LSS: Here’s to magical thinking all around

Many who have written about Steve Jobs in the weeks since his passing have referenced his so-called magical thinking.
According to his biographer, Walter Isaacson’s 60 Minutes interview, and others who worked with Jobs as he transformed the world through technology, Jobs wasn’t always a nerdy nice guy. He was demanding—unreasonably so, in fact. He set irrational deadlines and insisted they be met. He asked for too much too fast. And somehow, as if by magic, his teams would meet the deadlines they themselves didn’t believe they could meet. Time and time again, he decreed it would be so—and it was, to everyone else’s surprise.
Jobs believed he was special. In a vicious cycle sort of way, determining whether he was special because he believed he was special or because he really was special is difficult. Either way, his set of beliefs worked all sorts of magic in the world around him.
Think about it.
Even five years ago, most of us wouldn’t have believed the things an iphone can do or the ways it would change how so many of us live. Even though everyone doesn’t use an iphone (and, yes, other apparati now have similar capabilities), the technology of the tiny handheld device has transformed the way we do things.
For example, this week my older daughter and I have traipsed around New England. We rented a car in Boston, and made stops in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. We were doing one of my favorite things—going places I’ve never gone before. As we’ve gone from state to state, from one specific address to another, we have never once referenced what I consider to be a bonafide map. We just used our phone. Granted, it did lead us to a strange back entrance on the wrong street at one of our stops, but other than that tiny indiscrepancy, we made record time from one city to town and back again. The whole exercise felt a little like our own version of The Amazing Race.
Granted, Jobs didn’t do most of the work required to build the gadget, but he did have the vision, didn’t he? In its own way, the small invention Jobs inspired is magic, in large part due to his personal magic in motivating others. He pushed himself and the people around him. He was a true leader—and maybe that’s part of why he resonated so deeply with society. Yes, he was temperamental, demanding and unflinching. However, he believed in himself—in his own magic.
If a few more of us believed in our own magic, just think what we could accomplish.
Sadly and in the end, Jobs’ greatness contributed to his demise. In a paradox worthy of a Shakespearian character, Jobs’ magical thinking ability eventually became his great character flaw. According to Isaacson, when Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003 by chance during a scan looking for kidney stones, he opted not to have the surgery doctors recommended.
Unlike the vast majority of pancreatic cancers, the specific type Jobs had was treatable. Surgeons could have removed it.
Jobs decided to treat it in a more homeopathic style. He believed he could beat it.
Nine months later when he finally allowed doctors to attempt to remove the cancer, the disease had spread. Jobs had a liver transplant, but never fully recovered—even though he lived nearly eight years post-diagnosis and achieved much during that time.
The irony of his life and death is not lost—and as with any extreme character trait, walking that fine line of reigning in a character trait before it goes too far is complicated and risky. However, Jobs was right about so many things—about his products and how people would use them and be transformed by them. What if he’d been right about the cancer treatment? Yes, that decision turned out to be a big mistake, but without risk comes no knowledge from mistakes.
If he wouldn’t have been the way he was, which includes living the way he lived and dying the way he died, he wouldn’t have done what he did.
And for that, the world is a better place.

LSS: Hard Scrabble truth

Last week in Warsaw, Poland, competition at the World Scrabble Championship reached a new high.
Or maybe it was a new low.
In the throes of the etymological battle, a Thai player accused an English player of cheating and demanded that the English player be strip-searched in an effort to find the missing letter “G.”
Scrabble officials declined, and the English player went on to win the game.
On a few rare occasions, I’ve played Scrabble with people who take the game just as seriously as that. While I love Scrabble and have been known to win a game or two, once it gets to a certain level, even Scrabble is just not fun anymore. It becomes kind of like Monopology—a long slow, painful loss.
But Scrabble doesn’t have to be like that, Scrabble can still be fun and open minds to new words and ideas.
That’s what Scrabble has done for me over the years.
Long, long ago, way back in the fall of 1982, my parents took me to college on a Sunday afternoon.
They helped me unload all my belongings and get my new dorm room in order, and then they did what parents do when they take their kids to college. They left.
With my bed made and my clothes hung, I wasn’t sure what to do next. So, I went to the room next door and met my neighbors, Nellie and Alice Jasper. They were twins and had grown up in a small town about 25 miles from the university we were entering. They knew the campus well, as both their parents were engineering professors there. The three of us talked for a moment. I could tell they were my kind of people and asked if they’d like to play a game of Scrabble.
It seemed like the thing to do.
We went to the dorm’s lobby and started setting up the game. A guy they knew walked by and ended up joining our game.
I have no idea who won the game, but I do remember one specific play from that afternoon. Midway through the game, this guy (who’s name long ago went missing from my head) played the word, “TORK.”
I said, “That’s not a word.”
He said, “Yes, it is. We learned about it in physics — something about the force required to turn an object.”
Nellie and Alice both started laughing and said simultaneously, “That’s not how you spell “TORQUE.”
The three of them debated the spelling of “TORQUE” for a few minutes before one of the twins ultimately decided to challenge the word. Of course, she was right and he had to take T-O-R-K off the board.
Throughout the exchange, I had stayed rather quiet.
Until that moment, I had never heard the word “TORQUE” and certainly had no idea what it meant or how to spell it. I vaguely remember the three of them launching into further discussion of exactly what “torque” means, but what I really remember is the major realization that came to me on that early Sunday evening in the lobby of Critz Hall: “It’s a good thing I’ve come to college, because apparently, there’s a whole lot I’ve got to learn.”
In the big picture, that may have turned out to be one of the greatest lessons I ever learned.
You just don’t know what you don’t know.

