News From the Front

Thoughts on People Who Sail Away

04 Jan 2015

I wrote this a few months ago, when I heard the news that a friend was terminally ill. I guess at the time I was a little superstitious and didn't want to publish it.

I just heard that she passed away. As the person who told me said, "we just need to appreciate our friends, forgive a little easier, hug a little harder". Yes, all of those things.

Anyway, here it is:

I just heard from a friend tonight who has a terminal disease. Seems like we are always saying goodbye to people. So many, so many. All I can think about is how they leave and we get left behind on the dock, feebly waving goodbye, remembering them as they were in the moments before we cast off their lines. I guess that sounds pretty selfish. What about them? In their last days or months they must wonder if their life has made sense, if there are things they wanted to do or see or say or learn or feel.

I don't think it's about any of those things. I think it's just about people. It's about you and I. It's about how much we love them today, what we did for them today, how we made sure they know how grateful we are that they are a part of our lives, today. It seems to me that all the stuff about bucket lists, life reruns and last goodbyes are meaningless when you are looking down the tunnel of the last few months of your life. It seems to me that the most important thing is, and will always be, what it happening right now. Who you are, what you are, now. The best, and only thing we can do, in my opinion, is to love and live now, with no regrets, no apologies. I think it isn't about your scorecard at the end, it's about how much you loved, how much you lived, and how true you were to yourself and those you love.

I feel blessed that there are so many wonderful people in my life. They all have their skills, their personalities, and their quirks. Each life is a story unfolding before our eyes, each a house of cards built on the foundation of cards that were dealt in the past. We are a product of our own past lives, but the things that happened before are just echoes heard off the canyon wall of the present. Each life is a continual procession of "what have you done for me lately?" quizzes. All the past can do is maybe give us a little context, a little muscle memory to encourage the knee-jerk of today.

As for those who have left us behind on the dock, I often feel the need to keep them in a sort of memory safe, protected from forgetting by a thick door and an imaginary combination lock. How stupid. What's the point of a story if it can't be told and re-told? That's the responsibility of the people left on the dock, waving as those we love sail away. It's our job to keep telling their story, so that it mixes with the stories of others who have also sailed away, and ultimately becomes the foundation for someone else's house of cards.

We honor those who have left us on the dock by living our own lives, by being present every second, making their stories part of our stories, and part of the foundation of our own house of cards.

On Creativity

23 Oct 2014

During the time I was getting paid to work (I still work, I just don't get paid for it), I spent a lot of time thinking and studying creativity. I know that a lot of people believe that creativity is somehow a genetic trait, that it can't be learned in the traditional sense, the same way you would teach a child the multiplication tables or learn how to make gnocchi. Why is that? Probably because there isn't a clear result - standardized tests on creativity aren't that common. Also, there is the old myth that people are "right brained or left brained". For the longest time, I believed I was special because I was left handed, an since so many lefties in the world were also smart, creative people, I was one of them, right?

The two main sources of my creativity study were Edward De Bono and Tony Buzan, both British. That's probably because the years when I really cared enough to study these things were when Liz and I were living in England. It seemed at the time that there was more acceptance in Britain of people like Edward and Tony, that they were considered people who others should stop and listen to. Tony Buzan had a regular TV show in the 80s in England, generally describing his method of "mind mapping" that helped people organize thoughts around a particular subject, not only as a way to help them be more creative, but to make notes more visual. Britain, at the time, saw TV as a means of educating the public, and since the two leading television channels, the BBC, were government run, it seemed like a natural fit for educational content from people like Tony Buzan to be presented for the edification of the populous. 

Not being particularly artistic (yet another thing that people think is genetic), my maps were, and are, far less colorful. They generally consisted of a central bubble with a bunch of lines leading out. I wasn't long before programmers came up with applications that emulated the hand-drawn maps, allowing users to condense and re-format mind maps into outlines and even power point presentations. I was so proud of my mind-mapping abilities that I attempted a few times to do my presentations directly from my large, complex and hard to read mind maps. After detecting considerably less enthusiasm for my skills in audiences, I decided to save my mind-map presentations for those who might better appreciate them. To this day, I still use mind mapping to organize my somewhat random thought processes into something that is a bit more understandable to others.

What does this have to do with creativity, you ask?

