A true connection to something more than your own thoughts is best brought about by your family. Emotions, concerns, triumphs, and defeats are never more understood than by your own flesh and blood. When life is a mystery, when you wonder why you are here, when you just want something to believe in, you can find solace in those whom you, if you really thought about it, would be worth dying for.
My life is almost defined by my selfishness, by my inability to allow anyone, or anything to get in-between myself and happiness. Happiness, however, is defined by my priorities in life, and by taking care of them above all else, to the best of my ability. I am not the most equipped in at taking care of those priorities, as I was born into an average family in terms of wealth, and then cut off from all support at age 20. Living in poverty in terms of income, I wanted to be rich, by my definition. I had no true definition of wealth for many years, especially if you asked others what they thought of my life. Married at age 24 to Kristine at 18, father at 25, I was unemployed except to have enough to feed my wife and daughter, and then my son at age 28, through “panhandling” as it was described by most who knew me.
Ready to self destruct in my marriage at age 32, I had the opportunity to review my life and priorities, and to reconnect with my wife, whom I was sure had moved on to a life of material concerns that I could not deliver and be myself. I was unable to fathom, that perhaps, my life, dedicated to things that could not ever deliver any real security, or future, that even a fortune teller would dare predict, would be sufficient for the love of my life to hang her future upon. Kristine, however, showed me that love has no boundaries, and that family, was, above all else, a sacred bond that if allowed to go unbridled, and unfettered by artificial constraints, could be all one needs to be truly a part of a tribe that needs no explanation beyond that singular definition, that we are family.
Priorities, for me have not changed since then, while my life has, to the casual observer. I start with the happiness of my wife, Kristine, now 40 years old, married to me for over 1/2 of her life. If she is as happy as I think I can she can be, with me, then I turn my attention to my kids, aged 20 years, 16 years, and 20 months. If they are as happy as they can be, with me, I turn my attention to my paddling, which is, of course the most selfish thing I do. I put a sprayskirt on, and shove off into a variety of whitewater environments from the harshest class 5 where survival is uncertain, to the playgrounds of the world, where the most dangerous thing might be the animals or locals, to the home turf of Rock Island, TN where I am more at home than a kid in a candy shop. My paddling has no more boundaries than the love I have for my family. I want only the best, and to be the best, and to make sure that, above all else, I am doing all I can do every day, and that I am responsible to myself for any shortcomings I bring upon myself. My business, that is called Jackson Kayak, comes after my paddling in priority, which could be considered a liability by the casual observer. It could be said that how could I expect dedication to my business by others, when it isn’t priority one for myself, the namesake of the company. In fact, that it comes after my children, which come after my wife.
I have no interest in answering that, as it isn’t important in this context, a discussion of family, and what that means. If I were to lose my business today, all of it, and be broke, unemployed, and dirt poor, I would be in the same position I was in when I was married to Kristine, had a 5 year old daughter, Emily, and a 2 year old son, Dane. What position was that, exactly? In love, with kids I love, and feeling rich and happy, knowing that my life was worth something to somebody. Luckily, for me, my business is going very well, so contiplating anything but success and a long, healthy future for JK would be a worry not worth having. I could have been in love with another activity that defines me, besides kayaking. But I was not, and don’t wish to be. I am a kayaker, and love being that, and can’t imagine being anything else. So the story goes. When push comes to shove, and it always does; and when you are forced to stake your ground and decide who you are, and what you are willing to become, at the whim of others who want to re-define you, for their personal objectives, I found you can always rationalize any direction and any concessions you make. However, you can’t rationalize being somebody you don’t want to be, and inside you can feel that nagging feeling that says to you that “this isn’t me” , or “I could be so much better if only I’d….” and that is a sure sign for radical change. I am not feeling that, now, and haven’t felt it since 1997. I set myself free, with the help of priority one, my wife, Kristine. At any point in time I can tell anyone, in priority order to go #$#$#$ themselves if they try to mess with a priority that comes before it. My kids had better not mess with my relationship with my wife (and they know that), my paddling had better not mess with my kids, and my business had better not mess with my paddling. And nobody or nothing had better mess with my business, after that.