LSS: Fixer Woman to the rescue

If I were a superhero, I would wear a flashy cape and call myself Fixer Woman (said with as much fanfare as possible, please).
I love to fix things.
From can openers to conundrums of the heart, I do my best to solve the problem and make repairs — for one and all. I do not hoard my gift of fixing.
For years, when I have noticed a problem in a relationship, I tackled that problem head on. I believed it was my duty. After all, I am here to fix things.
After 47 years on this earth, I finally have figured out something big — and it didn’t come to me in a lightning bolt. It took a while — and a degree of suffering to go along with the passing of time. To save you the agony, I will share my newly gained insight: Fixing a plumbing issue gone kaput is one thing. Having the intention to fix a predicament gone wrong with a close friend or relation is something else.
At last, I have realized that sometimes the thing to do is wait.
I don’t have to try to fix every broken heart or relationship the moment it occurs to me that there’s an issue.
Sometimes, I’m just supposed to wait.
And hope.
And pray.
Not taking action, at least for me, is far more difficult than simply being.
Before I go any further down this path, let me say that I am not advocating anyone sitting on the urge to say, “I’m sorry,” or “Woops, my bad. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?”
I’m a big believer in readily admitting fault and the release it offers. However, what I am saying is that once that sincere exchange has happened, I am finally aware that I don’t need to work so hard at making things right. When the time comes, I’ll know.
Until then, I just need to hold it in as much grace as I can muster.
My fix-it nature was nurtured and took flight 17 years ago when I took to heart Edmund Burke’s quote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Those words fed my desire to do all I could so that evil wouldn’t triumph — and let me tell you, that’s a lot of responsibility.

As you may have guessed, even with doing all the good I could find the energy to do, it turns out that I am not a superhero and was, in fact, unable to stop evil.

The sweet spot between passivity and taking action lies in listening to our hearts. When we’re not supposed to make that call or revisit that topic, there’s generally some internal debate.
Going forward, I’m going to try to pay more attention to that debate. Likewise, when the time is right, we usually know that too.
The bottom line is that making time and space to listen to what’s going on in my heart is critical toward letting things fix themselves — as opposed to frazzling ourselves to a wither in an attempt to fix everything in our path.
Cue the music.
Fixer Woman to the rescue.
Maybe I don’t have to be Fixer Woman anymore.
Maybe the greatest good sometimes happen when I’m quiet and waiting. I have to walk that fine line because going too far in the other direction would result in too much passivity.
Balancing the need to do good and a natural tendency to take action with a call-to-wait requires a faithful and steady effort.
That means waiting on the natural path of healing and to stop forcing things along.
Recognizing that pushing things—from conversations to fraught relationships—seems rarely to make things better took a while, even when my intent is to fix whatever was that was broken.
My folly was that Burke’s quote propelled me to take too much action. Maybe it’s a part of aging that I finally had the big realization: Sometimes I just need to sit and be — and wait.
Fixer Woman to the rescue no more.

