The good things…

Status

I complain. Okay, I complain a lot.

But I’m not in a bad mood all the time. Today I thought I’d list a few things I’m happy about this week. It’s been a stressful week, so it’s good to look at some good things, too.

First: my arms actually aren’t hurting for the first time in ages. So there’s that!

Today is a Friday, and I’d normally be preparing for our weekly Toastmasters meeting, but with the holiday we’re taking a week off. Our corporate club has been incredibly welcoming and encouraging over the last three months. I’ve learned so much from all of you!

This afternoon is the start of our autumn Aikido seminar with Donovan Waite Sensei; he’s an awesome teacher, and I get to spend time with everyone at my dojo, all of whom have graciously welcomed me and helped me learn over the last year. September 2 was my first anniversary.

September 2 was also my 17-year anniversary with Wells Fargo. That’s pretty amazing for me; it’s more than three times longer than my longest previous job. I had a couple of difficult days this week at work, but my manager and my team backed me up and helped it get better.

Somewhere in September will mark my 20-year anniversary of when I first got sick. Cancer isn’t something to celebrate, but surviving cancer for 20 years certainly is. I was fortunate that I had an excellent surgeon who kept working on my case when the early test results were confusing. I suspect that I would have died without his determination and skill. I’m also thankful for the friends who supported us during that time, and my lovely wife, who worked, cared for our animals, and spent every spare moment at the hospital with me. Thanks!

I appreciate everyone who has helped me be a better person.

Thank you.

A moonlit highway long ago

Below is my third Toastmasters speech, given as my entry in a humor contest on August 28. I was made ineligible because I went over the time limit of seven minutes, but I count it as a success because people did laugh, and I did manage to get up and do a speech without checking any notes while I was speaking.

 


Massachusetts is not only more rural than people think; it’s more rural than most people would believe. Massachusetts is very rural, even though it’s about 1/5 the size of North Carolina while having two-thirds the number of people. The reason for this is that nearly everyone in Massachusetts lives either within a 45 mile circle of Boston, or in a series of other towns and cities that stretch, like pearls on a string, in a long, east-west line of population along old Route 9.

Route 9 goes from Boston through Framingham, Worcester, and Springfield, and out to the western border with New York. Route 2, along the northern edge of the state, stretches just as far, but there are fewer big towns, and thus it is very isolated in places.

Charged with patrolling these highways are the troopers of the Massachusetts State Police. The State Police are one of the oldest highway patrol forces in the US, and I suspect that they were the model for many other states when they started up their highway patrols.

Years ago, before equal opportunity became a concept, the patrol only hired big guys, I think there was a minimum height of 5′ 10″, and many of them were much taller than that. They wore knee-high boots, bloused trousers with a stripe down the side, Smokey Bear hats, Sam Browne belts… you know, the kind with the strap that holds up your service revolver? Overall, they were some very serious and impressive-looking dudes.

These guys are simultaneously the driver’s biggest fear (because they are constantly lurking behind overpasses) and biggest friend, because they’ll stop and help you if you’re broken down.

Back in the late 1980s, I was unemployed and working as a carpenter for hire. My van had gotten wrecked, and I ended up with a two-door car, a 1970s vehicle that seemed to be about the size of one of today’s sport utility vehicles. I think I paid $75 for it. The driver’s door wouldn’t open, the odometer was broken (which meant I never knew how far I’d driven), and the gas gauge was broken (which meant that I ran out of gas rather often). Being broke, I didn’t try to get the gas gauge fixed; I just bought a five-gallon gas can and kept it in the trunk. When I would run out of gas I would just glide to the side of the road and put in enough gas to get me to the next station.

I was working as a carpenter, so I needed to be able to carry lumber. I looked at the car and thought… “I can build a roof rack to carry lumber!” But the trunk lid was in the way. So I did what any maker would do; I took a wrench and removed the trunk lid. Now the hinges holding the lid were standing upright, so I bolted some 2×6 boards to them, and ran other 2x6s across the roof and tied them to the front bumper. I was in business!

