Category Archives: Kerrying On

Kerrying On

The Best Career Advice Nobody Ever Gave

In the spring of 1952, Lydia, a woman who lived up the hill from our house, purchased the neighborhood’s first power lawn mower. Had the circus marched up 25th street while P. T. Barnum himself juggled flaming chainsaws, it would have drawn less attention. After all, Lydia was now packing a gas-powered, carbine action, rotary mower. Everyone showed up for the inaugural mowing. Several brought folding lawn chairs.

After yanking on the starter rope for a couple of minutes, Lydia’s new machine finally roared into action. Within seconds, she was handily plowing through grass so thick that it would have caused a hernia had it been cut by someone using a traditional push-reel hand mower.

I desperately wanted a chance to operate the rotary beauty, but before I could say anything, I noticed that the chute that spit out the cut grass was becoming clogged with clippings. “I’ll pull out the grass!” I shouted as I worked my way across the yard. “I’ll just shove my hand into the . . . ”

As it became clear that I intended to thrust my six-year-old hand into a machine that housed a spinning, razor-sharp blade, the onlookers freaked out. It was obvious that Lydia was too occupied maneuvering the mower to see me approaching her left flank. And since the other adults were too far away to do anything, they felt helpless . . . so much so that they froze in place. That is, everyone except our neighbor Walter, the retired boatswain mate. He leapt to his feet and rushed toward me—eyes bugged, arms thrashing, and mouth screeching something I couldn’t make out over the thundering engine.

Fortunately, Walter’s frantic movements were so startling that I paused to take stock of the situation. I didn’t stop for long, but apparently for just long enough, because at the very moment my hand approached the treacherous blade, Walter crashed into me and knocked me to the ground. I couldn’t believe it. A full-grown adult had sprinted across the lawn, hurled his body through the air, and pushed me, a seventy-pound first-grader, down the hillside.

“Why’d you knock me down?” I asked as I scrambled to my feet.

Once the mower came to a complete stop, Walter tipped the machine onto its side, pointed out the steel blade hidden within, and explained how I had come very close to getting a “really aggressive manicure.”

Not sharing in Walter’s humor, I fell to my knees and burst into tears.

“What were you thinking?” the retired navy man asked.

What was I thinking? I was a kid. My intentions were simply to be helpful.

Oddly, the part of this incident that I most vividly recall isn’t Walter’s acrobatic dive-although it was pretty memorable. The picture that’s still etched in my brain is the expression on the faces of the adults who remained frozen in terror as they watched me approach the deadly mower. They knew I was headed for a disaster, felt helpless to do anything to avert it, and stood frozen in place. Except for Walter, the newly crowned hero of 25th Street.

Now, you’d think this sort of incident would happen only once in a person’s lifetime, but it happens to me all the time—not with a spinning blade—but with something quite menacing in its own right. Allow me to illustrate.

I live in a town that houses more than 60,000 university, tech, and trade school students. Between their classes, workshops, and practicums, these budding artists, nurses, and big-rig mechanics sell me movie tickets, cook my fast food, and hand me my dry cleaning. And every time I run into one of these art-history ticket takers, or social-science burger chefs, I refuse to remain mum. I brazenly ask them what they’re currently studying to prepare for their real career. More specifically, I ask them if their training will lead to a viable job that will pay the bills.

It turns out that most of the young people I talk to know precious little about where their educational efforts will actually take them. And, why should they? They aren’t required to talk to individuals approaching graduation (who know the current job market). They don’t interview previous grads to see how satisfying the profession is. They may know little of their major’s average income, or their chances of ever finding a job in their discipline.

Granted, not every person in search of a career runs off half-cocked and clueless. And I’m certainly not arguing that if individuals don’t go to Yale Law or some other ivy-covered brick institution, they’re doomed. What I am suggesting is that whatever career path one takes, it’s best preceded by careful study. Never before in the history of education have there been more learning options, methods, and topics—and along with it, uncertainty. Consequently, if people don’t do their pre-work, one day they may end up facing the spinning blades of corporate reality.

Check the record. If you assume any member of the workforce you encounter doesn’t care for his or her current job, you’ll be correct over 70% of the time. The average employee’s pay is so anemic that it takes two or more jobs to keep most households afloat. In the end, your typical couple will set aside less than $5,000 by the time they retire, forcing many of them to live out their “golden years” in their children’s basement. It’s hard to imagine that this is the future most students have in mind when they start down their chosen career path.

Fortunately, there are people out there who play the role of Walter. Perhaps you’re one of them—a caring individual who explains how to find and interview people who have recently graduated and have a realistic view of the job market. You may even take out your smart phone and look up salaries by career specialty or explore (and then share), national job postings. This may sound rather aggressive, but it’s hard to remain quiet knowing that, more often than not, the only people talking to students about the viability of the field they’re studying are the instructors whose livelihood depends on students continuing to take their classes.

With my own offspring, I speak up. I talk to them about the people who hold the jobs they might be interested in and the paths those people followed to get there. I teach them that financial independence and job satisfaction bless those who follow a career path that leads to what I call the “golden trio.” More specifically, (1) the skills they learn are rare, (2) in high demand, and (3) enjoyable to perform.

Naturally, preparing yourself to land a job where your talent is unique, in demand, and gratifying isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. If you don’t carefully explore your career alternatives (and as a result, if you fail to uncover the dangers that lie ahead), one day you may find yourself being blind-sided by an airborne boatswain mate doing his best to save you from your good, but naïve, intentions. Nobody wants that.

