Category Archives: Kerrying On

Kerrying On

French-fried Memories

When I entered the eighth grade in 1959, I was given the option to study either Latin or French. I chose French because from what I understood, the French weren’t dead yet. Miss Limply, the school’s French teacher, launched the first day of class by showing a cartoon of the Three Little Pigs. From the confusing muddle of sounds blaring from the projector, I learned only one word—loup—or wolf. It made me laugh because it was pronounced loo, and in England that’s a toilet. Perhaps French was going to be fun.

Sadly, the second day of class brought no new amusing words. Instead, it involved a lot of verb and gender hoo-hah that seemed far too complicated to learn. Especially when my preferred mode of learning was passing notes to the girl who sat next to me. Perhaps I should drop the class before it was too late? The only other elective offered during that time slot was metal shop—which a friend told me consisted largely of burning things in a forge. Let’s see, which would I prefer? Conjugating French verbs or melting American lunch boxes?

After two weeks of falling hopelessly behind in French, I said goodbye to Miss Limply, crossed the great cultural divide that separated the language learning center from the metal shop, and began the task of making a cup out of a soup can. To this day, the only thing I recall from my brief brush with French is that “loup” means wolf, and I’ve not once had an occasion to use that tidbit.

That’s not entirely true. I did try to sneak “loup” into the conversation one afternoon when I was having lunch with a group of European executives in Munich. We were chatting about American authors and I was keeping up nicely until the conversation turned to European authors of whom I knew nothing. It was embarrassing to see how much these Europeans knew about American culture and how little I knew about anything European.

To joke my way out of my egregiously parochial view, I decided to say that I didn’t know much about European authors because I had been raised by wolves. Ha, ha! Get it? Raised by wolves! This entire conversation was taking place in English but, for reasons I’ll never know, I decided that this was the perfect time to impress my European colleagues by using my one French word, loup. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure what the plural was for loup so I said: “I was raised by loupies.” My European colleagues thought I said lupus and stared at me with an odd mix of confusion and pity. It was really quite awkward.

I had forgotten about these language misfires until the day of my fifty-year high-school reunion when I ran into an old friend, Bernadine Westin. She introduced me to her husband as “her French connection.” At first, I had no idea what she was talking about. Bernadine reminded me that during those two weeks I had studied French back in 1959, Miss Limply had passed out the names and addresses of eighth-grade students in France who were eager to be our pen pals. Every month we were supposed to write our pal a chatty letter in French and he or she would write us back in English.

This sounded like a lot of work to me so I gladly gave the name and address of my proposed pen pal to Bernadine. She desperately wanted to correspond with someone in Europe, but hadn’t signed up for a language class. Now, some fifty-five years later, Bernadine was thanking me for graciously giving up my chance to make a European connection.

Bernadine went on to explain that since 1959, she had faithfully written her French pen pal every month. To this day, the two continue to write each other, occasionally travel together, and (in her own words) embody the meaning of “BFFs.” According to Bernadine, all this had transpired, thanks to me! Me, a selfless classmate who had abandoned any hope of a rewarding international experience by giving her my pen pal, without asking for anything in return. I took the praise like a man. That is, I took full credit for something I didn’t actually do.

The effort Bernadine put in to being a successful pen pal was truly remarkable. She had to learn French, travel to the post office, buy stamps, mail the letters, and did I mention learn French? But then again, her dedication had earned her something the rest of us never gained—a precious friend from a whole new culture—and an enriching world view.

And then it hit me. Everyone should have their own life-long pen-pal! Only without so much work. With the aid of today’s technology, you could just push a button and voilà! There on the screen would appear a live person from France, or China, or Uzbekistan!

I’m imagining software that could immediately translate whatever you say, with no confusion or awkward waiting. It would also match your lips to the words your smart device conjures so it would look and feel like an actual conversation. It would be an actual conversation. As an aside, my colleagues tell me that Google Translate and other language recognition software may not be far off in creating something like this.

Having meaningful contact with pals from afar would go a long way toward engendering cross-cultural awareness. At a time when many of today’s youth (and adults) are capturing every little thing they do in “selfies,” and when narcissism scores are (you guessed it) on the rise, what would it be like if today’s youngsters were in frequent contact and deep conversation with e-pals around the world?

