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6 Habits of Effective & Influential People | Lessons from a South African “Domestic”

A few months after we relocated to Johannesburg in January 2003, the buzzer at our front security gate sounded. I looked out to see an elderly South African man wearing blue coveralls (typical uniform of manual laborers). I walked out and we greeted. He worked as a gardener for neighbors a few houses down, and wondered if we, too, could use outside help. I quickly discovered he was speaking on behalf of a son, Eddie.

This gate-side conversation initiated a relationship with a Northern Sotho young man and his family, which spanned eight years, and would have continued until “death do us part,” if not for my family’s emergency need to relocate back to the United States. As it is, we speak by phone twice a year.

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This blog is too insufficient a tribute for this young man who gifted mine and my family’s life. A meaningful friendship was improbable, really, because Eddie spoke and understood little English and I/we knew no Pedi (Northern Sotho), his mother tongue. We communicated in either hand gestures, several word sentences, or when something was really important and required detailed instruction I would solicit translation help from a friend.

An example of a typical communication between us is detailed in my blog “Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the ‘F-word,'” part of which I repost below:

One morning I went outside to water the garden and could not find the water hose attachments. I asked Eddie if he knew where they were. His face told me “yes,” but the difficulty was telling me where and what happened to them.  Eddie spoke hesitantly, communicating a short, crystal clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is beyond repair. Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed made out of sisal, were the culprits responsible for destroying my hose attachments.

We laugh when we recall how Eddie informed us that his day’s work was done, and that he was leaving for home. Typically my wife might be busy in the kitchen cooking dinner, unaware Eddie was either in the doorway or right outside the kitchen window. He would startle her by loudly, almost shouting, “I GO!”

Unlike many, whose talk exceeds their walk, Eddie, in the absence of a command of English communicated by life example / demonstration. What follows are six habits, or disciplines of Eddie’s that daily communicated a highly effective, highly principled life, which I imagine Stephen Covey would agree with.

First, slightly different from Mayor Bloomberg’s Secrets of Success of “arrive early, stay late, eat lunch at your desk,” Eddie demonstrated a work ethic of “arrive on time, eat lightly – healthily – drinking only water (during work hours), work steadily and persistently, and leave on time so as to prioritize self-care and family care.”

I’ve known no harder work in my life than Eddie. Instead of motivating him to work, I had the opposite problem – getting him to take a break, or take an afternoon or day off.

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Second, break down or divide the oft-times near-overwhelming mass or totality of a large job or assignment into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Of the three locations we lived during these eight years, Eddie always established a routine for each task at each place for each week, resulting in a showcase yard and a pristine house.

Third, one’s perspective / attitude is everything!

Depending upon which study or news source you read, upwards of 71-percent of working Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs, and some of us are without jobs.

Despite officially being defined as a “domestic” – defined in South Africa as anyone working 24-hours or more per month for a household – Eddie demonstrated pleasure and pride in each day’s work, irrespective of how menial the task might be. He’s especially been my inspiration these days, since assuming my family’s many daily and so-called menial tasks of home management.

Fourth, be willing to assist the organization and/or your colleagues when necessary (without complaining or drawing attention to self) by doing or getting involved in tasks that technically either lie outside your own job description or that seem beneath your status or dignity to perform.

Initially I hired Eddie to work outside in the garden. Upon relocating to Pietermaritzburg from Johannesburg, our inside house-helper was unable to relocate with us. I felt it would be disrespectful to Eddie to ask him to assume inside duties, in case he viewed this as “woman’s work.” After moving, my family initially went about doing all household chores. No more than a few days passed before Eddie insisted on assuming both inside and outside responsibilities – insisted by simply doing, before we were able to; never a word being spoken.

He did what needed to be done. He did it without complaint. He worked as if striving for perfection.

Fifth, choose teachable moments to demonstrate or communicate desired change in leadership or organizational process, rather than reacting by engaging in embittered backbiting or lobbying.

I’m quite sure Eddie thought my family and I were wasteful, as in spending needless money on “extras” that we had no real need of. After all, you don’t develop a habit of counting pennies unless you need those pennies.

We had several hunter green, plastic patio chairs. Being plastic and relatively cheap it wasn’t uncommon for them to break. One day I tossed one chair in the trash because the arm of the chair broke in two, length-wise. I took little cognizance one day of what Eddie was painstakingly doing. Later that evening when my wife and I sat outside on our patio (verandah) for a cup of coffee together, as we routinely did, I noticed that Eddie had taken an ice pick, plus copper wire, and had effectively sewn the chair’s rip up. He first poked a series of stitch holes along each seam of the crack, then he took the wire and sewed the two pieces together. The finished result was not only a stronger-than-new chair, but also a lesson to me to be less wasteful and more resourceful.

