Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Shape of the River

"My boy, you've got to know the SHAPE of the river perfectly. It is all there is left to steer by on a very dark night. Everything else is blotted out and gone. But mind you, it hasn't the same shape in the night that it has in the day-time.' a passage from "Life on the Mississippi" by Mark Twain.

In the moments when you think you know everything, you must step aside and discern if you understand it all in context. Do you know what to do with that EVERYTHING that you've acquired over the years? How is that knowledge to be used in the broader sense or in big picture of life?

No matter your age or experience or purpose, I think we all reach points in life where we wonder what is left to learn or we feel like we may have reached the pinnacle of our expertise but a grad school professor reminded me last night that in these technology driven times, it's easy to think you've grasped a concept completely. The world wide web has placed new ideas and information at our fingertips. But to replace the benefits of person to person learning with web surfing would be a grave mistake. To substitute online learning and research for opportunities to be educated by those that came before you could be a devastating error. 

There are things that people know that the internet does not. You can learn a lot by observing people, shadowing your mentors, emulating their behaviors and the tactics that worked for them. There are secrets people can share, if you are so lucky. There are little tricks along the way. 

A time will come eventually when even the old people grew up with computers in their homes and laptops instead of spiral bound notebooks in school. But those times are not yet. And there's still so much to learn and so much to be passed on.

I love technology. I am here, right? But there's something in the history, in the old ways of doing things that is so pure and individualistic. And there's a learning that comes from others that relates all things to life and not simply to the task at hand.

My teacher reminded me of Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi." It's a memoir of Twain's life as a cub pilot on a steamboat that traveled the Mississippi. In it there is that passage, mentioned above, in which Twain is schooled on the importance of understanding the shape of the river. Much like life, when you work the river, knowing how to drive the boat is not enough. Knowing how deep the water is or how many miles you must go is not enough. Knowing the route or mapping out your journey is not enough. You must understand the context in which you are doing those things. You must have a full grasp on the big picture. You must know the shape of the river so that even in the darkest night or the fiercest storm , you can find your way.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Go to Bed!

Me: "I'm getting sleepy. I can hardly keep my eyes open."

Him: "Well, go to bed."

It was a simple comment. Just a comment. Not a plea for assistance. I said, it not to invoke my father's advice but just to say it. But with his father's ears, he heard a dilemma that cried out for a solution. He heard a problem that needed a fix. And so... In a serious and direct tone, he responded as best he could.

My dad's always been a sort of no nonsense kind of guy. He has a bit of a sense of humor and he laughs once in a while. But he's about the business of the day. And he sees no cause to complain or whine or whimper when nearly every situation in life has a quick fix like, just going to bed, for example.

I never really caught on to this no nonsense approach. I am more of a good time Charlie. I like to have fun, I love to laugh and I've found that it's the not-so-funny parts of life that provide the most humor. In other words, I talk just to talk sometimes and I complain because it's funny.

Dad doesn't think I'm funny at all. He just wants me to quit my whining and go to bed. I think that's hilarious.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Second Chances

Perhaps it is because I have been given so many second chances in this life that I believe in giving them to others. Where would I be without a second chance? I could have been an orphan, to start. I may have never graduated college, given that I was kicked out with only 12 credits left to complete. I'd probably be unemployed since last year was such a giant cluster.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog about being remembered for the good you have done in life. Often times, the only way that can happen is if we are given opportunities to right the wrongs we've done. In that blog entry, I wrote a bit about my high school friend, Kathy Donaway. (Read that entry here: 

For years I had lived with the feeling that I had mishandled our relationship and I wondered if I would ever see her again, much less talk to her. Thanks to the dawning of the social networking age and the brilliance of Facebook, Kathy and I reconnected. We spent hours one night just talking and we got down to the heart of some very important matters in our lives. And I'm proud to say, thanks also to a second chance, Kathy and I have renewed our friendship.

It's so easy to carry hurts of the past on our shoulders and to enter into second chance opportunities bound with preconceived notions and almost a determination to fail. It didn't work before. I messed it up the last time. People don't really change. Many thoughts can prevent us from giving a situation or another person or ourselves a second chance.

I realize that not everyone will have my experience. And the outcomes may not always be rosy. But proceeding with an open mind and an open heart can lead you to discover things and people that you may have missed. You may be presented with experiences that result in cherished memories. And, if nothing else, you may find within yourself the courage just to try.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


We are all familiar with the idea that if you are told something enough, you will start to believe it. The concept can work both positively and negatively.

When one of my Goddaughters was little, people complimented her regularly, telling her how beautiful she was. Because she was painfully shy back then, she'd smile sheepishly and hide behind me when others talked to her. Then one day, as we stood in line to check out at Target, the cashier looked up and said, "You are so beautiful." My Goddaughter leaned toward the register and responded, "I know."

After years and years of hearing how pretty she was, my Goddaughter began to believe it. And the words of others sounded more like fact to her than compliments. She responded with confidence, not conceit. She had been told over and over that she was beautiful so it must have been true.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the mental toll that negative words can have on the human spirit is astounding. Research shows, in simple studies, that if a person is told repeatedly to think about something, their "thought energy" shifts and their brain waves change to reflect those thoughts. So if someone is told that they are no good, worthless or a failure on a regular basis, their mindset changes to such a degree that they can become no good, worthless or a failure.

I don't believe that we are aware in many cases of the affect of what we say to the people around us. And, I am often amazed at how cruel we can be when it comes to inflicting hateful words on others, especially strangers.

I think the greatest demonstration of this behavior occurs in the sports arena. If a team or a player is slumping or having a rough time, otherwise happy, cheerful fans can become mean. Perhaps they think that reverse psychology will light a fire under those athletes. Or they forget that athletes are people too. But I have to wonder, if someone came to your job every day and, while you tried to work, yelled and screamed about how bad you were at your job, if you'd get much done. If the people around you constantly yelled that you suck or you should just go home, wouldn't you want to just... go home?

In my younger years, my tongue was much sharper. But my compassion for others has grown recently and I have become very aware of the importance of compliments and the value in kind words. Negativity breeds negativity. Positivity breeds positivity. We should choose our words wisely.