The Great Mandel

A couple of years ago, I made a trip to Washington D.C. with some of my fellow elected officials regarding the high flood insurance premiums that were about to wreak havoc on our local economy. Our legislators didn’t seem to understand the ramifications of their actions… but that’s not what this story is about. It’s about our journey home.

Two days into the trip, a blizzard was bearing down on us and flights out of Washington began to cancel. Several of our colleagues were able to leave early but Commissioner Kiker (Larry), Mayor Mandel (Alan), and I were not able to escape early, so we decided that we would meet at 8am the next day and go to the airport together.

At 4am the next morning I woke up and looked outside. The usually busy street had disappeared, the cars parked there buried under several feet of snow and more was still coming down. Being a native Floridian I’d never seen anything like this and apparently neither had the people at the airport, because when I checked my email I found that they had politely informed me and thousands of other people that all flights had been canceled. For a week!

Now, the hotel we were staying at was nice, but the thought of staying there a week completely freaked me out, so I got dressed and went down to the lobby. I found Larry and Alan sitting in the cafe staring intently at their computers. I plopped down at the table. “Well, should I go to the front desk and extend our stay?” As Alan typed away at his computer, Larry said “I don’t know. The only flight I can find is out of New York City today at 4pm.” I yawned and stretched, thinking it was useless. “Well, that might as well be Los Angeles!” “Hey…” Larry said pointing over at our friend Alan, “He says he’s got it all figured out.” Alan looked up from typing. “We just take a train to New York!” Larry and I looked at each other and then started laughing. Alan took off his glasses and looked at us and with a big grin “What?” I started counting down fingers one at a time. “Here’s what! We have to get packed, check out, somehow get to the train station and then to New York City, then somehow get to JFK, and to our gate before our flight leaves!” Then I pointed at the window. “Oh! And there’s a blizzard outside heading straight towards New York too with no planes, cars or even people walking anywhere in Washington D.C.!” Alan was unfazed. “Look, Union Station is just five blocks away. We’ll just walk there, take the train to Penn Station in New York, get tickets on the Long Island Railroad to Queens, transfer to the JFK Shuttle and then take that to the airport!” He leaned back, smiled and put his hands out to his sides like he had just finished a magic trick. “Simple, but Larry has to buy the tickets for the plane and I have to buy these train tickets right now!”
Larry shrugged. “Well, I’ll try anything at this point.” I looked at them like they both had antlers growing out of their heads, then around at the hotel. (7 damn days.) I stood up. “That’s the dumbest plan I’ve ever heard in my life! Let’s do it!”

A half hour later we were trudging uphill in our suits and dress shoes, through the abandoned streets of Washington in windy, snowing, white out conditions, dragging our suitcases in calf deep snow, following Alan to where we hoped the train station was. Somehow we got there alive and then rode the near empty train through the blizzard all the way to New York’s Penn Station. Larry and I ran after Alan through the maze of tunnels and the crowds of people to the right ticket booth, to the right tunnel, to the right train, to the right stop and onto the right shuttle where he got us off at the right stop and the right gate. I was amazed! We made it with three hours to spare. But the storm was bearing down on us again, so we stood in the large crowd watching the flight information waiting for our flight to get canceled, again. All of a sudden Larry said “Hey look! There’s a flight leaving for Fort Myers in 30 minutes!” And then, he and Alan took off on a dead run. I stood there for a stunned second and then took off after them yelling. “Are you guy’s nuts? It’s not a train! They aren’t going to just let you walk onto it!

When we got to the gate they were already boarding and when Larry asked if there were seats available, the stewardess working the counter quickly shook her head no. Alan turned to us and said in a low voice. “We’ll get on. Give me a minute.” Larry and I went over to a couple of chairs about 50 feet away and watched Alan. Larry elbowed me in the ribs. “Watch the master.” I couldn’t hear him, but as Alan talked to the stewardess, he shrugged. He smiled. He laughed. He leaned forward and talked some more. And then… she smiled! Alan waved to us frantically and we followed him right onto the airplane, into our seats and back home! Magic!

I still can’t figure out how he got us home and so far, like any good magician, the Great Mandel won’t share his secret.

