top of page

Chapter 3, My Vital Lesson

"The Donkey and the River"

I'm writing this, my next book — My Vital Lesson — one chapter at a time here (on

I love donkeys.

My affection for them started when I got Dominick for my fifth birthday. It was an odd present from my father. He wasn't much into stuffed animals or sentiment. Many years later, I figured that Dominick the Donkey was probably left over from a Christmas display at the JC Penney's where Dad was the manager. (My birthday is on the Epiphany — 12 days after Christmas.)

Was "Dominick the Donkey" the song ever? (Maybe, but I liked it when I was five.)

Perhaps because he was such a divergent gift, I took to Dominick and slept with him until... until I didn't. It makes me sad that I don't know when I moved on. Or why. What became of Dominick? Was he donated? Damaged? Dumped? Dominick is my "Puff the Magic Dragon." (The saddest song ever.)


My interests align with how I dance — offbeat. While in Minneapolis, I reconnected with a wonderful and inspiring former student named Rachel McMullen. (More about Rachel in a later chapter — her story needs to stand alone.) While talking with her and her boyfriend, Minnesota native Blake, I brought up the Mississippi River. I was curious about its "source." I had heard that it started inauspiciously in the northern part off their state.

Until I stopped in Baton Rouge, I had never seen it. When I did, it didn't disappoint. Whether looking at it from the top of the Louisiana State Capital or standing next to it in New Orleans, I was impressed. It's such a cool river. It's got so much history. So much functional beauty. So much power.

Above, Baton Rouge. Below, New Orleans (Taken on the same day)

Blake confirmed that the Mississippi starts in upstate Minnesota at Itasca State Park as modest creek flowing from a shallow pond.

It didn't seem possible. I assummed the source of the Mississippi was some giant glacier flowing to or from Lake Superior. (Or something like that.)


Northern Minnesota in July is bucolic — warm, quiet, clean, covered with crops. I tried to picture what it would be like if I came back in six months — ridiculously cold, leafless, blanketed in snow.

I wouldn't be returning though. Like so many other places I'd been, I was aware that I was seeing it for the first and only time, an awareness that tweaked a twinge of sadness.

Lost in thought, I almost missed the donkey with the cows.

Seeing cows anywhere I drove was no big thing. I barely noticed them. Besides, knowing their fate, I didn't want to think about them.

One of my favorite segments on Sesame Street was called, "One of These Things is Not Like the Others." That's what I thought of when I thought I saw a donkey.

I turned back. (Not a challenge — I hadn't seen another car in at least 10 minutes.) I parked along the side of Route whatever. (Rural roads tend to have plain, functional, unmemorable names.)

It was a donkey!

I grabbed my phone. (Odd how we still call it a "phone" when it's so much more than that. I was clearly grabbing my camera.)

Look closely, center/back

Am I a weirdo for stopping to see a donkey hanging out with cows?

Maybe, but for most of my life, I felt like the thing not like the others. I rarely fit in. Twice, once when I was 12 and then again when I was 15, we moved.

In high school, I felt like I was part of the one percent of teenagers who didn't like drinking beer or smoking marijuana. I'd spend weekend evenings at home, shooting hoops, watching The Brady Bunch and wondering what the heck was wrong with me.

On the way to earning a bachelor's degree, I attended four colleges. I never had the "college experience." My undergrad major? Liberal Studies. I didn't fit into any traditional major. (Which bugged me.)

When I was in the Air Force, I knew from the start that I was a one-termer — four years and out. Not only that, I was a California boy exiled to western South Dakota. During orientation they told us, "If you like to hunt and fish, you'll love it here."

I didn't and I didn't.

Post Air Force I worked, briefly at a finance company as a loan officer. Again, I was a square peg — and bad at business. If I knew they could get a better rate, I'd advise potential customers to go elsewhere.

As a teacher, I was an outlier, never fully accepted by my peers. In their view, I strayed too far from the curriculum, accepted practices and teaching norms. One principal called me a "lone wolf." When Raj Nagra, one of my few close teaching buddies would see me in the hallway, he'd howl.

"There goes Richards. Owooooooooo!"

For awhile, I thought I fit in better with the kids than with the adults. But for the last third of my career, that wasn't the case. I taught at a school where many of my students thought I was too unconventional. "He never uses the textbook." (Not true. I rarely used it.) "He doesn't give tests!" (Not true. I sometimes did.)