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Sixth, never be too busy or self-absorbed that you are insensitive to the needs and struggles of others within your circle of concern.

Develop the discipline of sharing time and showing kindness (respect) to the least visible, lowest profile (status) people within an organization – even to their children, or especially to children.

Eddie and his family, will always be to my children and our family the 9th to 12th members of our now blended family, yet who just happen to live in South Africa. All the more so, since Eddie named his second child after me!

We feel such affection toward Eddie and his family because he/they invested time, effort, hospitality, laughter and meals with us, and especially with our children – this, despite having negligible disposable income, plus their total home space being no larger than most moderately affluent Americans’ master bedroom.

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“I’m White and He’s Black!”

Growing up in then recent post-colonial Kenya, I don’t recall when, if ever, race consciousness hit me. My earliest recollections are a blended hue of white, black and brown.

Kikuyu herdsmen, young boys actually, are among my earliest memories. They regularly traveled by our front gate as they tended cattle, sheep and goats. I loved their weathered 1.5 meter long herding sticks, and the ease with which they shrilly whistled at their livestock; similar to what I remember trail hand and cook Frank McGrath shouting and whistling out to his team of horses on the 1960’s TV show, Wagon Train.

I remember our maid occasionally taking me on a long, winding footpath to a local, all-Kikuyu village market where she bought a loaf of white bread. When we arrived home she would cut thick slices, slather on a thick coating of delicious Blue Band margarine, then make hot, sweet, white tea for dipping.

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If any negative remembrance of racial encounter during Kindergarten to 2nd grade, it would be a 1st grade bully, who not only convinced and panicked me that our family’s post office box had been left wide open (my khaki school short’s fly/zipper), but regularly threatened me into sharing my food. It would be untrue to call this incident racial just because I was bullied by a black boy. After all, only a few years later in the seventh grade, I was bullied by a white classmate when he sprayed cologne in my eyes following football practice.

For my eldest child and only son (who, incidentally, was born at Parkland Hospital, the same hospital where JFK was taken after being shot, and from where his death was announced), racial consciousness arose out of an apartheid versus colonial context.

At one year of age, my son, plus my wife and I boarded a KLM, Johannesburg bound flight in Amsterdam for what was then apartheid South Africa. It was 1989. We were headed for Thohoyandou (literally “head of elephant”), Venda, one of several so-called independent Bantu homelands within South Africa. In reality they were mere international, geopolitical window dressings, attempts by a white government to legitimate a “separate but equal” racial segregation policy.

What at first was a significant discomfiture – a white and young American family living in and amongst an all-black Venda neighborhood in apartheid South Africa – became a transformative experience for us. For many Venda people who frequented our home, it was their first experience of being in a white person’s home, much less being welcomed as guests.

Our willingness to disengage from our traditional and accustomed racial and economic community of belonging, and live within the constrictions of a people, who knew and experienced first-hand and often on a daily basis the effects of racial bigotry and discrimination spoke louder than any words possibly could.

When we relocated from Venda to another South African province three years later, our residential Block G neighbors hosted a farewell for us. A principal of a local high school was the master of ceremony. He surely said more than this, but all I remember these many years later is his expression of gratitude on behalf of those present, for our having come and lived with and among them – sharing life and a partial history of discrimination alongside them.

It wasn’t long after settling into our new, small, yet quaint home in Block G that our son found a friend to play with. Gabriel (*not his real name) lived two houses down (a mere 30 to 40 meters away), and a neat feature of his house was the courtyard and driveway “tarred” with wet cow manure, that when dry can be drawn on, sat on, played on, driven on, eaten on and which leaves little to no odor, nor attracts flies. Unlike carpet that frequently induces apoplexy in adults each time children eat or drink on it, a floor protected and sealed with cow manure is extremely absorbent, and stress free!

Anyway, back to our son and his Venda friend. They were best friends, riding their three-wheeled plastic motorcycles up and down the driveway together, watching TV together on our bed as they reclined against our pillows, and enjoying raiding the dry Epol dog food together – stuffing their pockets and mouths with it, as they hid their dastardly deed behind our corner wall.

D&Naki

During three years in Venda, and up until the age of four, Daniel never once seemed conscious of or mentioned racial, ethnic or cultural differences. When we returned to Texas for a few months at the end of 1992, however, and just prior to our relocating to Zululand, my wife remembers him noticing and commenting on a few African-Americans he saw on our way to or from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, “There’s some Zulus!”

Sometime after our return to South Africa in 1993, and during a brief visit back to Thohoyandou after a year-plus absence, I remember driving toward town with Daniel and his friend Gabriel, both of whom were now somewhat shy around each other. Out of nowhere my five-year-old son suddenly made the following observation, “Hey, I’m white and he’s black!” And fortunately that was that. No malice intended. Just a childish observation derived no doubt from some developmental context.