Campfire Lessons

There’s nothing more relaxing and thought provoking than sitting around a campfire in the night. On many a cool calm Southwest Florida winter evening my wife Lori and I will sit in our comfy deck chairs for hours and watch the flames in the fire pit calmly flicker in the dark. Of course, it took numerous trial and error experiences for us to finally figure out the right set up and despite what our stubborn smoky smelling friends think, for us a propane fueled pit is perfect. It’s clean, smoke free, easy to light, and except for the initial heart stopping explosion and loss of arm hair every time I light it… pretty safe when compared to your stock, wood munching, smoke following you no matter where you sit, burn the woods down campfire. I suppose that “burn the woods down” comment deserves an explanation and since the statute of limitations has likely kicked in and I was not an adult at the time, here it is.

In the mid 1960s my father and several of his friends were avid hunters and the area in east Bonita south of Bonita Beach Road that is now Hunters Ridge, Worthington, Palmira, Quails West and several other gated communities was one of their favorite pristine wooded areas to hunt. It was very old Florida, thick with pine flatwood and cypress swamp alike. I say that they were avid hunters, but I don’t actually remember them shooting anything but beer cans or an occasional watermelon, neither of which are exactly hard to hit with a shotgun.

One weekend my dad and I loaded his pick-up with the homemade canvas camper and headed into that wilderness with Robert Lawhon Jr., his son Joey and another fellow following in their jeeps. When we arrived at the camp, the first job was to start a campfire. Being wintertime, it was really easy work because of all the lighter pine and other dry wood laying around and so once the fire was roaring, it was agreed that one person should stay in camp while the rest of us went wandering around “hunting” until dark. The woods were thick and beautiful, with trails winding every which way, so it was pretty great.

My dad and I were about two hours out when he stopped and stood dead still. He sniffed the air and then turned and looked over at me with a raised eyebrow, a wrinkled nose and a frown. My young brain went to familiar territory. “Hey! It wasn’t me!’ I said defensively. He held his hand out and looked around, somehow not laughing. “NO… I smell fire!” Then he turned and looked up at the sky behind us. It glowed a bright, blazing red. “Holy… ” my dad yelled as he flew past me on a dead run back towards the camp.

When we finally got back it looked like the world was on fire! No one had thought to stay with the fire and it had quickly jumped out of its pit, consuming everything on the west side of the camp in the thick woods. Now the smart move would have probably been to get in the “non burned up truck” and escape with our lives. I thought this was a great plan and that there was never a more clear time to choose flight over fight! But the three adult men quickly decided that we had to put out the fire.

Soon we had all split up and with nothing but shovels and axes began fighting what was now a 20 acre fire… with three men and two twelve year olds. Long story short, I don’t remember much about the battle, but six long smoky, sweaty hours later the fire was contained! The rest of the evening until daybreak everyone stood watch over the smoldering remains. We stood together, dirty, hot, sweating and smoky… leaning on our shovels, looking at what was left of the woods. No one smiled or spoke but it had become clear even to my buddy and me. Since we were using this place to hunt and camp in, we were responsible for it… to take care of it, at any cost. No one ever said that… but you could see it in their eyes.

So tonight, as I watch the gas fire pit’s flames gently lick the air, I think about how my friend Joey had become a fireman in Bonita and I had become a Councilman and now Mayor of the area that we once fought to keep from burning to the ground. And as I get up to go inside for the evening, I bend over and shut the fire off. Perhaps that unspoken lesson of how important it is to take care of the places, people and things that are left in our charge, had sunk in.

It’s a Small World

In 2005, after exploring most of the North Carolina and Georgia mountains Lori and I, like many Floridians, decided to buy a second home in Northern Georgia. The place we found had everything on our list… a creek, a mountain view, a pond, exotic cherry, pear, and apple trees (exotic to a native Floridian) and it was near a nice little town with restaurants, a hospital and all the other things you would want close… but not too close. It was nestled in the quiet beauty of the mountains. Well…beautiful in the summer and fall. In the winter it is a little frightening.

When we first saw the property it was winter and since most of the trees are broadleaf in the region, the landscape was absolutely grim. Everything looked dead and every abandoned car, old tractor, lawn mower and piece of junk that had been lost over the years was visible. I was not thrilled. It was only after I saw the pictures of the property taken during the other eight months of the year that Lori convinced me that we wouldn’t succumb to depression and head back to Florida after only a few hours.

