What’s the Problem?

Helen and I enjoy our walks around the neighborhood whenever we can.  One day last summer we found our neighbor, John, and his granddaughter, Mable, intensely engaged in a project in John’s garage.  We found that John and Mable had been struggling for quite some time working on a car top cargo carrier.  One of the clamps that hold the carrier to the top of the car had been over-loosened and separated.  John’s frustration was evident and I’m sure both he and Mable had not expected the project would turn out to be so much work. 

Helen asked John if he wanted me to take a look at the carrier to see what I could do.  John was reluctant at first but showed me the carrier.  The clamp goes together by screwing the hand knob into the clamp arm.  The design resembles an upside down “T”.  The cross bar of the “T” rotates in the clamp arm so that the hand knob can remain straight as the clamp tightens.  John and Mable had been trying to figure out how they could get enough light on the parts to see how to get them aligned so the threads would catch.  Part of their problem was the fact the cargo carrier was too big to move around for easier access to the parts.

Since I don’t see, I just assessed the situation by feeling the clamp assembly.  After getting a better understanding of how the parts needed to fit together, I asked John for a nail.  By sticking the nail through the threads in the crossbar I could rotate the crossbar so that the hand knob and the nail formed a straight line.  By default, the threads in the crossbar aligned with the threads on the hand knob.  A couple minutes later the problem was solved.

Lessons learned:

John and Mable got caught up in the expectation that a great deal of value would be added by being able to see the pieces they were trying to connect.  While this may very well have been true, their efforts to find a way to see what they wanted to see proved to be unproductive.  In fact, they both got themselves pretty frustrated in the process.  In their frustration, seeing the work area became the problem they were trying, and failing, to solve. 

I brought three things to the situation:

  1. The problem was new to me so I had no preconceived notions of how to solve it.
  2. Since I don’t see, I made no attempt to see the clamp assembly.
  3. It wasn’t my problem.  Worst case scenario for me? – “Sorry I couldn’t help.  Good luck.” 

I only considered the problem of connecting the parts.  Seeing the work area wasn’t an option so I didn’t consume any energy to do so.  I assessed the problem to be one of aligning parts.  Thanks to the availability of a nail, I had all the tools I needed to solve the problem.
Applying the lessons:

John & Mable thought the path to solving their problem led through being able to see the work area.  They spent a frustrating amount of time pursuing this approach.  Unfortunately, the size of the cargo carrier became a part of the problem.   

Helen and I walking past John’s driveway while he and his granddaughter were working was just a coincidence.  There was no expectation that I’d be able to solve the problem they were having so I didn’t feel I was under any pressure to provide a solution.  At the same time, I had nothing invested in the approach John and Mable had taken so I had an open mind as I assessed the situation.


  • The problem to be solved and the approach to solving a problem are two different things.
  • At some point, the approach to solving a problem may prove to be infeasible.  This is always a judgment call but something to be aware of.
  • Sometimes it may be beneficial to just let “some guy passing by” take a look at the problem.  They may provide a fresh perspective that turns out to lead to a solution.


This post was first published as part of the Affinity News””,” a monthly newsletter I share with my mailing list subscribers.  If you would like to add your name to the mailing list, clik here.

Sandusky’s pension and “The American way”

A Pennsylvania Court panel ruled on Friday that the State Employees’ Retirement Board wrongly concluded that Jerry Sandusky was a Penn State employee when he committed the crimes that were the basis for the pension forfeiture.  Three years ago, Sandusky was sentenced to prison after being convicted of molesting 10 children.  While one could easily conclude Sandusky doesn’t deserve a pension after committing such crimes, that was not the question before the court panel.  Personal opinion aside, a logical, transparent, process was followed and the result was the restoration of Sandusky’s pension. 

In contrast, two others situations this week exemplify what seems to be a growing disregard for the principle of law that was once seen as a cornerstone of the American (United States) experience.  The Supreme Court decided Friday to hear a Texas case that restricted women’s access to abortion services through the regulation of some health clinics.  Similar laws are being enacted by Republican controlled legislatures across the country.  The laws have the affect of regulating women’s rights without actually addressing the question of whether the State or the individual has the right to make decisions on a woman’s health care.

In conjunction with the Republican Presidential candidate debates On Tuesday, we have heard numerous comments regarding U.S. immigration policy.  These statements are almost universally presented in the form “If I were the benevolent despot of a fictional country I would…”  If we are to learn anything about how the next President would address immigration policy the question would greatly benefit from insights provided by Sen. Tim Kain of Virginia: Given the “pathological symbiosis between Executive overreach and Congressional abdication” how would you provide leadership regarding U.S. immigration policy?  This framing would require the candidates to address the realities inherent in our constitutional form of government.

When a transparent process is followed that supports both the letter and the spirit of the process, I can respect the outcome, even if it is not what I had hoped for.  When I see legal processes being used to undermined the principles that have supported our system of governing this country for almost 250 years, I am alarmed.  When I hear people who aspire to be President spouting rhetoric that doesn’t apply to the principles and processes they are seeking to be the chief steward of, I just think they are talking nonsense – in the truest sens of the word.

Is a blind man naked?

It is early and I am awake.  My wife lies sleeping next to me.  Upon completing my meditation I am ready to enjoy the quiet solitude that comes with being the only person awake in a quiet house.

As the furnace starts and the heat rises from the vent I know it is my time to act.  I gather my clothes from the cabinet as quietly as I can to avoid waking Helen.  I close the door behind me and carry the clothes into my living room.  I set the pile of clothes on the couch while feeling the heat blow on my naked form from behind me.

As I reach for my clothes I realize I am standing naked in front of my living room window.  While it is still dark, an early riser could be walking past my house and see a naked man dressing in his living room.  Since I do not see, I do not concern myself with the idea that someone looking in my window at 5:30 in the morning might see a man getting dressed in his living room. 

Is a blind man in a dark room naked?  Or only if someone is looking in the window?  Is a person looking in the window of a blind man getting dressed clothed?  That is up to the blind man to decide.