Sunday, July 22, 2018

Controlled by a Label

Would that everyone could know their own mind and motivations like my daughter in her mid-teens. The intellectual honesty regarding her inner thoughts and decision-making process is the foundation for improving them.

Years ago Emily had received advice from her mother about how to deal with some situation (that I do not presently recall). Later she informed me that she would be taking a different tack rather than heeding Kelly's advice. Since Emily's own plan seemed quite inferior I asked why she was not taking her mother's recommendation.

"Because Mom said it.", Emily replied.

How telling it was that she already knew how she had come by her choice! How wonderful it was for her to be straightforward with me! How sweet it was to be conversing with a person that knew their own mind! What an opportunity for discovery for both of us!

After clarifying that I had indeed heard her correctly, I asked what she thought of the advice itself. Astonishing me yet again she admitted that her mother's course was probably better than her chosen one. What simplicity of acknowledgement! Intrigued, I pressed to determine if the decision was based on a desire to select an independent action. How lucidly she declared the foundation of her thinking!

"If you or Mom say it, I can't do it."

Ah, like a beam of sunlight through a window I understood my daughter better, and I was happy. I was happy, not angry, because she did not shirk being honest with herself. Even though that way of thinking was not only foreign but indeed contrary to my own, we were now able to focus on the essence of the disagreement. Specifically, she was willing to make decisions based not on the merits of an idea but on who had said it. Even more specifically, the label of parent was enough to count the information as unworthy of consideration and the wrong course of action.

What power we held over our daughter, and we did not even know! But she knew. And she knew that even if our advice was relevant and right she would never take it for the simple fact that we were her parents. I asked if she realized that she was choosing to ignore the merits of right and wrong, but to simply react based on who provided the insight. She said she did, but that this was the way she was going to proceed. I asked if she considered the possibility that the number of labels which she would ignore or discount information might grow when the concern is not the merits but the messenger. She did.

My final advice to her was to contemplate the differences of choosing reactions to the label versus considering the right of the information. And of course, the irony was not lost on me that this advice might be dismissed out of hand since I had said it. The decision was hers to make. In the following years I have seen evidence that she came to a deliberate decision about how she wanted to live life and interact with others. I think she chose rightness of the argument over wrongness of the label.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

It's Not Supposed to Do That

Readers who have a low tolerance for profanity, anatomical references, and inappropriate behavior are invited to skip this story. Suffice to say that I was not then, nor am now, such a cad as my actions indicated.


The captain was mad. He ran us fast through the sand and hills, angry at our unit for failing an inspection earlier in the week. I had just joined the unit that day after transferring from Japan. Over a hundred men and women started the run in tight formation, legs and arms pumping in unison. Within a few minutes the ranks had thinned with the frantic pace in the summer heat of North Carolina. People kept stopping. The captain kept punishing. I kept running. After a few miles my head was lolling as I struggled to remain in the ragged pack of runners. As I saw their shoes on the ground passing left and right I wondered, as my last clear memory, "Why aren't my feet moving?"


Through a fog of unconsciousness I felt myself being pushed across the seat of a car and then the feeling of air — glorious, moving air. I flopped my head out the open window seeking more of that cooling breeze, but they pulled me back in. My ears heard moaning gibberish that in my head had sounded like a simple protest. I flopped my head out again. They pulled me back in again. I babbled another protest and flopped again but this time hit my head on the closed window. I was defeated and thought no more.


Rectangular ceiling lights began to clear away the fog as they moved through my vision like road stripes. In the emergency room of Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center I laid bare, literally. They stripped all my clothes, laid wet cloths on my skin, aimed large fans at my body, blew oxygen into my nostrils, pumped fluids in my arm, sucked blood out of the other, stuck heart monitors on my chest, and inserted a thermometer in my rectum. When asked for a urine sample I said I couldn't because I'd sweated out the last of my water. Pointing to a clear tube, the medic replied that he would have to put a catheter in my penis if I could not urinate. Grabbing the bottle I tried, and failed. I was defeated, and the last orifice was violated.


Prone, naked, and probed I listened to the chatter calling out vital signs, but the only one I remember was the temperature, 107.2 degrees Fahrenheit. This was only eight and a half degrees above normal, not even ten percent higher. Of course I did not know the temperature when problems — well, other problems — might set in. I considered that water is a large component of the human body which boils at 212 degrees. I was then, and am now, fairly ignorant about the human body; I figured I was safe. What I did not know was that this was brain damage territory.


