We Live in Different Worlds

July 2nd, 2019

Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Canyon, Texas

It’s a different world out here in far West Texas. There is flat prairie for miles in every direction (unless you stumble onto Palo Duro, that is). Trees are an oddity and the wind is always blowing. But the biggest difference is the people. Everyone here wears boots and Stetsons, they are weathered by the sun and wind and they are the friendliest people I’ve ever met. No one acts uppity. In a local diner, you can’t tell the difference between a rancher worth millions and a day-laborer hoping to make it to tomorrow. Then there is the 47-foot high statue of Tex Randall. He’s hard to miss. I can’t spend much time here without thinking about the differences between the world I live in in Clear Lake and the one the people here in Canyon inhabit.

I guess I’ve been aware of different, parallel worlds for decades. I knew a woman years ago who was a dedicated follower of soap-operas. We sometimes talked about it. I saw them as silly and pointless. Life just isn’t as zany and difficult as portrayed there. She said she loved them because they were so true to life. I thought she was crazy (she was…but that’s a different story). And then there was my first week as a freshman in the new world of Purdue. What a difference from what I knew in Gary, Indiana. It was like getting hit in the face with a door!

But I really started to notice it when I first came to Texas. I was immediately struck by the difference between my world and that of some of my students. One day in my first semester here, on my way into work I saw an old pair of sneakers, laces tied together and thrown over a powerline crossing a city street. I mentioned it in class later that day, wondering why anyone would want to do that. Several of my students explained it was a “billboard” advertising drugs for sale. I was dumbfounded.

Over the years, I came to understand that many of my students lived in worlds that were not only alien to me but ones I didn’t even know existed. In the ensuing decades, I have had students from third generation welfare families and from neighborhood environments filled with drugs and habitual criminals. While I grew up poor, such things simply did not exist in my wholesome world.

What determines our world? Some of it, of course, is what we are born into. We have no control over that. But as we age, most of us find that our worlds change, sometimes dramatically. There must be something besides accidents of birth at work here. Certainly, there are the influences of family, friends and neighborhoods. Later we encounter other environments such as school and the workplace. Each of these somewhat controls the kind of people we meet and the world we see. My first days at Purdue are a prime example. There were very few students like me, the professors seemed like space aliens and the expectations were far beyond what I anticipated.

As a writer, I do a lot of listening, eavesdropping if you will, so I can learn things about people. I hear the conversations between bartenders at my favorite watering holes and can tell in an instant that they definitely live in a different world than I do. The same is true of my students. Those whose families work in the plants are very different from those whose parents work in business, education or the high-tech industries. And all of them live in worlds very different from mine.

In the magnificent novel Illusions, Richard Bach has a passage in which a character is teaching his protégé about these different worlds. He asks, “You live in the same world as a stockbroker?…Your life has been tumbled and changed by a new SEC policy?” Of course, the “student,” an airplane pilot, recognizes he knows nothing of the Wall Street world. The teacher’s point is, each of us lives in a world different from everyone else; no two of us occupy the same world. If that notion is true, and I think it is, it is important we consider the effects and the infinite possibilities of these differing worlds.

First and foremost, for most of us, the world we see is the world we believe is real and the only one there is. And unless something major happens to shake us of that idea, that world is the only one we will ever see. But if indeed there are other options, there is reason to believe that some of them could possibly be more attractive to us than our current situation. If we become aware of those options, come to the realization that we don’t have to live the way we have been, we just might want to make a change.

I admit that’s not always easy. In fact, at times it may seem impossible. Sometimes making that transition is only possibile if we get a little help from someone else, someone to show us the way—a teacher, if you will. I don’t mean an educator in the traditional sense necessarily, but rather, someone like the character in Illusions, someone who already understands and can help us to see reality and the options that lay before us.

It seems to me, once we understand that a better world, or even lots of better worlds, may exist, we can make one of them ours if we really want to. But for most of us, we don’t have a clue as to how to go about it. It is really a two-step process.

First, we need to “see” that world we want and to believe it really exists. To quote an old college coach of mine, “What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.” That may mean going out of our way to expose ourselves, even superficially, to other options—to see them in action. We may feel like a fish out of water, or like we are trying to force ourselves into places or groups to which we don’t belong—to which we are not welcome, but “seeing” those opportunities is all a part of the process of change. We might even want to try on several other worlds “for size,” just to see which might “look better” on us.

When we find one we like, the hard work really begins. It now becomes a matter of doing what is necessary to get there. That brings us back to Old Coach; When we believe it—it will happen. It may take work, but what worthwhile thing doesn’t?

In reality, we all live in the world we have chosen for ourselves—and we are always free to make a different choice.

Serendipity

March 4th, 2019

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Guadalupe River, Texas

My running buddy and I were surrounded by what appeared to be an ocean of college kids, each dragging a tube and some with elaborate beer-cooler/multi-tube floatation systems that suggested these people were not the novice river runner I was. I felt a bit out of place, but at the same time, I was looking forward to trying this classic Texas activity—even if I was bit on the geriatric side.

As we stood on the bank, the bus driver/guide told us about the four sets of rapids we would encounter and how to safely negotiate our way around each. The first was Hueco Falls and we were told to stay to the far left. When he was finished, we waded into the icy water. It was absolutely shocking on entry, but after a few seconds it felt great on this blazing August day.

Feeling like a hippo trying to mount a tricycle, I fought my way onto the tube and began my trip downstream. Seconds later, I was underwater with a snoot full of river and the rather unpleasant sensation of bouncing off rocks. The driver failed to tell us Hueco Falls was barely 100 yards from our put-in point.

