Tuesday, October 30, 2012


A fail-safe device is one that, in the event of an operational malfunction, is capable of compensating automatically and safely for such a system failure. It does this in a way that will cause little to no harm to other devices, or danger to personnel. A common example is found in traffic lights. It incorporates a controller known as a conflict monitor unit to detect faults or conflicting signals, which will then switch an intersection to all flashing red, rather than displaying potentially dangerous conflicting signals, e.g. showing green in all directions. The traffic signal may fail, but the intersection will be "safe" in that all traffic will be required to stop, thus avoiding dangerous collisions. The traffic signal is designed to fail-safe.

Many other potentially dangerous situations are averted by fail-safe designs. Air brakes on trucks and trains will automatically be applied when there is an air-pressure leak. Lawnmowers and snow blowers will automatically shut down when the pressure lever is disengaged. Elevators have a system to stop the cabin from free-falling if the cables fail. Computers are designed to shut down if the CPU overheats. From ordinary fuses interrupting electrical power to the sophistication of Apollo moon landings, fail-safe systems have and continue to prevent injury and death.

I believe we also need to employ a fail-safe design when we raise our children. That is, we need to design an environment that allows them to fail safely.

When our children first enter the world of playgrounds, we hover and watch over them, protecting them from all possible harm and danger. Every young child is taught to slide with their feet first and sitting upright. Then, later on, we let them venture into the yard, where they can perfect their playground performances, perhaps experiencing a head-first belly slide. They may think we are not there, but we are, watching from the window, prepared to spring to their aid should the need arise. We then progress and allow them a short foray to the neighborhood playground unsupervised. We may not be at their side, but we are within our comfort margin. Soon, too soon perhaps, comes the time when we allow them to go to the playground, with friends, without any immediate supervision. But our years of teaching have instilled in them a fail-safe device; if they fail, they know they are safe with us.

I think it's important we build in a way for our children to fail -- and to be safe in their failing. I have watched too many children frozen to the point of inaction, gripped by the fear of failing and disappointing their parents. I have seen too many children hide their mistakes to escape the consequences of failure and, in the end, not receive the beneficial instruction that learning from their mistakes can provide.

I think it wise for us to build into our children a fail-safe mentality that allows them to risk, without the fear we will do them harm should they fail.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lessons Learned on the Road

Over the years I've been on many road trips. Let's see, there's the one to that cabin in the woods; there's the family vacation; there's the three-day work trip; there was even the one that had me chasing a burger across state lines. These trips may have had different objectives, destinations and participants, but the time on the road was spent in some similar ways, so much so that I've been able to formulate a few tips for life. Here are three road-trip situations and what I've learned from them.

Scenario One: It's good to know the exact route to where you're going. Most road trips end in a much anticipated destination: a favorite lake, an amusement park, a secluded campground, grandma's house, a stretch of beach. Thus the time spent in the car seems to increase in proportion to the distance travelled from home. This equates to one mile feeling like five and the inevitable "Are we there yet?" questions. Therefore, knowing the route to your destination is crucial, as adding even the slightest amount of time to an already long trip will be unwelcome news for everybody in your car.

Lesson Learned: The same can be said of life. Knowing how we get to where we're going is the most important part of getting there. Without specific directions -- and then following those directions -- we add time driving that could be spent at our destination. Also, if we wander too much, we might not get there at all.

Scenario Two: Sometimes the sound of silence is golden on a road trip when the conversation lags. At those times it's best to just be quiet and live in the moment. Let the hum of the road and the passing landscape be enough. Driving is a perfect time for thinking. Spend some time mulling over the last good book you've read or how you want to make this trip better.

Lesson Learned: In life sometimes it's a good thing to just sit and be. That's it. Nothing more. Just be. See if something unexpected comes your way in such times ... like an observation or a novel idea or something you forgot about another passenger in your car.

Scenario Three: Bathroom breaks are important. Although I may have the ability to drive 500 miles without a pit stop, other riders may not be so gifted. Not pulling over for a break can cause angst, discomfort and considerable tension for others in the car. Thus, no matter who asks for the break, it is always good to try and accommodate your passengers.

Lesson Learned: In life I too must stop and take a break. Each day I need time away from my tasks to renew and refresh. Every week I need a day or two to recharge my battery. Yearly, I need time to disengage from my work routine and find something different, something entirely pleasurable to do. So taking breaks is good, even if it's an unscheduled break taken at somebody else's request.

There are several more lessons I have taken away from road trips. Among these are always carry a first-aid kit; bring along twice the amount of cash you think you'll need; watch out for the other guy; gas gauges are important; and if you miss the turn, don't panic!

But the most important thing I've learned from the road is this: take time to enjoy the view and the company you're with. After all, a big part of any asphalt journey is the time you spend on the road.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Texting is not Talking

It's been reported dads spend less than seven minutes a day talking with their children. Now I don't want to get into a debate over the exact amount of minutes dads spend in conversation, but I would easily concede that dads could be spending a whole lot more time talking with their kids than they do.

I mentioned this point at a recent gathering of men, and one enterprising man agreed. He said he was not spending enough time talking with his son, so he decided to start texting him. Now without passing judgment on motives or methods, I would assert that texting is not talking.

Now I can see some grabbing their phones and tweeting about how wrong I am, that communication is communication and that texting is a valid exchange. I can hear some say just get over it and start encouraging men to text their kids.