I’m not sure if this blog has any intended message or purpose, other than what you take from it.

It does have a context, I suppose. The 50th anniversary of MLK’s famous speech. As I listened to the 50th anniversary events and speeches this past Wednesday, a radio commentator, in referring to one African-American participant, who marched with MLK and who was still alive, described this gentleman with the words, “He experienced violence.”

EXPERIENCE . . . Seems this is the essential one-word white elephant among so many fellow and white Americans, who glibly and from a protective and sheltered confine of some type argue that we live in a post-racial society, and who become angry and condescending to the many who need and desire to confront and talk through persistent, de facto racism and racial bigotry that persists and continues to be experienced by so many today.

I am forever grateful that my family and I had the forced (we didn’t have a choice where we would live) opportunity to experience life with and from the perspective of a disenfranchised and discriminated against South African people.

It was the first of what would be many future steps out of the safe, yet sheltered identity cocoon of my American, Christian and Anglo-Saxon heritage, and into the storied lives of people who knew and had experienced little in the way of political or socioeconomic privilege and power.

For this inestimable gift of exposure and life experience we are forever grateful.

Maybe it’s time the socio-economically privileged – irrespective of race, culture or ethnicity – reconsider what has traditionally been referred to as “white flight,” or its more racially neutral and nuanced term “suburban sprawl,” and give some thought to participating in the potentially transformative experiences of living with and among transitional communities and neighborhoods, as detailed in the article, “Here Comes The Neighborhood.” At the least, let’s work on attitudes so that we’re communicating respect and dignity and not their opposites.

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A Tribute to Our Son “Matt Damon,” aka Jason Bourne

Many individuals not only aspire to act and become like so-and-so celebrities, but look like them, too. Recently in El Paso my girls and I watched a week’s worth of Family Feud, in which “celebrity” participants included Hillary Clinton, Bono, Martha Stewart, Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams, Will Ferrell, Joan Rivers, and Jennifer Aniston.

My son’s look-alike, doppelgänger, is Matt Damon. After seeing a few comparison photos you might disagree. Seeing (in person) is believing, however.

66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)Daniel5

Damon4

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With my eldest daughter

I can’t recall a single day in which I went out and about to town with him that at least one person – usually more – didn’t either comment directly on his resemblance to Damon, or who took an initial furtive glance, then a second, more studied look at him.

For instance, when the Bourne movies debuted several years back, movie cinema ticket sales persons at Bedfordview Mall, Johannesburg, South Africa, came out from their ticket cubicles, asking if they could have their picture taken with him. Last week we ate at a Kirby Lane Restaurant, and afterwards browsed through an adjacent Amish furniture store. The store manager approached my son, noted his resemblance, and remarked how he could be Damon’s brother or son.

A month ago my son accompanied me to Client Rights at Austin State Hospital. After introducing my son to my work colleagues, he then left in search of coffee and internet connection. Two colleagues immediately and independently turned excitedly toward me, remarking on his uncanny resemblance to Damon, with one jokingly asking, “Can I get his autograph?!” At his university alma mater, and currently at Dell Children’s Hospital’s ER his nickname is “Bourne” or simply “Jason.”

Arguably, my own doppelgänger might be Bruce Willis, even Corbin Bernsen — particularly if you’ve had a few drinks too many, or you’re a partygoer at a November post-election celebration in Colorado, where cannabis just become decriminalized.

My family and I admit that it’s kind of fun having a “celebrity” in our home. We catch and absorb secondary attention!

In all seriousness, however, despite my genuine respect and admiration for the real actor and person, Matt Damon, I’m grateful my son takes his “celebrity status” in stride. In fact, he appears a degree or two sheepish with his unsolicited fame.

As firstborn, our son has developed well despite all our rookie, even veteran parenting missteps. For instance, we used to be pretty hard-nosed when it came to putting our newborn early to bed in the evening. If he was fed, bathed, had a clean change of diaper/outfit, and no evident ailment, we would allow him to cry himself to sleep if he was not happy to lie in his cot alone, cooing contentedly.

At the time we were living with my 85-year-old grandfather, Daddy D, who had begun dating a MUCH younger woman (59 years) – see Grandparents | Person and Place Specialness. One evening Daddy D’s girlfriend was there for dinner and our son had been crying for an interminable period. She offered my wife her own experienced motherly counsel, “When my son was 2-weeks old, he cried and wouldn’t sleep. You know what I did? I cooked mashed potatoes, green beans and fried chicken. I fed that boy! And he slept!

I could and will eventually write a tribute for each of our five children, but it’s more opportune for my son, given his transitional period of life and vocational aspiration.

