Do you have a Walter in your life?

Today begins a new series of blogs about the characters from the pages of my trilogy, The Shepherd Chronicles. As the Shepherd, David travels about and engages in several encounters with people who might best be described as lost. It is David’s job to help those people find their way back to their life’s path. Many of these characters know how badly lost they are, others are totally clueless, thinking it’s the rest of the world that is crazy. Walter is one of the latter.

            Walter is one of the few out-of-family characters whose name appears in all three books. In The Promise, we are introduced to the middle-aged perfectionist who is trying desperately to relive his life through the efforts of his son, Terry. Walter was, at best, an average athlete during his high school days and usually rode the bench during most games, scoring only one goal during three soccer seasons, no baskets during two basketball seasons and third doubles in tennis. His athletic abilities never carried him to even trying out for any teams in college.

            Terry, on the other hand, was a natural athlete who succeeded at any sport he tried. Throughout his childhood, Walter pushed and prodded Terry to achieve more and more. Daily practices, summer camps and every league available to kids kept Terry occupied every day of the week, all year round. Terry didn’t perform because of his love of sports, he did so to please his impossible to please father. Becoming a recruited college athlete was more Walter’s dream than Terry’s. He never wanted to disappoint Dad so he worked hard at becoming the athlete of his father’s desire. Winning every game he could win, every award that was available. You see, due to all the manupulation his life incurred, Terry learned to hate sports. His heart simply wasn’t in it. Where Terry truly excelled, the love of his heart, was music. His father called it a waste of time.

            Needless to say, Terry found a way to rebel off the field or the court. He and his father grew farther and farther apart. When Terry tried to win back his father, Walter had no time to listen as he was busy trying to secure a scholarship for his son at his alma mater. Walter had pushed his son to the edge of the cliff, toes dangling over the side, waiting for one more push or for his son to jump all on his own. Mr. Perfectionist was perfectly ruining his son’s life.

            What about you? Do you have a Walter in your life, trying to gain fame vicariously through the skills and efforts of others?

            In the story, David confronted Walter. He was rudely ignored. It wasn’t until David forced Walter to listen to his son’s heart, from his son’s own lips, that it finally sunk in. When faced with the choice of losing his son forever or letting his son live his own life by his own path, that headway was made. Of course, this one event did not totally alter Walter’s perfectionist ways as we come to discover in future chapters, but it did make Walter aware that you can’t lead someone else’s life for them. That each and every one of us is the caretakers of our own path.

            For the perfectionist in your life, don’t be afraid to confront, to share your own heart. The Walter’s of the world don’t get it. They think they are providing happiness, but it usually their own and no one else’s. To those of you with a Walter, lovingly open your heart and tell him the damage he is doing. To you Walters reading this, lighten up!

Let Praise Lead the Way!

Crossroads are not visible close up, not in the moment, or the hour, or the day. Deeply meaningful crossroads may truly be decades in your rear-view mirror before they come into focus. I want to share one of mine that is at least five of those decades in my past.

            I spent many of my summers at Camp Lakeland in Angola, NY. During my youth, I enjoyed sports, playing football, baseball, soccer and more. I was never the first player chosen when teams were picked and sometimes the last, but I still enjoyed participating. That all changed that next summer at camp.

            We were playing softball in an organized game between cabins. I came to bat in the first inning and as I stepped into the batter’s box, I heard the left fielder call out to his teammates. Now, I knew the left fielder from back home, his name was Jeff, but I had never been around him playing sports. He had an impression of me that I wasn’t aware of. He yelled out “Power hitter guys, back up”

            Power hitter? Who me? I was twelve years old and no one ever believed in me like that. I stepped back out of the box. This guy believes in me. Maybe I should believe in me too. I watched the first pitch go over my head. The second pitch was right down the middle and I swung and drove it into left field, over Jeff’s head and the ball rolled all the way to the tree line. Confidence in yourself, in your abilities is like a magic pill. I took that pill at the plate that day and became the hitter Jeff imagined. I hit eleven more home runs that summer.

            The last athletic event of the season was a camp Olympics. I came in second in the 100-yard dash, although I swear, I won. It was a photo finish with no camera. I won the 220 and the 440-yard run and was scheduled to be the anchor runner for the 440-relay, the last event of the day. At that point, my team was tied for first place.

            As the race progressed, my team was falling farther and farther behind the team that, if they won, would win the whole day. By the time I received the baton, I was at least thirty yards behind. I stumbled a bit at the beginning then started to gain speed. The runner ahead of me made a crucial mistake. Instead of running his race, he kept looking over his shoulder to see if I was gaining on him. I was. By the time we hit the last turn, I was right behind him. Once I passed him it was over. It wasn’t even close. The best part was the whole camp was watching this one event and the cheers I got were unlike anything I had ever experienced.

            When I went home after that session, I was truly a whole new person. I had a confidence in my athletic abilities that served to make me more competitive, more capable. I was never the last player chosen again.

            Whatever your role in life, in sports, at work or as a parent, let praise lead the way. Cheer on your teammates, let your coworkers or subordinates no how much you value their efforts and never, never stop telling your children how much you believe in them. Slip them the confidence pill. Be their Jeff.

