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When Mother Earth Hands You Your Ass

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There are many life metaphors and sayings that reference rivers and water. “Go with the flow.” “It felt like I was swimming upstream.” “Don’t drift away.” “Still waters run deep.” The list goes on.

Professional river guides drift a lot. Most of our time on a raft is spent between rapids, literally going with the flow. Then there is the time spent sitting around a fire or on a beach. Conversations ebb and flow (see!) between who can skip a rock the furthest to how you make really good lasagna with a camp kitchen in the middle of nowhere to if there is another planet like Earth in the universe.

Often at the trip’s launch point, before the guests arrive, guides talk about the last adventure or the one just ahead. We compare notes on the rapids, decide on upcoming river camp spots, and confirm the order of that day’s flotilla. At this point, none of us know exactly how the upcoming trip is going to go, as river forces have a whole lot of say in what lies ahead. This realization sometimes leads to reflections on the mythical river gods, who hold our fortunes in their hands.

In a recent conversation, I was reminded of how and why these gods work. You are sitting around before the trip officially starts, waiting for clients to show up. A guide starts talking about all the good runs he or she has had that season. The other guides in the circle make corner-eye contact and give all-knowing, imperceptive nods to each other, around the talker. Fate has been tempted, and now everyone is going to have to keep a closer eye on the one who forgot to pay homage to the river gods. Humility and respect are keys to appeasing this deity. Talking about how good you are is not the best idea, as it ignores that river gods have a say in every trip. A reminder of this always comes quick. Given the misguided comment, there is a good chance that the guide and his or her crew will end up in the water, courtesy of a spiritual swat.

With river gods the opposite also holds true. If you take time during a long calm to appreciate the wilderness around you, then there is a good chance you will be treated to amazing wildlife or a stunning sunset further downriver. If you quietly and humbly leave the canyon without any trace of your group being there, then you get to come back to pristine settings.

This yin and yang or karma relationship is regularly contemplated and regarded in the form of a simple saying: “Respect the river gods.” Those who properly act on this relationship feel the kinship and are blessed by nature’s bounty. Those who ignore or accidentally forget the homage are handed their ass — and then usually don’t disregard it again.

A guide mentor and good friend of mine, Dana Kimball, recently shared his thoughts on river gods and nature:

“The river and Mother Earth are always in charge. The river gods seem to keep us both safe and humble as long as we always show respect. The same is true with this unseen virus. I believe it is a wake-up call that humans need to understand. Our actions have consequences and we need to change our habits. We are not invincible, but we can still rise up to challenges we never thought we’d have to deal with.”

There are several habits or offerings whitewater guides use to show their respect to the river gods, to honor the physical and spiritual connection between a human and the waterway. Splashing water on the back of your neck above a big rapid is one. The cold water is at once a reminder to focus and a way to feel the river. Asking people to tighten up their lifejackets is another. This act shows respect for life and the power of nature. Simply closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, visualizing the run, listening to the river rumble, and silently asking for safe passage is another. Guides know that not honoring the stunning force of a river can be deadly.

There are essentially three parts to any guide’s day: the calm, the storm, and the reflection. The calm is described above. The storm is when you are deep into a rapid, eyes bulging, limbs flailing, waves crashing, rocks dead ahead, and the tail run of the whitewater too far ahead to even contemplate. In the storm, all can go well and everyone survives, with high fives all around upon entering the calm below. Or it can not go well. This may be due to not paying homage to the river gods, to making a bad paddle command or oar pull at just the wrong time, or because sometimes things just don’t go as you planned. Regardless, you reflect on what went wrong and figure out what you need to do differently on the next trip. This, along with deep appreciation for the beauty and the people around you, is the reflection.

As Dana puts it, “We are not invincible —our actions have consequences. And we can rise up to the challenges.” For generations, we largely went with nature’s flow. We paid our respects, at the least by not trammeling what sustained us. Then we went through some crazy rapids, including many storms we ourselves caused, but we found periodic calms thereafter. However, the reflection seemingly was never enough. How can we tell? Our ass has really been handed to us this time.

It is now time to rise up, to be honest in our assessment of this river we are on. We got here by closing our eyes to the crashing waves, by personally and collectively not acknowledging the mistakes we made, and by not reflecting enough on the damage we did — and are doing. It is time to rise up to the challenge of our own making.

