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Jim Schepker

Are Credit Cards Dealing You a Bad Hand?

I instantly loved it.

And hated it.

Yes, it was a good headline, cutting to the quick with a clever construct.

And that skill, that knack with words, I had determined too late in my career, had been a lifelong betrayal.

We writers are introspective types. We need isolation to think. Research. Scribble.

And scribbling was what I was doing on that dark and stormy night. The earlier sharp snap of lightning bolts on that thundering July night had jolted a transformer somewhere nearby, blanketing my neighborhood in total blackness and quiet, save for the droning throttle of someone’s propane-fired generator several houses down the street.

So, with the loss of both power and the local Wi-Fi, I pulled out a legal pad and began my work, another of my generation’s skills that had been lost on these newer generations – the ability to compose sans keyboard.

I knew that I had to complete the financial advice column’s first draft that night. Ghostwritten for a certified financial planner, on the topic of credit card indebtedness, the deadline was now just 4 days away.

I also knew that I would complete the first draft of the 600-word piece in that sitting, in about an hour, that it would be very good, and that it would fly through reviews by the staff subordinates charged with overseeing the work.

Yes, once again, another expository success … facts marshalled, actionable advice dispensed, appropriate empathy shown to those pathetic profligates who perennially outspent their budgets, all succinctly and convincingly conveyed.

And, once again, a betrayal.

The corporate world, where I had labored for many years, pretends to appreciate writers. It privately, quietly praises and thanks them. And that effusion can be seductive.

But that corporate world does not promote them.

That’s because ghostwriters must be kept in the shadows, in silence, in secret.

And so, writers end up supporting people who cannot write.

This means, if you believe that good writing is the expression of clear thinking, that those people you’re writing for are also not good at thinking.

But they can talk. Posture. Prosper. And then get promoted.

Years of this behind-the-scenes service creates what I had begun to call the PTCD syndromepost-traumatic corporate disorder.

If this sounds paranoid, it is. And well-earned.

But now, thanks to the flexible schedule of my new freelance life, I was beginning to assess and appreciate the extent of the damage done – and to plan my sweet revenge: I would turn the traitorous tools of my betrayal into something finally useful to me.

The opportunity emerged when I read that an executive whom I had previously worked with was about to receive an honorary doctorate degree from a local university – following his company’s substantial donation to a large life sciences building project.

I knew that this honor would likely include an offer to provide podium remarks.

I chuckled at this, recalling the time that I had written remarks for him once. In those comments I had used the “canary in a coal mine” metaphor.

That speech was intended for an audience of accountants, for their association’s annual meeting. My boss was the president of that regional association. I was his keynote ghost.

As I recall, I had written that independent accountants were the “…canaries in the coal mines of America’s local economies.”

A nice image. Good alliteration. And a moving appeal to the pride of the audience.

Those number crunchers, I knew, would all be memorizing that line for their future uses back home at their staff and advisory board meetings.

Following his initial review of the first draft, my boss loved the speech, but had one question – that “canaries in the coal mines” metaphor. Why, he had asked, were we talking about “canneries in coal mines”?

I thought that maybe my draft had included an autocorrected spelling error – but no, it had not.

When I explained that the metaphor was a reference to “canaries” and not “canneries,” my answer drew a blank stare.

I then explained the expression: Canaries. Coal mines. Poisonous gas. Self-sacrifice by the canaries for the good of the coal miner team….

The blank stare continued.

So I rewrote the challenged description, saying, instead, that accountants were society’s frontline swat teams, knowing that the bravado of this image would appeal to him.

He later went on to provide my remarks at that conference “…to great applause, accolades and congratulations, and even free drinks at the reception afterwards…” he told me.

And now, knowing that he would likely be called upon once more to provide a speech, I contacted his secretary, who still knew me well, offering to provide my copywriting services on a freelance basis.

I got a call back ten minutes later: “Mr. Clark is thrilled. How soon can you meet with him?”

We met two days later.

“Sammy, good to see ya…. How are ya doin’?” he bellowed as I entered his cherry-paneled office, extending his sallow, soft hand across his desk for a handshake.

“I’m great, Jack. And good to see you, too.”

“The family’s good I hope,” he said. “And you’re doin’ OK?”

“It’s all good, Jack. We’re all doing well.”

And with that, he settled behind his desk, folded his hands, and stared at the ceiling.