2012 - our family inc son-in-law

2012 – our family inc son-in-law

You see, despite him not having the life memoir and day-to-day hardships of, say, a Sudanese Boy Soldier, he’s proven his mettle through several life experiences. One being, that by 9-years of age he had undergone 13 ENT surgical procedures, ranging from adenoidectomy to tonsillectomy to mastoidectomy.

These experiences did not diminish his interest in medicine, nor his love for and ability with languages.  While his nearest-in-age sister might be more grammatically proficient, he is conversationally fluent in Spanish, and during his senior year of high school traveled alone to Berlin, Germany, where he took a 10-week German immersion language course. Unbelievably to me, by week eight, when we talked by phone, he engaged in German-only conversations with my wife.

Currently my son is seeking to gain admittance to medical school; a profession that well suits his character, temperament and life experience. It’s not been a quick or easy aspiration, yet he’s persevered day-by-day-by-month-by-year, developing his knowledge, skills and exposure to the world of medicine through medical internships and a challenging ER job at Dell Children’s Hospital.

I think it’s apropos that he’s working at a children’s hospital, particularly since he’s always had a sensitive and kind disposition toward children, especially many in South Africa.

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Especially apropos, though, is that he has been an older brother par excellence to his four younger sisters.

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“Mano,” as he’s affectionately referred to by them, has a number of endearing qualities, including: he’s long-suffering (allowing sisters to practice “hair” on him – see pic below), he’s funny (so says my youngest daughter), and he’s easy to talk to and adept at cheering you up (so says my 4th born).

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As parents, an attribute of his that we’ve come to appreciate and respect with each passing day is his willingness to risk vulnerability, to hear, listen and talk about and through ANY difficult subject matter.  It might be the risks of aspiring to own a motorcycle, or the personal discomfiture of dating, sex and marriage, or how much is too much drinking, or the struggle of finding one’s vocation and social place in the world, or whether religion and church attendance are of any value any more, et cetera.

And while I would be honored to have the real Matt Damon, aka Jason Bourne, as a friend, even relative, I’m glad Daniel is his own person and that he’s our son.

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Sweets By Any Other Name Would Be As Sweet

We have all experienced this.

You’re standing curbside at your high school or university alma mater’s homecoming parade. Marching bands and elaborately decorated floats crawl past.

Sweets/candy by the handful are tossed to excited and eager children bystanders. They run, dive and vie for the choicest of sweets – bite-size chocolate bars, Tootsie Rolls and Pops, Jolly Ranchers, and Sweet-Tarts. Pockets already overflowing with candy, and mouths full with giant Jaw Breaker gum, exultant hands and arms intermittently raise high and shouts express, “YES! I beat you to it! I’ve got more than you!”

Imagine now an entirely different setting, with children who have no experience with, let alone any notion of what a parade is.

They’re walking back at the height of a Tropic of Capricorn day. It’s hot. They’re weighted down by the heavy-in-proportion-to-their-body loads, tired, hungry and thirsty from having wandered far from their family in search of firewood and water.

Given the absence of any motorized warning, only the rubbing of foot and skin against coarse small pebbles and the golden dry grass of the Kalahari Desert, the Khoisan children round a misplaced hillock and come face-to-face with a white adult male – a geologist, perhaps? A government health worker on an inoculation tour? Maybe a missionary? Whichever or neither; it doesn’t really matter.

They stop almost by command and greet one another. The European is taken by the children’s kindness and respect shown to this white stranger, and before bidding them adieu reaches in and draws out the inner lining of his pant pocket, because prior to leaving home that morning he had placed in it a handful of sweets to suck on and keep his mouth moist during the long hours of trekking in the African sun. Immediately he’s embarrassed by his attempted act of kindness because he realizes that only one sweet remains in the pocket.

Too late, though. The children see the sweet. Putting it back without offering it would be even more rude. He extends his hand to the eldest of the five children. She shyly yet eagerly takes the lone sweet. He thinks to himself, “Now I’ve done it! What next? Fighting? Arguing?”

Neither and nothing of the kind! What she did will forever remain with him. She carefully unwrapped the sweet, placed it in her mouth, and sucked on it. After a brief moment, she took it out of her mouth and handed it to another child, who similarly sucked on it for a moment in time before passing it along to the next girl, and so forth and so on until the sweet was no more.

I read the above autobiographical narrative from a book when I was conducting research for my dissertation.

A decade and a half earlier . . .

I experienced a similar act of sharing from African children, but this time at the base of the Aberdare Mountains near the Equator.

The occasion was Interim, a weeklong cultural-study excursion my Kenya boarding school of Rift Valley Academy allowed junior and senior students to participate in once each year. There were a number of “interims” one could choose from, including piki safari (pikipiki = motorbike in Swahili), Malindi (Indian Ocean), Tsavo (game reserve), and mine – hiking in the Aberdares. I like camping and hiking, but in honesty, I chose this interim more to save my parents money than anything.