Also in the late 1980s, my wife and I had just gotten married, and for some reason we were totally in love with the idea of homesteading. We poured over every issue of The Mother Earth News, she read seed catalogs, we planted a garden, we raised chickens for eggs, built a fancy compost heap, and raised geese; big, gray geese.

When we got a chance to buy a cabin on five wooded acres in central Mass, we thought we had our homestead! We were very excited. We got the place in the winter and over the next few months we gradually cleaned up the cabin and started moving our stuff. We spent every weekend there and started looking for work.

Finally, in August, came the last step; moving the chickens and geese out to their new home. The chickens were easy. Put them into large boxes and close the lids. Chickens tend to get very quiet when it’s dark. Geese are another matter.

Our geese were big. They had really large wing spans and could be ferocious when they were agitated. We consulted Mother Earth News and learned the trick for transporting geese. You gather some old feed bags snip off the bottom corner. You take a goose, fold its wings, and carefully put it head-first into the bag until its head emerges from the corner. With their wings restrained they sit quietly. Except that when geese are stressed, they pant rapidly, with their tongues sticking out. Geese in bags are very stressed.

When the big day came, I got off work, got home, got the feed bags, carefully cut a corner off each one, and bagged up geese, setting each one on the back seat of my car. I headed out on the 75 mile drive from the coast to the hills of central Massachusetts.

Around ten PM, driving up a long, empty stretch of Route 2, the car ran out of gas. No panic, this was something I knew how to do. I glided to the breakdown lane, put on my emergency lights, and got out to fill up the car. The moon was out, and it was a beautiful evening. Suddenly a police car arrived and pulled up behind me, blue flashing lights adding to the overall effect of the moonlight and my car’s hazard lights.

The trooper got out of his car…

Trooper: “Good evening, everything okay?”

Me: “Yes, officer. I ran out of gas, but I’ll be on my way shortly.”

Trooper: “Good, good.”

He clicked on his flashlight and shined it on me; long hair, jeans with the knees ripped out. He examined the car’s trunk, with the lid missing and the 2×6 Beverly Hillbillies roof rack. He strolled up next to the car and pointed his light into the back seat.

He stood there for a long while, not moving.

Then he clicked off his flashlight, did a smart military turn and marched back to his patrol car — never looking my way — got into his cruiser, turned off the lights, and sped away.

A ‘plague of offense’?

I’ve been seeing posts and articles claiming that “everyone is offended these days,” with the implication, at least, that everyone should just get over themselves. I agree to a point, but I also think that some of this is a passive-aggressive way of saying “stop pointing out that I’m a bigot.”

Here’s my take on the ‘plague of offense’ that we’re apparently suffering through. Subject to revision/refinement as I think this through…

I don’t expect to get through the day without being offended
(I’ll try not to whine about it beyond posting a snarky comment).

I don’t expect to get through the day without offending anyone, but I don’t go out of my way to do so. I think people who do are just showing that they’re jerks. If I cross the line from expressing an opinion to being deliberately offensive, call me out on it.

My “being offended” is different from pointing out discrimination and bullying behavior. If you think that you can silence me by telling me to quit being easily offended, you’re wrong.

There are problems that won’t go away by being ignored; if someone points out racism, sexism, or any other social issue that they think is a problem, don’t imagine you can shut them up by claiming that they just need to grow a thick skin.

Heroes


Below is my second Toastmasters speech, built on the requirement that I had to organize my speech properly; with a clear beginning, middle, and end. This is still in the form of the notes I spoke to during the speech. I’m planning to re-write it to fill in the blanks, similar to how I delivered it during the meeting. I got feedback after my speech that the portion where I talked about everyday heroes could use some expansion, and my transitions between ideas could use some smoothing out, so I’ll probably buff up the full-text version a bit.


Intro

Green skin! Stretchy arms! Invulnerability to bullets! They can fly! Woohoo!

