Stories from the Road to Yellville

My parents are getting older. They are fiercely independent, but once in a while they call and need or want something, and since I’m the older son those calls often come to me. A couple of weeks ago that call came from my father: “Your great aunt has passed, and we were hoping you could drive us to the funeral”. What’s a son to say?

The day started at 8 AM. I drove to their house and we all loaded in Dad’s car, then headed over to pick up my uncle before starting the 3 hour drive to Yellville. It’s one of those towns that has to be a destination for you, because you aren’t going to just happen upon it on the way to somewhere else: it’s as close to the end of the road as it gets. The drive is scenic and typical of the northern Arkansas countryside, and even though we’ve had little rain all summer it was still a pretty drive, though very dry. The funeral was well attended, and since my great aunt had dementia for a period of years the funeral was not as sad as some are. It’s also pretty rare that I see my uncle these days, so I decided to take advantage of the situation and ask him and my father everything I could think of about their childhood together and growing up in rural Arkansas in the 1930’s.

I heard stories about animals, picking cotton, and what I’m sure were some terrible, lean times in the Great Depression. They lived in a time when most people there still did not have electricity and indoor plumbing, when no one had any money, but most folks at least had a garden and the ability to feed themselves. One of my dad’s more revealing memories was about the hobos, tramps, and homeless folk that sometimes showed up at their house near the railroad outside of Little Rock. Every morning his mother would fix the family breakfast, usually consisting of homemade biscuits and gravy and eggs. The family would eat and head on their way, and leftovers would be set aside to eat later. Sometimes the hobos would come knock on the door at the porch and ask if there was any food to be spared. My dad said that my grandmother would do her best to sound stern, but most times a plate of that mornings leftovers would get handed through the screen door to a hungry man who would eat out in the yard while my dad and aunt would watch. I remember my Grandmommie and this sounds typical of her: she could sound tough when she wanted but would help if she could.

My uncle had a good story or two as well. “Daddy and our family lived for a while at a dairy. Daddy ran the dairy, and in return he got free rent and a plot of ground to garden, plus $5-10 a week. Back then nobody had a tractor for plowing. You had to have either a mule or a horse to pull a plow. Daddy needed a mule, so one Saturday he went to town to the livestock sale barn to bid on something. He brought home a good mule, and it was a fine looking animal. It was young and strong, and broke to the plow. I think it probably cost $40 or more, and that was a lot of money back then.”

“He got home late that Saturday and didn’t have time to plow, so on Sunday morning he got up to get his plowing done. Everyone else was getting ready for church, and Momma saw what he was doing and started to get on him about it. She said ‘Floyd! What are you doing? It’s time to go to church!’, but Daddy kept on getting ready to plow. Momma was always faithful to make it to church, and expected everyone else to go, too. So Daddy put on his overhauls and work boots, hitched up the mule to the plow, pointed it down the row, snapped the reins at the mule, and they started plowing. They made it about 50 feet down the row, then the mule stopped. Next thing I knew, it fell over, twitched, and died!” (He later said it probably had the distemper). “My momma went straight up to Daddy and got up close to him and yelled at him ‘Floyd! I told you not to plow on Sunday!’ After that she always told everybody that the mule died because Daddy plowed on Sunday!”

Together my dad and uncle talked about other times when they were growing up, about the animals, living out in the country, and what life was like. There were hard times and they had no money, but with their farming ability they were almost always able to grow what they needed and take care of their own. I am amazed to hear about these times; it makes me realize how easy we have things now. And it was good to imagine my father as a boy and a young man, trying to figure out how to make it in the world. The stories from the road to Yellville were good ones, and turned the day into a treasured memory.

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Graduation Speeches: What Would I Say?

Last night I found myself sitting in a graduation ceremony. The high school has outgrown the school auditorium, so we were inside the local college’s basketball venue. There were a number of speeches given by graduates who spoke of encouragement, looking forward, fond memories, and the usual things that you hear at graduations in speeches given by students who perhaps don’t have a lot of life experience. Kind, well-meaning speeches, to be sure, but… they are what they are.

