“I’ve asked the Chili Boys here tonight to help me tell this story. It’s someone else’s story to be sure but in the telling we’ve now become part of it. We’re now part of the fabric of the thing so it’s only right that they be here and play for you their part of this memory. This is a memory, after all. It all happened. Though because it’s memory, it probably isn’t factual. So, if I contradict myself, if you catch me saying the opposite of what I just swore was true, if you find me standing smack in the middle of a paradox, it’s not that I’m lying to you. It’s a memory. Something that happened, something that was told to me over and over again in the dark of night after a glass of wine or two, something that was told to me because, at the time, there was no one else to tell, something that was told to me because the memory of it was about to get lost in the way that all memories are finally lost. And that’s why we’re here. Play us in Boys.”
With that introduction, David Robinson, began his world premier of The Lost Boy. David has shared parts of this story with me for years. I was finally seeing the play. Yet, I immediately got lost in the phrase “though because it’s memory, it probably isn’t factual.” This simple statement puts into perspective my challenge with sharing my stories. It’s my memory. Probably not factual.
What follows is from my memory. These things happened. But it’s my memory, so the facts are probably mixed up.
While David and I worked on FlippedStartup and Flip! comics, we came up with too many ideas for the time and resources that we had. As a first time grandparent, I started deeply thinking about my legacy for the first time. I came up with the idea for “Email Alice” an app that would let me send emails, photos, videos, documents and other artifacts to our granddaughter. As young Alice grew up, she could interact with the application to ask questions to her granddad and it would answer in relevant stories.
As I shared this idea with David, he immediately connected to his experiences with Tom McKenzie and the many stories he shared with Tom about the Lost Boy. I’d listen to David’s thoughts and how they connected to Email Alice, but I didn’t get it. I’m not much of a history buff, so telling me a story about life on a California Ranch 100 years ago paled in comparison to all the cool digital technology I could bring to bear for Email Alice. There was no way it was the same.
Soon David and I parted ways as he moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to be with his fiance Kerri Sherwood. We wished each other well and hoped that we would stay in touch. David was a gift for me in helping provide guidance and feedback on my book Emails to a Young Entrepreneur. Then, Tom McKenzie grew sicker and an urgency overcame David to finalize the script and production of the Lost Boy.
I still didn’t get it. I didn’t see the connections. I didn’t understand why David was so driven to do this play.
As time passed and as richer technology capabilities became available and as I met the great folks at the TAI Group, I saw a larger picture for what Email Alice could become. The TAI Group is in the business of coaching seniors executives on leadership and authentic communication at corporations like Boston Consulting Group, Elsevier, NetApp, Cognizant, Google, and Cengage. As part of learning to more authentically communicate, I experienced more powerful ways of generating a legacy system.
Email Alice morphed into a larger vision that I call Living Legacy.
I supported David with a small contribution to his Kickstarter projects to get the play produced. Through the good will, services and donation of space at the University of the Pacific, David had the resources to produce his play. I followed his regular updates for his kickstarter project. Both the Stockton Record (“Honoring an Old Friend“) and the Lodi News (“Two-person show about family and legacy to premiere in Stockton“) wrote “memories” (in David’s sense of the word) about the Lost Boy.
At the last minute I paid attention to the date of the production – February 13 and 14. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to be in San Francisco that weekend to babysit for my youngest granddaughter, Hazel. Finding out that Stockton was only a 90 minute drive away, I called the phone number from the theater to see if there were any tickets left. I thought I was calling the theater. Instead, Kerri answered the phone. I let her know that I could make it to the play and that our mutual friend Barney Barnett would be able to attend as well. We decided to keep it a secret from David so that we could surprise him at the play.
Demarcus, Tom, and David
I met Barney outside of the DeMarcus Brown theater (named for a mutual friend of David and Tom). We walked into the “black box” theater. We took our seats on the back row of the risers and were quickly caught up in the Americana music of Mom’s Chili Boys.
Mom’s Chili Boys
As the theater went dark, I wondered where David and Kerri would enter the stage. I looked to my left and saw them standing just inside the closed door to the theater. Kerri and I made eye contact then she nudged David and pointed to Barney and me. It was a very special treat to see David’s look of surprise and then appreciation as he saw that both Barney and I had made the trek to Stockton for his world premiere.
