Rivers of Thought
Life, Leadership, Business & Technology
A few weeks ago, my wife Carmen and I went to see Jim Messina, you know, half of the Loggins & Messina duo from the early 70s. He and his band were playing at a small intimate theater. Our seats were in the second row. I was pumped! Messina of Poco, Buffalo Springfield, and yes, Loggins & Messina was country rock bordering on country. There was a time in my high school days when Loggins & Messina was about all I listened to. I had all their albums (that would be vinyl boys and girls). You could call this my “acoustic phase,” with Loggins & Messina, James Taylor, Bread, and more.
Jim opened with, “Thinking of You”
Something inside of me
is taking it hard each day
Something inside of me
is making me feel this way
Whenever you’re near me, you’ve got me thinking of you*
As we sang along, something started to happen. The cares of 2023 seemed to float away. With barely a pause, he flowed right into “Watching the River Run”
And it goes on and on, watching the river run
Further and further from things that we’ve done
Leaving them one by one
And we have just begun, watching the river run
Listening and learning and yearning to run, river, run**
Run, river, run…the song…1973…years before I fell in love with being on a river in a canoe…years before Carmen and I met and began to canoe together…years before my executive coach, Dan Miller, taught me the river metaphor…
The opening chords of the next song, “House at Pooh Corner,” interrupted the stunned connection I had made…rivers…rivers of life
So help me if you can, I’ve got to get
Back to the house at Pooh Corner by one
You’d be surprised, there’s so much to be done
Count all the bees in the hive
Chase all the clouds from the sky
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh***
Suddenly, I was no longer in the theater. I was in a place quite familiar yet, long forgotten. In front of me on stage were two teenagers playing guitars…acoustic guitars. The song they were playing was beautiful. The guitars weave the melody together almost as one. “Loggins & Messina Suite #9″…of course! I wrote that song, rather, Terry Webster and I wrote that song in the summer of ‘75. We were 17. We were both into Loggins & Messina, so, of course, when we wrote an instrumental using our acoustic guitars, we had to name it in there honor!
Wait! How did those two kids know that song…I looked closer…the one on the left looked a lot like Terry…maybe his kid? Who am I kidding, could be his grandson. But, the kid on the right…the kid on the right…that was ME! As the final notes faded into the air, he looked right at me. My palms began to sweat. My heart was racing. I gulped as he walked toward me. Holy shit! What would I say? What would I tell my 17-year-old self?
He put down his guitar. He put down MY guitar. He nodded, and I picked it up. Soon, I was playing the bridge to “Loggins & Messina Suite #9”. Then it came to me. This is the little tune I play for my grandson Jordan! How could I have forgotten? I turned to me…well, the 17-year-old who would be me.
“You would love Jordan. He’s such a great kid! Actually, you’d love all your grandkids!”
“Grandkids, what are you talking about out, old man, I’m 17.”
“Jeff, I’m you. We have six grandkids, with another on the way.”
“What? You can’t be me. Grandkids?!!? At least I know what happened to your hair,” he laughed.
“Man, we have a lot to talk about! Let’s go for a walk.”
Son put down that guitar
If I really had the chance to talk to my 17-year-old self, I would have a lot to say.
When I was 17, the only thing I could think about was being a rock star. It consumed almost every waking moment, it had since I was 10 or 11. There I was, a junior in high school, and I had no plan other than playing guitar and writing music. I had no idea where to go to college (not going was not a choice). I opted to go to Indiana State to major in music theory and composition because I had three other friends going there, including Terry.
What I would SCREAM at my younger version is to put down the guitar…you have no talent (I didn’t), you have no drive (I rarely did anything other than jam), and the lyrics you are writing are simplistic. I doubt I would have listened. I certainly didn’t listen to those around me at the time…but, hey, maybe I would listen to my old man-self.
I would tell him to pick up a keyboard. In 1975 computers filled rooms. We had a couple of weeks of Fortran programming in Miss Hobson’s math class. We had to write the programs out longhand, then take turns at the one keypunch machine. Our punch cards were then sent downtown, and maybe, just maybe, they would run.
Sometime during my Junior or Senior year, our school was fortunate enough to be on the rotation for a mid-range computer that was sent to various schools in the area. It was for the “computer club.” I think I got to see it one time because I was not in the club. Only nerds were in the computer club, and I. was. not. a. nerd! (Well, I was, I just didn’t know it yet.). The only thing I ever remember them doing on the computer was running horse race simulations. At any rate, I didn’t touch it.
