railway dam, Allen Station Park, the principal historical monument in Allen, Texas
In Canada I always see the most cool things. One day, my wife and I were hiking in a provincial park in British Columbia. We came upon a rushing river. On the edges of the river, clinging to the sides as if for dear life, were intrepid kayakers. They leaned to and they leaned fro. Before you know it, they made their way downstream.
We comprise less sturdy stuff, or more sturdy stuff, depending on how one draws the metaphor. We walked that August day among woods alive with the scent of greenery and a modest lichen/peat drench. We took no undue risks, other than perhaps not wearing bear bells. We did not see the kayakers and long to be among them. We saw them as people doing things which interested us to see, but not at all to do.
I think that observation features many benefits as well as detriments. I know the dark side to observation. Some of my favorite songs from the pop canon--"Waterloo Sunset", "Comfortably Numb"--recognize that darkness within of just letting life happen to one. Yet I think that the virtues of observation often get overlooked. The world is full of experiences one attains only if one is watchful and disciplined.
I play chess desultorily. My rating these days is 1690 or so, roughly better than 70% of those who play "serious" hobby chess, yet a solid two notches below expert rating (and hence three notches below master level). Chess rewards observation within and without in so many ways. A few Saturdays ago I played a player of strength almost identical to my own. We held a pitched battle in the middlegame, from which he emerged a pawn up in a drawish position slightly favoring him. At the moment I realized that the game might be held to a draw, I began to focus and observe the board carefully. I mean more than just I watched the pieces and mentally counted out the likely moves. The themes of the endgame (in this case, consolidation of rooks and kings around a pawn phalanx) came alive for me, and I could "see" what I needed to do. The stray bits of theory and experience I acquired over thirty years of play came together into a set of workable plans.
My opponent got into time trouble, and missed the sequence which would either give him a win or a draw. Instead, he made a blunder which placed his pawns just enough out of position that I came away with the win. My "doing" was entirely a function of my "observing".
I conceptualize constantly. I live in the abstract from time to time. Yet I find that the skill I value the most in myself is that I can "get business done". My practical streak saves my theoretical side from being just a series of witty footnotes to the events around me. I value "can do" thinking. A good part of this, though, is to use my mental "eye" as well as my intellectual "brawn'.
When I succeed at what I do for a living or for a hobby, it is because I can take an idea and make it real. I do not believe I am strong on craft, or even on craftiness. My skill is in working out a workable path, and then working it. When I win a chess game, it is more often than not that I win a pawn, trade the pieces off, and then slide home in the endgame.
This self-perception carries with it a weakness. I tend to have a "helper" personality. This makes my choice of career very workable, of course. Yet sometimes I wish I could just give advice on topics other than law. In my non-work-life, I do so fairly freely, though with far more restraint than I once did. Yet I'm always wanting to "pitch in" in some small way. I don't mean every time I want to help in every way. I'm not that saintly. I mean that problems and people interest me, and I want to try to lend a practical voice.
Yet so often people don't want voices--they want ears. They know how to cross the bridge. They could use a little cooling stream of support as they do so. They even have the temerity to want to cross different bridges than the ones I'd have them cross.
So often I see endless possibilities for people. I see pragmatic ways from A to B. I used to be a partner in a law firm whose motto (actually, we had two, but let me stick with the printable one) was "from A to B". The point of this motto was that we tended to focus on solutions to achieve goals. I like to move from pipedreams to reality. In my own life, I spend a lot of time working out real ways to do my pipedreams, with mixed but satisfying results.
Yet the struggle is that as a "helper" I can seek out people who have asked for help, and need not inflict help on people who could just use a listener. Everyone in the world has advice, but advice
is not what everyone wants. Nobody minds a flood on a water world.
I must admit, though, that I love it when I can be of help with advice--to be asked, to be able to help, and to achieve. Perhaps tomorrow I'll run a poll in which I emulate Lucy from the old Peanuts comic--advice, 5 cents please, only I'd forgive the nickel.
In the meantime, I know what a winding trail we all walk, and I will remember that so often we hunt less for a hiking instructor than for a companionable ear to talk to along the trail.
That's not to say,though, that I'll stop seeking ways to be of help when I can. I just know sometimes to shut up and hike. Don't mind me, though, if my smile sometimes alternates with a word of two of comfort, and perhaps a little modest advice.
helpful closing lesson: "how to pose unnaturally for a self-portrait: widen eyes first"