How Ginger got her name

Penning this story, my first thought for a title was: “When I learned I’d lost and would never win again – ever.” But that is too long. Let me tell you how Ginny became Ginger. When our daughter began school in Pasadena, CA, her first teacher, the villain in this story, would change our world forever.

All parents agonize over naming their children. Although the technology was available, we chose not to take advantage of it, and were unaware of the gender of our soon-to-be-born baby. This meant we’d come up with a list of boy and girl names for our pending new arrival. I can’t recall them all now, but after weeks of discussion, it was down to just a few for each. For girls, although we wanted to wait until we saw him/her to be sure, we’d talked about carrying on family tradition, naming her Virginia Ruth – Virginia after Maggie’s grandmother and Ruth, after my mother. I especially liked this idea because like Maggie’s legal name, Margaret, which can be shortened to Meg, Peg, Maggie, Marge, Margie, etc., Virginia would also allow a variety of nicknames. I was particularly fond of the potential of calling her “Ginny,” as one of my favorite high school classmates had been named Ginny. Everyone loved her. She was in the choir, theatre and worked on the school yearbook. Outgoing and full of energy, I thought Ginny a great nickname.

But first she had to be born and we needed to determine her gender. Maggie’s obstetrician had a long-standing routine of telling each of his patients the gender of the child they were carrying on their very first visit to his office. Now, at this first encounter with him, at around week 4 or 5, the pregnancy is only just being confirmed. Any talk of gender at this point would be considered no more than a wild-ass guess as sex isn’t determined until the first ultrasound, between 18 and 21 weeks, and even then they sometimes get it wrong. But here he was, at week 4, confidently telling Maggie she was going to have a boy. As he picked up her chart he said, “Now, I’m correct 100% of the time, and to prove it, I’m going to write down my prediction in your chart, on this visit date. I’m saying you are going to have a boy baby,” and he wrote in her chart.

Chuk Batko decorated the nursery wall with a painting

Maggie and I got into the child prep big-time. We took prenatal childbirth classes, every Tuesday for several weeks, with other expectant parents. I learned how to be a good coach and we both learned what to expect and how not to be freaked out in the delivery room. We acquired a crib, baby clothes and supplies to care for an infant. Our friend Chuk Batko painted the walls of a small bedroom with a truly awesome kid mural.

Right after dinner on March 13, 1984, Maggie said she was beginning to feel odd and rightfully predicted this might be the night. At around 10:00 pm, as we were starting to get ready for bed, her water broke. We didn’t panic. We were ready even though it was two weeks before her due date. We got to the hospital just before midnight. I’ll not describe the 12 hour labor process, but I’m sure Maggie remembers every minute of it. The important thing was our daughter was born around 1 PM on March 14. And we knew immediately we would call her Virginia.

Before jumping to how her name changed, you must allow me to recount Maggie’s triumphant first post-delivery visit to her obstetrician. She couldn’t wait to tell him he’d been wrong in his gender prediction, perhaps for the first time ever. How sweet! She was quick to bring up his erroneous prediction. He scratched his head and said, “No, no, that doesn’t sound right. I’m sure I said you would have a girl.” When Maggie protested, he said, “Hold on, no need to argue, I think I wrote it down. Let’s check your chart,” and he flipped back a few pages and there, written clearly and indisputably was: Sex = Girl. “I told you, I’m right 100% of the time,” he said. Maggie left his office a bit perplexed.

As she was paying her bill, the woman at the counter asked her what she was shaking her head about. Maggie explained what had just happened. The office manager said, “Oh, he pulled that on you, too?” Maggie looked at her quizzically and she said, “When he predicts the sex of the baby, he always writes down the opposite of what he says. If he guesses correctly, no one ever asks to see the chart. But if he guesses wrong, and the chart is checked, it always proves he’s right, because he records the opposite of what he says.” They both had a good laugh.

The school in Pasadena where Ginny began first grade was only a few miles from our home. But it was an old school, in a neighborhood largely occupied by retired people. The school district had not staffed it with their best and most dedicated teachers. In visits to the classroom, Maggie found the teacher playing cartoon videos to the kids as she napped at her desk in the rear of the room. Complaints from Maggie and other mothers to the principal had not endeared her to the teacher and sometimes, she took it out on Ginny.