It occurred to me that I have things to say to these students. The problem is that I am neither rich, famous, or associated even remotely with the school, other than I myself am the parent of twins who will hopefully graduate themselves in a few years, so it’s not likely that I will be asked to give the speech. So I’m going to write it down and blog (and if you steal this to use at your commencement, you darn well better give me credit for it!) What exactly would I say?

Here it is: Good evening graduates, parents, families, and friends! You are all here tonight because your child, grandchild, relative, friend or neighbor is on the verge of the rest of their life. While we are all wishing them the best, there are things they should know, and as an older and hopefully wiser adult, here is what I would tell you.

1) Take some time off (I’m stealing this straight from Guy Kawasaki: look it up!). You have worked your butt off for a period of years… or maybe you slacked all the way through, I don’t know. Either way, whether you like it or not, you will find yourself becoming more responsible very soon. If there is any way you can make it happen, you need to go have some fun: this summer, or maybe between semesters, but do it. You may not get another chance. Some of you are headed to college for four years, followed by graduate school, or law school, or medical school, or to the military and boot camp, or to a mind-numbingly boring job, so the next four/six/eight/ten years of your life will be spent with your head in a book, or a lab, or a practice room, a kitchen, a fox hole, or somewhere that is not very fun. Go do something fun. Not something stupid, or ill-advised, or illegal, but something fun. Get a backpack and knock around Europe for a month. Go to New York City and take in a half dozen Broadway shows. Spend every penny you can get from your parents, grandparents, relatives, friends and neighbors. You need to do this because you may not get to do it again. You should do it because this will give you perspective, a life experience, and a good memory that may carry you through dark times in the future. So enjoy it, and don’t feel guilty about asking your mom, dad, grandparents, etc. to let you do it. I wish I were you, and trust me: they do, too!

2) I have words of wisdom for you that don’t involve traveling, slacking, partying, or backpacking, too! Here are the first: Some of the best lessons you will ever learn will not be in a classroom. (This is the part that makes the educators in the room mad. But they know it’s true and will get over it). You will learn these lessons by doing what we older adults call “living”. While “living”, you will learn by failing. You will learn by screwing up. You will learn by doing. You will learn by making choices. And the smartest of you will learn by watching others, and seeing them fail, screw up, and doing. This is OK. As you live your lives, you will make choices, and then hopefully have to live with those choices. I say “hopefully” because some of you are severely protected by your parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, and neighbors. You make decisions and when bad things happen, these loved ones bail you out so you don’t have to live with the consequences of your decisions. That may seem like a good thing now, but sooner or later it will be bad, because no matter how much these people love and care for you, they won’t always be there. Sooner or later your decisions will come back to haunt you, and the older you get, the bigger those decisions become. What is the best thing? This is the hard part for the parents and loved ones: let your children make decisions, and make them deal with the fallout and the aftermath of those decisions. The sooner your kids learn personal responsibility, the sooner they make good decisions, and the better they get at it. Also, when they learn this sooner the bad consequences are usually much smaller than when they learn them later. Yes, it’s hard to let your kid screw up, but it’s much harder when they are thirty, or forty, or fifty.

3) Graduates: failure will come. You will encounter things in life that you can’t overcome, or run into things that will get to you or mess up your life’s plans. That’s ok: you can learn from failure. Failure represents opportunity, too. Michael Jordan (he was an NBA basketball player, kids) missed more shots than most other players, but he made more, too. Babe Ruth (baseball player; your grandparents knew all about him) struck out a lot back in the day, but he also created a home run record that stood unmatched for decades. What’s the point here? Trying begats failure, but also begats success, and success can’t come unless you try. So keep trying. One more tired sports analogy: you can’t win if you sit out the game. You can be carried by others, but you personally do not win.

