The Quest for Ice

When my wife told me that the Rotary International Convention was going to be in Montreal, Canada I just shrugged and said “hmppph!” I thought… (Well, I know lots of Canadians… It hardly seems like they’re from another country.) So, for the next few weeks I went about my day-to-day business, not giving the trip much thought at all while my wonderful wife made all the arrangements.

When we got off of the plane in Montreal it immediately became clear that a bit of pre-trip preparation would have been wise. “Everything’s in French!” I said staring up at the signs. Lori shook her head as she walked past me. “That’s right Mr. Obvious! What did you think it would be?” I grabbed my suitcase and began following her, mumbling quietly. “I don’t know… English?”

Soon we found ourselves in line at the customs station waiting to talk to an agent who was tucked away in a glass booth. I was busy people watching, when over the intercom I heard an impatient “NEXT!” I stepped forward dragging my bag and handed all of my paperwork through a slot to a pleasant looking young lady in a uniform. As she studied my passport I started looking around at all the other activity around me. “LOOK AT ME SIR!” The agent yelled. All of a sudden I felt like I was in elementary school, so naturally I started acting like it. I thrust my face forward and stared at the agent with wide open, bugged out, unblinking eyes. She and my wife were not amused. “Stop it!” Lori whispered through her clenched teeth. The agent looked at me, then down at my passport several times thru narrowed eyes. Then she asked, “Have you brought any gifts for the people of Canada?” That snapped me out of my bug-eyed stare and my head cocked to the side as I thought (clearly not long enough) about the odd question. “No.” I finally said and then wrinkling my nose. “Was I supposed to?” Again, neither the agent nor my wife was amused and without her eyes ever leaving me the customs officer rather firmly stamped my passport… and we were on our way.

Instead of staying at a hotel, my wife had arranged for an apartment in the downtown area so that we could better experience the city… and our inability to communicate. But despite the language barrier, we managed to find our way there. As we began unpacking and exploring we discovered that the apartment was comfortable, the area was beautiful, and the neighbors very nice. Of course… I went straight to the very modern looking refrigerator. “Hmmm… that’s weird!” I said, as I stood there with the door open. “There’s no ice machine and no ice cube trays. Oh well. Add a bag of ice to the shopping list!” Our quest for ice had begun.

Now, you would think that a city that was completely frozen for a good portion of the year would have vast storage bins of ice… everywhere. But no! Apparently, after ten months of everything being frozen, they didn’t want to see or even talk about ice. And to make matters worse, as we wandered through the city, we couldn’t tell from the outside what a store actually sold. So we wandered in and out of stores for hours, babbling to confused retailers, grunting and using sign language. When we would find a cleverly disguised grocery store, we would first wander aimlessly around the store, then ask for ice with a combination of bad French and sign language. We would blow on our hands, fake shivering until they would finally nod and send us to the sweaters or the heater department. Finally, someone directed us to a liqueur store where we found a lone, drunken, English speaking Canadian who sent us to a Shell gas station. We couldn’t believe it! Only five blocks away, and there it was! It was beautiful! It looked like… AMERICA! Guarding the front of the store in an identical glass cubical as the customs agent was a fellow who, after I handed him five loonies, gave me a little plastic bag of ice the size of an IPad.

I really liked the people of Montreal, so when I go back and they ask me if I’ve brought any gifts for the people of Canada… I will proudly show them a box full of ice cube trays.

A Failure To Communicate

It was just an email meant to convey my sincere thanks. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it was taken. Bill had been helping me with a few projects and I though a quick “thank you” was in order. So I sat down at the computer and typed “Bill, thanks a lot for working on that project. You’ve really been a big help.” I checked it once, hit send and went back about my Saturday chores.
Around noon, I heard Lori yell from inside, “You’d better come in here and take a look at this”. When I found her she was standing in front of the computer pointing at the screen. “What’s up with Bill?” I shrugged. “I don’t know.” And then I sat down to read his reply. He was not happy with me. From his 500 word response to my 2 sentence email, I could tell he had taken my comment the wrong way. I read my email again and still couldn’t figure out what had set him off. Then I remembered. He hadn’t replied to my latest request for information a few days ago. I had just figured he was busy and had done the research myself. So my sincere “Thanks a lot!” looked like a sarcastic “Thanks a lot!”
Now, this email exchange could have continued with me being offended by his comments (which were real doozies by the way) and escalated back and forth. It actually happens quite often, in “email world”, with each person trying to punish the other with their keyboards about some problem or insult that never really existed in the first place. To make matters worse, people often seem to feel the need to copy innocent bystanders, essentially inviting them to a “public flogging”.
The real guts of this problem is that email, as a method of communication, does an excellent job of conveying data, but an all together horrible job of expressing subtle and nuanced emotions. Wait…forget about subtle. It’s even hard to tell the difference between sarcasm and sincerity. As readers of email, we are too often tempted to fill in the emotional blanks ourselves, inserting emotional content and unwritten meaning where none was intended.
Although I’ve been as guilty as anyone else in these exchanges, I’ve come to realize that the best way to figure out what someone really means… Is to call them on the phone or go see them in person. I know… that’s pretty “old school”, but it’s effective and ironically a real time saver.
So, instead of emailing Bill, I picked up the phone. “Hey Bill, it’s Ben.” A long pause and then a tense “Yeah… I know.” Ten seconds later Bill was mortified. “Oh my Gosh, I’m so sorry! I wish I could take that email back.” I interrupted. “Bill, I’ve already deleted it. So far as I’m concerned… It never happened.” “Really?” said my relieved friend. “Yep.” I said and then paused. “You didn’t blind copy anyone did you?” Another pause… and then from the phone I heard a quick “I’ll call you right back.” Click

What Are Friends For?

