All posts by Kerry Patterson

Kerrying On

Too Tough “Love”

The following article was first published on June 21, 2016.

One day, during a particularly boring stretch at church, I leaned back and noticed, for the first time, the laminated beams supporting the chapel’s roof. The beams reminded me of my summer job after my freshman year of college when I worked at a plant that made (any guesses?) laminated beams.

I didn’t really earn that job; I sort of cheated my way in. It began when I stopped by the mill where my dad had worked for the ten years before he and mom moved to Arizona. I didn’t move south with them (I went off to college instead), so I was sleeping on my grandfather’s couch and putting around in his 1943 Dodge. I desperately needed a paying job so I could (1) return to college in the fall and (2) not be a hobo.

“We don’t have any openings,” Leo, the plant manager, brusquely stated.

“Thanks,” I responded. Then, as an afterthought, I added, “Dad says ‘hello.’”

“You aren’t Pat Patterson’s son, are you?” Leo asked.

“I am.”

“Hey!” Leo barked to a lanky fellow who had just walked into the office. “This kid here is Pat Patterson’s son. He’s going to work with us this summer.” And that’s how I landed the job.

When I started work the next day, Leo introduced me to Clyde, a massive, six-foot-six, grey-bearded, perpetually scowling and complaining fellow in his mid-fifties. The guy surely would have carried the nickname “Grumpy,” had the Disney cartoon been fashioned after a story known as Snow White and the Seven Tight Ends. Clyde was making use of his muscled frame by stacking boards onto a pallet. I was assigned to be his helper. To get me started, Clyde wrote down a list of board lengths on a small blackboard. From several stacks of varying-sized boards that he had placed around us with a forklift, Clyde was to find the first board on the list and place it on an empty pallet. I was to find and stack the second board, and so forth.

“Any questions? Clyde asked.

Before I could reply, Clyde fetched a board and we were off and running. At first I was worried because I couldn’t always tell the lengths apart, but I seemed to be doing okay. Every once in a while Clyde would send me to a different stack, until, board-by-board, we eventually completed the job. I smiled widely, thinking I had done well.

“You see where the stack ends?” Clyde asked me as he shook his head in disgust. “The empty space means you skipped a board and now I have to unstack the pallet until I find your #%&*# mistake.”

As unnerving as it was to be cursed at by an oversized Disney character, it only got worse. Clyde grabbed a massive board from the pallet, threw it on the floor, and cursed me some more for screwing up. He then grabbed, threw, and cursed twenty-two more boards until he worked his way back to my mistake. Finally, still using scary threats and age-inappropriate language, he restacked the pallet correctly. I wanted to die.

Seeing the distressed look on my face, Clyde stopped cursing, smiled, and laughed heartily. It had all been a show. He actually wanted me to foul up so he could yell at me and pitch a fit because, “All employees needs a good kick in the pants to provide them with proper motivation.” And thus ended my first on-the-job leadership lesson. It was powerful, memorable, and totally wrong.

I didn’t need a kick in the pants. I was sleeping on my grandpa’s couch. I was, by nature, an uptight overachiever. I was desperate to do well on the job. Desperate. And yet Clyde thought I needed to be motivated—through verbal violence no less. And he’s not alone.

“I yell at my employees because it’s the only thing that works,” say a surprising number of leaders I’ve consulted with over the years. Parents often take a similar path with their kids. “They only respond to threats. So, I mostly threaten them.” Of course, when you interview the employees or the kids, they don’t subscribe to Hunter Thompson’s theory of leadership. That is, they don’t believe that the newest and hottest motivational tools are fear and loathing. They prefer respectful reasoning.

It’s a good bet that many people employ verbal violence as a motivational technique because they see it in action so often. Coaches yell at their players in front of thousands of fans—with little or no visible repercussions. When you ask them why they routinely use verbal violence, they pull out the, “It’s what they needed,” card. Or worse still, “It was good for them.” So when you discuss leadership in company training sessions, many justify their aggressive verbal violence by pointing to successful coaches who win because, “threats and insults are often your best tools.” People actually say that.

It’s true that there are times people do need to be motivated—maybe the work is noxious or boring, or they have different priorities. Maybe they simply don’t want to work. It doesn’t matter. But raising your voice, threatening, and otherwise verbally abusing others is never the correct tool. And for those of you who work in sophisticated, white-collar careers where visible, verbal violence isn’t tolerated—abusing others through subtle looks of disgust, sarcastic hints, and thinly veiled humor is equally abhorrent. Violence, in all of its sordid forms, is never acceptable.

I realize that I’m preaching to the choir. You wouldn’t dream of verbally assaulting another human being. But then again, you see so many others being verbally aggressive—from TV leaders, to coworkers, to people like Clyde who are purposely, even studiously, abrasive—it makes you wonder. So let’s remind each other why both blatant and subtle forms of verbal violence are never the right choice.