Another Man’s Skin

Sara Kulwich/New York Times

If you read my last blog, you are aware I went to New York City to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway. It was an exciting moment. The production did not disappoint. That’s not to say that it followed the script and the characters step by step, but it did take a 1930’s era story and raise it up to the conscience of a 2019 audience. The play produced 57 years after the release of the award-winning movie, introduced a new character and a new dressing for an old argument.

First, the new character, Link Deas. He appeared in the novel but not the movie. He was Tom Robinson’s employer that explained how Tom lost the function of his arm. Link was identified as the town drunk who always went around with a bottle wrapped in a paper bag with two straws. He later crosses paths with Jem and Scout and offers up his enlightened opinion of the people of Maycomb and how he has managed to keep most of them away from him for many a year.

Second comes the argument. Atticus Finch, played masterfully by Jeff Daniels tries to teach his children, just as Gregory Peck did in the film, that you shouldn’t judge a man until you have walked around awhile in his skin. In the play, it causes Scout to ponder while bringing Jem to argue. He struggled to accept the notion that a man as mean and evil as Bob Ewell could have a redeeming nature. Jem said why would he want to walk around in the skin of a man that doesn’t spend much time there himself. Atticus points out the Mr. Ewell recently lost his job and that doing so has put the rest of his life as he knows it in jeopardy.

The new dressing was a statement Atticus makes during the argument. He says that when a man joins a group or a mob, he ceases to be himself, gaining his anonymity, no longer an individual and no longer responsible for the rantings of the mob. The opinions of the group are that of the group and not necessarily the opinion of each individual of the group. That statement stayed with me during the rest of the first act and well into the intermission.

I have purposely avoided political debate in my postings and blogs. I have not felt comfortable bringing those sides into my feelings about leading a better life and lifting up our fellow man. However, like Jem, I have a problem with this discussion. In the anger and the disunion shown in this world, I am not comfortable giving someone a pass for hanging with extremists and bowing out of the venom by saying it was the group’s opinion not mine. That simply doesn’t work.  If you run with a mob, chant their slogans, carry their torches, whether you agree with every plank of their platform, your support lifts up the anger of the group and paints all members of the mob with the same brush, no matter what you whisper in private.

Yes, I believe in lifting each other up, being positive support but not at the expense of my integrity. I will not allow myself to sink into a pit just to keep another man company. I would rather help him to find a way out of that pit. The racism portrayed in this 1930 story has not washed away in time. For me, after spending the last five days walking the streets of New York, streets that carry people of all color, people from every country of the world, streets where English is a minority language, I never felt out of place, never felt like my place in this country has been taken over by others nor did I feel that any one person I saw didn’t have every right to walk the same sidewalk that I did. That is America, just as it has always been, a collection of people with the same dream and the same right to live that dream, no matter what brought them here.

Be an Atticus!

On this Thursday evening, at 7pm, I will be sitting in row 12 of the orchestra section of the old Shubert Theater in New York City, waiting for the curtain to rise on the most recent production of To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Jeff Daniels. My love of this play is not a recent development in my life. I saw the 1962 film that won an Oscar for Gregory Peck more times than I could count. The same play was the final production ever at Studio Arena Theater and I was there with my kids. I had tickets for the production at Kavinoky Theater last year until it was cancelled in a legal battle. Needless to say, I am a lifelong fan of this production. The question is why.

I watched the movie again last month to help find the answer. The character of Atticus Finch turned out to be the reason. He is, at least for me, the most admired character books or movies has offered. He was a man of honor, integrity and decency. He was a humble man that didn’t brag about his abilities, his intelligence or his skills with a weapon. Most of all, he was a father dedicated to his two children. He listened intently to his children and answered honestly to any question they asked, never shirking in his responsibility to educate them. His commitment to defend Tom Robinson and defend his family as well showed his empathy as did his understanding for his beleaguered neighbor, Boo Radley. It showed Atticus to be a human being to be respected. For me though, it was his fatherhood that touched my heart.

I must have been around twelve years old when I saw the film the first time. If I had to describe my relationship with my father then, I would call it distant. He worked fourteen hours a day and nine hours on Saturday. His evenings were dedicated to his social world and his Sundays to his yard or visiting his family in Rochester. Way, way, way down the list was the emotional needs of his two sons. The only time he took a big interest was when he came home as the disciplinarian and got out the belt to whip us into acknowledging the errors of our ways. He had a hard time connecting to the needs of his adolescent boys or even when they become teenagers.

So, I deeply admired Atticus Finch as a man I wanted as a father, and I envied Scout and Jem for the father that always had their back and not just as a target for a whipping. Atticus would read to them each night and always listen to their questions. As a single father, he played the roles of both father and mother with ease.

Atticus was simply the man I tried to be when I became a father. I read to my children every night I was home and sang them a lullaby when the lights went out. I attended every event I could, from baseball and softball games to concerts and musicals. I answered their questions honestly even when it was painful and many times it was. I never rose to be an Atticus Finch copy but I can say I never stopped trying to reach that level.

Fathers, take note. The image you are to your children is real and long lasting. Children know best of all what they want and need in a parent. If they don’t find it at home, they will look elsewhere, sometimes with disastrous results. In all things, in every way, put family first. Be the role model for your children to follow, to emulate. Be an Atticus!

© Copyright 2017 Gary Friedman Books