It’s good to have close friends; friends who you can swap tall tales with, who accept you for who you are, despite my… I mean your, little quirks. But, apparently, everyone has his or her limit.

About 15 years ago I was telling some buddies of mine about the local Indian mounds that as kids, my brother and I used to explore. One in particular was right off of Terry Street near my parent’s home that they had built, just before Interstate 75 slashed through their property. A fill pit for I-75 was dug in the area and I had always thought that the mounds were destroyed in the process. Or were they?

My friends were now anxious to help me solve this “mystery”, so we grabbed our shovels and headed east of town. Immediately, we found a large 5-foot high mound just off the road. It was covered with a thick layer of palmettos and large pine trees and was obviously ancient and man-made. We each picked a spot and in the scorching July sun… we began to dig.

An hour later we were still hacking through palmetto roots when my father pulled up in his truck. He stopped and watched us for a few minutes and then finally said “What are you doin’?” I stopped digging and said, “We found that Indian mound we used to dig around in!” My dad sat in his truck, with the AC running, watching with interest. Thirty minutes later, as we dug deeper, my dad looked at his watch and said, “I’m going to get some soup!”

An hour later I was standing up to my neck in a huge hole, shaking my head. “Something’s wrong.” “You’re right… I’m having heat stroke!” said John, throwing down his shovel. Just then, my soup-loving father drove back up. “How’s it going!” he said looking rather unconcerned. “Not so good,” I said. “We haven’t found anything yet.” “I’ll be damned,” said my dad shutting off his truck. He paused. “You know who built those mounds?” asked my dad. “The Calusas?” said Chuck. “Nope…He did!” My father was grinning and pointing at ME! “WHAT!” I yelled with my hands on my head. “Yep, you were 8 years old when you cleared this property with a bulldozer and that’s YOUR trash pile.” My dad drove off, smiling. Satisfied that he had done a good days work.

After shaking my fist and yelling “farewell” at the back of my dads retreating truck, it became eerily quiet. (Uh-oh! I thought, suddenly remembering that I was outnumbered by possible “ex-friends”) I closed my eyes and turned slowly to face them and then, took a peek. They were both walking towards me like angry zombies, shovels in blistered hands.

As it turns out, they were equally unimpressed with my contribution to ancient history, my dad’s devilish sense of humor, and my apparent inability to remember where I’d left something fairly large. I had some explaining to do, but I’m proud to say that they have since forgiven me… but being good buddies… they have not forgotten.

Reading What We Want To Believe

Years ago we were visiting my grandparents at their home in what is now Cape Coral. As the adults sat talking out on the porch, my sister and I wandered off to rummage through the old newspapers, pictures and antiques. Their house was old, dark, dusty, cluttered and for two kids… an archeological adventure! On this particular outing we found a magazine with advertisements for patent medicines and inventions that years ago could have been purchased through the mail. The claims that accompanied these treasures were fantastic. Mere spoonfuls of a tonic could cure hundreds of ailments. Another ad claimed that simply wearing a mysterious device could make weak men strong and women more womanly. Always the young skeptic, I shook my head and wondered out loud to my sister, Julie. “Why would anyone have believed this stuff?” Julie pitched the magazine back in a pile of papers, creating a poof of dust in the dim light. “I don’t know… I guess they needed to believe it.”

I was recently reminded of my sister’s words, when a friend sent me an email of a giant 20 foot long alligator eating a moose. The title block said “THIS IS REAL… SEND TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!” Well, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so even though this was a real hoot, it was obviously fake. Yes, a genuine giant moose-eating alligator would have been amazing, but the fact that there is something inside of all of us that actually wants to believe it, is equally amazing.

As innocent as these Photoshop pranks might seem, there are also a great many harmful, patently untrue and just plain mean pieces of misinformation that are constantly being spread and promoted as factual. Again… such serious theories and accusations should require equally serious critical analysis and proof. But instead, it seems that the simple act of something being broadcast on TV or being published in a blog, email or newspaper, automatically gives that something the weight of truth. I think it may be because as humans, we are all subconsciously prewired to look for information that fits in with or validates our preconceived notions, fears and desires.

A few days ago, my sister forwarded me a particularly scary and divisive chain email she had received and added, “I can’t believe my friend thinks this is true!!” Her friend had set aside her skepticism in favor of the forwarded emails passionate accusations and her own fears. So I sent back a link to a reliable site that debunks such claims and typed below it “It’s clearly not true, but remember… some people will still feel the need to believe it.”