After what seemed like minutes underwater, being battered repeatedly, I surfaced at the end of the falls minus my tube. It seemed my day on the river had come to an abrupt end after less than two minutes and I was going to be paying for a lost tube. I struggled over to the left bank and hung on a tree root, just trying to catch my breath.

About five minutes later I heard a young man shout, “Did anyone lose a tube?” I guess my day wasn’t over after all. I retrieved the tube, thanked him profusely and then rested a few more minutes. Finally, hanging onto the tube for dear life, I waded down to a shallower spot where I would be able to once again “gracefully” climb aboard.

The rest of the trip turned out to be much less eventful, and at the end of the day, we pulled out in beautiful downtown Gruene. I returned the tube, changed clothes and headed to the Gristmill for dinner.

Sitting in one of the open areas overlooking the river, I enjoyed a chicken fried steak and a Corona. I planned to attend a show at Gruene Hall that night, so I just hung out there on the deck for a couple of hours watching the river run far below me and listening to restaurant’s music (which, by the way, was far more appropriate for someone my age than the people I had shared the river with that day). About an hour later, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” came on and instantly, I was 17 again with a guitar hanging around my neck.
Like most kids in the ‘60s, I was part of a very bad garage band. We never amounted to anything, but we had a great time and dreamed of the day we would be more famous than the Beatles. One of the songs we played was this Cream hit and it led to one of my proudest moments. Well, it was at the time anyway. The song ends with a continuous striking of a single chord as the sound fades out. But the chord didn’t give closure to the song. While Cream made it work on the record by fading out the sound, in live performances, you can’t do that; songs need to end.

That open cadence drove me crazy for weeks and one practice day, as we finished the song, I just couldn’t take it anymore and I hit the chord that would give the song closure. Immediately, I, and everyone else in the band, recognized it as the first of the three-chord opening to the Who’s “I can See for Miles.” We segued immediately into that song and loved the way it sounded. Forever after, we performed those two songs together.

Back then, I didn’t understand that music was just math and architecture was frozen music. If I did, this “discovery” would have been no big deal. It would have been obvious if I just looked at it mathematically. But I didn’t know that then; I just knew that the final chord left us hanging and it drove me crazy. I had to close the loop. The way it happened was serendipity at its best—a totally pleasant accident.

Some of our most interesting discoveries have come from this kind of serendipitous event. Penicillin, Post-it notes, Viagra and even microwave ovens were all happy accidents. We are always shocked and delighted when they happen. We treat these events as if they were gifts— or even miracles—and in a sense, they are.

But I really have to wonder if these things we call serendipitous are really accidental or even all that rare for that matter. If you think about it, these “accidents” appear to be all around us, and they are happening far too often to be considered rare. A quick Google search will give you list after list of them—things like The Top 100 Serendipitous Scientific Discoveries. I wonder if they just might be the norm, rather than special events.

If they are indeed as common as I suspect, perhaps the thing that turns these everyday events into serendipity is our ability to see them when they are right there in front of us.
How many do we miss just because we aren’t open to them, or more important, are not expecting them? I wonder if it is possible to not only expect these happy accidents but, more importantly, to make a concerted effort to look for them. Maybe it is somewhat like hunting for morel mushrooms. They seem to be rare and very hard to find, but once you get “in the zone,” you realize they are everywhere. It may take two hours to get there, but once you do, you can gather a basket full of them in five minutes.

I experienced two “accidents” on this day, one not-so-pleasant one over Hueco falls (which I later learned was actually a Class III rapid; I guess I was lucky to just get a little bruised) and another in remembering my “discovery” of the connector between two songs. Yet I can’t help but wonder, how many other happy accidents didI miss on this, and every other day of my life.

How much more could we accomplish if we just made a concerted effort to be open to, and more importantly, to expect these events and be prepared to act on them when they occur?

Vacations

November 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos
King Ranch, Texas

We learn a lot of valuable lessons from our parents. Work hard. Don’t tell lies. Never punch out a moose. And most of those lessons serve us well in life. But we also learn some, shall we say, “less helpful” lessons. One of those is about vacations.

We were spending a bit of time on the King Ranch. For me it has always been a place with a two-fold draw. First, of course, is the historic angle. It was the largest ranch in America and it still is the most famous one today. Most of us have heard the stories of “Captain” King and how the ranch got its start. He bought the first grant (15,500 acres) at just under two cents an acre and then grew the ranch into the 825,000 acres it is today. Imagine, a single ranch larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

King Ranch gave us the first American cattle breed, the Santa Gertrudis. King’s cowboys (the kinenos) also worked with the mustang horses they found roaming the Wild Horse Desert and through steady improvement of the breed, the ranch became famous for quarter horses and thoroughbreds. In 1946, they even had a Triple Crown winner, Assault, who is buried there at the ranch.

But there is also another, far more important reason I love this place. Out here I can just sit for a while in my boots and cowboy hat and feel like I belong. This place suits me. I wouldn’t mind just staying here for a few days, or months, hanging out in a small cabin and just spending my days ambling around the back forty. In many parts of the ranch there is no cell phone service. I could drive here (with a cooler of beer, of course), park my Jeep somewhere where I can’t see it, and just do whatever felt right at the moment. For a month of so, I would hope to see no signs of the 21st century urban world at all. That is my idea of the perfect vacation.

My wife wants to take a trip to Italy. I am okay with that. I’d love to see the art and architecture of Rome and Florence. Like everyone else, I’d like to do the gondola ride under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. But I don’t want to do a two-week Grand Tour. I want to experience life there. Tuscany might be a good home base, but I’d want to live there for at least a year. Clearly, I am not—and never will be a tourist by nature; I am a vacationer…a long vacationer.