  • In movies and comic books, this is how heroes are presented. But this isn’t a new thing.
  • Hero stories are some of the oldest stories we have.
  • The story of Gilgamesh, the King of Sumer, was first written down about 4,000 years ago.
  • Achilles was a hero of the Greek story of the battle of Troy
  • Bellerophon was the hero who captured the winged horse, Pegasus
  • In fact, if you look at their abilities, the heroes of ancient myth look a lot like our modern comic-book superheroes, or maybe the other way around, who knows…

Body

  • When I was a child, I was fascinated by heroes.
  • I watched The Amazing Spiderman every Saturday morning; I knew about Sampson, and David & Goliath
  • I wasn’t much of a comics reader, but boy did I love Aragorn and Faramir in The Lord of the Rings
  • When I was a little older, I devoured the stories in the Reader’s Digest magazines my mom got. There was a column called “Drama in Real Life,” filled with heart-wrenching stories of people saving their families, co-workers, and complete strangers.
  • I still love stories like that! We have featured some of them on Wells Fargo Stories, such as the one about the mortgage consultant who rescued two people from their car, stuck on a train track.
  • When I was growing up, I wanted to be one of those heroes. I had daydreams of saving people, but growing up in the suburbs doesn’t give you many opportunities like that.
  • As I got older, I started to collect heroes of my own, such as the surgeon who diagnosed my cancer and saved my life.
  • There are some pretty clear trends here.
    • In the ancient stories, the heroes are mostly demigods or the children of demigods,
    • In the comic books, most heroes have had some extreme thing happen that changed them from being “merely human” to being a superman.
    • Even my surgeon has a bit of the superhuman about him… years of training, decades of experience
  • Over time, I started to recognize another kind of hero
    • People with no superhuman skills; people who aren’t descended from gods, who haven’t been bitten by radioactive spiders, and who haven’t even had years of training to be surgeons, firemen, or rescue helicopter pilots.
    • People like my night nurse when I was recovering from my surgery. Whenever I woke up, there she was, with the most amazing patience and kindness.
  • I started realizing that I had known many heroic people,
    • Like my mom, who raised five kids at home with another in college; she woke up at 4 every morning to get the day started for her family; she worked part-time jobs to make ends meet.
    • Like my dad, who worked 50-60 hours a week, and when he came home grew food for us in a large garden next to the house.
  • These heroic people are not superhuman, they’re not flawless, and they don’t have extraordinary gifts.
  • What they do have is grit. They get up, show up, do what’s in front of them, and care deeply about the people in their lives.
  • They’re not only the unsung heroes, they’re often totally invisible to most everyone around them

Conclusion

  • I still love heroes, and will always love hearing the stories of the heroes of newspaper stories, who rush into burning buildings to save children or jump into rivers to save drowning people.
  • I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from people who do these things, but I want to suggest to you that, while not everyone is a hero, there are more heroes around us than we may be used to thinking of.
  • There are probably heroes right here in this room.
  • The person in the next chair might be a hero.
  • The person in your chair might be a hero.

Mr. Toastmaster…

Why don’t we teach our kids critical thinking skills?

Aside

I was reading this thread on Quora, and one of the comments included the observation that we teach American schoolchildren scientific facts (if even this), but rarely teach the scientific method, which would better enable them to figure things out for themselves.

I have thought about this off and on, and my conclusion is that there are many institutions, not just religious ones, that benefit from a population that doesn’t think critically about the world. I’m not saying there’s a coherent strategy to keep people uneducated (there’s no need to imagine a plot), but there’s no push to make it happen, so it doesn’t happen. Here are a few such organizations or institutions that I thought of off the top of my head:

  • Marketing: you would prefer it to be easy to convince people to buy your stuff
  • Politics: easier to get people to vote for you if you can use emotion and not logic
  • Military: people with good critical thinking skills might see that military action is usually not your best first option (probably a sub-category of politics)
  • Religion (of course)
  • Professional team sports (probably a sub-category of marketing)
  • Parents who want their kids to grow up believing in the same things they do

 

Icebreaker speech

Note: when making a speech to a Toastmasters club, you have to open and close the speech in prescribed fashion. The “icebreaker” speech is the standard first speech in the Toastmasters program, designed to get you talking in front of an audience. I procrastinated writing this speech until 10:45 on Friday morning, July 31, with the speech due at our noon meeting that day. I printed it out at 11:50 and walked over to the neighboring office building where our corporate Toastmasters club has its weekly meeting. I mention this so you know I’m not holding this up as an example of a well thought-out speech!