One of the things that I learned from Dr.s Buzan and De Bono was that one of the biggest creativity killers was what I used to call "grooves in the mind". Edward De Bono describes the mind as a flat plate of gelatin (Jello, to us Americans) onto which dollops of hot water was poured. As each bit of water is poured onto the Jello, a dent is washed out. As more experiences were built up, more dents are made, or previous dents made deeper. Eventually, every dollop of water poured on the Jello flows to the same dent. So, without a deliberate push away from those dents, every experience elicits the same reaction. It's easy to see in folks who are getting on in years - often less and less willingness to learn new things or think in new ways. After all, it worked all these years, it will continue to work, right?

Edward De Bono coined the phrase "lateral thinking" - which eventually made it into the Oxford Dictionary. The idea is that instead of just relying on past experiences to influence your creative activity, you do things to deliberately take you out of your normal thought processes or comfort zones. One of his favorite tools was a simple dictionary, he would gather a group of people together, propose a topic, and then randomly open a dictionary, point at a word, and ask what that word made the group think of in relation to the proposed topic.

A typical exercise might go like this:

Facilitator: "Let's talk about the problem of crowding at the doors of an underground train. What creative ideas can we come up with to mitigate this problem?"

Facilitator (opens dictionary randomly): "I see the word 'feather'. What does that make us think of?

Group: "Feathers are light!", "Feathers are beautiful!", "Feathers allow birds to fly!", "Feathers float in water!", "Feathers are used for artistic writing!"

Facilitator: "Hummmm, "flying" and "light". Perhaps we have something here. What if we elevated the entry to the to the underground train?"

Member of Group: "Better yet, what if we made the underground trains two levels, allowing twice as many people to board at the same time, through an upper and lower doors?"

Member of Group: "Flying is fast. What if we made the trains faster, so more people could be moved, which means less people on the platform?"

Member of Group: "Beautiful... What if we made the platforms more artistic, so people didn't mind hanging around waiting for the next train?"

Anyway, you get the picture. A single word brought people out of their normal modes of thinking to allow them to go into thinking modes they hadn't previously considered. 

Edward De Bono invented a number of other processes that he described in various books. I sometimes used "6 Hats Thinking" when I was doing meeting facilitation. It was an interesting way to get people to think out of the box, and to clearly understand what mode their thinking was in at a moment. 

So, what's the point of all this? I'm not sure, but as with the opening of a dictionary, perhaps some of the thoughts here will help someone to move out of their self-imposed mental dents into  fresh areas of Jello. In these days of conservatism and fear of change, I'd like to think that there are still people out there who are willing to look at the world in a new way, if for no other reason than it is a new way.


Puddle Jump

02 Apr 2010

 I thought I would share with all of you an event that Liz and I experienced yesterday.

As you may know, Puerto Vallarta is a popular place for people to prepare for the "puddle jump" to the South Pacific.  Latitude 38 Magazine tries to keep track of people heading over - this year over 200 boats signed up with them, leaving from all over the Pacific Coast.  A large number of them are leaving from here.

We made good friends with the owners of a Nordhavn 64 called Oso Blanco (White Bear, after their 7 year old son, Bear).  They've been planning this trip for years, and after all that time, they were able to start yesterday.  If you ever met Eric, the owner, you would know that starting on April 1 sort of matches his sensibilities.  Eric has logged 25000 miles in Nordhavn cruisers, but even with all that, Lloyds of London was reluctant to give him insurance without people on board who had actually done the puddle jump previously.  He was able to convince the underwriter that he would buddy-cruise with another Nordhavn that had people on board with experience of that passage, and Eric would take three extra friends onboard with experience of long-distance cruising.

Nordhavns are known as expedition cruisers - powerboats with enough fuel and standby systems to give them incredible range.  Oso has a range of around 3500 miles, and is equipped with an entirely separate get-home engine system that they can use in case the main engine packs it in during the trip.  For this trip, Eric bought an extra flexible fuel bladder for another 300 gallons of fuel.  When you get going, there's really nothing out there as a stopping point until you reach the Marquesas, which is their first destination, only 2700 miles away.

