Humans have an innate thinking strategy designed to deliver us from temptation. People are wired with that knowledge that, ‘You can’t always get what you want” – at least not right now. Discerning between wants and needs is tricky. Not getting something on demand is probably being erased from our neural circuits by repeated encounters with the TV remote and Siri.
During the turbulent Age of Aquarius, a Stanford researcher with the ethics of Willy Wonka lured unsuspecting but ever so bright preschoolers (kids of faculty and smart students) to his study. They were tempted not by a proverbial apple – but by puffy globs of corn syrup, sugar and gelatin, affectionately known as marshmallows. The experiment was a simple test of kids’ ability to accept a small reward now for a big payoff later. It played out as a game; present the kids with one marshmallow. Tell them they have two options; 1) ring a bell and the marshmallow is yours, free and clear, 2) chill, wait for the researcher to come back in about 15 minutes and get two marshmallows. Hardly the stuff of rocket science but it changed how we envision self control.
I learned about delayed gratification when growing up on Long Island Sound. First, kids had to earn Red Cross Beginners Certificates to be allowed to swim past the safety section roped off for free whizzing toddlers and leaky old ladies in baggy black swim suits. Second, swim lessons always begin the week of high tide and wrap up the second week during low tide. The difference between tides is that at first the swimmers practice blowing bubbles into frigid somewhat clean water and wind up sucking tepid mucky sulfuric smelling sludge into their mouths week two. Most kids endured paddling about in murky stench by focusing on the big kids jumping off the swim dock anchored out past the baby old lady cage. Nobody ever signed up for two sessions of swimming lessons. Freedom was already just another word for nothing left to lose. Hang in through the second week and the entire harbor is your playpen.
Third lesson of growing up in salt water – by their teenage years, everyone has a boat. Everyone that is, except my rag tag friends and me. Parents do not count in this scenario. My parents had a boat but I did not. More than anything in the world, I wanted my own 13’ Boston Whaler. These sturdy skiffs boast the ability to stay afloat even when cut in half. I pleaded my case, “Pop, all the kids have their own boats. All I want is a little Boston Whaler. I’ll even take you fishing sometimes if you buy the gas.”
Pop was all for it – as soon as I got a job and paid for it. Pay for it? I babysat every weekend for a whopping 50¢ an hour. The usual gig was from six ‘til midnight on weekends. If I saved $3 a week ($156 a year) it would take a hundred years to pay for a boat! This was not a funny situation – relying on OPBs (Other People’s Boats) simply would not do.
I needed to be like the Stanford kids who patiently endured 15 minutes distracting their attention from the spongy confection by humming Mozart’s hits, rhythmically kicking their heels on the chair rungs as they visualized twinkling stars and the alphabet letters in sequential order (AB, CD, LMNOP). These were the kids who successfully delayed their gratification, earned two marshmallows, eventually earned top grades on the SAT, and adhered to Nancy Regan’s advice to just “Say No”. Not only did these kids grow up and snag the best jobs in Silicone Valley but for every minute they endured past the urge to snatch and scarf the first marshmallow, 30 years later they had a .2% reduction in body fat over the grab and go kids! Marshmallow therapy made them rich and skinny!
“Keep your eye on the prize, work hard, dream big and it’s yours” was my mantra. At 21 my first boat transaction went down. It was a used, aluminum 12’ Sears Roebuck fishing skiff, with two oars, purchased from my employer, Mrs. Main, who paid me $1.25 per hour for doing clerical work at a nonprofit. The boat ate my first paycheck.
Ten years later we bought our first powerboat, a solid old Mark Twain 20’ inboard outboard (IO) for playing on and in the Mississippi. It was not a Boston Whaler because there simply weren’t any to be found in middle-American boating venues. Unfortunately, we sunk it on a rock dike about two years later. You can’t really sink on a dike as rocks the size of beach balls are smashed more in than under the hull. When a sinking boat is towed to a harbor the river doesn’t bother asking permission to come aboard. It fills the craft up to it’s gunnels. George abandoned ship. Even then, it didn’t sink all the way to the bottom because evidently boat builders expect people to do stupid things with small craft and so they build them with stuff that floats even under extreme conditions such as the Mississippi current hissing, “Surrender the Booty.”
At 39, I owned my first sailboat, a 12’ slab of fiberglass that resembled a faded orange surfboard with a sail. It was sitting forlornly on the front yard with a cardboard, “For Sail, Cheap” sign. It would have cost an entire summer of Saturday night babysitting back in my high school days, but now I was a college professor and could afford to splurge fifty bucks. It was a cash on the spot deal.
Many boats transactions followed – some with sails, some with paddles but none with the seductive allure of the bright blue deck paint of Boston Whalers.
Fifteen years ago, I called home from a Rhode Island marina parking lot, my voice flooded with emotion, “Hey, Pop, I did it. I just bought that 1968 Boston Whaler – paid cash.” The hull cost the same as it did in ’68 and the engine was less than 10 years old. It was mint and mine.
I’m at an age where some pessimistic, “got to get it now people” are joking that they don’t buy green bananas. They are probably the same kids who were happy with just one marshmallow. I’m two feet and two Whalers past my first. When I look at it straight on – my grins are reciprocated as I hum, “If you try, you just might find, you get what you need.”