Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Say, "Thank you!"

Years ago when I lived in Houston, the wife and I had a favorite restaurant.  And I had a favorite dish there.

One day we went in, and it was off the menu.  Sadness!  I asked the manager about it.  He told me that they'd had complaints about it, but no one ever said they liked it.

I learned a lesson that day - many more people complain than compliment or say thank you.

After that, I decided that I was going to start telling people what they were doing right, so they'd know it was right, and I could keep getting it.  Some examples of what I mean:

A pharmacy where we had prescriptions closed and transferred their prescriptions to another nearby.  The new pharmacy had about a 33% increase in their number of customers.  I went in the first time to pick up a prescription, and the staff member said hello as I walked up and kept apologizing for the delay.  Funny thing was, even though they were much busier than they had been before, their service was better than the old pharmacy. On return trips, one lady was so friendly and helpful that I had to tell her how much I appreciated the service.  Then I went and told her manager.  I figure that compliments are great and all, but a word to a manager may get her a raise.

I work with photos and reports sent by email from a large number of contract inspectors.  Some do a great job, and some... not so much.  When I get a good set of information, I try to email the guy directly and tell him what he did right and why I appreciated it.  I copy the person at my company who decides which inspector to send out on a job.  I want that guy getting more work.

We live, largely, in a service economy.  Lots of the people you encounter have had to deal with grumpy people before you got there.  Thank them for their good work, and tell their boss.

We each contribute to the environment we live in.  I want my environment to be better.

Do you?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Strongly consider not going to college

Everyone these days knows that every kid needs to go to college.  When I was in junior high school back in the dark ages, people knew every kid needed to go to high school.  This post is long, but it's all important.  I'll try to weed it for length as time goes on and I have the inclination.

It's always beneficial to question what everyone "knows" from a "what if" perspective.  Clearly, you don't do the opposite of what actually works - e.g. don't walk down the street with your eyes closed.  But do figure out if what everyone "knows" actually produces the benefits they say it does.

People will tell you that a college graduate earns X dollars more than a non-college graduate over the course of his working life.  They won't tell you that the study that produced that statistic was chock full of selection bias and conducted back in a time where it might have been more true than it is now.

For example, it might have worked out to be true for me.  But I'm an engineer, and you're not allowed to be one of those without a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering.  On the other hand, who's to say that I wouldn't have done something different and made lots more money and been happier?

Economics 101 discusses supply and demand.  The more you have of something, the less valuable it is.  Think how much you value packing peanuts and plastic grocery bags.  In my 20's, everyone had a high school degree.  The only people who ever wanted proof were the people in the admissions offices of the colleges I applied to.  It had almost no value to anyone else.  The same thing has now happened to college degrees.

High school teachers began to value the ability to make a living over education.  Colleges had a vested interest in increasing attendance.  Government got into the lucrative student loan game.  And education became a product instead of a path.  "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" sounds inspirational, but "be cool, stay in school" is more honest.  What it means now is "we won't let you work, and we have to store you somewhere."

College isn't what it used to be.  It began as a difficult training ground for minds that could benefit from that training.  As more educational demand was created, they had to come up with more product that people who would not benefit from being there could pass.  My generation joked about "underwater basket weaving."  Yours can look at any class or degree that ends in "Studies."

So, what do they tell you college will get you, how can you get that elsewhere, and what does time in college really get you?

What they tell you you'll get:
  • Better jobs
  • A broader mind
  • More money

Better jobs: This depends on what you want to do.  Do you really, really want to do something that actually requires a degree?  If so, that's OK, but what are those really?  Some examples include being a:
  • Doctor
  • Engineer
  • Accountant
  • Attorney
Basically, if you want to do something that still actually requires that you have a degree, for example because you have to be licensed to practice that profession, it may be worth it.  May.