Several times Ginny had come home from school complaining when her teacher was angry at her, she would call her Jennifer Larsen. “Get back to your desk and sit down right now Jennifer,” the teacher would yell at her. “Mom,” Ginny complained, “She thinks my full name is Jennifer and I’m Jenny for short. But my name is Virginia and everyone calls me Ginny. How can I stop her from calling me Jennifer?” Always attentive and pragmatic, Maggie explained just like Margaret, Virginia has all sorts of good nicknames. Besides Ginny, she could be Virgie, Gina, Ginger, Geena or Gigi among others. She didn’t get far past “Ginger,” when Ginny said, “Wait, my nickname could be Ginger?” Maggie said, “Yes,” and Ginny beamed. She’d been watching Gilligan’s Island on TV and Ginger clearly was her favorite on the show. “Okay,” she said, “From now on, I want everyone to call me Ginger.”

The next several weeks went by with her politely and patiently correcting people who called her Ginny, telling them her name was now Ginger. One night in bed Maggie mentioned to me our daughter had noticed I was still calling her Ginny, and had asked her mother what to do about it. I explained to Maggie I liked the nickname Ginny. I wasn’t one to ever be confused and call her Jennifer. And besides, it was okay if everyone else called her Ginger and I still called her Ginny. I said, “Lots of Dads have a pet name for their daughter not shared with everyone else. It’s like a special dad-daughter thing, sort of nice, don’t you think?” Maggie said, “Maybe, but I think you’re just not trying.” I shrugged it off.

A week or two later, I was relaxing after work. In my “decompress” time, I would sit down in my easy chair with a cocktail and the newspaper. I’d only been there for a few minutes when Ginny pushed herself under the newspaper, between my legs, and wiggled her way into my lap. She stuck her legs over one of my arms and leaned her shoulders against my other arm as I did my best to ignore her. She just lay in this position, looking up at me, not saying a thing. Finally, I looked down into her face and said, “Y…e…s?” She composed herself slightly and then very clearly uttered two short sentences: “Daddy, by now, everyone else is calling me Ginger, but not you. Dad, I really prefer Ginger.” And she just looked at me with those steady, unblinking eyes. What could I do or say? My mind went totally blank. I just stared at her for a long time and then I said, “OK, I’ll try.” She gave me a big grin, a little squeeze and said, “Thanks, Dad,” and hustled off my lap and was gone.

I sat stunned. Of course, she had won. I never even got to trudge out any of my arguments for continuing to call her Ginny. And perhaps more importantly, for the first time, something else dawned on me. It was her determination and persistence. Maybe even stubbornness? She was just six years old and I had to marvel at her understanding and ability to adapt her tactics to get what she wanted – especially from me.

Years later, when she was a teenager, one night half-way through dinner she announced, “I’ve decided I’m a vegetarian; I am not eating meat anymore.” After Ginger left the table, Maggie wondered out loud, “How long do you think this phase will last?” I said, “Oh, oh, I’ve got some bad news. I’ve heard that voice before. She’s not going to change her mind – you better get out the vegetarian cookbook.” She turned 36 years old this year. She’s still a vegetarian and everyone calls her Ginger.

 

Yeah, I’ll probably quit


In 1989 my time with AT&T in Los Angeles was coming to an end. They’d given up the idea of being major players in the computer business, the primary reason for hiring me. Then a recruiter called about a new stealth company financed by IBM, CBS and Sears and I learned an important lesson – always tell the truth in a job interview.

Stu Fishler, a high-end recruiter in Los Angeles, had called and asked if I’d meet him for lunch to discuss a new company, called the Prodigy Services Company. They were looking for a local branch manager. Although headquartered in New York, this job was LA-based.

At AT&T I’d become familiar with the branch manager role and had experience interacting with IBM branch managers as well. The position had a certain stigma to it, borne out in this story. “One day, God was playing golf with some of his pals. He hits a bad shot. It bounces off a tree, an eagle swoops down, grabs the ball mid-air in its talons and drops it onto the green. A nearby rabbit pushes the ball into the hole with its nose. Watching this, one of the players says to another, ‘Who does he think he is, God?’ His partner says, ‘No, actually He is God. But he thinks he’s an AT&T Branch Manager.’”

Ross Glatzer today – not much different than when we first met.