A nurse ten years my senior rolled a wet washcloth at the base of my skull and talked with me. She asked if I knew where I was and what was happening. She asked how I felt and only one word would do, HOT. As I relaxed into the rhythm of questions and cooling a wave of nausea interrupted the calm, but after a few dry heaves I actually felt quite better. With eyes closed I calmly listened to the many doctors and nurses ministering to me.


After a while someone said, "It's not supposed to do that." To this day I do not rightly know what this was about, but at the time I gathered it had something to do with my heart. Before this moment the gravity of the situation had not occurred to me, that this might be my end. Momentary sadness gave way to wonder about what was to come and the knowledge that these last thoughts might remain hidden from here to eternity, whether there were nothing or life beyond. Anticipation of absolute peace must have shown on my face because someone asked what I was doing. "Thinking about God.", I said, which brought the immediate response "STOP that!", but I didn't.


The reverie continued. Although my thoughts were a bit confused and my body did not feel normal, it all seemed natural for the process of dying. An unexpected quietness came: no sounds, no thoughts, no movement. Then I opened my eyes to see a red-headed young woman to my left. She lifted her eyelids wide like looking at a baby, so I did the same. In a sultry way she narrowed her eyes and smiled; I returned the look.


And in an instant I sat up and flung my legs over the bedside, preparing to hop off. The young woman asked where I was going. "Home", I replied, repeating what a voice in my head had just said. I thought it a bit odd that my transition to death meant I had to walk out of the hospital on my own, but at the same time it felt right and natural. She stopped my journey with a hand on my chest and asked again. "I'm going home", I said at the behest of the voice in my head, to which it added "I've already heard this story before." The inexorable guide in my head led to inexplicable words that seemed normal as I passed from this life into the beyond. Fixing my gaze deep into her eyes I said, "I want to fuck you." Turning to the person beside her I emphasized, "I want to FUCK her!", then pointed to the others in line, "You're a captain! You're a Major! You're a GENERAL!" Crossing into death could now commence in earnest.


Again my thoughts turned to existing in eternity with the knowledge that if it was something rather than nothing it would be greater than I could ever imagine. So I did not try. Instead, memories of this life flashed in clichéd reverse: running in Misawa Japan, dating my fiancée, outings with high school friends, and playing on the Girl Scout camp that was home. A dull ache in my left shoulder interrupted this replay. Could this pain be part of my eternity? How could I bear anything less than perfect comfort forever? Quite easily I rested on the knowledge that I did not know, but I was going to find out. Life in rewind resumed with me as a toddler playing tug of war over a t-shirt with my father, and then the memories were a jumble that I attributed to being too young for them to have formed.


Now that the regression through life to dying was done I opened my eyes. Astonished, I was looking at a male Army nurse to my right. Army memories were at the end of my life, but the review was complete to the beginning and this man was out of place. No matter how oddly natural the transition was in my head, his presence was disquieting. Even more upsetting was sight of a male doctor who pushed him aside and asked rapid-fire questions: "What's your name? … What day is it? … Do you know where you are? … Do you know what happened?" Confusion reigned and I did not answer. Then a terrible question came — could it be that the transition was not just in my head? Slowly shifting my head left I saw a young woman with red hair staring down at me, then looked to the doctor on my right and asked a question of my own, "Did I really say that to her?" His answer dashed my death journey against the rocks of my rudeness; "It's the best offer she's had all morning." Even now the shame I felt is as acute as it was then when I turned again to her, trembling out "I'm sorry." Like an angel of forgiveness she hugged me and said it was all right.


As she leaned against me I became aware of a pain in my shoulder, and noticed the left arm behind my head at an odd angle. Around my left wrist was a green cloth fastening me to the bed rail. This was the cause of the ache I was to bear into death. By visual inspection and attempts to move I noted restraints on my waist and each leg, but my right hand was free. Around that wrist was tied the same sort of green cloth. Later they told me that I kept yanking my hand away so that it could not be tied to the bed. Another piece of the dying story fell into place — playing tug of war in my head was likely the battle for this restraint in real life.


I was glad to be alive and allowed myself to relax. Almost immediately I started shaking uncontrollably and felt cold, which was quite a swing after being so hot. The red-headed nurse told me that I was going into shock and assured me that all would be well. Where bare skin had been was covered with blankets. Soon I was stable enough to transfer to the intensive care unit. From mid-morning to late afternoon medical teams congregated, in part to assess my health but also to determine factors leading to the heatstroke. "No, I didn't drink. Yes, I got a full night's sleep. No, I didn't take drugs. No, I don't smoke. Yes, I was accustomed to running several miles." Without any complicating factors on which to hang some doubt, and maybe blame, their finding was that I was not acclimated to the heat and I did not quit.