If I had the chance, I would tell the much-younger-version of me that one day, in the not-so-distant future, he would fall hopelessly and madly in love…with writing software. He would study day and night. He would read countless textbooks. He would learn from those around him. And he would become a rock star…in software development. If only I had the chance to tell him…
Don’t be in such a hurry
At 17, I was in a hurry. In a hurry to finish high school. In a hurry to grow up. I wanted that big break that would allow me to become a star. What the 17-year-old-me could not have known was what I would miss.
I opted to take part in the work-study program during my senior year. You see, despite not really studying, I was a good student. I could have graduated early, but my parents would not allow it. What they did agree to was the work-study program. While other kids were having an incredible senior year, I got out of school at 11 o’clock and went to my job. You see, I wanted things. I wanted a car of my own. I wanted to visit my girlfriend, who lived several hours away. I wanted to impress her, she was two years older than I was and already in college.
So while others were doing all the things seniors did, I went to work. I rarely hung out with my peers. I became a bit of a loner because, well, my girlfriend didn’t live in Evansville. Today, when I look back, I only remember a handful of kids from high school. I lost touch with them in my haste to grow up.
My 17-year-old self would laugh at the thought of getting married at the end of my first semester of college, yet, that is what I did. Married, at 18. I was in love. We were going to make it work. I dropped out of school after one semester and got a job at a sporting goods store, and dreamed of opening a record store (hey, if I couldn’t make records, I would sell them). I would move my wife to Elgin, Illinois, so that I could attend a small liberal arts college and major in creative writing. I would drop out of school again, promising to return when my wife graduated.
And, in 1978, at the age of 20, we would have a son. A beautiful baby boy. A boy, with a boy.
Growing up too fast. I got a full-time job at a bank, working collections on bad credit card debt. I still wrote music, but the life of a rock star seemed so very far away. The marriage would last twenty-three years and give me two incredible sons before it ended in a very painful divorce.
I would tell that version of me to slow down. To enjoy being 17, 18, 19. To stay in school. To study computer science. If it were right, she would still be there. I probably wouldn’t have listened, lord knows my parents had tried to tell me.
Stop following and start to lead
Following was easy. Heck, I chose what college to attend because three kids next to me in the circle, when asked where they were going to college and what their major would be, answered Indiana State and music. It was the first time I ever declared it. I answered because it was the easy choice…to follow.
Growing up, my mom used to joke that, unlike the old cigarette ad, I would rather switch than fight. What she saw as a peacemaker, I saw as following. It was easier.
Even after growing up and becoming a computer programmer (a “dev” as we call them today), I would rather code. I was gifted. I could listen to someone describe a problem they were having, and I could solve the problem with code. The computer keyboard became my instrument, and I could make it ROCK! Be a manager, no! Be a leader, hell NO!
There is a debate about leaders…are they born or made. As I look back, I was always a leader. The other kids always followed me (good or bad). When I was 10 or 11, a minister asked a group of kids to name a great leader; one of the younger kids piped up and said, “Jeff Ton,” much to the laughter of the congregation. In high school, despite becoming a loner in my Junior and Senior years, prior to that, I led at church, in my neighborhood, in Scouts, and at school. Rarely in a position of leadership but naturally leading those around me.
Still, it was easy to follow. Leading was hard. Following meant I could blame the leader. Leading meant “playing politics.” 17-year-old Jeff would be stunned to see 65-year-old Jeff. After getting dragged, kicking, and screaming into leadership, I became quite good at it. I led teams across the globe. I led departments. I led companies. I have led a community of my peers for over a decade. I now teach leadership to executives and emerging leaders alike.
Step up! Find your voice! For god’s sake, lead!
The river runs. Always changing.
If I had the chance, I would say all these things and more to the younger me.
“Talk to your parents and grandparents. You will have questions for them when they are gone.”
“Don’t do it!” (boy, THAT covers a LOT of ground)
“Oh, and go back to history class and study Lewis & Clark. You won’t believe how THAT turns out!”
But, honestly, I hope me wouldn’t listen. I hope me would travel the river exactly the way we traveled it. I would not want to miss all the joy and laughter. I would not want to miss all the pain and tears. I would not want to change anything because, looking back on 65 years, that river made me who I am today. It gave me a wonderful wife and partner, two incredible sons, six (soon to be seven) grandkids, several dear, dear friends, and a community of hundreds of peers.
