Touchstones of Success

by J.D. Roth

Kris and I braved the icy roads — which turned out to be not so bad — to drive down to Canby for dinner with Ron and Kara last night. We were joined by Jenn and the kids. It was wonderful.

Kara prepared a meal entirely from Cook’s Country, the new(-ish) companion magazine to Cook’s Illustrated. Among the goodies were a citrus salad (tossed in an Asian dressing that even I liked — and I hate dressing), Italian pot roast, and a decadent chocolate pudding cake for dessert. Kris and I brought a bottle of wine which we’d received from Andrew and Joann at Thanksgiving. It turned out to be a perfect complement to the meal.

Between dinner and dessert, Ron and Kara gave us a tour of their newly-remodeled home. The house was built in 1891, and has been home to Ron’s family ever since. His family, Jeremy’s family, and my family are all founding members of Zion Mennonite Church, and have a long, intertwined history. When our hosts showed us their new kitchen island, they pointed out the butcher-block countertop. “That came from the old kitchen in the Zion basement,” Ron said. It was a lovely piece of wood, scarred through decades of use: circular burn-marks covered the surface.

“Look at that,” I said. “It’s not too hard to imagine my grandmother in the basement canning with the other women. And maybe Ron’s grandmother is there with her. And Jeremy’s, too.” The thing is: this probably did occur, and on more than one occasion. It’s been a long time since I marveled at the connections of community I feel when in the Whiskey Hill neighborhood, but they’re real, and they are strong. (I can imagine forty years from today Harrison and Ellis and Noah standing around a kitchen discussing the same thing.)

After dinner we chatted and let Hank read us trivia questions from his new book (Guinness World Records for Kids 2007, or something like that). Daphne managed to injure herself when leaping from the bannister-less stairs. I browsed Kara’s collection of old books, and in doing so I found a gem: Touchstones of Success by “160 present-day men of achievement”, published in 1920. The book, which is already falling apart, contains advice on success from business leaders of the era.

The within pages tell what the price [of success] is, and as our ambitious young men read in these wonderfully fascinating testimonies of really successful men they will disovered that the making of money was by no means their chief aim. They got that, and they got it because their main purpose in life was to serve, and work. Integrity, courage, a clear conscience, and a real fine character were the most valued and cherished of all their possessions.

Kara allowed me to borrow the book, and I look forward to mining it for gems — both humorous (to my 21st century eyes) and practical. I don’t that I’ve mentioned it here, but reading through “the success literature” has become something of a hobby for me. I enjoy it. The stories are uplifting, and I’ve found that many of the anecdotes and admonishments have real application to my own life.

(Barbara Ehrenreich, in the latest issue of Harper’s, attacks the personal-development field as purveyors of false hope, as scammers and charlatans. This makes my blood boil, so much so that I’ve not yet been able to set down a suitable well-reasoned response. All I can think to do is call her a disillusioned old bitch, but that’s hardly rational, hardly fair, and just plain stupid. Yet it’s where I am in my response. Maybe by next week I’ll have calmed down enough to craft some sort of rebuttal. (My biggest complaint about Ehrenreich is that “personal responsibility” seems to be a foreign concept to her.))

Updated: 19 January 2007

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