So let’s rise up. Let’s talk about what lies ahead. Let’s plan how to run the best trip possible, together. Let’s recognize our mistakes. Let’s remind one another to pay homage to Mother Earth by reducing our impact and leaving less of a trace — and by no longer tempting her force and our fate by abusing her. Let’s start by reflecting on our role — yours and mine — in the virus’ creation and devastation. Right now, contemplate what you can do differently today in order to make better what lies just around the bend. Then tighten up your life jacket and give it your respectful all.

Lions and Dolphins and Dogs (and Love)

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By a show of hands, how many of you out there like the recent news stories about the animal shelters with no more dogs available for adoption? It seems like we have time on our hands, maybe some loneliness, and love in our hearts. So we are adopting dogs. Please raise your hand if you like these stories or if you just found out about this and like the good news.

Now, while keeping that hand up, please raise your other hand if you answer yes to any of these questions: Are you a republican? Are you a democrat? Are you neither?

At this point, based on deep analysis—and a firm grasp of the obvious—provided you followed the request regarding your hands in the air, I am guessing that you look like a cheerleader or someone weirdly stretching, with limbs all forked up. Since the survey is over, you can put your arms down whenever you would like. However, just to warn you, more questions are coming. So if you need to comb your hair, brush your teeth, or get out of your pajamas, now is the time. Oops. Never mind. Most of us are quarantining and—if you are like me—it may have been days or weeks since you did any of these things.

Did you see the story about the lions lying on the roads in South Africa? Did you watch the video of dolphins in and around the canals of Venice? Have you seen the shots from space that show air pollution reduced around the world? How about people singing from balconies or clapping every night at 8:00 pm to honor healthcare workers? What about individuals and social organizations delivering food to those unable to leave their homes? And, for goodness sake, how about the grocery store workers and truck drivers making sure we can feed ourselves and our loved ones?

So what in the world is all of this about?

Love. Bipartisan love. Universal love. Better yet, strike the word bipartisan or universal or whatever. It’s just love.

I understand that the drivers and checkers have to work, and I am deeply appreciative of the risks they are taking for my family and community, but their actions are also founded in love, as their work is a means to an end—with the end being taking care of their loved ones, too. And maybe it isn’t a direct love of lions that leads to them sunbathing on asphalt. But that end is also an outcome of love.

My home is set up right now with my “office” at my kitchen counter. Our laundry room sits just off the kitchen. Two weeks ago we got two baby miniature goats, only five days old when we brought them home. If you want to have something new and fun to do during the stay-at-home, get a couple of goats. Yesterday, one of my daughters was sitting by the dryer in their little indoor cage. She kept quietly saying, “I love you” to her new buddies, Percy and Jessie.

Wanting a dog is mostly about wanting to give and get kindness. It is about a desire for companionship, on both sides of the fence. It is about feeling what matters and acting on that feeling. No matter how you try to wrap it up, that feeling is love. This is why we like the stories about lions and dolphins and less air pollution. When you peel all the layers back, it’s all about love.

Sorry to do this again, but please raise your hand if you answer yes to this question: If we are able to let love lead more right now, do you think we can let love lead when we aren’t in peril, be it economic, physical, or otherwise? Please keep that hand up. Here is the next to last question. Raise your other hand if the answer is yes. Can you do more from this point forward—more than you were doing before—to share your love? If both hands are up, then ask yourself, “Why didn’t you do more before?” Time? Money? Apathy? Priorities? More often than not, the answer to this question is priorities.

When we slow down while facing new challenges, our priorities shift. The maddening pursuits, the blood-boiling frustrations, and the political and economic battle lines can be overpowering when we lose track of what matters. They shade and direct our daily actions. The slowing down and the awareness of common ground get us refocused. They rejigger our priorities.

Now, with hands back down, make a list of three simple things you can do—in our new normal—that reflects your love. Make doing these things your priority. Can one of them be an act of kindness for someone, regardless of their political affiliation? Maybe think of them as a dog—in a positive way. Most dogs have allegiances, but they are also open to hanging out with just about anyone who does what it takes to make their tail wag.

Here is the last question: When you had both hands up, did you smell something funny? If so, there is a chance you’re overdue for a shower.