As you can imagine given the option of hiking and tent versus vehicle and safari lodge, we were a small group led by a “Mr. S,” a tall, wiry RVA staff member. The first night we were to stay in an old spartan brick building near the Aberdare Reserve main entrance. Two rugby friends and I, Francis A and Wilson M, went exploring soon after arrival. We came upon a nearby flowing stream, serene, with lush green grass; a perfect bivouac.

With everything so green (wet) the first task was getting a fire going, both to cook with and sit and sleep around. A few small children wandered down to water’s edge to fill their family’s water containers, before hauling them back up the winding footpath and over the steep ridge, all the while balancing them on top of their heads. Given our anomaly, they lingered with their daily task, during which they repetitively glanced our way, wandering I’m sure, at what brings one white and two Kenyan teenage boys to their neck of the woods.

As best I can recall the sequence of events . . .

Since it was almost dinner time, Wilson asked the boys if they would ask their mother if we could buy a head of cabbage from them.  We wanted to cook it alongside our ugali (a thick, almost bread/porridge staple made from cornmeal) and in place of Kenyans’ traditional ugali accompaniment, “sukuma wiki” (a collard green, which literally means “to push the week” – a reference for a cheaper food that supplements and makes more expensive food, like meat, last longer).

Ugali, Sukuma Wiki, plus meat.

Ugali, Sukuma Wiki, plus meat.

One boy set off back home and returned shortly informing us that their mother was not in a position to sell us a head of cabbage (no reason given, although it was likely due to their poverty and leanness of food supply).

Obviously this response did not set well with three boarding school young men, who lived on the edge of starvation, anyway, due to the “culinary reputation” of RVA’s kitchen at the time (I recall several of us once eating an entire bottle of French’s mustard in the dorm one evening, because we were so hungry!:). Nonetheless, we thanked the boys before they set off back home, and in an effort to be hospitable, shared a few sweets with them.

With about 30 minutes to spare before darkness set in, one of the boys returned with not one, but three heads of cabbage! We tried to pay his family for the gifts, but he had been instructed by his mother not to accept payment. We could only suppose it was a gift to thank us for sharing a few paltry sweets. We feasted that night, leaving 2 uneaten cabbages with park rangers, but not before we ourselves climbed the ridge, making slits in the stumps/stalks of several harvested cabbage plants, and inserting into each slit several shillings – more than enough to cover the cost at a local market.

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Grandparents | Person and Place Specialness

When it comes to a grandparent or great-grandparent, memories of person are inseparable from place.

My three younger daughters and I returned yesterday from a quick, 3-night trip to El Paso, where we visited “Bueli” (short for Abuelita), my wife’s mother. We never knew “Abuelo,” as he died of leukemia four years prior to my dating his only child (Whew! – not his death, obviously, but that I didn’t have to ask his permission).

A visit to Bueli generates a lot of excitement, which is a combination of cozy/fun memories, and of at least two forgettable ones: the drive distance required to reach her, and the cramped sleeping quarters for our family of 7 once we arrive (Bueli lives in a small, two-bedroom condominium near William Beaumont Medical Center).

Memories that rapid fire in the kids’ minds when they hear a trip to ELP is in the works, include:

-The “cozy smell” of Bueli’s house (as one daughter described it)

-Getting to finger-stick her for one of her many daily glucose testings

-Playing tea with the stainless steel tea set we gave Bueli on one of her trips to South Africa

-Evening roundtrip family walks to the Amphitheater in nearby McKelligon Canyon

-The stunning early morning and late evening beauty of the surrounding desert and Franklin Mountains

-ELP’s famous lit at night “mountain star”

-Eating Mexican food and drinking horchata at Tierra Del Sol Restaurant

-Pigging out at Cattleman’s Restaurant (as a younger man, I once ate a 32-ounce T-bone, which dangled off at both ends of the plate when the server brought it), and . . .

-A morning jaunt across Transmountain pass to shop, plus, of course, Starbucks’s coffee at Barnes & Noble adjacent to Sunland Park Mall.

Evening walk up McKelligon Canyon

Would you like tea?

Desert beauty

Recently I came across pictures (memories) of our first three years of marriage, which we spent living with my dad’s dad, “Daddy D” (DD), in Pleasant Grove, Dallas.  This came about during my first semester of Master’s studies because my grandmother (Mamaw) passed away.  Of Mamaw – she remembered her first encounter with an automobile.  One passed her family’s residence in Mississippi, whereupon she and her sister ran quickly out to the dirt road, placing their noses to the ground in an effort to catch whiff of the car’s rubber tires.