Jorah’s Icebreaker speech, July 31, 2015

Mr. Toastmaster; ladies and gentlemen

(PAUSE)

This is my icebreaker speech… and I panicked at first, thinking that I was going to have to discuss giant Arctic working ships with highly reinforced bows and powerful engines.

(PAUSE)

When I realized I was only expected to talk about myself, I relaxed right away, but then had the challenge of figuring out how to restrict myself to five minutes on a topic that I actually know a lot about.

(PAUSE)

Since our Toastmasters club is work-related, I decided to focus on how I learned some of the skills I use in the job I have now.

What a long, strange trip it’s been

I’ve had few different jobs, not all of them as swanky as the one I have now!

  • I’ve swept floors (I think I’ve probably spent 20% of my working life sweeping floors), washed floors, waxed floors, and installed floors…
  • I’ve built houses; torn houses apart, put roofs on houses, and even dug tunnels under houses…
  • I’ve vacuumed parking lots, driven fork lifts, mixed sand, melted bronze…
  • I’ve gathered chickens at night in barns where the ceiling was so low I couldn’t stand up straight…
  • I’ve gathered eggs, loaded and unloaded trucks, decorated ballrooms at fancy hotels (favorite memory; crossing a Boston sidewalk carrying what looked like a 20-foot marble column), and stocked warehouses…
  • I’ve done inventory of parts for nuclear submarines, sewn futons at a commune in New Hampshire, given people baths, cleaned printing presses, done quality assurance, and inspected medical labels at night in a darkened room with a strobe light running for 10 hours at a time…
  • I’ve done newspaper page layout, published a magazine, delivered newspapers, taught job skills to disabled persons, and stood guard over submarines loaded with nuclear weapons…

As you can tell, none of that sounds like background for a career managing corporate web sites.

But no matter what job I’ve had, I’ve always tried to do my best. I’ve always tried to learn something new at each job, I’ve always tried to solve problems, and — perhaps most important — I’ve always worked hard.

Being a stock control clerk in the Navy, I learned about categories and naming conventions. It turns out that being able to work out sensible names and categories will give you a good foundation for understanding web site construction, where you have to arrange things so that people have a chance of finding them.

By having a new job every few months, I learned how to learn new things quickly.

Being able to walk onto a new job and learn long sequences of processes like how to transform piles of lumber, drywall, and roofing shingles into a house… can help you understand how to write process documentation for publishing web sites.

I’ve discovered that I can look at a problem and relate it to something I learned 30 years ago… and often solve that problem.

I’ve learned that no job is beneath me.

I learned not to look down my nose at someone because of the job they have.

Because…

You are not your job. Your current job doesn’t have to limit where you end up. I’m proof of that. If someone who knew I flunked out of high school saw me working in that chicken barn in 1995, they wouldn’t have credited the idea that I’d be working for a top Fortune 500 company a few years later.

And all of this has made me grateful. I no longer have to stand on wooden platforms thirty feet in the air, with freezing water dripping down my back. I don’t have to shovel manure, or work on sun baked roofs, or risk giant rolls of paper shifting and breaking my leg, nor getting burned by molten aluminum.

(PAUSE)

My life has taken me in some strange directions, and much to my surprise it has now brought me here, to a Toastmasters meeting in a beautiful building in Charlotte, and I’m glad to be here and thank you all for welcoming me.