First, you can emotionally damage people by verbally abusing them. To quote Eric Idle: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours.” Second, employing verbal violence turns you into a person you don’t want to be. Remember that soul-sucking boss you loathed? Roll your eyes in disgust one more time and you’ve become that guy. Third, when nothing you do to motivate others actually works, you can always fall back on the company’s disciplinary procedures. You start with a verbal warning. Then comes a written warning, etc. Never does the company’s discipline process state: “First yell, then curse, and then throw a big board.”

So, if you’re toying with the idea of tearing into someone who “needs it”—don’t. Even if the other person was hired through egregiously nepotistic methods, he deserves your respect. Even if he left out, let’s say, an essential board and ruined the job, yelling will only make matters worse. Yelling a lot makes matters a lot worse. It all comes down to a simple ditty: Verbal abuse—never put it to use.

Words to live by.

Kerrying On

Imagine

As a boy growing up in the 50s and 60s, I faced threats from all sorts of juvenile delinquents, “hoods,” and other shifty teenagers we now call bullies. Modern experts suggest that mid-century hoodlums were unhappy with their lives and consequently determined to bring a balance to the universe. They accomplished this by striking fear into the hearts of everyday students who were simply trying to make it through the school day without having their pants pulled down to their ankles, getting “pounded,” or otherwise being mortified and humiliated.

Given the number of JDs who walked the hallways at my high school, even a task as simple as getting to your next class was daunting. Should you accidentally bump into a fellow who was just aching to smack somebody, it could quickly turn ugly. In order to survive, I learned how to apologize (even when I was guilty of absolutely nothing) and then speedily slip into a group of large, athletic friends who might come to my aid should the situation worsen.

Unfortunately, hallways didn’t present the largest threat. The record for doling out abuse belonged to the athletic department. PE classes required students to bang into each other as part of the curriculum. This meant that not only did sporting venues provide the opportunity for thugs to separate a classmate from the herd and give him an atomic-wedgie or two, but it made a vicious block to the groin or a forearm to the neck not only sanctioned by the establishment, but worthy of praise. “Cool hit, man!”

Alas, this was all small potatoes compared to the grief dispersed in the locker room itself. It was in this “tile prison” that students were required to take a shower after every PE class. Mother of mercy. In my case, this meant that I had to walk through a group of guys that I would have given a wide berth at a church social patrolled by armed guards. Imagine walking—without any form of protection or hope for modesty—in front of guys who were just egging to beat up any twerp who did well in math. Think about it. I was required to walk naked in front of guys who carried, not “Esquire” or “Junior” as part of their full names, but who sported appellations such as “Snake,” “Knuckles,” and, “Butcher”—all words that ran through my head as I scampered to and from the shower in hopes of making it through unharmed.

But that rarely happened. At Bellingham High School you were pretty much guaranteed the minimum of a shower-room welt. The school was famous for its shower-room welts. Local thugs had learned how to roll a towel in a manner that turned an innocent piece of cloth into a whip. They’d roll it tight and at an angle—just so—creating, at one end a hefty handle, and at the other end, a tip that cracked like a whip. When the weapon hit your bare skin, it hurt like the devil and left a golf-ball sized welt.

Once you were smacked by the towel, to avoid further problems, you had to flash a smile that was normally reserved for someone who wasn’t trying to rip a hole in your flesh. In truth, what you really wanted to do was punch the welt-maker in the nose. This, of course, would have made you a lesser person and earned you a genuine thrashing. So, every weekday during the school year, my friends and I were forced to flash a fake smile at locker room aggressors—while apologizing to them for thoughtlessly getting our skin in the way of their snapping towels.

And now for the truly ugly part. All of this bullying and kowtowing took place under the guidance of PE teachers who lived by the philosophy: “Boys Will Be Boys,” meaning, “If an ambulance isn’t required, leave me alone! Can’t you see that I’m busy not teaching a thing and not monitoring the violence that’s taking place right under my nose? We have a football game Friday. I got bigger fish to fry!”

This walk down bad-memory lane comes to mind at a period in history when I feel like I’m spending a lot of time naked, in a locker room filled with bullies. Foreign leaders threaten to rain nuclear-armed missiles upon my subdivision. Snipers lay in wait in nearby bushes. Rage-filled drivers are aching to drive me off the road. It’s never-ending. And yet, despite mind-boggling advances in physics, engineering, and academics in general, as a society, we haven’t improved our negotiation skills or, better still, our ability to actually make peace one iota.

Scholars earn doctorates in negotiation techniques, consultants routinely teach conflict resolution skills, and gurus offer courses in high-stakes communication. And yet, fashioning peace out of conflict simply isn’t part of our national mindset. It’s not our native tongue. We don’t hang posters of Gandhi. It’s not the least bit popular to talk about how to improve our ability to make peace—not as long as we can form clubs that teach our kids nifty debate techniques that involve proving others wrong, attacking logical flaws, and winning points. These are all useful as methods for divining the truth and sharpening one’s logic, but bad when it comes to living with the vanquished afterwards. This is not meant to say that there are times when we should have a direct, clear, and strong response, but simply that, aggressive action shouldn’t be the only tool in our toolkit.