As I became increasingly frustrated with my role at AT&T, I was keen to at least get an offer from this new venture and did my best to impress the local recruiter. After weeks of back and forth, it appeared I was one of the leading candidates. Fishler told me the next step was to visit Prodigy’s headquarters in White Plains New York to meet the final decision-makers and the trip was scheduled. The day of interviews started with a human resource manager in the morning, followed by a full day of meetings. First were the VP’s of Marketing, Development and Operations. Then came a half dozen other key managers and my day concluded with an interview by Ross Glatzer, who was then the VP of Subscriber services, but on the road to becoming President and CEO, who I was told, would make the final decision. From where I sat, Glatzer always ran the place and I now know when we met, he was already in the running to take over the reins of Prodigy from its founding CEO, Ted Papes.

Fishler had prepared me well and the interviews went smoothly. Sometimes I wondered why I was meeting with certain people as they had nothing to do with what was expected of me, should I get the job. But finally, the interview with Ross Glatzer, the big boss, arrived. I was tired from all the scrutiny and questions, but at least had well-practiced answers. After a few typical interview questions, Glatzer asked me something no one else had. He said, “Steve, I’ve been looking at your resume, and see you’ve never spent more than five years with any company. While it appears you initiated most of your job changes, I’m concerned. If you join us, will you only last five years and then leave for greener pastures?” My first reaction was to fabricate a small lie and say, “Of course not, Mr. Glatzer. I would never do that.” But then, at the point where I almost didn’t care if they offered me the job or not, I thought to myself, “what the hell?” and answered as truthfully as I could to this unanticipated question: “You’re correct, that’s a risk. I tend to get bored. I suspect if I’m no longer involved in new and interesting things, I’ll probably quit. But if I’m engaged and challenged, I’ll stay as long as you like.” I could tell from his face this wasn’t the answer he was expecting, but I think he also knew it was the truth.

In the hired car back to the airport, I had the feeling a job offer would be coming and I was right. I joined Prodigy in late 1989 and was involved in this historic precursor to the Internet, where so many innovative and break-through technologies were unveiled. My initial role as a Branch Manager with Prodigy was handling sales and market planning, distribution, subscriber acquisition and retention in Los Angeles and eventually, Orange County. I took over from the temporary manager Prodigy had sent to launch the LA market — Jim (Jimbo-Billy-Bob-Bubba) O’Connell. Jim was a large, red-faced, New Jersey Irishman and an awesome guy who went on to become a good friend. A few years later I was transferred to New York. After a year working on a special project with Dave Waks, Marty Evancoe and Rob Kost, I took over all of Prodigy’s communication products (Bulletin Boards, Chat, E-Mail) as well as its budding Internet Products (Web Browser, Newsgroups, Prodigy HomePages). At the time I left Prodigy, my areas were responsible for over 80% of the company’s non-subscription revenue.

Ross Glatzer and I crossed paths on occasion, although I never reported directly to him. Other than my direct boss, Bill Young, Ross was the only person to approach me about the recent death of my son, caring enough to seek me out and ask me how I was doing. Ross Glatzer was a good and fair man, navigating Prodigy through a highly complex and quickly changing landscape. In the end, the speed required to survive in the emerging Internet space was impossible for a company of its size to maintain. I attempted to capture what those times were like here. As I moved to the founding teams of various early-stage companies and eventually started several of my own, I never forgot the care and attention Ross Glatzer and Prodigy put into every person hired.

Rob Kost, Maggie, Doc Searls, working on our respective computers in our Eden Prairie kitchen – with beer, guacamole and chips.

Blue Diamond, Black Diamond, what’s the difference?

In the mid-1980s, while at AT&T, I extended a trip in Colorado to go skiing. I chose a spot called Hidden Valley Resort. It wasn’t so much for tourists, but close to Denver, so ideal for one-day trips by the locals. I had no clue that bravado, stupidity, chauvinism and hubris could amass to cataclysmic intensity in one event on just one day.

black runs at the topHidden Valley Ski area opened in 1955 and closed in 1991. Ten miles outside of Estes Park, Colorado, it moved skiers to the top with ropes, Poma and T-Bars and eventually chair lifts. Most memorable were the olive green, canvas-covered army trucks (replaced with school buses by the time of my visit) transporting more adventure-oriented skiers to the upper valley, where tow ropes transported them to the top of the mountain, allowing a downhill rush through pine groves and powder. The resort featured an impressive 2000-foot vertical drop from 11,400 to 9,400 feet, with 30 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 30 percent expert and 10 percent insane (my opinion) trails. Patrons were mostly northern Colorado residents avoiding the long drive and high prices of larger resorts along I-70. In 1984, a season pass to Hidden Valley cost $100 and adult daily lift tickets were $10. The resort never competed successfully with the larger areas and after a lousy snow season it closed operation and removed its lifts in 1991.