And it goes on and on, watching the river run
Further and further from things that we’ve done
Leaving them one by one
And we have just begun, watching the river run
Listening and learning and yearning to run, river, run**
*Songwriters: Jim Messina - Thinking of You lyrics © Concord Music Publishing LLC ** Songwriters: Jim Messina / Kenny Loggins - Watching the River Run lyrics © Concord Music Publishing LLC, Gnossos Music / Milk Money Music, Universal Music Publishing Group *** Songwriters: Kenneth Clark Loggins - House at Pooh Corner lyrics © American Broadcasting Music, Inc.
Time. Time has been on my mind recently. If we, as humans, have one thing in common, it is time. Time is precious. Time is limited. Our time is unknown. With all our ingenuity, we have yet to be able to create time. But what if I told you, you could create time? The answer has been with us for two thousand years.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Steve Johns on the podcast I host. Our conversation centered around his soon-to-be-published book, Fearless – Leadership Lessons at the Crossroads. In the book, Steve quotes Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius Antoninus was the Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD. He was also a Stoic philosopher.
If you seek tranquillity, do less.
Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires,
and in the requisite way.
Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
Because most of what we say and do is not essential.
If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity.*
The Secret to Creating Time
“You will have more time.” The words haunted me. The secret to creating more time is to do less…better. Being in business for the last 40 years, productivity experts have been saying the same thing. Heck, I even preached to my teams to “slow down to do more.” For some reason, reading the words of an ancient brought it to front and center in my mind, heart, and soul.
Later, as I listened to the podcast recording, I realized I had the answer…the answer to the question, “why did you move from Whitetail Meadow?” It is a question we have been asked a hundred times in the last three months. “You loved your property; I thought you would never leave. Why did you move?”
I had been struggling with my “why” for almost a year. Why did I want to move? What made us think it was time to move?
Why did we move?
When we first moved to Whitetail Meadow, I took to each task and project with energy and passion. I could easily spend eight or nine hours on Saturday and Sunday freeing a logjam in the creek, removing invasive shrubs, cutting trails through the property, and helping Carmen in the garden. Did I get tired? Of course! Did I get sore? Certainly! As the years passed, the eight or nine hours turned four or five, then three or four. The soreness would last for days instead of overnight. But was that my why?
Was it the walnuts?
Was it the 10’s of thousands of black walnuts we picked up each year between August and October? Picking those up out of the yard so that one could walk through the yard without breaking an ankle certainly was a pain in the ass…actually, a pain in the back, arms, wrists…we would both cuss and moan each year, all the while, praying for a “light season.” We certainly had the resources to do something about it. Harvesting 28 sixty-foot black walnut trees was something we couldn’t bring ourselves to do.
Was it the ignorate litterers?
Was it the constant need to walk the property to pick up the trash that idiots threw out of their cars? Can you believe in this day and age, people still litter? My goal for twelve years was to see someone throw their trash into my yard and follow them home to “return” the trash. Beer cans, whiskey bottles, cigarette cartons, and bags and bags of fast food containers were tossed with no thought to the people who lived there (us), the people that had to pick it up (again, us), or the people who were breaking their backs to create a beautiful sanctuary (yes, us). Ok, I may be just a little bitter about this one!
Was it the bad drivers?
Was it the steady parade of bad drivers who could not keep their cars on the road and out of our yard for one reason or another? Driver after driver would fail to navigate the steep hill coming down 75th Street. They would either end up taking out the guardrail and destroying the wildflower meadow behind it, or they would miss the guardrail and end up in the front yard of our rental home, taking out trees and creating deep ruts in the lawn, or they would make it past the rental and still not have control of their car and do a similar “lawn-job” in our yard. The dump truck driver who missed the guardrail but turned over on the steep incline and spilled 10 tons of gravel into the meadow, not to mention the diesel fuel, really created a mess!
They were just weeds, anyway!
My “favorite” was the Lawrence North High School student who lost control on the ice and ended up in the meadow. When his grandfather showed up to help, he got his car stuck because he pulled over on top of the culvert that runs under the road…and then blamed us. The kid then asked the cop if he could “drive his car out instead of calling a tow truck because it was just a bunch of weeds anyway.”
