, 2012 at 8:25 am

      Hi Jens,

      I think many of us would be far more appreciative of what we have if we really saw what else was out there. If nothing else it would be a great learning experience and one hell of an adventure.

  26. Adrienne April 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Well that was great advice to the son and life is all about living those experience isn’t it! I sure know that’s the truth.

    Great story Jack, as always.


    • Jack May 1, 2012 at 8:24 am

      Hi Adrienne,

      Thank you. I try very hard to help the kids look at life as one big adventure and something that should be enjoyed. It is not always easy to do, but ever so important.

  27. Joe April 30, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Great post. The perspective from someone that lives in another country is all that it takes to know how good we have it in the USA. Gratitude, baby.

    • Jack May 1, 2012 at 8:23 am

      Hi Joe,

      It really does make a difference. Just listening to some of the stores about people who come from elsewhere goes a long way to reminding us just how good we have it.

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