Having not skied in several years, I began my day with a lesson. Sure enough, with a good instructor and attentive practice, I’d returned to being a “mid-to-pretty-good intermediate skier” of a few years earlier. So, I hit the slopes.

After my early sessions on the green slopes, I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon perfecting my technique on blue (intermediate) slopes. My skills had returned and I felt confident. After a quick bowl of chili for lunch, I headed outside. Carrying my skis toward the chair lift, I spotted a school bus close to me with lettering on the side saying “Upper Valley” and decided to take it. I stowed my rented skis on the rack and got inside. Realizing I was one of the first on the bus and it wouldn’t leave for a few minutes, I hustled to the restroom to pee. When I returned, half a dozen guys were now on the bus and it was ready to roll. I sat down and the bus pulled out. I pulled my gaze from the attractive skiers walking past the bus to its interior. It was then I saw it: A large sign, right above the driver’s head, where you typically see the sign saying “Tips Appreciated,” was one saying: “This bus goes only to black diamond and double black diamond slopes – Expert skiers ONLY!”

Bus to upper trails

Oh boy, what to do? I had 15 minutes to think as the bus wound its way up the hill. First, I sure didn’t want to wimp out in front of all these guys and, at this point, everyone on the bus was male. I thought about ducking down in my seat and riding the bus back down, but realized it wouldn’t work. Second, my day so far had been going very well. My confidence level was high. I’d been on black diamond slopes before and while I wasn’t pretty, I always managed to get down. “Let’s see how this goes,” I thought.

At the top, everyone got off the bus and collected their skis. Thoughts of sneaking onto the bus disappeared as it left the second our skis were off the rack. Our small group of riders had sort of become a club, feeling a bit of comradery, never speaking to each other, but no dues, either. Latching up, I followed the group as they slowly traversed a ridge with a steep drop off to the right. OK, more accurately, a sheer cliff to the right. Every 15-25 feet or so, one of the group members would peel off and head down the slope. I kept following the guy in front of me, hoping he would lead us to a more gradual slope. It didn’t happen. As hard as it was to comprehend, the further we went along the ridge, the steeper the drop off to the right became.

This is the steepness I recall on the mountain.

With only 3 guys left, we finally reached the end. Hope of finding a gentler slope vanished. Instead, here was a T-Bar leading up and off to the left, into a deep white mist. Running out of options and terrified of having to ski off the cliff to my right, I followed my two remaining buddies as they hooked onto the T-Bar and we were pulled higher up the mountain. Examining the areas slopes sometime later, I realized I was heading to an area called “Tombstone Ridge.”

Arriving at the top, it felt as if I was close to the summit. It was colder. My two friends quickly disappeared into the thick fog covering the slope below, and the wind began to pick up. It was late afternoon and I was alone, at the top of a mountain, wearing skis. Everyone was gone. Thoughts of ski management people finding me in the spring alternated with my mumbling to myself “Don’t panic, take it one step at a time.”

It turns out lack of visibility can be a good thing. Because of the fog, I was unable to see very far down the mountain. Looking across a steep, icy slope, I saw a mid-sized pine tree, the nice Christmas-y type, 25 feet tall with big, wide branches at the bottom. I decided to go across the slope, rather than down, and into the tree’s lower limbs to stop my momentum. Miraculously, it worked.   More important, from this vantage point, I saw another tree on the other side of the slope, only a little bit further down, and I proceeded to ski directly into it as before, using the branches to break my rapidly accelerating pace.

This seemed to work. I crashed from one tree to another, not dying. Sure, I was skinned up a bit, but thick gloves and goggles make for better protection than you might think. But this was exhausting.  While recovering and gathering my energy in the branches of a tree, out of the mist came the savior I’d secretly been praying for. A skier in the distinctive uniform of the Ski Patrol was headed in my direction. “Oh, thank God, I am saved.” I thought.