The Key to Successful Mass Movements: It’s Not What You Think

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Gandhi sat in cold damp cells and ate nothing for weeks. Susan B. Anthony marched for decades. Nelson Mandela reflected on change under a scalding sun. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Cesar Chavez walked row after row of California crops. And Erin Brockovich convinced hundreds of small-town residents to join her fight against the machine. In all cases, transformation came. Relief was realized for the oppressed, prejudiced, and hurt, and—by extension—each of us.

Movements are mostly sparked by pain, anger, or distrust, usually due to a smoldering sense of inferiority, insignificance, or irrelevance. A movement grows only when inspirational voices or powerful figures rise to lead. Some motivate in relative silence. Others speak loudly and carry a big stick.

It was a long way from sitting on a bus to the end of segregation. The distance from toiling on a segregated island prison work camp to chairing an integrated country was immeasurable.  And, an infinite number of steps were walked to get the women’s right to vote.

How does cultural transformation ultimately happen? What and who are the reasons some efforts flame out while others scorch the unwanted status quo?

Movements that effect true change have pragmatic stalwarts—loyal, matter-of-fact, advocating forces—who can take lofty ideals born of burning anger or abject fatigue and translate those into street-level action. It is these dedicated managers who build and coordinate the tools, structures, and systems that inform and direct those willing to give their voice to a cause. They do this from the middle ground at the same time that leaders use empathy and emotion from above to stir a mass of supporters below.

Formulaically, this is the model of a movement: Gathering Anger or Distrust  > Inspirational, Emotion-Based Leadership Energy  > Comprehendible, Sustainable, and Actionable Directives  > Engagement and Retention of Street-Level Activists  > Growing and Repeated Mass Involvement  > True Change

While the following items can be viewed as works in progress—especially based on geography and culture—in much of the world we have seen the end or reduction of imperialism, slavery, child labor abuses, gay and lesbian oppression, and unequal gender rights. In each and every one of these movements, the stalwarts were the critical propellant. This position is similar to executive assistants, nurses, operations managers, and construction supervisors, those who understand the mission, translate that into synergistic directives, and then monitor and grow supporter behaviors needed for success. In the end, all of us benefit from the coordination of this production.

We still have a long way to go on many of these issues, but thanks to top visionaries, mid-section managers, and ground-level supporters, innumerable lives are better. Using the fire metaphor again, these transformations each began with a spark that conflagrated due to persistent stalwart fueling, and reached a mass inferno of change.

The coronavirus has inspired new emotion among the weary and oppressed. The most exhausted and angry could be Mother Earth, herself. We are witness to the planet being allowed to breathe, after being smothered for too long. Leaders are arising, some are already in place—such as Greta Thunberg—and others are stepping into the light. But this movement, like all, requires stalwarts.

We need those who are not visionaries or inspirational voices or big-stick carriers. We need doer-advocates to inform the world of what and how and when and why to act. We need you—knowing that you are eager to play a bigger role with your skills and energy—to help manage this essential affair. We need you as fuel to help make the checklists, grow the progress, and foster sustainable efforts of the masses.

My next post on movements will list positions that you might consider filling in order to play a vital role in a successful cultural transformation. Remember, these positions aren’t always sexy. If you are looking for glamour, it’s probably best to just look in the mirror. If you are looking for honor, it’s probably best just to look inside yourself. If you are looking to help, I can show you how.

Common Ground Zero: The Launchpad for Change

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The Sacramento, California, Golden 1 Center holds about 19,000 people for rock concerts. If Twenty One Pilots are playing there, it feels like a million fans—or only two or maybe even just one—are in attendance. As I listened to everyone loudly singing every word to every song, it seemed like a million people. When I danced with and connected to the other 18,999, there were just two—a single sea of humanity in motion, and me. When I was swept completely away by the energy of the thing, held purely in its sway, there was only one.

For moment after moment that fall evening, we were a gathering of one. I know this sounds touchy-feely, but it’s the best way to describe the vibe. The floor shook and the rafters rattled with the reverberating melodies of these musicians—brilliant artists and revered spokespeople for difficulties, acceptance, and change. It was a singular chorus of their songs, including “The Hype” (“Nice to know my kind will be on my side, just don’t believe the hype”), that powered the place. Nearly three hours of explosive energy on our common ground zero launched us up.