So we closed on the property on Good Friday and began setting up our cabin as our place to relax and get away from it all. We needed basically everything, so of course the first thing Sunday morning… we went straight to the Home Depot, two towns over in Blairsville.

A thousand dollars later we were coming out with our three carts full of “house stuff,” when Lori spotted a handwritten note stuck on the windshield of our well-marked Nelson Marine Construction pick-up truck. Lori, who had up to this moment been treasuring the anonymity of the mountains, read the note out loud. “Ben Nelson… is that you?” Her hands fell down to her sides and she looked straight up. “Oh come on! You’ve got to be kidding! People even know you up here?” She handed me the note. It was from some really good friends of mine who had moved away from Bonita Springs decades ago. I had no idea where they had moved to and I hadn’t heard from them since, so I was pretty surprised. The note said to meet them in the garden center and as we walked in the door, like magic… after twenty years, there they were! We hugged and laughed at how unlikely and serendipitous it was for us to have bought a place twenty five minutes from where they had moved to so long ago and that we had somehow managed to find each other on our first day there, on Easter Sunday in the Home Depot. But that was just the beginning.

“So where did you buy at?” asked Jay as we all walked slowly out to the parking lot together. I motioned back over my shoulder. “A couple of towns over in Hiawassee.” Jay nodded. “Oh yeah, I know Hiawassee really well. Where in Hiawassee?” Our cabin was one of thousands that were out in the middle of nowhere, so I didn’t think there was much sense going into detail. “Oh, way out east of town off Scataway Road.” Jay nodded again. “Sure! I know Scataway really well. Where off Scataway?” Again I kind of dismissed the possibility that out of all the small dirt roads, he would know where ours was. “It’s a little place off Phillips Cove…” Jay interrupted. “Ohhhh… you bought the Rigden place!” Lori and I stopped and stared at Jay with our mouths open. “Wha…” I sputtered. “How could you possibly know that?” Jay grinned a big grin, took me by the shoulders and said “Because I’m your MAILMAN!” “WHOAAAAA!!!” We all said at once.

I still get chill bumps when I tell the story of how we reconnected with our good friends. And when I think about how many different seemingly unrelated, unconnected decisions had to align in order for this to happen it reminds me that every day, unbeknownst to us, seemingly small decisions constantly turn the course of our lives, our businesses and our communities.

It is indeed a small world, crafted by small acts. But they can lead to big wonderful surprises.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Ned, Fred, Ted, and Willy were all cousins from South Carolina that came to work for me when I was a superintendent for a large bridge building company in the 1980’s. They were hard workers that rode to work together, ate lunch together, lived in the same house together, partied on the weekends together and showed up hung over on Mondays together.  They were as close as a southern family could be, so when you hired one, you hired them all.  And when you fired one, you fired them all.

Being a working superintendent, I did whatever I had to do to get the job done so after we drove some pilings out in the middle of the wide canal and the large concrete cap was poured around it,the forms had to be removed including two 60′ long steel beams, one on each side of the pilings.  It was a tricky procedure and before sending the entire clan out over the deep water on the small 10′ x 20′ floating work platform, I made sure that everyone knew what to expect and what to do if something went wrong.  “I’m going to keep tension on the beams until you remove the bolts and then when you’re all ready, I’ll lower it down a bit.  But keep your eyes open! Both those beams are going to spring out towards you about four feet!” The entire family nodded in unison, so I walked up the bank and crawled into the cab of the large crane that was hooked up to the beams in the middle of the canal 100 feet away.