Fortunately, lots of young people are doing just that. They have international e-friends, and many are entering language-immersion schools starting as early as the first grade. But what if we turned the best-and-brightest of Silicon Valley to designing the technology required to produce the software I’ve proposed? Once created, we could give a device to every grade-school child in the world—along with an e-pal address of a person they’d be assigned to chat with (e-face to e-face) a couple of times a week.

Imagine a world where we’ve all been transformed into a Bernadine. With constant contact from friends abroad, we would gain a deep appreciation for cultural differences along with a true empathy for others’ challenges. Plus we’d know enough about world events and people that we would never again have to say that we had been raised by loupies.

Best of all, if negotiations were to break down at, say, a world peace conference and leaders started to consider using forceful methods, they’d fondly remember their e-pal. And so would millions of other people who would have been chatting with their foreign buddies about sports, music, fake vomit, and annoying relatives twice a week since the first grade. Having enjoyed thousands of casual yet curiously bonding conversations with friends from afar, nobody would think of using force (and certainly not violence) as a tool for dealing with “foreigners.”

So what do you think of my proposal Miss Limply? Mucho clever, right? Mucho clever.

Kerrying On

A Valentine’s Lesson for All of Us

“Take a look at this!” my mother shouted. “You won’t believe it.”

Not knowing what Mom was talking about, I put down the psychology text my neighbor Gary and I were studying (we had a midterm the next day) and the two of us got up from the kitchen table and headed straight to the family room. There we found Mom standing with a brown paper bag clutched in her right hand. Next to her stood Dad, looking two parts hangdog and three parts nervous. Something unpleasant was afoot.

As Gary and I approached my parents, Mom continued, “Do you two college boys see this bag I’m holding?”

“Yes,” we replied.

“Of course, you do!” Mom barked. “But can you tell what’s inside it?

“The bag’s opaque,” I answered, “it could contain almost anything.”

“Alright, I’ll give you guys a hint,” Mom said, “because I’m feeling generous.”

Mom (who usually looked as if she were about to give you a batch of cookies) didn’t look like she was feeling generous. She looked like she was searching for revenge. And Dad looked like he was about to eat a dish served cold.

Not wanting to get caught up in what appeared to be an escalating marital tiff, I directed the conversation away from the brown paper bag by making the following pronouncement: “Speaking of trying to guess what’s inside of something, were you aware that researchers now know exactly what’s inside the human brain and how it works? Not to get too complicated, but scientists poke wires into a cranium and then pump in electricity until a body part flops around. It’s fascinating.”

“Well, look at you!” Dad exclaimed as he patted me on the back. “I knew sending you to the local community college was the right thing to do. Not to say that I told you so, but I told you so.”

It turns out that Dad was also interested in dodging Mom’s brown-bag guessing game and was now diverting the discussion to an argument our family I had engaged in earlier that month. The quarrel had been a real heart breaker. Due to an unexpected decline in our family’s income, my folks let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I would not be attending the ivy-clad, sorority-rich university of my dreams. Instead, I would be enrolling in the sad little community college located across town—a school comprised mostly of Quonset huts.

I know I shouldn’t have been humiliated by this change in schools, but I was. Enough so that when people asked me the meaning of the “GCC” printed on the back of a school sweatshirt I had purchased at the bookstore/cafetorium, I ducked. Instead of answering Grandview Community College, I replied: Grandview Ca-College. It was the best I could come up with.

Realizing that Dad and I were directing the conversation away from the contents of the brown paper sack, Mom exclaimed, “Let’s get back to the gift bag!”

Ah-ha! Now I knew the mystery object Mom was clutching was something small enough to fit into a bag, and that it was some sort of gift.

“I’ll give you two college whizzes a hint,” Mom offered, “What day is it today?”

“That didn’t feel like a hint,” Gary replied. “It felt like a question.”

“It’s February 14th. Do you know what happens every February 14th?”

“Oh yeah,” I responded. “I forgot about the holiday. I’m sort of between girlfriends.” (Of course, I was “between girlfriends.” I lived with my parents and studied psychology in a Quonset hut.)

“Alright,” I answered. “Does the bag contain a Valentine’s Day gift that Dad gave you?”

“Exactly!” Mom shouted as she yanked a heart-shaped box out of the bag and shook it in my face as if it were evidence in a murder trial and not a box of candy.

“This pathetic offering is what your father gave me.”

“It looks nice,” I said. “And who doesn’t like assorted chocolates?”

