If it can happen once…

Several years ago I ran into the story of a soldier in the Vietnam War, a soldier who started as the classic last kid picked for the team, bottom of the barrel sort of person. It was entirely easy to label him as “the screw up” and send him away because nobody would want that guy on a mission. It could have ended there, with our soldier being the screw up no one wanted for time an all eternity; however, that’s not what happened.

The salvation of this man came through his own honest effort; a little instruction and assistance from a wise old sergeant; and… a cup of coffee.

The sergeant could see what was happening. He talked with his soldier and then made some changes. The sergeant took away all of the soldier’s previous duties and gave him one, just one, thing to do. The soldier would be attached to the company headquarters and was to make sure that the captain had a hot cup of coffee available at any time he wanted one. It was a little thing, a silly thing, but it was something the soldier could do if he put in the effort. And this simple act, this one duty, bore amazing fruit.

The soldier, the former ‘screw up’, did his one duty. The captain had a cup of hot coffee when and where ever he wanted. And, the soldier received two critical things: sure knowledge that he was not a complete screw up, he could do things if he tried; and the opportunity to observe and learn without undue stress and criticism.

The soldier took this opportunity to observe and learn, and then he stepped up to do. Our soldier was no great tactician or leader. He wasn’t a great fighter slaying the enemy with his M16 and bayonet. He wasn’t an engineer conjuring wondrous structures and impenetrable defenses with just his entrenching tool and some communications wire. But, the man did have a gift. And, when he was given the opportunity and knowledge he needed, that gift came out.

Our soldier, the ‘screw up’ no one wanted, was a logistical problem solver. This soldier became the man who could find solutions and get dry socks and warm meals to the men of his unit. That might not sound like much if you’re sitting in your own home with your own washer and dryer, and pizza delivery on speed dial. But, trust me, if you’re out in the field, out in the dirt and muck, that kind of thing matters.

The soldier, the former ‘screw up’, became a beloved and valued member of the unit because he was given an opportunity, a chance to both learn and succeed, and he took it. He took action to become better than he had been before.

But what does this mean to us?

And so it is with us dear reader. We stand on all sides of this equation.

There are times when we are the ‘screw up’ who just needs one success, even a tiny one, and a bit of knowledge and support to put us on course to better things.

There are times when we are the one who can see a need, and an opportunity. In that case we are called upon to take action and help someone to help themselves.

Sometimes we are one of the others in the unit, the ones who need to allow space for change; the ones who will forgive the faults of the past and give someone who can grow the space and opportunity to do so.

Sooner or later we play all three roles dear reader. Sooner or later all good things will come if we let them.

That’s it for this one dear reader, see you next post… Until then…

Find an opportunity and take it!


Lessons from ‘the great American eclipse’

Yep, on Monday of the week I’m coming back to the blogosphere we had an eclipse, a total eclipse of the sun that ran the entire length of the country. I happen to live in an area where the eclipse was 98.9% from my door step and full totality was only about 45 minutes north…

Naturally our area braced for the event and some of the ‘knowledgeable ones’ predicted lots of things, some of which happened and some of which didn’t. Here are a couple of things we learned and some thoughts going forward.

A once in a life time experience:

Everyone and I mean everyone was saying that a total eclipse (not just a continent spanning one but any total eclipse) was a once in a life time experience. And, it is… If you just sit in one spot and you don’t live long enough!

I’ve been through at least two total solar eclipses, several partials (they were total eclipses for somebody!), and more lunar eclipses than I can remember. But, I’ve moved around just a little bit…

Lesson: opportunities do happen, but you need to figure out where they are and what you are willing to do to get them. If you sit and do nothing they don’t come around very often.

Bracing for the horde:

Government officials, media types and professional prognosticators warned us to be ready for 100,000, then 500,000, then 1,000,000 people to who were supposed to be descending on our area. Gas was sure to run out. The phone lines and internet connections would be overloaded. The state transit department was going to have to make I15 a one way street to deal with all the traffic. Stores and restaurants would be swamped and run out of food and supplies. I believe there were even warnings about witches, zombies and ninjas (Wiccan ninja zombies?).

Well, in the end there were difficulties. After the eclipse a forty five minute trip away from the zone of totality became a four hour trip (on the one side of the I15… Traffic in the opposite direction (toward the zone of totality) was just fine…). Several hotels and gas stations artificially raised prices. And… Several stores and restaurants ended up ordering too many supplies, and didn’t sell them all.

The main problem was a problem of hype over thought. Yes, there were lots of people who came up for the eclipse. A lot of them came from relatively nearby and made a day trip of it (or tried to at least…). A lot of them brought food and water with them. The ones that weren’t making a day trip of it filtered in a day or two ahead. It was only when everyone tried to leave at the same time that there were big traffic problems. Some store shelves got barren, but new shipments were getting in on a daily basis and to my knowledge nobody starved.

