Author Tim Carlin has lived about a dozen lives. He was a military soldier and artillery officer in the days of the Berlin Wall, followed by a lucrative career in the corporate world. Then he traveled the world as a gentleman host, aboard the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth II. He even climbed Kilimanjaro with his wife, who he met dancing and whom he proposed to just three days after meeting. He’s captured all these incredible moments in his memoir, An Extraordinarily Ordinary Life. Throughout our interview, he gave me a deeper insight into the stories of his book and the lessons he learned from his many, many lives.
Emily Gindlesparger: Today, I’m sitting down with author Tim Carlin. Tim, I’ve been really fascinated to read your memoir, An Extraordinarily Ordinary Life: Lessons Learned. It’s great to have you.
Tim Carlin: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.
Emily Gindlesparger: To kick us off, I’m really curious, when did you decide that you wanted to write this book?
Tim Carlin: I started thinking about writing it five years ago and finally, got around to writing it. Initially, I wanted to write it as a legacy piece.
Emily Gindlesparger: Legacy–typically you have somebody in mind of who you want to pass that story down to. Who is it for?
Tim Carlin: Yeah, I think my family and extended family of nieces, nephews, and cousins. I had lived such an interesting, varied life–although ordinary–in some ways it was very extraordinary.
Emily Gindlesparger: Do you live in a storytelling family with your nieces and nephews, is it really common to tell them about your life, or is writing this book unique in that sense?
Tim Carlin: I think writing this book is unique in that sense. I think sometimes in today’s busy world, we don’t get the opportunity, or the listeners to actually tell stories like we used to.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah. I love that you’ve taken the time and space to do that and to write your book.
Tim Carlin: Thank you.
Emily Gindlesparger: Were there insights that you gleaned about yourself as you sat down to write your story?
Tim Carlin: Yeah, there were. I think one of the things that was interesting was resilience in trying new things and not trying to continually repress myself. I think, oftentimes, we repress ourselves from trying new things. Going through the book, I realized, boy, there were a lot of things that I wanted to try that were 180 degrees out from who I was initially, and I’m happy I did it. I was somewhat of a chameleon in a very good way.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah. I think one of the hallmarks of your story is how many times you really reinvented yourself and gave yourself permission to try very different careers, very different interests, things that for many people don’t seem to go together, and then you brought them all together in your life.
Tim Carlin: Yeah. I think sometimes we feel we have to stay in a certain career for whatever given reason, or we have to be a certain way for whatever reason. I think, I gave myself the freedom throughout life, not to follow the crowd per se, or be what people thought I should be, but be who I really felt I was. Sometimes that takes courage beyond what we give ourselves credit for.
Emily Gindlesparger: To give a little preview from your book of how many different chameleon lives, or how many different iterations you’ve gone through, you were a West Point graduate, you were in the military for some time. At one point, you were a captain responsible for initiating nuclear response, which is fascinating. Then you also worked in the corporate world, you’ve worked in finance. Oh, and you were a dancer. You were a gentleman host on a cruise ship. Of all of these different iterations, these different parts of your life, what was the biggest one? What was the biggest leap you took?
Tim Carlin: I think the biggest leap was initially leaving the military after eight years of active service and then you add on four more of West Point. That’s 12 years of your life during some very formative years, so 18 to 30 years of age. I think to a certain extent, the military, although a very risky profession in some ways, is very comforting in others because you have a set salary, you have room and board taken care of to a certain extent, you have medical care. In order to leave that world and begin within the corporate community, that was probably my biggest leap and took some thought processes to get through.
Emily Gindlesparger: What made you decide to leave the military?
Tim Carlin: I think to a certain extent, the Cold War was winding down. It was right after the Berlin Wall came down. It seemed to be that corporate America was coming up with the Internet and cellphones and the technological revolution. I always was one who wanted to be in the middle of the action or volunteering to step out a bit. I actually felt it was the right time to make that move to corporate America and to get involved in all of the new technology that was coming out, and it seemed that peace was breaking out all over at that time.
The Soviet Union dissolved, and a lot of the Eastern European nations became more friendly toward the United States and NATO. I felt it was the right time and I felt the action going forward would be much more in globalization and interaction with different countries as it relates to trade and different types of products.