4) Luck can come to anyone, but it comes most often to those who work their butts off for it. It also comes to those who have a good plan, who follow through on the plan, and who work hard to execute their plan. Armand Hammer once said “When I work fourteen hours a day seven days a week I get lucky”. Edna Mode in the movie The Incredibles said “Luck favors the prepared”. Yes, sometimes you will fail (see item 3 above), but sometimes you succeed. And if you don’t try, you get nothing. Don’t settle for nothing. And here is some more good news: this whole planning thing? It can be taught. It can be learned. It can be practised. It can be a habit. What does that say about luck? I think that is saying: You can make your own luck. Luck can be many things, but at some point luck is a choice.

5) However you got to wherever you are right now doesn’t mean you can’t be somewhere better tomorrow. The decisions you made in the past have certainly influenced your path, but you can make better decisions, starting right now. Maybe you wait until the night before to study for your test? How did that work out for you? The smart ones make different choices the next time. Making the same decisions the same way over and over and expecting a different result is insanity, so…be sane.

6) Never, ever stop learning. None of you is going to die one day and get a tombstone that says “I wish I had watched more TV”, or “I should have played more video games”, or “I wish I had worked more hours a week”. I’m not saying these things are bad, but learning will expand your mind and keep you moving forward more than these other things will. I was once told “You either are growing or you are dying”. Your mind is the same way: keep expanding it. Keep thinking. Keep trying new things, considering new ideas, and challenging what you believe you know. William James once said “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Open your minds and honestly consider other ideas… but when you see they are wrong, don’t be afraid to reject them. Just make sure you do it in a way that leaves dignity and respect with those that have other ideas and cultural backgrounds than you do: in the end we all still have to get along and share this earth. And hey, that trip and fun stuff I told you to do way back at the beginning of this little talk? Those are also ways to learn (and another great reason to ask for that money!) Never stop learning.

7) Give back to mankind. In the course of your lifetime, some of you will earn millions and millions of dollars, maybe more. Don’t do this by stepping on those around you. Find ways to be compassionate and caring. Yes, you will want to win in life, but winning is useless if you are alone and hated. That boy or girl sitting next to you? They are a soul. They are just like you, but different. They have hopes and dreams and fears, though maybe not all of the same ones you do. Don’t be afraid to help someone else meet their hopes and dreams and escape their fears; it will make you a better person, too. And in ten, or twenty or thirty years when you get back together for the big high school reunion? The best of you will not be bragging about your money, or houses, or cars. And if anyone does, most people won’t want to hear it. Trust me; wait and see.

There is so much more I would tell you graduates, but it’s very likely that by now you are already thinking about tonight’s party, or hopefully tomorrow’s big trip. The last thing I will tell you: this room is full of people who care about you. If you ever need help, these are most likely the people who will do it. Try not to need it, but don’t be afraid to ask if you do. And congratulations! And take some time off, maybe go on a trip…?

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Pens! Pens! Pens!

I recently made it to the Little Rock Fountain Pen show, and it’s becoming obvious to me: I am obsessing about fountain pens! While at the show I picked up a Lamy Safari with a 1.5mm calligraphy tip, a couple of bottles of Waterman ink (including the Havana brown), a bottle of Diamine Sapphire Blue, and neat pen sleeve that fits over a Rhodia Webnotebook called a Quiver.

The show was fun. I ran into an old friend I had not seen for years as I browsed, and I was able to view some vintage pens I would otherwise never have seen. The show is hosted by Vanness, a local fountain pen shop that is simply a wonderful little store, who supplied me with the Lamy, ink, and the Quiver. There was also a fellow running a pen repair business: Danny Fudge. As he worked on a couple of my favorite pens I discovered he had married a friend from school: small world!

In the past couple of months I’ve picked up a set of Rotring ArtPens for calligraphy, along with some Speedball nibs and a holder. I’ve also been using a Rotring Newton as my day to day writer, a Sheaffer Javelin, and couple of Levenger Truewriters. However, my current favorite is a Pilot Plumix: a $10 throwaway pen that is refillable (with cartridge), and has a 0.9 mm flat calligraphy nib! I’m using it more and more as it has helped me improve my handwriting as I try to write with an Italic hand.