In honor of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, what if we did our best to imagine peace? Better still, what if we did our best to develop the skills for making peace. For instance, imagine what it would be like if we supplemented tools used for winning an argument with tools for coming to a common understanding. Imagine a world where people balance the skills for exposing others’ logical flaws with skills for finding a third way (common ground). Imagine what it would be like if creating a win/win came to mean you winning and me winning and not simply you winning twice. Imagine meeting aggression, not with a hasty retreat, but with tried-and-true techniques for respectfully resolving differences.

Best of all, imagine teaching peacemaking skills—starting in grade school. Schoolyard violence would be spontaneously and skillfully met with displays of mutual respect. Harmony would be taught not only in choir, but in every gathering of students. And most important, imagine what it would be like if your children and grandchildren didn’t have to take private sports lessons (the current welt-avoidance strategy) as a means of getting out of PE courses and avoiding the locker-room abuse that follows.

Turning schools into safe havens as well as centers for peaceful instruction is the least we can do for our progeny. I’m not sure where I read it, but I’m pretty certain that one of the founding fathers proclaimed that every citizen has the right to life, liberty, and the absence of locker room welts. In any case, I’m pretty sure that we won’t find peace in either the war or the board room, until we first find peace in the locker room.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: A Memorial Day Message

On December first, 1969, my wife and I sat glued to the radio. What event had us so interested? The reading of calendar dates. The radio announcer who had our attention was drawing pill-shaped capsules from a large, glass vessel. Each of the 366 capsules contained a piece of paper inscribed with a day of the year. Men, aged 19 to 25, who were born on the date contained in the first capsule drawn would be the first to be drafted into the US military. Those born on the second date drawn would be the next to be drafted, and so forth. Being drafted meant that, after a brief period of training, you had a good chance of being sent to fight (and possibly die) in Vietnam. That’s why Louise and I were so anxious. It was as if the country was playing roulette—for keeps—with my life.

Pundits speculated that military leaders would call to active duty the first 200 dates announced over the radio. Those holding one of the remaining 166 draft numbers would be allowed to continue on with their lives without having to get used to the practice of toting an M16. Louise and I prayed that the capsule containing my birth date would be the last one selected. Unlike our fathers, who had eagerly rushed into war after Pearl Harbor was savagely attacked, those of us waiting on the Vietnam lottery of 1969 were praying for peace and a high draft number. I certainly was.

“March 30th,” the announcer flatly announced. Those born on that day (my birthday) would be the 217th group to be drafted (if needed). This rather high number sounded safe to me, but was it really? When I telephoned my local draft board, the director told me she anticipated that Bellingham, Washington would draft to number (drum roll please) 216. If this turned out to be correct, one lousy number stood between me and a trip to Vietnam. I was not comforted.

As my senior year of college hurried along, the country’s need for soldiers increased, and the number 217 started to look increasingly shaky. It appeared as if I might graduate from college and be forced straight into harm’s way. Then, one day while walking through the student union building, I spotted a Coast Guard officer sitting at a table smiling at anyone who glanced his way.

“Are you about to graduate?” the fellow asked me. “Because if you are, and you want to serve your country for three years, you might qualify for Coast Guard officer training. And, by the way, did I mention the Coast Guard has a very small presence in Vietnam? Very small.”

I had never considered joining the Coast Guard, and becoming an officer was far from a sure thing. Under normal circumstances, I would have smiled politely and moved along. However, still hanging over me like a death threat were the words: “We’re expecting to draft to number 216.”

After discussing the pros and cons of joining the Coast Guard, my wife and I made our decision; I signed a contract with Uncle Sam. Then, a few weeks after graduating from college, I flew to Yorktown, Virginia where, for four months, I studied navigation, port security, piloting, and other things aquatic.

At the end of the fourteenth week of training, while my fellow officer candidates and I gathered in the mess hall for dinner, a senior official read aloud the duty station to which each candidate would soon be assigned. The lottery continued. Some were ordered to sea, others to land, and yes, a few started down a path that would eventually put them in charge of a vessel in Vietnam.

After working his way down the alphabet, the Coast Guard assignment herald kicked my heart into a full gallop when he announced my name, paused for effect, and then shouted: “TRASUPCEN, Alameda.” I couldn’t believe my good fortune! I was being assigned to serve at the Coast Guard’s West Coast supply center located across the bay from San Francisco. This was a highly coveted, three-year shore station. It was located thousands of miles from the perilous waters of Vietnam and only a short trip across the Bay Bridge to one of the most magical cities in the world.

For the next three years, I worked with a mix of career Coast Guard professionals and short-time folks such as myself. We did our best to provide support for both normal and wartime operations. Nevertheless, the war we supported was enormously unpopular (thus, the need for a draft). Most of the enlisted men who reported to me made a habit of ridiculing the government for forcing them to take an unwanted hiatus from their promising civilian careers. They complained endlessly.

Despite the unrelenting harangue, the individuals I worked with faithfully fulfilled their assignments. They had made a promise and they kept it. And they did so in the face of a hostile civilian population. Each morning, we “Coasties” arrived at work dressed in civilian clothes, switched into our uniforms, and did our jobs. We generally chose not to wear our uniforms to and from the base to avoid being ridiculed. The country had called and we had responded—but when we were spotted, we were often mocked. After all, we were willing participants in what many people believed was an unjustified conflict.