I was told I should be an engineer because I was good in math and science.  I couldn't have done that without a degree.  But make sure that you really want to do something before you go get a degree in it.  Get a job in an office that does what you think you want to do so you can see how it works in real life.  You won't get a job doing it - you'll probably be filing or answering phones or going to the office supply store.  But you'll be around it, and you can ask the people who do it about the realities of the job.  And if they'd do it again, knowing what they know now.  Ask them what they like about it.  Ask them what they don't like about it.  Ask them how it's different doing it for a living from how they thought it would be when they were in school.  People love to talk about what they do. Ask them about it.  Make up any question you can think of.  But don't get a job in that office first thing.  Ask your friends what their parents do, then when something strike your fancy, ask their parents about it.  Again, people love to talk about what they do. Ask them about it.

A broader mind:  Not so much any more. Your electives or gen eds or whatever they call them will show you some additional aspects of the life of the mind, but you can just as easily look at the curricula of a number of colleges, find one you like, download the reading list and notes, then do it yourself.  When you're in class with everyone else (most of them slower than you) and a bored professor, you'll get a live Youtube video.  Just watch Youtube in a disciplined manner, and you'll get just as much for free.  Just skip the cute cat videos.  MIT has all of their course material and notes online for free.  There may be others.

More money:  Not.  Unless you're doing something that absolutely requires a degree.  Otherwise, you'll have spent (more like frittered) 5-6 years to graduate (if you graduate at all) with a degree that lets you work at a coffee shop or sell phones from a strip center store.  Do some googling for stories of college graduates not working in their fields and not being able to pay their student loans.

And if you do get a job in the field related to your degree, you'll probably end up in an office earning very little.  Econ 101 also says, "buy low, sell high."  The people who run the company understand that deeply.  They will buy your time low from you and sell it high to someone else.  If the work is your goal and not the money, you'll be okay.  You have to understand that and be okay with it from the start.

If money is your goal, there are much better ways to achieve that.  I, personally, don't think money is a satisfying goal, but that's the topic for another place.

How you can get what they promise elsewhere:

Better jobs:  A good job comprises a number of elements, including but not limited to:
  •  Fulfillment - Some people seek fulfillment from their work.  Some people seek their fulfillment outside their jobs with the job's being the means to live while they get that fulfillment.  Either way is okay.  But if you get your fulfillment outside the work, the work must not interfere with that.
  • Adequate pay - You have to be able to live within your means.  If material things are not important to you (and I hope they're not), you have a wider range of work available to you.  If material things are important to you, you need to be able to afford them.  Without debt.
  • Low stress - Your job should not add so much stress to your life that you cannot enjoy the rest of your life.  It should not drain you.  Life is too short.
  • A decent work environment - Your job should be pleasant enough that you can bear it.  Ideally, you work with decent, friendly people and decent, friendly customers or clients.  Your own attitude can make all the difference in that, but you should know that you become the product of the people who surround you.  Don't stay where the bosses, co-workers, or customers erode you.
All that said, where do you find a good job?  That totally depends on you.  The key is to remember that you control a lot more than you think you do, and certainly more than other people will try to tell you.  This, too, is really a topic for another article, but here goes.

Most good jobs are found by talking to people, not by sending in endless resumes or posting on job boards.  Go talk to people.  Find out who makes the hiring decisions.  Then ask them if you can talk to them about what they are looking for in candidates.  Tell them you're not asking for a job.  Tell them you're asking about what they do, how they do it, where they look, and what they're looking for.  Remember?  People love to talk about what they do.  But you have to be truthful with them and with yourself.  Actually be interested in what they look for.  Tell them when you get into the conversation that if you are what they are looking for, you may pitch yourself, but that you really want to know what they're looking for.

