Category Archives: Kerrying On

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.

Kerrying On

You’re Not A Good Enough Actor

In the early 1980s, I slowly transitioned from teaching MBA classes to designing corporate training programs. Surprisingly, with this change in focus, my design partners and I soon found ourselves in, of all places, Hollywood—not the glamorous version that produces dazzling movies, but the not-so-glamorous version that produces industrial videos.

Here’s what took us to Tinsel Town. Our typical training design project consisted of following around top-performing leaders and watching how they handled challenges such as missed deadlines. From these observations, we extracted behavioral tactics (best practices) that we could teach to other leaders. The down-side being that merely talking in a training session about these valuable tactics required trainers to be gifted at describing behaviors and trainees to be talented at turning abstractions into action. Instead, we opted to demonstrate the skills on video—which took us to Hollywood.

As you might suspect, this demand to produce and direct mini-movies of leaders in action called for a huge change in the lives of training designers. My colleagues and I knew a fair amount about social science theory and practice but little about video production. Okay, we knew nothing about video production.

With time and coaching, we eventually figured out how to develop video snippets that could be used in our training but, sadly, not ones that suited everybody. Our acting team appeared a bit too white-collar. To balance out the mix, we needed to find an actor who could embody someone who was used to getting his hands dirty at work (for clients who did just that). One evening, after watching the sitcom Alf on TV, it struck me that John LaMotta, the talented actor who played the role of Alf’s neighbor Trevor Ochmonek, would be perfect for the part of a heavy-duty production worker. I called him, sent him a script, and picked him up at the airport a few weeks later to join our acting troupe as we began work on a new video project.

The next morning, I directed the first rehearsal. When it came time for John to—in his own words—“make magic,” he stormed onto the set. The situation was simple. John portrayed a gruff-looking production worker whose co-worker had failed to deliver materials to him on time—causing him problems. John’s job was to resolve the issue. To keep the scene fresh, I gave John no direction except to deliver his lines in a way that felt comfortable to him. I wanted John to calmly describe the problem in a respectful and professional way, but would he interpret the scene in that manner? Time would tell.

With the shout of “Action!” John walked onto the set, hit his mark, and delivered his opening line: “You said you’d have product to me by noon, but it never arrived. What happened?” Note: the script we had written contained no inflammatory words, insults, threats, or attacks—just a simple description of the problem followed by a diagnostic question. John delivered the correct words—no problem there—but he said them with such force and disgust that the other actor nearly melted.

“Cut!” I shouted as I leaped into the set and explained to John that he sounded furious and needed to try the scene anew but without the acrimony. Once again, I didn’t tell John how to interpret the script because I had been taught that if you over-direct, or worse still, show actors the delivery you want, they tend to mimic your performance and you lose their unique interpretation.

This time, John walked onto the set with his arms folded, slowly circled the other actor, shook his head in utter disgust, and delivered his line in a deadly whisper. It was chilling. For the third take, John poked the fellow with his massive index finger. Thump, thump, thump. It hurt just watching. Next, John sneered at the other actor so malignantly that it caused a camera operator to flinch.

For another five takes, John found five new ways to accost his coworker while I patiently waited for him to deliver an opening line that would lead to a respectful discussion. Each time, John expressed the same neutral words we had written but with new punitive body twitches, facial tics, and voice fluctuations that turned what should have been a professional, problem-solving conversation into an attack.

Finally, I gave up. I broke the rule of offering minimum direction by telling John that the fellow who had let him down was his good friend and that John was curious as to why his coworker hadn’t delivered the goods on time.

“He’s my friend, and I’m curious?” John repeated. “Yup,” I answered.

Then John delivered the lines perfectly—clearly, correctly, and full of respect.

This experience affected every scene I’ve directed from that day forward. It has also influenced how my partners and I teach how to deal with disappointments, infractions, and bad behavior. No matter how talented an actor you believe you are, if you choose to talk to others about infractions while retaining negative thoughts about how they fowled-up, your harsh judgments invariably creep into your body and facial movements. You can try to be nice, but some part of you (seemingly of its own accord) tenses up and you look upset. First a strained smile, then a contortion of the muscles in your neck, then a tapping foot, then a vein madly pulsing in your forehead—all implying a threat—all reflecting your underlying negative judgment. If you were playing poker, you’d call these revealing reactions “tells”—slight body movements or facial expressions that give away your underlying emotion (in John’s case, disappointment and anger).

John taught us that if you desire to respectfully deal with people who have let you down or behaved badly, you can’t focus solely on managing the “tells” that so readily take over your body. It’s insufficient. As soon as you fix one tell, another one replaces it. So you have to work on your underlying thinking by replacing harsh judgments with genuine curiosity. If not, no matter how nice or “professionally” you think you’re behaving, or how under control you feel, your body is emitting signals that plainly reveal your underlying disappointment, disrespect, and disgust.

So, start problem-solving discussions with sincere respect for the individual who has taken a misstep. Take care to maintain a healthy curiosity regarding the circumstances. If you assume the best—not the worst—of others, the correct body language (from a relaxed jaw to a pleasant tone) will naturally follow. In short, don’t condemn others in your heart and then try to mask your harsh judgments one “tell” at a time. You’re not a good enough actor to pull it off. John certainly wasn’t—and the same is true for the rest of us.