One day, while dashing to the nearby Berkley library to secure a book I needed for a night course I was taking, I didn’t think to switch out of my uniform. As I walked up Telegraph Avenue, people glared at me as if I were—well, a “killer”—as they so freely called me. One guy, clearly disgusted by my involvement in what he must have deemed an illegal war, spit on me. It was mortifying.

During the decades that followed, I viewed the three years I served in Alameda with uncertainty. (By the way, the 1969 draft only extended to lottery number 195. Had I not volunteered, I wouldn’t have been drafted.) I admired the people I served with and, to this day, I’m proud of the work we did supporting our fellow guardians—some commanding boats in harm’s way, some battling the seas, and some working in offices miles from danger. But to be truthful, as the Vietnam conflict wound down, nobody was chomping at the bit to make heroes out of the veterans of the “unpopular war.” And while it’s true that my mates and I didn’t exactly strike back at enemies who had viciously bombed our sacred shores—we did accept the call to serve and faithfully performed our assignments.

Nowadays, I watch uniformed soldiers return home to the roar of cheering civilians, and I cheer right along with them. I’m glad today’s soldiers don’t feel the need to travel incognito. And thanks to a recent event, I have ceased to question my own participation in what had been such an unpopular conflict. After forty-five years of wondering about my choice, the uncertainty of taking part in a controversial war finally came to an end in a decisive and unexpected way. My teenage granddaughter, Kylee, of her own accord, texted me the following message: “Happy Veteran’s Day, Grandpa. I love you. Thank you for serving our country!”

That’s all I needed to hear. It turns out that gratitude from a single grandchild trumps the ridicule of any number of critics. With this in mind, I now pass on my granddaughter’s (and my own) thanks to today’s guardians—from front-line leathernecks, to keyboard warriors—who all deserve kudos. All play an important role in keeping us safe. So, thanks to all of you heroes out there who, when the call to serve came, eagerly answered, “You can count on me!”

We do, every single day.

Kerrying On

Space: The Final Frontier

Now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, I’ve decided to work on something I’ve been avoiding for years—old photos. I’m going to sift through dozens of shoe boxes, envelopes, and albums, and not only organize the photos contained therein, but also scan the pictures as a means of transforming them into digital files.

Here’s why. Once you scan photos, you can send their electronic essence (along with the digital photos you’ve taken since around 2002) to the cloud. Then your kids and grandkids can look at everything from your great grandfather’s baby picture taken in 1880, to something you shot on your smart phone yesterday. Plus, you can crop, clean, lighten, darken, and otherwise edit photos once you’ve reduced them to digital records.

I figure that the long and tedious job of digitizing photos falls on me because the world upgraded to digital platforms fifteen years ago and most people (including my kids and grandkids) won’t give a second’s thought to the once-cherished family snapshots that are currently stuffed away in corners, boxes, and drawers. Worse still, younger folks aren’t exactly losing sleep over what’s going to happen to vintage family photos as they age out of memory and fade out of sight. Plus, old fogies such as myself may be the last people around who know anything about the stories behind each photo—which is what makes them so interesting in the first place.

For instance, I was poring through a box of black-and-white pictures my great-grandparents passed along and, to my surprise, written on the back of one of them was the following note: “This little darling is your cousin Elizabeth. The vase on the table next to her is Tiffany (New York). I’m surprised that Elizabeth’s mother Mary hasn’t broken it yet. She breaks more dishes than a green maid.”

I stumbled on this treasure when my mother was still alive and she could tell me about the photo and the story behind it. The person who wrote the note was my great-grandmother Lilly Davis. She was raised in a wealthy home where she had been trained in everything from oil painting to opera. In fact, her voice was so beautiful, she auditioned for the New York Opera in the late 1890s and was scheduled to start performing in the fall. That is, until she bumped into a young man (in her front yard no less) who instantly captured her heart. “It was love at first sight,” my mother explained. “They knew they had found their life companion the moment they locked eyes.”

Their sudden love also initiated a disaster. Lilly wouldn’t be preparing for the opera that summer—not with her parent’s support, at least—because Lilly had fallen in love with the gardener. The poor fellow knew nothing of Tiffany vases, green maids, and opera. And then Lilly’s mother did exactly what you’d expect from a person raised on old money, she forbade her daughter from seeing the common laborer. When the young couple disobeyed her, she banished the two from the family.

In response, the two snuck away, were married by the justice of the peace, and headed west for a better life. Wagons, surreys, shoe leather, and trains (no cars or highways back then), took the newlyweds to coastal Oregon where they settled down and raised four boys and four girls—including my grandmother Priscilla.

As the Booths were raising their family in Oregon, half way across the country in Dyersville, Iowa, Billy Noonan, the curious son of Irish immigrants, was being raised by his fraternal aunt and uncle (his parents had passed). The two unlikely parents possessed such harsh temperaments that they routinely beat Billy for the smallest of infractions. At age 12, tiring of the sting of the whip, Billy packed a bag and walked across the entire state of Iowa to find his late mother’s sister and family. Billy found love and support in western Iowa and remained dear friends with his cousin Mae for the next 80 years—all of which was captured in notes written on the back of old photos.