The patrol person expertly skied right up to me, finessed a quick little turn and stopped, lifted her goggles and shouted to me through the howling wind, “Are you okay? Do you need any help?” OMG, it was a woman, a girl! Before thinking I said, “No, no, I’m fine, just catching a breather.” And with no time for me to reconsider my foolish response, she adjusted her gloves, smiled at me, pulled down her goggles and skied off down the hill. I thought to myself, “God, I am an idiot and a moron!”

The tree-to-tree skiing technique kept me from killing myself for the next few hours (well, okay, maybe 15 minutes) and I came to an ice-covered half-pipe-like formation. With no trees to slow my fall, I sat down, undid my skis and slid down through the bowl on my butt. Not the most dignified way to come down a mountain, but I did not die, either.

long straight slope through the treesEmerging at the bottom of the trough, I saw a sign showing a list of runs heading off in different directions. And then, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life, right in the middle of the list, was a blue diamond indicator (intermediate slope) and an arrow pointing to my left. I headed in that direction immediately and 30 minutes later, reached the bottom of the hill, alive, and able to recount this story.

Those of us committed to equality in the workplace and in life, often forget how deeply ingrained our sexist outlook really is and how it affects us in daily life. When in the delivery room with Maggie, as my daughter Ginger was born, I recall looking around me: the obstetrician was a woman, the anesthesiologist was a woman and the nurse was a woman. As my daughter was born I thought to myself, God help anyone trying to stand in the way of my daughter’s being anything she’ll ever want to be, and thankful she’d grow up in a world where people were judged on their abilities and not their gender or skin color. Sadly, we have a long way to go on both counts.

The Most Expensive Golf Clubs Ever

John Woychick and Ron Herem – one of the holes we see from our deck in Phoenix.

Here in Arizona, our house overlooks a golf course, as do 84.4% of all homes in Phoenix (just kidding). But neither Maggie or I play. In fact, if you asked any of my golfing friends “Does Steve play golf?” the most likely response would be “Not so much.” This story is not about golfing, although I suspect both golfers and non-golfers will find something of interest.

First hole, 520 yards, Par 5

Living in the Twin Cities from 1997 – 2003, after joining the founding team of Net Perceptions, we purchased a nice home on Bent Creek Golf Course in Eden Prairie. I loved the unfolding deep green lawn stretching from my backyard seemingly to forever. Better was it never needed my non-existent gardening ambitions. Our deck overlooked the green of the first hole, a 520 yard, Par 5, providing hours of entertainment. Being the first of 18 holes, the final players of the day passed our home pretty early. This allowed me to take a bucket of balls after the concluding golfers had passed and chip them from my backyard onto the green. Then I would step up onto the green, and putt them all into the hole.

While never playing the course, I got along well with the club management, pro and groundskeepers. Once they’d needed to use our lawn for some sand trap repairs and I’d made it easy for them. I knew most of the groundskeepers and waved every morning as they made their rounds. One time I noticed an older guy operating one of the riding mowers. That seemed odd. All the rest of the crew appeared college age and in pretty good shape. This guy was neither. I never spoke with him, but asked about him one day at the club’s golf shop. After describing him, a look of acknowledgement came across the course manager. “Oh, he’s not a regular groundskeeper; he’s one of our members. Due to all his DWI arrests, he’s lost his driver’s license. But he misses driving. So, his wife brings him over here and we let him drive the mowers around.”

Although not a true golfer, I’d become familiar with the game during my five year stint at AT&T, where golf is part of the culture. Not only were deals done on the course, AT&T sponsored golf events (Pebble Beach Pro-am for one) and invites high-value clients and arranges for them to play a round with a genuine professional and AT&T executives. Like it or not, I was expected to attend and play. While no need for me to be a stellar golfer, embarrassing the company by shooting a poor game was also not acceptable. After several lessons and lots of practice, my game settled into one where although never hitting the ball very far, I always seemed to hit it straight. It turns out this often resulted in a half-decent score, especially when playing with those who tended to plaster the ball a great distances but in all the wrong directions.