Since we were a financially strapped newlywed couple (like most) it was suggested that we live with DD and commute to school (50 miles). It would save us money, plus help stave off his certain-to-be loneliness. At the time he was 82. We were 22!

DD probably had a side to his character and person, which Ana and I might find unpleasant, but after three years living with him, we never discovered what it was.

For more than two decades DD worked at the Aggie Feed and Chick Store, still operational at 9105 C. F. Hawn Freeway, Dallas, Texas 75217.

Aggie Feed & Chick Store

From 4th to 6th grade I kept a garden and raised broiler and hen chickens, which upon slaughter or collection of eggs, I sold to my only paying customers – my parents! Specific to DD, the only time in any family member’s recollection that he ever wrote a personal letter to anyone was to me!

I was always dreaming and drawing up plans on how I was going to be a big-time, rich chicken farmer, and in order to succeed, I needed to know current prices for chicks, feed, and supplies.  DD was the person I wrote to with my many questions, and he responded: listing the prices for a variety of different breed chickens, plus how much feed I’d need for X-number of chickens, et cetera.

DD was a simple (do not read stupid) elderly man, who was ever-so-softly always whistling, and had a habit of slightly rocking one or both arms back and forth when experiencing pleasant discomfort (e.g., when he was being light heartedly teased).

Every single day, at day’s end, he would sit in his tan-colored recliner, and while watching the likes of The Dukes of Hazzard, T.J. Hooker, or Adam-12, peel an apple or an orange, which he, of course, then ate.  He didn’t just peel the fruit, though. He peeled them so as to have long, thin streamers of peel or skin.

DD’s house was simple too.  Nothing fancy, just a 3-bedroom non-brick house on a large, maybe one acre plot.  Most of the backyard was “under garden” or tillage. He also had a green house, which at the age of 92 he climbed up on top of to replace the roof!

We grew everything from red potatoes to asparagus.  My poor, poor young bride learned quickly how to can tomatoes and sweet corn! One pleasant and painful memory I have of harvest time, was pulling up potatoes.  It was fun and like drilling for oil or water because you never knew what size or how many “taters” you were going to get. One problem, though, were fire ants, which liked to make their home among the potatoes, and feed on your burrowing and exposed hands.

Washing red potatoes

Me digging up potatoes

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Daddy Dee

Post-workout

Post-workout

At the age of 83 DD decided it was time to take up golf and it was up to me to both coach and partner with him.  We would go out back together and hit plastic golf balls.  On at least two occasions we went to a nearby municipal golf course – memories for me of agonizingly slow-paced play and constantly spotting (because of his cataracts) and informing him where his golf ball went (usually a distance of no more than 50 to 75 yards, and always it seemed at a 90-degree angle to where he was walking:). Obviously his age and loss of agility prevented him from a full-rounded swing, so instead he would quickly hatchet the ball – taking both rigidly straight arms with club in hand backward about 4 feet, then swiftly pushing them forward, connecting with and shot-putting the ball forward.

We two hitting golf balls in backyard

Our years with DD were special for many reasons, not least of which is that our first-born was born. I remember when Ana informed me she was pregnant.  I was watching TV with DD.  She came in from work at Parkland Hospital and stood in front of me (obstructing view of TV). Smiling, she extended her arm, handing me “the clue”: a baby rattle. I was very slow to catch-on!

Our final months with DD were good, but sad. We were soon leaving to work in South Africa. Once again he was confronted with singleness. At some point in time after he knew we were leaving, he began dating a much younger woman (59) from a nearby Baptist church. DD was informed by his conservative pastor that he would not agree to DD continuing his long-held deaconship responsibilities, in that, his wife-to-be was a divorcee! This budding romance was alarming to DD’s children as well, because after all, surely this much younger woman couldn’t actually be in love with an 86-year-old, and must be out for his money (not that a feed store hourly wage employee would have generated much cash reserves).

So . . . guess who was called upon to “counsel” and hopefully show my granddad the error of his ways?!  You got it! I was too young at the time to refuse both pastor and family request. I remember the night I went in to DD’s bedroom, where he was seated in relative darkness in his dark green bedroom recliner. I don’t recall what I said or how I spoke, but I do remember what DD said and did. Tears rolled down his cheeks and he quietly stated, “Scott, I just don’t want to be lonely!”

Thankfully DD didn’t listen to his detractors and went ahead and married this much younger woman.  They remained married (happily, I think) for 12 years, until DD’s death at 98.

My wife and I will always remember the man and the house at 3322 Pleasant Drive, Dallas, Texas.

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The Devolution of Children’s Development | A Call for (healthy) Boredom

Women’s rights have rightfully progressed since the days and era when even cigarette brands, like Virginia Slims, based their marketing on a then male-dominant social context; popularizing the slogan, “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.”