Here is what I look for when I'm hiring someone:
  • Attitude - I want a positive person who will be an asset to the atmosphere.  I'll spend most of my weekly life with that person.  I don't want someone who will erode me or the people they work with.  A good attitude makes a better environment, and it makes me more money.
  • Work ethic - I want a person who will get the work done in the most efficient way possible.  To start, the most efficient way possible is my way.  After they have been there long enough, they may find a more efficient way.  I don't need someone who always needs to be busy.  Those people can sometimes distract themselves from the important work.  I want someone who will do the important stuff right away.
  • Aptitude - I want someone who can learn to do stuff.  I'll need them to do more than they already know how to do, so they need to be able to learn.
  • Skills - This is the last thing I look for.  I want to hire a great person.  If I find that person, I can teach them to do what I need them to do.  That said, I'd prefer someone who has done a bit of research into what I'm likely to need and has prepared themselves for that.  See attitude and work ethic above.
I'm the kind of guy you want to work for.  There are other kinds.  Some people and some companies will view you as a commodity because they need warm bodies.  Review the good job elements above and decide whether you want to work for that person.  Maybe you do.  That's okay.

A broader mind:  You have, in the palm of your hand or via your keyboard, all of human knowledge to date.  But you have to be disciplined in using it.  Don't use it to look at cat pictures and argue with people.

Read books.  Lots of books.  Google reading plans.  Google lists of the 100 best books.  Read those books and the study guides that go with them.  Don't just believe the books or the study guides.  Read them critically and question them.  Compare viewpoints.  Read the books in paper via or electronically via Project Gutenberg.

Read blogs.  Lots of people with big brains research and write about topics with more depth than you may have the time or inclination to research yourself.  But heed the caveats in the paragraph above.  You'll have to dig through a lot of chaff to find the good grain.  It takes time.  When you find some you like, look at the links on their blogrolls.  Comment on the good blogs.

Learn to ask good questions.  Avoid asking questions that you could find the answers to yourself with a little looking.  That's lazy.  Ask questions that get to the heart of a matter.  Ask questions about the nature of a topic.  Look for patterns and ask questions about those.  Ask people about what they do.  People love to talk about what they do.  (Have I said that already?)  Ask them about their hobbies.  Ask them what they daydream about when they have 5 spare minutes.  Ask about ideas.  Especially ask about ideas.  They're the source of all action.

More money:  Work for yourself.  Start a business.  Don't assume that you need a lot of money to start a business.  I once started a business with a free tool kit that I received for subscribing to a magazine.

Don't assume that the business has to be the only thing you do.  It could be a side endeavor that grows to meet all your needs or that just earns extra spending money or the money to buy a luxury that you really want but don't need.

Look for unfilled needs.  I once started a business based on an underfilled need I saw at the place I was working at the time.  I supported my family for four years on that one.

If you don't have every skill, aptitude, or discipline you need to make a business work, find a partner.  But (and this is very important), spell out all the terms and agreements first, including but not limited to:
  • How will you end the partnership?  
  • Who can end it and under what circumstances?
  • Who gets what if it's ended?
  • How do the partners get paid?  Based on percentage of ownership?  On value contributed?  On hours worked?  On billings generated?  On billings collected?  Something else?  Have a clear formula or there will be trouble.  You're in it for the money, so the money has to be clearly and unequivocally defined.
  • How much work is each partner expected to do?
 Partnerships can be difficult, but they can be lucrative or rewarding.  They must be clearly defined.

What does college actually get you on average?

You'll be 5-6 year behind people who did not go.  You'll probably be starting behind everyone else financially both in career position and in debt.  You'll be behind them in work experience.  Why do I say 5-6 years?  Many colleges actually arrange their schedules so you cannot get out in four years.  The longer you are there the more money they make off of you.

Debt.  Most college graduates struggle with massive debt.  I had minor debt and my wife had large debt.  Her degree did not allow her to make enough to pay her loans.  That was almost 30 years ago.  It's worse now.  We managed to pay her 10-year loans off 15 years after she graduated only because our house burned down and we had some insurance money left over.  Not a good plan.  And did I mention that it's worse now?  Student loan debt is an anchor around your neck.  DO NOT TAKE STUDENT LOANS.

You'll have worse morals and a worse character.  You are the average of the people you are around.  The vast majority of people in college are there to party, to avoid commitment and progress, to have immoral sexual encounters, and to drink too much.  Do you really want to be that?