Somewhere in the process of this realization, I became a more emotional person. Emily watches my every move when anyone says or does anything that I might deem “a good deed” knowing that a trigger goes off in my head that makes my eyes tear up. She can’t wait to announce that “look he’s crying” ; knowing that I have no control over that moment, which is an anomaly in my life, in general. Not sure what that means, but anything that is family, or somebody doing good by somebody else, wells up inside of me in a way that supports my premise that life is more than outward trimmings of success.
I wish I could say that I was the best at what I was most interested in doing well, which is taking care of my wife, Kristine. I am batting about 500 at best at doing the right thing and fall victim to pushing off today, what I think I can get away with doing tomorrow. I also expect too much in terms of her doing for herself, what she should, instead of me needing to help make sure she takes care of herself. My Kids are more resilient, but still get the short end of the stick, as often as not, due to my lack of attention to what they really need. Hell, I can’t even remember to eat half of the time, so I am not sure just how I am going to be proficient at everything that is dear to me. I am sure I can improve, but I guess I am not sure what that looks like at the moment.
My business has taken a new life of its own, with me no longer being the heart, lungs, brain, and soul by myself. Now, I have added a group of people, whom have been recruited, or have just joined in, and assimilated, one at a time, and have recently begun to interact with each other, developing their own relationships, within Jackson Kayak, and it has taken a life of its own, which resembles a close knit family. It is something worth developing further and protecting, like a family. It passes my “tear test” in that when somebody says something, or does something that one would consider admirable and selfless, I can’t help but to tear up. That makes my family much larger than it was at one time. It distances my priority 5 to a point that can’t be seen or considered in my life. My life can now be defined, like the earth being mapped, finally, with all 7 continents accurately drawn onto a globe, in the context of my 4 areas of influence. Kristine, Kids, Paddling, Business, with only the fine details left to fill in. There will always be the first descents to make, new memories to make with Kristine and the kids, and the next adventure to embark upon with my team at JK. There doesn’t need to be the unknown of, “who am I” to enjoy life and feel like I am breaking new ground. Just because Columbus believed the earth was round didn’t mean that his life was going to become boring. He still had to sail East to try to get West to prove it and to live what he believed, and there lied his greatest moments, implementing his plan.
I am implementing much of what I believe I should be doing. I am not creating a new world for myself in every category. I did that, really when I was 18.
When I was 18, my mother died of cancer. I was at the University of Maine, studying Mechanical Engineering, and becoming a new generation engineer like my father. Something about the rock in my life, my mother, leaving me in a world without an anchor to keep me from drifting made me lose all feeling of belonging. I also heard a line in a self help program called, “The Psychology of Winning” that went, “are your prejudices inherited, or are they your own?” that made me finally question 100% of what I considered to be sacred and to be “me”.
By age 19 I had studied under Jehovah Witnesses, Jews, Born Again Christians, and finally renounced all organized religion, which may or may not have had my mother turn in her grave. I was a wayward soul, as it would be described, but didn’t lose my desire to do the right thing, whatever that was.
My soul was a free agent, and I was hungry to become something, and to do dedicate myself to something I thought was worthy of my time, energy, and ultimately my life. Kayaking was something that truly had my attention. It got in the way of my studies, of my ability to keep any money I made, and of any goals that were borrowed from the establishment. My father remarried, and had a new family to raise, and they had his attention. I had a brief question of who and what I was, and almost lost out to what the world wanted a young man to become; a normal, productive, secure member of the American workforce. I asked my father for a room in his new house with his new wife and two new step-sons until I got myself into the system that the world had created for me. Due to the possible likely-hood that I would turn out to be a deadbeat that would leach off of a productive father and step-mother, I was denied the accommodations of their house. While at the time, it was a low point in the relationship of my father and I, it was also one of those defining moments of my life that I can trace my successes in becoming the person I wanted to become to. I signed my own personal “declaration of independence” from anyone or anything that resembled the established system. I renounced any feelings of responsibility to anyone other than myself in what I did with my life. If I would become a bum, I would not worry about letting anyone down. My life became my own at age 19. The debt I owed my parents for their upbringing, teaching, money, and time, was paid in full, or defaulted on, but it was no longer on the books.
