Best Experienced With: Lyle Lovett; Private Conversation
(Please right click on the link below to open the suggested background music to this evening’s celebration on my father’s seventy-third birthday in a new browser window. Thanks for joining. Yes, there will be cake later on. Yes, it is red velvet cake and yes, there is a tub of extra frosting….like there should always be at any birthday celebration)
My father turned seventy-three last week. In the 1950’s, his doctors told him he would be lucky to see forty. This is my father’s belated birthday card. I love you and, perhaps more important, I love who you led me to be as a man.
Right out of college you get the worst interview questions from the worst new managers. Mostly because you are right out of college and that’s all you really deserve. My interview questions these days are far more advanced than they were twenty years ago. These days, I lead with “Steven William Hawking states ‘my goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.’”. “Please analyse Mr. Hawking’s statement in relation to what you know about quantum physics, quarks, and Hostess snack cakes.” Then I generally just sit there, gnawing a pen for fifteen minutes repressing a smile.
This, in comparison to the first interview question I asked a surgical sales candidate years ago. I asked: “it says here you live in Indianapolis….do you like it there?” That was the strongest interview question in the tool kit back then. May have even followed it up with something like“I hear it’s pretty flat there around Indianapolis.” I was a brilliant and talented interviewer in those first few years and it is a wonder anyone chose to come work on my teams. Further proof that God takes care of fools and The Irish.
99.6% of the managers with whom I interviewed right out of college asked “Who are your heroes and why?” Because most of these new mangers seemed dim and unsure of themselves, was often tempted to answer; “Felix the Cat, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Idi Amin”; however I was desperate to actually land a career and amass the vast amount of wealth needed to buy Ireland back from those English bastards by 2043.
My real answer was always; “My father, because he is the strongest, smartest, and most determined man in the universe.” Am certain that others may have answered the same, but mine was the only correct answer because I am an only son and my three sisters have never interviewed for the same jobs as me.
At one end of the freedom and discipline spectrum are the black hooded, trust fund funded, cowardly anarchists. At the other end of the spectrum is my father. His powers of perception are remarkable, his heart would dwarf Jupiter (even at close range), and his withering “angry stare” would make Genghis Khan quake and timidly look down at his shoes. Kicking the dirt and nervously whistling.
Interviewing, especially the first round of interviews when you are under a time crunch, is like a Dante version of speed dating. Sometimes I will see eight or nine candidates in one day, three days in a row, to find three candidates to bring to round two. This is exactly like dating proportions, especially if your fickleness level is off the chart. Since we all make our decisions in the first three minutes of meeting anyone, often the last fifty-seven minutes are not going to change the interview outcome. When this happens, in dating and interviewing, I will often ask the following four questions because they are remarkably entertaining and massively time consuming.
- Please tell me everything that has happened in your life from second grade through this afternoon. Do not leave out any details. You have fifty-seven minutes. Please begin.
- Using this blank piece of paper and this purple crayon, please square Pi and show all your work. Please begin.
- Please explain the Marshall Plan in detail, including the goals, the execution of said goals, and the long term effect the Marshall Plan has had on the post war, civilized world. Please begin.
- Same as number three, but please say it and write it in Mandarin and Cantonese because we all need to know Chinese these days. Rotten, commie bastards. Please begin.
Last weekend, after I extolled the many virtues of choosing to not have a girlfriend for the last two years during a phone conversation, my father said the following without missing a beat. “I’ve been dating the same girl for forty-six years and I love it.” When my father and I speak, it is on speaker phone because he can no longer hold the phone. Mom was in the room. Mom giggled.
My father walked my older sister down the aisle at her wedding and he danced with my mother at the reception, standing on his own. 99% of the population can say the same thing and, normally, this not unique. Fifty-one years ago today, on summer break from Michigan State in 1959, my father was working at a meat packing plant in Muncie, Indiana. Towards the end of the day, he got his neck stuck in a freight elevator. As it closed. The elevator gates crushed his C3 and C4 vertebrae and severely bruised his spinal cord. Dad was paralyzed from the neck down for four full months.
His physicians in Indianapolis, Indiana told him he would never regain use of his arms and legs while he was on one of the first Stryker turning frames. Most of my business life has been spent tethered to Stryker Corporation. God is a funny entity. Stryker Corporation saved my father’s life four years before he met my mother, introduced me to many of my closest friends, and bought my house. God is a funny entity.
My father learned to walk again after seven months and spent the lion’s share of his adult life standing upright. My father is a big man: 6’4” and 280. The best descriptor of his gait from a disinterested third party would be “he shuffled” and that description would be spot on accurate. And, most important, my father never appeared self conscious about his walking ability. How can you be self conscious when a bunch of jackasses told you that you would never walk again, meet a wife, and have four children through Immaculate Conception? Because my mother and father never did that dirty sex stuff that your mother and father did.
Immaculate Conception all the way.
