When I left home to start college at eighteen, I traveled only 20 miles or so to the college campus that would be my on-and-off home for the next four years. The cultural distance between the village of North St. Paul (I know, oxymoronic, right?) and Minneapolis was far greater. With this move, the measure of control I had over my life took a giant leap. Not only in my ability to stay out as late as I wanted and drink beer and speak my mind with fewer repercussions. But in the unexpected change in the subtle messages around me: now tipped in the direction of what I could do (and how far I could go) with my, um, education.

My college piano teacher was particularly influential. He believed in a certain fluidity of reality. For him, life events were partner to thought, in a lockstep dance with the many directions his mind might or might not take. Thought’s direct effect on circumstances was not just a philosophy. For him, this trajectory had a magnificent life of its own–an Aladdin’s lamp of the mind, allowing him to create any outcome he wished. This thought-to-reality connection often took the form of piano performances—both his and those of his students–that far exceeded those of local musicians and students in the music program. Like those time lapse bud-to-full-flower videos, his students seemed to move from high school-level piano primers to not-for-the-faint-of-heart classics–playable only by the most technically agile and gifted musicians. It was like plunking out little ditties from the familiar blue “A Dozen a Day” preparatory book one day, and hammering out a Rachmaninoff Concerto the next.

And because I was his student, in the pool of others who performed great magical feats, I found myself within range of this fairy dust shower—and so fell under its spell. With lots of hours at the keyboard and brain basting in “positive thought,” I would soon perform beyond what my greatest imaginings had told me was possible just months before.

In the end, I gave up music for another direction. But this experience set the stage for years of exciting and lively challenges in other areas of life—and more outdistancing of what was thought to be “possible.” Each time I was challenged with a prevailing attitude of the finite, I wanted to challenge it personally, and often did. Two “careers” took shape–the first working in New York advertising and editorial photography, and the second, a design business eventually based from Don McLean’s 1800s house a few steps away from the Appalachian trail in upstate Hudson Valley. From today’s vantage point of a more quiet place—I work as marriage and family therapist in a town of 888 people–my early life seems a bit fairy tale-like, even to me.

There seemed to be, in equal measure, a total lack of control in other areas. There were parts of my life where I didn’t fare as well, and didn’t have a clue what to do about it. These I covered over with the aforementioned accomplishments. I didn’t see then (like I occasionally do now) that my personality was a somewhat artificial construct. Not in a pathological way, but in a conform-to-avoid-personal-disappointment-and-failure way. Life behind a papier-mache mask made of thin, gluey successes hardened to a impermeable finish seemed somehow easier. The world we live in loves success.

My successes and failures, my marriage and family graduate studies, and work as a psychotherapist have all informed my lifelong interest and personal investigation into the locus of control and its “real life” by-products. The question is: In those places where things seem mildly—or wildly–out-of-control, what goes wrong? How do we regain this control?

The Petri dish of my own life—and reading, lots of reading–has provided some of the most important answers. I’ve summarized the current culmination of my book learnin’ and in-vivo studies in a mnemonic map–Gootugo.

Gootugo isn’t really the answer, though I wish it were. It’s a device by which we can examine our life challenges (and successes) from close range. This helps us to understand, develop, and experience various inroads to positive change. It’s a map which can be followed step by step, or in a random way. It provides a series of reminders that get us unstuck when we need help with the unsticking.

In my next post, I’ll say more about Gootugo. Just wondering: can you guess what the name means? A hint: it’s a URL-friendly 3-word phrase smooshed to a single word, with one letter changed to give it a Latin spelling and fake-serious quality.

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