Tag Archives: blogs by niu alumni

tool idiot

You Can’t Fix A Tool Idiot.

By: Chris Warren

Everyone knows a tool idiot, or perhaps are one themselves. I don’t intend the term to be as disrespectful as it sounds. A tool idiot is a wannabe do-it-yourselfer who either grossly overestimates his or her ability to do a job, uses the wrong tools for the task, or has the right tools but does not have any skill using them. Tool idiots deserve credit for at least trying, but in many cases might have been better off not trying.

One recent hot summer morning I noticed the neighbor up the road cutting a tree down. He was clearly having difficulty, which is to be expected when one tries to cut down an entire full sized tree with a small electric saw. I gave a fleeting thought to going over there to help him, but hey, my own to-do list is already longer than the weekend. I also know that property is a rental so I wasn’t interested in working at someone else’s house for free while the landlord collects a rent check every month.

Late the next day I was driving by again and the same guy is hacking on the same tree, and most of it is still upright. My misgivings about providing free labor notwithstanding, I couldn’t take watching him struggle any more. I told him I would run home, change into work clothes and come back with the equipment needed to end his long, hot, miserable weekend of fruitless toil.

Within an hour of my return that tree was down and carved up into pieces small enough to carry. As I was leaving him on his own to clear the substantial mess, I was too polite to mention that for fifty bucks he could have rented a gas chainsaw and saved himself a day and a half of sweating his ass off while getting very little done.

He was both surprised and grateful at how quickly it all happened once the right knowledge and proper tools were applied to the task. Maybe it was divine intervention that he didn’t rent a gas chainsaw because I’m pretty sure he would have ripped a limb off with it, and I’m not referring to the tree. My floundering neighbor is a classic example a tool idiot: Well-intentioned, but hapless.

My dad is the exact opposite of a tool idiot. He owns, has owned, or has used pretty much every tool ever invented. He is the consummate handyman. From attic vents to sump pumps and everything in between, he has always done his own home repairs. Dad can pour cement, wire electric outlets, unclog drains, lay carpet & tile, put up fences, and tear down walls. He’s done several major renovations. He works on cars. Dad not only does it all, he does it with amazing skill. Even the stuff he screws up comes out twice as good as what the average person could pull off.

Guys like my dad are very hard to find now. The days of having do-it-yourself pride has been transplanted with a generation of tool idiots and a false belief that anyone can do it with no experience, no skill, and barely any effort. It’s a naiveté borne by television shows where some dude guts & remodels a whole house without even getting dirty.

People who barely know how to turn a screwdriver and whose garages are devoid of any sign of a homeowner with technical skills will spend a weekend watching HGTV and decide that’s all the “vocational training” they need to be master of all trades. Back in my dad’s time there were very few tool idiots. It was expected that most guys did their own fixes & upgrades because life wasn’t as simple as looking up a contractor on your smartphone and having them appear at your door within a few hours.

I’m not anywhere near my dad’s level, but I have a comprehensive collection of tools and can competently handle most homeowner issues myself. When I get stuck, I call my dad. He always knows what to do, and what not to do. When I look at a someone else’s project and I think to myself, my father would never do it that way,  I feel validated knowing that my daddy didn’t raise a tool idiot.

 

right now

The Rule of Right Now.

By: Chris Warren

This summer there has been so many natural and man made calamities that I’ve become desensitized and hardly notice them anymore. There is no way to completely avoid being a victim, but there are plenty of ways the average person can, right now, decrease the odds of being involved in a tragedy and increase the odds of living through it if they are.

I call it the Rule of Right Now and here’s how it works: Wherever you are physically located while reading this, stop for a moment and look around you. Ask yourself: What is the most likely emergency/disaster event that could happen to me? And what is my plan if it happens right now? The Rule of Right Now states that we should train ourselves to always be aware of what could happen and have some kind of plan for dealing with it.

If you are at home in a safe neighborhood, coming up with a scenario may be difficult. That is the exact it can’t happen here complacency that makes victims unwitting participants in their own misfortune. Getting your head into right now requires some practice, and if you feel uncomfortable with the process, then you’re probably on the correct path.

The biggest barrier to being ready is denial. Denial creates at least as many victims as the tragedy itself.

The Rule of Right Now is universal. It goes beyond acute personal emergencies (such as a fire breaking out in your house) to very serious, widespread disasters that can effect an entire region or country (such as an economic crash). The biggest barrier to being ready is denial. Denial creates at least as many victims as the tragedy itself. A majority of people do not put even the smallest thought into what they would do if something horrible happened because they refuse to accept that anything horrible can happen in the first place.

