12 February 2009


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 13 February 2009

No politics this week—too many problems. To include tomorrow, Friday the 13th –being a problem for the superstitious. So, some fun commentary. Set your problems aside for a few minutes—enjoy—then get back to your problems. Alert: this week’s commentary posted twenty-four hours early to help prevent a problem—read on.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, pen name Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), authored “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland," "Through the Looking-Glass,” and “Jabberwocky” among his more famous works. He also wrote a catchy poem titled “Life is but a Dream.” Nice prose, Carroll, but in this world “Life is but a Problem”—you can quote me on that. And reality, for empirical support, is on my side.

Late last Friday afternoon I had a small-talk phone conversation with a guy who builds houses for a living. It was no surprise to hear times were tough—he sold only three homes in 2008. Three—all year! At one point a few years ago he was selling at least that many a month. Let the good times roll, baby. Back then all his problems, relatively speaking, were good. Today, he has only a few houses in escrow and he’s not confident, at all, any will close. Now his problems are not so good but he’s not looking for any bailout. His words, “I have a problem and I’ll figure it out.” “Yeah,” I agreed, “it sounds like a problem,” and I reminded him that he was not alone—America has a problem with many folks across our land with problems—and, though hard to believe, not all of them are economic. Winding down our conversation he said, “I’ve been around a good while (he’s in his mid-70’s) and have been in this construction business a long time. I’ve seen things slow down on occasion but never, ever anything like this. Andy, it’s a big problem.” He concluded by offering a bit of philosophy—“oh well, isn’t that what life is really all about—solving one problem after another.” “Yes, you just may be on to something there, Don, life is but a problem,” I responded, and then we hung up. I spent the better part of the evening thinking about his perspective and it actually awakened me early Saturday morning with the idea for this commentary.

Think about it. Life really is a continuum of problems. And it starts at conception—you are some one else’s “problem.” For soon to be parents you may be a planned and happy, welcome problem. For those not planning to be parents but soon will be—like it or not, it may be a great big “ut oh,” and boy ol’ boy do we have a problem. But once in this world it’s one problem after another; for life. Problems are in every walk of life, of every imaginable flavor and do not discriminate. Everybody has problems. Problems can be tiny, little, small, slight, big, huge, simple, complex, serious, petty, black and white, gray, tricky, temporary, short-term, long-term, ugly, resolvable, upsetting, disturbing, frustrating, ridiculous, insane, unbelievable, ethical, moral, funny, sad, annoying, testing, not mine, his, hers, theirs, yours, ours, everyone’s, no one’s, personal, individual, family, team, unit, group, regional, national, continental, global, universal, and my personal favorite—“the mother of all.” That’s my short list. There are unsolvable problems which we do not call problems but refer to as “mysteries.” For as everyone knows problems are solved—mysteries, rarely, if ever. There are personal problems, school problems, work problems, money problems, relationship problems, problems, problems, and more problems. And just when you thought there was not a problem; there’s a problem. There is no escape from problems. And, like at birth, when it’s time to leave this earth there's still a problem—for someone else. Whew, that’s enough. You get the point—problems make the world go round.

Some problems are preventable. Some are inevitable and unavoidable—commonly referred to as “sh*t happens.” Everybody has a problem and usually at least one all of the time. Anyone who says they don’t have a problem is lying and is probably someone else’s problem—most likely they’re “a pain in the ass” also know as a “royal problem.” Perhaps there rests the origin of “sh*t happens”—I dunno. Anyway, thanks to our education system we are taught to solve problems—first, simple number problems and once able to read—complex word problems. Great, word problems—for it’s not enough we have to solve our own problems we have to practice on hypothetical problems that often contain characters that have problems that must be solved before you can solve the word problem. Speaking of reading; newspapers—for the most part, are nothing more than a collection of community, state, national, and world problems supplemented with crosswords, jumbles, soduko, and cryptic quotes— problems created to entertain. As if we don’t have enough problems. And, interestingly enough, we pay to have these problems delivered. Why?

There are problem makers, problem solvers, problem absolvers, and those quick to declare, “Not my problem!” There are those that try hard to avoid problems, those that ignore problems, and those who always seem to have a problem. There is always one more problem than you counted on. Then there is the art of problem-solving. There are problem experts who offer counseling, advice, strategies, techniques, and courses for solving problems. There is problem prevention, problem intervention, problem tackling, and problem resolution. By George, let’s attack that problem! There are businesses that tout traditional problem-solving, team-oriented problem-solving, interdisciplinary problem-solving, state-of-the-art problem-solving, creative problem-solving, environmental-friendly problem-solving, guaranteed problem-solving and even elite companies who offer special “tool-kits” designed especially for solving your problems. Whatever the respective approach, they all welcome your problems—“Your problems are our problems.” How nice.

Some outfits proudly boast, “We’ll fix your problem.” I saw a sign on a septic tank pumping truck the other day. It said “We’ll Fix Your Problem” and the phone number was underneath in big, bold letters. So, I called and said, “I have a problem.” The young lady said, “What’s your address and do you know the exact location of your septic tank?” “No, I know the general vicinity but not the exact location. But I don’t think it matters, there’s nothing wrong with my septic system. Your truck said, “We’ll Fix Your Problem” and I have a problem that needs fixing.” She was not amused. I didn’t have a moment to state my problem before the line went dead. Odd, I thought, what’s her problem? Undoubtedly she rolled her eyes and told her co-workers, “That guy has a problem.” Their company proclamation would have been more accurate had it read “We’ll Fix Your Septic Problem.” But it didn’t say that. Was I to make a septic problem assumption merely because their company tag line was on a pumping truck? I guess. Making assumptions—there’s another problem that leads to yet more problems.

