Mike

By Carl Radford, RPT


My friend Mike is one of the most positive people I know. He’s funny. He likes to laugh and have a good time. It’s infectious and you can’t help but be in a good mood when you’re around him. He is a manager at a well known downtown Chicago restaurant and his servers, busboys and cooks always gravitate towards him. He jumps up every day on the countertop and does “The Funky Chicken Dance” with the servers. They have fun with him, but you can tell the he is also very well respected.

Mike wears bright, outrageously wild clothes. You can’t miss him in a crowd. He might wear a shirt with a brightly colored cartoon print, for example, and a beanie with the propeller on top. And he never has anything negative to say. Never.

I asked him once what he does when one of his employees does or says something negative. “Well, they know they better not do anything like that around me, or they won’t be here very long.” That’s Mike. Overwhelmingly positive, and not about to hang around, even for a second, with anyone who isn’t.

But Mike wasn’t always that way. In fact, when I first met him, we were both in our late 20’s, I had just moved to Chicago, and Mike was probably one of the most negative people I had ever met. At that time he always wore black from head to toe: black shoes, black socks, black pants, black shirt, and even his hair was black. Everything that came out of his mouth was negative and plaintive like Eore the donkey.

“How are you today?” I would ask. 

“Terrrrrrrrrible.” he would groan and tell me in great detail why.

Nevertheless we were neighbors at the time, so we wound up spending a lot of time together until I moved away. After that, we kept in touch, but I really didn’t see him much.

There was a time in my life, many years later, when I had just broken up after a long-term relationship and was living on my alone for the first time ever. Turning 40 (gasp) was around the corner and I was feeling pretty low. I tried to keep a good front for my customers, but they could probably tell I wasn’t a happy camper. It was a difficult time, but I was determined to get through it and hopefully learn something from it. So, I set out to study everything I could about achieving a positive attitude. I read books and listened to every audiobook the library had on the subject in the car while going from appointment to appointment.

In the midst of all that I started thinking about Mike, even though I hadn’t seen him in years. I was curious as to how someone so negative turned out to be someone so positive. What did he do? Who did he learn from? Was it from a book? Did he take some kind of seminar that changed his life? I had to know.

So that’s why I was impelled to call Mike on the phone one day. I needed to find out what his secret was.

“So, Mike… I’m going through kind of a rough patch right now and I’m trying to learn everything I can about getting a more positive attitude, and I remember that you used to be pretty negative years ago, and now you’re just the opposite. In fact, you’re one of the most positive people I know. So, I’m wondering… I’m just curious… What did you do? I mean did you read a particular book or something?"

There was a long silence until Mike finally spoke. “You’re kidding, right?” He asked.

“Um, no.” I replied. “I really want to know."

There was another momentary silence; followed by the last thing I would have ever expected him to say.

“It was you, Carl..."

I was stunned. “Me? What do you mean, me? What are you talking about? What did I do?"

“Well, do you remember that shirt you gave me for my birthday?” He asked. “It was a bright blue, button-down shirt with a big, bold, six inch thick, horizontal, white stripe across the middle."

At first I didn’t remember it at all, but after he started describing the shirt I vaguely started to recall that I got it from The Gap, because I liked it and I thought he’d look good in it. It was something I might have worn and I was tired of seeing Mike wearing black all the time, so I bought the brightly colored shirt and gave it to him for his birthday.

“Yeah, I kind of remember…"

“I hated that shirt.” He said.

"Oh."

“Yeah I thought it was just awful. So, I put it away for a long time. Then one day I decided to wear it, and EVERYONE commented on it. So, I wore it some more and I began to notice that people treated me differently when I wore it. So, I started wearing more brightly colored clothes."

“And that’s what did it?” I asked.

"Well, that and you hitting me.” He said.

“Hitting you?? What are you talking about?"

Again, I had completely forgotten about this until he began to describe it, then slowly, after we hung up, it all came flooding back to me. It had so little significance to me in my life that I totally forgot all about it, but it was so significant for him that it had changed his life.

Back when we were neighbors, I used to come over to his apartment for a meal or just to visit. After a while I got pretty fed up with his drone of negative comments all the time, so I decided that the next time I came over I was going to put some aversion therapy to work. I had learned in Psych 101 in college that during aversion therapy a patient is given a shock of some kind every time he thinks an undesirable thought or a thought that he wants to eliminate. In the simpler forms of aversion therapy just snapping a rubber band around your wrist will do the trick to remind you to think a different thought or to extinguish a bad habit. In this case, I needed a little more than a rubber band, but a little less than an electric shock.