In the evening a woman with hair below her waist walked through the door of the open ward and walked straight to the observation station. I did not think too much about it until she started walking to my bed, and then I made the connection because that hair was red. Renewed apologies spilled from my heart and were met by her graciousness. She explained that this was part of her two week reserve training and learned quite a bit from our experience that morning. Kindness and compassion shone from her manner, so I asked her more of the story. Apparently I became combative after the proposition to her, swinging punches and thrashing about, which is why I was tied down. She was not offended because the medical staff explained it all as an effect of delirium. However, she recounted, it did affect her more than she knew because a few hours later she was taking the blood pressure of another soldier who winked at her — she dropped the cuff and walked away shaken. I apologized again, and again her assurances put me at ease for her sake. There would be at least one lingering result according to the other staff; for the rest of her time on reserve duty they would call her the prettiest red-headed angel they had seen. She left and I never saw her again, but her care and mercy remain in my memory.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

It Cost More Than a Fiancee

"Can I put your name down to help with Friday's bake sale Private Burt?", the Master Sergeant asked. I said no, and consequences of that answer continue to affect my life to this day.

A Dear John letter two weeks before began a series of long workdays with no days off, coming early to the swing shift and staying late. I did not seek solace in work, but rather intellectual exhaustion. I would leave when my mind was clear to concentrate on emotional functions and simple considerations about the complex landscape of love, especially unrequited love. I wandered Misawa Air Base in the wee hours of the morning for solitude. Dawn usually failed to shine light on the problem, so I would lay aside thinking and lay down my body for a few hours of sleep.

After about two weeks I made a decision to work through the next break and subsequent work days. The first day of the work schedule began on a Friday. To signal the beginning of the end of this self-imposed grind I decided to spend that upcoming Friday morning on the shore of Lake Ogawara searching for washed up treasures such as driftwood and polished stone.

Two days before that planned lake hike I was working during the day shift, sitting in civilian clothes at an 80-column keypunch mindlessly creating database cards. Two Staff Sergeants in my group were working at their desks when the Master Sergeant in charge of Operations walked over. For those unfamiliar with the rank structure for enlisted folks, I was a Private First Class (E-3) with about 18 months of experience, the Staff Sergeants (E-6) had roughly 10 years in, and the Master Sergeant (E-8) had nearly 20 years of service. An E-9 is the highest enlisted rank, so a Master Sergeant is high in the chain of command. The difference between an E-3 (me) and E-8 (him) was almost the entire span of a standard career, so for several reasons the Master Sergeant's position and rank deserved respect.

He turned first to the others in my group (who worked on day shift) and asked if they would mind working a bake sale on Friday morning. He indicated that he already had enough volunteers but he wanted to have them available just in case. They agreed. He then turned to me (who worked the evening shift) and asked if he could put my name down for the bake sale. I said no. He paused, then asked why not. I said that I was going to be on the beach looking for driftwood. My co-workers were telling me with their hands and eyes to wave off and just say yes. Steel set the Master Sergeant's jaw and gravel ground in his voice as he said, "I could order you to be there." I simply responded that if he ordered me then I would work, but he had offered me a choice and I chose to continue with my plans.

Throughout I was respectful and non-combative. And I knew it did not matter. Even after being there less than two months it was apparent that this particular person was political, expecting to be surrounded by yes men. Agreeing to be a backup for the bake sale would have kept me from trouble. Indeed, as a backup I might even not have to attend the sale. All these thoughts flooded my mind when he asked his original question, and I chose simplicity itself by offering a straightforward answer. And I knew it did not matter, or rather, I knew it would matter to him because he would likely take it as an affront to his authority.

On the Friday after this exchange I arrived at work in the early afternoon to begin the swing shift, and my mentor --- one of the Staff Sergeant's present on that day --- informed me that I was to start working the day shift on Monday. When asked why he said that the Master Sergeant thought I was a trouble maker and wanted to catch me in the act. It was also clear that this change was in direct response to my no. I was unconcerned and thrived on the opportunities afforded during the day shift. It was clear that I was under scrutiny by the Master Sergeant, but that burden was his; I stayed light and transparent. After one month my mentor asked if I wanted to go back up on the evening shift. I told him I would be delighted but that I was curious about the change since the Master Sergeant had not caught me making trouble yet. The answer, given in hushed tones, was that I was making the day shift look bad. I was naive enough to be completely shocked because I had only done my job with vigor. No matter, I would go back to the relative solitude of the swing shift thinking --- again, very naively --- that the consequences of daring to say no had been meted out and checked off.