The whole Puddle Jump thing has been a real eye opener for Liz and I. When you go to the marina, there are crowds of kids running around. Whole families are making these trips, many with pretty small children on board.  Obviously, the vessel of choice is a sailboat, but these days  there are a few long distance trawlers who are making the trip.  What an amazing thing for a kid to be involved in.  It reminds us of the kids we met while we were living internationally: a little smarter, a little more worldly, and a lot more self sufficient.  The parents are different too:  They don't freak out when their kids are jumping from the dock to boats or driving their scooters down the docks at high speed in imminent danger of going into the water. 

For us, as our new friends head over the horizon, it has been a mixture of happiness and sadness.  We're obviously happy for them to be following their dreams, but sad to be the people standing on the dock, tears in the eyes, waving goodbye to such good friends.  Casting off their lines and watching them cruise out of the marina, with Bear and his mother standing on the back deck waving, us knowing it would be months or years before we have a chance to see them again.  Then turning and walking back down the dock with other friends, all of us in tears, joking about how one of those "Left Behind" books ought to be written about us.

It was a special moment that Liz and I will never forget.

Stupid is as Stupid Does

09 Jan 2010

Well, it's 8:40 pm and I got home about 20 minutes ago.  The last 8 hours or so have been quite an adventure.

We drove back from Barra de Navidad today, after an excellent few days with our friends on Oso Blanco.  About 40 miles from PV all sorts of lights went on the car.  From what was happening (power steering not working, AC suddenly warm), it was pretty easy to see that the car had thrown a belt.  We were in the middle of nowhere, so I decided that even through the alternator was no longer powering anything, there ought to be enough energy in the battery to keep the electric radiator fan running and keep spark going until we could limp to the next town.  Stupid.  Belts power water pumps, too.
It didn't happen.  The car died about 3km short of Tuito (about 30 miles from Puerto Vallarta).  There just happened to be a bare spot on the other side of the road, and as I opened the hood to look at the steaming remains of my engine, a guy pulls up on a very small motorcycle.  He looks at the situation, introduces himself in broken English and says, "I'll get a taxi.  Be right back".  He turns around and heads back to Tuito. Ten minutes later he leads a taxi back to where we are.
Liz and I get in the taxi and head to Tuito, where the taxi driver has a favorite mechanic.  Mechanic in tow, and we all parade back to our car.
The mechanic opens the hood.  His English is excellent, "Your water pump is gone".  
So, we are back in the taxi to go to a car parts store in Tuito.  Of course, no water pump.  After heading back to where the car is to tell the mechanic what is going on (and to get the old water pump), me, Liz and the taxi guy head for the Jeep dealer in Puerto Vallarta, a 45 minute drive over curvy roads.  When we get there, we find they are closed for another 30 minutes, so the taxi driver takes Liz home and comes back for me.
Water pump and new belt in hand, we head back to Tuito to pick up the mechanic and head to the car.  I paid off the taxi driver in Tuito and jumped in with the mechanic and headed back to the car.  It took him all of 10 minutes to mount the new water pump and belt.  Just before he asked me to try the engine, he checked the oil.  Oops, wayyyy too much.  Bad sign.
Sure enough, the engine wouldn't start.  Heads probably blown, or worse.
We discussed the situation, and determined that my now-favorite shade tree mechanic Alex could probably do a reasonable job of figuring out exactly what had happened to the car.  The problem was that we needed a tow.  Alex had an idea.
We drove back to Tuito, he jumps out of the car, and walks over to a police truck.  Then Alex comes back and tells me to come over and get in the police truck with him, and the three of us drive off at a high rate of speed toward my poor car.  The lights were a nice touch.
Alex produces a very worn piece of rope, and attaches it to my car, then to the bumper of the police truck, and off we go back to Tuito.  Even the policeman was skeptical about Alex's tow rope.
The rope broke going over a tope (speed bump) near Alex's garage, so he coasted there with me giving a little extra push.  The tow cost me a 200 peso contribution to the police benevolent fund. 
So, that's where we are now - I'll know by 5pm tomorrow if Alex can fix it.  
We are philosophical about it.  We couldn't believe our luck to have someone who spoke English stop right after we broke down.  We were also very lucky to be broke down so near Tuito, the last town with mechanics before you get to PV.  We got a very, very patient taxi driver who probably drove us 60 miles total.  The car is what it is - it'll either be fixed or it won't be.  We'll have to see what happens after tomorrow.