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October 1, 2012 – A day like no other

On this day in 1914 my grandfather James William King Jr. was born.

We did not meet until sometime in 1971. I can’t exactly remember, just being born and all, but I’m sure that my entry into this world was met with the same simple, joyful, matter of fact appreciation that I will always remember about him. From railroad worker to insurance salesman, neighborhood advocate to family patriarch, my grandfather’s natural charisma helped round off some of the rough edges of some of his harsh opinions and prejudices. I cannot fully excuse these short comings but I am sympathetic to the world he grew up in and the experiences he must of had to form these. His world was very different than mine, just as my world today will be very different from the world my boys write about in the future. We cannot judge history through the lens of today. However I do agree with the notion that those who do not pay attention to history are destined to repeat it.

I have always felt that my grandfather, and his (middle) son – my dad – were connected and cut from the same cloth. As I grew older, I seemed to intuitively understand what my grandfather was thinking. I understood what could make him laugh and make him mad. I could predict his reactions to events in the news and comments on television. Over the years, I’ve heard his voice in my head as a knee jerk reaction to something I’ve heard or seen. Sometimes I agree and sometimes, given my own lens of understanding and compassion, I’ll react in a much different way.

I guess the most important lesson I’ve taken from him over the years is the notion of self reliance, understanding and tendency to take action when and where it was needed. There is a time to let things roll “like water off a ducks back” because they are inevitable, but that does not mean you should be submissive and naively accept all that the world throws at you. While you can likely do very little to affect change in some far off place or person(s), there is something that you can and should do to affect change in your own situation.

When you take action, often by default, you also end up helping those around you too. For instance, when you see litter on the ground, pick it up. What happens? You feel good about picking up some trash and regaining some control over your environment. But look deeper. What else happens around you?

On the surface, you’ll realize that in all likelihood, picking up the trash will have little to no effect on the person that tossed it there in the first place. Likely they are long gone. But, by throwing away the trash, perhaps you’ve brought a twinge of smile to someone across the street or driving past you at that moment. Perhaps (unknowingly) someone will walk down the sidewalk and instead of feeling mad/sad about seeing a piece of trash on the ground, their attention is turned upward or outward to the blue sky, fresh air or laughter of their child. For sure, you did not cause any of these things to happen, and there is still a very good chance that the person may still not notice these things because of other thoughts or stresses in their lives. But what if it does change something in that person…whoever it is, no matter if you know them (or will ever know them) or not.

For me, what comes to mind when I think about this is a story I heard years ago about one of the legends of baseball (I can’t remember which one) who was asked how he can stay motivated to play at his highest level day after day during the long baseball season…year after year. His response was something like “I’ve run out of the dugout onto the field 1,000 times in my career. While it might not be as exciting for me each time, I know that there is some kid out there in the crowd who IS seeing it for the first time. This may be his first time to a ball game. It could be his last time too. It’s THAT kid I think about when I’m at the plate or out in the field. Do I want to let THAT kid down today? Hell no!”

While few of us will ever have the opportunity to inspire or transform the lives of thousands of adoring fans. We each have the ability to do what’s right, what needs to be done, and then simply do it. Not for ourselves, but for someone we love or even for someone we’ve never met or never will. That’s called living with purpose and that’s the way James William King Jr. lived his life for almost a century. That adds up to a lot of trash (and a lot of “nickel-cans”) picked up along the way…but there’s absolutely no way to measure the ripple effect these small actions have had on the world, at least the world my grandfather created for me and every person he came in contact with.

Today, “be not simply good. Be good for something.” (Thoreau) That’s what I’m going to do. That’s what Jim King would do. What are you going to do?

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Where I’m Coming From

A few yearImages ago, I had the opportunity to travel back to the town where most of my family is from and I spent the first years of my life. Unfortunately, the occasion was a somber one.

My great aunt, the sister of my grandmother, passed away earlier in the week after a short stay in the hospital. She was a wonderful lady who always had a kind word for everyone she met. Although most of our family, my great aunt included, has moved out of the area, this is the place where we still go when someone dies.