Mr. Toastmaster…

“I hate that the world has changed”

Aside

(cross-posted from FB)

Many of the complaints I see from the conservative side of social media seem to boil down to “I hate that the world doesn’t look like it did when I was a kid.”

For the most part, the good old days were not so good for most people. We’ve lost good things, I won’t deny, but some things are better, and equal rights for more people are on my list of those better things. I’m not asking anyone to agree, but I’m probably not going to spend much time talking with you if you disagree.

Peace.

Leaping forward… into the quiet center

I haven’t fully worked out what I want to say here, but I wanted to get something typed out so that I don’t forget that I want to write about it.

I spend a lot of time online. Twitter, Google Plus, even Facebook. I see a lot of posts by people encouraging everyone to seize the day, start their small business, travel to exotic places, write their book… and I’m sure that’s all great advice. Really! I probably will try to write a book someday, and even though I’m not cut out to be an entrepreneur, if you are, then you probably owe it to yourself to give it a real shot.

But not all of us need to be world travelers, even if we can afford to, which (obviously) most people cannot. Some of us like going home at the end of the workday and leaving work at work… people who start their own businesses probably need to be thinking about their business pretty much all the time, or that’s what I hear. And so far, I haven’t thought of a single story or non-fiction book idea that’s just burning up in me, trying to get out to the world.

My resistance to the “rah rah rah” cheerleader crowd goes deeper than that, though. I think it has to do with a feeling that the go out and burn your mark on the world idea is hooked to an assumption that fast movement, outward-facing action, loud & forceful speaking, and shaking things up are the only ways to be “a success.” As if the only right mold is the one that produces extroverts. I think, too, that it’s aligned with the “growth = success” model that sees wilderness as “undeveloped” and not gorgeous and complete in itself, that sees efficiency and productivity as the only modes of action, and counts speed and size as sole measures of value.

To be honest, none of that appeals to me. I need to think that way at work a lot, because they pay me to get lots of work done. But when I come home, I want to be, not produce.

I seem to be attracted to things that are not quick. I am one year into training in Aikido, where (at my dojo at least) I am not likely to reach the first level of black belt for at least eight to ten years. In my free time I’m likely to be reading, knitting, or learning to weave.

I think there’s a place in the world for taking time, for not rushing to a goal, for learning the subtle aspects of something.

A hard lesson to learn: trying to be a better me

I was reading a book on Aikido recently. The author of the book mentioned how nearly everyone he met in Aikido over the years had been a decent person. I have had an interest in Aikido for over thirty years, and finally got a chance to join a dojo last year. In my very limited experience, I think that his observation is correct. I’ve visited two dojos in addition to my home dojo, and I’ve attended two seminars where people from other dojos visited to train with us. They’ve all been incredibly helpful, friendly, gentle, and patient people.

Even more recently, I was reading an article about Esperanto, and this section caught my attention:

  Invented at the end of the 19th century, in many ways it (Esperanto) presaged the early online society that the web would bring to life at the end of the 20th. It’s only ever been spoken by an assortment of fans and true believers spread across the globe, but to speak Esperanto is to become an automatic citizen in the most welcoming non-nation on Earth.

Decades before Couchsurfing became a website (or the word website existed), Esperantists had an international homestay service called Pasporta Servo, in which friendly hosts around the world listed their phone numbers and home addresses in a central directory available to traveling Esperantists. It may be a small, widely dispersed, and self-selected diaspora, but wherever you go, there are Esperantists who are excited that you exist.

It sounds hokey,* but this is the central appeal of Esperanto. It’s as if the initial Utopian vibes of the World Wide Web had never reached a wider audience. There’s no money, no power, no marketing, no prestige — Esperanto speakers speak Esperanto because they believe in it…

I mention this not because I’m interested in Esperanto, but because I was pleased to see someone praise the no money/no marketing/no power/no prestige angle instead of mocking it.