“Ok,” I said as I plunked myself down at the table next to him. “Here’s the deal. Every time you say something negative, I get to punch you in the arm."

He looked at me. “That doesn’t sound like a good deal to me at all."

And with that I walloped him right in the meaty part of the upper arm. I was stronger than him, so I wasn’t too concerned about retribution.

“OWW! What was THAT for?” He yelled.

“You said something negative.” I said calmly.

He looked at me and knew immediately that I was serious.

“Oh, I don’t know if I like this…” He said. To which I walloped him again in the same place. He winced. “Ok! Ok!” He said, rubbing his arm. “I’m positive! I’m positive!"

After that it didn’t take much. Just a few taps here and there over the ensuing days and weeks, but nothing so severe as the first few blows. He got the picture pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to tolerate any negativity. One day after he said something negative I had to chase him around the couch, both of us laughing, until I pinned him down and tapped him on the shoulder. I wasn’t going to let him get away with it. Another day he said something negative, and he realized it even before I did, got a panicked look, and took off running before I had a chance to hit him. At one point I recall him saying something negative to someone else while I was standing across the room. He either forgot or figured I was too far away or that he could get away with it with someone else around. I balled up my fist and waved it at him in a mock threatening manner. He knew I’d do it even with someone else there, so he immediately put up his hands as if to say ‘Ok, Ok…’ grinned and quickly changed his tune. It was all in fun and there was never any malice to it. Eventually, it petered out as he stopped saying negative things, and I eventually moved away and I forgot all about it.

After the phone conversation with Mike several things immediately struck me. For one thing, the irony of the situation, of course, was striking. I had called him to find out how he became a more positive person, so it could help me to become a more positive person, and the one who helped him become more positive was none other than me. I really didn’t need to look on the outside for answers. It was inside me all the time.

I also realized that you never know the profound effect you can have on other people without even being aware of it. Something that may seem small and insignificant to you can change someone else’s life.

And then there’s Karma. I’m a big believer in Karma. Ye reap what ye sow. If you put good intensions (or bad intensions) out into the universe they will eventually come back to you. Of course the interesting part about that is that it never comes back the way you expect it to; in other words you can’t control it. And it rarely comes back on your timetable. In this case it took some fifteen years! Sometimes you aren’t even aware that it came back to you. And if you try to do good things with the underlying motivation of trying to get good things to come back to you for yourself, well that’s bad karma. Doing good things and being positive is its own reward.

A positive intention put out there into the universe isn’t just an isolated thing. Sometimes it goes unnoticed by people, but the universe always notices. And it can expand into two other positive intentions and each of those expand into two more, and on and on exponentially.

After that phone call with Mike I started wearing brighter colors. I decided I like yellow a lot and bought a yellow winter ski jacket. When it was time for a new car I struggled over the decision to get a bright yellow one or not. I decided to get it, and it turned out to be the most fun car I ever had. It’s been three years since I had to sell that car and my customers still ask me about it. One day I was getting into to my yellow car in my yellow jacket and this African American dude was rolling by in his car with his arm hanging out of the window. He looked me up and down and said, “It’s yellooow man…"

I started having more fun with my customers and enjoying them more too. I began to see their pianos as more than just pianos. The pianos were part of them.

Since, as a part of our job, we have to identify and repair the problems in a piano, it’s easy to find fault with our customer’s pianos. I often hear from my customers about other tuners who have done nothing but complain about their piano. The hammers are worn, the sound is bad, it’s just a crummy spinet, it needs this that and the other thing...

It’s a lot tougher to recognize the pride and joy that the customer has in their instrument and reflect it back to them. This isn’t just a piano; it’s something that taught their children to love music, it’s a cherished part of the family history, it’s a best friend that they have shared their deepest thoughts and emotions with. If you look at it that way, the repairs, fine tuning and voicing we do are always sending out millions of positive intensions into the universe every day. What could be better?

I think one of the main reasons I enjoy the time I’ve spent in the Piano Technicians Guild over the years, is because I’m always inspired by many of the people in our local chapter, and those I meet at national conventions, who already enthusiastically embody many of these principles, probably often without even being aware of it. They are always sending out good intensions about doing good work, always improving our skills, being ethical, having fun, and enjoying what we do.

Keeping positive and creating a world around you that embodies these principles is a never-ending process and always requires practice and persistence, and it’s always inspiring to be around others who feel the same way.

And if I haven’t punched you in the shoulder recently, you’re one of ‘em