“Ask your father where he got the box,” Mom insisted. I remained silent.

“Go ahead, Son, ask ‘moneybags’ where he got it.”

“Okay,” I acquiesced. “So, Dad, where did the yummy chocolates come from?”

“He got it for free!” Mom interrupted. “At the convenience store he manages. He ordered 50 cases of beer to augment the store’s inventory, and as a reward for such an unusually large purchase, the vendor gave him a free box of chocolates—which your father then crammed into a brown paper bag and gave to me. So, this box of candy isn’t whispering ‘Happy Valentine’s Day! I love you!’ It’s saying, ‘I didn’t get around to buying you a gift, but I did manage to place an order for 50 cases of beer.’”

No wonder Dad didn’t want to open the bag. Mom had grilled him about the chocolates until he had admitted to the beer deal, and now he was going to have to face the music.

“So, let this be a lesson to the two of you,” Mom added as she turned her attention to Gary and me. “One day, each of you is going to find a life-mate and you’ll want to give her something special for Valentine’s Day—something that says, ‘I lay awake nights trying to find a way to express my undying affection for you.’ Giving your sweetheart a gift that you obtained (for free) from a beer-truck driver isn’t likely to send that message.”

“You’re absolutely right!” Gary shouted as he eased his way out the front door, thoroughly befuddled and bolting for home.

Of course, Mom was right. A gift needs to be the product of careful thought—particularly when it’s a Valentine’s offering. Surely everyone understands this point and, if not, Dad’s choice of gifts serves as a helpful reminder.

However, there was another lesson I learned that day, and it wasn’t contained in Mom’s lecture. It was displayed in the way she had treated Dad. She mocked him in public and this was a violation of the loyalty pledge the two of them made when they first got married. In fact, when any couple ties the knot, both parties pledge to speak respectfully about each other in the presence of others. They may not say this pledge aloud, or sign an official document, but they feel it in their hearts. When it comes to the love of your life, how could you do otherwise? And when it comes to Valentine’s Day, how could you not renew this pledge every year?

Naturally, even within the healthiest of relationships, couples disappoint, annoy, and offend each other and arguments ensue. Happily, seasoned professionals know not to go public with their grievances. They resolve them in private. They most certainly don’t transform the contents of their marital spats into back-fence gossip, water-cooler banter, or condescending punch lines.

So, here’s a Valentine’s message for everyone. Never trade a colossal beer order for, say, a box of chocolates, and then pass it off as a special gift. Equally important, should you be the recipient of such a “gift,” don’t badmouth your mate to a neighbor, or worse still, to one of your children. After all, you and your partner made a promise to steer clear of such thoughtless acts of disloyalty. And as we grads from Grandview Ca-College are wont to point out: a promise is a promise.

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

Kerrying On

Unseen in Plain Sight

“Is that for the Christmas pageant?” Mr. Mulroney asked as I stuffed a six-foot artificial Christmas tree into the passenger seat of our VW bug.

“No,” I answered. “It’s just a little something to dress up my cubicle at school.”

“Well,” our neighbor continued, “you can’t get started too early when it comes to the pageant. No siree! Not when it comes to the pageant.”

The event to which Mr. Mulroney was referring was our congregation’s annual potluck dinner—complete with a visit from Santa Claus, holiday carols, and the ever-favorite nativity play performed by the Sunday school children.

Later that day, as I mentioned the upcoming gathering to my wife, Louise, we both spoke of how enjoyable the pageant had been over the years. Then we quickly added: “Hopefully we’ll be assigned to do something simple—like bake a pie.”

Just then the phone rang.

“But we don’t have money to pay for any incidental expenses that might arise if we take charge of the pageant,” I pled to our pastor. “Plus, I’m in the final stages of graduate school. Louise and I don’t have time to be in charge of an entire Christmas program.”

Naturally, there was parish money set aside for the pageant’s expenses, so my poverty plea faded quickly and my complaint about not having time was . . . well, nobody ever has time to produce a holiday pageant, and yet somehow, we enjoy one every year.

“Actually, the job is easier than you might imagine,” the pastor explained. “You simply delegate the various activities to other congregants. You’re in the business school. You should know all about delegation. Right?”

Low blow.

“Alright,” I acquiesced, “but only under the following conditions. Louise and I will stay within the budget, and assign out all of the work . . . ”

“Joyful preparations,” the pastor corrected.