I related to the donkey because he was the thing not like the others. But he reminded me that we can be comfortable among those not like us, at least outwardly. I've often felt most accepted when I was the minority — the only white player on the basketball court, the male teacher in the elementary school, the white teacher teaching non-white students.

I had just visited the Toronto area where my wife's side of the family live. I felt a strong kinship with my Filipino Canadian family. Like the donkey, I didn't look like my family, but like the donkey, I was accepted.

Me and my cows (a compliment!)

When I encroached on their space, the cows huddled around the donkey. I'm pretty sure they were protecting her from this strange human approaching from the highway.

Back on the road to Itasca State Park, I kept thinking, That donkey is me. I fit in in more places than I thought. I just didn't obviously fit in. And maybe when looking for our people, it's necessary to expand our search beyond looks and labels.

In the Preface I wrote that if I do a good job writing, maybe my thoughts will comfort and reassure you. Sometimes, before I read someone else's thought, I think I'm the only one thinking it. Then I'm comforted and reassured that my thinking isn't confined only to my mind.

The reverse is also true. I'm betting that I'm not alone in identifying with the donkey. I think a lot of us, maybe most of us, are donkeys looking for our cows.


My fascination with the Mississippi wasn't as offbeat as I'd thought. There weren't Grand Canyon crowds at Itasca, but I wasn't alone. Which was convenient because I needed someone to video me swimming in Lake Itasca. The river begins there, then flows south (mostly) 2,348 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sixty-eight days later, swimming downstream (fortunately), I made it to New Orleans. Kidding. Obviously. But there have been people who've swum, canoed, kayaked, even stand-up paddle boarded the entire Mississippi. And, yes, it takes that long for even the super athletes.

Here's how the Mississippi looks when it starts:

576 miles south, at the Illinois/Iowa border, it's over 2,000 feet wide.

Standing in Illinois with Iowa in the background >

The Mississippi starts small then grows large because it has tributaries. Lots of them. Little creeks and big rivers flow into it, fortifying it, enlarging it, making it more useful, more powerful. Without its tributaries, the Mississippi wouldn't be the Mississippi.

Whether it's achieving our goals or living our best lives, don't we all need tributaries? Tributaries, regardless of whether they're narrow, fleeting streams or wide, enduring rivers are vital for growth.

Because of its fortunate geography, the Mississippi comes by its tributaries naturally. So do some people — those born into all sorts of privilege — wealth, loving families, fortunate geography (being in born the USA, for example) ...

But unlike the Mississippi, we have the power to go looking for tributaries — teachers, mentors, confidants and friends who'll fortify us, making us larger, more useful, more powerful.

I started listing my tributaries: My parents. My wife. My daughters. My granddaughters. Special teachers and coaches. Memorable students. Favorite writers, athletes, actors. Musicians, comedians, podcasters. Kihei...

My "tributary list" is long but not complete. It will never be complete. I'll always seek and make room for more.

During my trip, I was able to reconnect with many of my "old" tributaries and add some new ones. That alone made the trip worthwhile.

It's the people: it's always the people.

How about you? Who are your tributaries? Who would you like — who do you need — to flow into you?

Make a list. It will help you feel better about life. And for a virtually guaranteed mental health booster for both your tributaries and yourself, tell the people on your list that they're on your list.

My Tributaries
____________ ...

After you make your list, examine it carefully. Not all tributaries are positive. Environmentalists tell us that a lot of negative garbage flows into the Mississippi. Toxins and contaminants from people, farms and factories pollute its waters. In some parts of it, it's not safe to swim.

Like the Mississippi's source, most of us enter the world fresh, clean and pure. As we grow, though, more and more tributaries pour into us. Some refresh and strengthen us. Others tarnish and weaken us.

My most vital lesson is "Immerse." We don't have complete control over which tributaries become us, but we have some.

People are our most important tributaries, but what other tributaries pour into us?

What do we drink? Eat? Watch? Read? Listen to? Into what kind of physical spaces do we place ourselves?

No matter what kind they are, our tributaries should help and enhance us. When they don't, we need to cut off the flow. We need to build a dam.

Double check your tributary list. Does anything flowing into you need a strikethrough?

"The River and the Donkey" Reflections
  • Finding an accepting group, even if (especially if?) its members don't look like us is an antidote to outlier loneliness.

  • The Mississippi River is the perfect metaphor for my most vital lesson — Immerse.

bottom of page