Category Archives: Motivation

When Buying a Pack of Cigarettes Is Like Buying a Condom

I smoked. I started when I was 16. Cigarettes were twenty five cents in 1959. I posed with a cigarette dangling from my lips as an 18 year old in the Air Force, imitating the movie actors in the World War II movies. When I was twenty I was stationed in Germany, where waiters in even moderately priced restaurants would appear out of nowhere when you took out a cigarette and light it for you. I smoked until I got out of the Air Force at 22, then quit. Then started again. Then quit. Then started again. Then quit when I decided I didn’t like the way it made my hair and clothes smell. Cancer was bad, but smelly hair and clothes were intolerable. Then I started again when I got a sudden urge, but didn’t even finish the pack. I was about a one cigarette a year smoker for a few years. Then, finally, I quit for good in my early thirties.

Last week I got a text from my wife. “Could you pick up my prescription at CVS and get me a pack of cigarettes?” I thought it was some kind of a joke and that I wasn’t getting it. My wife never smoked and I didn’t think she was starting now. I didn’t get the cigarettes.

But it wasn’t a joke. She wanted a pack of cigarettes – for a school project. She’s a school nurse and every year she has to prepare a presentation for the elementary school kids about the dangers of smoking.

I made a special trip to a liquor store to get a pack of cigarettes. It was embarrassing, like it is for a teenaged boy going into a drugstore to buy a condom to put in his wallet in case he gets lucky. I hoped nobody would see me. The conversation with the clerk was awkward. I asked for my old brand, paid six dollars and change, and put them into my pocket. I left the store quickly. I felt the old urge quickly. I dismissed the old urge quickly. It’s been about 36 years since I smoked. It’s a strong urge.

My wife crumpled up the cigarettes and put them in two jars filled with water. She let them sit overnight and took them to school the next day. Each jar was labelled, “Smell this.”

Confessions from A Life Revised

I had a small business, which a big business bought, leaving me with a blank canvas (at 53), a reasonably young age. But I continued pursuing life as if I were still in business, with to-do lists, time management system and all that. It took several years to metamorphose into the new me. I was surprised at some of the things I decided to do with my time, but for the most part I have been drawn to projects that involve my creative tendencies.

Comment left by the author on Madison Woods WordPress Blog, “Blank Canvas”

I know some financially successful people, people who could retire tomorrow, who say they have no idea what they would do if they stopped working. They say this is why they continue. They are sad about it and they are not joking. They have spent their entire lives focused on their work. It’s all they know. Most importantly, although they don’t admit it, they believe their status in life is wrapped up in what they do for a living. It’s who they think are.

I try to encourage them. I tell them they will never know who they really are until they drift for a while, until they just empty their minds. I offer a metaphorical suggestion: Drop your bottom into one of those big black truck inner tubes on a warm day. Float down a lazy stream until all the thoughts that follow one after another, on the power of association, are gone. When you reach a mental dead-end you will have actually arrived at a new beginning. Now your canvas is blank.

It takes time to shed the symbols, mannerisms, “corporate speak” and attitudes acquired in the work world. It takes time to realize that deadlines are not always necessary. And it takes time to completely empty out the self-imposed and self-limiting choices anchored in your own mind.

The attitudes about what’s important and unimportant in life are the first things that need adjustment.

During my headier work days, I once referred in conversation to “the real world,” meaning the “important” world of pressure to perform and compete, of deadlines, of movers and shakers, and of travel with perks. This comment and my attitude were quickly put down by a few stay-at-home-moms and a guy who went to a regular job everyday. They wanted to know what world I thought they lived in and why I thought I lived in the “real world.”

Today, I would completely take their side. I’ve seen it from both perspectives now. People who don’t have a day job do manage to stay busy – and worthy. They take care of children and the elderly. They do all sorts of volunteer work. They create amazing pieces of writing and works of art, for the free enjoyment of others. The list goes on and on.

Here’s a clue to what’s really important in life: Observe people who are retired. They rarely talk about their past work lives. They may talk about their travels or the people they worked with, but not of the work itself or even their most worthy work accomplishments. Everybody has to work to live, so big deal. (An exception to this is military service, about which older men frequently reminisce, because they see it as something different from just making a living.)

So, what have I done with my own blank canvas? I have become a person I’m much more comfortable with than the person I have relinquished. I have done a turn as a house husband and found out how rewarding it can be. (Yes, ladies, I know I had a choice and it was not automatically expected of me. Plus, Mr. Mom gets praised for things real Moms are expected to do as a matter of course. But you’ve been keeping quiet about the many satisfactions!) I have been able to help others with medical situations (some terminal) and have been the executor of somebody’s will. I have hiked a bit on the Appalachian Trail at age 62, sleeping alone at night in a lightweight tent that fit me like a hotdog roll, and I have encountered bears at close range.

