Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: October, 2014

Why did the Turtle Cross the Road and other Existential Matters?

It’s Columbus Day. The time when all of us come together, with apologies to Thomas L. Friedman, and rejoice in the fact the world is not flat.  If that reference seems out of place Google it. And while I’m chasing rabbits when did “google” become a verb?  Now I feel the need to apologize to Dr. Susan Hagan, my college writing instructor.  Guess I wasn’t that great a student, Dr. Hagan.  Sorry.

Anyhoo, on this Columbus Day I found myself driving to work. Yes, even though it’s a National Holiday and I’m a banker, I did go to work.  On the drive the traffic ahead slowed to a crawl (wait for it!) and I wondered if there had been an accident.  A middle aged woman stood in the median several cars ahead of me.  Perhaps she had car trouble.  I eased into to the next lane and as I passed I saw her holding something about the size of a dinner plate.  Then I realized the plate had legs and a head poking outside its shell.  She held a large turtle (Get it?  Crawl?  Turtle?  There it is.) that had obviously been trying to cross the road.   It was probably headed to a Columbus Day Sale at the nearby mall.

The turtle gently peddled its legs, crawling in mid-air the way a dog does when you hold it over the water. As I passed, I watched in my rear view mirror and saw her transport the little guy into safe patch far into the grass away from traffic.  If turtles could sigh or say thank you I’m sure he would have done so as he found “shell-ter” (Couldn’t resist.) from the traffic.  A younger Jim might have been irritated about how this woman had chosen to act out this drama.  After all, people have places to be.  We have to get to the mall for the sales.  But I found myself strangely grateful for the woman’s kindness.

Now I’m not a PETA guy. I eat meat.  Chicken.  Pork.  Beef.  I’ve even had Snapper Soup.  (It’s not fish, guys.)  Heck, I even hunt from time to time.  But in a busy world this woman obviously saw the safety of this one little turtle as a priority.  Even though, as far as I know, this world has an adequate supply of turtles.  At least here in Alabama we do.  I’m certain of that.  But imagine how the turtle might have felt, if in fact turtles have feelings.  (I’m guessing Donatello, Rafael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo do.  Again, Google it.)  My suspicion is he would have felt gratitude and relief.  And I suspect the woman felt all the better for having saved him.  Good Karma!

So what’s the existential value of saving one single turtle? Not much maybe in the scheme of things, but to that single turtle it would have meant a lot. The woman wasn’t too busy.  She didn’t mind risking looking foolish in the face of other traveler’s impatience.  She got her hands dirty, probably, in her small act of heroism.  Somehow there seems to be a lesson in what I witnessed.  Slow down.  Be mindful.  Just because something isn’t important to me doesn’t mean it isn’t important.  Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.  Be kind to turtles and other slow moving creatures.

No. I’m not a tree hugger.  But trees are important.  Trees being both a metaphor here as well as, well, trees.  The next time I see a turtle crossing the road, I hope I will remember the little drama I witnessed today.  (Again, it’s a metaphor!)  And if you see my brake lights maybe you will get to witness one just like I did today.


Nicknames: Southern Style

I’m sure every culture has its own way of identifying people with terms of affection. But I’m convinced it’s an art form here in the Deep South. Parents may have the privilege of naming their children, often with honorable family names, but the name given them by their friends and sometimes family seem to have far great value in identifying someone. Plus they are far more fun.

My cousin Mike, who is 6’5”, was a bit of a basketball “phenom” back in the early seventies in Walker County Alabama. He played around the time Hall of Fame star of the Milwaukee Bucks Oscar Robertson was in his prime. Oscar was known as the “Big O.” And Mike, with the last name Owens, found his first nickname, I believe, as an homage to Oscar, as well as for Mike’s own talents. As I’m told, there was an instance in which Mike left his name as “Big O” while waiting for a pizza at Pasquale’s Pizza, an Alabama institution at the time. Regrettably, when the hostess called Mike to pick up his order she called for “Big Zero” and his nickname was changed forever to those who knew him and loved him the most. At some point, he became “Zero,” but it was always with love and affection.

The best nickname I’ve ever heard identified a guy in college by his choice of foods. He loved sandwiches, as I recall, and never at much else. As fate would have it he soon became, “Lunchmeat” to his friends and fraternity brothers. I can’t even recall his first name but I can see him as clear today as I did then. And I will never forget seeing his purple and gold fraternity intramural football shirt with “Lunchmeat” across the back shoulders. One wonders if his wife and family still call him that. I think he became a doctor. But I prefer to believe he’s somewhere operating a deli in New York City or owns a number of Subway Franchises.

Lots of nicknames arise out of a shortening of names given names. My best friends in college all had them. There was “Kitch,” “KT” and a few that don’t warrant discussion in public. “Kitch” is a well-respected attorney now. “KT” is the pastor of a large church in Birmingham. A couple of guys who played football together in high school and then intramurals in college were known as “Beef” and “Meat.” One was a running back and the other a full back and tackling them was like trying to grab a manhole cover. Now those are great nicknames.

