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Traditions

The other day I mentioned to someone that I had recently started a tradition.  The look on their face conveyed a bit of skepticism, so I felt compelled to validate my history of success as a “tradition-builder”.

To be honest, my success was not immediate.  In fact, looking back I realize now that taking out the garbage every Tuesday was more of a chore than a tradition.  For a time, I promoted my trash-handling responsibilities as a “weekly tradition” in a vain attempt to create excitement, gain loyal followers and guarantee a succession plan among my siblings, but eventually, I was forced to recognize that I had overestimated the actual status of the task.

Habits can also disguise themselves as traditions, but typically only for a short period of time.  In college, I told everyone I had a “tradition” of picking up hitchhikers.  I bragged about how I stopped for anyone carrying a backpack and resembling Charles Manson during the pre-Helter Skelter period.  My “tradition” quickly became my “foolish old college habit” right after picking up one of the Manson clan who decided to help himself to the egg salad sandwich my mom had packed for my lunch.  It’s funny how quickly you can stop a “tradition” when you’re hungry.

I thought about telling the skeptic that starting a tradition happens “organically.” I had heard other people use the word “organically” when they describe how something happened, and it sounded like a good word to use in my effort to gain credibility.  Unfortunately, the word “organically” reminds me of my parent’s compost pile where we used to dig for fishing worms.  The memory of digging in compost causes me to have an involuntary convulsion that would compromise my credibility, so I skipped that approach.  Instead, I told the Doubting Thomas that traditions are often borne from activities that aren’t premeditated.  Basically, traditions happen by mistake.

My most recent tradition started approximately four years ago.  Each summer the YMCA of Greater Williamson County serves thousands of children a day in the various camp sites across our service area.  As the boss, I feel a professional responsibility to check up on these sites periodically throughout the summer.  My modus operando M.O. during these summer camp survey visits is to compare quality to expectations, gauge the general atmosphere and make mental notes of anything that “just doesn’t smell right to me.”  An example of the latter would be finding a half-eaten tuna sandwich in a summer camp first aid kit.  When this happens, I make a mental note of the tuna sandwich and then “pass it on” to an inline manager, who then assures me the camp staff “genuinely appreciate my mental note and are whole-heartedly committed to ridding the first aid world of tuna.”

I actually like making mental notes.  I categorize them, disregard the ones that seem frivolous, and stamp “utmost importance” on those that, in my mind, need immediate attention.  Making the mental note is not where I struggle. It’s the “passing on” of the mental note that gives me pause.

There is something awkward about being labeled as someone who “passes on” things to other adults.  I have an uncle who is always trying to “pass something on” to me and frankly, it’s off-putting.  Just last month he tried to “pass on” a slightly used pair of Velcro running shoes and a monogrammed handkerchief that he found in the bottom of his sock drawer.  No one likes that. But I digress.

To avoid awkwardness during my day camp survey visits, I decided to occupy my time handing out popsicles to day campers. I thought it might minimize my contact with adults, yet give me the opportunity to make mental notes that could be “passed on” later. Kids love popsicles.  When a kid who has been exposed to 6 hours of intense Texas heat gets his hands on a popsicle, you can count on a great deal of noise.  Often the noise is typically accompanied by a series of body moves that make me doubt Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Upon receiving a double-stick banana popsicle, I witnessed one kid’s left hip shoot out at a 90-degree angle while simultaneously moonwalking and chanting something in a foreign language about popsicles being “really good for him.”  The whole gyrating/chanting thing lasted 45 minutes – it was spectacular.  I found his bilingual ability to be extremely significant since he is a fifth generation Texan, and as I understand it, he has never been out of Williamson County.

And that’s how the tradition started.  Each year, for the last four years, I have delivered popsicles.  If I run into an adult, I tell them to “check their first aid kit for tuna”. Then I make a mental note to avoid anyone over four feet tall.

As far as traditions go, handing out popsicles is a pretty good one.  I know this because a lot of people (employees) ask me when I’m coming back.  This question was never asked prior to the introduction of popsicles.

Another indication of this tradition’s success is the advice I am getting from others on ways to possibly “improve my tradition.”  It kind of reminds me of that one holiday guest who eagerly drinks 14 glasses of your secret eggnog recipe, all the while suggesting possible improvements under the guise of “food for thought.”  To combat this, I have established certain parameters that are basically non-negotiable in an effort to protect the integrity of the “popsicle handing out process” and discourage any “food for thought”.  I call these parameters “Rules of Popsicle Distribution”.  I used the “Rules of Fight Club” model as my template because I once binge-watched Fight Club for 79 hours straight.

First rule of popsicle distribution: Once a popsicle is licked, it cannot be returned for another color.

Second Rule of popsicle distribution: Never, under any circumstance, give a blue popsicle to a kid who is standing on one foot screaming “I’m first cause I just ate dirt.”

Third Rule of popsicle distribution: No seconds to any kid who foolishly bites the middle of his/her sicle and loses the bottom half in the mulch bed.

Fourth Rule of popsicle distribution: Stabbing another child with a brown popsicle because it turns out to be root beer and not chocolate voids any future opportunity for brown popsicles.

So as you can see, popsicle distribution absolutely qualifies as a successful tradition.  It is neither a chore nor a habit.  It creates excitement, gains loyal followers and will most likely not have a problem with succession planning. That’s just my impression – you can consider it “food for thought.”

Jeff Andresen

Jeff Andresen is the President / CEO of the YMCA of Greater Williamson County. He is the former Senior Vice President of Operations & Special Projects at the Valley of the Sun YMCA in Arizona.