A quick thanks to the But She’s A Girl blog for her review of the Lamy 2000. Thanks to her I just have to get one. I’ve got a Lamy Studio on order now, but I can tell: the 2000 is in my future! Good review; now I’m jonesing for the next pen.

The Quiver, ArtPens, and more

The Quiver, ArtPens, and more

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Go-Lives and All-Nighters

Working in information technology at a hospital system means sooner or later you get to pull an all-nighter, and tonight is the night. Our company has a big go-live planned for this evening, so I’m here for the duration. Even though I’m in management, when an especially large or important system comes up I’m there.

Our hospital has done a number of these in the nearly 20 years I have been here. We’ve learned a lot in that time, figuring how to not only survive these all-nighters, but how to make them fun, too. The facility where we are this time has the best cafeteria in the company, so the food has been good. I’ve got a bag of Starbucks so my Espresso Roast coffee is awesome (say it in falsetto: “awesome!”), and the nurses in our department have made a fine art out of providing go-live snacks! I have 3 hours until go-live, so the phone bank is quiet while the systems analysts and consultants finish the processing required. It will be a long night, but fun. My department does a good job of managing large projects and we are working with the best and brightest of our users, so we aren’t expecting a lot of issues. We shall see!

I started my garden this week, at least the seeds. Starting seeds indoors is more trouble than just buying the plants ready to put in the ground, but if you do any volume of gardening it’s the cheapest way to go. I received my Burpee seed order Monday, so the next two nights I left the TV off and got my seeds started. This year I have two varieties of tomato (a “Napa Grape” hybrid and a “Salsa” hybrid) along with a super-mild jalepeno variety, a regular (hot!) jalepeno, bell peppers, basil, and some zinias (flowers). The basil and zinias are an idea I wanted to try after fighting tomato worms (hornworms) last year. If you mix in either basil or zinias in your garden with your veggies, it makes the area less inviting for the moths that lay the hornworm eggs…or so I’m told!

I have lots more gardening to do, too. After breakfast this AM I got out my tiller and began turning the earth outside to prep my plots for the “cool weather” produce. I’m going to try some lettuce, leaf spinach, potatoes, onions, and broccoli. That will take me 45-60 days down the road, which should be about the time my seeds are all ready, so after I harvest some of the above I’ll plant the seedlings I started. I’m also adding some more area in my side yard, so with some more tiller time I hope to get strawberries and blueberries going. I’m also going to start some cucumber and squash. It should be a great garden!

Next project: rain barrels. My dad has had rain barrels attached to his roof’s gutter downspouts for years, so I’m going to give that a go this season, too. We have a couple of businesses in our county that sell food barrels for cheap: each barrel can be had for less than $20. Add to that a few more dollars for the hardware and tubing required, and you can set up a chain of 4-8 barrels per downspout to collect rain water for not too much money. Our part of the country often has extended periods of the summer with little or no rain, so during previous years I used tap water and a hose to keep the garden going. By late summer those “cheap” vegetables have become high-dollar! I’ve considered having a well drilled on my property, but my best guestimate is that it would cost close to $3,000 to get it drilled, capped, and a pump in place, so I don’t really consider that to be economical. The rain barrels, however, can be added for less than $100 a string. The way my house’s roof is laid out I think I can put three strings in place, and I would spend at least $250 to water all summer, so I think it’s worth it.

Well, the all-nighter is starting to get busy, so it’s time to wrap it up. I hope to post some pics of the seed-starting party in a few days. Happy gardening!

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Life Tragically Wasted: Whitney, We Will Miss You

Just time for a quick post.  Last night I returned home from an evening out with the wife and twins only to hear of Whitney Houston’s untimely death.  So sad to hear of anyone dying young, and since she was close to my age it was especially tragic. Her life had so much promise, her voice and talent had so much depth and breadth, and hearing how she passed just filled me with sadness.  I’ll leave the commentary to all of the tabloids, but I will leave this knowing that Whitney, with all of her talent, voice, and accomplishments, could have been so much more than what she was.  So much wasted… that’s the real tragedy.