I was not anywhere near understanding who or what I would become. I was driven, no doubt, by two seemingly mutually exclusive goals; to become a millionaire by the time I was 30 and to become a world champion by the same age. I vacillated between the activities that would possibly create either result and never reached critical mass in either. Then I turned 23 and met Kristine.
Kristine said the most influential words I had ever heard in my life, in one single thought, and to this day are still the words I live by, every day. She said, at the age of 17, “EJ, you are only happy when you are kayaking and should just do that full time. Forget this business thing and just get a job waiting tables or something, so you can spend your time doing what your truly love.” 23 years of living on earth, and this was the first time anyone dared say to me something so out of the norm, something so creative, daring, and against the teachings of 14 years of schooling, counseling, and coaching. Kristine was clearly a genius, intuitive, selfless, and immediately became the love of my life. She, at a childs age, was the smartest person I knew. I took her words and ran with them. I redefined myself, as a person who didn’t care about what the world thought, didn’t measure myself against what the world considered successful, and didn’t hold myself accountable to anyone or anything other than my own set of standards. That is, as long as she was happy with me. She set me free, and she deserved my best, forever. Even if I forgot about that from time to time.
That brings me back, full circle, to my feelings about family. I no longer feel like I am on my own. I have Kristine, who has my back, and my front, sides, and everything in-between. I have more, too, that makes me tear up, even if I get ridiculed for it. I have Emily, who at age 20 has somehow become another version of Kristine, watching out for my happiness, needs, and providing good advice and guidance in times of need. Emily, like Kristine, is ahead of her time, smarter than anyone you’ll ever meet, and has a heart of gold. Then there is Dane, who, at 16, and a boy, knows when I just need somebody to play with, or paddle with, or talk to. He’ll drop anything he is doing to accommodate my desire to play and recharge if he sees me have a short break in the mad rush of my life, which is largely related to my attempt at creating a long lasting business for my family, partner, staff, and customers. Needless to say both of my older kids are the best in the world at what they do, which is being supportive children, I think. They are worth doing what it takes to stand behind them at all times. I don’t have the same affinity for babies, whom I feel haven’t shown any consideration for their parents. That is unfair, of course, as they do what they do and can’t really do any more. Then again, neither has a bump on a log, and while a bump on a log can’t do any more than it is already doing, it won’t get my attention. KC, my 20 month old kid, has magically surpassed the benchmark of being a bump on log that requires a lot of attention just to keep it alive and happy, to becoming a source of energy, pride, and another reason to live well, so I can give myself away to him. Not my idea of a good idea, would be the best way to describe my original opinion of having a third child with my first two nearing adulthood. While KC makes my days borderline insane, so does he make my days borderline too good to be true. At 20 months he radiates love and affection, and gives me yet another priority ahead of all others, except for Kristine.
Family- mine extends beyond my blood. Nick is part of my family, as my son-in-law. Each staff/team member at JK I consider “part of the family”, as do I think of my customers. Family; worth making, worth keeping, worth defending, worth supporting. Family: defined any way you want, can be a very all inclusive, or a very exclusive club. It can become a we/they, or a “We/Us” thing. I have been very lucky to be able to keep my family intact, and even more lucky to have gotten my start with Kristine at such a young age. I have a great relationship with my father and step-mother at this point, and ultimate respect for what they have accomplished.
Family- go get yourself some.