You'll be brainwashed.  Much of college curricula and most professors want to convert you to ideas and assumptions that are actively harmful to you and to society.  They see your college years as a laboratory with you as the test specimen where they can make you into their own image.  Most of them are not there for your benefit but for their opportunity to make you into something less than you are for their own benefit.  Don't let them cripple you.

OK, so you've decided you still absolutely need to go to college.  How do you do it and not end up like everyone else?

Some professions still favor a degree, even if they don't always require it.  My daughter is a classical musician.  She wants to perform in symphonies, even though she knows that she can't earn her entire living doing that.  A music degree actually helps get a job in that field.  The college courses she is taking actually make her a better musician - but only because she is approaching them as a path to becoming a better musician.  She's not merely doing what it takes to get a passing grade.  She is learning and applying the material to her music.

She worked hard in high school and actually learned her material.  She got a good enough score on the ACT to be eligible for a scholarship at a school with a good music program.  I told her she could attend only if she never took on student loan debt.  So, she works hard to learn the material.  She teaches students and plays gigs to earn money to make up the difference between the scholarship and her total costs.  Oh, yeah - and she plays in the symphony to earn money to help pay for school.  She also lives at home to save money.  If you must go to college to do what you want to do in life, this is the way to do it.  Clearly, I'm proud of her.

What do you need to do?
  • Learn your academic subjects in high school.  Really learn them.  Don't just pass them for grades then forget them.
  • Study for, prepare for, and do well on the ACT or SAT.  Start in junior high school, but also take practice tests and learn how to take a test.
  • Make sure you qualify for scholarships and that you can get them.
  • Go to a good state school with reasonable tuition rates.  Don't go to an Ivy League school (see worse morals, worse character, and brainwashing above).
  • Make sure you absolutely know why you're going.  Concretely.  Not "I need to go to college."  Not "to find out what I want to do."  If you don't know what you want to do with your life and that you absolutely need a college degree for it, don't go.
  • Do not live on campus.  Many colleges require that you spend the first year on campus.  They say it's to acclimatize you to campus live.  You don't want to be acclimatized to campus life (see worse morals and worse character above).
  • Learn the material that applies to your field.  Don't just pass those classes for grades then forget them.  
  • Do only what you have to do to pass the propaganda and brainwashing agenda classes.  Do not internalize those lessons.  See brainwashing above.
  • Research the college's drop out rate and how long it takes an average student to earn a degree.  Do not go to one that has bad numbers.  They are producing revenue rather than educated students.
  • Get out in four years or less, no matter how hard you have to work to do it.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern.
  • Ride a bike.  Colleges make an inordinate amount of money from parking and parking tickets.  They do it on purpose.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern.
  • Buy your books used.  The words inside are the same.  Colleges make an inordinate amount of money from books.  They do it on purpose.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern. 
  • DO NOT TAKE STUDENT LOANS.  Did I already say that?  It bears repeating: DO NOT TAKE STUDENT LOANS.  Colleges make an inordinate amount of money from students.  They do it on purpose.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern.  Are you getting the hint yet?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Wherein Grandpa Dave has a great idea

As you remember, when I was young, we were very poor and lived in a refrigerator box.  I told you about Sunday dinners and how I had some chores to do for those..

Have you ever seen a refrigerator box?  It's like a shoe box, but as big as a refrigerator.  Grandpa Dave had cut a door in one end so we could get in and out, but that was the only opening in it.

Having no openings, it was very dark in the dining room.  We couldn't afford candles, so one of my chores on Sunday was to take a bucket outside, fill it with sunshine and bring it into the dining room.  It took a lot of buckets of sunshine to fill the dining room, and the dining room was pretty far away from the door.  You had to go out of the dining room, through the family room, down the hall to the vestibule* and out the door.

Did I mention that the refrigerator box was bigger on the inside than on the outside?

Anyway, it was lots of work.  One Sunday, I had the dining room about a third full of sunshine, when Grandpa Dave walked in and felt sorry for me and all the work I had to do.  He said, "What if I cut you a small door above the floor, so you can just reach outside, grab a bucket full, and dump it in here?"