Kerrying On

The Intuitive Social Scientist

June, 1954. It was a glorious Saturday afternoon—one of those rare spring days in Bellingham where the clouds pull back and provide a glimpse of Her Majesty in all Her splendor—the sun, that is. On this particular Saturday, the sun was effortlessly converting 800 million tons of hydrogen into 750 million tons of helium (every single second) and in so doing, sending radiant heat into our family’s 1939 Ford, where I was practicing my latest stunt. More specifically, I was standing on my head on the car’s backseat.

Mom was driving my brother Billy to a birthday party while I happily prepared for a career in the circus. In truth, I was riding in the wake of my brother’s excitement. The party we were headed to was being hosted by one of Billy’s friends, not mine, and he was going to the party, not me. Nonetheless, I was satisfied just to be cruising along Cornwall Avenue—proud, warm, and upside-down.

At age 13, my brother had found his own way to distract himself. He stuck his right arm out of the passenger-side window, fashioned his hand into a wing, and flew it through the Ford’s airstream. He did this while making loud engine noises, muttering rude comments about the pedestrians, and thinking he was cool. He was cool. How could he not be? He was wearing his brand-new Converse All Star tennis shoes. Those alone, would make him the hit of the birthday party.

Sadly, our cavorting came to a halt when Billy turned his airplane into a tomahawk, his engine sounds into a series of yelps, and his unspoken comments into a racial slur. Something about the looks of one of the kids walking down the sidewalk appeared wrong to my brother and he reflexively responded with a harsh comment about the inferiority of the boy’s heritage and appearance—in full voice, out the car window. Billy was trying out a racist comment he had heard at school a few days earlier. Not fully recognizing the odious nature of what he had said, Billy was attempting to make Mom and me laugh. It didn’t work. I didn’t understand the comment and Mom wasn’t the least bit humored.

With his unique combination of yelping and name calling, Billy set into motion an experience I’ll never forget. Hearing her son use a foul expression hit Mom like a ton of bricks—causing her to slam the brakes. Bill flew forward and bumped his head on the dashboard. I rocketed upside-down into the space behind the front seat, earning a crick in my neck.

“What did you just say?” Mom asked Billy.

“I said . . . ‘Ouch! You hurt my head!’”

Before I slammed on the breaks, what did you say?”

“High-dough-noo,” Bill whined.

“You do know. You just made fun of that boy back there—something about his Native American heritage and his clothing. Am I right?”

“Maybe,” Billy managed to say in a voice that was both defiant and fearful.

“I think it’s time for a field trip to visit a friend of mine,” Mom explained as she angled the car left and headed west. The party gift would have to be delivered another day. Today, Mom had bigger fish to fry.

As the Ford puttered west along the north shore of the bay, the scenery slowly changed. At first, I didn’t notice the houses deteriorate with each mile we passed. However, when the road eventually switched from blacktop to gravel, even at the age of eight, I knew that we were now on the “other side of the tracks”—the ones even further off the beaten path than my own neighborhood.

“Do you see that gray house up there to the right?” Mom asked. “What can you spot in the backyard?”

“There’s a dog,” I exclaimed.

“To the left of the dog.”

“It’s a water pump.” Billy answered.

And thus, began a discussion of the Lummi Island Indian Reservation and its dwellings. The house Mom singled out had a wood stove, not central heating. It drew water from a well, as evidenced by the hand pump. It had outdoor plumbing, enough said about that. The three of us discussed what it might to be like to live under such sparse circumstances. Until that moment, I had never thought about (or appreciated) central heating or running water—or what it might be like to live without them.

Next, we turned our attention to a group of men who were feverishly preparing for the salmon run. They were dressed in bland, functional clothing along with utilitarian shoes—nothing flashy, and certainly nothing sporting a star. Without notice, a woman I had never seen before appeared next to the car. Mom introduced her as Sadie, the lady who sold us salmon every fall. She was carrying handcraft material, mostly leather and beads.

“I’m making these for a ceremonial dance,” Sadie explained as she caught mom staring at her leather project. “Originally our ancestors wore them for hunting,” The intricate beading and detailed leather work reflected years of careful practice. From there, we walked to a community building where we spent time watching men working on their nets for the upcoming season. One fisherman showed me how to mend the net and then gave me a chance to do so. The twine dug deep into my fingers as I pulled the shuttle through its course.

“Try doing that for a couple of weeks,” he kidded.

Later that day, long after the birthday party had ended, Mom asked us what we had learned. Realizing that lecturing us about the evils of racism was likely to be ineffectual, Mom, the intuitive social scientist, chose a different influence tool. The moment bigotry raised its ugly head, she gave us an experience with people who were different from us. We got to experience a different culture first-hand and visit with her friend, Sadie, face-to-face. We got to see a different way of life, one that was in some ways much harder than ours and in some ways more rich and beautiful. Mom said nothing of Billy’s inappropriate behavior, instead we discussed how different traditions often lead to different interests and tastes. This, we learned, makes people who are different—interesting—not wrong. It also makes them fascinating, not inferior.

Finally, as Mom headed the Ford for home, Billy turned to me and asked: “Did you see the shoes that lady was making for her husband?”

“You mean the leather moccasins?” I asked.

“Yes,” Billy said, “The kid I shouted at was wearing them, and not Converse All Stars. That’s why I made fun of him.”

“But aren’t moccasins just as cool?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Billy answered. “I guess they are.”

“Is that right?” I asked Mom. “Are moccasins just as cool?”

“Yes,” she answered, “especially when you walk in them.”

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.