…and then there’s my local knitting guild. And my wife’s lace guild. All filled with wonderful, helpful people. I also recently attended my first Toastmasters meeting.  I think by now you’ll have spotted a trend, and won’t be surprised to learn that in addition to the stated goal to “…provide a supportive and positive learning experience…” the folks at that meeting actually modeled that behavior.

All of this positivity bubbling up in my life at once got me thinking yesterday, including realizing that this might sound as if I’m turning into a Pollyanna.

I concluded a couple of things right away. One: I don’t really care if I sound like a bit of a goody-two-shoes. After all, I don’t make a very convincing sinister character. Two: I like the “me” who participates in these groups better than other versions of me that I’ve been in the past.

Then I remembered something that I’d figured out a few years ago, but forgotten (or at least, not had much reason to ponder) since then. It was a hard thing for me to admit to myself, and I’ll try to explain why…

Somewhere along the line in my childhood, I’d gotten the impression that… well… good people are good because they hew to concepts of goodness. You know… the good man has this code of ethics and never varies from it. That whole thing. The trouble was, I kept disappointing myself. I kept not being the person I wanted to be. I was selfish, self-indulgent, prone to irrational rages, full of self loathing, often giving up on goals, bailing on commitments to other people… yeah, not the person I wanted to see in the mirror.

It took me a long time to admit that I wasn’t a stand-alone paragon of virtue. In fact, if I hung out with people who also were self-indulgent, selfish, and tended to bail on commitments, my virtue would be hard to detect. I had to admit that I’m one of those horrible people who are “easily swayed.” I’d rather not be. I want to be a paragon. But the reality is, my environment matters a lot.

It turns out, when I associate with people who exhibit the kind of behavior I really admire, I’m rather more admirable myself.

I’ve decided not to worry about being a paragon. If if takes being selective about how and who I spend time with to make me a better person… and heck, if it turns out that I like those people a lot better than the average, then where’s the downside? That I don’t get to be the Mighty Individualist? Perhaps, but in addition to not playing the sinister villain, I’m also not cut out to be John Galt. Sorry, fans of the American Rugged Individualist!

So, it seems that being with supportive people leads me to be a better me. Then a natural question might be “how do I find the groups that help me?” On the surface, knitting, aikido, and public speaking don’t have much in common, but there is a thread; or even a series of threads. These things all take time to do well; constant practice is mandatory to improve. There’s not much room for people who need constant ego boosts. One of my fellow aikido students noted that people who like to be overnight successes tend to drop out of aikido training after a few days or weeks. It’s just too humbling to be constantly at the level of total beginner.

I’ve learned to be at peace with the concept of needing lots of support and I like knowing I’m supporting others in striving for goals that seem to recede in the distance. You can always work to be a better knitter, a better aikidoka, or a better speaker, but it is probably not sensible to strive to be the best at any these crafts or paths. How would you even measure such a thing?

And now it’s time to get ready to go to the dojo. Peace.

 

————————————————————————-

*I love that he used the word hokey here… :-)

Tyranny

I was thinking about the news one recent day, and I started to wonder why so many dictatorships spend so much time, money, and energy suppressing their populations. I thought something like “if I had any urge to be a tyrant, I’d prefer to be the absolute ruler of a rich nation than a poor one, as there would be many more resources and fun things for me to own and do than otherwise.”

As I continued mulling on this concept, I realized that if the citizens subjects were convinced that they were actually free, then they wouldn’t even be a threat to my rule, not realizing that they were being oppressed. In fact, only really stupid dictators wouldn’t see this; the ones who saw the world from a zero-sum perspective.

It struck me immediately that if I could think of this, then many smarter and more ambitious people had to have already not only thought of this, but implemented it, and I should be able to look around the world and see evidence of this in existing countries.

Suddenly, and sadly, the history of U.S. foreign and domestic policy since the end of the second world war made a lot more sense.

Believe me, I know how paranoid this sounds, I don’t claim it’s objectively true, and I don’t plan to haul this theory out at get-togethers for the rest of my life. I just wanted to type it out to get it out of the cabinet of curiosities that is my subconscious mind.