VASlims

Regrettably, I don’t think we can unequivocally say the same about children’s developmental progress, particularly in terms of play and interpersonal.

Listen, I’m not suggesting kids are less intelligent today than previous periods. And, certainly, when looking back on history to periods in which “children were to be seen but not heard from,” they, like women, have attained many long-overdue rights and protections.

Rather, what I’m suggesting is this:

Today’s children (North American, at least) seldom experience what I call “healthy boredom”; a type and degree of inactivity that encourages and facilitates creative and imaginative play; voracious reading; friendships with heretofore unknown neighbors, and down time with siblings and parents that often evolves into reminiscing and unrestrained laughter.

Look, this isn’t a researched critique of 21st century life, such as, “technology’s effect on children” (although merely google that and you’ll find 1 million-plus links to expert perspectives on the subject, including “Antisocial Networking?,” “Wired Kids, Negligent Parents?,” or How Technology is Affecting the Way Children Think and Focus.“), but rather, a personal perspective based on a recent cursory trip down memory lane, and a “trip” through my iPhoto folder.

If you’ve read my “About” you know that I grew up in East Africa. That, plus my 40-ish age translates to a childhood void for the most part of typically American childhood experiences such as TV, Six Flags Over Texas and Wet-N-Wild type amusement parks, non-stop sporting events, plus, in the so-called Bible Belt, weekends and summers filled with church and mission activities/trips.

Most of my childhood consisted of post-colonial Kenya experiences. This included the typically European and tourist varieties, such as tented safari, but gratefully, a predominance of local activities with indigenous friends as well.

So, for instance, my recollections of childhood include:

*In Nyeri (near Mount Kenya), herding small herds (5 to 25 animals) of foraging cows, goats and sheep alongside Kikuyu boys. I remember being near-obsessed with the long sticks the herd boys used, and hoarding a stash of herding sticks. For this blog’s relevance: It was boredom that drove me out of my house and to our 1-acre property boundary, where I initiated contact and friendship with passerby herd boys.

*My four years in Kisumu, a town bordering Lake Victoria, were the most formative ones for me; especially in terms of how fun-filled a “boring” life could be.

I slingshotted and fished with nets for Tilapia alongside my Luo friends (see Fly Fishing for Sheep and Slingshotting for ‘Ndeges’). We frequently played “Cops and Robbers” with my assortment of toy cap guns. One group would hide and the other would count to 100. The “counters” then shouted in Luo “wathe?” (ready?), to which frequently came the reply “podi” (not yet!).

A favorite game my Luo friends taught me I’ll call “bottle cap car racing.” It cost and utilized nothing more than discarded bottle caps from glass soda/beer bottles. We each found and jealously guarded (sometimes trading) our own collection of Fanta Orange, Coke, Sprite and even Tusker beer bottle caps. We made them “road and race worthy” by eliminating any unsightly dents or bulges by gentle hammering, and then rubbing them vigorously against a coarse, sandpaper-like surface. This made them smooth, slippery, and crazy fast.

We created “race tracks” of curves, banks and bumps in our gravel driveway by means of placing two hands together – much as you might to create a silhouette butterfly impression on a white wall – placing them palm down on the gravel, and with bulldozer maneuver pushing them along and through the gravel, thereby forming a 6 to 8-inch wide bottle cap race track. The caps “raced” by flick of the fingers propulsion (middle finger flicking out and away from the thumb). Like any game, you incurred penalty. For example, if your bottle cap flew outside the race track, or you hit another racer.

Other remembered (and memorable) collective activities motivated by periods of “boredom” from this period of life include making wire rally cars, replete with battery-powered headlamps (flashlight bulbs), gear shifts, and rubberized steering wheels.

A wire car similar to those my friends and I made.  Borrowed from arteilimitada2011.blogspot.com

A wire car similar to those my friends and I made. Borrowed from arteilimitada2011.blogspot.com

Also, making a two-room, A-frame structure of sticks in my family’s backyard. Finding large stacks of field grass (aka, grass thatch), securing them tightly to our stick structure to prevent rain seepage, and then overnighted with my Luo friends in “our house.”

*During high school we lived in Musoma, Tanzania for one year. I have to admit, finding meaning in boredom in a small, out-of-the-way lakeside town was a real challenge. Nevertheless, a fond memory from this brief and boring residence was sitting outside on a quilt with my parents and younger brother (and 2 dogs), and looking up at the near pitch-black, yet star-studded night sky and searching for the many crisscrossing satellites.

My walk down “boring” memory lane road spontaneously occurred this past week, when I came across select pictures of my own children, likewise exhibiting “boring” life moments. So “boring” that there’s seldom a week that passes, in which one or all three of my younger kids say something like, “I miss (South) Africa! I wish we still lived there.” See the following photographic evidence of the deprived long-term effects of no TV, no iPad, no Nintendo, no non-stop activities et cetera –

Foot race in a dry riverbed, alongside elephant dung!