My golf clubs were purchased used for $15 at a garage sale in the early 90s, and I never really thought much about them. When going to an event, I threw them into my trunk, and then onto a cart. Perhaps someone looked a bit askance at my clubs now and then, but after seeing Rodney Dangerfield’s bag of clubs in Caddyshack, I was glad the size of my bag was at the other end of the spectrum. For at least 10 years of playing and a good number of prestige events, those were my only clubs.

As it turned out, Net Perceptions was a success, and went public in 1999, just before the Internet bubble burst in 2001-2002. Before the crash, it appeared I had a great deal of money, although most of it was on paper and in lock-up agreements. One downside of suddenly acquiring a big chunk of money is the mistaken belief you’ve also acquired extra brains in the process. This leads to thinking you must have the magic touch when it comes to picking investments. Of course, those opportunities are being thrown at you right and left by people whose business it is to follow newly-rich people around with the goal of snapping up some of that loot. This is how I was exposed to and made a $25,000 investment in a company that manufactured custom golf clubs.   Here is how the scam, oops, I mean “business model” worked.

It begins with a desperate-to-improve golfer in a golf shop talking to the local pro on ways to improve his game. Everyone knows buying something, like special long-range balls, or the “super driver of the decade” or the “magic putter” which makes all putts roll accurate and true, is much simpler than taking lessons and actually practicing. And so, sales are made. It reminds me of the story of the couple passing a talented piano player at a bar, leaving a tip as they depart and saying, “Wow! You were just great. I’d do anything to play like that. Well, except take lessons and practice, of course.”

Back to our story: At some point, the pro suggests the stock off-the-shelf clubs the player is using may be holding him back. What might help is a special set of custom-made clubs, where grips are tailored specifically to the hands of the player, the shaft lengths cut to fit the player’s exact height and the heads all angled for his particular sweet spot. “Expensive?” he asks. “Oh my, not really, and think about consistently shaving half a dozen strokes from each game,” the pro replies.

A full set of top brand irons typically ran about a thousand dollars then, and the fully-customized set with a fitted set of shafts and grips was about $2,000. So, the pro arranges for a “fitting,” using the computer software, camera and other goodies provided by the company in which I’d invested. Once the company got the specifics for the golfer, they tweaked their stock shafts, clubs and grips to match the order sheet, applied the logo of whomever’s brand was specified (Callaway, Ping, Wilson, etc.) and then, finally, the most important and perhaps costly step, packing them up to look like high-value works of art.

Part of my $25k investment was a set of custom clubs. They would arrange for me to go to the factory—which was local—and be personally fitted for a set of clubs and receive those clubs for free. Of course, at this point, I already knew the cost from the business model was around $200 bucks, but still, I couldn’t resist “free” and was on time for my appointment the following week. Arriving on Saturday morning at the company’s warehouse-like facility, I removed my clubs from the trunk of my car. They’d asked me to bring the set I currently played with, perhaps as some sort of baseline—I wasn’t sure. But I hefted them onto my shoulder and strolled through the wide open double garages of the warehouse space where I was welcomed by the investment guy and one of the measuring pros. The pro grabbed my bag, looked at it and said, “Oh, Mr. Larsen, you must have grabbed the wrong bag, these are lady’s clubs. Did you pick up your wife’s clubs by mistake?” When I looked at him quizzically, he said, “I’m serious, these are Mickey Wright signature clubs.” Apparently this Mickey Wright logo I’d been seeing for the past decade wasn’t some famous male golf pro, but a famous woman golfer. Oh god. Do you recall the scene at the end of the “The Six Sense” when Bruce Willis’s character flashes back on all those scenes, realizing he actually wasn’t in them and redefines the entire film, giving it a whole new meaning? My mind flashed over years of looks from other golfers and caddies as they saw my clubs, then shot a look at me, then again at my clubs.

Duh! It finally hit me—what all those funny looks were about. Upon reflection, it came home to me that acquiring money doesn’t make you any smarter than you were the month or year before. Unfortunately, the market crash and subsequent IRS issues wiped out any semblance of my “being rich,” which in the long run, was probably all for the good. I stopped looking for homeruns and returned to saving at least 20% of any money that came my way and while perhaps not the “smartest” play one can make financially, it’s consistent with my values of hard work, persistence and determination. In the end, they’ve always served me best. And I stopped playing golf and gave my $25,000 clubs to my cousin.