After the cousins had removed all the supporting braces and bolts, I reminded them all one more time.  “Now remember, keep your hands in front of you… I’m going to let the beams down a bit and their going to pop out towards you… so be ready!”  Again, four nodding heads let me know it was time and I eased the giant beams down.  And just as predicted both beams swung towards the crew on the tiny barge and just as planned the men simply put their hands on the beam, stopping it from swinging.  Except for Ned.  When the beams swung towards him, he panicked and in text book “Wile E. Coyote” fashion he turned and ran the same direction that the beam was traveling.  This may have worked had he not been on a small barge in the middle of a canal.  So Ned found himself running like a cartoon character in mid-air as he plummeted into the water.  After splashdown, all his cousins casually walked over to the edge of the barge, leaned over and looked at the place where Ned had fell in.  All that was visible was a hard hat, slowly spinning there on top of the brown water.  This was briefly hilarious and after a good laugh I shut the machine down and yelled at the remaining family members.  “HEY!  Where is he?!”  They were still looking down.  Fred looked up at me, pointed down and said slowly in a very southern accent… “He went in the watta!”  I jumped out of the crane and started towards them. “Yeah, I know!  Can he swim?”  They all looked down, then back up and shook their heads. “No sir… not a lick.” said Ted casually.  I freaked.  “WELL DON’T JUST STAND THERE, JUMP IN AND GET HIM!” They all looked up at me and shook their heads. “We can’t swim either boss.” Said Willy shrugging.  Now I was at a dead run towards the canal.  As I slid down the steep bank I heard Ted say calmly “There Ned is, comin’ up the bank over yonder.”  Sure enough, there on the opposite side of the bank, 50’ from where he went in, was Ned, crawling out of the water like an alligator on all fours.  Fred called out to him. “You all right Cuz?”  Ned rolled over on his back sucked in some air and yelled “No I ain’t all right!” He pointed without getting up. “Ya’llwere goin’ let me drown!”

Don’t get me wrong, I was really happy to see him alive… but I couldn’t figure out how he got way over there.  “How’d you get all the way over there if you can’t swim?” He propped himself up on his elbows and said matter-of-factly. “I just sank to the bottom and walked over here.”

The rest of the day the group entertained themselves with all kinds of theory’s regarding how Ned had been able to take on enough ballast to stay on the bottom and where he had stored it.  But later on as I was showing them how to put on their life jackets, I had one simple question. “Why didn’t you guys tell me that you couldn’t swim?”  As Ned fiddled with the strap on his jacket he said “Cause you didn’t ask us boss. And I wasn’t plannin’ to go in the water.”

Guess what the first question I ask employees now?

School Bus Lessons

If you were a junior high or high school student in Bonita Springs In the 1960’s and 70’s, chances are you went to school at Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers. Depending on where your bus stop was (mine was at the Dome Tavern) it was a good 45 minutes each way, basically adding an hour and a half to your school day. Because of this, it was next to impossible to participate in after school programs or sports. Not that participating in typical high school sports was in the cards for me, because my after school activity was working for my dad. But although I learned a great deal working for my father, the hour and a half on the bus every day taught me very little. The trip to Fort Myers was awful. It was hot, loud, bumpy, and boring, making it impossible to do homework or even read. Besides, most of the time everyone on the bus was either tormenting someone, (flicking the guys ears in front of them, focusing a magnifying glass on their neck or just bopping him in the head with their math book) or defending themselves from attack. There was never any of the real fighting or violence that you see sometimes on the internet these days, but some of the younger students did spend a lot of time stuffed under a bored senior’s seat or being passed around like a Frisbee at a rock concert. There was plenty of really interesting and bizarre behavior, so I spent a lot of time just observing the weirdness, pulling friends out from under seats and sweating. I don’t think you could consider this time well spent or constructive in ANY way… but you had to get to school somehow.
Six years of Junior High and High school added up to a LOT of time on the bus, especially for the poor bus drivers. Through the years I noticed that some handled the stress of the job a lot better than others. As a general rule the ones who tried to maintain order via vigilance and discipline, their eyes continually darting up to the big mirror, their sweaty faces red from perpetually yelling, emotionally melted down within a few months. Generally, their tour of duty would end with them pulling the bus over, quickly standing up (usually banging their head on the mirror) and facing the back of the bus. They would then stutter, shake and scream for a while before they flung the door open, got off and walked around the bus for ten minutes, hands waving as they talked to themselves. Some of us felt bad for them, but others just jeered. It was pretty awful. But then there was one driver who no one trifled with…

Billie Gunn drove us to school for three years, cigarette hanging from her mouth, never looking at the young terrified faces in the mirror as she drove at ten miles an hour over the speed limit, hitting bumps so hard that it flipped us all like pancakes and taking corners so fast that you either slid out of your slick plastic covered seat onto the floor or were crushed against the side of the bus by the two other kids in your seat. I’m not sure that she meant to keep order this way but we were all so busy holding on for dear life that we had no time for anything else. Then, as exhausted well shaken and stirred kids gathered their scattered books and made their way off the bus, Billie, with her cigarette still wagging on her lip, would pop the door open and with her gravely yet happy southern voice say “Bye Babies!” I think she actually cared about us… maybe even liked us! And despite having a bit of a lead foot, she was an excellent driver… tough and unfazed by anything or anybody!