It’s important to understand that the Rule of Right Now should not be interpreted as an endorsement for paranoia or an expectation that we should obsess over every conceivable disaster. Paranoia is a barrier, a distraction, to preparedness. It’s not sensible to be concerned with way out there scenarios that have a cosmically low probability of happening at the expense of ignoring obvious hazards. I personally know people who are think they are bad ass survivalists prepared for a Mad Max style societal collapse but do not have a functional spare tire in their car!

Every single time I board an airplane I memorize how many rows away and how many seats over the nearest two emergency exits are from where I am sitting. It’s not enough to glance at a card or look around the cabin and passively think, oh yeah, it’s over there, with no thought as to how I would find it if I could not see it. I also take notice of who is sitting between me and the exits. Even if completely blinded by smoke or darkness or injury, I will greatly improve my chances of escape by “counting” my way to an exit. That is how the Rule of Right Now is supposed to work. It does not require deep thought or intense training. It’s about having a thoughtful, controlled, predetermined response to plausible incidents.

Situational awareness is the act of knowing who and what is around you at all times. The Rule of Right Now goes a step further: You also have to contemplate what could happen and how to react to it. In my airplane example, I come up with a clear plan to get to the exit, as opposed to having only a generic awareness of where the exit is and calling it good enough.

Being prepared for disaster does not have to involve stockpiling guns and freeze dried food (although I strongly recommend doing exactly that if you are able). It also means paying attention and having a plan at all times. It means not having one’s head in the sand, nor consuming oneself with an unlikely future while overlooking the very real possibilities of today. Before anyone sees next time, they must first find a way to get through Right Now.

A Master’s Long Journey On A Trail Of Failure.

By: Chris Warren.

If failure builds skill, then I should be an expert at a ton of stuff. The problem with this theory is that failure doesn’t by default make someone better. You have to want to be better, evaluate your shortcomings, and find a way to do it differently next time. Then go and actually do it. Failure is an effective teacher only when the student doesn’t stop trying.

Regular readers of my blog know that I am an very devoted amateur radio hobbyist and work professionally in the communications electronics field. I’ve spent this summer doing a lot of upgrades to my equipment and more than once I’ve been made painfully aware that for all the skill and expertise I’ve collected over many years of working on electronics as both a hobbyist and a professional, there is always something new tripping me up. Even more humbling is when I make mistakes performing easy tasks that I’ve successfully done before with barely a thought but at the moment cannot seem to grasp.

Someone who is admired and respected for their skill in a particular area make it look so easy, yet behind every flawless performance lies thousands of mistakes no one ever sees. Olympic athletes spend years falling down, missing the shot, not making their time, pushing through injury and illness. They take it all in and do better next time, until “next time” is the one single now-or-never Olympic event that is the denouement of their life’s effort.

On a far less Olympian but equally meaningful plane, there are everyday folks working as carpenters, auto mechanics, electricians, musicians, and teachers who are experts in their field and work largely unnoticed. After all, they don’t give gold medals for being the best accountant. The work may not be glamorous but it is important; the world runs better because these people did not quit the first time they failed at what they are now masters of.

failure

Every now and then I am invited to give a public talk about the technical aspects of solar energy and how it can be applied to everyday life. I always bring along some of my equipment for a live demonstration of how it all works. My solar power station attracts a lot of interest and many flattering compliments. The system is a point of pride for me because I designed and built everything myself from the ground up. I want all my electronic projects to say, “the person who made this is a highly skilled craftsman who cares about his work”.  A master does not brag about how good he is. He lets his results speak for him.

What the audience does not see behind me is is the decades-long trail of failure littered with burned out components, incorrectly wired circuits, blown fuses, ruined electrical connectors, a discharged fire extinguisher used on one of my alleged brilliant ideas, and spending hundreds of evenings and weekends in a college engineering lab doing it over and over and over until I had it right. I’m no genius. Usually I was the last to leave the lab because I was the slowest to figure it out. But I did figure it out.

For those who are driven to be accomplished at something, failure to keep trying is worse than failure at the task itself. Nobody wins all of the time. Show me someone who claims to have never been a failure and I’ll show you someone who has also never succeeded, or is a liar. The world rightly places a high value on success and winning, yet there is little talk of all the failure and pain and sacrifice that is the unavoidable price of being a master.

We live in a society that wants reward without risk, recognition without sacrifice, and no hurt feelings. The reality of life is indifferent to what society wants, or perceives as success, or how artificially low the bar is set to create as many winners as possible: Everyone knows which kids showed up early for practice every time, gave it all they had, and really earned the trophy, and which kids just can’t cut it and are being pandered to for the sake of appearances. Whether it’s winning an Olympic gold medal, beautifully playing a musical instrument, or expertly troubleshooting a complex electronic circuit, the hand of the master is guided by wisdom gained from the humiliation of uncountable failure.

greatness

This Land Is My Land

By: Chris Warren

Maybe it’s the wide open skies, or the view that goes for endless miles, but I get a sense of freedom being out in the country. The sweetest moments are when I cannot see any man made object, not even a jet trail in the sky, or hear any man made noise. I marvel at it all and hear a voice that says “God exists.” It’s a complete peace, a greatness, that no city or human-based creation can replicate.

