Unfolding the Map
Looking for a place to stop for the night, William Least Heat-Moon begins to get irritated. We'll see his irritation over the next couple of posts. The truth is, when we seek inconvenience and find it, it sometimes isn't pretty. Take a look at the map to locate the source of the irritation!
"....The map promised Moose Junction, Dairyland, Cozy Corners [sic] - towns that proved either no longer to exist or to be three houses and a barn."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 11
Disappointment, frustration, irritation. Do you see the pattern that is unfolding in this set of posts? We all get to such places where we just want things to work right, and for all the elements to fall into place, so that we can put an end to the task or chore we are working on, or put an end to the day and knock off until tomorrow.
Douglas County is not proving to be a positive place for LHM. In fact, this whole series of posts is about irritation. He begins his Wisconsin segment in Superior which doesn't have much that's interesting for him. He breezes on through in Ghost Dancing as it is getting dark, and begins looking for a place to sleep. But Pattison State Park drives him away with a large sign of rules and regulations. All he wants to do is find a place to pull in and settle down for the night. He doesn't want to undertake an expedition or camp down for a month.
Now his irritation is growing. He looks at the map. As always, he is interested in going to those out-of-the-way places on the blue highways, particularly if their names are different. Moose Junction, Dairyland and Cozy Corner seem to promise "interesting" with the practical and the promise of comfort.
How disappointing, then, to find nothing there. Moose Junction is a small, unincorporated township outside Dairyland. Dairyland is a crossroads of Highway 35, Town Road T and County Road T that consists of a small cluster of buildings that give no indication that the town has 186 people in it. You are certainly not going to find a motel or campground there. Cozy Corner, despite its promise of comfort, is still another crossroads, where County Road T, School Road and Highway 35 meet. There's not much there besides the people who live in the area.
Of course, we all deal with irritations and disappointments. In fact, LHM will later say that part of the purpose of his trip is to be inconvenienced. However, Douglas County will put that conviction to the test. We often say we want to be challenged, but when a challenge comes, how gracefully do we really respond? In my case, more often than not, my response is not with aplomb, but with a lot of whining.
I recently read an article written about student education. You may think this falls far afield from Moose Junction, Dairyland and Cozy Corner, but the article had everything to do with challenge. The author argues that if we are exposed to challenges at an early age and we are encouraged to respond to them with the idea that they are essential to learning, it appears that we carry that empowerment into later life. The article lists a study that was done with students. As we know, some students' IQs are higher than others. Students that demonstrate early academic aptitude AND are reinforced with the notion that they are gifted and smart often, when confronted with challenges, do not respond well to them. They give up if the answer does not come quickly, and see their inability to solve a problem as a failure. Students who are presented with problems as challenges that are interesting and fun not only throw themselves into problems but also eventually work them out.
Take two groups of students. In one group reinforce students' through statements and praise. In the other group, present students with problems and encourage them to view problems as fun challenges. At the beginning of the experiment the students' should be about the same in their ability to solve complex problems. But over time, the students that are encouraged to view challenges as fun most likely will show significant increases in their abilities whereas the other group of students will not.
This is reinforced by Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, where he does a profile on a man with an extremely high, genius-level IQ. This man has, despite his genius, done nothing spectacular with his life. He knows he has way above-average intelligence. Yet he has won no Nobel Prizes, holds no academic posts - in fact, he struggled in college because he had trouble playing by the rules and felt stifled. Perhaps, had he learned to accept struggle and challenge as something that could lead to growth rather than as something that is irritating and unnecessary, he might have achieved an outcome in life that better reflects his genius.
I'm reflecting on these matters because, in a sense, I too follow the same kind of pattern. I got my PhD at the University of New Orleans, and was perceived to be one of the more promising students who came through the program. I took to statistics easily, came up with interesting arguments and did well. But I didn't land a job in academia. I work on the staff of a medical school and not in a political science department. I tried a year on the job market and got very disappointed in the dissonance between what I thought I should achieve and what I was offered. I gave up, and whether you find me to be retroactively justifying a failure or simply reorganizing my priorities in life, I now question whether I really want to be in academia at all. However, a big part of my disappointment was the constant reinforcement that I was a great student, one who would go places. When I met a challenge in the job market, and found I was just another guy with a diploma looking for a job in academia, it didn't translate into what I thought about myself, and I struggled.
In contrast, a colleague of mine felt that he struggled all the time in school. He is from a Catholic neighborhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He came to the United States because his parents didn't want him mixed up in "The Troubles." He told me once that he didn't have the smarts that I had, that everything seemed like a slog to him. Yet he got his PhD, went on the job market, and took a job at a small state university in an area of political science that wasn't even his main concentration. His choice was purely utilitarian - he could get a job faster if he took it in a field of political science that didn't interest him as much. He's now an assisant professor, and quite possibly an associate professor, in a political science department. He tended to look at challenges as something to overcome. He'd done it his whole life, and it worked. He continued to apply it, and it netted results for him.
I'm not saying that we can't be irritated sometimes at our challenges, but meeting them depends much on the perspective we bring to them. It's taken me a long time to learn that. I hope that beyond learning, I can reorganize my outlook and apply a new perspective, one that embraces challenge, to the second half of my life.
I don't know why this song came to me. I like the Indigo Girls, but never really listened to a lot of their music other than the songs I knew. But their peppy, upbeat song called Hammer and a Nail, about avoiding stagnancy and meeting challenges ahead seems to fit both my mood and this post as I write. I hope you agree.
If you want to know more about Moose Junction, Dairyland or Cozy Corner
Next up: Somewhere in Douglas (or Burnett) County, Wisconsin