But then I would have to start a dialogue about the purpose and definition of conversation. For me -- and I think a lot of others would agree -- true conversation occurs when I can ask my child open-ended, real-time questions that reveal to me his struggles, fears, hopes and dreams. A conversation happens when I listen and he speaks; then I question and he explains; then I comment and he nods -- or not. A conversation is more than words. It is body language and non-verbal clues. Texting removes the head nod of agreement, the shrugged shoulders of indifference, or the wide-eyes of curiosity and amazement. Texting takes away the most important message for a young person: the hug that says I love you, I forgive you, or I am proud of you -- sometimes all three at the same time.

Men, texting relays facts and information, and that is important. It's also a way to keep in touch, celebrate victories, share defeats, and impart advice, and that is important. But I will still advocate we need to follow up our texts with a talk: face-to-face, man-to-man.

So I suggest we resolve to spend a full ten minutes a day in meaningful conversation with our child.

Ten minutes.

It just might be the best part of your day or, better yet, the best part of your child's day.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Buck Fever

It was my first rabbit hunt. The farmers had positioned me at the end of the timber stand, located at the far edge of the field. They were walking through the woods in an effort to kick up some rabbits and send them my way. For what seemed like an hour, but was maybe five minutes, I waited with my shotgun at the ready. My attention was starting to drift when all of a sudden I caught sight of something bounding at me: a giant rabbit. I shouldered my shotgun and pulled the trigger. The blast roared from the barrel, sending the deadly pellets toward the bounding hare.

Or so I thought.

The cloud of dirt and the bunny hopping away told the tale. Yes, I had succumbed to "buck fever." Unable to contain my excitement at the opportunity to bring home some hearty hasenpfeffer (German rabbit stew), I fired too soon, not bothering to actually aim. The hole in the ground three feet in front of me indicated I barely brought the gun up, before jerking the trigger. The farmers had a hard time suppressing their smiles. They generously suggested I might stand a better chance at bagging some game if I actually waited until the critter was in my sights before firing.

Almost every hunter has succumbed to buck fever at one time or another. For some it happened on their first hunt; for others it was when their trophy casually strolled out in front of them. No matter when it happened, the symptoms are the same. There's a rush of adrenaline causing the limbs to twitch and the breathing to increase. This is accompanied by the inability to fire the gun accurately or the uncontrollable need to fire too soon, exhibiting, as it were, a complete lack of self-control.

You don't have to be a hunter to experience a lack of self-control though, do you? Most men have succumbed to a loss of restraint on some occasion. Many of us know what it's like to have one drink too many, speak too freely, drive too fast, eat too much, or even watch football too long, instead of listening to the wife. All of us have experienced the consequences of a lack of self-control, and they usually end up badly.

What we need to do is learn from our lapses of self-control, i.e. when preoccupation blinds us to the world around us. We need to know when and where we might get caught off-guard -- like when that rabbit comes bounding toward us out of nowhere. Once we recognize these situations occur at any time, we can remain alert and be men who think on our feet.

For example, take the football thing. When I am watching a football game and my wife enters the room in mid-sentence, experience has taught me it's prudent to give her my attention. Does it seem like the right thing to do? No. Do I really want to pull away from the third-down-and-inches play happening before me? Of course not.

But when I give her my attention, there's a payback for it. She says what she needs to. I show her she's valued. And we both remember that it's all about us.

So I would suggest we all practice self-control in what we do; we will be better men for it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In over Your Head?

Do you remember as a kid when you'd jump off the side of the pool into the deep end? First there was the exhilaration of your body plunging into the depths, peacefully sinking to the bottom. Then, for me at least, there was the panic of trying to get my head back above water. This panic was apparently of the short-lived variety; however, since I usually jumped back in a few seconds later. I relished those times when I tested myself and my will. I still enjoy a good cannonball into the deep end, but I've found that time has tempered my desire to get in over my head.

Still, no matter how hard we try, there are times when we get in over our heads -- not in the relative safety of a pool, but in the dangerous world of real life.

Case in point: I feel the pain of the NFL replacement refs, as they struggle making their calls, having millions of people watching for their mistakes. I do not envy their situation.

In my own life, away from the floodlights and the TV cameras, and the tens of thousands of raving fans, my own male ego often throws me into the deep end. I find myself promising my wife to fix the plumbing, only to remember I'm not very good at sweat soldering. I find myself promising the boss I will have the project done by the end of day, only to remember I've lost a critical piece of data. Some days I hear my mouth making promises, only then to hear my brain say, "Now who do you think is going to do that?"

Yes, I get in over my head.

Every dad who has held his first-born child knows the feeling. Here is a little life that is totally dependent on you for every possible need: safety and food, sleep and drink, cleanliness and love -- everything that needs to be provided, needs to be provided ... by you. Looking at the babe in your arms gives you a sudden panic attack: "Hey, I'm in over my head on this one! How 'bout a little help here?"

And that feeling can come at any time: signing loan papers for college, or the car, or the house; watching your bride walk down the aisle to you; telling the boss what to do with his job; standing in front of a group of ten-year-olds, trying to encourage them after they lost their ninth straight game. Yep, the list is endless.

But there is good news in all of this. No matter how much you think you messed up, there is at least one other guy who has done the same thing before you. Every one of us has jumped into the deep end at some time in his life. Just like the first time the big kids were there to help you if you faltered, there are brothers nearby who will stand by you, advise you, and help you climb out of the deep end.

Seek them out. Better yet, find those guys in over their heads and stand with them.

They'll be glad you did.