Monday, April 11, 2016

The Mighty Mississippi

Photo credit: GoodReads

Mighty Miss: A Mississippi River Experience, by Gary Hoffman (pub. by Mighty Miss Press, Chanhassen, MN, 2009, 284pp plus notes and glossary)

There is a lot in this book---a lot.  I usually finish a book before starting a review, but I started early for fear that I’d miss some important points.  A big part that is brought out in this book is that long trips, expeditions, if you wish to call them that, create a lot of stress.  There is stress in preparation, deciding on the right gear and provisions, garnering the support of family, finding a compatible paddling partner, if you wish to go that way, maintaining communications and good rapport with that person, and all of this is before the trip even starts.  Once you push away from the shore, there is mud, toxic waste and litter, snakes, insects that either want to drive you insane or cause life-ending or debilitating diseases, poisonous plants, high adverse winds, freezing cold and brain-baking heat, injuries that get infected, aching muscles, fanny fatigue and back strain, bouts of pain and numbness from inflamed nerves, and self-doubt, and the last is the big one.  Of all the things that you need to fear on a long trip, it is not tugs and ships, whirlpools, snakes, bears, sharks, and alligators.  What you need to fear most is your own brain.  It will torment you all day, try to keep you awake all night, flood you with dread, make you hear slights and insults from your paddling partner that were never there, and never meant to be there.  You’ll be homesick.  All the things you needed a break from now won’t look so bad.  You’ll even start thinking about all the work you can do when you get back.  Then, you will get settled in, and when the trip is almost over, you begin to realize that you don’t want it to stop.  Yup, your closest companion, your own head, will be your worst enemy.  Most people that do long-distance, endurance trips, marathons, or expeditions all seem to agree that the physical aspect, the part most people think about, comprises only 30% of trials to be overcome.  The mental aspects make up the remaining and most critical 70%.

The trip down the Mississippi had been the author’s dream.  His son, Darrin, had just gone into the army, and they agreed to make the trip together when he got out.  In the meanwhile, Darrin married.  The first roadblock to the trip was his new wife.  She was against the trip, and against him being away.  She did not support her husband or their adventure, and her demands cast a shadow over the trip.  They found themselves constantly in search of a phone in the wilderness so Darrin could check in and placate his bride.  It created more stress that gave rise to constant fights between the two paddlers.  The author had hoped the trip would bring him and his son closer together.    By the time they get to St. Louis, there was doubt that they could continue without destroying their relationship, perhaps beyond repair.  They slowly sought ways to understand each other and what was happening to them.  They feared this was as far as they could go, but they continued. 

As for the good news, all of this stress and conflict is manageable.  It can be overcome.  Experience helps, as does patience, tolerance, acceptance, and a Caribbean state of mind.  “Don’t worry, be happy.”  If you are an alpha or Type-A personality, never go paddling with another alpha or Type-A personality unless one of you can accept a subordinate role and commit to that in advance.  Now, this is some experience I carried to the book, rather than from it, so feel free to consider it personal opinion, but this clearly screamed from the pages.  I’ve used a word above that I hate---partner.  I didn’t use co-paddler or team member, because initially you wouldn’t have known what I meant.  Any business attorney will tell you that of the three types of managerial or organizational types, (sole proprietorship, partnership, and corporation), the partnership is the weakest, has the most pitfalls, and is the most likely to fail. Contrary to popular opinion, a partnership in a marriage, business, or paddling trip is poison.  Partnership comes with the expectation that both parties have equal rights and authority to make the same decisions about the same things.  That is the formula for resentment, and non-stop and destructive battles.  The better concept is that of a teammate.  Both are on the same team, with the same goals, but each has their own specific jobs that the other does not share in and should keep his or her mouth shut about---in other words, a clear division of labor.  There has to be a hierarchy.  One person is in charge, like the pilot of a plane, and the other, like the co-pilot, should be equally qualified and able to take over if needed, but accepts that the leader has ultimate responsibility, and therefore has the ultimate tie-breaking vote.  If one of the two ‘partners’ can’t accept that role, they have no business being together, and likely won’t be for long, at least not happily. 

Here’s the best example of the successful team I can give.  It is a blueprint that can be employed in any paddling trip, marriage, or business venture.  I knew a couple that had been married for over 50 years.  They were both officers in the air force.  He was a colonel, but she, as a full bird-colonel, outranked her husband.  When they were working and in uniform, he deferred to his ranking wife.  She was the boss.  When they crossed the threshold at home, their roles immediately reversed.  She deferred to him.  He was the boss.  The change was so sudden and obvious that an unsuspecting observer couldn’t help but get mental whiplash, but it was how they kept conflict, personal or vocational, out of their marriage.  They had their own realms of responsibility, and the other respected and recognized his or her authority in that area without interfering.  They did not have a partnership, but they made a great team.

The book explores detailed aspects of the trip that are glossed over or omitted in most books.  If you contemplate this or another long trip, this account of what they faced gives one of the best insights I’ve seen into what may be encountered.  One of the strongest recommendations the author made was to not be in too great a hurry, but to always make time for the people you will meet along the river.  They will always be the best and most memorable part of the trip.

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