Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
I miss strawberries. Despite the fact that my acquaintance with them started quite by accident, I still miss them. Here’s how it all started. One day when my best friend Bobby Kaiser and I were playing in the woods behind my house, we stumbled onto a small patch of wild strawberries. They didn’t appear all that promising. We had already gobbled down huckleberries and salmon berries and blackberries that day and figured that this modest offering wouldn’t amount to much. We were wrong. The berries were sweet and firm and juicy and delicious beyond description. As we gorged ourselves on the meat of this wild wonder, all other berries hung their heads in shame.
Change in direction, but not topic—Last night I tuned into a TV “make over” program quite by mistake. I thought it was the show where they bawl like babies while making over a deserving family’s home—all the while pitching a full line of Sears appliances. Instead, they made over a human being—a woman to be more precise. I tuned into the part of the program where the plastic surgeon bragged about the results. As he eagerly promoted his work, the show cut to “before” pictures—one of a fairly normal looking woman. The surgeon chided her for having had the nerve to have looked so plain. Then he bragged about the miraculous transformation he and a team of health-care professionals, trainers, silicone experts, and cosmetologists had performed. Apparently they held the belief that looking like Barbie should be the goal of all caring people. They couldn’t have been more pleased with their creation.
The woman they had transformed was an elementary school teacher. When they showed the obligatory segment where her students saw “the new her” for the first time, I was surprised by their reaction. I figured the kids would be startled and maybe even miss their old teacher just a little, but they liked the new one. One small boy said she was “hot.” The word made me flinch. Indoctrinated by dozens of Madison Avenue messages a day, the kids had already learned that only certain faces and bodies were beautiful—and their teacher now had the right ones. How lovely.
I thought my first-grade teacher was beautiful as well. I can remember the day I was most struck by her beauty. Tammy Ray Black had just completed an assignment for the very first time. She was the kid nobody liked. Learning came hard to her and, as is often the case with children who struggle, she was constantly misbehaving and whining and causing her classmates grief. Finishing anything was a breakthrough for her and our teacher, Miss McDonald, didn’t miss this chance to reward her efforts.
At first I couldn’t believe that Miss McDonald was praising Tammy Ray for something as common as completing a coloring assignment. And then I got it. She was trying to help my classmate, a child who sorely needed help. It was a lovely thing to do. At that moment I thought that Miss McDonald was as beautiful a person I had ever seen. Curiously enough, she didn’t look a bit like Barbie. Of course, Barbie hadn’t been invented yet, so how was I to know what was beautiful and what wasn’t?
Back to the wild strawberries—“So you liked the strawberries,” my grandfather remarked as I told him about the ones we had eaten. “They aren’t just tasty,” he went on to explain, they’re also honest.” I didn’t catch his drift, so he quickly clarified his point. “You see, most fruits and berries employ trickery. They hide their seeds. You bite into a luscious cherry and learn that it has a rock-hard pit inside. Peaches are genuine liars—certain varieties possess a pit that is almost impossible to remove. And avocadoes, well you’ve seen them. They’re the biggest liars of all. The strawberry, in contrast, wears its seeds on the outside. I like that. It’s straight-forward and honest.”
As the make-over show continued its love affair with plastic, it finally broke for a series of commercials. The first one proclaimed that love is a beautiful thing and if you really love someone you’ll buy her a large, glittery and expensive diamond. Truth be known, if you don’t go into debt up to your eyebrows purchasing a diamond, how could you ever profess your love? Okay, the ad didn’t actually say this last part, but it was clearly implied.
Tiring of the TV ads I thumbed through a weekly news magazine where I learned that the only way to really get to know somebody is by the watch they wear. The writers of this particular promotional piece made this unabashed claim in a glossy, full-page spread. It seemed so sincere. Ah yes, it was all becoming clear to me. Expensive watches and diamonds are the true measure of deep feelings and lasting character. How could I have been so blind?
Leap to a still different time and place—The summer before I started junior high school, I entered the workforce for the first time. Each morning I would wait on the corner just north of my home where a berry bus would pick me up at seven a.m. sharp. It would then haul me and my twelve-year-old buddies into the country where we picked—you guessed it—strawberries. The honest fruit.
As it turns out, strawberries are also the user-unfriendly fruit. They offer no relief from the blazing sun as they lay low to the dirt, demanding that you either stoop or crawl if you want to harvest them. Now, these commercial strawberries weren’t anything like the wild ones Bobby and I had discovered. They had been transformed through the miracle of horticulture into larger and prettier berries. But at a cost. One bite and I learned that they weren’t nearly as sweet or flavorful as their wild ancestors. But that was okay with me because I was getting paid by the flat—twelve full boxes earned fifty cents. Bigger berries filled the boxes faster.
“Just look at her!” the plastic surgeon exclaimed as the make-over program continued. Everyone appeared so happy. Her family and friends cheered. Her team of experts cheered. They had completely eradicated the plain person and replaced her with a genuine beauty—a firmer and “rounder-in-the-right-places” beauty. Behold Barbie. The crowd roared. I doubt that when DNA was first discovered the celebration was as boisterous and heart-felt as this one.
Back to the farm—In my fifth summer of picking strawberries I was selected along with two other kids to harvest a new, experimental field. The small patch sported the latest variety of strawberry. The new breed was huge and deep red and beautiful. Horticulture experts had outdone themselves. And here was the really good news. Because they were so large, I could fill a box in half the time.
For a dream-like two hours in 1962 I filled each flat in fifteen minutes, not the half hour the other smaller berries took. I loved those new berries. Of course, as I bit into one I discovered the rest of the story. It was neither firm nor juicy. It was pithy. And not only wasn’t it sweet, it was actually bitter. Worst of all, gone was the taste of strawberry. Imagine that—a strawberry that didn’t taste like a strawberry. Of course, those berries that I picked that summer day over forty years ago are the same huge, deep red, tasteless berries you can buy at the grocery store today.
Putting it all together—It’s the beginning of a new year and if you’re like many of us, you’ve vowed to exercise more. I know I have. So far I’m doing pretty well. But let me be clear about one thing. I’m exercising and, yes, trying to lose weight, for my health. I want more energy. I don’t want to drop dead from a heart attack. With me, thinning down is not so much a looks thing as a health thing. That’s because I pretty much like who I am and I’m glad that my wife and children seem perfectly satisfied as well. Like a strawberry, I mostly wear my seeds on the outside. I know I look like a cross between Tom Cruise and Danny DeVito—only without the Tom Cruise part. And you know what? I don’t give a hoot.
I don’t believe it when ads and TV programs tell me I need to transform myself into someone else’s view of how I need to appear. I never want my wife or children to feel that they too are somehow unfinished until someone makes them over into the word’s view of the perfect prototype. I love them just the way they are. I love them for who they are. And like the wild strawberry, I love them for what’s inside. I know this sounds corny. It is corny. I don’t care. Maybe I’m not thinking clearly because, when I look out the window of my office and see big-lipped, silicon enhanced, be-diamonded, sculpted, and curiously look-alike “beauties” jog by, I have an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. I miss strawberries.