After graduating from high school, traveling the country, and working in everything from trapping to riverboat gambling, Billy (now Bill) landed in a coastal Oregon town where he found work as a lumber inspector. On the first evening, Bill sat down for a meal at his new boarding house, Priscilla, the attractive young woman serving the food, stole his heart. A man who had once hiked, hitched, and huffed his way across the country, and a woman whose parents had made a similarly arduous journey, met over a bowl of beef stew in a tiny berg located miles from everywhere. The pair fell in love, married, and eventually had a baby girl they named Melba—my mother.

As you might imagine, I would love for my offspring to pore over our old family photos and the digital records I’m now creating, and learn about the people who supplied their DNA. But who’s going to scrounge through boxes and envelopes, or search through computer files, and discuss the people and events found in the images? You can’t lecture, guilt, or otherwise inspire your kids into doing such a thing—not with live friends vying for their attention on their smart phones.

Fortunately, where wielding guilt may come up short, there is one source of influence that just might plunge young people into their fascinating histories: space. Use it correctly and Billy, Priscilla, and their folks won’t be forgotten. There’s an entire literature devoted to using space to one’s advantage. Propinquity Theory, as the field is known, offers up such tidbits as: if you want to avoid eating candy, move the bowl farther away; or, if you want to marry a science major, eat lunch in the engineering building. You get the idea. It’s the science of bump-into.

So, here’s how I plan to use propinquity to my advantage. I’m creating a special space—a legacy corner near our piano made up of a dozen framed heritage photos that I’ll rotate every few months. When the grandkids come to visit, we’ll gather around the newly rotated photos and discuss the people and their stories. Here’s what the conversation might sound like: “Do you see the fellow in the dark suit? He’s the gardener who married Priscilla. His name was Frank Lincoln Booth. Does that name raise any questions in your mind?” (It turns out that Frank, the lovesick gardener, was born three months after John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln. Frank was given the middle name Lincoln, to clarify his allegiances. Fascinating, right?)

So, for the next few weeks, I’ll continue to scan our family photos—taking care to capture the stories behind each (you can record the stories in the “comments” section of the JPEG file—keeping photo and story forever linked). If I manage my space wisely, by bringing photo histories into the center of our living quarters where my children and their children will constantly bump into them, my offspring will be blessed with a host of fascinating stories about the people who made their lives possible.

Oh, yes, and should you drop by my home one day and spot a photo of a fourteen-year-old boy standing in the middle of a scorched bedroom, holding on to a spent container of rocket fuel looking guilty, that would be a snapshot of me.

But that’s another story for another day.

Kerrying On

You’re Gonna Be Popular

After a fifty-year absence in my life, a word that once filled me with fear and loathing found its way back into my world. It arrived one day, quite by accident, when my granddaughter Kylee was talking to her sister Kelsee about a classmate. I overheard her say that a certain teenager was really “popular.” Ugh. How I hated the whole idea of being popular, or worse still, trying to be popular. I never actually made the cut despite the fact I did my best to adhere to a set of unwritten rules that governed everything from clothing, to food, to the spoken word—especially the spoken word.

For instance, in 1958 (in my neighborhood, at least), if you were hip—(and by natural extension, popular) everything was “rare.” My school annual is full of notes attesting to everyone’s rareness. “To a rare guy, from an even rarer one,” can be found on nearly every page. And then one day, for reasons I still don’t understand, the word “rare” was rendered uncool because, well, “cool” was the new rare. Being cool became the goal of every person wielding a tube of Clearasil. It was all very confusing.

Being “cool” also demanded a great deal from your wardrobe. If you wanted to look hip, you bought standard pants and then took them straight to the tailor to have them narrowed at the ankles. Then, of course, you chose your cuffs. Amongst the popular crowd, a half-inch cuff was too small and a one-inch cuff too large. Your cuffs simply had to be three quarters of an inch. Wear that length of cuff and you would be on the road to cool—which eventually flowed into the narrow path of popularity, that sat a half-block to the left of nirvana, and two doors down from Valhalla.

Sadly, nothing about attaining popularity was, nor will it ever be, the least bit convenient. Popular kids routinely jumped through hoops to hold their station. Consider the humble tennis shoe. One day, the in-crowd decided that you had to wear Converse All-Stars or you’d be permanently assigned to geekdom, which is to say, to be forced to hang out with the nerds who ran the school’s movie projectors. Naturally, (and here’s where the guidelines to popularity make life difficult), your brand-new sneakers weren’t supposed to look new. New sneakers revealed that you were a latecomer to the fashion race and that was never good. So, I rubbed my fresh-out-of-the-box All-Stars with mud and grime–and then threw them in the washing machine (three times) until they came out clean, but older looking. The effect was perfect. My shoes looked as if they had never been new, but had magically appeared one day at the end of my legs—just below my three-quarter inch cuffs.