Emily Gindlesparger: You were actually at the wall the day the Berlin Wall came down. You were there with your brother, correct?
Tim Carlin: Yes. Jeff and I were visiting, and we actually saw people with sledgehammers, breaking the wall down, while the East German guards just stood by and seemed to advocate for that. Then there was a section of the wall that somehow was removed by a crane and people began streaming back and forth. It was just unbelievable, because three years earlier I had been at the wall when Checkpoint Charlie was in full force with guards, concertina wire, dogs that were patrolling, and it was a very separate existence. You had to go through a certain checkpoint, salute a soviet soldier, and then you were allowed to go into East Germany. The streets were relatively desolate in East Germany and they were very vibrant in West Germany.
Well on this day, there were massive crowds and thousands of people. I never thought in a million years the Berlin Wall would come down. It just was such a permanent structure and iconic during my time growing up. It was amazing to be there and get a piece of it during that day when it actually began to come down.
A Historic Moment
Emily Gindlesparger: You mean, literally, a piece of it that you took home with you.
Tim Carlin: Yes. Yes, it could fit in the palm of my hand. It was a piece that came off one of the sledgehammers hitting the wall. It was just a tremendous experience. It was so joyful to see families and people reunited that had been separated for 40, 50 years.
Emily Gindlesparger: Wow. What were your observations as you saw people going back and forth between this gap and the wall? Were people mostly going to see people they knew, or did people cross over just to check out the other side? What did that look like?
Tim Carlin: It happened so spontaneously, there really weren’t families that were waiting to greet families. I think it was more, almost two worlds coming back together to curiously check one another out. Strangers were hugging strangers and high fiving each other, and West Europeans, West Germans were going into the East and East Germans were going into the West, and all of the military and paramilitary individuals were standing by and not taking any action, whatsoever. It was just a massive sea of humanity going back and forth and hugging one another. It was mainly strangers celebrating each other’s foray into a world that they had never been in before.
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s incredible. Of these experiences that you write about covering the span of your life from childhood up to present, what was the most fun?
Tim Carlin: Well, I think the most fun was, no question, taking a year off as a sabbatical year and being a gentleman host onboard the Queen Elizabeth II. This was in 2002, for an around-the-world cruise for three and a half, close to four months. It began in New York City and ended in New York City.
Emily Gindlesparger: I love that part of your book as well because it just seems fun. You write about the different dances you’ve learned. You also write about how you fell in love with Karen just before that time. There are letters back and forth between you and Karen while you’re on that cruise. I’m curious, whether being separated from your fiancé right before your wedding, how did that shape your connection with her?
Tim Carlin: Yeah. One thing I want to mention about the cruise, and then I’ll get right to meeting Karen, one of the things that connected the Berlin Wall and World War II and Germany with the cruise, was on the cruise were a lot of people who lived during that time and actually lived that experience. I got the opportunity to hear their stories and, in some cases, dance with them. It was amazing to dance with a holocaust survivor that actually still had her serial number on her wrist and then hear the stories about Germany and Russia and Poland in World War II. Then see that for myself when I was stationed in Germany, and see the aftermath of the war, then see the reconnection of everyone.
Most importantly though, to bring her some joy and dancing with her in a beautiful setting. The connections and interwoven histories were just a tremendous experience for me and one of the things that go throughout my book–from the standpoint of visiting Africa, where maybe the first humans were. Then going into Israel and the Middle East and the holy land, and then into Italy and the seat of Roman Catholicism and see how history is interwoven. I apologize to digress a bit, but part of my life story were these interesting connections that made such an ordinary life extraordinary.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah. That’s an incredible digression, to have a cruise, to have this thing that we usually associate with vacations and joy and leisure and glamour to some degree, really be this little nexus of history coming together. That’s amazing.
Tim Carlin: The cruise itself, was back in time–it was a foray back in time. Think of how everyone dressed up on the Titanic. We dressed like that every night. It was not necessarily a Caribbean cruise where you take three days and lie in the sun and drink a lot of alcohol, this was a very educational cruise where people were extremely accomplished, from the standpoint they had lived varied experiences, and they were from all over the world because we would have afternoon tea, being a ship of British heritage, and then we would converse. We might be conversing with folks from Japan, or the British former foreign minister was on board, or we may have talked with Dutch South Afrikaners.