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Gathering the Miscellaneous as Life Rolls On

Some days there is a little bit of everything on my mind, and the best way to deal with it is to scatter it on a page. So here goes:

1) I work in a hospital. Just to be realistic, I recognize that most of the people who come here for treatment don’t want to be here. Walking down the hall to the cafeteria allows me to see these people, with their worried looks, their difficulty in making eye contact, and the impression they give that it’s not going to be a good day. While it’s hard to do, the personal challenge for me is to look at them, try to make eye contact, and smile kindly. I hope this helps in some way; surely it doesn’t hurt.

2) Sometimes I have employees who have attitude problems. Their glass is half empty. They walk under a dark cloud. If the best or the worst can happen to them, they assume it will be the worst. My personal challenge: give them what they need, not what they deserve. It is tempting sometimes to give up, but that isn’t the right thing for either of us, at least not yet.

3) I watch too much TV. Waaaayyyyyy too much TV. This year I am committing to learning something creative (calligraphy first!), to start turning off the TV more often (how many reruns of NCIS can you watch?), and to try to learn more. I have discovered a couple of cool resources for continued education that I am dying to try out: iTunes University. Just imagine college classes at Harvard, Yale, USC, Duke… now imagine you can sit through them, for free, in the comfort of your own home! Go to iTunes and check it out (it’s at the bottom of the iTunes screen). Project Gutenberg: free books. The classics, available online, in multiple formats: HTML, PDF, ebook formats. It does NOT have “The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo”, but it does have classics and literary treasures. Have you ever read “Moby Dick”? Or “The Last of the Mohicans”? “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”? Now you have no excuse! Next, The Open University. Or as I like to think of it: free college. Free. College. Last but not least: Open Culture‘s list of 400 free college courses.

4) We are all getting older, and we can either deny it or face it. My own father sets a great example for me. He’s in his late 70’s, but is still very active in spite of a heart condition. He walks a couple of miles every day, briskly, either outside or on a treadmill. He still gardens, mostly by hand, including vegetables, fruit, and roses. He puts puzzles together almost every day, too, and not those little 200-300 piece beauties. He’s into the 1000-2000 piece monsters that take up a whole kitchen table. Why? The mental exercise it provides exercises the brain on several levels. Recognizing colors and shapes, and then manipulating those while looking for patterns helps keep his brain active. He also reads a lot: the Internet, news, business journals, rose growers’ websites. My dad has committed to daily involvement in physical and mental activity, and I need to do the same. In other words, see item 3 above: turn off the stinking TV!

5) My kids are growing up quickly. This weekend they will be involved in Region Band as eighth graders. Both boys made first band! My wife and I are doing all we can do to encourage them and help them grow mentally as well as physically, but I feel like she and I could be doing more. We aren’t done yet, though.

So that’s the list of stuff on my heart and mind. Writing about it has made me feel better, and hopefully more committed to working on what I can do to make life better. All I have to do now is execute the plan!

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Why Handwriting Matters

One of my personal goals for 2012 is to be involved in more creative activities, and one of the new activities I’m getting interested in is calligraphy. Calligraphy is the art of decorative handwriting and lettering, and as I began to get interested in learning it I discovered a book, Learn Calligraphy, by Margaret Shepherd, which led me to her blog. As I began reading I discovered this post about whether or not handwriting should be taught in modern schools today, and it is well worth reading.

Margaret makes one point I find to be especially valid: while we all may use keyboards and mice today to use a computer, that does not mean we will in three to five years. I dare say we may be able to abandon our keyboards even sooner, now that Apple has a product called Siri. If Apple doesn’t move this product from iPhone and iPad to the Macintosh platform, they will be missing quite an opportunity.

Will handwriting and printing ever go away? Are there skills and knowledge that can be learned through handwriting? These are good things to think about. Personally, I plan to work on handwriting and calligraphy skills during the next year, partly as a creative process, and partly as a remedial effort to improve my handwriting. There really is no acceptable excuse for bad handwriting, and making the written word beautiful can make it more appealing and acceptable. Let the creativity begin!

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