Be Like Bernie

Fascinating things happen all around us, and the more ordinary their source, the more fascinating I find them.

Take, for example, the story of Bernie Pietenpol of Cherry Grove, Minnesota.

Like a lot of other young people coming up in the Great Depression (the first one, that is!) he was only able to make it as far as the 8th grade.  He worked in a cabinet shop and as a mechanic.

But his eyes were on the skies.  He wanted to fly, and have his own airplane.  But there wasn’t exactly an easy path to that dream for someone in a rural Midwestern town with no money.

So Bernie decided he would just build his own plane, designed out of what he had available to him.  So using hardware store parts, an engine from a Model A Ford, and carving his own propeller out of a piece of black walnut, he did just that.  And then taught himself how to fly it.

And then he built another.  He read an article in Popular Mechanics magazine that said an auto engine wouldn’t be enough to power an aircraft.  He wrote to the editor that he had not just one, but two airplanes he had powered with auto engines.  The editor said that if he would fly one over to show him, he’d believe it.

So Bernie did.  The editor was so impressed he said if Bernie would give him the plans he would sell them through the magazine.  So a friend was pressed into doing the drawings and they sent them off.

And they sold.  6,000 sets sold before WWII alone!  It seems Bernie had tapped into a common dream of making flight available to anyone with the desire and ability to figure things out for themselves when financial resources were lacking.

Over 400 of these Pietenpol “Air Camper” planes are still flying today, safely and successfully, all over the world, and they are still being built in garages and sheds.

People like Bernie Pietenpol are my heroes, because they demonstrate what can happen if we just get up and start something.  I find many people, myself included, spend all our time “beginning to begin” on our dreams and we never actually do anything.

We think we need more education, or a certain background, or something else that we think we lack, when all we need to do is figure out what we can do with what we have.

So the lesson is, just start.  Now.  You’ll figure it out as you go along, and starting things has it’s own magnetism that will draw the resources you need to you when you need them.

And someday you’ll be flying, too.




Treasure From The Trash Heap

I went to my local library’s book sale yesterday.   I can’t seem to stay away from these things, even though my bookshelves groan under the load of all the books I’ve managed to pick up over the years.

I really didn’t intend to pick up more than one or two books if I found something interesting, but am armload of books later I was on my way home.  One of the books I picked up was called The Art of Thinking by someone named Ernest Dimnet.  It was from the now-defunct Fawcett Publishing, part of a series called their “World Books” program, released in 1969.  The book had been written in the 1920’s, I believe.

I’ve never heard of Dimnet, or this book, but once I sat down with it I was entranced.  Dimnet’s Old World literary style (he was French), with his frequent references to authors long forgotten, show just how well read he was.  It combines some techniques that would be at home in any self-help book today such as visualization, as well as pinches of philosophy and advice on how to access your authentic voice as an artist.

All delivered in a prose that is from a century ago, but still understandable and capable of transmitting it’s most important ideas.  Dimnet was obviously a very well-traveled person, and one who knew quite a few of the literary lights of his day.  Upon researching a little bit about him online, I was surprised to find out he was a priest – his writing about very sensitive and ethereal subjects stays grounded in the secular.

It is a perfect example of how good writing holds up.  It made me realize what we’ve lost in communication since we don’t really put much effort into things anymore.  Dimnet and his generation took books seriously, and didn’t just read them, they thought about them and digested their ideas, using that as fuel for their own self-expression.

And nearly 100 years after it was written, it still holds up.  I doubt our blogs and Tweets will do the same.  It kind of makes you long for the heft of a hardcover book and the smell of musty paper.

Internet Disconnect

As demographics break down, I am too over the hill to be considered a “digital native” – somebody who has had the Internet and cell phones available to them from an early age.  I went through my youth and early adulthood in analog mode.

I enjoy technology and all the cool stuff it provides, but I find I don’t have certain digital “needs” that others do.

I don’t have the constant need to be connected to anyone, so my cell phone minutes last a looooong time.   I can make a trip of several thousand miles to a place I’ve never been without the aid of satellites, GPS, and Onstar. Just the occasional glance at the Auto Club map.

I also live my life somewhat spontaneously.  I don’t need to read Yelp reviews to see if a restaurant is good.  I’ll go in and just try it.  And if it isn’t any good, oh well…I really don’t need to write a review.  The sooner forgotten the better.

I have photo albums full of faded, yellowed pictures.  I don’t need Instagram to create them.

I feel this disconnect because I like to spend my time living my life, not documenting if for people who I don’t know and probably don’t care.

I took up blogging with a message-in-a-bottle theme.  Throw a message out there, and see if anyone finds it.  It’s fun to meet new people who somehow stumble across things, rather than having them be the focus of an intense marketing campaign.

I “get” technology….it’s fun to feel connected to someone via Twitter, or form a network on Facebook or LinkedIn.  I get the appeal, I just don’t seem to be driven to jump in.

I sometimes feel like a member of a primitive tribe, plucked out of the bush and plunked down in the middle of a modern city.  While a lot of the improvements such as heat, light, and clean running water will be embraced immediately, there won’t be a real need to worry if the curtains and the carpet clash or if the place settings go with the overall decor.

It’s just not that important in the overall scheme of things.



The other day I chanced to overhear a phone conversation from one of my relatives.  It’s the type of relative who stays in touch over the years, but only so they can crow about their end of the family and satisfy their morbid curiosity about your end.

The asked if I was doing OK, and when they received the response that I was, they moved on to extol the exploits of their children, grandchildren, and impending great-grandchildren.  I guess since I wasn’t incarcerated, destitute, or hadn’t met an untimely end for them to revel over I wasn’t newsworthy.

