Thursday, August 23, 2012

Two Degrees of Separation

     The six degrees of separation theory was proposed back in 1929 by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy. It's the network theory that in our ever-expanding population, our world is actually shrinking because everyone is just 6 introductions away from anyone else.

     Let's say you just met the person sitting next to you on the bus. If their spouse is in a book club with a woman whose cousin works for the guy who cuts Bill Clinton's hair, you are six degrees away from Bill Clinton.

     If I know you, and your brother was college roommates with a guy who grew up next door to a woman who sold a house to Brad Pitt, then I'm six degrees away from Brad Pitt.

     The actor Kevin Bacon got associated with this theory when he gave an interview back in 1994 about how he's worked with “absolutely everyone” in Hollywood. Branch out six steps from everyone in Hollywood and you see how the network can connect to you.

     I, on the other hand, have found myself in the Bizarro World of this theory. I don't need six degrees. I'm connected to some very interesting and some outrageously notorious characters by 2 degrees.

     As a television sportscaster in Jackson, Mississippi back in the 1980s, I covered the Jackson Mets, the double-A team for the New York Mets. There was an outfielder on the team, a top draft choice, bonus baby, and my go-to guy for interviews. He could speak and he looked damn good on camera. He eventually retired as a player and got into management. Big time. He became the general manager of the Oakland A's. He is Billy Beane. Billy Beane of Moneyball. Michael Lewis wrote the book Moneyball about how Billy changed baseball by fielding a winning team under tremendous financial constraints. The book became a best-seller and a movie, also titled Moneyball. Brad Pitt was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Billy Beane. Me, Billy, Brad. I'm two degrees of separation from Brad Pitt.

     And by the way, my best friend Sherri used to have several pet deer. One of those deer, Jane Doe, was in movie with Kevin Bacon. So I'm also two degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon if you're just counting people, not deer.

     I can go on and on, connecting to celebrities and public figures, but that's not the cool part of my two degrees. It's all too superficial just to connect. You need to connect with a story. A story that goes deep enough in the details so you won't forget and you'll have a really personal, unique connection.

     My first teaching job was at night school at Stratford High School in Stratford, Connecticut in 1993. I had the Language Arts class. That's English class for those of you Baby Boomers. They call it Language Arts now. The night class was chocked full of characters. There were lovely young women coming back to school after having babies as teenagers. There were a few high school drop outs who realized they had to go back if they were going to go forward in their lives. And then there were the criminals. The guys who had to face a judge and make a decision: jail or school? If they chose school, they wound up in Miss Kendall's Language Arts class.

     There were some lively class discussions, considering the cast of characters coming together. I taught them how to use the library and write a research paper. We discussed literature, both contemporary and the classics. And I probably learned as much, if not more than they did just due to the diversity of the group.
     But not one of those students with their crazy life stories, held a candle to Mary, the new night school guidance counselor. That was some job. Offering guidance to so many different people at so many different points in their lives. You've got to hope people like that actually have life experiences themselves. Mary did.

     She grew up in Buffalo, New York. She was in elementary school during the 1970s. In 1969, O.J. Simpson, star running back out of the University of Southern California, was the number one draft choice of the Buffalo Bills. He played for the Bills for 8 years.

     Mary's father was a hot shot business owner who was a frequent sponsor of the Bills and also took on the leadership of some local charity events. For his charities, he often asked for some of the Bills to make an appearance. Of course, the star running back was someone who could help raise money just by showing up. O.J. did his share of personal appearances, and to thank him for his time, Mary's father often invited him home for dinner. And he came. He sat at the table with Mary, her older brother, mom and dad. Mary was just a little girl, but she did remember O.J. as a very nice guy who paid a lot of attention to her and her brother. He was good with kids.

     When Mary and her brother were teenagers, they and their high school friends were lucky enough to get summer and weekend jobs from their father. His businesses included a company that cleaned up and prepared job sites. Energetic teenagers were just the thing needed for that kind of manual labor. Mary said it was fun to work with her brother and some of his friends. But there were other kids on the job too, even though they weren't friends of the family.

     The chores the teenagers had to do on the Buffalo job sites were messy and dirty and the best way of getting through the day was to have fun. Challenge each other, help each other, brag about how much money they were making compared to their friends who were serving up fries at McDonalds. It wasn't easy work, but the comradery helped. At lunchtime, Mary said all the kids would order pizza or sandwiches and sit together and talk and laugh until it was time to go back to work. All the kids except for Tim. Tim never talked to anyone. Tim would order lunch, but take it and go off by himself to eat it. He didn't help anyone. He didn't ask for help. He didn't act like a teenager. He acted like a zombie. He wasn't from Buffalo, he grew up about 20 miles away in a town called Pendleton. His full name was Timothy McVeigh. The same Timothy McVeigh, who, in 1995 detonated the bomb that blew up the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring over 800. It was the first act of terrorism on American soil.

     So to recap, as a small child my friend Mary had dinners at home with O.J. Simpson and as a teenager, had a summer job with her father's company in which she worked with Timothy McVeigh. So I'm 2 degrees of separation from O.J. Simpson and Timothy McVeigh. Pretty cool for someone who likes to read true crime books and has the DVDs of all the episodes of Criminal Minds. But there's more.

     Mary's older brother went to Ohio State and stayed in the Midwest for awhile to work after college. The first year he couldn't come home for Christmas because of work obligations, Mary felt bad for him. She was in college and asked her parents if she could spend Christmas with her brother, instead of coming home to Buffalo, so he wouldn't be alone. They said yes and off she went.

      Now her brother, feeling grown up and independent with his new job and all, decided to host a small New Year's Eve party at his new place. He invited several of his friends from work. He also invited the other people who lived in the surrounding apartments in his building, mostly so they wouldn't complain about any noise from the party. So there was Mary, at her brother's New Year's Eve party in his first-ever apartment and he introduces her to his friends and neighbors. One of those neighbors was Jeff. Mary said Jeff was nice enough, a little shy and he didn't really mix with the other happy folks at the party. But he stayed for awhile, had a few beers and then left alone to go back upstairs to his place.

     Midwest. Jeff. Worse than O.J. Simpson and Timothy McVeigh. Yes, Mary partied with Jeffrey Dahmer. The Jeffrey Dahmer of rape, murder, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism fame.

     So to recap again, Mary has dinners at home with O.J. Simpson, works a summer job with Timothy McVeigh, welcomes in the New Year at a party in her brother's apartment with Jeffrey Dahmer, and lives to tell about it. That 2 degrees of separation from those 3 men worked oh-so-well for me when I was single. I never paid for a drink at a bar when I told that story.

     Networking really does get you stuff for free. Everybody's got a story. Those stories may get you a few free drinks or a link to a new kidney. You just never know.