We are generally an intelligent species capable of creating remarkable technologies and solving complicated problems. But if we don’t use the tools of critical thinking that we have learned from the Ancient Greeks, or at least the skeptical skills that we have learned from buying used cars, we risk being trapped by our own fears and prejudices.

But then… don’t take my word for it.

Perils of a Good Sense of Humor

When I first became involved in local politics a friend warned me, “You better be careful with that sense of humor of yours!” I nodded and thanked him for the advice. “Hey!” I said, looking just under his chin. “What’s that?” He looked down just as my index finger was coming up, “twanging” his nose. Yes, it was incredibly juvenile behavior. But the timing… was superb.

From the stories that my relatives have told me and from having personally experienced 55 family Thanksgivings, I can assure you that this is inherited behavior. My father and his brother Charlie in particular had brutal senses of humor… which made the harsh life that they experienced as kids easier to deal with. At a very young age they were often left alone in the woods to tend the cattle and also to trap raccoons to sell… by hand. To make things even more interesting these animals had to be brought in alive.

The process went something like this. After a raccoon was spotted high in a cypress tree, my dad (being the smallest and easiest to bully) would climb up the tree with a stick. His orders were to convince the animal to jump 60 feet to the ground by swatting at it like it was a raccoon piñata. Prior to doing a really bad flying squirrel imitation, the raccoon would first ‘lighten his load’ by emptying the contents of his bladder, bowels and stomach… onto my father. This always delighted my Uncle Charlie who would be far below on the ground, laughing hysterically and shouting helpful encouragement to his little brother. “You’ve got him now Ben!”

Once the raccoon hit the ground, both boys would chase the dazed mammal until Charlie could bop it on the head with a stick, knocking him out cold. Being the big brother, he would grab the unconscious critter by its ringed tail and carry it proudly back home.

However, on this particular hunting trip, Mother Nature decided to show off her own sense of humor by waking up the boy’s un-amused captive. It immediately wrapped all four furry legs tightly around Charlie’s thigh and started chewing. The once proud hunter proceeded to try every dance, jump, roll, scream and evasive maneuver known to man in an attempt to dislodge the angry masked mammal from his leg. My father stopped laughing just long enough to put a hand on each side of his mouth and yell… “You’ve got ‘em now Charlie!” The raccoon soon lost his taste for the boy’s boney leg and took off for the deep swamp, leaving Charlie unharmed, furious, and running towards his still laughing little brother.

I suppose the advice my friend was trying to give me and the lesson that my father learned from his big brother were the same. The transition from laughter to “Uh-Oh!” can come pretty quickly and the price for others not sharing your sense of humor can be painfully expensive.

The Tao of Ow

“Bam! Owwwww!” (OH for… I did it again!) In our house in Georgia the footboard of the bed has wooden “ears” sticking out each side, about the same height as my… hip. So when I round the corner to get to the TV or put away some clothes I have about a one in ten chance of catching one in the tenders and then folding up like a lawn chair. This was probably the hundredth time that I’d clipped it on the way by, so even though I was finally beating my wife at something (she was only up to about fifty times) I still howled in pain, cursed the stupid design, the knucklehead that designed it, the tree it was made out of and the people that built it. We’ve plotted several times to just cut the fancy ears off and be done with it… and I’ve even made it into the bedroom with the chainsaw running a couple of times, but Lori always stops me. “No… we just have to be more careful.” But that plan doesn’t work very well… so we’re probably going to keep doing it… until it really hurts.

When I was elementary school age I would go to work with my dad every day, all day, in the summer. He had a small dragline mounted on a truck that he cleaned the farm ditches east of Bonita with. All day long, I would sit on the crane shooting at frogs and snakes with my bb gun until he was ready to move forward. “OKAY!” He would yell and I would scramble into the seat, push the starter button (which cranked the truck up in gear because I wasn’t heavy enough to push in the clutch), drive forward about twenty feet and then go back to whatever I had been doing until he was ready to move again. Believe it or not, even shooting a bb gun at snakes can get a little boring for an eight-year-old, and since I didn’t dare wander off, I was always looking for something else to do, even somewhere different to sit. And so one fateful July day I made the mistake of sitting on a full can of gasoline as I watched my dad throw the cattails out of the ditch with the machine. Yeah… I KNOW! It seems stupid now but I was eight… remember? As the crane shook around and the gas in the can sloshed around, the liquid fuel didn’t get on me… but the 95-degree heat made sure that the gas fumes did bake some pretty sensitive areas.

It took about ten minutes for me to figure out that I had made a serious mistake… and that as a result my butt was apparently on fire or at least felt like it. My dad was always well aware of what was going on around the machine so he immediately saw me running and jumping around like… well, like my butt was on fire. It wasn’t his fault, but his solution to my problem added insult to injury as he made me strip down to nothing and then rinse off in the ditch with my friends the snakes and frogs that I had just been shooting at. Then he shook his head, chuckled, got back up in the crane and worked the rest of the day as I tried to hide in the crane… constantly fanning my naked scorched posterior.

So, the bad news was that my rear end burned like one of those out of control oil wells for about three days. But the good news is that I never sat on a gas can again… and I never will. Ah… who am I kidding? I probably never will!