Tag Archives: problem

The Problem Problem

“The trick is to turn the difficulty into a plan and not turn that difficulty into a problem.” (Hart, 2000, p. 119)

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

I had a problem at work, yesterday. Yes, I haven’t officially worked more than two weeks, and I found a problem. Fortunately, I love working problems. Seriously. I do story problems for fun. Interestingly, I have one daughter with a similar disposition.

Teaching problem solving was one of my greatest passions—and still is, I suppose. For years I told a story about facing a bear in the woods as exemplary of the definition of a problem: someplace else to go with no known way to get there.  Another way of saying it is that a problem is a goal plus obstacles.

My problem at work, yesterday, was to develop a program of study, a four year plan, for a bachelor’s degree in education for Biology teaching. To me, this is fun. I gathered all kinds of information about University requirements, similar degrees, course descriptions and prerequisites, etc. About 3 p.m. I discovered an obstacle. I couldn’t get all the science and all the education courses I wanted into the first two years.

There are two types of problems: real and imaginary. I love imaginary problems. Real problems hurt. They hurt because they challenge hope and raise the fear of failure.

My problems are real. Yours are imaginary. I can process your problems effectively because I can do it without affect. I remain objective. Sometimes.

Another reality of my Combat PTSD is that I am often stuck at the level of responsibility I experienced in combat. I was a Lieutenant and a CAPO or Civil Action/Psychological Operations Officer. Part of my job was to help families, including children, to survive the rigors of living on a Special Forces border camp isolated from civilization. I take care of people, especially people who depend upon me. (See why I couldn’t help becoming a teacher?)

Friday afternoon I came home from work after my first advising session with a practice teacher to find my wife crying. Now, that is a problem, a very real and personal problem. Someone in power had made a decision to withhold payment of a retirement benefit of several thousand dollars. The person also told her it was “her fault” for her decision about the timing of her retirement. Of course, she felt violated.

You know how I felt. I went from tired but happy to rage in less time than it takes a tear to roll down a cheek. That is understandable. My problem, the PTSD problem Dr. Hart is addressing above, is the shot of adrenaline that can turn me from the caring teacher and mentor into a fierce warrior in twenty minutes—if I do not stop it.

The problem Dr. Hart is talking about is what results from a fit of rage, a full-blown dinosaur dump—you know, broken things, injury, jail. That did not happen. Nancy and I didn’t even have a fight. Thanks to Dr. Hart and friends, I managed a difficult situation.

Dr. Hart goes on to say, “When looking at a difficulty, the important thing is to first remain external rather than internal in viewing the situation.” So, I comforted my wife and went to work. I researched options of grievance, clarified the situation with Nancy, and fought with my pen. We made it through a holiday weekend with only appropriate disappointment, without rage. I wrote, and we signed, letters to possible advocates, accepted the loss of money, and enjoyed our time together.

Tuesday, Nancy received another call announcing that she would, in spite of her so-called error, receive the benefit. She was on her way into the post office to mail those letters. She turned around and called me.

The other problem at work appears to be solved, also. I asked a question of one of our student advisors. It seems we have just enough flexibility to solve my problem.

Several problems seemed to have been solved, but the most important is my problem with rage. Recovery from Combat PTSD is possible. For all of those still struggling with personal problems, I say keep on keeping on. Work on your recovery, and do not quit before the miracle happens.

Mind Wind: Courageous Choices

News in requiem for Steve Jobs this week included stories about some of his decisions and his approach to making choices. He was a man capable of making tough decisions, and many of them seemed to be good choices, at least economically. How did he do that?

Well, first of all, he did it. He chose. For some of us, choosing is often difficult and sometimes almost impossible. We get tangled up in fears of consequences. Will I lose money? Status? Face?

One story claims to reveal how Apple came to be a household computer term. Steve and his partner were working on their project in a garage. They decided it was time to name their company but struggled with the choices available. Steve was eating an apple, so they decided that if they could not come up with a name by some time (maybe, 5?), they would just call it Apple. Done. Choice made.

Another story in video reveals Steve’s approach to making decisions after his diagnosis. He said that making choices became easier as he remembered that he was going to die, soon. I guess it sort of puts things into perspective. How important could this decision be compared to the grand scheme?

I marvel at the ability some people have to make decisions that affect lives and property. I watch our presidents face crises and stand up to make these decisions. Without prejudice of politics, they put me in awe. President Bush (W) faced the world after 911 and made decisions with faith, and America stood with him. I believe he put those huge decisions into perspective. President Obama faced decisions of economic and natural disasters; an oil spill, wars, secret missions, and citizen discontent. Any one of them would have made me physically ill. I’m glad some people volunteer to serve in such capacity. Decisiveness, as I recall from 1969, was one of the fourteen leadership traits of the U.S. Army Leadership Manual.

There have been some claims about how many decisions a teacher makes in one day. I don’t know the number, but I recall being required to make several before every class. “Can I go to my locker? Can I go to the bathroom? Can I go to the office? Can I sit back there, today? Can we have work day? What are we doing today? Can we have the test tomorrow?”  Then class starts, and while I am directing students’ attention to some important topic, I am making decisions
about how to deal with somebody talking, somebody else wandering around, one student poking somebody, and/or another sleeping. Maybe one of the students is crying or just very sad, today. Maybe one has fresh cut marks on her arm or bruises on his face.

Decisions are difficult for me. Sometimes they are overwhelming. I have chosen to put my writing into print for all the world (okay, a few people) to see. Will they approve? Will they like it? I know it’s a good story, and I also know that it is not crafted with the mastery of literary greats. A friend asked me this week, “Do you feel naked?” Yes, I do.