Given the effort required to be part of the “in” group, it’s little wonder that I shuddered when I heard my granddaughter mention the word popular. But the good news is, the need to be popular didn’t last. One day, after clinging to the norms that govern popularity as if they were sacred script, the very notion of being popular vanished. It happened the day I stepped onto a college campus. Matriculating students came from all around the region and there was no way to determine who had once been popular and who hadn’t. In fact, wearing a high school letter sweater was frowned upon, and mentioning your time as a cheerleader (the gold-standard of popularity) met with sneers. Suddenly, the norms governing cool were out the window, or at least very different. Kids you knew in high school, who wouldn’t have stooped to talk to you three days earlier, now chummed up to you like a life-long friend—all wearing cuffs and shoes of varying sizes, looks, and colors. It was both refreshing and unnerving.

Social scientists love to study such crowd behaviors. The power of social pressure can be both fascinating and unbelievable. For instance, as revered scholar Stanly Milgram learned decades ago, if an authority figure encourages one human to harm (even kill) another human, the researcher can get nearly three-fourths of everyday subjects to shock others to death (or at least think they did) by simply exerting a dose of authority. In the junior version of the game, you can have research confederates give blatantly wrong answers to simple questions and then watch subjects chime in with the same clearly wrong response—just to fit in. Solomon Asch made a living demonstrating this.

The idea of caving into social pressure isn’t merely curious; it also has never been very popular. As you read scientific journals (and don’t we all?), it’s hard to miss the tone taken by researchers who not only report the phenomenon, but also suggest that, at their core, humans are far too concerned about what others think of them. In fact, when the venerable Dr. Asch came out of retirement to make an appearance on the campus where I was attending school in the late 70s, I quickly made my way to his lecture. What did he have in mind? Asch, it turns out, had returned to the academy to set the record straight. He explained that he hadn’t been interested in conformity, as the topic of his research had become to be known. He had been interested in the one-fourth of all research subjects who demonstrated their courage and strength of character by standing up to the wrong opinions of others. In short, he was interested in independence.

To this day, if you ask your average adult if he or she would have been one of the compliant sixty-seven percent who Dr. Milgram manipulated into shocking others into silence, or one of the research dupes who Dr. Asch manipulated into telling a barefaced lie, almost all say, “not me.” Nobody wants to believe that they can be conned into taking questionable actions through the mere force of social pressure. Although many “not me” people probably spent most of their teenage years following trends, they now claim to desire no such thing. “Heck!” they exclaim. “Who cares what others care about? Who cares about being popular?”

The problem here is one of oversimplification. Wanting to be accepted shouldn’t be characterized solely as abandoning one’s opinion merely because one doesn’t have the courage to disagree with others. There’s a lot more going on than that. For example, wanting to get along with and be accepted by others makes up the glue that holds groups together. Helpful behaviors such as finding common ground, looking for a “third way,” carefully listening to (and truly hearing) others—are all rooted in the soil of wanting to be accepted and respected.

This means that the longing to be accepted often supplements a person’s urge to speak openly with the desire to do so respectfully. So, the next time your granddaughter mentions the word “popular,” don’t retch at the thought of following the crowd down who knows what silly path. We already did our stint in teenage hell, no need for more practice. Instead, make Dr. Asch happy by acting independently and by honestly sharing your view—even if it runs counter to the popular opinion. And then act collaboratively by tactfully sharing your views and carefully listening to others. Take pleasure in knowing that belonging to groups provides a sense of comfort and safety while personal expertise (freely spoken) coupled with the wisdom of crowds keeps the whole thing from collapsing. Oh, yes. Don’t forget to wear three-fourths inch cuffs while doing so. No use going crazy.

Kerrying On

The Wide World of Noonan Grocery

The other day, as I drove my fourteen-year-old grandson, Nate, to a local theater-in-the-round to watch a live performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, he stopped texting a friend for just long enough to learn that not only had I seen the play before, but I had also read the book and watched the movie.

“Why not just watch the movie?” Nate asked.

“Each format has certain advantages,” I explained.

“I’m not sure what that means,” Nate responded.

“Well, for instance, you just chose to text a friend rather than talk with me—even though I’m sitting right next to you.”

“But I had to take care of something before it got worse,” Nate explained.

“I’m not saying that you made the wrong communication choice, just that you made a choice and it came with advantages and disadvantages.”

“Is this due to the invention of the smart phone?” Nate asked.

“Partly,” I explained, “but having to choose between communication tools and venues has been a part of daily life for centuries. I learned this for the first time over fifty years ago when I was just about your age.”

“How’s that?” Nate asked.

And so, I spent the remainder of our car ride recounting to Nate about the time when I learned who my grandfather really was.

It all started at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in 1962 when I sat (as I had done more than 200 times before) in the room behind my grandfather’s grocery store and watched TV. Grandpa Noonan had just returned from shopping at the wholesale house and playing poker with his cronies. I had just completed an eight-hour shift where I waited on customers at Grandpa’s store while he was away.