“We’ll assign out the ‘joyful preparations,’” I continued, “but only if we have total control. We don’t want to be second-guessed.”

“Right down to his last Ho! Ho! Ho!” The pastor agreed. The deal was sealed.

“Here’s our first decision,” Louise proclaimed. “It has to do with Saint Nick.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “There won’t be a Saint Nick at our gathering.”

“Bingo!” she responded. “We’ve had enough Santa calamities to last a lifetime.”

Louise was referring to a couple of recent holiday flops. One year, our pastor thought it would be clever if he himself played the Jolly Old Fellow, but he was so skinny that the pillows he stuffed under his crushed satin costume kept falling out. The overall effect was creepy. Young children cried as he approached them—one emaciated hand clenching a candy cane, the other holding tightly to his leaking torso.

The next year we reversed course by hiring a professional Santa Claus. Unfortunately, the guy was so serious about his craft that he insisted everyone remain absolutely silent as he delivered a lengthy lecture on the evils of consumerism. Eventually, the Old Elf chewed out the celebrants and left in a huff. Between these two events, I don’t know which left the children more scarred.

Since our pageant didn’t include Santa, we had time to add group singing and tree decorating to the program. A vocal orchestration grad student was assigned to lead the music and, as we had hoped, it went off flawlessly. The music was sublime. I can’t say the same for the tree decorating. It turns out (according to the decorators, at least) there are two kinds of Christmas tree aficionados: those who hang tinsel in orderly rows that show proper respect for the sacred holiday, and undisciplined heathens who carelessly hurl fistfuls of tinsel at the angel atop the tree. Let’s just say the activity was tense.

And then there was the nativity play. Screenwriters typically portray them as disasters by having either the bleachers collapse, or the kids fumble the script. The truth is, as the children (particularly the little ones) forget their lines, trip over their bathrobes, and knock down the set pieces, the pageant gets that much more adorable. I’m proud to say that ours was the most adorable ever.

My favorite part of the evening took place in plain sight, and yet (like many acts of kindness) it largely remained unseen. Louise and I had assigned the much-anticipated holiday meal to the Fishers—a grad student in physics, his wife, and their three children. We asked them to organize a pot-luck dinner (easy-peasy), plus they needed to buy a couple dozen precooked turkey breasts that would be the crown jewel of the feast.

In retrospect, the Fishers were probably an unwise choice. As poor as most of us congregants were, they were the poorest. Their view of what was supposed to be a lip-smacking turkey meal had been so distorted by years of going without that, even though they had a generous budget to work from, the Fishers purchased two dozen dirt-cheap, refrigerated, bologna-like concoctions that they thought were delicious and everyone else feared. As each pressed turkey breast was ceremoniously placed on the serving table by the Fishers, it jiggled, in true Christmas fashion, like a bowl full of jelly.

Before the crowd could pounce on the Fishers for choosing egregiously gelatinous, nearly translucent, pressed turkey parts that could be “carved” with a plastic spoon, Louise proclaimed, “Oh look, turkey aspic—just like the elegant food they eat in France. How chic!” From that point on Louise graciously shielded the Fishers from the disappointed crowd with her raw energy and optimistic talk of fancified French food.

Eventually, Louise found a way to set aside most of the untouched pressed turkey breasts and give them to the Fishers who had stayed behind to help with the cleanup. With a few subtle moves, and a well-chosen word or two, Louise had graciously and respectfully provided a needy family with food they were able to freeze and then consume over the entire next semester.

Three decades later when we ran into the Fishers at the local shopping mall, (quite by accident) our conversation quickly turned to that Christmas party. “I still remember all that turkey we were able to take home and freeze.” Pat Fisher enthused. “It was yummy and lasted us for months. It was literally an answer to our prayers.”

I later learned that Louise didn’t remember much about that meal. And why should she? Her handling of what could have been an embarrassing situation was so natural and selfless that it wasn’t something she’d recall, it was just something she did. And so it was with all the parishioners. From cleaning up the little shepherd who ate too much fudge, to learning that there wasn’t going to be a Santa Claus and not freaking out—everyone didn’t merely celebrate the holiday, they lived it. One tiny act at a time.

May your holiday season be similarly real. May you experience joy not only from, say, hosting a pageant, but also from enacting simple deeds of service that for years to come are likely to remain unseen in plain sight.

Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.