LSS: Take October Back

Long sigh.
Deep breath.
October, the month I have loved best since age 9, has barely started and it’s wearing me down already. I have been loyal to this month for too long to continue to allow it to be taken hostage by too much.
October, with its winsome leaves, falling and crunching so satisfyingly under bicycle tires on the road.
October, with its dazzling cooler air, drifting through doors flung wide.
Somehow October has become the fall’s May (or even the winter’s December)—too much packed in too tight to appreciate any of it properly.
I don’t like it.
While I know people who have come to believe that being over-scheduled is medal-worthy behavior, I am not one of them.
I suppose what May and October have in common is that everyone who lives anywhere near these parts knows that the unbearable heat is coming. We have to cram it all in before it gets too hot to do anything outside. And now, we have October on the other end of that mindset—the first time since May that it’s cool enough to want to be outside.
Oh, but being outside in October is grand.
Surely, the cooler temps make me sing. And dance. And play tennis. And run around with a ridiculous grin on my face.
The trouble is that the powers that be have scheduled so many other mandatory activities that instead of being the month that allows the majority of us to catch our breath and take it in, October is wearing us down.
As of right now, I’m starting the Take October Back campaign. Join me if you will. Let’s not schedule one more event/appointment/rehearsal/deadline/meeting/class for October—and I’m going to remember this for next year. I hope to see just how little I can schedule for next October.
As Steve Jobs reminded us, life is too short to live someone else’s dreams—or schedules for that matter.
“Your time is limited. So don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Follow your heart and intuition, they somehow know what you’re meant to become. Everything else is secondary,” he wisely said.
Another Jobs line that has been widely repeated this week is one he borrowed from a short-lived 1970s publication called Whole Earth Catalog. He said, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
And that brings me back to the trouble with October.
As things are, October leaves us no time to be foolish.
Having time and energy to be foolish—and using both to do just that—is an essential ingredient in having a great life. Those moments when we take chances in ways we never have before are the very moments that become the stuff of dreams—the moments that we look back upon and recognize as the split seconds that changed everything. Those are the moments that create memories and usually a considerable amount of joy—not to be confused with staged silliness. I’m talking about unchoreographed, spur of the moment notions that require imagination, courage and faith.
That’s what October is supposed to be about.
Heck, that’s what every day is supposed to be about.

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, runs on Sundays. Email her at jan@janrisher.com.

LSS: Wait a minute, Mr. Postman

As she ran out the door, I hoped she would yell, “Wait a minute, Mr. Postman.”
She has seen the postman throughout her life. She has waited patiently (and not-so-patiently) for packages and parcels he’s delivered through the years.
But she didn’t yell or sing, “Wait a minute, Mr. Postman,” because she does not know that song.
The ordeal leading up to the non-chase of the postman demonstrated that she also does not know much about postal basics.
“She” is one of my daughters, and I am honoring her request to remain unnamed.
When I realized just how little she knew about mailing a letter, I was stunned.
“Do I put one stamp or two?” she asked.
“You put one stamp,” I replied.
“Why doesn’t it need two?” she asked. “It’s going to another state. Shouldn’t I put two?”
And with that series of questions, I began to understand just how deep the problems lie for the U.S. Postal Service. Granted, there have got to be kids out there who know the ins and outs of mailing letters. My daughter, for whom I have tried so hard to provide a well-rounded education and exposure to the finer and most basic points of life, is not one of them.
“I did mail a letter in the first grade,” she said in response to my incredulousness.
For her and the others out there in her shoes, here are the basics of what happens: You can write a letter on a piece of paper, on a baseball, on a coconut, on a Frisbee or a flip-flop—but mostly people mail letters.
That’s not true.
These days, people mostly mail bill payments.
But, should you be so inclined, you could mail a letter or an envelopeless flip-flop or a postcard—which is a lot more fun than mailing a bill.
Back to the basics—if you’re mailing a letter in an envelope to someone in the United States, all you have to do is add the proper address—name, street address or post office box number (that’s another detail that threw my daughter off), city, state and zip code and proper postage. If it’s a regular size envelope, it requires one letter stamp, which costs 44 cents these days. Mailing a postcard only costs 29 cents. If you’re mailing the letter internationally, it requires a little more postage.
Many an adult who just read that explanation is thinking, “Why did she just use a paragraph to explain what everyone knows?”
Well, the answer is: For the most part, the generation under the age of 17 knows diddly squat about how the postal service works. My informal research and survey show that a surprising number of 20-somethings still use the postal service regularly to make their bill payments or send in their Netflix. The vast majority of my 20-something I know use the postal service much more than I expected—mainly for their bill payments, but even still their usage tells me that there is still a need for the postal service. In fact, I was surprised to learn that the hippest, most tech savvy 20-somethings I know, pay their bills through the mail. That tells me that it’s highly likely when the 17 and under crowd have to pay their bills, they may do the same thing.
For now, though, part of the explanation in my daughter’s generation’s lack of postal understanding is that much of the excitement of going to the mailbox is gone. Going to the mailbox used to have an air of anticipation to it. Who could have written a letter today? What news will we get? Now that we don’t even get Netflix in the mail anymore and with the rare exceptions of invitations and an occasional card or note, junk mail, bills and magazines are the only thing in the mailbox these days—there’s little allure in that.
But still, I like that the post office delivers and would like for my daughters to have a full appreciation for the amazing service. Clearly, we need a lesson on the finer points of mailing things. I see the laborious task of managing the addressing of a flip-flop in my near future. In doing so, we’ll support the post office in their time of need.
In the meantime, I’ll teach them the song that goes with it.
Oh yes, wait a minute, Mr. Postman.

Jan Risher’s column appears on Sundays. If you’d like to send her electronic mail, please send to jan@janrisher.com. If you’d prefer to send her a message the old-fashioned way, send it to Jan Risher, c/o The Daily Advertiser at P.O. Box 5310, Lafayette, LA 70502.