As the first act quickly unfolded, I was seeing many of my thoughts about Living Legacy take shape and be transformed before my eyes. As part of my work with the TAI Group, I’ve been getting an immersive graduate education in the theater and live arts. What wasn’t a very engaging story for me when David would share a summary or share some of his interviews with Tom, became alive, living and very deep as he and Kerri acted out the story.
A long ago colleague asked me once if I knew the mark of a good Jew. He shared that it isn’t enough if a Jew keeps the faith, or if his children keep the faith. The mark of a good Jew is whether his children’s children keep the faith. Think of all the things that must happen for a faith to be passed through even three generations. In front of me, I was experiencing a story of a family’s legacy being passed through many generations. But with Tom’s passing, would the legacy of the Lost Boy be passed along?
In the narrator role, David shared that Tom had asked for his help in taking his first person one actor play that was meant for Tom to perform and shape the beginning and the end. Tom couldn’t figure out how to do the beginning and the end. Where do the individual stories of our life begin and end? Our physical life is bookended by birth and death. When we go to tell a piece of our life story where do we begin?
In that moment, I realized the fundamental challenge of a Living Legacy app – how do you select a snippet of a life? When somebody asks a question, where do you start the story? Where do you end the story?
As Gregory Bateson described in Mind and Nature:
“There is a story which I have used before and shall use again: A man wanted to know about mind, not in nature, but in his private large computer. He asked it (no doubt in his best Fortran), “Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?” The machine then set to work to analyze its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed its answer on a piece of paper, as such machines do. The man ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words:
“THAT REMINDS ME OF A STORY”
“A story is a little knot or complex of that species of connectedness which we call relevance. In the 1960s, students were fighting for ‘relevance,’ and I would assume that any A is relevant to any B if both A and B are parts or components of the same ‘story’. Again we face connectedness at more than one level: First, connection between A and B by virtue of their being components in the same story. And then, connectedness between people in that all think in terms of stories. (For surely the computer was right. This is indeed how people think.)”
With a mixture of narration, acting out the characters of the women and men in Tom’s life, bouncing across centuries and the ever present undercurrent of banjo, mandolin, and guitars from Mom’s Chili Boys, the first act flew by. I don’t know if it was because of the great script, the acting, the music, or the questions and insights that were triggered in my mind. However, I will give all credit to the magic of David Robinson as playwright, actor, director, and producer. I was in awe of what he produced in front of my eyes and even more so of the concepts that were forming and reforming in my mind about what it means to leave a legacy.
Late in the first act David shared:
“And maybe, this whole trunk scheme was an effort to contain it – if you can’t make sense of it at least contain it. Tom told me that people need to contain their life, to know what they are doing – put some parameters around it and make it make sense – it is an undercurrent in everyone’s life at some point, for some people at many points and some people all the time trying to figure out who they are and where they’re going.
“So, telling this story to you, the story of a box, what if I was to say to you, “I’m going to give you a box of such and such a size and its all that is going to be allowed to present any evidence that you were on this earth – a primitive footprint – all you get is a cardboard box that comes from FedEx – what are you going to put in it? What are you going to put in it for sure? A driver’s license? A birth certificate – that’s proof that you were here. A passport? But how about, what would you put in that was all about you, that makes you different from all of the others – that’s not just an official record but caught the essence of who you were. What would you put in it? What would you put in?
“What would you put in your box? Here’s a better question: What would your mother put in your box? Would you be tempted to scrub your life of its messiness? Would she? Would you eliminate the mundane? The everyday? What would you put in your box? Think about it. What do you keep now – all around you – that somehow tells others who you are? What collections anchor you in time?”
Barney and I wandered outside during intermission and listened to the conversations of the audience. In Barney’s inimitable way he reached out to a gentleman standing near us and asked if he knew Tom. The man replied that he had not known Tom, but that he was good friends with Mom’s Chili Boys and had attended Lincoln High School. He shared “most of the people in the audience attended Lincoln High.”
After the play, David was in awe of all the people that came up to him both nights who brought artifacts (photos, toys, letters) from family scrap books of the times of the Lost Boy. David was overwhelmed by the many ways that the play was touching the people and communities surrounding Stockton.