A few years ago, we made the same trip when my grandfather passed away – even though he had lived more than 30 miles away for more than a decade. Actually, to say that this place is a town is actually a bit of a misnomer. It’s more like several small towns melded together into a group of more than 90,000 residents of every size, shape and color sharing the same zip code.

The town is Dorchester, Massachusetts and the neighborhood is called Neponset, named for the river that forms one of its boundaries. Now, if you’ve been a reader of my columns for a while now, you may think that I was raised out in the country somewhere. Perhaps on a farm with rolling hills and meadows of wildflowers nearby, lots of trees and a river or pond in the area too – my younger days being spent listening to gentle breezes, birds singing and crickets a-chirping.

The reality is, for the first six years of my life, this could not have been further from the truth. For these years were spent living on an island of sorts.

We lived in a two family house in an apartment above my grandparents – the same house that my father and his five siblings grew up in. The house was located on a small peninsula of land that was bordered by such lovely things as a set of freight train tracks (no fence) followed by four sets of electrified MBTA tracks (fenced) on one side and an almost incomprehensible circular intersection of roads, highways and Morrissey Boulevard, on the other.

Suffice to say, as a 4- and 5 year-old kid, it was pretty clear where my boundaries were. I would dare say that even the most adventurous child would be reluctant to explore much past the area patrolled by noisy trains, cars, trucks, buses and police cars.

Speaking of noise, did I mention that the neighborhood was also located directly under the incoming flight path of planes landing at Boston’s Logan Airport?

Ah, to be sitting at a nice, relaxing dinner as the traffic screams by, a trains’ whistle blows to the kids waving from a bridge, just as a 747 jumbo jet comes in for a landing. Years later, watching “The Blues Brother’s” movie, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as Jake and Elwood sleep like babies while the Chicago ‘El’ trains continuously rumble past the front of their apartment building. Been there, done that.

However, for all the incessant noise that accompanies city life, there was also a natural playground that I found there as a child. Perhaps it was because the house was built well below street level, but most of the sound from the road actually floated harmlessly above us while we played in the yard below.

Added to this, my grandfather maintained a good-sized garden, an abundant compost pile and several rain barrels by which he kept his plants watered. This, during a time (the mid 1970s) when “going green” meant you probably just ate a bad TV dinner. The yard also featured a gnarly crab apple tree that annually supplied my cousins and me with ammunition for apple “wars.” (OK, perhaps one or two trains passing were targeted on occasion too.)

My family and I moved out of the house when I was 6. We moved out to a suburban town where my father was working at the time. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure that the school busing turmoil had something to do with it too.

When we moved out, my aunt and uncle moved in. For the rest of my childhood, every holiday was spent back at the house with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My grandmother’s sister, the one who just passed away, lived around the corner. We’d sometimes walk down to her house to visit and meet up with our second cousins and the like.

As I mentioned earlier, my grandfather eventually moved out of the house too. My grandmother passed away some years earlier and the old place was getting more and more difficult for him to maintain on his own. Holidays were now split between different relatives houses and for a while, there was very little reason to travel back to the “old neighborhood.”

Over the years, I would wonder what it would have been like to live the rest of my life in that place – the island, the oasis of security in an otherwise hostile world. Who knows, maybe I could have been a member of the “New Kids on The Block?”

Now, 30 years later, we are all drawn back to this place again. Like fish coming back upstream to the place where they were born, so too my family now comes back – mostly to remember those who have died. We talk about all the changes to the places around us while trying to ignore the changes happening in each one of us. Infants are now teenagers, children are now adults and adults are now seniors.

So, here we are. The old neighborhood, the old church, the old cemetery (within earshot of the same Expressway and fittingly, the only cemetery in the country with train tracks running through the middle of it.) Strangely though, I’m feeling relaxed and completely at ease among all the noise and congestion.

After all, no matter that I had not set foot in the place in years, no matter that hardly any of my family lives here anymore, no matter that most of the stores and buildings have changed or been replaced. This is the place we came from…and it’s the place that many in my family have chosen to come back to as a final resting place.

As I spend the summer in search of some fun and a little peace and quiet, I’m going to try and remember the feeling I had while standing on a busy sidewalk, in our old neighborhood, as the city roared all around me.

Peace, after all, is where you decide to find it. Where do you find peace ?

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