Patience with a Purpose

As I was walking out of City Hall after a particularly prickly Council meeting a gentleman patted me on the back and said “Mr. Mayor, you have the patience of Job!” It was a nice complement and I thanked him, but it is not a virtue that comes naturally to me, nor one that I am always able to access. But the patience that I do demonstrate is purposeful and calculated. A result of a great many life lessons; observations, successes and failures, quite often delivered by what I like to refer to as the “Hand of God.”

Now before you get all worked up… let me explain. What I’m referring to are simple little incidents when it appears that a “giant invisible hand” (possibly belonging to a being with a particularly wicked sense of humor) has rather abruptly interrupted something that I’m doing, simultaneously delivering a lesson in humility. For example…

More than a few decades ago, I was a young, energetic, demanding, impatient superintendent for a large construction company. I wanted things done… and done now. If there was a problem I wanted it fixed… now! I was a hard and tireless worker that believed that anything could be fixed by working even harder and bulling straight through to the conclusion. I was wrong. Fortunately, when I needed it most, I received “guidance.”

I was operating a large crane that was perched on top of a 40’ tall pile of dirt, right next to the water. The crew of men who were working for me out over the water on a barge, were attempting (in vain) to align the large pile driver that was suspended by the crane onto a piling. It was like trying to thread a needle with a sledge hammer and extremely frustrating. After what seemed like an eternity (two minutes) my patience had, as usual, vanished and I was furious. The men were 60’ out into the water and since the crane, pumps and other machinery were screaming louder than me, I slammed the brake pedals down, locked the machine in position and jumped out of the crane on a dead run down the steep slope towards the water.

About 10’ down the slope of clean fresh dirt, I felt something grab my foot and I was instantly airborne, flying just like Superman (without the super powers or good looks) towards the water. Flying along, about two feet above the ground, arms outstretched in front of me, I thought “Oh…this isn’t going to end well!” SPLASH! Luckily, the water was deep and since I had entered the water in Superman position, I was completely unharmed. Once under water, I decided to stay there for a while and take stock of what just happened. As I sat there on the bottom of the bay, I thought… “I wonder if anybody saw me do that…and if not, how was I going to explain to the crew my sudden and apparently “magical” appearance in the water?” This caused me to start laughing and then drowning, so I popped up to the surface.

When I did, the entire crew was still staring intently up at the piling, patiently waiting for the crane operator (me) to lower the hammer. Finally, the foreman turned around to see what the hold up was and saw me there laughing while treading water 60 feet away from the now unoccupied crane. After I told the crew what had happened… we all had a good laugh and as I made my way back up the slope with a relaxed, light heart… the solution to the construction problem suddenly and clearly came to me. I turned and looked at the spot where I had tripped. There was nothing there but smooth, clean sand.

Later on in my young career, building bridges and ship ports throughout Florida, I began to learn more about the art of knowing when to wait, when to act quickly, how to plan for multiple scenarios and how reacting calmly would invariably lead to better, quicker solutions. A year or so later, the owner of the company came down to the job site and found us removing huge steel I-beams that were driven deep into solid rock. A large crane was hooked to one of the beams and was sitting motionless, placing steady tremendous pressure on the beam. My boss, being even more impatient than I had ever been, wanted it out of the ground immediately and insisted on having us tug, jerk, pound and twist on the beam… but to no avail. As he stood there puffing impatiently on his cigarette, sipping on a warm can of coke, I told him “Let me show you something.” We hooked the crane back up, applied steady, intense pressure on the beam and then stood back away from the machine and waited. Five minutes later as we were leaning against my truck talking about the next job, the 40’ steel beam suddenly shot out of the ground all the way to the tip of the 100 foot crane boom, then thunderously crashed up and down like a giant bungee jumper.

Although my emotions do periodically get the best of me, the practice of using patience as an active force has proven invaluable to me over the years. Patience is confidence in the power of time. It encourages us to measure twice and cut once. To look before we leap. To face adversity calmly, with a light heart… because the cooler head will almost certainly prevail. It may be a concept that is difficult to accept for those who are anxious for change, for instant gratification, for continuous signs of progress, but the truth is that real progress often remains hidden from us until the goal is achieved and sometimes… you have to trip and fall before a solution presents itself.