One year, I suppose because the trip wasn’t long enough, the school system rerouted us through Fort Myers Beach. Billy threaded the needle through heavy traffic over that dangerous bridge day after day until our luck ran out and she met an oncoming semi-truck in the middle of the narrow span. There just wasn’t enough room and the buses outside mirror vaporized on the side of the bridge. As she pulled over and stopped the bus, cursing under her breath, no one said a word. After she had sat still for a moment, she looked up in the mirror and said, “I’m sorry babies!” Then, she cried.

I suppose you never know what’s really in someone’s heart until they show you.

Hurricane Unprepardness

Yes, it’s hurricane season, and soon we may all be running to the grocery and hardware stores so we can buy canned food we probably will never eat and candles, stoves, tarps, plywood and generators that we will probably (hopefully) never use. Chances are I will be right there in line next to you, with cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Beefaroni that will sit in our cupboard until they are donated to a more worthy cause.

As we watch our favorite TV weather personality get a little too excited about the latest track and update… we will all, sooner or later, get to a point when we decide “THIS IS THE ONE” and begin to implement our own self crafted hurricane preparedness plan. For the most part, each person’s plan is different and wonderfully unique… everything from “I’m getting the heck out of here!” to those of us who are possibly a little “hyper-prepared.”

Being a marine contractor, I am particularly vigilant because I have barges, boats, job sites an office and equipment yard to secure and prepare every time a storm gets close. But everything we do is well-planned, straightforward and necessary. My personal plan however, tends to get needlessly creative.

My hyper-preparedness peaked in 2004 when hurricane Charlie, a bad little hurricane that was incredibly destructive, was approaching the 24-hour mark. As I studied the computer forecast, I told Lori (for possibly the twentieth time in the last ten years) “I’ve got a bad feeling about this one!” And I began implementing ‘the plan’. A couple of thousand dollars later we had enough food and water for weeks. Generators, pumps, ropes, tools and tarps crowded our house. Lori didn’t get it. “Sooooo… what are you going to do with that stuff?” “That’s the beauty of it!” I said as I continued to unload the extra 15 gallons of gasoline into our garage. “You never know what you’ll need!”

Now, what I thought was the coolest part of the plan was that I was going to park large frontend loaders, backhoes and dump trucks from my construction company in front of particularly vulnerable parts of the house. Our stand-alone garage got a huge dump truck parked in front of it because that’s where Lori made me move all the crazier emergency supplies to and because the doors on the garage were large and unreinforced.

Twenty-four hours later we were experiencing hurricane force winds. At the height of the storm the wind was from the north… straight at the dump truck protected door. “HA! Who’s crazy now?” I said to Lori as I tried to get a peek at the garage door by sticking my head out the door of our well protected foyer.“ Lori quickly replied. “You?” Then I saw it. Even though the huge truck was inches away from the door… the garage door was GONE! I turned and gave Lori the bad news. “I can’t believe it! The door blew in… it’s gone! It probably damaged the car and now with the door gone… the whole building could go!” All we could do is watch and wait.

After a few hours the storm had died down enough for me to go survey the damage. I grimaced as I looked behind the truck into the garage to find that despite all of the meticulous planning … I had forgotten to CLOSE THE GARAGE DOOR! Amazingly, nothing had been damaged! Well… besides my brain!

So, although you still need to be prepared and have your very own hurricane preparedness plan, don’t let the complexity of the plan bury the obvious little things. Or as my wife likes to say to me with a little smile whenever we get into the car after I’ve packed up everything we need to leave for a day or two. “Nice job honey! Did you shut the door?”

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.