The author, happy and revised on the Appalachian Trail

I have become a competitor in the fast world of draw-from-the-holster defensive shooting sports, something I would never have imagined given my previous attitudes. It has tested me, humbled me and given me a new circle of friends. I have volunteered my photographic and video services for Boy Scouts, church, my younger son’s lacrosse teams and to help preserve a Civil War battlefield. I have become my dog’s best friend and constant companion.

Now, just so you know, there’s one more check-in-the-box I need. It’s something I saw on a postcard once in trendy little shop in Austin, Texas. Here it is: I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.

Impossible.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

“…we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
John of Salisbury in Metalogicon, 1159

Cleaning out the storage area of his basement in February 2010, he came across a large white flipchart he had used in the early 1980s. It was the sort used before powerpoint presentations and was only slightly yellowed by time. On the top page was written, in his own handwriting, the word “THE” in large capital letters. That was all – just the word “THE.” “The what?” he wondered.

He flipped the large first page over and smiled. In somebody else’s handwriting was written, “The Irresistible, Inescapable, Irrevocable Coming of Electronic Distribution of Newspapers.” That was his style for sure, to leave no doubt about his position and no wiggle room either. After writing the word “THE” he had decided to delegate the time-consuming task of copying his presentation onto the flip chart to an employee. Somehow, the original first page was never torn off and thrown away. Now it was a message from the past that symbolized his early days as a telecommunications consultant.

He swelled with pride, thinking of how farseeing he had been in predicting the coming of “electronic” newspapers. But as he flipped over page after page of the presentation he knew that was a crock. Only the title of the presentation was original to him. Following the bold pronouncement on page one were page after page of bullet points showing the results of his research of the literature which supported his thesis. He was not a technology scholar. Nor was he an inventor of technology. He was a consultant. His role had been to stay abreast of advances in telecommunications technology, to persuade clients to adopt new technology and then to help them justify its costs and implement it. To a large extent he was in the vision business.

Finding the old flip chart got him to thinking about one special person who had influenced him. He had met this person only briefly and only once.

A few days passed. Early on a Saturday morning, he impulsively typed the special person’s name into the Google search box: “Ralph Lee Smith”. He thought it was a waste of time because there must be a million Ralph Lee Smiths. And sure enough, Google’s first search result showed a “Ralph Lee Smith, The Dulcimer’s Number One Friend,” with a picture of an older man lovingly holding the musical instrument known as the dulcimer. No telecommunications connection here, he thought. And the photo brought no recollection of the Ralph Lee Smith he had met so long ago, so he paged back to the Google search results. That was when he noticed this Ralph Lee Smith also claimed to be an author.

He decided to return to the webpage and click on some of its links. First he clicked on a link titled “Books and Records.” All the books listed were about the dulcimer and folk music. Next he tried the link titled “Greenwich Village Days.” This time his persistence was rewarded. The book he was looking for was listed there.

At 8:14 A.M. on the same day he sent an email:

Dear Sir:

I was working for the old Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company in DC when I first read “The Wired Nation” back in 1971-72. It made quite an impression on me and I decided to go for a Master’s Degree in the University of Colorado’s then new Telecommunications Program. I was privileged to hear you speak when you visited Boulder. That was in the fall of 1972 or the spring of 1973.

I just want to thank you very much for inspiring me and giving me a vision of the future which became largely true. I tell young people today about how you influenced me and gave me a vision that pointed me in a good direction. I tell them that they need to find such a vision also.

Warm regards and Deep Respect,
Gordon MacPherson

The vision had been the vision of broadband communications and digitization of information. These were the two interlocking advances in telecommunications that made possible the high speed networks and advanced communications services we have today. The idea that we would also wind up with a wireless nation had barely crossed anybody’s mind at the time, but the concept of broadband communications was inclusive.

He wondered if he would get a response. Ralph’s webpage said he was born in 1927 and that the website was designed by his granddaughter, Robin.

He was surprised and gratified, therefore, when he received this email 17 minutes later:

Dear Gordon,

Thank you so much for this very kind message! I think that the coming of new things inspired all of us in the days when The Wired Nation was published. I stand in awe of the many things that have been happening in the communications world in recent years and that are happening now.

In addition to writing and communications, I have had for many years an interest in folklore and folk music, and these days I write and teach in this field. You can see some of my writing in this area, on my website http:///www.ralphleesmith.com

Thank you again for writing!

Very best regards,

Ralph

But he wasn’t going to let it go at this. The matter of exactly when he had met Ralph Lee Smith still needed to be resolved. Was it 1972 or 1973? He just wanted to know, for no particular reason except that he was wired that way. He might find a clue in his copy of “The Wired Nation,” so he found the old book and opened it up. On the fly page was Ralph’s autograph:

For Gordon with very best personal regards.
Ralph Lee Smith
October 1972

He sent another email to Ralph informing him of this finding and received this in reply:

Dear Gordon,

Gosh! Amazing! Thank you!

Ralph

It appears that giants come in all shapes and sizes. And some of them play the dulcimer. Expertly. After all, if they were one-dimensional, they wouldn’t be giants.