Normally, as my Saturday job came to an end and I waited a half hour for the city bus to roll up, I watched the Wide World of Sports. I loved that program as much as anything on television. While Grandpa puttered around the store, I gave my undivided attention to Jim McKay as he hosted every sport imaginablefrom jai alai to wrist wrestling. Grandpa and I shared the same space, but we said little to each other—after all, a wrist wrestling competition was underway.

But not on this Saturday. As I turned to see what Wide World was airing, a news alert announced a shooting in Seattle. I asked Grandpa if he’d ever witnessed a similar crime. Born in 1880, my mother’s father was a contemporary of some of the Wild West characters I had seen in the movies; maybe he had been privy to a gunfight.

“As a matter of fact,” Grandpa answered, “I once saw a man gunned down in cold blood. I was riding in a boxcar as I made my way across the country to a job I had arranged for in Raymond, Washington. On this particular trip, I was traveling with Walter, an acquaintance I made when he boarded the train somewhere around Kansas City. A dodgy-looking character wearing jackboots joined us a couple days later, and that evening, a sad fellow clothed in rags climbed into the car. “Around midnight,” Gramps continued, “as I settled into a deep sleep, a loud shot rang through the boxcar. Walter and I awoke to find the man in jackboots standing over the dead body of the man in rags. He had shot the poor fellow in the chest and was beginning to rifle through his meager belongings. Fearing for our own lives, Walter and I tackled the shooter, wrestled away his gun, and constrained him until the train came to a stop early the next morning. Eventually, we waved down a railroad employee, and together we hauled the criminal to the local authorities while someone cared for the victim’s body.

“Now here’s where it gets interesting,” Grandpa continued (as if wrestling with a murderer had been boring). “We had been eye witnesses to a murder and the local law enforcement officials needed us to stick around for the trial. The crime happened in the middle of nowhere, and the whistle-stop where the train paused to take on cargo had no place to board us, so the sheriff put us up in the only free room in town—a jail cell. The cell worked out okay because we only used it for sleeping. The rest of the time, we shot pool and played cards at the nearby bar where we were served delicious meals cooked by the sheriff’s wife.”

Being eyewitnesses to a murder had turned gramps and Walter into persons of interest in a town where the arrival of the mail was a cause célèbre. As the trial unfolded, people from all around the county came to talk with the exotic out-of-towners.

Sometime, a few minutes into my Grandpa’s tragic tale, I turned off the television and listened intently as he vividly described a trial where, among other things, the accused (still in jackboots) tried to leap over a table and choke Grandpa to death for “squealing!”

That was the last time I turned on Jim McKay and his sports anthology. From that day on, while I waited for my Saturday-afternoon bus, I talked to Grandpa about the jobs he held before he met grandma and settled down. It turns out; he had worked as a professional gambler, a trapper, a butcher, and a dozen or so other occupations. This made Grandpa a veritable library of stories. As I look back, I cherish those Saturday-afternoon conversations and I don’t regret for a second having given up ABC’s premier sports program as the price of admission.

“Wow!” my grandson Nate responded as we pulled up to the theater and I brought Grandpa’s story to a close. “So you’re saying that talking to someone in person is better than watching a TV show or texting a message?”

“Actually, I’m not.” I responded.

Having recently been promoted from early baby boomer to old coot, I’m reluctant to say that old forms of communicating are inherently better than new ones.

“So what are you recommending?” Nate asked, a bit puzzled. “I’m saying that there is no single communication tool that’s perfectly suited for every form of interaction. We have to weigh the pros and cons of each tool and make good choices.”

And my response was not just lip service in order to stay in the good graces of my tech-loving grandson. Each year, the latest and greatest device will be introduced, and it, like all its predecessors in the form of devices, methods, and channels, will come with costs and benefits. So, spend time experimenting with a variety of tools and venues—both old and new. Be critical of the costs and welcoming of the benefits. Find ways to use these tools for good and see them as tools to make important personal and interpersonal connections.

And, should you, by chance, choose to talk face-to-face to an aging raconteur, you may discover (as I once did) that a TV broadcast of the Wide World of Sports isn’t always more interesting than a story told in the backroom of the Wide World of Noonan’s Grocery.

“But a TV broadcast could be more interesting than someone telling a story,” Nate added to my soap box.

“Not if Grandpa Noonan is doing the telling,” I responded.

“Or maybe you, Grandpa,” Nate added.

“Or maybe me.”

Kerrying On

Sam’s Gift

Gifts come in all shapes, types, and sizes. Some arrive with the sounds and excitement of the holiday season and some do not. Some are beautifully packaged while others aren’t bundled at all because they’re completely intangible. Still others are not only intangible, but when they’re given away, the giver doesn’t even know he’s shared a gift. Imagine that—giving someone a present without knowing you’ve done so. Sounds odd, right? But you’ve done it yourself. Probably lots of times.

My first encounter with such a mysterious exchange took place in September of 1958 when I entered my seventh grade homeroom class for the first time and sat down next to Sam Baker. When our homeroom teacher called for the nomination of classroom officers, Sam raised his hand and eagerly nominated himself for the position of president. I was surprised. What kind of knucklehead nominates himself? Apparently Sam did, but to no benefit. He eventually lost to the immensely affable Caroline Stimpson.