Ground zero is defined as the point of origin for intense change; it is regarded as square one. Common ground is defined as a foundation of shared or mutual interest between two or more people, as in a social relationship. By extension, common ground zero (a phrase that I coined) is the critical starting point for relationships that share ideologies or hopes or dreams. We are now more than ever at common ground zero. From here, we have to start working together better.

Our common interests form the plane on which we all can stand. But what is the glue—the energy—that hooks us together, to find and stand on common ground? This glue is the beliefs and morals that we each hold dear. Rather than present our manifold shared interests here—such as clean water, healthy children, and peace—this shorter blog post will focus on the adherent. It will explore the stickiness that consciously and subconsciously connects us: our shared values and the prevailing characteristics of those we most admire.

Over the course of many decades, my vocation and avocation have provided opportunities to study the values that humans cherish. As a river guide whose paddle raft guests depended on teamwork in order to safely run some of the most challenging rivers on earth, unity was needed to survive. As a global sojourner, the bonds of every culture I explored were repeated on each continent. I realized that we are all unique in the same ways. As an entrepreneur, I discovered that among people rightly hinged—versus unaccountable corporations—money is simply a means to an end, with that end being the care of community’s loved ones. And as an author, speaker, and workshop facilitator, I have surveyed crowds and participants on what their mentors or role models are made of. From Jesus to Gandhi to grandma to Buddha to Nelson Mandela, the number of different personal characteristics preferred by people from all walks of life can be counted on two hands. In essence, we all like, respect, and want the same goodness of all people.

In an attempt to make it easier to remember the glue, each of the heart-driven values or consistently admired personal characteristics named here start with the letter “c.” Or maybe it’s just divine coincidence, because the word “heart” in so many languages starts with the letter “c.” Corazon. Couer. Croi. Cuore. Cepue.

Here are values that we feel are important.

Compassion: The ability to feel what others are feeling and having a desire to help them.

Courage: Bravery to take action on what is right. The root definition of courage is “of the heart.”

Countenance: Wise acceptance and tolerance combined with support and encouragement.

Conscience: Using mind and soul to recognize good and then behaving in accordance with this understanding.

Companionship: Honestly counting on and connecting to another or others, so you or they can tenderly set things straight or hold a hand.

Common ground zero is upon us here and now. We must collaboratively share and act on our hopes by capitalizing on what binds us. The irony is that a maladapted crown, the coronavirus—with its symbol of hierarchical difference—helped us recognize our commonness. In disease and distress we need to draw on each other in order to go quickly and powerfully from where we are to a better place.

In the song “Cut My Lip,” Twenty One Pilots’ Tyler Joseph sings about being bruised and battered. They talk about how it feels to get through difficulties, as well as the importance of helping others get through tough times. “I don’t mind at all, lean on my pride, I’m a lion,” they offer up in this song. Another hit, “March to the Sea,” is an anthem about no longer blindly marching in line to our demise, subservient to the powers that be. Instead, the song implores us to believe in and turn towards each other for guidance. “Follow me, instead,” they suggest, “Follow me, instead.” They make music about companionship, countenance, compassion, courage, and conscience as part of understanding each other and getting healthy. It seems to be a call to join together—like we do at really good concerts—on common ground zero.

The Only Way Out?

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Imagine being an old-fashioned miner deep in the earth when the electricity that powers air and light down to you shuts off. Dank air soon fills your lungs. Your head smacks a wall. You knock about in darkness, suck in black dust and scramble your way back up, up, up. You feel the rush of new air coming your way from a space that you did not know existed. I should go there, your mind screams. And you do, but only after a quick double-gut-check that this is the right choice in order to reach the surface.

You feel like you and your family’s future are suffocating. Your will pulls you towards memories of the good and wide open sky. You take this unfamiliar path into the unknown, because another decent choice did not materialize. You hope that this decision leads to your and your loved ones’ survival. You see a distant light and crawl that way.

This is the appearance and rise of Donald Trump. His election was due in part to a decision that many made with the belief that he was the best choice to create opportunities to provide for those they love. He appeared to cast a new way that was desperately needed for many, and they went that way. I understand this.