Depending on where we were, there was a core group of 200 people who stayed on the ship. Then when we would go around the world, we would pick up different folks. There would always be great conversations on board the ship and sharing of different life experiences over dinner. Every night, we did dress in a tux and/or gown. It was a very interesting experience for me.
Around the World Cruise
Emily Gindlesparger: Wow. Yeah, and very different from, like you said, how the standard Caribbean cruise looks today.
Tim Carlin: Yes, absolutely. Prior to the cruise, getting back to how I met Karen. One of the times where I had to reinvent myself was when I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I didn’t know anyone. Back then, I was working for the Pepsi Cola company. In order to meet folks, I had to learn how to Country Western Two-Step Dance, because everyone did Country Western Two-Step in Tulsa. I started taking dance lessons on how to do that two-step and became proficient enough where I could meet people dancing, but my instructor, Donna Beth Schroeder, had mentioned, “Tim, why don’t you learn cha-cha, tango, waltz, foxtrot?” All these different types of dances. I said, “Why not? It’s great exercise. It makes you feel good when you’re done,” so I did.
Then when I was in Chicago and I got laid off from my job, that opened up an opportunity to be a gentleman host and meet Karen. We had a dance in a location in central Chicago where all these dance clubs throughout the city came. We were going to do a showcase of some routines showing certain dances, but then we were going to dance with each other. That is where I met Karen. After that dance, I proposed three days later, but the problem was two weeks after that, I had already committed to this around-the-world cruise. I left to go on the cruise and Karen got the wedding ready, so that when I returned from the three-and-a-half-month cruise, we’d be married a week or two later.
Emily Gindlesparger: Wow. You had had fairly limited in-person time with Karen before you actually married, it sounds like?
Tim Carlin: We did. I write in the book how it was similar to an arranged marriage like we used to do in the old days. Both of us said yes, after three days. We were married after I returned from the cruise. Once we were married, we joke with each other about how we looked at each other and said, “Well, we’re married now. What do we do? I mean, who are you really?” That first year was the year of getting to know each other.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah. As you said, that’s very, almost traditional, or an older culture that was a normal thing to meet someone and so quickly get married. Was there comfort in that for you? Was there hesitation? How did you feel?
Tim Carlin: Yeah. It was out of character for both of us. There’s no question about that. Clearly, we both felt very comfortable in saying yes, because we weren’t 18 years old. Karen was in her mid-30s and I was in my early 40s. We were older and had lived life somewhat. Needless to say, although we felt comfortable, I think our friends and some family members may not have, because it was so quick, and it was just totally out of character.
I remember getting grilled by Karen’s girlfriends. They wanted to take me to lunch without Karen. They did. They peppered me with questions to prove my validity. They didn’t believe I was a colonel in the military–they didn’t believe a number of things. I had to assure them I was. I had to show them my papers and my military ID card. It was just very, very funny because they were watching out for her best interests, which was very good and that told me a lot about her friendships with her girlfriends.
Emily Gindlesparger: It sounds like they had a very rigorous structure of how to vet you.
Tim Carlin: They did. It was vetting. It was just totally out of character for both of us to do this type of thing. It was amazing. It did work and 17 years later, here we are. It can work sometimes, and I write about that in the book. I mean, sometimes it pays to listen to your gut.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah. How did you know to trust your gut at that time?
Tim Carlin: I tend to over-communicate. I think when I finally met someone who wasn’t trying to hold back, but truly was communicating in an open fashion and somewhat exposing their soul, I think that meant the world to me and her. It was certainly a go to continue exploring the possibility of getting married and engaged.
Emily Gindlesparger: What was it like trying to explore that from the other side of the world on a cruise ship?
Tim Carlin: It was great. It was old school. It was writing letters back and forth. In this case, it took the form of e-mail, but taking the time to write and put your thoughts on paper and describe what you’re seeing and doing and going back and forth every day or two was really something to look forward to. It was a common bond because Karen also loved travel. Part of her selflessness was letting me go on the trip and then part of her joy was seeing the experiences that I was living and that someday she might do the same.