The Shovel

My father was a good man… And a hard worker. But as I discovered at a very young age, He was never afraid to get someone else’s hands dirty. I’m not being disrespectful, because he was really proud of it. One of his favorite shirts had written across the front “So much to do… So few people to do it for me!” It’s a funny shirt… Unless you were, like me, one of his “chosen few”.
The youngest of four tough “cracker” brothers, he learned at a very young age that if you were the smallest… Then you better be the smartest.
Life on the family homestead in the woods of S.W. Florida in the 1930’s could be brutal and the brothers all had to earn extra money by working part time for local farmers. So on one particular day, the four brothers and two of their friends took a job “hoeing okra”. As the grizzled old farmer handed out brand new red shovels to all the boys, he told them “I’m going into town, but don’t you worry… I’ll know who did the most work! And I’m gonna give that feller’ an extra dollar!” Now my dad realized that he had no chance of competing in an all day shoveling contest and likely wouldn’t get paid at all, no matter how hard he worked, so when the farmer left, the small boy scratched his chin and thought for a moment before walking over and sitting down under a nearby tree. His brother Charlie, who was already hard at work, looked over at the boy under the tree. As he flipped another shovel full of dirt over he yelled “Look at poor little Benny! He ain’t gonna get paid nothin’!” All the other boys chuckled… But my dad just pulled his hat down over his eyes and relaxed further back into the tree.
Eight long hours later, just before the farmer was due back, my Dad sat up, grabbed a rock that he had carefully selected and casually started scraping the paint off the shovels blade. This struck his brother as particularly bizarre behavior and as he took the rag out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his eyes he yelled “What the heck are doin’? Are you touched in the head?” After a few minutes all the paint was gone off the shovels blade and without saying a word, my dad stood up and started digging furiously. When the other boys saw this, they just stood there with their heads all cocked sideways…until suddenly, the farmer rounded the corner in his model A truck.
He crawled out of the dirty black buggy and then hollered for the youngsters to gather around him. “All right… Let me see the ends of them shovels!”. As he went down the row, he finally came to my dads apparently worn out garden tool. The old farmer slapped his hands together and hooted “Dang boy! You might be the smallest but you shore gave these other boys a lesson!”. He surely had, because the other boys said nothing, when my dad, as he was walking off, turned, tapped the side of his head with his finger and grinned that big grin.
As I think back to my Uncle Charlie telling me this story just a few years ago, with my dad sitting there next to him grinning from ear to ear, I wonder exactly what the real lesson might have been. The farmer, my dad and his brothers all came away telling the same story but they probably had different takes on what they had learned. One thing is pretty clear… you should never judge a book, a shovel or person by their cover.

Night of the Raccoon

The morning of the Keep the Beautiful in Bonita clean up this year, I thought it would be nice to take a swim in the pool when we got home. Since my Floridian blood freezes solid in water anywhere below 87 degrees, I turned on the solar heater so that by the time we got home that night the pool would be just the right temperature for a “quick dip.” My wife Lori of course knew better. “You know you’ll never make it past the couch, right?”

And of course… she was right. As soon as I walked in the door I plopped on the couch and in minutes was sleeping soundly… until I was awakened by the sound of the doggy door banging open on the pool deck. I sat up quickly… looked over at Lori and growled, smiling…”Raccoons!” You see, the Nelson family and raccoons have been feuding for decades and from the stories my father used to tell me about he and his brothers hunting the wily masked creatures… it’s fair to say that we had started it. So, in what could easily be considered raccoon karma, these hoodlums now tip over our garbage cans, slice through screens, eat the cat’s food and make funny faces and apparently insulting gestures at our dogs through the windows at night. This makes our dogs go crazy, and we of course then yell at the dogs, which delights the raccoons to no end, causing them to run away laughing their little raccoon tails off!