Unfortunately, that is often not how it turns out for me. More commonly, when it is vacation time, there are flights involved. I don’t particularly enjoy flying even under the best of circumstances. Even worse than the flight itself are the airports. Parking issues, hauling heavy luggage, long hours sitting and waiting, and eating very bad, over-priced food are all less than pleasant. And then, of course, there is the ultimate depravity: security. Every time I enter an airport I think about that morning, sitting nude (well, bottomless anyway) for a half hour on a cold metal chair in a tiny “room” at the Hobby Airport security area, my cell phone confiscated while the screeners were off somewhere doing something with my knee brace. It was beyond unpleasant. None of this matches my idea of a fun way to spend some time off.

But that is just the start. Once you get to your destination, there is travel from the airport to the hotel. Do you go through the hassles of renting a car or do you look for a shuttle? Then there is the hotel check-in process. Don’t even get me started there.

Of course, once at your destination, there are all the “sights” you came to see. The travel to them, the long lines and the fact that I am getting grumpier by the minute make this not only unpleasant for me, but for all around me. (Poor Jill. When you see her, give her your condolences.) And when it is all over, you return home exhausted and needing another week’s rest before you can even face the prospect of going back to work.

I do understand that many people have jobs that are not only unpleasant but also demanding in terms of their time and attention. Sometimes we just have to run away. Taking a week or two off and staying home is often not an option. Even if you can walk away from work (and most of us can’t), work will find you. The phone calls and emails don’t stop just because you are “on vacation.” No one cares, or even believes that you are truly “away from work.”

For many of us, our daily life is unpleasant enough that we will spend thousands of dollars and endure the inevitable indignities the travel industry forces on us just to be able to spend ten or twelve days beyond the reach of those responsibilities.  Our lives have degenerated into 50 weeks of unpleasantness, or as Curley said in City Slickers, “getting knots in our rope.” Then we try to do all of our living in the two (or three, or four) weeks we call “vacation”.

This vacation business is tough, but before you say it is worth it, think again—you’re not going to get off that easily. Before you can leave on this vacation, you get the inevitable bonus of increased stress due to the need to get extra work done before your exodus. The whole time you are gone, you are entertained by worries about what a mess you will return to when it is finally over.

What I find most amazing is that this problem is ubiquitous. Somewhere along the line, it has become the norm.  What I described is not surprising to anyone; we all live it—and do it, willingly. You, and just about everyone you know, are doing it. How did that happen?

They say the best way to impose an idea on someone is to start when he is still a child. I suspect that is what happened here. We grew up seeing this vacation scenario as “the thing we do.” Just as brushing our teeth, sleeping at night or taking a bath are normal because they are what we grew up doing, this mode of vacationing is what we were taught was normal. Many of us never considered an alternative. I remember the novelty of the “staycation” when that word was first coined a few years ago. We found it interesting because “we never thought about that.”

Yes, some of those lessons our parents taught us turned out to be extremely valuable in life. But some are less helpful. At the top of that second list is the way we vacation. It sort of makes you question other things you were taught growing up.

But I still won’t punch out a moose.

Prairie Dogs

September 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos
Caprock Canyon, Texas

We came to Caprock Canyon State Park up in the panhandle with the intention of seeing the State of Texas buffalo herd. We spent the better part of a day driving and hiking to the various spots where the park rangers told us the animals tended to frequent. However, it was already nearly sunset, and it was looking like that wasn’t going to happen for us. As we made our way back toward the visitors’ center, we had a stroke of good luck. While still not finding buffalo, we did stumble across a prairie dog town.

Most people think a prairie dog town is one large unit with lots of connected tunnels and numerous entrances that houses the entire colony. The fact is, the typical town is more like a subdivision full of single family homes. The prairie dog family generally consists of one male and four or five females. (Should I be jealous?) In some cases, there may also be a kid or two living at home till the old man decides they are old enough to make their own way in the world.

From the outside, what we humans see is a collection of cute little critters that pop up out of holes, look around, and then pop back down. It is a non-stop frenzy of activity not unlike a game of “whack the mole.” Nothing is ever done, however. They never pick anything up and seldom stray more than an inch or two from the hole. It is just a mass of non-productive up and down energy that we humans find both cute and fascinating.
Even if you have never seen a real prairie dog town, you are probably quite familiar with this concept. One need only look around at our fellow humans to see this behavior modeled. Next time you are in a crowded atrium of a large office building, a shopping mall or any place people congregate, watch what is happening. You will see non-stop random movement, constant energy. But what are these people doing? More important, what are they accomplishing? This seems to be a universal trait of the human condition: non-stop frenetic energy spent with little or nothing to show for it.

I have been a writer for more than 40 years. In the early days, my work habits resembled the prairie dogs’. I would begin by writing the first sentence, in hopes that by the time I had it down on paper I’d have an idea for a second sentence. Needless to say, before a piece was ready for publication, it went through dozens and dozens of revisions. In the process, I was particularly bothered by the fact that I often spent a lot of time revising sections that wouldn’t even make it into the final version. It was time and energy expended with little to no result. But, nevertheless, I felt good about it. After all, I was getting something done.

But still, I was uncomfortable with the process. I was busy, sure, but was I really accomplishing much with all that activity? It seemed I was spending an incredible amount of time and effort given the magnitude and quality of the final product that was produced. I felt there just had to be a better way.

One day, it hit. What if, instead, I did all that planning and revising work in my head while sitting outside in my rocking chair next to the fountain? What if I didn’t get anywhere near a pen, paper or a computer in those early stages? What if I just sat, smoked my pipe and thought? I spent a good deal of time analyzing that idea and, in the end, I was still uncomfortable with it. It didn’t even seem possible.