The other day I was on a road trip that took me through north central Illinois. I’ve made this trip dozens of times before and I never find myself in a state of bored repetitiveness. Sitting on the tailgate of my truck sipping a cold soda I had a perfect view of cornfields meeting a clear blue sky that literally stretched as far as I could see. As if on cue, a bird started singing. I look over my shoulder to spot a cardinal (which is the state bird of Illinois, by the way). It was greatness in the voice of a little bird.

Any place that you can hear only natural sounds is a good place. My own backyard qualifies, most of the time, depending on which way the wind is blowing and how busy the railroad is. When I visit the big city, the thing I notice the most is the noise. In the city there is never a moment when I cannot hear some form of man made noise.

greatness
Driver’s seat view from my pickup truck rolling through northern Illinois, July 21, 2015

I first came to appreciate the greatness of the natural world years ago when I discovered motorcycles. I was looking for a place to rip through turns and charge up hills and run free for hours without the inconvenience of traffic congestion. Not being encapsulated in a car meant I could smell the trees and the muddy rivers, and yes even the cows. I could feel the subtle temperature changes when I rolled through a shaded grove. I found myself purposely stopping in the middle of nowhere and shutting the engine off just to meditate on the greatness of nature without man’s interference.

Nature taught me about its majesty by tempting me to stop and pay attention to it, which is actually not very hard when the man made distractions are gone. From the fields and birds mere feet away to the wind and lightning and stars and the planets in the night sky, nature has much to tell. Through some cosmic twist of irony, the natural world says the most about itself during the quietest moments. For all the greatness of the earth I’ve been lucky enough to see for myself, there is so much more out there I have not seen. Spending a few hours zipping through the Midwest is cool for what it is, but the United States also has mountains and valleys and oceans, all of which have their own unique lessons to teach.

A few years ago I went on another road trip to visit a friend in Florida, and that of course means hitting the beach! He did not take me to the touristy beach where there are so many people and blankets that you can barely see the sand; he instead took me to the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Most of the place is not accessible by car. We trudged for over half an hour, through the sand and Florida heat, dragging our stuff with us. We plopped down in a spot where we could not see a single person both ways up the shore. But for some tall buildings in the distance and the occasional boat going by, I could have been fooled into thinking we were shipwrecked on an island. We brought our iPhones to play some music, but we never used them. The sound of the waves gently rolling in and the caw of the gulls was too perfect to be marred by digital cacophony.

Most people live in or near a large city, and while there is nothing wrong with that, the city makes it too easy to become detached from what the world would be like if humans were not constantly messing with it. I like convenient shopping and quick pizza delivery as much as anyone, but being away from it does a lot for me too. The country is nature’s way of saying it does not need tall buildings and impressive boulevards to achieve greatness. It gives me a feeling of appreciation for God’s wonder, the perfect plan of His creation, and patriotism for a mighty nation that has given me more than what can be contained within its vast borders. The land stretches out before me for more miles than my truck will ever reach and speaks of His greatness without using a single word.

forgiveness

Charge It To The Forgiveness Card.

By: Chris Warren.

Every day, often more than once, there is a celebrity, politician, or large corporation making a public apology for something or another. Some of these pleas for absolution are sincerely offered for genuine slights, others are purely for appearances. On an interpersonal level, there are two sides to everything, and the other side of “I’m sorry” is “I forgive you.” Sometimes forgiveness is given as a one-way sentiment when the offending party is not the least bit sorry and is not asking to be forgiven. No matter which way we work this, it’s a lot easier to offer an apology than it is to respond with forgiveness.

Being sorry (usually) carries no price tag other than an implication that the offensive behavior will not be repeated in the future. Forgiveness requires a much larger investment of faith. When we forgive someone, we are basically extending them credit. We are trusting them not to do whatever it is they did that incited  the apology in the first place.

When all is right in the world, forgiveness is given and received in equal amounts. We subconsciously do a little emotional accounting to decide if the offender has enough “credit” to warrant forgiveness. A frustrated parent is not likely to believe any recycled assurances to be on time, next time, when a teenager is caught sneaking into the house late at night after promising many times before to be in by curfew. Meanwhile, the typically punctual kid who slips up once in a while will probably get a pass. A fair person will also take into account their own previous misdeeds: It’s easier to be lenient with others when if you can admit you’re less than perfect yourself.