Was he recalling the ugliness of my firing, at this very same desk, eighteen months earlier? A “strategic realignment,” he had called it then. A very unfortunate, but absolutely necessary, decision, he had said. The “…numbers are what the numbers are...” Someone from security would be at my office when I got back to help me pack and to collect my ID badge, cell phone and computer passwords.

Or was he just wondering why I was there, staring at him, notepad poised, opposite his desk…

“So, what have you got for me?” he asked.

“Well, Jack, first, congratulations on your honorary doctorate degree. That’s quite a distinction – well-deserved and long-overdue, I’m sure.”

“Yes, I’m very humbled, and honored.”

“And that’s why I’m here – to see if you need any help with the speech that you will be giving at the commencement ceremony.”

“Oh, that’s right. My speech….” he said, sitting upright.

“And I thought that, since you’ve probably given this some considerable thought, I could spend the next twenty minutes hearing those thoughts.”

I knew that this was all a lie. He had given the speech no thought whatsoever, and he had absolutely no ideas.

“Yes, my thoughts…. Hmmmmm….”

I let this hum meander through the air for fifteen seconds, letting him squirm as he confronted the blank slate of his empty mind.

And I recalled during this awkward silence an aphorism that I had once coined while working for him: Those who can, do; those who can’t, count.

I had been welcomed to the accounting world several years earlier following the abrupt departures of two recent predecessors, both women, each lasting less than six months in the firm’s corporate communications role. Both had been quickly burned out by the “good ol’ boy” culture of the firm, my assistant shared with me shortly after I had arrived.

“Jack, if I might,” I finally interrupted. “There is a standard formula to commencement remarks. Speakers impart sage advice, massage that advice with some humor, and then spice it with savory personal anecdotes. And we could do all of those things,” I added, and then continued.

“But given the state of today’s world, I think that you have an opportunity – an obligation, even – to offer more than this usual tack, Jack. I think you ought to boldly challenge those students. Challenge them with words that will scare and inspire them, with words that will impress those rows of black robes perched behind you, and with words that will win a standing ovation from those parents crowding those back aisles when you return that podium to the university president.”

I went on to explain that there are many traits that he could talk about, and their importance to the future successes of those students on that diploma day – things like humor, honesty, loyalty, patience, perseverance, integrity and many others.

The usual suspects.

But one trait, I told him, often overlooked, was the most challenging trait of all: the need for courage.

“For most of us, courage seems like a trait too big, too grand, too demanding to fit into the narrow confines of our daily lives,” I told Jack. “Courage is something we reserve for astronauts. Marines. First responders. Cops and firefighters.

For most of us, however, it is an ignored aspiration, a buried trait – and that is just why it is so needed today,” I added.

“I like it, Sam – in fact, I love it,” Jack replied, shifting forward in his chair. “You know me – I always like to think big, and be ambitious. So how soon do you think we can see the first draft?”

I knew that meant that the input session was ended.

“By next Monday,” I responded, and rose from my chair, slinging my backpack over my right shoulder.

I started work on the piece that night. Creating aphorisms, I’ve leaned, always lights my creative fires.

·“Loyalty may mislead us, patience may betray us, but courage never fails us…”

·“Honesty is always the best policy -- and courage gives it backbone…”

·“We can’t all be funny, or clever, or creative, but we can all be brave, must be brave…”

·“The ‘smart thing’ is seldom the courageous thing…”

·“Doing the ‘right thing’ usually means doing the hard thing – and that always requires


·“Courage always takes the lonely road…”

·“Patience can become a weakness. Only courage can redeem it…”

·“Courage knows no gender, no race, no ethnicity…it embraces all, but always, only,

those who return that embrace…”

·“The shrewd proffer what we want. The brave offer what we need…”

·“Courage does not take people to the top. Some of the bravest people I know work in

kitchens, laundries, and 18-wheelers…”

·“Bravery always serves with humility…”

·“Discouragement is always easy. Courage never is…”

·“If I could dictate my own epitaph, it would be this: ‘His courage was ever inspiring.’

(Pause for effect) And if my wife is out there, somewhere, and still listening, I’m not

suggesting this as a birthday present anytime

soon…” (Pause for laughter)

These aphorisms were good sound-bites, I knew. They might be sprinkled throughout the remarks. Notes would be taken.