The second act began with the loud clang of a cow bell. David narrated:
“There is a cow-bell that still hangs in the rafters of the ranch house – above Isabelle’s bedroom. In her last year, when she was quite old, years after Johnny died, 30 years before Tom was born, she fell and broke a hip. She was bed-ridden for the rest of her life. This farm woman – unable to get out of bed. The family needed to find a way for her to communicate when she needed something – especially when they were out in the field or in the barn; this was decades before cell phones or walkie-talkies.”
As the second act progressed, it became clear that this was the story of two Lost Boys, one was Isabelle’s 10 year old child and one was her infant brother who died as they were about to start a wagon train trip West. The concept of Living Legacy twisted again before my eyes.
I now was in the land of patterns, patterns that repeat. I admit that I don’t remember several minutes of the play at this point as I tried to connect Living Legacy to where to begin and where to end a story and wondering whether patterns that repeat is an important part of the transition from a story to a narrative arc.
Kerri’s multiple personas of Bunty and Isabelle brought me back from my reverie. She is such an accomplished performer as a musician and singer. As I listen to my iPod music on my long walks, I eagerly await another of Kerri’s vocals to boost my energy. “As Sure as the Sun” is a particular favorite. I confess I spent the whole play waiting for Kerri to burst into song with the backup of Mom’s Chili Boys. I was blown away after the play when Kerri shared that this was the first time she’d ever done professional acting and “had to follow” someone else’s words. Kerri, you are a master already of the acting craft.
All too soon the play ended with David’s final narration:
“Here’s a bit of indulgence on my part because, like Tom, I wonder where this story ends. In my notes early on, after he asked me to help him, I wrote that, “Tom is now, like Bunty, standing on the roof of the ranch house. It is a very windy day, the kind of day that fences blow down and windmills tip.” I imagined him standing on the roof. He had a cowbell and he was ringing it and ringing it and ringing it. He rang it because he needed them to come. He needed to know what he should do. Should he light a fire? Should he let the winds blow their good story away? Or should he find some other way to anchor them in time? They came. Bess and Bunty came running, and Pa Tom, too. Isabelle came. And Johnny, too. Thomas Lewins and Elizabeth. They brought Seth, and Sam, and a great River. And then, Bess and Bunty, Pa Tom, Isabelle, Johnny, Thomas and Elizabeth, took his hand and helped him join the story.
“This is a memory, after all. It all happened. It is something and was told to me over and over again in the dark of night after a glass of wine or two, something that was told to me because, at the time, Tom believed there was no one else to tell, something that was told to me because the memory of it was about to get lost in the way that all memories are finally lost. And, I guess, that’s why we’re here. Play us out Boys.”
Mom’s Chili Boys invited the audience to come down and join in the continuing conversation. After a few minutes, David and Kerri came out and we shared great hugs. It had been a year since I’d seen David and Kerri and it was as if time stood still. Barney made a nice presentation to David and the cast members of some Benziger Tribute wine sharing the story of how Mike Benziger creates this wine every year as a tribute to Bruno, his Marine gunnery sergeant father. We planted the seeds for enjoying the wine at the Lost Boy cast party first sown by Brian Doyle’s insightful quote from The Grail: A Year Ambling and Shambling through an Oregon Vineyard in pursuit of the best pinot noir wine in the Whole Wide World:
“On my way back uphill to my car I remember what Jesse told me once, that each vine produces enough grapes to make about three-fourths of a bottle of wine, and I chew on the idea that three-fourths of a bottle of excellent wine is probably just the right amount necessary for two or three people to start telling stories fast and furious,so that each of the vines I pass is pregnant with stories, some of which were never born into the world before, and this idea makes me happy also, so by the time I get to the town where I am supposed to give a talk I am cheerful as a chipmunk.“
David and Kerri graciously invited us to join the cast party. However, I had a late night drive back to Menlo Park, CA to rejoin my wife for four days of our own legacy of getting to know our toddler 18 month old granddaughter.
Our next generation Hazel
For me, a really good play not only entertains, it provides insights into my own life and work. David and Kerri along with Mom’s Chili Boys provided the impetus to explore even further what a Living Legacy can become.