No! Our “why” was none of those things. Like many life lessons, the answer is something we already knew. We just need a teacher to remind us. Time is precious. We are creating time by focusing on what is important and essential…our family, our friends, each other, and ourselves. THAT is why we left our beautiful Whitetail Meadow…to create time!
I will leave you another quote from our friend Marcus Aurelius:
Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—
those that are now, and those to come.
Existence flows past us like a river:
the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations.
Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here.
The infinity of past and future gapes before us—
a chasm whose depths we cannot see.*
*Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations (Modern Library)
Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
With apologies to Sir Elton John and his masterpiece Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, we are saying “goodbye Whitetail Meadow.” Unlike the singer, we are not leaving the penthouses and city life to return to the farm; we are leaving the “farm” for a simpler, less strenuous, less time-consuming life in a subdivision!
Whitetail Meadow was the name we gave to our little slice of heaven on the northeast side of Indianapolis. This hidden gem along Sargent Road is a bucolic piece of countryside in the city. Originally four acres, we expanded to ten by purchasing the house and property next door. Mud Creek flows through the yard and the partially wooded acres of wildflower meadows. Heaven.
Cookouts, campouts, and celebrations made many memories in the 12 years we called Whitetail Meadow home. As we were preparing our home for sale, Carmen and I wanted to leave a letter for anyone touring the house to read. Before I share some more personal memories, here is an excerpt from that letter:
- On our first day at Whitetail Meadow, we watched a mother pileated woodpecker teach her young son how to peck for insects. That was our introduction to the lessons in nature we would learn!
- Sitting on the deck enjoying a beverage while the deer graze in the yard. Watching the seasons pass through the does, growing heavy with their soon-to-be newborn fawns. The spotted fawns, barely able to walk, grow into adolescents. The males grow their antlers covered with velvet fuzz, sparring with each other, later shed the fuzz, and finally, the antlers themselves.
- Watching the abundant wildlife, including more bird species than we can count, woodpeckers, eagles, hawks, and more. Mink playing in the creek and fox on the hunt. Mallards and wood ducks paddle the creek while the blue herons fish for dinner. At night, the owls’ hoots can be heard.
- We have celebrated countless holidays, birthdays, and gatherings of family and friends. In 2022 we even hosted a wedding in the backyard, complete with a 40-foot tent and dinner for 50!
- The fall is the perfect time for mini-hayrides through the meadow, followed by picking pumpkins from grandma’s garden and decorating them with stickers, markers, and carvings for Halloween.
- Summertime brings outdoor movie nights, campfires (mmmm, s’mores), and backyard campouts. It is also the perfect time for creek stomping – wading, swimming, throwing and skipping rocks, exploring, and finding treasures. When not stomping in the creek, fishing is another way to enjoy being outdoors!
- Winter brings a quiet stillness to the valley as the snow carpets the meadow and ice forms in the creek. Tracks in the snow reveal the presence of wildlife hunting for a snack. The hill at the north end is just big enough for grandpa-powered sledding for the grandkids.
- In the spring, Whitetail Meadow emerges from its slumber, and the cycle begins again! Flowers bloom, the foliage leaves out, and the migrating animals return.
- Hiking the trails every season reveals something new as the meadow and the forest grow and change. Every day, every moment is different if you take the time to look and listen.
In my previous post, I spoke of hallowed ground, not hallowed by consecration, but hallowed by the moments of life that happen. The memories of life. Memories with our sons Jeremy and Brad.
Jeremy and Brad
Jeremy, so much life lived in the years Carmen and I spent at Whitetail Meadow. Happy days, painful days. For a year or so, he was our neighbor at Whitetail Meadow, living in the second house we bought on Sargent Road. I always love to see him come around the corner of the house, usually moments after Braxton appears. His knowledge of rocks, soil, and water gained from his career in materials testing came in handy on a variety of projects on the property. The most memorable project for me is the weeks we spent building the paver patio. My grill sat on that patio for years, and I would think of Jeremy and I toiling over leveling the ground, compacting the gravel and the sand, and laying the pavers, every time I grilled.
Brad, so much life lived in the years Carmen and I spent at Whitetail Meadow. Happy days, painful days. (Yes, I know I repeated myself 🙂 ). Memories of Brad playing catch, hitting a Wiffle ball, and smashing a drive with Jordan’s plastic golf clubs. Images of Brad following the kids around during Easter Egg hunts or enthusiastically enjoying the fall hayrides easily come to mind. Carmen and I felt blessed to be able to welcome Brad and his sons to live with us for a year during one of life’s more painful times. While these empty nesters were indeed accustomed to our routine, being able to sit down to an evening meal with them and talk about their days was something we will always remember.