But I found I couldn’t put the idea out of my mind. Its implementation seemed inevitable, so eventually, I gave it a try. I admit it was uncomfortable at first and I felt guilty just sitting around and calling it work. But eventually, it all came together. I began to understand how this work thing is really done.

Today, I don’t put a single word on paper until I have the entire piece worked out. I know the beginning, the end and everything in between in great detail. I even know what photos I will use. The result: far fewer revisions and much less time and work expended. Best of all, I can enjoy a certain smugness when I am sitting in the sun with my eyes closed and someone asks what I’m doing. When I reply that I’m writing, the looks I get are priceless.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with a “go-get-em” work ethic. After all, in those early years, that process did lead me to some limited success. And today, if a student comes to me with a great work ethic, I can overlook a lot of shortcomings. It takes hard work to get to the point where you start to understand how to do any task well. No one plays concert-level piano on first sitting down to the instrument. But at some point in time, we need to realize that so much more can be accomplished if we just slow down and think things through before we take any action. That not only means less work for the same results, it also makes us less likely to become victims of the calamitous law of unintended consequences. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could teach this to our politicians?

Life is a game. We keep score by results achieved, not by effort expended. Most people confuse activity with accomplishment. When judging their progress toward success, they are often measuring the wrong parameter. I now realize it was obvious all along; I just didn’t see it. The secret to success is to work less but accomplish more.

While all of that frenetic energy is wasted in us humans, it does have some real value for prairie dogs. It provides us two-leggeds with great entertainment and, after all, the little critters are awfully cute. But frankly, I’m not that cute. You might not be either. And I don’t think entertaining others would be high on my list of goals in life. I prefer to use my rocking chair method.

By the way, we never did see the buffalo.

Ghosts

July 1st, 2018

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Terlingua Ghost Town, Texas

If you spend a lot of time in any place, even as a tourist, you get to know some of the people there and come to call them friends. I go to Big Bend country a lot, and when I am done with my day’s hiking, I head to Terlingua for some laid-back fun. As a result, I know quite a few people there.

I’ve talked to him for about seven years and this was the first time I’d seen him without his wife. He was sitting on the porch of the Trading Post when I pulled up.

“Hey Don, how are you doing?”

“Hanging by my finger nails, like the cat on the poster.”

“Where’s Jules?”

“Not sure; she and I split up a couple of months ago.”

That really took me by surprise. They seemed like the perfect couple. I never saw one without the other and they always seemed to be having fun together.

“What happened?” I asked.

“She wanted to get married; I didn’t. I guess she got tired of waiting. She said eight years was long enough.”

This was the first time I realized they weren’t married.

I went in and bought a beer and took it out to the porch. We talked for the next hour. He told me about how he was crazy about her and wanted to live with her for the rest of his life, but he refused to ever get married again. He said his divorce years earlier had turned him off marriage for good.

Apparently, that wasn’t an acceptable situation for her. I asked if he was really willing to lose her because of something that happened many years ago. He said he didn’t have a choice; he couldn’t marry again. That made me think about a time in my own life.

I remember the day like it was yesterday, and it ruled my life for the next 15 years. In my football days the coaches drilled into my head that my job on sweeps to either side of the field was to stay in the middle of the backfield. Under no circumstances was I to pursue the ball carrier. Then one day, it happened.

At the snap, the running back ran to the right as the quarterback dropped. The handoff was made and the play went away from me. Not thinking, I took off in pursuit. The ball carrier had a lateral head start of about seven yards, but in order to gain yardage he’d have to turn upfield. I was sure I could catch him; I had the angle. I was already past the center and in a dead run when I saw it happen. The running back handed the ball to the split end on that side, who reversed back to my left. The action froze me in my tracks!

Thoughts flew, but my body remained frozen. I knew I needed to turn back and pursue the play, but it took an eternity to get my rather large body to stop, turn and follow. Finally, word got to all appropriate body parts and I was running up the line again, this time to the left. It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t going to make the play. I looked ahead to the corner to see who was there to help, but the corner was empty. Only the left tackle and I were to be on that side of the field, and no tackle would ever catch a wide receiver. I looked up just in time to see the ball carrier run right over the spot I was supposed to be occupying. I could only watch as the play went all the way for a touchdown. I went back to the sidelines, chin against my chest.

“How many times have we told you to stay home on that one?” the coach yelled. “You think we tell you these things for our health? You have a (expletive) job to do here! We told you exactly what it is! How much sense does it take to do what you’re told? You cover on reverses! If you pursue, we lose!”

For days I ran that play over and over again in the theatre of my mind. I had always believed it was best to play inspired — that emotion and enthusiasm would win out over cold, calculated logic every time. Now it looked like, at least in some cases, cold, rational control was far more important. After all, football is a brain game. That is why the intricacies are so hard for most people to understand. But that day I took away a very important, and life-changing lesson. I learned that there are sound reasons for the things we are told to do.

For the next 15 years, that lesson stayed with me. I did what I was supposed to do, stayed within the limits I was given and lived a quiet life. If I had any ideas that could even be remotely considered “wild,” I would always bounce them off someone I trusted before acting on them —and it kept me out of trouble.

Then one day, about 10 years after I finished college, my mother and I had a serious discussion about what I wanted to do with my life. I had been drifting somewhat aimlessly for a long time. I told her what I really wanted to do was to go back to school, get a couple of advanced degrees and become a professor. She laughed and told me to get serious. That was a dream for rich kids, smart kids. She said I should go to work in the steel mills. With my degree, they would probably make me a foreman. That conversation made me start to question the wisdom of living my life “within the lines.”

Both the man at Terlingua and I had fallen into a pattern of letting ghosts from our past limit and even disrupt our lives today. Traumatic events can indeed sometimes have strong effects on us, but when they start to limit our possibilities, our futures, it is time leave them behind. It makes no sense to keep stumbling over objects that are behind us.