And now, onto the general body of the speech…

After preliminary thank-you mentions and grateful acknowledgements…

…Hearty congratulations to the graduates assembled before me here today for achieving the milestone being celebrated in this grand commencement. The parents and siblings and friends who have given you support and encouragement along the way are so very proud of you. Remember to thank them.

(long pause…)

As you all know, commencement remarks have a fairly standard formula. I could share today some experiences, add some humor, and dispense some sage advice.

But let’s discard that familiar format today, just as each of you has been doing daily here for the last four years.

So, getting right to the issue of the day, I’m here to talk to you about courage.

Of the many human traits that we deem important and frequently discuss – things like a sense of humor, honesty, sensitivity, loyalty, patience and others – courage is seldom included.

For most of us, ‘courage’ seems like a task too big, too grand, to fit into the narrow confines of our daily lives.

Courage is for first responders. Marines. Astronauts. Cops and firefighters.

We know that they have courage. It is crucial for their survival.

But for the rest of us…courage…well, maybe not so much.


Or so we may think….

I am here today, to suggest that of all the human traits that we admire and may want to emulate, courage should be – in fact, must be – at the very top of that aspiration list.

I say that because courage is what we need the most right now in our homes, our neighborhoods, our schools and universities, our offices, playgrounds, town hall meetings, in our churches, mosques and our temples.

Our world – our international relations, our national and local politics, our places of worship, our town greens, and yes, even our classrooms and lecture halls – are becoming increasingly polarized and hostile places.

We have seen violence in our movie theaters, at our shopping malls, on our school campuses, on our highways, and even at our marathon finish lines.

In this context, the tendency to retreat from the world – succumbing to the “flight” instinct – is a great temptation.

Only courage can deter that outcome.

Courage does not come nearly as easily as most other traits.

Courage is complicated. It does not come as a gift. It needs to be cultivated.

Humor, for example, is easy. You have it, or you don’t. If you have it, please share it, generously. If you do not have it, please show your appreciation for those who do. The world needs more laughter.

Or take, for instance, honesty: Honesty is always easier in the long run than dishonesty. We all learn that lesson, painfully, at a fairly young age. As Mark Twain once said, when you’re honest, you never have to remember anything….

Or sensitivity: Sensitivity can keep you out of trouble. It keeps you interesting. If you’re single, it can get you dates. If you’re married, it can keep you that way.

(Pause for laughter.)

Or loyalty: Loyalty is easy because it is a sign of mutual support. And who wants to stand in isolation?

But courage – courage is tricky.

And it’s difficult. Very difficult. Always.

(Pause. The table is set. Sip some water here. Then continue to crescendo…)

First of all, courage is counterintuitive. And even countercultural.

Most of us learn along life’s ways to try to avoid confrontations. Confrontations can trigger tempers, tantrums and trouble.

Instead of confrontations, we prefer to ‘wait and see…wait till things blow over…wait till cooler heads prevail…’

At first, this may seem the wise and prudent course. It certainly is more comfortable – in the short run.

Courage, in contrast, throws us squarely into the crucible of conflict.

Courage invites trouble – and fast.

(add some aphorisms here…)

I even threw in a quote from the Wizard of Oz, from the lion.


“What makes a king out of a slave?”

(pause for audience response….?)

Yes, “Courage!”

I especially liked the ending advice that I provided:

Courage takes practice.

So begin with small steps.

First, learn to say ‘no.’

·No, that joke is not funny.

·No, let’s not have one more for the road.

·No, that’s not teasing – that’s bullying.

·No, ‘white lies’ are not OK.

·No, that statement will mislead our customers.

·No, that’s not what everyone thinks.

·No, that’s not telling the whole story.

·No, we do not tolerate that behavior here.

These ‘no’ exchanges may cost you the collegiality of colleagues.

They may diminish your popularity with the popular crowd.

They may cost you a coveted corporate promotion.

They may even, some day, alienate, for a time, your children.

As I have said, courage is never comfortable.

That’s because courage is a game-changer. And change is never easy for most of us.

And I can tell you that I have most often stumbled as a leader when I have waited too long to just say ‘no.’

(Pause for dramatic effect. Lower head. Then look up, smile, and resume.)

And here’s the second part of my prescription:

After you have begun to master the small ‘no’s,’ take the next – bigger – step:

Learn to say ‘yes’ to the things that really count.