It reminded me that about 90% of the people who live in our heads – old friends, teachers, relatives, etc.- aren’t really concerned with us until we become newsworthy in some manner.  Yet we sometimes listen to these voices from our past when judging ourselves and reflecting on our lives.

We wonder what people would think if we did A or Plan B, when in fact most of them aren’t going to think of us at all.  I don’t mean to say that from a whiny, “nobody cares about me” stance, but from a liberating “who cares!” point of view.

I think all of us have this internal jury from our past that we use against ourselves.  They seem to be the people who need to be impressed by us, they seem to judge us in an almost unconscious manner.

They are the people we imagine shaking their heads at us when we try something that doesn’t work out, or didn’t go as we planned.  Maybe these internal critics are just the faces and names we paste our own fears and insecurities on.

But they don’t really exist.  Or have any power over us.  If we succeed wildly, they’ll just downplay our success to make themselves feel better.  And if we fail, they’ll just gloat.

So ignore them….they don’t matter, they don’t care, and the electrical impulses firing in your neurons could be put to better use making the one person happy that really matters.




Dr. Hacker, M.D.

If you run a website, blog, or even have an email account you’ve become familiar with spammers and other Internet scamsters.  WordPress does a pretty good job of intercepting them, there are spam filters for email, and a host of tools arrayed against whoever these people are that seem to flood webpages from time to time.

We take a dim view of these people, but maybe we need to examine just what makes them tick a little more closely.  They seem to be incentivized to use their skills for evil, not for good, but maybe we need to turn that situation around.

Most of the stuff that makes it through the various defenses is not so much a virus as just some crap links (which might lead to a virus), “male enhancement” drugs, even LED light bulbs!

The way I look at it, WordPress, hosting companies, ISP’s and everyone else in the email/Internet biz is pretty vigilant about catching this stuff.  It’s almost like an arms race….mastermind pitted against mastermind in a race for superiority.  And I believe the resources of a Yahoo, or WordPress, or Google are more than just a few sharp folks sitting in a cubicle…

Yet despite their best efforts, someone holed up somewhere in a coffee shop in Eastern Europe or wherever it is these people are actually located manages to find a way to exploit a vulnerability that sends the best and the brightest scrambling to patch it.

We need to find these people, but maybe instead of prosecuting them we should offer them a full scholarship to Stanford Medical, or MIT, or some other way of capturing that much persistence and curiousity and turning it to socially beneficial means.

Anyone with the qualities it takes to poke around the guts of the Internet and find ways to open doors that should be locked could probably put their talents to better use than trying to sell Viagra or supposed celebrity nude photos…….

Say, for instance, curing cancer or coming up with cheap renewable energy.  That should be a walk in the park.

Spring And Things

Thanks to our Unwinter this year, spring is early here in the North Country.  And with spring there’s an energy everywhere that is almost palpable.  The mallard ducks have all hooked up, wherever ducks go to do that, and are wandering around in pairs looking for some nice quiet real estate to nest in.

People are starting to clean things out and spruce things up.  Motorcycles, RV’s and boats are getting uncovered and worked on.

Doing these things after a winter, even a mild one, seems to be part of our natural rhythm.  I remember some friends of mine who used to have a “Couch Burning” party.  Somebody would drag their old couch out of their living room, set it in the backyard, and make a bonfire out of it.  Kegs were tapped, and it was their own little spring bacchanal.  Not the worst way I can think of to get rid of an old couch.

Down in Santa Fe, New Mexico, there’s a tradition called Zozobra.  A large monster is created out of wood and papier mache, and stuffed with old tax returns, mortgage papers, divorce decrees….anything people want to get rid of and put in their past.

Once stuffed full of people’s cares and woes, there’s an elaborate ceremony and the Zozobra figure is set on fire (as you may have noticed in the pic above).   The idea being, of course, that by torching all these things we’ve burned our worries and are ready to start anew.

Zozobra takes place in the fall, but I’ve always thought it SHOULD take place in the spring.  It seems more fitting to gather up all the things you are tired of and want out of your life when nature renews itself alongside you.

We may not be this elaborate, but each of us should have their own little Zozobra ceremony.  Getting rid of what drains us is the only way to move forward.

And spring is just the time of year to do it.


What Makes You So Special?

Creative people have always fascinated me, in part I guess because I’ve admired their ability to “put themselves out there”.  It is one thing to kind of phone your life in to a job you don’t care about, but to do some kind of work that says “this is me” takes courage.  Rejection or not being accepted or listened to hurts a lot more when your heart is on the line.

Maybe some people conquer that fear with ego.  Salvador Dali was certainly no shrinking violet, nor was Picasso.  But lacking that degree of self-confidence/conceit, what can we do to encourage ourselves to write, in an Internet that has millions of blogs, or to paint, when the best works of more talented people go unsold, or to make music when everyone with some pirated software can set up a recording studio?  Does the Universe really give a crap what we do?

I think it does.

We are each here to synthesize our own experience.  Nobody else in the history of mankind has had the same experiences you have, the same lineage you do, the same exact personality.  Not even if  you are a twin.

Pieces of our personality, our looks, and our psychology are stranded down our DNA from people we never even knew personally.  All the people we’ve interacted with, from our parents to our past relationships have put their stamp on us and shaped us into something that is totally unique.

So if you don’t show people the view from your own unique window, and keep it all bottled up because you think nobody cares, then you are not only stifling your own life-force, but the energies of all those who made you…..your ancestors, your immediate family, people you’ve known who left an impression.

That energy is there, inside of you, whirling around like electrons around a nucleus.  So split that atom, and release your own chain reaction of energy, which will set off other chain reactions in the people you touch and interact with.

And you’ll become part of somebody else’s story.  Wouldn’t YOU want them to tell it?