It took a couple of years to complete the change. It wasn’t easy; I had a lot of false starts, but I stayed at it and eventually I stopped doing what I was “supposed” to do, went on to get those degrees and to get that life I wanted.

I hope when I next go to Big Bend, Don will tell me he did the same.

Magnetism

May 1st, 2018

Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Round Top, Texas

We came out here because my wife was in the mood to do a little “antiquing.” As you can probably guess, doing the “shop till you drop” thing doesn’t sound like fun to me. So, I figured I’d take the chance to go visit the Round Top Festival Institute. Over the years I had heard about the concerts and the poetry institute, but mostly I’d heard it was a beautiful place. I figured, why not? It sure beats going through dusty barns full of old furniture that we had no room for at home anyway.

If you haven’t been to the Festival Institute, you should make the trip. It is absolutely magnificent. Whether it is the enormous concert hall on Festival Hill, the chapel, or the gardens, the campus has to be one of the most beautiful man-made environments in Texas.

I spent most of the day outside, enjoying the gardens. I saw no one for a couple of hours. Then I came across one lone woman. She was sitting with her eyes closed, cross-legged on the stone floor next to a fountain. She appeared to be meditating. I had a feeling I knew what was going on.

I used to think people meditated to feel more relaxed—maybe to try to clear their thinking. But as I studied the workings of the mind over the years, and especially in some of my courses in grad school, I learned that there are much more “lucrative” uses for the practice. The one I find most interesting is because we want stuff.

As kids, most of us are taught that if you want something, the way to get it is to work hard to achieve it. Later, we were given more detailed information—such as directions on formulating goals: what a goal should look like and how it should be worded. You may have encountered motivational speakers like Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar, who dealt with the subject in great detail. While I was certainly impressed with their work and found them useful at first, over time they began to seem a bit superficial. I guess that happened because I had the opportunity to see some more interesting, more powerful, approaches—approaches that most people would think were, well, ”unusual.”

I studied cognitive science in grad school and learned that there are two “sides” of the brain, the conscious and the subconscious. The conscious part allows us to think about how to do things and to learn new stuff. The subconscious part does things on its own, without our knowledge—makes our hearts beat, governs chemical reactions, etc. The subconscious also stores repetitive skills once we learn them. When first learning to walk, we had to think about every move we made, even more so in learning to run, or play the piano. But after we have practiced long enough, the skill was moved to the subconscious part of the brain and we no longer had to think about it. Remember when you were first learning to drive a car? You were squeezing the wheel so hard your knuckles were white. The cars parked on either side of the road were so close you were sure you’d be bouncing off one or the other—or both. And what about today? You drive with one hand, roll the windows up and down, talk on the phone, slap the kids in the back seat and drink a coke. You never give any of it a single thought. That’s a good thing. Just imagine what would happen if, in the midst of running, we had to stop to think about what we should do next with the left leg.

The subconscious cannot tell the difference between a vividly imagined thought and reality. If a thought gets into the subconscious part, the brain assumes it is real and goes about its business accordingly. It makes it happen. The problem is, how do we get the idea there? The two parts of the brain are separated by an electronic “curtain” that ensures whatever you are consciously trying to do enters only the conscious side.

I first saw this problem addressed back in my sports writing days. I noticed how sports psychologists used mental tricks to lower that curtain and plant in a player’s subconscious an idea that will improve performance on the field. One method I found particularly intriguing was having the player count from one to ten and ten to one, forward and backward at the same time. It sounds easy, right? One, ten, two, nine, three, eight, four, seven… but when you reach the five, six, six, five crossover, the brain boggles, and the electronic curtain falls for an instant. At that moment, the psychologist tells the player what he wants him to do and the player usually goes out onto the field and does just that. I have asked several players about the experience and they usually claim they never heard the instruction.

Both Taoism and Zen Buddhism tell us that mind is most powerful when it is quiet. They call this state “non-mind.” When we can shut down thoughts (usually in the form of language—talking to ourselves) we can lower that electronic curtain that separates the conscious from the sub-conscious for maybe a second or two and we can then plant in the now-clear mind the idea of what we seek. That is one goal of meditation—to quiet the mind so we can plant an idea directly into the subconscious. Need financial security? Plant the idea “affluence” in the gap between the thoughts. Once done, the mind goes to work to produce it with no effort on your part. When we turn off the electronic curtain, even for a second, we turn on an electromagnet that pulls the things we want to us.

It was beautiful there in the shade by the fountain and I would have liked to sit on the stone wall and spend a little time there listening to the water and the birds. But I was afraid my presence there might disturb her, so I moved on. After all, I had a lot more of the festival grounds to see before lunch.

To this day, I don’t know if the woman by the fountain was after affluence, someone to love, or simply a good day. But it seemed to me she was on the right track. At the very least, she was spending some quality, private time in a magnificent place. That sure beats antiquing.

By the way, when you do go to Round Top, Be sure to stop at Royers for lunch. Although they are known world-wide for their pies, I recommend the jalapeno cheese soup.

Happiness and Success

March 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos

Parker, Texas

We were up around McKinney for a Saturday night wedding and had the better part of a day to kill until the ceremony. Having researched the vicinity to discover any natural areas that might provide us a brief respite from the city and suburbs, we found none we hadn’t already visited. So instead we decided to head down to Parker to see the Southfork Ranch of TV’s Dallas fame. Like most people who visit the ranch, my first reaction was surprise at how small it was. But that was only the start of what would transpire there.

