“We All Need Our Cookies”

Recently I joined the East Bay PEN, the Professional Experience Network, an organization composed of professionals who help other professionals. Couple of weeks ago, I attended my first General Meeting. Although I’m a new member and I haven’t yet completed my training, my résumé coach, Mr. Ben English, looked me square in the eyes and said, “You’re going to attend this meeting.’

We’d only just met, but I knew this much: if Mr. Ben English says I’m attending a meeting, if I know what's good for myself, I’m gonna attend that meeting.

I sat quietly, trying to get the lay of the land. Because I was the FNG, I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything. (Vietnam vet slang for “Freaking New Guy.” Except they used another word instead of “Freaking.” You never wanted to go out on patrol with the FNG because he’s green and he’s gonna get you killed.) Much of the meeting concerned attendance. Why were members dropping out after a few weeks? What could the organization do to serve them better (and reduce the rate of attrition)?

I listened, but as the various reasons were discussed, I was reminded of the story about the cookies. I raised my hand, and for some reason, the leader, Mr. R. Pope, recognized me, and told the following story (in a briefer and less interesting way).

Near the end of the Vietnam War, I was just entering college. It was the early 70s. I was very much against the war, and as my own little act of passive resistance, I neglected to register for the draft. Years later, I finally did register, but that's a story for another day.

Dennis Fritzinger
As I got older and more mature, and perhaps not coincidentally, more centrist in my politics, I decided I should do something to recognize the contributions of the men and women of my generation who did not shirk their obligation. Someone else might have taken my consequences. So I asked my friend Dennis Fritzinger, who was a member of Bay Area Chapter 400, Vietnam Veterans of America, if there was anything I could do to help his group.

Dennis knew I was a writer and he also knew I was an early adopter of computers. (I’d bought my first Mac in 1985.) He asked me to join him and another friend, Welch Warren, one weekend to help put together the chapter’s newsletter, “LZ Friendly.” (“LZ” stands for “Landing Zone.” Not associated with the current “LZ Friendly.” Landing zones were classified as “friendly” or “unfriendly” depending upon the reception you’d receive when you landed.)

(A few months later, when I explained my motivation to Welch, he told me, “You don’t owe us anything. If that’s your reason, we don’t want you. Stop now. If you continue, do it because you want to do it and because you like the fellowship.”)

Dennis is a poet who has been recognized a few times by Robert Hass, who was America's Poet Laureate, and asked to speak on the same programs with him. He writes serious, poignant poems about his time in Vietnam and the fellowship he had with his father, who was a decorated WWII prisoner of war, but he also writes intricate, lyrical poems which remind me of Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll. Dennis was also foolhardy enough to accept the lifetime appointment as “The Official Kenn Fong Birthday Party Poet Laureate,” which means he writes and recites an original poem dedicated to me at my 30th, 40th, and 50th birthday parties. (He’s already booked for my 60th, 70th, and 80th.)

Welch was a manager at a Fortune 500 company, and as such, had access to the office on weekends. That first Sunday he picked us up in his Datsun 240Z, we got some sandwiches, and we spent the afternoon at the office, using idle Macs which were top of the line. (In fact, Welch was the company’s manager in charge of Apple products, and knows quite a bit about the early years of Macs in business.) We edited and cut and pasted that afternoon, and that one Sunday grew to be a bimonthly ritual which lasted three years, with some very interesting unintended consequences, which is another story for another day.

We put out that quirky little newsletter every two months. Like every other newsletter, we had the usual news of the chapter, calendar of events, and articles by the officers and members. Welch and Dennis wrote commentaries on veterans issues and current events, and on a couple of occasions, even permitted me a byline or two. It was so good, we won Best Newsletter at the VVA State Convention and the California State Council presented me with a plaque which read: “The President's Award for your dedication and service to LZ Friendly and VVA Kenn Fong 1994.”

There were two features which made LZ Friendly unique among all the other newsletters published by other VVA Chapters. We had many zany and touching cartoons drawn by artist Peter Moore, of Australia, who somehow found us in the pre-Internet days.

The other interesting feature of LZ Friendly was the poetry. Every issue had a poem or two written by Dennis. One Sunday, after Welch dropped Dennis off in Berkeley, I asked Welch what he thought of the poems. I told him sometimes wondered if the members appreciated poetry in those slots.

Welch Warren
Welch, who is one of the few genuine intellectuals I have been privileged to know, took a deep pull of his pipe and he thought. Whenever Welch thinks, you must listen because he’s gonna tell you something profound that you’d never thought of before but immediately recognize as true.

“Well, my friend, once in a while, the Red Cross brings a big van and parks next to the building. The memo goes out and the company gives us company time to donate some blood. The nurses know their business. They stick us, we squeeze our fists a few times, yatta yatta yatta, watta, watta, woo, the bag fills up, they take the needle out, cover the hole with a piece of cotton, tape us up.”

“Before they let us go back inside, we gotta sit and rest for a few minutes. On the table they got a mixed basket of cookies. Chocolate chip, Fig Newtons, Oreos, whatever you like. They give you a cup of juice and tell you to eat some cookies.”

We came to a stoplight and he turned to me. “They want you to sit quietly and drink your juice and eat your cookies. You’ve just given blood. Your body needs some rest and some sugar so it can recover. So you eat your cookies and restore your blood sugar.”

“Now they could just use the same needle and fill you with glucose before patching you up, but they’d rather give you cookies.”

“There’s another reason they want you to eat those cookies. It’s just as important as restoring your body. They’re restoring your soul.”

“What?“ I didn't get it.

“They give you the cookies to say Thank you. To let you know that they know you’ve done some good. It’s like that experiment with the dogs. They ring the bell, the dogs get hungry. You give blood, you get your cookies. You expect your cookies. It’s your reward.”

“LZ Friendly has poems. Dennis puts a lot of work into the newsletter. Before we see him, he’s put in a lot of hours on his own, calling members to get them to agree to write the articles and then pulling teeth to get them to follow through.”

“The poetry is his cookies. It’s our tribute to him. It’s a pat on the back.”

“We all need our cookies,” he said as we pulled up in front of my house. “Look around you and seek out who deserves cookies. Make sure they get their cookies.

[revised to add in a link to Pavlov’s classic conditioning and to correct an inconsequential detail for color.]

Talk to me: Kenn@KennFong.com.