My father was unable to walk all three of my sisters down the aisle and today, much like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, he has reverted back to his physical condition from fall of 1959. Unlike Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, my father gets wiser and stronger each day. Physically, he is unable to lift ether arms past his shoulder and his hands quake when he eats. Mentally, he has never been sharper and he loves being alive to see his children and grandchildren each day. Although he hurts 24/7 and has lost most of the physical capabilities he fought so hard to regain decades ago, none of us close to him have ever heard a complaint.
Why? Because my father is as strong as a thousand armies and as soft as the petal on a long stem rose. You’d be hard pressed to meet another man like my father in this universe or any other universe.
My father taught me to maintain a laser focus on the critical things you want in this world. While interviewing to get into surgical sales, I worked at Bennigan’s restaurant and went 0 for 53 in my first 53 interviews for a surgical sales position back in “the day” Cannot pinpoint whether it was the “I work as a waiter at Bennigan’s” answer, the “yes, I am a twenty-five year old with less than thirteen minutes of surgical sales experience” answer or the “yes, I was terminated from Pfizer for calling Vietnamese hookers to the room next door to mine at the Pfizer corporate condos on night 28 of a 30 day Pfizer training program because God wanted me to drink beer and laugh like a hyena” answer. Any three of those on their own are solid enough to not get you a job; their combined answer power is enough to get you tossed out of an interview. Those were fun interviews.
My father hates liars, cheats and thieves. Therefore, I answered the three questions above truthfully 53 times and had a poor batting average until interview number 54. Which I nailed. Because Berchtold Corporation was roughly as choosey as Paris Hilton with Greek tycoon heirs or the Cleveland Browns with first round draft choices.
One of the magnificent things both my parents did for the four of us as we grew into taller versions of ourselves was to allow us to be exactly whom we chose to be. The best Kurt Vonnegut quote ever is; “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edges you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” My father, with certain stoicism, allowed me to make each poor choice I have made thus far, although it’s clear he saw the train wrecks coming. He understood my love of that Vonnegut quote and has always allowed me to live that quote, with minimum judgment. That behavior takes a great deal of courage and loving restraint.
I love my father for allowing me to bloody my knees, seemingly each week for the past three thousand weeks and for not judging too harshly while the scabs were healing. We learn best through pain and ought to hold mistakes as closely to our chests as we did mangled, old teddy bears when we were four years old.
Had I chosen to procreate, would have most likely bundled my children in three of four layers of bubble wrap and duct tape each time they left the house to play football or ride bikes. Soccer would not have been an option for my mythical children. They would have played football because you get to hit people. Soccer is more like a four hour game of tag with a net at each end in the odd event someone actually kicks the ball into it accidentally.
Have never had that sweaty palm, unsure feeling before any interview and very seldom am I nervous before important meetings. This is attributable to the evening I fell asleep at the wheel on the I-480, I 71 interchange driving home from a Michael Stanley Band concert in high school. Woke up lying down across the front seat when the rear window of dad’s station wagon imploded from the seventy mile per hour collision with the guard rail. Sat up while the car was about to drive off the cloverleaf and launch itself onto I-71 fifty feet below. Pulled the station wagon back onto the road, avoiding the gas tank explosion fireworks show and certain ruination of my pretty, baby blues.
Fortunately, my sister Melinda was leaving for her freshman year at Bowling Green four hours later and the station wagon was in the on deck circle for the trip. Me totaling the car on the way home from the Michael Stanley Band concert threw a bit of a wrench in Mel’s trip to Bowling Green. Sorry, Mel. I never, ever, ever took acid again. Pinky swear. And I still love me some Midwest Midnight. Because Midwest Midnight is the finest song in the Michael Stanley Band catalogue.
I once watched a man burn to death from twenty feet away after a car wreck on Interstate 75 in Ohio because I could not get to him as the gas tank exploded. Had nightmares about that for three years. I stood in my kitchen on Easter Sunday in 2006 and told my wife, quite truthfully, that while I loved her like I would never love anyone else; she had to be gone by the time I returned from a business trip to Zurich in fourteen days. Easter will never be the same because of that fourteen minute conversation. Both of these experiences paled in comparison to how it felt when my father looked up at me from the kitchen table at 4:30 a.m. that morning, after he looked out the window at the totaled station wagon
That 4:30 a.m. image is the one I have conjured up prior to interviews for the last few decades: it is a look not easily forgotten. Nothing in the business world or my personal life will ever be that challenging. My only regret in not procreating is that I was never able to replicate that evening with my son or daughter or show that much love and understanding. That is what you taught us, dad. Thank you.
Happy seventy-third birthday, Glove Man.
You are one in three billion.
From this day forward, I am the only one permitted to reply “My father, because he is the strongest, smartest, and most determined man in the universe.”. Qoud erat demonstrandum.
And the moral of this story
It’s easier said than done
Look at what you’ve been through
And see what you’ve become