Almost immediately I began to see effects of the Master Sergeant's political character and others with a like mind. I had been recommended for promotion within the first weeks of arriving, but the Army was currently limiting advancement to E-4 so I had to wait, along with tens of other soldiers who had also been recommended. Several weeks after the original punishment on the day shift, all the other E-3s were suddenly E-4s. The Army had opened the floodgates that month and all E-3s who were already recommended for promotion got it. Trying to understand why I had not heard of this, I surmised --- again, oh so blessedly naive and idealistic --- that the chain of command had not gotten a chance to communicate with me. When I went to work that afternoon I waited patiently, but when no word came I asked about it since I had met all the criteria for promotion. My mentor had no answer then, but a few days later he reported that I would not be promoted in this wave because my recommendation had been held up by the Master Sergeant. That cost me several months of pay and seniority.

More consequences were in store. For instance, I was passed over again for promotion. However, it was my request for an extension to stay in Japan that plumbed the depths of office politics. Extensions were almost automatic, but even so I submitted my paperwork as soon as I was eligible. Weeks went by without any word. Inquiries at headquarters were brushed off with variants of "don't bother us; we are working on it". Months later I received orders that when my tour in Japan was done I would go to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Far from working on my extension, they had buried it and lied to me. Now that I had different orders, they were almost smug as they shrugged off their inaction. I sought an audience with the commander and executive officer through the chain of command and heard advice not to proceed because the extension stall was deliberate and political; I would not win. Winning, however, was not my only objective. Drawing out a frank discussion was the primary aim, but even that did not happen.

I lost the battle and their war. Although the executive officer stated that he would see if I could be extended, when I took emergency leave in the month before my tour ended I was told to stay in the states. Specifically, go to North Carolina. I had been forced to leave all I owned in the world save a few clothes in a duffel bag. I left behind a car, good friends, a great job, a wonderful environment, travel, and a new fiancée. I never saw the friends again or traveled in Japan. The job in Fort Bragg was an order of magnitude less fulfilling. I gave the car to my fiancée, but a little over a year later I had lost her forever as well.

All this because I stood against false loyalty and futile politics.

I lost their war but I gained much more. I suffered and there is no dismissing the losses as unimportant, yet the lesson was powerful and welcome. That "No" to the Master Sergeant set in motion a series of events where I bore a cost which purchased a life that treasures truth as an end unto itself, a shield of protection, a source of inspiration, and the basis for meaningful, fruitful relationships.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Making Something Out of Nothing

On my first day as an engineer's assistant at Ohio State University's Van de Graaff accelerator lab the chief engineer had nothing for me to do. She took me to the electrical engineer who also had nothing for me to do. The only other possibility was the machinist who, not surprisingly, had nothing for me to do. However, the grime and metal remains of the machine shop caught his eye so he said I could clean the machines. I brushed the curlicued metal from the surface of a lathe, and flossed its crevices for stubborn shavings that had not seen light for years. After multiple towel wipe downs even the dull gray paint seemed to sparkle. A quick sweep of the shop floor ended that shift.

The next day replayed the same story: nothing from the chief engineer or electrical engineer or machinist, but other machines were dirty. So I repeated the hygiene on another hunk of hardware, swept, and left. Day three played much the same way, but all the machines had been cleaned by day's end. Since it was likely that neither the engineers nor machinist had time to give, I went straight to the shop on the following day. I told the machinist that I would start cleaning and organizing the rest of the shop. Scrap and supplies from decades of creation by the machinist and graduate students were at best loosely grouped and at worst tangled in heaps or strewn about the shelves.

For days I reduced the entropy of that room, bringing order from disorder. I separated metal from wood. I discarded bottles both empty and old. I partitioned metal by types: aluminum, copper, brass, steel of many sorts. I arranged chemicals together as appropriate, and sometimes apart as appropriate. Tools and fasteners and forms and protectants were all objects of my organizational whirlwind. And each day, I swept.

At the end of two weeks the machinist asked why I, an undergraduate physicist in training and engineer's assistant by title, cleaned without complaint. I answered, "Soon there won't be anything left and you'll have to teach me something." He may or may not have smiled, but I do know that he said something to the effect, "Starting next week, I'm going to show you how to use the machines." I am sure I smiled. He taught me how to do precision work on the machines. He showed me how to read drawings and understand design principles. He had me make parts for experiments. He instructed me about the strengths and weaknesses of different materials, and their suitability in different situations.