I am, without a doubt, the least likely person to ever tour Southfork, having never watched even a single episode of the show. Still, it was hard to be alive in the ‘80s and not hear about the show constantly— at work, on the radio, on other TV shows, even at home (yes, other family members watched it religiously).

From what I saw and heard, my impression of the show was that it was a soap opera about a bunch of very rich, and very unhappy people. And for some reason, being at the ranch and thinking about those characters reminded me of an old Brooks and Dunn lyric I once heard: “Happiness isn’t just for high achievers.” But, of course, as a natural follow-up on that thought, I realized that, at least in the case of this show, even high achieving did little to provide true happiness. I know the show was just fiction, but it still got me thinking.

Over the centuries, there have been lots of ideas about what makes us happy. Some people believe happiness comes from external sources, like having wine, women and song; lots of big-boy toys; wealth; power; etc. We often call these people hedonists. And there are some who believe that, while all the goodies are fine, that’s not enough. To be truly happy, we must also do all we can to avoid pain. That great party on Saturday night is less fun when you know you are going to be sick Sunday morning. These people are called epicureans. Others say happiness is simply a matter of truly appreciating the things you have. I certainly know several unhappy people who are always needing more and more new stuff, new places to go, even new houses, and they never really do come to appreciate the things they already have.

But there are also those who believe happiness is an internal thing, that we create it by the way we think and the decisions we make. These people are called stoics and I think theirs is probably the correct reading.

Over the years I have come to see that everyone has the ability to be happy. It is something we choose rather than something that happens to us. The stoics say happiness comes from the way we see events rather than from the events themselves. An event in our lives has no inherent quality, good or bad, in and of itself. It is only our opinion of that event that gives it a value, positive or negative.

If the stoics are correct, if we are able to choose to make ourselves happy through our decisions, it stands to reason that we should also be able to make ourselves high achievers in the same way. After all, our level of achievement, like our level of happiness, is merely the end result of the decisions we make. Do we want to achieve or not? How willing are we to work for it? Each time an opportunity comes up, how do we respond? If we follow that line of thinking, Brooks and Dunne appear to be wrong. After all, personalities tend to be consistent. It would stand to reason that someone who is a go-getter in the realm of happiness would be equally competent in the area of achievement and vice-versa.

Yet, we all know of highly successful people who are miserable in their lives, like the characters in Dallas. Most of us also know very happy people who have next-to-nothing by today’s standards. These two examples would seem to support Brooks and Dunn’s position. So how do we explain this apparent contradiction?

While standing in the living room of the main house at Southfork, I decided Brooks and Dunn have missed the mark. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you need wealth and fame to be happy…but I firmly believe that, to be happy, you do indeed need to be a high achiever.

I’ve talked to a lot of really happy people. Every one of them saw themselves as high achievers—even the ones who are living from paycheck to paycheck. They just define success differently than the rest of us. When I think of the things that I believe make me successful in life, I don’t think about degrees earned, jobs held or books published. That’s all just “stuff.” Instead, I see success in the friends I maintain, the appreciation I have for the people and the world around me and the fun I have each and every day. All the other happy people I hang out with feel pretty much the same way.
And even those happy people who are seen by most as high achievers tend to see their success in different ways than the general public might assume. As one friend said when I asked him his opinion on this subject, “Forget my bank account! Let me tell you about my new grandson!”

After we toured the main house, we walked around the ranch for a couple of hours. We toured the stables and even sat out under one of the enormous oaks that lined the driveway, enjoying the autumn afternoon. You know, it is a good thing the characters of Dallas weren’t real. If they were, one could become really depressed sitting there thinking about their lack of happiness—and of success.

Lost

January 1st, 2018

Each of the little rivulets had carved out a whole series of potholes that held pools of water. Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Colorado Bend State Park, Texas

It was about 20 years ago, when I was still a newbie to Texas. I had spent the morning in Fred with some friends who came down from West Lafayette for a week-long bicycle rally. Being a bit of a slug myself, when they decided to head out for a 100-mile afternoon ride, I decided to try to find Llano and experience Cooper’s Bar-B-Que for lunch. I had heard about this place many times over the five years I had been in Texas but had never had the opportunity to experience it. This seemed like as good a time as any.

So I headed north toward Llano. A colleague had told me it was in the northern, old section of town, just off the main road. He said I couldn’t miss it. What he failed to tell me was it was hiding behind a grocery store and couldn’t be seen from the highway. So I drove through town, looking, but never saw it. Eventually I came to open country and it was clear I had left Llano. Determined to turn around at the next intersection and try again, I sped up and headed out into the country.

But there was no next intersection, at least not that I saw, until I hit the tiny town of Cherokee. There I saw an east-west road. Because it was a town, I figured I could surely make a couple of rights, circling the block and back to highway 16. From there I could make the return trip to Llano.

But there wasn’t a next street. Instead, the street I was apparently now destined to follow became a very narrow, country road. I suppose it was meant to be two lanes but there was no way two cars could pass each other without both of them driving two wheels off the road onto the shoulder. Fortunately, I never had to test this. I drove for miles without seeing another car. Eventually, realizing I was getting way off my intended route, I decided I would take the first county road I saw that headed south and try to hit 71. This time I would approach Llano from the east. But that road never came. Instead, the road I was on turned to gravel and went on for a few more miles, finally dead-ending into a dirt road that was marked with a tiny sign that said “Colorado Bend State Park.”

Colorado Bend is not like any state park I had ever been to. There is no gatehouse or any signs of civilization anywhere. That dirt road just continues—and continues. What seems like several miles later, it dead-ends in a canyon carved out by by a river. The area has only a mobile trailer for a headquarters and an outhouse. Figuring I was now a long way from Cooper’s, and lunch was probably out of the question, I decided to have a look around. After all, I was already here.