Recently, they discovered the doggy door into the pool area and how funny it was to make me run after them in my underwear. I do this because I can’t let the dogs out with potentially rabid raccoons on the pool deck and because I’m not thinking clearly at midnight. So that night, I again exploded out of the door looking like a giant maniac baby, wielding the pool net high over my head as I ran after the masked bandit. As usual he ran into the bushes behind the spa, and as usual I jumped up on the edge of the spa and began poking the net into the bushes. As the dogs barked frantically from inside the house, I could hear Lori yelling through the closed door and the chaos, “Just leave the screen door open and he’ll leave.” But this, my friend… was war. Suddenly, the angry mammal shot up the palm tree and fastened itself onto the screen just above my head. Without thinking (which should actually be the name of this story) I scooped the “much larger than I thought” raccoon off of the screen with the net like he was a giant pancake. As I watched him falling in slow motion directly in front of me into the spa, it dawned on me that the only way for the crazed mammal to get out of the spa was to climb over the top of me. I had no desire to have an angry raccoon attack me while I was in my underwear, so I decided on a different strategy. I turned and ran like an eight year-old girl. But just as I took my first step it became clear that I had, like a cartoon character, run out of solid ground and was for a split second running in mid air over the pool. Strangely enough, as I plunged into the dark black water of the pool my first thought was…”Hey, this water temperature is perfect!” followed quickly by… “ARRRGGH… AN ANGRY RACCOON IS GOING TO CLIMB ONTO MY HEAD!”

I scrambled out of the water and grabbed my pool net again, and with my back to the French doors scanned the pool deck. “COME ON PAL! IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!” I bellowed mightily, standing there soaking wet in my now drooping “not so tighty whiteys.” As I stood there doing a really bad Navy Seal imitation, I heard a quiet “tap, tap, tap” on the window behind me. I turned to see my wife Lori silently mouthing the words “He’s right behind you!” Sure enough, there behind me was a wet, snarling raccoon with his back up against the wall. Our eyes locked for an instant and then we both came to the same conclusion… “RUN!” Luckily the masked intruder headed for the door leading outside where he belonged and I headed for the door leading to the couch where I belonged.

The raccoon has never returned to our pool deck, but as I nurse my pulled back muscles and suffer the disappointed looks on my dogs faces … I’m not so certain who won this battle. But I suppose that is the nature of a feud… no one ever really wins.

Running A-Muck

Running A-Muck

Being a Marine contractor, I sometimes get the opportunity to push a barge from one job to the next. It’s a real treat for me to not be in a hurry for a change, to enjoy the beautiful waters around our area at a leisurely five mph. But not everyone is out for a peaceful cruise, so the opportunity for conflict is often just around the corner. Continue reading

Pieces of April

Springtime in Southwest Florida is subtle and beautiful.  It is a time of rebirth and change.  The new, fluorescent green leaves on the cypress trees are the first to announce its arrival, followed by the persimmon and mulberry trees, which seemingly transform overnight from dead brown sticks to lush bright green foliage.  The fragrant scent of orange blossoms fills the air as one crop of Citrus ends and another begins with the appearance of beautiful and delicate flowers.

Despite the lack of rain, everything (well… except the grass on the side of the road) seems to magically come back to life.  In Southwest Florida, the “April showers” that would bring “May flowers” elsewhere, are typically non-existent.  But the wildflowers arrive just the same.  Some of them are small, delicate and found in areas that normally go untraveled or unnoticed.  But they are beautiful.  You just have to look in the right place.    Continue reading

Letting Go

Hurricane season.  We all have different reactions to its arrival.  Fear, anxiety, ambivalence and if you work for the Weather Channel, what seems to be unbridled excitement.  I know they don’t mean anyone any harm, but it is really difficult not to hear the excitement in the voice of a reporter as they explain the level of devastation your community is about to experience from a storm that has the same name as that aunt of yours who always smelled a little funny.

Continue reading

Southern Diplomacy

I’ve often heard that the art of diplomacy is dead.  It certainly seems like some people these days refuse to engage in civil debate.  They tend to yell loud, make weird accusations, interrupt each other and are often just plain mean.  However, I’m not sure if it has ever been any more “civil”.  Especially when I consider some of my father’s stories about early Florida “dispute resolution”. Continue reading