Emily Gindlesparger: You write about what an incredible collaborative connection, it sounds like the two of you had. This is such a small moment from the book, but it’s been sticking with me, when you wanted to improve your communication and so you got a book. Gosh, I wish I’d written down the name of it. Something like, how to tend to your husband, how to feed and care for a husband?
Tim Carlin: Proper Care and Feeding of your Husband, by Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Yes, I remember that. Our relationship, like all relationships, is a dynamic process where there’s ups and downs. Although romantically it was very exciting and so romantic to fall in love in three days, propose that quickly, and get married and still be married, we go through the same issues everybody else does.
There are highs and lows. One area where I’m trying to constantly, again, reinvent myself, or work through an issue or problem is sometimes learning about how I can be better and be a better husband in the relationship. I wanted to just pick the book up to learn from the book’s perspective on some things that I could do to be better to keep our communication alive and well because that ebbs and flows in every relationship. I could feel that ebbing a bit, so I wanted to reengage that.
Discipline Brings Freedom
Emily Gindlesparger: In one of the later chapters of your book, you focus on long-term thinking and how you really set yourself up for future success throughout your life. I’m curious, you talk about how that happened with your work ethic, with your money habits, with your relationship, with your career, and the various iterations of your career. Which of those long-term visions are still really important to you today?
Tim Carlin: I think I mentioned in the book that discipline is freedom. I’m an average student. I’m average at many things I do. Writing the book was a struggle because it took an hour or two every day. If I could be disciplined and give that hour or two to put my thoughts on paper and work through it, I could eventually write a book, or do a marathon, or make a transition from the military to corporate America, or possibly, I could build a business going door to door, just by being disciplined and not being disappointed by rejection.
I mentioned in the book that being disciplined can bring you freedom and that’s very, very important because I believe it to be very true, even the discipline of putting a little bit of money away for a rainy day. That allowed me, after I lost my job in 2002, to take that cruise. It gives you freedom for sure, no questions, that discipline.
Emily Gindlesparger: Did that discipline develop primarily in your West Point days, in your military career? Did it come from other parts of your life?
Tim Carlin: No. It definitely came from my home. The reason I mentioned that is we grew up in a blue-collar family. My dad was a police officer and a state trooper for a while. We had probably a good 35 years of law enforcement. My mom was a traditional homemaker as we were growing up. We grew up in a duplex, so we had one bathroom for five people, which is a lot different today for a lot of us and how we live.
I learned to delay gratification and I also learned the discipline through my parents to a certain extent. I wanted to have Converse sneakers, because that was the big thing back when I was growing up, having the stars on the bottom of your sneakers, but they cost a lot for the day and time that I wanted them. My mom said, “We can’t afford Converse, but we can get you Kmart sneakers.”
I remember getting the Kmart sneakers and people teased me. My friends teased me, because they were Kmart blue lights special, if anyone remembers Kmart back in the day. In the store they would have a blue light go off, that would be the special for the day, and it would be in a certain department of the store.
The other area where I learned some discipline is that I could not drive to high school. My dad, being a police officer, saw a lot of car accidents, where people were seriously injured or killed. As a result of not being able to drive in high school, when I went to West Point, they don’t allow you to drive there until the end of junior year or senior year. When I was a senior, I had to have driver’s education on campus. If anyone knows West Point, it’s somewhat of a closed community and everyone knows everyone. There’s a hierarchy there. The freshmen are called plebs and the seniors are called firsties.
The drivers ed, back in that day, was a car that would have a big yellow rectangular symbol on top of the car with big flashing lights. It wasn’t like today’s driver ed, where you’re somewhat discreet, so people don’t know you’re really in a driver’s ed car. Here I am, this senior. I’m 21 years old on campus and the car drives up with these big yellow lights and driver’s education, student driver plastered all over, and all the freshmen who had maybe come from Oklahoma, or Kansas, or places where their parents allowed them to drive at 14 couldn’t believe that there was a first-class senior at West Point just learning how to drive. I definitely learned my discipline and delaying gratification from my parents growing up in Buffalo, New York.
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s amazing.
