Lessons in life, big and small, come from all kinds of places. It's up to us to recognize them and put them into the constellation that makes up our character. I was reminded of this recently when I ran into Rick Ward, a guy I knew from college but hadn't seen since. We met in front of a market and chatted for a good 45 minutes. At one point he said, "You changed my life."
Taken aback, I asked, "What did I do?"
Ward told me that one day at my apartment, I played an Eric Dolphy record for him, pointed out a particular solo and said it was the greatest jazz improvisation ever. I don't recall the occasion, but can imagine once having had the nerve to say something like that. Anyhow, it made an impression and, Ward says, it changed his music listening habits to this day. (Quick music lesson: Dolphy was a seminal avant-garde jazz saxophonist of the 1950s and 1960s. You may have heard him on some Charles Mingus records. He died young.)
OK, it wasn't that heavy a deal. It's not like I converted him to a new religion or political stance. But I was reminded that we sometimes take our impressions from the most fleeting of sources. Something said in passing can make a permanent mark.
One of my cousins recently related a story that emphasized the point. She was talking with the owner of a gas station and convenience store when they discovered that both our families were members of the same church and school back when we were kids. The businessman recalled playing football when my father was an assistant coach. During a game the guy got tackled when he tried to run around a mud puddle. As a result our team lost. After the game my father grabbed him, threw him into the puddle and proclaimed that if you want to get anywhere in this life you have to go through the mud puddles.
He remembered the incident, and during tough times in life reminds himself that sometimes you "have to go through the mud puddles."
Most of us have numerous such moments woven into our lives — little things that make us who we are and make sense of the things that we do. Some of them are things our parents said time and time again. Some came from teachers trying to get us to understand the world. Other times it's something said by people on the street, or in a restaurant or even in a movie.
"We've all got a couple of those," says the Rev. Robert Jones, pastor of Detroit's Sweet Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church. Jones, a blues musician and host of WDET-FM's Deep River program, is steeped in little lessons culled from his experiences.
"I remember I was giving Mr. Bo a ride home from a gig one night," recalls Jones. "Mr. Bo was a great guitarist who played a lot like B.B. King. He was B.B. King personified. The only problem is that B.B. King was still around and he was seen as an imitator. As I'm driving him home he says, 'I like the fact that when you play, you really play. If you're going to play the blues, then dammit, don't play at them.'"
Anyone who's heard Jones perform knows that he took Mr. Bo's words to heart. When he plays the blues he's not playing around. It comes from the heart.
Carlette Winfrey, a local nurse, remembers listening to her father at the Louisiana "greasy spoon" her parents owned. "He would say that 'I don't care' is the worst thing someone can ever say. It really made me think about what I don't care means. How powerful that is when you say that in relation to a person. To say 'I don't care' and really mean it can be quite terrible in most instances. It stuck with me. Use it minimally if at all in your life."
Ed Dortch, a Detroiter who sells home entertainment accessories from his Web site, likes to say, "Every monkey's got his own tree." He heard it from a business associate several years ago and took it as a lesson that everybody's got something that they can do that nobody else can. "Make your tree successful," says Dortch. "That's your own little niche in life. You've got to get in there and do your thing. You get what you accept. That's the bottom line."
Jones believes that sometimes it's good to find those people who made such an impression on you and let them know what they did. Thank them for setting you along your path in life. Or at least use it to help someone else.
"My pastor used to say whatever is good enough for you, something at least that good should be on your wife," says Jones. That means if you have a pair of $300 shoes on, your wife better be wearing shoes that cost at least as much.
"Now my old pastor's passed on and I try to pass that on to young men. I'm sure he said it a million times to a lot of people but it stuck with me. I can't say how much I appreciate that to him; now all I can do is pass it on to other people."
So I need to say thank you to Rick Ward. I didn't remember telling him what I did so many years ago but I really appreciate him reminding me. And I am also going to remember how powerful words can be even if you don't mean it that way. Watch what you say, because somebody just might believe it.
Bad words: Last week we were treated to the spectacle of independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader accusing Sen. Barack Obama of talking white. I used to think that Nader was one of the smartest human beings alive. I even voted for him in 2000. That won't happen in 2008.
Nader didn't mean it in the way that many African-Americans who don't speak (for lack of a better word) Ebonics are accused of talking white by other African-Americans. He meant that Obama is not talking black in the political tradition of modern civil rights leaders. Apparently Nader believes there should be only one kind of black politician. And for that he loses a lot of points, and hopefully votes.
Still Nader touched a nerve by even bringing the subject up. When I was a kid my Southern relatives teased me and called me Mr. Proper Speak. And often young black people who speak the kind of English taught in school are accused of trying to be white. But that's a side point.
Nader, who has commendably run out-of-the-box campaigns in the past, was trying to spotlight issues he believes are important. But when he uses buzzwords like "talk black" and "white guilt" he's guilty of the same political pandering that he's tried to avoid in past campaigns. As my mother used to say, "That's the pot calling the kettle black."
I think that Nader is a petulant egomaniac. He hasn't grown a party nor is there a grassroots movement calling for his leadership. And he hasn't mentored others who stand as tall in his world. The only name I can associate with Nader is ... Nader. What does that say to you?Larry Gabriel wants to know whose words had an impact on your life. Send comments to email@example.com