There have been many very big decisions in my life. Each has affected my whole life. Here are a few: Go to the University of Wisconsin. Get married. Major in Genetics. Join the Army. Go to Infantry OCS. Become a Green Beret. Serve with Special Forces in Vietnam. Go back to college. Stop with a Masters Degree. Take a job in Agronomy at UW. Get divorced. Go back to school for teacher certification. Take a job in Beaver Dam. Get married, again. Okay, that’s enough, and we only got to 1980.

I formed a couple of rules about choice early in life and have tried to follow them. First, don’t choose until necessary so I can gather adequate information. Second, try to make choices that open doors rather than closing them (but, it’s relative). Third, work the problem to make a rational choice. Fourth, ask advice (but make my own choice). Much later in life, I decided on another rule, and I was happy to hear something similar from Steve Jobs: Follow my heart. Yeah, that one is really difficult, sometimes. It takes discipline and practice—and, in my case, a special kind of prayer. I guess there is one more rule I use: Accept the gifts. Sometimes one choice seems to be placed right before me, rather like a sign.

I could not choose to not teach. I kept getting teaching opportunities—laboratory teaching aid as an undergrad, teaching assistant as a graduate student, and Academic Staff teaching in Agronomy. I could not deny that I enjoyed the learning I experienced as a teacher.

I don’t believe I could choose not to write. When feelings build, I have to do something, and I never learned any other art form. Writing is therapeutic as well as educational and fun. I have to do it. I don’t know if I have to share it, but that is my choice.

Usually, my angst over a choice is inflated beyond reason. At my age, I know I am going to die relatively soon, maybe ten or twenty years, and most of my choices won’t matter much. Besides, I am not nearly smart enough to anticipate all the consequences of any choice. But, some choices do matter very much. I always worried about the effect some stupid thing I might say or do (inside or outside a classroom) might have on others. That’s how I came up with my class rules, Care, Think, and Be. They were for me as much as for the students, reminding me to care, to think, and to be as nice as I knew how to be.

I guess there is one more rule for my choices. They are mine. I am responsible for making them, and I am responsible for the consequences. I own them, and that is real freedom, perhaps the only freedom.

Re Quest: Parsing Eternity

Do we take time to study time—at least our personal views that influence our decisions? In 1969, I chose to not apply for U. S. Army Flight School. The investment in a very expensive helicopter flight training program included the expectation of two tours in Vietnam. That was too much time for me. Although I have flown a few lessons and even soloed once, I am not a pilot. Choices have consequences. This choice was made on the basis of my view of time.

Are all conclusions synoptic? No. I guess that’s the point of this blog, to encourage a pulling together of ideas, a broad view of a subject, an analysis of relationships. I’ll try to do some of that here; however, there is a hard reality. You really have to do it for yourself. The best I can do is encourage a forum where we can share the process and give  one example, good or bad.

Is the concept of eternity the denial of existence of time? I don’t know. I do know that I have a feeling of eternity, if not an idea. I have had experiences in which a very short measure of time, a moment, can feel like forever. A quiet sit in the north woods helps me feel that. So can a quiet sit in the desert. I have learned some ways of touching eternity, and that seems like a very good thing to learn.

There is an unsettling feeling in such a moment—a feeling of smallness without insignificance, of being less sure of boundaries between self and other, of knowing that everything other than this moment is some kind of illusion. The feeling might be humility. It is certainly not certainty.

Ah, maybe that is why we cut time up into smaller pieces, avoiding the moment. (There is only one, you know.) We avoid the discomfort of feeling eternity, humility, and uncertainty; however, that leads us to another discomfort: mortality. Dilemma, isn’t it?

So, let’s agree that at normal human velocities, time is pretty easily measured, recorded, and understood. I don’t see any problem here. So, where is there a problem to define, that we may solve it?

Well, for starters, can we tell time with Nature, or have we grown dependent upon our measuring devices? Can you open your eyes, look at the natural clock around you, and tell time of day and season? Would that be of any value to you?

How about learning to accomplish more in the time you have on Earth. Do you find value there? Okay, let’s begin defining the problem thusly: Life is short (and for folks my age, probably a lot shorter than for most others). Is my bucket list a cause for hurry?

Hurry is a waste of time. I used to tell my students that because I believed it. Still do. A friend admonished, “There’s never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it over.”

How can a person learn to manage time to accept more gifts from life? Shall we parse eternity and/or our lives into smaller pieces of structure and discipline, or shall we wander off into the wilderness to seek the moment? How shall we choose to live our lives, the compressed and personal samples of eternity?

No problem can be solved without defining rules (constraints) for a satisfactory solution. Happiness? Success? Peace?

A time problem as it relates to a person’s life is necessarily very personal. We each must choose. I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote a few months ago: 



There was a day I touched the wind  with fingers free and strong,

A day I faced uncertainty discerning right from wrong;

There was a night I inhaled stars from Heaven’s black abyss,

A night I never thought I’d see another night like this;

There was a week I drifted free from day to night unbound,

A week I lived eternity and left my fate unfound;

There was a month I dreamed of peace with eyes unfilled with tears,

A month I built of days and weeks and hours that knew no fears;

There was a year I choked with dread and gritted teeth and tongue,

A year of fear and low grade rage when songs were never sung;

There was a life I drifted through as though I owned no way,

A life of days and weeks and years and months of dreary gray;

There was one hour when I looked back and saw the life I’d led,

An hour regret of silly things and wounds that never bled;

Then one minute I shared six breaths with those who cared for me,

A minute wrest from life’s tribute, for blessed clarity;

Through days and weeks and months and years I traversed rocky shore,

In search of an epiphany, or moment—just one more.


Have a good time.