In time I did get to work with the chief engineer on several interesting projects. I learned about medium energy physics from the graduate students. I saw the magic of electronics from the electrical engineer and his crew. I successfully designed, built, and installed a vacuum bypass system from scratch, thanks to the tutelage and kindness of the machinist. I saw and experienced the joy of creation and learning.

And each day, I swept.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Astronauts in a Camper and the Blizzard of 78


Moon germs were the reason astronauts stayed in a camper for weeks. My father explained that
quarantine was a way to keep the germs from spreading, if there were any.  All tests from other
lunar missions were negative for life of any kind so we probably did not have to worry about the
astronauts or us getting a disease. Still, NASA took precautions.

One part of me felt sorry for the space crew because they would be away from their families and
friends for three weeks.  The sadness only deepened when my father told me that one of the times before they had missed Thanksgiving. The larger part of me was excited for them because they had ventured where so few had gone, even at the risk of an unknown contagion.

A few years later I heard about something called the Venus disease and was both frightened and intrigued.  Sickness was never desirable, but if travel to another planet was required then only astronauts could get it which was just one more way they were special. Of course, the quarantine camper would be used when they returned from such a new place. All lunar astronauts had emerged from quarantine back to their world, however with a disease already named I worried that travelers to Venus might not get the same happy ending. If they were sick, would we leave them in quarantine forever?  Could we find a cure for something so rare? What kind of a life would they have trapped in such small space?  Might the sickness be mild rather than severe? Would it be better to let them leave but take the risk that non-astronauts contracted the disease? My young mind was a tumult of concern and confusion.

To begin sorting it out I asked my father what the Venus disease was. He did not know. I described what little I knew and how I had heard of it, but he was still in the dark.  I resolved to show him the source of information, so the next time he was near and it appeared on the television I called him over.  At the end he knew what I was talking about, and even understood more because he said something to the effect that I did not want that sickness. It was a destructive disease that did indeed spread, but was not unique to astronauts.  And, it was called venereal disease or VD.

To this day I do not know if the commercial actually said "Venus" or if I simply twisted venereal into a word I knew.  They might have said Venus, as in the goddess of love, which makes sense of his answer to my next question, but only in retrospect.  I asked how would I get venereal disease and his reply was simple --- by sleeping with a girl. Grateful to my dad for helping me learn, but a little uneasy, we finished the conversation and went our ways.

Even though my brother Jon has passed away I must apologize to him. My ignorance borne of innocence, combined with a certain dread, led me to put him in harm's way. In 1978 a blizzard hit western Ohio. My parents planned for the possibility that we would be without power, so they closed off the living room so that heat from the wood-burning fireplace would be contained and keep us warm.  The problem came that first night.  All six of us were to sleep in a row in front of the fireplace.  I seem to recall that my father would be at one end with my mother and my younger brother between.  This left me, my sister Betsy, and my middle brother Jon. I was not proud of what I did next then, but I laugh at myself today.  I made Jon take the spot next to Betsy because I did not want to get VD by sleeping with a girl.  I figured that one person between while we slumbered would be enough to ward off the Venus germs.  Sure it meant that Jon might get sick, but he always got away with stuff so maybe he was safe.  The next morning no one was sick and I breathed a sigh of relief.

I have never gotten venereal disease, but I still hope that we explore space in a way that something like my original, innocent conception of the Venus disease is a real consideration.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Bird Navigation Systems

That bird behind us would fly no more, but I would spend years trying to help future birds not end in a heap on the road.

Around the age of ten I was riding with my father through the countryside of western Ohio, gently rolling crop land on each side.  In this great volume of free space a single bird thumped our windshield.  Through the rear window I watched its final flight powered by inertia from the collision and guided by gravity to the ground.  The wind made its wing flutter farewell.

In dismay I turned to my father.  I probably asked why he had hit it, because questioning the motives of a bird would not even cross my mind.  He understood the spirit of my inquiry, placing the blame on neither him nor the departed creature, and said simply that the bird had lost its bearings.

I was confused by this answer but it had a certain ring of truth that my young mind began to process. While it seemed clear that animals would not choose such an end, if their mechanism for navigation were broken then accidents like this would happen often.  Maybe there was some way to fix this failing.