There are those who can’t handle a problem. Those who ignore problems. Those who hope problems will go away. Those who pray problems will go away. There are those who want to help and ask, “What’s your problem?” There are those who declare, “We have a problem.” And still others who promise if you don’t already have one, they’ll give you a problem. How thoughtful. Others are so busy tending to their own problems, they don’t want to hear your problem and may even ask, “Are you going to be a problem?”

Women like to share and talk about their problems. Men prefer to keep problems to themselves and solve women’s problems—even if the woman only wants to talk aloud and already has some idea as to how she will solve her problem. How ridiculous—only a man can solve a woman’s problem; just ask him. The differences between men and women can be, well, problematic. For instance, a woman can be amongst her peer group and share a truly troubling problem. Her friends will be attentive, sympathetic, concerned, comforting, but careful not to intrude to solve the problem though they offer their support, help, time, and advice, if so asked. On the other hand, a man’s peer group is completely different. Should a man first find the courage to share his problem, his friends only appear to be listening. What’s really happening is they are thinking about their problems (and likely the ones of the women in their life they feel compelled to solve) and can hardly wait for the story to finish. At the final word, it’s a race amongst the group as to who will first utter, “Wait till you hear my problem.”

Nearly 27 years leading Marines and I’ve seen my share of problems. And Marines can get themselves into some real lulus. If you know Marines, you know what I mean. I lost count how many times I heard, “Sir, I have a problem,” or “Sir, we have a problem.” “Yes, Marine, it sounds like a problem. What shall we do about this problem?” Like all Marine officers, I solved many a problem; and just maybe, admittedly, even created one or two. Yet, some of the most effective problem-solving I ever saw was done by Marine Drill Instructors. DIs, and only DIs, are authorized to use one of the Corps most powerful problem-solving tools when training recruits. It’s called “incentive training.” Incentive training is a brief period of intense physical exercise designed for the purpose of correcting—well, of all things, problems. By the way, it is a rigidly written, responsibly administered, and well-supervised problem-solving tool. The DI’s approach was then, and to this day remains, straightforward. First, a brief, usually intense, bellowing query, “Recruit, WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM!?” Sometimes a colorful specifying descriptor precedes “PROBLEM.” Regardless, it’s a rhetorical question. The recruit need not respond—and is probably wise not to. The DI already knows the problem and has the time-tested remedy in hip pocket. And the recruit knows problem resolution will soon commence. Moments later the recruit is ordered to “begin”—perform mountain-climbers—a total body, strenuous exercise executed in the prone position—or some other sanctioned challenging callisthenic designed to resolve problems. It works. Not once in three years at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island did I ever witness a recruit whose pre-incentive training problem was still a problem five minutes or less after exercising. It was a miracle—it worked every single time. Now there might be a new problem minutes or hours later or tomorrow but those too go away in short order. On top of all else they accomplish making Marines, Marine DIs are master problem solvers. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. There just may be a whole lot less problems in the world if everyone did a few minutes worth of mountain-climbers at the first sign of a problem.

Now admittedly there are people that on rare occasions have really big problems. Though it’s become an oft-used phrase in American lingo for even the slightest problem, if an astronaut announces, “Houston, we have a problem” there just may be a serious problem. Orbiting the earth in a small, complex container with the potential for sundry things to go wrong, and something does, easily qualifies as a problem. Of course the enormity of the problem depends on whether you are inside the container above the earth, or on the earth—trying to solve the problem or merely someone who happens to see or hear a passing report on the news there’s a problem in space. Problems are all a matter of perspective. The closer you are to it, the bigger the problem.

One of my biggest pet peeves with the word “problem” is that “No problem” has replaced “You’re welcome” as the learned and formal appropriate response to “Thank you.” It drives me nuts. Earlier this week, yet again, a cashier at a grocery story handed me receipt and change and in return I said, “Thank you.” She said, “No problem.” I said, “You’re welcome.” She said, “No problem, have a nice day.” I shook my head and left. But it’s not a casual reply just used in grocery stories—it’s everywhere and used by many who probably don’t even realize what they are saying and have a problem. For me, “No problem” makes it sound as if it was not too much of an inconvenience for them to help—to do their job. They didn’t mind interrupting what they were doing this time but might the next time. “No problem” doesn’t convey the same welcoming tone and meaning as “Thank you” or “My pleasure” or “Thank you for shopping with us and please come back soon.” “No problem” is not good for business—customer loyalty. Accordingly, I do not always shop at the same stores. Though options are limited in our community, I frequently rotate among competitors. Should the day come, I hear, “Thank you, and please come back” I will be a regular customer. At least until I hear, “No problem.”

Problems, problems, problems, and more problems. It’s a fact of life that solving problems can lead to brand new problems. We don’t like to think of problem-solving as leading to more problems so we disguise them by referring to them not as “problems” but as “unintended consequences”—a euphemism for more problems—problems that were not meant to be but are indeed problems. “Unintended consequences” sounds more collegial, more professional, that most important work must be done by most important people, and it’s far from a problem. Watch out for more “unintended consequences”—they’re a problem.

And just about the time you’re 17 or 18 years of age—when true wisdom strikes—and you have the hang of solving problems, and you know the solutions to all the world’s problems, some wise guy comes along and says, “Hey man, what’s your problem?! There are no problems—only ‘opportunities’—opportunities to excel.” Perspective. Good grief.

Finally, the best problems are those that never are—so, a closing comment to prevent a problem; as promised in the opening paragraph. "Remember guys, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Forget and you’ll have a great big problem! You’re welcome. No problem."

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