Tim Carlin: In today’s day and age, it really is. I took teasing plenty for it. What’s really interesting though, in terms of reinventing yourself, I had a good friend at West Point teach me how to drive a stick shift car. It was a Pontiac Firebird. I remember that I had such a hard time learning that. Now, I’ve evolved where I actually track cars on racetracks. It’s just a fascinating thing how you can be deprived at one moment and then reinvent yourself where you’re driving these high-speed race cars on racetracks when, in fact, you didn’t know how to drive until 21 years of age.
Emily Gindlesparger: Wow. When did you pick up race car driving?
Tim Carlin: I had always wanted to buy a Porsche, so I did back in 2009. They had a Porsche Club and I went to the Porsche Club for high-performance drivers’ education and I was scared to death. It was like jumping out of an airplane. My heart would be beating in my throat as I was driving these cars on a road course at high speeds turning left and right and then straight away. It was absolutely terrifying and thrilling, but at the same time not knowing what to do, I kept going back and learning more and more where now I’m pretty good at it. That’s exactly what inspired me.
Emily Gindlesparger: Wow. You still drive race cars. Do you still dance as well?
Tim Carlin: I do. Writing the book reinvigorated us to begin dancing again. I’m actually back taking lessons and look forward to competing in the future and continuing being that extraordinary ordinary person.
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s incredible. I think the last bit that I teased a little earlier, but we didn’t really touch on, is to tell the story around being in control of nuclear weapons. I’m assuming that you don’t do that anymore, or if you did, you wouldn’t be allowed to tell me.
Tim Carlin: Yes, that’s true. I do not. I’ve retired from that. Part of our strategy at the time in Europe, because the Soviet Union outnumbered us so much at the time. I’m talking about NATO. The amount of equipment they had was so much greater. We had a fallback position where we would defend the Rhine River once we fell back to that area. It’s a process of the defense, and although controversial, part of that was tactical nuclear weapons delivered by artillery means.
As an artillery officer, I was in charge of that for a forward-deployed squadron with my team to make sure that if we had to use them, we were properly trained and could activate them properly. It was, no question, one of the highlights in my military career, and thank goodness, we never had to use them.
Emily Gindlesparger: Speaking of what we were talking about earlier with going on the cruise ship and really being able to witness that piece of history, this phase of your life as an artillery officer is a phase where you were directly participating in what’s arguably one of the most tension-filled political upheavals of our time.
Tim Carlin: Yeah. Wanting to be in the action, I volunteered to serve in the second armored cavalry unit, which was forward deployed along the East German and Czechoslovakian border. We could actually see Warsaw Pact troops right across the way and our job was to make sure we would be first contact if they came across the border. The German people were wonderful. It was a fascinating experience. When I was at West Point, our whole training revolved around the Warsaw Pact in the Soviet Union.
To see those troops firsthand across the way and when I went through Checkpoint Charlie, to actually salute, one of my soviet counterparts was a thrilling, exciting, and nervous experience all rolled into one.
Emily Gindlesparger: Well, Tim. Thank you so much for sharing what I know are just postcards along the way of this huge journey you’ve taken through your life. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you.
Tim Carlin: It has been my pleasure and thank you for having me.
Emily Gindlesparger: If you wanted people and maybe specifically, even your family members who you’ve written this book as a legacy piece for, to take away one to two things from the book, what would they be?
Tim Carlin: Yeah. I think striving for what’s good is very important. Then you can always give a little bit more, especially when you think you can’t.
Emily Gindlesparger: Are there any particular new lessons you learned from writing your story?
Tim Carlin: I learned I need to improve my English, which is very important.
Emily Gindlesparger: So do I, right? That is the writer’s practice.
Tim Carlin: Thank goodness, I had people to proofread my book to make sure I was okay.
Emily Gindlesparger: Well, Tim. It’s been such a pleasure. I’m so excited about your book, which is called An Extraordinarily Ordinary Life. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you?
Tim Carlin: They can find me on Facebook or LinkedIn, if they’d like to chat or drop a comment and friendly hi. I’m certainly there under Tim Carlin.
Emily Gindlesparger: Great. Thank you so much.
Tim Carlin: Thank you.