Kerrying On

Surviving Freedom

As a child, my parents fiercely protected me. At their insistence, I remained close to home and under their tight watch. And then, one day in early 1959, they let go. When I turned thirteen, my Mom and Dad either tired of regulating my every move or began to trust me. Either way, it was as if the door to my cage had been left unlocked. Since my friends were similarly liberated, it wasn’t long until a small band of thirteen-year-old boys was roaming the area around Bellingham Bay, mostly unfettered, and completely unsupervised. We didn’t know it, but we had entered our Huck Finn years.

During this period of newly-granted independence, my friends and I became one with the earth and her treasures. We walked for miles along her pine needle paths in a quest to discover caves, explore abandoned buildings, scale cliffs, build rafts, and gaff dogfish. We ran barefoot across tide flats and meadows as we chased each other with kelp whips, puffballs, and rose-hip seeds (nature’s itching powder).

We didn’t merely explore the earth’s surface; we attacked it. We tore into the hillside to make caves, cut down trees to build forts and rafts, and heaped up massive sandcastles on tide flats. And then (as the returning water crept back), we fought to keep the flowing enemy from devouring our towers. If this wasn’t earthy enough, we played mumblety-peg, a pocketknife game that required the loser to pull a three-inch, hand carved peg out of the earth (with only his teeth)—painting his mouth, gums, and face with dark brown muck.

Having little money, we were provided for by Mother Earth until we returned home each day. For a taste of nature’s menu, we chewed sour grass and sipped from honeysuckles. As our hunger grew, we dined from the fruit of the thorny Himalayan blackberry vines that spread across the countryside like an angry rash. As we moved into the forest, we switched to huckleberries, salmon berries, and black caps. If we stumbled on a tree laden with ripe cherries, pears, or apples, we gorged on the bonanza and moved on, grimacing from the inevitable upset stomach that followed. On a dare, we chewed wild rhubarb.

As we grew more experienced, stronger, and confident, we commandeered materials from our parents. Once equipped, we built rope swings that soared thirty feet into the air. We constructed tree houses that hid us from adults. When July rolled around, we built rockets of all types. Should a rocket start a fire in the dry grass near the shore, we’d beat out the flames with wet burlap bags, strip to our cut-off jeans, and emit a savage howl as we leaped triumphantly into the bay.

We did all of this unlicensed cavorting on foot because we came from one-car families. Plus, we had a desire for seclusion. This meant that on the days we hiked to Cedar Lake, we walked five miles simply to arrive at the trailhead and another two miles up Chuckanut Mountain to get to the lake. When we arrived, it would be our voices, and our voices alone, that echoed across the mist-covered water. Jogging hadn’t been invented yet, mountain biking was unheard of, and clothing outfitters hadn’t popularized hiking. Consequently, on most of our excursions, when we arrived at our destination we were completely alone. Exactly the way we liked it.

Had we slipped into a hole in the earth on any one of these sorties, nobody would have ever found us. Our parents would never have known where to look because we gave them phony itineraries. We told our folks that we were going to safe, well-groomed parks near our homes so they wouldn’t worry about the dangers we’d face when we practiced spelunking and free-climbing without a shred of equipment or know-how.

Our folks had no idea that when the canneries jutting over the bay closed for the day, the gigantic steel tubs used to haul crabs out of fishermen’s boats were repurposed by us as we stood inside them and mechanically lowered ourselves into the water—competing for who could descend the deepest. On days our parents thought we were playing safely in a nearby park, we were waiting for the tide to go out, so we could jump from a cannery roof sixty feet in the air into ten feet of water. With each leap, our bare feet dug deep into thousand-year-old muck, the earth providing us the cushion we needed as we knifed into the bay. We did all this unbeknownst to our parents. For three years, my buddies and I scampered across, fed from, and explored the earth—unnoticed and unimpeded. She was our laboratory, cafeteria, and playground.

Should one of today’s helicopter parents look back at what my friends and I did, they’d be mortified by our casual recklessness. My mom would have been mortified had she not been so busy taking college courses and working two jobs. To be honest, I can’t believe that we, the feral boys of Bellingham, actually survived unharmed.

Now for the intriguing part. According to a recent study exploring how certain parents had reared several extraordinarily successful adults within the same family, the freedom my friends and I enjoyed might actually have been to our benefit. Child-rearing research suggests that a “free-range childhood” fuels a sense of confidence and independence that can lead to superior accomplishment later in life. More than a few scholars are now suggesting that if you want your offspring to truly excel as adults, retire the helicopter—or at least give it a rest.

But who can do that? If I had teenage kids today, I’d never allow them to roam the earth like my friends and I did. Unsupervised cavorting is just as dangerous today as it was fifty years ago. But, then again, I’d hate to think that risk-averse parenting might come at the cost of the next generation’s confidence and independence. Plus, there’s the fact that adopting a hands-off approach isn’t exactly an untested idea. When it comes to the workplace, non-hovering leadership is referred to as empowerment, and empowerment has generally proven to be a good thing. Just ask the empowered.

So what’s a person to do? I, for one, can’t imagine purposely exposing adolescents to unnecessary risks. Nevertheless, the earth will most certainly call out to them. She’ll offer up her fruits and spread forth her tide flats. She’ll tempt our youngsters to scramble across her boulders and swim in her streams. And they’ll answer. You can bet on that. So, be prepared. Take the time to teach your offspring safe practices. Warn them of common dangers and excessive risks. Empower them with skills that help them flourish in the freedom of nature’s classroom. And most important of all, refuse the sucker’s choice that says you can raise kids to be either safe or self-assured. Aim for both. Your kids deserve no less.