Family History

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If you’d ever been to Spenger’s, an old school fish place at the foot of University Avenue in Berkeley, you’d know it. There wasn’t anywhere else like it on earth much less in town.

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It was among the few spots Cal students would go with their parents and have an okay time and feel comfortable about the experience. It was an after-game destination for generations upon generations of Bay Area families. It was a hangout for some students and a place for a special occasion for others. It was a place you could take a professor to lunch without breaking the bank (even if you did have a drink or two at the bar while waiting for a table) and without feeling too weird about it.

I once shared an unforgettable meal with history professor Bill Slottman and fellow student Jim Crosby. If you knew either Bill or Jim (or, God forbid, both), you may already be seeing in your mind’s eye what kind of experience that likely was. To say it was both hilarious and insane is an understatement of colossal proportion.

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But for our family, the place had an even longer history and deeper experience.

In the spring of 1941, my dad graduated from high school and entered the California Maritime Academy, in Vallejo, just up the bay from Berkeley, with the intention of becoming a maritime engineer, as his dad was. In December of that year, of course, those plans, and the plans of many other young men changed. The academy accelerated its course, to provide the American fleet with the many new officers it would need to fight the Second World War. Things around the place got really intense and really serious.

One night, my dad and a buddy had a night of leave, and ventured down to Berkeley to find some fun, or trouble, or whatever sailors at liberty do, and happened to pop into Spenger’s. They met a couple of girls and the boys were looking so good in their uniforms, and everyone was just so patriotic and, you know, one thing led to another and, the next thing they knew, according to my dad, the last bus back to Vallejo was gone, without them.

During wartime, such things as missing muster carry extreme penalties.

The boys began to sob and rend their garments and Mr. Spenger, himself an old salt, took notice. He knew, by God, the serious dutch these guys were in, so he lent them one of his fishing boats to get back to the academy, which they gratefully accepted.

As a result of Mr. Spenger’s generosity and trust, no cadet blood was spilt.

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My beloved Erika played in the Cal Band while an undergrad. After every home game, her family would travel up from Fresno to watch her and the Golden Bears play, then adjourn, post-game, to Spenger’s for a meal, some drinks and other traditional merriment.

That last part often included her dad Dwight jumping up on a table with his buddy Gary and leading the place in Cal cheers. I’m told no blood was spilt on those occasions either.

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The place meant so much to us and our families as a place of singular memories that Erika and I made Spenger our son’s middle name.

True story.

 

 

 

This, You’ve Got to Know

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Sadly, I never took a single course from the late William Ker (Sandy) Muir but (not sadly) he absolutely changed my life and how I live it.

Muir was a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, when I was an undergraduate. Our paths crossed many times in my several years at Cal; he often met with incoming students when I worked new student orientations and I was mesmerized by him. He walked in on metal crutches, slowly, carefully. He’d had polio, I was told. (Later in life, I understood he used a wheelchair to navigate the hilly Berkeley campus and its labyrinthine halls.) He stood ramrod straight at the lectern, weaving engrossing stories in stylish but spare prose.

He had a sincerely warm manner, blazing smile and inviting personality. New Cal students loved him and I became a fan.

But, you know, I was busy at other matters and never took his classes.

It wasn’t until years later, as a grad student studying negotiation, I came across Police: Streetcorner Politicians, his amazing book that blew my mind. In it, Muir talked about the limitations of coercive power (i.e., force) and how it, paradoxically, puts those who employ violence on behalf of the state at a distinct power disadvantage.

That book got me thinking critically, for the first time, about the limits violence puts on those who employ it, rather than those upon whom it is employed. Many times, Muir shows, by outlining the 4 paradoxes of force (the Paradox of Dispossession, the Paradox of Detachment, the Paradox of Face and the Paradox of Irrationality), that those with the most power can be put at a distinct disadvantage. Furthermore, those attempting to coerce others into specific actions must use wisdom in addition to threats of violence and physical strength (or weapons), or they will be, at best, ineffective, or, at worst, dominated or dead.

This book completely changed my conception, not only of negotiation strategy, which had been the point of reading it, but also of interpersonal relations. Thanks to Sandy Muir’s brilliant study of the Oakland Police Department, I think very seldom of coercion as a negotiation (or personal) approach and am almost impossible to coerce in negotiations.

(How I wish Muir had been consulted by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al., before they unleashed all holy hell on Iraq – but that’s another story.)

Sadly, Sandy Muir passed away last week; one of his great professional achievements is duly noted and my personal appreciation for him hereby expressed.

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