I liked that idea a lot.  So he did.

When he opened the little door, sunlight started spilling into the dining room and pretty soon, the room was full.  I couldn't have been happier.

As we ate, bugs and wind came in, which we didn't like.  Grandpa Dave put a sheet of glass over it to keep the wind and bugs out.

I said, "Hey!  We can see out of it like we do our eyes, and it keeps the bugs out.  Let's call it a bugeye."

Grandpa Dave said, "Bugs already have eyes.  Let's call it a windeye... nah, that sounds odd.  Window."

Pretty soon, our friends and neighbors saw how convenient it was not to have to carry sunshine into their dining rooms, and they put them in, too.

And today, everyone uses windows.

* In our family we have a ... well, not a tradition, probably more like a condition, of making up words.  For years, the kids thought we'd made up the word "vestibule."  One of them was astonished the first time he heard it from someone besides us.  Heh!

Wherein I lived in a refrigerator box as a child

One of the series of stories I enjoyed telling the kids was a set of tall tales about my youth. It involved violent incongruities to help exercise their imagination.  Feel free to adapt this story by substituting names from your own family.

When I was very young, my family was quite poor, and for a while, we lived in a refrigerator box.  It was from a fairly large refrigerator, so it wasn't so bad.  It was kind of like living in the forts you guys make.

My room was upstairs to the right, and your uncle Tony's room was to the left.  Our rooms were small, of course, being in a refrigerator box.  There was only room for a bed, a small desk, and a chair.

On Sundays, we had a family dinner.  Since we were very poor, it was usually something like Ramen or macaroni and cheese.  Uncle Tony and I each had responsibilities to prepare for dinner. 

Tony's job was to go to the china cabinet and get out all of the china and stemware for dinner.  He'd put a dinner plate, a salad plate, and a soup bowl at each place, then put the crystal glasses out.

My job was to get out the silver and polish it before we ate.  Of course, we had a salad fork, dinner fork, dessert fork, a knife, and a soup spoon, so it was lots of polishing.

The soup was vichyssoise - that's a fancy, cold potato soup.  We were too poor for hot soup.  The salad was dandelion greens, wild onions, and nasturtium petals.  The nasturtium petals made it taste kind of peppery.

After dinner, we had to clear the table and carry all of that down the long hall, past the billiard room to the kitchen.  We were too poor to have the kitchen next to the dining room.  We had all those other rooms in the way.

Did I mention that the refrigerator box was bigger on the inside than on the outside?

Anyway, after supper, we had to wash the dishes and put the china and stemware and silver away.  It was hard being that poor.

Next time, I'll tell you about one of Grandpa Dave's really neat inventions that people around the world use every day.


Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Undine who lived in the sea in a little village.*  She was lively and curious and mostly delightful.  She swam around and visited her friends.  She visited the schools of fish to see what they were learning, and she visited the reefs where some of the coral looked like a gently waving forest.

One place, she was not allowed to go.  Her father told her she must not go into the seaweed patch.  A nasty old octopus named Salaman lived there.

One day, she was swimming around looking for something new to do, and she found herself near... the seaweed patch.  She saw three little flowers growing among the seaweed - a red one, a yellow one, and a blue one - and she thought how beautiful they would look in her hair.  (Little girls think things like that, but I don't know why.)  Being a normal little girl, she didn't understand why her father told her not to go there, so she thought the reasons couldn't be that good.

She swam around for a little bit, working up her courage, and thinking, "If I just swim up quickly to the edge and pick a flower, I wouldn't be in the seaweed patch."  You see, Best Beloved, what she was doing there?  She was trying to see just how much she could get away with and still be OK.

So, taking a deep breath,** she darted over to the edge of the seaweed patch and snatched the red flower and darted back away.  She put the flower in her hair and looked up at the surface of the smooth sea to see what it looked like.  (Sometimes the underside of the surface looks like a mirror - it's pretty neat!)  The flower looked even more beautiful than she expected.