I am reading the book “The Case for Trump,” by Stanford professor Victor Davis Hanson. I am reading this and have read many other books about the drift of our society to discordance. I am also speaking with people from all walks of American life as research for my next book. From coastal elite “libtard” financial advisors to “deplorable” out-of-work iron workers, from blue-lives-matter small town cops to black-lives-matter inner city gang-bangers, I am talking with folks who can help us find an answer to this question: How did we get to the point in our country where choices seem limited, sides are instantly taken, opinions carry more weight than caring, and common good will too often succumbs to individual wants?

In this research, I came across “White Right: Meeting the Enemy.” This Netflix documentary was produced by Deeyah Khan, a young Muslim woman who built a relationship with a KKK member. This pairing ultimately led to the clansman denouncing his vows to racism. How did this happen? You should watch the movie.

Among many powerful moments, one that got me in this video was an interview with a leader of segregationist movement. Speaking to the producer about her efforts, he said, “Your goodwill is going to lead to the oblivion of my people.” This struck me as impossible, as a complete oxymoron. How could good will lead to oblivion of anyone?

I am writing this new book as a template for us to unify, to share and act on the idea of turning individual opportunity into personal well being-as part of our greater good. Some might see these as exclusive, a negative pull against a positive push, as in individual wealth has little to do with common good. I maintain that success cannot come at the expense of another or at the cost of natural resource degradation and exhaustion. What is a foundation to this concept and practice? What is the way forward? Good will.

When the Best of Us Steps Up

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A question I sometimes ask my kids is, “Who benefits from what you just did?” Sometimes, I ask the same thing of myself, following something less than ideal that I just did. As a mentor to small business owners and an author of books about community good, I encourage entrepreneurs and gatekeepers to ask themselves a similar simple question as it relates to an important decision they are making: “Who will benefit?” The question can lead to the discovery of many reasons to step up and do it, or give pause to recognize that the act may not be universally beneficial.

This week, the best of the owner of the New England Patriots and the best of the Governor of Oregon stepped up. They took extra steps to do good, by donating masks and ventilators to needed hot spots. While it is possible to find ulterior motives in their actions, finding these means you have to look for them. Who benefits from this–seeking to discredit goodness–when one is providing for others in a time of deep need?

When the best of us step up, we all benefit. This ad encouraging Canadians to be and do more is a beautiful reminder of what we each can do. Let this period be a pivot point, one where from here on we regularly ask this question of ourselves: Who benefits from my actions?

Into the Mystic

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“And when the foghorn blows, I want to hear it.” –Van Morrison

Man, these are foggy, heart-in-throat times. We are sailing, somewhat blind. Do sunlight and a better day lie port or starboard? Do we really have any idea where to go or are we headed, without a rudder, into a mystic?

Sailing into the unknown causes senses to sharpen. Awareness crystallizes. You listen for waves crashing, squint for dark silhouettes, and feel on your face every shift in the wind. You crane and crane and crane again for blue sky. Ironically, in this haze the alert of your worst fears—being perilously close to being crushed ashore or going far out to sea with no safe harbor—might be your best friend. The foghorn’s blow.

We are hearing the foghorn blow. We can’t motor or sail or drift out of this turbulent sea for now. We may have nowhere to go to get out of trouble. Except in. Except in.

Last night my family watched old DVDs and VHSs of us 10-20 years ago. Danielle, my wife, had a sense that finding these movies and watching them might be a fun thing to do. It was fun. Not so much the part about hooking up the rust-bucket videotape player, but watching our teenagers watch themselves at one and two and four years old. Danielle and I were blown away by the difference that 12 years make in how you and others look, and, while unspoken, in how you feel. We watched a scene that “back then” replayed for a few years, every summer Sunday at an open-air concert. People dancing, kids eating ice cream, friends shooting the bull. Sitting in low lawn chairs on a grassy meadow sipping cold drinks, with a warm sun on our shoulders. I remarked that “back then” seemed so much more innocent.

The foghorn is blowing. In recent years, we have spent too much time proving our point and chasing, chasing, chasing. It has led us to today, where we have nowhere to go but in. For a couple of hours last night, there was nowhere else I would rather have been. As we sat and laughed and reflected and wondered, we traveled to significance. We wandered in, into the mystic.

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If we are so CONNECTED, then why are we so divided? We have a common cause, right now. Each other. This is common ground zero.

This video shows that we are more ALIKE than we might think. It shows where to look to find our “shared-ness.” Now is the time to shift focus from our differences to our common dreams.

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