Hallowed ground…while at Whitetail Meadow, we welcomed the next generation of Ton, Braxton, Jordan, and Jasper:
Braxton, Jordan, and Jasper
Braxton, our first grandchild…so many memories. We loved to play “Mario and Bowser” on the playset in the backyard. Somehow Mario (aka Grandpa) could never defeat Bowser! Braxton’s and Grandpa’s great adventure – the day I took off work to babysit him, and we explored the 10 acres together! The highlight has to be just this past summer. Braxton is autistic, and one of the ways this manifests in him is a strong reaction to getting his head wet; showers and baths were a challenge. This summer, after taking a few swimming lessons, Braxton, Grandma, and I spent THREE hours in the creek. Braxton dove for rocks and swam between our legs, and spent the whole time UNDER water!
Jordan, Jordan grew up at Whitetail Meadow. Grandma provided his primary care for the first several years of his life. Later she provided after-school care for him. They were (and are) inseparable. Jordan loved to play dinosaurs in the meadow and the woods. He would be a velociraptor, or a T-rex, or whatever his favorite creature was at the moment. Grandpa would be his prey, captor, or fellow dinosaur. Jordan also loved to help Grandpa feed the deer with his little bucket of cracked corn. The scenes that will stand out for me are Jordan and Grandma raising Monarch butterflies, discovering the caterpillars, moving them to their habitat, watching them make their chrysalis, emerging as a butterfly, and finally coaxing them out of the habitat on to the garden flowers.
Jasper, now two and a half, knows the Meadow as “side,” as in “boots…go side”…almost his first words. He loves playing outside, whether following big brother Jordan around, showing no fear climbing the playset, sliding down the big slide, or exploring the creek. Jasper loves to chase the birds and squirrels, never quite able to catch them. By far, his favorite activity is throwing “wa nets”, “tix”, and “rcks” in the “wada” (for those unable to speak two-year-old, that is throwing walnuts, sticks, and rocks in the water). He was always quite proud when one actually landed in the water, proclaiming, “I did it.”
All three of them love the creek. Creek stomping! Throwing rocks, wading (and now swimming), exploring, and visiting the “waterfall.”
Hallowed ground…all of these memories make Whitetail Meadow hallowed ground, but it was August of 2022 when our dear friends Dennis and LeeAnne declared it as such:
Katrina, Ariana, Henry and Avery
Katrina, Ariana, Henry, and Avery joined our family, quite literally, at Whitetail Meadow. Brad and Katrina were married in a beautiful ceremony in the backyard at Whitetail Meadow. The day was perfect. A wonderful blending of two families, attended by family and friends. Ariana and Avery were beautiful angels scattering flower petals down the aisle. Jordan, Henry, and Jasper were handsome ringbearers. And we will always remember Brad’s face when his gorgeous bride-to-be, Katrina, walked across the deck, down the stairs, and across the yard toward him…the moment they looked into each other’s eyes and expressed their vows…and, of course, the pronouncement of husband and wife!
Carmen, my words fall short. The memories we built over the time we spent there…together…are beautiful and endless. Working side by side in the garden, entertaining friends, the countless family celebrations from Thanksgiving during our initial renovations (no drywall…only studs, rafters, and subfloor), to Easters, Mother’s Days, Father’s Days, birthdays…and Christmases, wonderful, magical Christmases! Of all that, what I will remember most, is just being with you. Sitting on the deck on a warm summer evening, watching the deer play reindeer games, the eagles fly overhead, or the groundhog peeking around the corner. Sitting by the fire on a cold winter night, talking about our day, making plans for the future, laughing together, crying together, loving every minute.
I look forward to building more memories in this next chapter in our lives. So yes, we are saying “Goodbye Whitetail Meadow,” but the song is not over; there are more lyrics to write, more melodies to pen, and more harmonies to blend.
Insights is the weekly, thought-provoking newsletter from Jeffrey S. Ton.
Every Tuesday – Delivered to your inbox.
A different focus each week:
Leadership Thought – A lesson-learned, an insight shared
Leadership Q&A – A response to a reader’s or a connection’s question
Leadership Spotlight – A highlight of a person or company helping others to grow their leadership
Rivers of Thought – A more personal thought, observation or musing