Well, she didn't know it, but Salaman was deep in the darky parts of the seaweed patch, and he'd been watching her idly.  After she picked the flower, he began to watch more attentively, and he moved closer to the flowers (octopi are cagey and opportunistic that way).  He stayed deep in the shadows because the sun hurt his eyes.

Undine swam around a bit more looking at those other flowers.  Yellow sure would look good with red.  So she worked up her courage again, skittered over, and snatched the yellow flower.  She put it in her hair and looked at herself again.  Gorgeous!

She thought to herself, "I don't know what Daddy was on about with the seaweed patch.  There's nothing here.  Besides, everyone knows flower arrangements look much better with three flowers than with two."

So she sauntered back over to pick the blue flower, and.... SALAMAN'S TENTACLE SHOT OUT AND GRABBED HER WRIST!.  She struggled, but he pulled her into the seaweed patch.

Salaman chuckled and said (in his best villain voice), "Aha! I've caught you, Undine!"  And he wrapped her in six of his arms and used the others to swim deeper in.

Undine cried, "What are you going to do?!"***

Salaman said, "What I do with all naughty little girls who disobey their Daddies: I'm going to make Undine stew!"

This puzzled Undine, so she asked, "What's Undine stew?"

Salaman said, "First, I'm going to make a roux.  Then, I'm going to chop up onions, green peppers, and celery and simmer them in the roux.  Then some okra, salt, pepper, thyme, shrimp and... Undine!  I'll serve it over rice."

Undine was even more puzzled.  She said, "Salaman, that's not stew; that's gumbo."

Salaman pondered a bit and said, "Fine, then: Undine gumbo.  Tomato/tomahto."

He went to his kitchen and started gathering up the ingredients while keeping one armicle on Undine's wrist.

Now, during their conversation, a passing, friendly porpoise heard them talking.  He knew Undine wasn't supposed to be in there, so he listened and grew concerned.

When Salaman's back was turned, the porpoise shot into the seaweed patch and butted Salaman right in the ribs.

Salaman said, "Oof!"

Then the porpoise whacked Salaman in the nose with his tail.

Salaman said, "Hey!  Quid id!" and held up all his armicles to fend the porpoise off, and when he let go of her wrist, Undine swam as quickly as she could out of the seaweed patch.

The porpoise joined her and said, "Just what were you doing in there?  I know your daddy told you to stay out of there."

Undine said, in one giant breath, "Idon'tknowIjustwantedtheprettyflowerssoIswamupandhegrabbedmeandsaidhewasgoingtomakeUndinestewbutitwasreallygumboand..."

The porpoise held up a flipper to stop her and said, "Okay, okay.  Let's go see your daddy."  So, they did.

By the time they got to the village, Undine had calmed herself considerably.  Sadly, she'd lost the flowers in the struggle.

They explained to her father what had happened, and he said, "Harumph.  You knew you were to stay away, but you went anyway.  I don't forbid things just to spoil your fun.  I do it to keep you safe.  I'll always explain the reasons if you want to hear them, but from now on, do what I say, OK?"

Undine sniffled and agreed.  She cried just a little, too, even though that's really hard to do under water.

From then on, she was a good little girl, and they lived happily ever after.

* I'm pretty sure this story came to be around the time of Disney's Little Mermaid.  I don't remember that story, so I don't know what, if any, similarities exist.  Undine isn't a mermaid, though. I mean, little girls can live perfectly well under the sea, but fins and tails instead of legs?  C'mon!

** Or whatever one takes under water.

*** We love interrobangs.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Wherein I was in the Mexican jail

(A tall tale to tell children)

When I was in college in Houston, we used to take road trips down to Nuevo Laredo in Mexico.  We'd shop for Mexican blankets, ugly pottery, and bullwhips.*

One day, I was down there wandering around through touristy shops looking for tchotchokes, when I looked out the door of the shop, and I saw some robbers coming out of a bank across the street.  They had masks on and in one hand, they had a revolver.  In the other hand, they had big sacks with large dollar signs on them.  I'd seen this in cartoons, so I knew it was a real robbery.