I always begin my exploration of a new park with a trip to the visitors’ center to find out what the top attractions are, where I can go to see no other humans for a few hours, where to get the best photos, etc. Since this place didn’t have a visitors’ center, I went into the trailer to see if there was someone there who could give me some information. There was. A park volunteer there told me about a cave and a waterfall, both accessed from trailheads several miles away, and about a cascade just down river that empties a small creek up above into the river below. Since it was close by, I decided to take a look at it first.

As I was leaving, she called me back and added that there were no concessions and no water anywhere in the park. If I wanted water, I’d better fill up right here. I went out to the Jeep, got my always-ready canteen and did just that.

As it turned out, the cascade was amazing. What started at the top of the canyon as a small stream passed through a series of small waterfalls that moved the water down the rocky hillside and then spread it into a number of rivulets that worked their ways down eight or ten different pathways. The truly wondrous thing was that this had been happening for so many centuries that each of the little rivulets had carved out a whole series of potholes that held pools of water. It was absolutely beautiful.

After spending about an hour there and then walking along the river as far as the rock canyon walls would allow, I headed back to the Jeep to drive to the trailhead for Gorman Falls. That hike was rougher, only because the first couple of miles were on a hilly gravel road. But the last mile or so, when it entered the woods, was spectacular. There was a lot of downhill climbing with rope handholds to facilitate a safe descent down to a river that I suspected might be the same one that carved out the canyon I had just been to. At the very bottom, was a small deck with two benches, one that faced the river, the other the waterfall. I sat down for a quick breather (like I said, it was a hard hike) and to maybe get a few photos. I got both done—in about three hours.

As the sun was setting and I was leaving the park, I started thinking about how my getting lost that day led me to a terrific set of experiences—experiences I never would have had if I knew where I was going and had indeed enjoyed some great brisket for lunch. Not finding Cooper’s, followed by my inability to find a way to turn around, sent me on a journey that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, and probably would not have ever taken otherwise.

It seems to me that in life, when things seem to be going badly, we sometimes reach a point where we feel lost. We no longer know which way to go, or what to do next. Sometimes we even begin to question who we are. When this happens, it is always a traumatic time for us. We feel confused, troubled and frustrated. But almost invariably, this is the point where our lives take a turn for the better. (I know…“it can’t get any worse,” right?) But if you think back on the really wonderful life-changing experiences you have had over the years, I would bet most of them began with just such a discomforting moment.

Perhaps the contrast between the bad times and the spectacular times make us really appreciate the latter. But I am sure there is more to it than that. When we reach a point in our lives where we no longer know what to do or which way to go, our journey has truly begun. Life will never be the same. And journeys invariably turn out well in the long run.
By the way, I did eventually find Cooper’s—many, many times.

Who Defines You?

November 13th, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

Houston, Texas

We’ve all seen the pictures and watched the drama of hurricane Harvey unfold on our TV screens. Some of us, unfortunately, were a part of it and are still suffering as a result.

Like most people, during the storm I was glued to the TV watching the flooding and the people being evacuated from the devastation. Most carried only the clothes on their backs and their dogs. But in those five days, we also saw those in boats, high-clearance trucks and Jeeps going into the water again and again to help out total strangers. And some people just didn’t understand that.

I was particularly struck by the Weather Channel’s comparisons between what they were seeing during Harvey and the scenes from New Orleans after Katrina. They expressed amazement at the difference. Other media seemed shocked, confused and totally dumbfounded by what they were watching. Why were these ordinary Joe Sixpacks taking matters into their own hands? Why didn’t they wait for FEMA or other government agencies to come in? After all, that is what we are supposed to do, right? Some of the “usual suspects” finally came to the conclusion that Texans were just different, in a bad way—renegades, if you will.

Most of us saw it differently. Texans are different I suppose—but in a good way. I would never question the exceptionalism of Texans. That is one of the reasons why I will never leave here. But I don’t think the actions we were watching those five days were unique to Texans. What about the “Cajun Navy” coming in from Louisiana, or the college students from North Carolina who trailered their fishing boats all the way to Houston to help out? Deep down, I can’t help but think, it’s not just Texans; it’s most of us.

 

Probably the most dominant philosophy of the last century, and still so today, is existentialism. This philosophy holds that man is born without an essence, be it what it is that make him human, or what it is that makes him the individual that he will become. Take a newborn horse for instance. Within minutes, he stands. A few minutes later he walks, then runs. Within 24 hours he can do virtually everything an adult horse can do. That is because he is born with his “horseness,” the essence of what a horse is.

Humans aren’t like that. For months, all the human baby does is scream and poop. He is helpless—more like a blob of protoplasm than a real human being. That essence, his humanness, comes later. One of the tenants of existentialism is that, as a result, we are all responsible for creating, then declaring our own essence—defining who we are. To the existentialist, it is in this self-definition process that we find purpose and meaning in our lives.

Yet it is surprising how many of us abdicate our responsibility and allow others to define us—to impose on us their ideas of what we will become, of who we are. Traditionally, this imposed definition came from family or from religion. However, recently we have begun to see a change in this. Sometime in the last few decades, we have allowed ourselves to be defined by total strangers—people outside our circle of friends and family who tell us who we should be. One of the most powerful of these external forces is the mass media. For years they have told us that America is a divided nation.

The divisions they impose on us are by politics (left versus right), race, social class and residence (coastal versus fly-over-country). Some people have actually accepted these definitions as fact and behave as if they are true. But Harvey shot holes in that idea.

