In 1987, a friend invited me to help celebrate her 40th birthday aboard a chartered catamaran on Galveston Bay. I wasn’t a sailor, and never had boarded a sailboat, but I accepted the invitation because I loved my friend and wanted to share in her happiness. Driving to Galveston, I never imagined I was heading toward an experience that would still be affecting my life nearly 20 years later.
As we loosed our lines that hot August night, there was a freshening breeze, and a lapping of wavelets against the hull. As the sun touched the dusky horizon and stars emerged above the mast, I felt a sudden impulse. Walking to the stern, I asked the captain, “Do you teach people to do this?” Glancing in my direction, he mused, “No one’s ever asked”. When I asked again, he gazed at the darkening shoreline a long moment before saying, “Fine. But you’re going to learn it all.”
He was true to his word, and he taught me well. No one “learns it all”, but I learned enough over the next months to know the joy of competence, and the discipline of the sea. In bays and waterways, offshore swells and quiet anchorages, we practiced navigation, rehearsed Rules of the Road, bled fuel lines, and mended sails. I learned to single-hand, and I learned to crew. Above all, I learned to love water, wind and sky in a deep and profound way.
The learning took time, but the most important lesson I learned immediately. On my first day aboard, Tom asked me remove the canvas cover from the mainsail furled on its boom. The boom was higher than I could reach; the sail was tightly stacked and tied. Looking at it, I spoke the first words that came to mind: “I can’t reach it.”
Bent over the anchor chain, Tom never moved. When he spoke, his tone was clear: “Never again will you say, ‘I can’t’. If I tell you to do something which seems difficult or impossible, ask, ‘How can I?’ The answer may be that you ask for help, or find someone else to do it, but that’s not where you start. The only way you’ll succeed is by first asking, ‘How can I?’”
“Over the months, there were difficulties to spare. Each time I hesitated, Tom would grin and say, “You know the rule.” By that time, I certainly did. When difficulties arise, the rule says: relinquish pessimistic or petulant “I can’t” for curious and optimistic “How can I?”
Then, begin again.
Over the years, the question I learned to ask on that sailboat has embedded itself so deeply into my psyche it seems a birthright, true across every realm of life. No matter how painful a relationship, no matter how fearful the unknown, no matter how difficult life’s challenges, there always is a way forward.
I’ve had more than a few occasions to remember my “rule” since coming to WordPress. When I posted my first blog, I was as Dazed and Confused as the title implied. Confronted by a site filled with people comfortable with categories, tags, css, rss and html in the way I’m comfortable with my cousins or my cat, I could only admit to the truth: “When I look at a hyperlink, I hyperventilate. When I hear the word “tag”, I think of a children’s game. If any computer guru in the world begins a sentence, “All you have to do is…”, I’ve already done a mental turn and am running for my life. They mean well, and so do I. It’s just that “intuitive” is not a word I associate with computers or their programs.”
On the other hand, I’m not oblivious to the fact that the world has changed in my lifetime. I’ve been forced to admit that, “whether I like it or not, the day of the Number 2 pencil, or even the old, clunky Underwood, is over. If I am to share my words and my vision, technology must become my friend.”
And so, taking a deep breath and with my somewhat older friend “How Can I?” by my side, I began to create a blog. Step by step, I learned to work with images, and colorize my text. I learned not to use Word to create my entries, and how to create links. I learned about blogrolls and Blogger, text-wrap and Twitter. It was slow and more-or-less awkward, but all worked well until my last post.
I met my match in the form of four links which wouldn’t format properly. I like to emphasize links by making their color different from the text around them, and never had problems doing so. This time, it was beyond me. I tried everything I knew and a few wild guesses for good measure. I simply couldn’t make it work. The only solution was to swallow hard and head off to the forums, to see if I could ask my question clearly enough to find an answer.
The details of the question and answer aren’t really important. The fact that I was able to solve my problem with the help of a forum volunteer is wonderful, but somewhat beside the point. The point of it all appeared a day or so later, when I stopped by my blog to answer a comment.
I’ve begun responding to readers by adding my italicized comment directly beneath their post. It’s neat and tidy, and helps the flow by keeping comment and response together in one place. This time, when I added my response, the entire comment-and-response became one large, clickable link. It didn’t hurt anything, but it wasn’t right. Staring at the screen, caught up in html-phobia, I stopped hyperventilating long enough to remember my success in repairing those four recalcitrant links simply by re-arranging a bit of code. I thought to myself, “It was easy enough to fix that, once the problem was pointed out to me. How can I fix this?”
Clicking into the html editor, I looked over the page. I examined the code as though it were a lab specimen, looking for the anomaly, the error, the out-of-place character. Making myself slow down, I went through the code one line at a time, over and over, until I found it: an unclosed < a > tag. Amost breathless with excitement, I added the necessary < /a >, saved it, and previewed the page. It was perfect.
Sometimes, a tiny triumph is enough. Sometimes, solving even the smallest problem will do. Now and then, just a glimpse of a present reality can open our eyes to the wonder of future possibilities. After two months at WordPress, I’m still a bit dazed but not nearly so confused, and I’m learning once again the power of those simple words: how can I?
It will take time to learn the vocabulary, the culture and the simple etiquette of this blogging world, but I find it more accessible every day. There’s a certain elegance to this “other language” called html that intrigues me, not to mention the pleasure of learning so many new skills.
Now and then, someone will ask, “How can you spend so much time messing around with that computer?” Reading my words, looking at my images, I ponder a bit, and then ask in return, “How can I not?”
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