Foot race in a dry riverbed, alongside elephant dung!

Free falling off a large riverbed rock.

Free falling off a large riverbed rock.

My youngest playing "office" on a broken iMac consigned to the garage.

Playing “office” on a broken iMac consigned to the garage.

Did you ever imagine an office chair with wheels could be so fun?

Did you ever imagine an office chair with wheels could be so fun?

Imaginative creation of a zoo in the "desert"

Imaginative creation of a zoo in the “desert”

I wish for you and yours the pleasures and longterm benefits of “boredom”!

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Numbers | Our (misplaced) Measure of Success

Regrettably, quantifying has become the standard, all-in-all measurement for defining success and identity.  

Quantifying is a global practice, yes, but distinctly North American. Numbers are thought to convey everything important: the all in all of a business’s bottom line; an individual’s legacy or value to society; a sports team’s record; a university’s national ranking; and for some, even a measurement of sexual prowess. Frequently it’s cloaked in the language of “indicators,” such as “economic or performance indicators.”

For example:

Since I’m attempting to re-enter the workforce full-time, everything related to “finding employment” that I read in blogs, books, articles, or hear via webinars suggest that my chances are slim to none of finding prior comparable work if I can’t quantify my work and life experience in such a way as to inform a would-be-employer how I will either make them money or keep them from losing it.

My dilemma?

How do I quantify and communicate a career built to date on the qualitative – aka, interpersonal?

Since the majority of my work experience has been in Africa, it’s imperative that I convey my transferable skills and accomplishments for a North American context and audience.  But how?  

If I were my former Kenya-based colleague, I could display an impressive photographic portfolio of rural children’s community development centers, replete with annualized financial and enrollment figures.

But . . .

Because my skill set resides primarily in the qualitative realm of the interpersonal and intercultural, my challenge is to try and sell what my colleague once described as a “non-sexy” product. That is, he was implying that North Americans like to give and invest in projects and ventures that result in quantifiable and self-branding payback potential (e.g., “Look what we built!”).

Therefore, how do I quantify, for example, a life and work goal – one shared by US Peace Corps – of “helping to promote a better understanding of North Americans to the world,” and conversely “helping promote a better understanding of the world to North Americans?”

“Success” should not be excessively based on quantifiable activities and accomplishments as currently exists.

Equally important are the intangibles such as: lives mentored and supported, local profit and non-profit initiatives empowered, conflicts ameliorated, clients engaged and retained, partnerships mediated and MOAs facilitated, interdisciplinary-interdepartmental-intercultural relationships fostered, and good will, mutual understanding and respect engendered.

An essential problem with the prevailing measurement of success is that people and relationships can’t be quantified – at least easily.  They can’t be framed, stuffed and put into picture frames or hung on walls for donors, investors and the like to copyright or affix their brand logo.

A final example, yesterday my wife was one of 64 MSN graduates from The University of Texas’ School of Nursing. Also graduating were 7 PhD’s, and 76 BSN’s. One graduate from each degree program, plus two alumni, were recognized as “outstanding.” The 5 had the honor of sitting on stage among faculty.

graduation

“Outstanding” was (apparently) determined based on: 1) International service – mostly Africa. 2) Service that benefits the many under-served populations. 3) Prodigious research and publications. 4) Highest grade point average. And, specific to the alumnus: 4) Management oversight of millions, and in one alumnus’ case, billions of dollars.

I highlight my wife’s commencement’s traditional pomp and ceremony to make a point:

America’s over-zealous valuing of and reliance on quantifying – whether it’s in the area of work, resume/curriculum vitae, study, life, church, et cetera – is less reflective, to me, of how “outstanding” a candidate, corporation, body, team or country is or could possibly be.

Rather, it’s more reflective of how unskilled and uncomfortable we have become with the interpersonal.

It’s my opinion, that frequently to most often times, “outstanding” people, projects or achievements attain this fleeting accolade at the expense of others and relationships, whether it be work/study colleagues, spouse, children.  

It’s as if we have learned to deflect our many painful and failed relationships by throwing up smoke screens of numbers. Instead, we pour our energy, time and focus into activities and achievements, all of which are more easily controlled, manipulated, rewarded and promoted or publicized.

Impartially speaking, of course:), I believe my wife attained “outstanding” status, in that, she completed a difficult 3-year graduate studies program; she did so during midlife and after birthing and raising 5 children – plus, as of yesterday, 05/18/2013, she succeeded in staying married to the same, sometimes cantankerous man for 28 years!

But then . . . who will ever know about many of her “outstanding” candidate qualities because they are not quantifiable according to standard curriculum vitae or certificate of merit protocol!

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