Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Culture: Shirley Temple Black and a Life Lesson

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The death of Shirley Temple Black yesterday at the age of 85 reminded me that she played a role in teaching me a life lesson that not everyone has the opportunity to learn, but that everyone should.

As an undergraduate, I was assigned to a dormitory focused on International Relations for my senior year.  This assignment meant that I had the opportunity to attend various diplomatic events that occurred on campus if I managed to win a draw amongst my dormmates.  In the fall of 1996, I found out that I had been invited to a dinner on campus at which a variety of political dignitaries from around the world would be appearing.  I would be seated at a table with German politician Helmut Schmidt.

I knew a lot less about Germany then than I do today--at the time, I had never been to Europe--and while I knew a lot about Helmut Kohl, then the Chancellor, I had only a vague awareness of Schmidt's career and how he left parliament.  Being an active and friendly dorm, the group of us that would be dining with Schmidt, mostly actual International Relations (IR) majors, met and discussed what we might talk about.  While I figured the IR folks would drive the conversation, after that meeting I at least felt like I wouldn't interject anything embarrassing.

Sometime between that meeting and the day of the event, I had a conversation with a friend who lived elsewhere on campus.  She seemed rather amused by the care being taken to debrief people attending the dinner and my trepidations about the event.  "All these people are just human beings, you know," she said to me, "They really are no different than you or me.  You don't need to be in awe of them."

On the day of the event, we found out that Helmut Schmidt had changed his schedule and would no longer be attending the dinner.  Instead, we would be seated with retired diplomat Shirley Temple Black.  I knew even less about the one-time child star than I had known about Schmidt, and about all anyone knew was that she had been ambassador to Czechoslovakia as that nation had been breaking up earlier in the decade, leaving that post in 1992.  With a packed class schedule that day, I wasn't going to find out much more.  I figured I'd just keep quiet at the table and let others that knew more about central Europe talk.

The atmosphere itself in the dining hall lent itself to be intimidating.  When the dignitaries entered the room, it just happened that Indiana senator Richard Lugar, then about two decades in to what would prove to be thirty-six years in the Senate, was seated directly in my field of view at an adjacent table.  He definitely had a classic politician's larger-than-life presence, and it was a distraction to have this charismatic man I had previously only seen on television never far from my sight.

Meanwhile, what happened at my own table was completely different than I could have ever predicted.  Early in the dinner, someone else asked Temple Black what media she consumed.  One of the first things she mentioned was listening to talk radio on local station KGO, and she actually asked if anyone else listened to that station.  I was the only one at the table that did, and Temple Black and I soon entered into a discussion of our favorite talk show hosts and the validity of some of the political opinions expressed by then-overnight weekend host Bill Wattenburg, including such topics such as the methyl tert-butyl ether additive in gasoline.  With my chemistry background, I had more to say about that than any else at the table.  I forget which of us turned the conversation back to media in an attempt to draw more people back in to the conversation (likely Temple Black), but then it proved that I was the only regular reader of the Christian Science Monitor at the table and once more it was a one-on-one conversation.  I could see the IR majors just watching in wonder at how this guy they rarely talked to was connecting better with a real diplomat than they were managing to do.  The whole episode was surreal, and really only ended with the beginning of the keynote speech for the evening.

Normally, when telling this story, I emphasize that according to just about any Myers-Briggs personality source out there, Shirley Temple Black was classified as an "INFJ" personality--the same as me.  Since "INFJ"'s are supposedly rare, these sources pretty much always list the same celebrities, so Temple Black is invariably there.  This incident could be a classic example of "INFJ"'s bonding, which does seem to happen in life.  Undoubtedly, common personality traits did lead to common interests and lifestyle choices that created my near-personal conversation with Temple Black.

Yet, that's not really the life lesson that I took away from the dinner.  Instead, it was that my friend was right--famous and public figures are human beings, no less likely to be someone that one can have a meaningful conversation with than a random person on the street.  Since meeting Temple Black,  I have met all kinds of potentially-intimidating figures from world-renowned scientists to a key figure in the steam railroad preservation movement to a 21-year old CEO.  I was able to have a conversation with each of them.

Not everyone is so privileged in life as to have met Shirley Temple Black.  Everyone, however, should understand that even famous people are fundamentally human beings.  Thanks to my friend and Shirley Temple Black, I learned that lesson.

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