My own experience with nicknames has been mixed. As a kid much of my family called me “Jimmy Joe” which is far preferable to “Jim Bob” of Walton fame. Many of them call me “Jimmy Joe” to this day and I have no idea why or how this began. I became “Bama” in Jr. High School, initially a term of derision amongst by adolescent boys who singled out a new kid wearing a shirt emblazoned with BAMA during my first week in a new school. Over time it became a term of simple identification and even made its way into the local papers when, on rare occasion, my performance on the basketball court warranted a mention. Oddly, my daughter was called by the same name, Bama, by her friends when she moved to Tennessee several years ago.

Over the years I’ve given several nicknames to friends and family….even to business associates. One work associate became “Boot” when his car was booted for wrongly parking in the space of the CEO of a large regional bank for which we both worked. Today, one of my teammates is known to me as “Mater,” not because of the movie, “Cars,” but because he brings me fresh tomatoes from his garden from time to time. I work with a guy I call “the professor” simply because he’s smarter than the rest of us. And then there’s a young guy named “Ranger Rick,” not because he’s a ranger or his name is Rick. But somehow it seemed to fit and I’d rather call him that than Tracey. At this point in my life I know a “Tater,” a “Moondog” (my son!) and a “Mullet” (My daughter. I know. It started when she was young and would never get out of the pool). It later became “Baby Girl” which seemed to be more appropriate amongst her teenage friends. I even know a “Fish.” He got his nickname for some fairly bad handicapping and poker abilities. I think the Marine Corps fixed that. Mostly.

Today, my kids call me “BigDaddy” as did many of my associates at a bank in Atlanta. I even have a Lucite paperweight emblazoned with the name inside the Superman logo. That one came from ordering a 7-piece chicken-finger plate at a local place in Huntsville, Alabama. I’m a growing boy and the “BigDaddy Plate” was the biggest thing on the menu. I think it took most of a twenty-dollar bill with the drink and fries. But whatever your nickname may be here in the South, it’s generally meant as a term of affection. That is, unless somebody says something like, “Oh, BigDaddy, bless his heart,” which we all know is anything but a blessing.

Before I sign out, let me also give a shout out to my old friends, “Toodlum,” “Tatty,” “T”, and “Monk.” You know who you are. For those friends with less dignified nicknames, and you know who you are, please send me cash. Your secrets are safe with me. Bless your hearts.

The Day I Met Billy

The day I met Billy was one of “those” days. None of my superpowers seemed to be working. No precognition. No x-ray vision. I did leap a curb in single bound, but it was in my car. I had failed to “win” a negotiation. I was late for everything. Apparently word got out within the domestic bird population because, from an altitude of about 40 feet, I was targeted by a passing sparrow. It wasn’t a direct hit but did require a little bit of effort from a Tide Pen. As I walked into Fresh Market that afternoon, looking to buy groceries to cook dinner, it occurred to me should just pick up something from the deli rather than burning chicken or food poisoning. But I’m a positive guy so I wandered into the produce section pretending to know how to pick out fresh fruits and vegetables.

I noticed a gray-headed black man approaching me reluctantly. He had a quiet dignity despite well-worn clothes and a navy blue cap that said “Vietnam Veteran.” I anticipated the normal experience I have as a 6’6” man as he said “ ‘Scuse me, sir. I don’t mean to bother you.” I just knew he was about to ask “How tall are you?” or “Can you reach something for me on that high shelf.” But those questions never came.

“Sir, don’t take this the wrong way….and you see I was looking for some Black folks to ask for help, but there’s none in here.”

I asked him what I could do for him, smiling into his gentle eyes, and seeing the gray stubble of a one day old beard.

Billy went on to say he’d had some bad luck and needed some gas money for his car. He was going on to the hospital to see a sick friend. Now I have to admit, for a moment, I wondered about his story. But my father taught me my job isn’t to figure out if someone is telling the truth, it’s to decide if I need the money more than the guy asking does. I didn’t. So I asked him if he would let me get my shopping done and wait for me I would get a bit of cash back at the register.

Billy was very gracious.

“Thank you so much sir. I’m so grateful. I’m a Christian. Tell me how to find you and I will give it back to you.”

“No worries about that Billy. Just meet me outside.”

Billy wouldn’t let it go. He wanted a card and to know my name, asked me what kind of work I do. When I told him I’m a banker he said he would open an account with me for my kindness. Besides, his bank “has me all messed up anyway.” I gave him a card and he headed outside.

When I met him on the curb he popped up and took the $20 dollars. I expected him to bolt, but not Billy. He gratitude was genuine and he needed to express it again. He told me that day was the anniversary of his daughter’s death 12 years ago and how he had lost his best friend not long ago.

“I miss him lots. He was a good man. He was a white man and we kidded each other ‘bout whipping each other’s butt. He died so fast. My momma loved him.” Somehow I knew Billy was trying to express how people of different colors aren’t so different.

“We are all the same color on the inside Billy,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

We talked a bit more about his experience in Vietnam. I thanked him for his graciousness and for his service to our country.

“Served my country then. Not sure I’d go back today how we treat veterans and all.”

With that Billy said thank you again. He headed towards a gas station across the road on crooked legs but with a vigorous gait. As he left he looked over his shoulder and told me “I could by your bearing you was a good man. You go home and tell your wife you a good man.”

I don’t know about the good man reference, but as I headed to my car I realized my superpowers had been restored by this unexpected new friend. Life has its moments. But the people you meet can make all the difference if you will let them.

Now…where’s that cape and those tights?