One of the biggest fallacies about the apology-forgiveness transaction the presumption that the damage is fixed and everything can return to normal. Forgiveness in itself does not really “fix” anything. All it means is the someone has let go of their anger. Some damage cannot be fixed. Compensation, when it’s possible, is at the discretion of the forgiver.

It’s a tiresome but truthful maxim that love is what makes relationships work. Yet no one ever talks about how forgiveness is what makes love work. Every relationship is going to have moments when each side commits some kind of violation against the other. There are only two solutions: Extend forgiveness and move on, or don’t forgive them. Both options may or may not include ending the relationship. Withholding forgiveness but staying in the relationship anyway is a dead end conclusion that assumes living in resentment and mutual disrespect is a legitimate path.

The whole point of my mental hopscotch here is that love cannot exist without forgiveness, and vice-versa. By the way, this concept is a basic tenet of several major world religions, including Christianity. It’s not that difficult to grasp. Apology-forgiveness recognizes that we are all imperfectly human. It recognizes that you can’t be indefinitely angry at someone while at the same time claiming to love them. Forgiveness gives both wrongdoers and the wronged at a path out of their respective dilemmas, even if it’s only a partial path. Forgiveness does not promise a perfect outcome, nor is it an assurance that “everything will be the same,” nor that all damages will be undone.

There are uncountable books and television shows and websites dedicated to the pop psychology of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise but very few dedicated to forgiveness. Forgiveness is the neglected stepchild of human emotions. A truly wise and loving person kindly gives others a forgiveness credit limit equal to what they expect for themselves. No one wants to be placed in a position to forgive but everyone wants to receive it. Forgiveness exists because it has to.

tomorrow

Set Yourself Up For Tomorrow, Today.

By: Chris Warren.

I consider myself an average person with average problems. Some days are great, most are good, and thankfully only a few are miserable. No matter what goes down in my fairly busy life, there is always one constant: Tomorrow will be another chance to try again.

Everyone has had a bad day but no one has ever had a bad tomorrow. And that is the beauty of a new day. Much pithy wisdom has been produced about tomorrow. In truth, it’s a complete unknown and nobody really knows what it will be filled with. When I wake up in the morning, all I know for sure is I’m not dead. Everything after that is an upgrade. When tomorrow becomes now, I owe it to myself and everyone around me to make the best of it.

When I wake up in the morning, all I know for sure is I’m not dead. Everything after that is an upgrade.

Years ago my parents had a neighbor who had a very well paying job, a nice house, and a circle of good natured friends. He was affable and got along with everyone. Then he abruptly quit his job and started avoiding people. He spent most of his days sitting alone in his yard smoking and drinking beer. He neglected his property. His friends stopped coming around. He would do passive-aggressive things to irritate the neighbors such as leave the radio playing loudly out an open window while he was gone all afternoon; this behavior escalated to the point that the police got involved. What was this dude’s problem? Alcoholism? Mental illness? Just stopped giving a damn? He sold his house and was last seen leaving town in a junky old truck pulling a small travel trailer. I’m guessing whatever he’s doing now, assuming he’s even still alive, involves a lot of beer and cigarettes.

I never woke up in a worse mood than when I went to bed the night before. Part of the appeal of tomorrow is that you have to sleep a little before you get there, and the physiological effect of rest goes a long way in recalibrating our psyches. Setting yourself up for a positive day means deciding that the hours that lay before you are a choice. It’s true that we usually don’t have complete control over what we do with those hours, but we do have control over how to react to them.

Attitudes are a lot easier to control than situations. If you decide now that tomorrow will suck, then there is a 100% chance that it will. At some point my parents’ neighbor decided that it was easier to accept a mediocre today than put any effort into a better tomorrow. I believe he was neither mentally ill nor an alcoholic. There was nothing deep going on with this guy. He just was a bitter, pissed off, lazy old man who gave up on his tomorrow.

My best and closest friend has spent the last two years trying to get out of a demoralizing, low-paying job in a cable TV company call center: Applying for dozens of other positions, going on interviews, and chasing leads. All of it turned out to be dead ends. We talk at least a few times a week and during this whole time never once did I sense he was feeling sorry for himself or letting go of his confidence that there was something else out there, maybe tomorrow. Finally, he got a job offer that was better than expected! He starts next week. He never gave up on his tomorrow.

Every night before lights out, I pause for a moment and contemplate the previous day. What did I do right? What do I regret? What can I carry forward to make tomorrow better, and what bad habits need to go? What must I do to avoid becoming that bitter, pissed off, lazy old man? In the morning the cycle begins anew: When the future becomes now, the attitude we have in the reality of today will determine how we handle…tomorrow.