·Yes, I can chair that fundraiser.

·Yes, I can coach that little league team.

·Yes, I can lead that new division.

·Yes, I can run for that board of education spot.

·Yes, I can get that Ph.D.

·Yes, I’ll donate blood today. And become an organ donor.

·Yes, I can be a Big Brother, or a Big Sister.

·Yes, I can run that half-marathon – or help organize it.

·Yes, I can volunteer as a math tutor.

·Yes, I can handle that dean role.

·Yes, I can deliver some meals to seniors on weekends.

And, perhaps the most difficult and game-changing ‘yes’ of all:

·Yes, I was wrong, and I owe you an apology.

I think that Winston Churchill summed up nicely what I have been trying to say here today:

“Courage,” he said, “is rightly esteemed the first of all human qualities – because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”


Next, I sprinkled in some more of the early aphorisms, and a few brief jokes: the one about the pre-school kid who was charged with “resisting a rest” after he refused to take a nap…and the one about the thief who stole paintings from the Louvre, only to then be caught a few blocks away because he “…had no Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh…”

I delivered the dozen pages of the speech to Jack’s secretary at the end of the week, with a brief, handwritten note thanking him for this opportunity to share some thoughts – and with my hope that I was not totally off the mark in the speech’s content.

Two days later I received an email note:

Sammy, it’s like you’ve been reading my mind (again!) (how do you do that?). These remarks are GREAT! I’ll let you know if I have any changes, but for right now I think I’m all set. THANKS! And send the bill… Cheers, and all the best, Jack

As I expected, the next eight days passed in silence.

But I was not idle.

And when the commencement day arrived, I tucked a revised speech into a folder and headed for the university campus.

A large tent and facing platform had been installed over a sweeping green lawn. Swarms of smiling parents strolled under a blue sky and glowing sun.

I waited near the stairwell leading up to the stage. I recognized Jack’s familiar, bobbing gate, accentuated by his flowing black gown and a crimson sash, as he approached in a long line of academics and administrators.

When he spotted me, he first froze and then quickly stepped out of the line. His ghostwriter had suddenly appeared, in the flesh, an unfamiliar and haunting experience for him, I knew.

“Jack, good to see you,” I said in a whisper. “I’ve taken the liberty of enlarging your speech’s remarks by a few points to make it easier to read. And I’ve paginated it, just in case a gust of wind grabs it… Good luck today,” I said as I discreetly slipped the revised remarks, folded lengthwise as he always preferred, into his hands.

“But I know you won’t need it…” And with that, I slipped back behind the canopied stage.

The crowd quickly assembled as I stood in the shadows. The graduates marched in and were seated. The president began his introductions, and then quickly welcomed Jack to the podium.

Grasping the outer edges of the podium, and in his deepest voice, Jack began.

And he did well. At first.

But he stumbled over the randomly inserted replacement jokes, first the one about the waiter asking the Jewish women at his table “…So, is anything all right here?” And the one about the sleepwalking nun – “…a roamin’ Catholic.” And then the one about the local politician, an alumnus sitting directly behind him, who had “…graduated with distinction – Magna Cum Lousy.”

I watched the audience on the stage, and the front student rows, as they first began to fidget, and then to nudge their partners, and then to snicker aloud.

Jack, of course, plowed on. He was accustomed to sticking to the script, and so that’s what he did, a few times shuffling the papers in his hands to see how much more remained.

And then, the coup de grace:

“And so my friends, in summary, remember: being brave takes courage. And being the brave one will always make you a cannery in the coal mines of life…”

I had already sent my bill for the speech. Wouldn’t that be something if already the “check was in the mail…” But no matter, even if it wasn’t. That was OK. The cup of my compensation had already runneth over.

And that’s when the girl in the very front row caught my eye. A beautiful brunette, sitting bolt upright, staring straight ahead, two glistening streams of tears trailing down her cheeks and over her jaw.

And then it dawned on me – of course! The front row…early in the alpha order of graduates, “Abernathy”…and that same squared jaw, that dimpled chin, and that straight, jet-black hair…Jack’s daughter…

Then, in an instance, the sweetness of the moment soured.

Betrayed, once again. And once again, a betrayal of my own authoring.

And then it came back to me, a line I had used somewhere long ago: The man desiring revenge should dig graves for two….

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