A few minutes later, our teacher wrote his full name (Louie T. Lallas) on the chalkboard. Suspecting that it might be on the final, Dorothy Newman asked Mr. Lallas what the T stood for. Before the seasoned educator could bark his standard answer, “Tough!”, Sam shouted, “Tub-of-lard!”

The earth stood still. Insulting a teacher—and in front of the class—was unthinkable. Since he was mostly kidding (Mr. Lallas wasn’t the least bit tubish), Sam only had to suffer two days of detention. Nevertheless, he still had broken the granddaddy of all rules. He had disrespected an authority figure.

I immediately liked him.

Enough so that it was Sam who accompanied me a few weeks later when the two of us decided to take up tennis. We had become fast friends, and on this particular day, we were on our way to see if the tennis court located behind the Stimpson mansion was open to the public. Rumor had it that the venerable Dr. Stimpson generously allowed the unwashed masses to play on his private court as long as his family members weren’t using it. Sam and I were hoping the rumor was true and the court was open.

The two of us made a curious looking pair as we walked down Garden Street that day. Sam’s outfit included a snappy-looking racket and matching sweater and shorts. I wore frayed cut-off jeans and a hand-me-down T-shirt while carrying a warped wooden racket that once belonged to my grandfather—a racket that had been strung—not with shiny nylon—but with gnarled catgut. Mom assured me that no cats had been harmed in the construction of grandpa’s racket because the strings were made of (get this) sheep intestines. Like that made me feel better. One look at me and you’d have guessed Sam had invited a vagrant to play tennis with him.

As luck would have it, the Stimpson court was free so the two of us merrily hacked away until I saw the back door of the Stimpson’s lavish manor slowly open. Had we been characters in a movie, the background music would have turned ominous. In one quick move, out stepped Caroline, our homeroom class president and the youngest daughter of the good doctor Stimpson. I feared she was about to order us off the grounds and instinctively turned to flee when Sam smiled confidently and told me to wait.

“Hey, guys!” Caroline warmly greeted us. “Would you like to come inside for some lemonade?” I couldn’t believe it. The castle doors were opening.

When we walked into the Stimpson home, it was like entering a lavish movie set. Caroline escorted us into a room that showcased a spectacular hand-carved Brazilian rosewood pool table. Several hundred gilt-tooled, 19th-century, literary masterpieces lined the walls. I was speechless.

Caroline broke the silence by asking a maid dressed in a French embroidered pinafore apron to serve us lemonade. It turns out the “maid” was actually Caroline’s older sister, but we didn’t know it at the time. In any case, I was desperately trying to figure out how to fit into a world of posh tennis ensembles while wearing tattered cut-off jeans and a Mad Magazine T-shirt that had the phrase printed across the front: What, Me Worry?

I had seen swanky estates similar to the Stimpson’s before, but had never imagined what they might look like inside. The Stimpson home was remarkable. It was a place suitable for the Vanderbilts and Kennedys; a place for keen political debate; a place, I figured, I’d never lay eyes on again.

“What did you think of that?” Sam asked as we returned to the court. “It’s probably the coolest house in town.”

“It wasn’t a house,” I replied. “We live in houses. Caroline lives in a mansion.”

“Well, get over it,” Sam added. “One day, I’m going to own a place just like it.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Two years from now, when it’s offered, I’ll be taking Latin while you’re taking woodshop. And you know why that is?”

“Because you’re more interested in dead Italians than I am,” I replied.

“No,” Sam continued. “I’ll be studying Latin to prepare myself to go to law school so I can get a job with a big law firm, work my way to the top, and one day buy a beautiful home for my family—maybe even the Stimpson’s place.”

“You can do that? I asked.

“Yup,” Sam answered, “And so can you.”

“Just by taking Latin?”

It had never occurred to me that if I combined well-established plans with the right education and hard work, I could improve my station in life. For my first six years of schooling, my buddies and I had blindly stuck to a foreordained path that would eventually lead to a horrible education (i.e., we thought studying was for nerds) followed by a life of living hand-to-mouth. It was a cherished neighborhood tradition.

Sam, from his view farther up the hill, saw what he wanted from life and was in hot pursuit of a law degree. Better still, his vision and self-assurance were infectious. His brash belief that he could achieve anything he worked to accomplish altered my view of what was attainable—even to a scruffy kid carrying borrowed sheep intestines.

Sam moved to Alaska at the end of that school year, but not before he caused a substantial shift in my worldview. He didn’t lecture me, ridicule my mistakes, mock my naiveté, or act the least bit superior. Instead, Sam gave me the greatest of all gifts—the gift of hope. If the fun-loving kid who nominated himself for class president and daringly called a teacher a “tub-of-lard” could apply himself and become somebody, I could become somebody. No doubt Sam is unaware of the gift he gave me that autumn day on Garden Street. It wasn’t a holiday offering, it wasn’t tangible, and it certainly wasn’t wrapped. Nevertheless, when a new world opened its doors to me, it was Sam’s gift of hope that gave me the courage to cross the threshold.

Gratias Sam. Multas Gratias.