As they ran out, I decided to follow them.  I kept about a block behind, as they weaved in an out of alleys.  After a while, they came to a police car parked in the shadows.  They put the money in the trunk, took off their masks,** and put on their police uniforms.  They were real, Mexican policemen!

Needless to say, I was outraged.  I went up to them and said, "Hey!  You guys are supposed to be the good guys - take that back right now!"  Also needless to say, I didn't always think before I spoke.  There might be a lesson there.

The leader said (use your best Mexican villain accent here), "Ay, stupid Gringo!  No one will believe you over us.  You are under arrest for loitering, vagrancy, and resisting arrest."

And they put me in jail.

Mexican jail is pretty boring.  I didn't have money for bail - just 15 cents in my pocket (you must particularly remember the 15 cents, Best Beloved)***- so I sat there for a week.  Each day for three meals a day, they gave me tortillas and re-fried beans.  After the first day, I was tired of it, so I put the leftovers under my bunk.

Then, I had an idea.  I took the tortillas and re-fried beans, and made a false wall on the back of my cell.  I hid behind it, and when the guard brought the next meal, he thought I'd escaped.  It was a beautiful false wall.

The guard shouted, "Hey, I think the Gringo has escaped!"

They all ran out to look for me.  I waited until it was quiet, then I ate my way out.  I went down the main street back to the bridge to Laredo.  Heh.  They thought I'd sneak down alleys.

The turnstile to get back into the US cost 15 cents, and I went home.

* The bullwhip plays a major part in other, true stories for another time.

** I advocate Oxford commas.  Despite what the definition says, it's not optional.

*** Read Kipling's Just So Stories to your kids, too.

Tales to tell children

When my children and I were younger, we lived in Fairbanks, Alaska.  One of the features of Fairbanks at that time was that there were not many activities available for children in the winter outside the house.  So I lied to them a lot.  People more inclined to blush than I call that telling stories.

We had many of the children's books that were available then, but the perennial darkness of the Alaskan night meant we also had lots of time.  Frankly, I got tired of those books*, so I began to make up stories of my own to break the monotony.  Some of them were moralizing stories exemplifying the effects of bad behavior.  Some of them were outrageous tall tales, just for the joy of them.  Some were adventure stories.  Some were a bit of all three.

Sometimes the stories were very short and interspersed into the events of daily life as opposed to just being told at story time.  Eventually, I realized that they may not always know that I was telling a story, so I had to tell them that they could always just ask, "Are you lying?" and I'd tell them if I were.  Actually, that rule still holds.

In terms of popular culture, I live under a pretty big rock, but some things inevitably make their way into my consciousness.  I'm sure that some of these stories resemble to an embarrassing degree things I've read or seen elsewhere.  I was striving for entertainment for my young children rather than for originality.  If I remember what influenced me, I'll try to credit that source.  If you see a similarity that I don't note, I'll claim that it's an homage.  Writers get away with that all the time, don't they?

I'm an engineer by training and by temperament, but according to my observations (and the painfully blunt comments of others), I'm not a standard engineer.  People on each side of that line frequently look at me and say, "What the heck are you talking about?"  So, you, Gentle Reader, won't be the only one to react that way.  Just saying.

I never believed in talking down to my kids, "treating them like children" as they say.  I like vocabulary; there's so much of it, it seems a shame to waste it.  So I always tried to use words just a bit over their heads so they'd stretch for those words and learn them.  They seemed to revel in that, and their friends did and still do ask why they use such big words.  Oddly, one of those words was "apt" - not even big; just expressive.  They've expanded their friends' vocabularies, too, so I count that as a win.

Words are the tools we use to build thoughts.  If you were building a house and only had an adjustable wrench, you couldn't do as good a job as if you had a contractor's job box.  Words give the same ease to building thoughts.  Give your kids good tools.

Some of my kids have expressed an interest in my capturing those stories so they can tell them to their kids.  I hope I do better finishing this project better than I did completing the trim in my wife's closet remodel.

I reserve the right to edit these stories as time goes on and as I remember better details.