During Harvey, no one asked about politics. Race was irrelevant. It was simply people helping people. We were all in this together. If we needed help, it was offered. If we could do the helping, we did. The only group we were members of was “neighbors.” To the media, this was a completely alien concept. They didn’t know what to make of it; it didn’t fit their pre-set narrative. Normally, if something doesn’t fit the narrative, they just don’t cover it. But this time, they didn’t have that option. Harvey was too big of a story to ignore.

I think what we learned from Harvey is an important lesson for us in many ways. It was great to see so many people simply refuse to be defined by anyone but themselves. We didn’t care what the media or the politicians thought. We knew exactly who we were—who we are—inside. We knew what was right and moral and we acted on it. We knew none of those things they say about us were true and we didn’t care that the talking heads were shocked and confused by it all. We went about the business of being who we are.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could remember this lesson—if we could apply it in the future whenever we are tempted to let someone else tell us who we are or who we should be? Why do we force ourselves to fit into the little boxes the world insists we must occupy? Perhaps it is because when we hear something again and again, for a long enough time, we actually start believing it ourselves.

Most of the time we certainly act like we are compliant. It is almost like we are semi-comatose and just follow the pack. It seems easier than bucking the flow.

In spite of that, in times of stress and tragedy, our true selves come out. Something touches us deep inside and we are reminded of our true natures. And we act in ways that are consistent with our true identities. Why can’t we always know, and act on, our own self-definitions?

Sometimes I think we just get lazy. When things are going along smoothly, we relax and just go with the flow. If someone tries to impose his definition of us, we just accept it; it is easier than fighting. That may be innocuous in the short term, but over time, we start to be more and more compliant until we lose track of who we really are. Then it takes an event like the tragedy of Harvey to wake us up and allow us to again find the true self within us.

And isn’t it beautiful when we do?

Identities

September 4th, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

High Hill, Texas

We were spending a part of our Christmas break exploring the painted churches around Schulenburg. The last on our list was the one I found to be the most amazing, Saint Mary’s in High Hill. Because my wife grew up in a world pretty much devoid of Catholics, I spent a good part of the day answering questions. She marveled at the difference between these little churches and the one she was raised in. While the outside architecture was similar, the insides were as different as night and day. While sitting there, we also talked about church music. I grew up on Bach and plainsong (chant), she on gospel accompanied by a piano.

And then we discussed the changes in the church over time, a sad topic for me. I explained to her about the differences between the mass when I was a kid and what she would see were she to attend one today. Back then, the altar was turned around, with the priest facing the same way as the congregation. And the Latin! Even as a kid with no particular liking for religion, I thought the mass was beautiful.

We sat for a long time—she taking in the beauty around her, and me thinking about the distance between my boyhood and today.

 

We all started somewhere. For most of us, it was somewhere different from where we are today. For me, there is the obvious distance between Indiana and Texas for a start. But the far greater distance is from a working-class steel mill community to academia. As is the case with most of our lives, it has been a long journey—a journey of change.

Many of my working class students are just now beginning to attempt a similar journey in their lives. They are starting with education but will quickly discover that is not enough. They must also work to change social class markers—speech patterns, critical thinking, etc. I always feel sad for them when they first start to feel that inevitable separation from friends and family as they make those changes. For a long time, the evolving student feels like a man without a home. He no longer fits in the old world he grew up in, but he has not yet found his place in the new one either. He feels rejected by the people in his life because they just don’t, or won’t, understand what he is trying to do. Meanwhile, family and friends in the old neighborhood feel left behind by someone who is getting “uppity” and thinks he is better than they are. It’s sad, but inevitable.

There is an old saying that you can’t go home again and I suspect that is true. Once we begin our independent journeys in life, the die is cast. And yet, at many stages along the way, we get frustrated and start asking ourselves questions like, “What am I doing? Who am I, really?”

And that never changes. Even now, decades later, I often feel insecure in this new world. I wonder, did I really change as much as it appears, or am I still that same working-class kid who’s now playing dress-up to impress the grown-ups. I often feel like I’m just bluffing my way through this new world, constantly worried that someone might catch on. What if they find out I really am just an imposter?

I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling. You may not have made a class border crossing, but there are lots of other changes we go though in our lives that carry the same burdens. Some of us change cultures, moving to other regions of the country or even to other nations. Others go on a different career path than the rest of the family and friends and are stigmatized as a result. And frankly, some of us are the black sheep of our families for one reason or another. Whatever our circumstances, change is inevitable. Life is change.

And with this barrage of changes, sooner or later, we become overwhelmed and start to question everything. Am I still the person I started out as all those years ago? Or am I really the person I seem to be today? Perhaps I am neither of those people but rather someone else entirely different? And probably the hardest question of all—is it all worth the cost? That’s a tough one to answer. But it doesn’t really matter; we can’t unmake the decisions from the past.

The old adage is right; we really can’t go home again. The places we knew back then have changed, the people are different and some of them are gone, so why even try? And yet, we can’t just forget about who we were back then either. It is important to never lose sight of that, if for no other reason than to be able to fully appreciate how far we’ve come over the years.

But it seems to me that remembering where we came from and being aware of where we are today doesn’t leave us that much closer to understanding who we are. It’s not enough to just appreciate how far we’ve come. Who we are is really a more complicated issue.

To really understand our true identities, we need to see the bigger picture—where we came from, where we are today, and most important, every step that occurred along the way. It is the entire journey that identifies who we are. Aristotle argued that you can’t measure happiness in the moment. It must be evaluated over an entire lifetime. Identity has that same essence. It is the sum total of every instant of our existence. To look at it any other way would be doing ourselves a disservice. More important, it keeps us from ever understanding who we really are. And that understanding is a key to happiness and satisfaction in our lives.

We are all the changes we have made or experienced throughout our lives. We’ve all come a long, long way. When looked at that way, I can’t help but be excited about who I am…and about who you are.