First, I had to find the bearings.  More specifically, I had to find the balls that must have escaped from the mechanical bearing rings behind the bird's eyes. Through my father or uncle or neighbor I knew that bearings often failed due to damage or loss of these little spheres. When my father said the bird had lost its bearings, it seemed obvious that he meant the balls had fallen out of the bird's head.  I wondered if they would be shiny like metal, but there was no question that they would be tiny.  I figured there would be two rings, one for each eye, and several spheres within each.  Given the size of a bird's head this meant that the ball bearings would be very small and hard to find.

I searched the ground for bird bearings and considered how to use them to reorient the birds.  I never came up with a solution short of surgery, because pushing the tiny balls back in past their eyes would probably not re-seat them properly in the rings for navigation. Of course, other problems loomed even earlier such as how to identify a bird that needed new bearings. And there was the fact that I did not find a single bearing in the woods or anywhere outside.  Seeing flocks over fields gave me the sense that such concentrations might mean a greater chance that bird bearings might be found there. Even more might be in these fields, having accumulated from years of migration over grain-rich land. Waiting for spring I walked on neighboring farms after the plows had brought aged soil to the surface.

Pride in my hypothesis turned to disappointment, for never did the glint of a bird bearing against a dark loam background catch my eye.  Almost too many years later to admit I discovered the much simpler hypothesis that birds do not have physical bearings that fall from their head causing them to slam into moving silica.  The longer lesson was that my understanding of the world and words could be wrong but correctable.  And the best lesson was that thinking about nature while walking in fields and woods is a good way to spend part of life, even if I do not find what I am looking for.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Building My Vocabulary One Mishap at a Time

I recall an elementary school teacher who set aside some time at the end of
each week to highlight one student in the class.  The main activity had the
student perched in front while each of their classmates gave a short,
usually one word, description of the person.  I wish I'd have known about
statistics because experiments would have revealed certain trends that my
memory reproduces only in part. The main feature was that every week the
same words were applied --- nice, funny, cute, friendly, kind, happy, cool
--- along with  simple synonyms for the same sentiment.  Early on some wag
added supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and it stuck around for a few cycles
until the teacher recommended against it.

I cannot recall who made the observation regarding the limited word choice
or who made the suggestion to build our vocabulary, but when I tell this
story I credit Curt M.  Poring over the dictionary to find great
words for the weekly encouragement ritual was actually fun, but not as
fruitful as I expected. Certainly there was never a shortage of words that
were unfamiliar or used unexpected letter combinations or were just plain
long.  The problem was that they were from fields of study that just did
not apply; calling someone zygomorphic or a crossopterygian may sound neat
but is meaningless.

Curt and I shared our discoveries, until one day I found a word that
met most of my criteria; it was descriptive and reasonably short, had an
interesting sound and unexpected letter combination, and best of all was
obscure.  Its main drawback was its slightly unkind meaning.  I was not
wont to cruelty in any measure, but I desperately wanted to use this
new-found word and I thought that Curt would appreciate the back story if I
used it on his day, and especially how it avoided censorship --- security
through obscurity.

When he sat in front of the class the normal adjectives sprang from the
minds and mouths of my classmates while I sat with bated breath to release
this rare bird of a word into the room and onto the blackboard.  Apologetic
for the minor slight I was about to pronounce on my friend, but bolstered
by enthusiasm for the word itself, I enunciated and emphasized each
syllable slowly:
Curt is ... me-di-O-cre.
Filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment I sat with a smirk, for
less than half a second before the teacher said to use a different
adjective.  Apparently that word was not off in the corners, and this
teacher knew that I had just described Curt having only moderate ability.
Now I was doubly-mortified, because the teacher understood that I had just
put someone down and he had understood the word that I had thought was
nearly impenetrable by the censor.

To that day I attribute two lessons and several resolutions.  While I do
not recall holding the teacher in low regard for his intellect I certainly
learned that it is easy to underestimate others.  Almost as a corollary, I
learned that without context and a base of understanding it is easy to
overestimate one's own knowledge and ability.  I look back on that event as
one of my earliest memories for a desire to deeply learn and appreciate the
English language.  I also recognize it as a starting point to be more
objective about the abilities of others, and especially to expect that
others will often know more than me and that if I am open I might learn
from them.  In general, I also attach this incident to others like it that
make clear that kindness is better than cruelty.  In particular, I wish
that I had found and used a better word for Curt like affable or
perspicacious.

Years of continued learning in language and science and life make clear
that in the end, it is high praise to be described as kind, friendly, and
wise. They may be simple words, but they tell a deep story of a person's
positive impact on the world.