* Except for Richard Scarry's I Am A Bunny.  Whenever I come across that book somewhere, I look for a little kid to read it to.  Not in a creepy way, though - no restraining orders to date.**

** First cultural credit: I shamelessly stole the asterisk footnote motif from 'Puter Gormogon.  Go read his stuff.  Srlsly.  But you might not want to let the kids read it.  He's salty.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Work: valuable, good, and suitable

Sometimes a discussion of work can be a bit confusing because several concepts become conflated.  What is valuable work?  What is good work?  What is suitable work?

Valuable Work

Most work has value.  I exclude most bureaucracy and NGO work, obviously (but that's a different post).  People tend to have less respect for work that they consider "beneath them" - picking up garbage, sweeping floors, mowing lawns, and what have you.  For some reason, many people consider manual labor to have less value than mental labor.  Those people are misguided.  Consider what life or your physical environment would be like if no one would do those jobs.  Their value lies in meeting a specific need. 

Unglamorous manual labor can be drudgery, but like most things, you get out of it what you put into it.  Its personal value to you depends on how you approach it.  It can offer an opportunity to build character and to build valuable work habits that will pay dividends for the rest of your life.  I credit my time in a pizza restaurant bussing tables and washing dishes with teaching me to approach a task in a fairly organized and efficient manner that lets me do it better and more quickly.  Drudge work needs to be done.  You don't have to enjoy the mechanics of it, but the approach to it and the completed effort can be immensely satisfying and personally profitable.  Don't waste those opportunities because the only one you're shorting is yourself.

Take mowing lawns*.  You could just sweat, push a mower, and end the day tired and dirty.  Or you could learn to maintain small engines, interact professionally with customers, learn to schedule work efficiently, learn to schedule a maintenance logistics stream, and develop an attitude impermeable to the vicissitudes of weather.  Like anything, you get out what you put in.

Good Work

Good work means doing a job at least to a minimum acceptable standard.  Some people complain that someone did the bare minimum.  I've never quite understood that.  Whoever specified the bare minimum decided ahead of time just how much needed to be done to be acceptable.  But that minimum needs to be done and needs to be done correctly.

My kids probably recall fondly my directions on sweeping the kitchen floor: I would tell them to sweep however many times they thought was necessary** so that when I swept after them, I couldn't get a 1/4 cup of material in the dustpan.  I set that minimum standard, given their age, the nooks and crannies in our kitchen, and the uneven texture of our floor.  So when they met it, I was satisfied, even if I got just barely less than 1/4 cup.

On the other hand, sometimes the minimum standards are obviously too low.  At that point, pride in your ability to work well should take over, and you should meet your minimum standards.  Experience, honesty with yourself, and observation will help you develop those over time.  Are you easily capable of doing more without costing someone else?  Do it.  However, for example, if you spend all your time polishing a bathroom sink so you can see yourself in it, but the floor is still messy, you have not met the minimum standards for a bathroom.

Suitable Work

Suitable work for you, challenges you, provides you an opportunity to give value to others, is something you can do well enough to meet its minimum standards, meets your financial needs***, and leaves you enough energy at the end of the day to fulfill your other obligations to your family, your church, your community, and yourself.

You should not choose work that lets you coast.  Someone with lesser skills than you needs that job, and you will probably not be adding enough value to the world to cover what you use.

You should not choose work that uses you up, either.  We've all heard that people on their death beds never say, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office."  I frequently fail on this one.  Having been through tough financial times - layoffs, medical problems, etc - I don't want to have them again, and I have a hard time saying no to paid work.  I personally need to work on this one.

Work is necessary and commanded****.  Work well, young Padawans.

Parenthetical and asteriskical notes:

* Please!

** I think it's at least two.

*** Remember - needs and wants are not the same thing, and the world will try to induce spurious wants in you to make you work for them instead of working for yourself, your family, and people you value.  Also, some extremely valuable work receives no direct remuneration: motherhood, teaching homeschool, making a home, etc.  Remember - needs and wants are not the same thing!

****Genesis 3:19 - "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return."