If you were looking for roving gangs, there weren’t any. Roving gangs don’t’ usually travel long distances for astronomical events. If you were looking for zombies, apocalyptic horsemen, or other such oddities, there weren’t any of those either (that I’m aware of…). If you’re still looking for them I’ve got some nice fiction books in production that you might like…

Generally if you thought ahead and made reasonable preparations you were fine. If you didn’t prepare ahead of time, or it you went straight to the worst case scenario, then things were less satisfactory (but still not a total disaster in most cases!).

Lesson: Be prepared, but make reasonable preparations. A one day event like the eclipse isn’t the same thing as WW3. Yes, people are going to go see something like the eclipse, but it’s unlikely that the whole state of California is going to take a day or three off work and end up on your doorstep.

People are people and that includes both locals and tourists…

One of the problems that did come up was relatively normal people conflicts.

Several national news reports claimed that the locals weren’t friendly. Several local news reports included pictures of tourists driving their vehicles and setting up camp in local farmers fields, the ones the farmers were growing crops in…

Sorry folks… I know ‘farmer John’ may be “just a farmer”, but if you drive through his field and set up camp on top of the crops you are damaging his lively hood. You are also cutting down your own food supplies. Tourists you need to use some sense.

On the other hand… Locals, please have the courtesy to wait until the tourists actually do something offensive before you get all offended. And remember, they’re new here… Some of them have never have gotten out of the city before… Maybe put up a few signs to mark the active wheat and ‘tater fields?

Again this is one of those things that’s kind of predictable… When you get large groups of people together somebody’s going to be less than intelligent. The goal is for you to be intelligent and do what you can to prevent problems in the first place.

Trust me folks, when it comes to my home I’m as territorial as anyone. I’ve also been the one who’s traveling. I know what it’s like to not understand what’s around me. It is much better to do some thinking, planning and considering about what’s around you than it is to go immediately to harsh words and blaming the other person. (By the way… To the ones who were offended when the farmer decided to call the sheriff: be grateful… I know folks who were stocking up on ammo along with the food and toilet paper! Think first!)

Summing up

The name of this blog is Words Mean Stuff. I named it that because words do mean something; they are symbols for ideas. The biggest lesson from this week’s events is to have and use ideas, good ideas. A lot of problems can be avoided and a lot of truly majestic moments can be witnessed (or even participated in!) if you just gather some good data and think first.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Next week I’m going to talk a little about what I’m doing with the blogs. And then after that… Well, that’s next week’s post isn’t it. See you next post dear reader.

The Mistake of ‘Allness’

That’s what my dear besainted mother called it ‘the mistake of allness’. It’s a relative of the ‘binary choice’ and my old friend the ‘one factor model’. And, it’s a real problem.

In some cases you can make a complete, accurate statement of the form “all x are y”. Much more often you need a qualifier to make the statement correct: “all my x are y”; “all your x are y”; “all oranges currently in California are not currently in Greenland”. Often statements with these qualifiers are correct, but even then you run into trouble. Sorry folks it would not be correct to say “All Latinos in Idaho are migrant farm workers”…

And it gets worse

The mistake of ‘allness’ really comes into full fruition when you get into the area of people. Sorry gang you cannot say “all Muslims are terrorists”; “all white people are racists”; “all ‘straights’ hate ‘gays’”; “all men are rapists”; or “all Russians are communists”. You also can’t honestly make the opposites of those statements. Things are more complex than that.

The moment you step into the world of human beings you step into a world of multilayered complex systems. There are a lot of factors that go into being a human being physically and psychologically (and if you bring spiritual life into the mix things only get more complicated). Even in the most homogenous situation you can create, identical twins living in the same home, you have little differences like one twin getting just a little more oxygen; or being pressed on just a little more in the birth canal; or being dropped by a clumsy sibling that create differences in who the people are and what they do.

The reality is that every human brain is a ‘one off’ instrument. They are generally the same, but from the start each one is slightly different. And then they grow and change based on the things that happen during the person’s life.

Now, this is not to say all people are completely different.  If you‘ve ever watched or read one of Shakespeare’s plays, or experienced a Greek tragedy, you can find the same things going on today. And I’m pretty sure that goes for the works of Musashi, Sun Tzu, and Confucius as well. People can be pretty similar, but when you get into the details each one is unique.

So how do we deal with people if they’re all different?

Well… That’s the trick isn’t it…?

And, if you try to give one answer that covers all people in all situations you’ve just committed the mistake of ‘allness’ again. The only being I know of that can actually get away with making completely accurate global statements would be God and He/She/It (choose one) doesn’t make them all the time either.

The best advice I can give dear reader is that we must use knowledge and understanding. At a minimum we must realize that not everyone is the same. We must realize that no one actually stays the same for their entire life.

Once we make those realizations, and accept that you have to deal with people where they are and (hopefully) help them toward a mutually beneficial goal; then you can actually start dealing with people effectively. As for exactly how to do that… You didn’t expect me to cover it all in one post did you dear reader?

See you next post.