Monthly Archives: May 2009

check out the bathroom.

toothbrushes on toothbrush holderA couple years ago, we updated our bathroom/utility room. We didn’t do a major redesign, mind you. We fixed the ceiling, painted the walls, moved a shelf, and got new accessories.

I think that you call them accessories. The towel bar and the toothbrush holder is what they are, functionally.

We used to have chrome, now we have white.

Two years ago.


Nancy worked as a dental assistant in a previous career path. As a result, she’s serious about going to the dentist. I dislike dentists (not as people, mind you), but I have gotten good at going every six months or so. Our kids are much better than I am, having grown up with minimal cavity action and positive brace expereinces.

When we go to the dentist, we get new toothbrushes. (Mine is always blue. That way I don’t have to remember). Sometime during the past two years, our dentist got trendy. He started giving away the fancier designs, the newer designs.

Therein is the problem.

Because toothbrushes are now made to fit your hand and mouth, they don’t fit the toothbrush holder.

All of our toothbrushes no longer fit the toothbrush holder.

No one in toothbrush R and D said, “but we have such a large installed base of toothbrush holders, we can’t roll out a design that won’t fit.”

If they did, someone probably said, “That circle part, people can put a cup in there.”

“But what about those holes? What will people do with the holes?”

“That’s not our problem. They are getting free toothbrushes and their teeth are getting cleaner and the handle fits their hands better and besides, we can make the larger handles look much cooler.

Who cares that people now have accessories that have to use a different product to be helpful. Who cares that you have to accessorize the accessory.”


I’m guessing that there is a lesson here. There are probably many.

One of them is this.  Consider convergence of design when your designers come from two different worlds. I’m guessing that the bathrooms accessory designers go to different schools than the dental cleaning appliance designers. They work at different kinds of companies. But two years ago, I’m pretty sure that holder designers knew what was happening to toothbrushes and toothbrush designers knew how big the holders were.

Both groups forgot that real people have to put their toothbrushes somewhere. And in the little bathroom in our lower level, that means on-rather than in-the toothbrush holder.

So here’s my suggestion. If you design stuff, if you teach stuff, if you are working with people living in the real world, sometime while you’re working, go to the bathroom.


an armistice is not peace

tweets from itswanny about north koreaEarlier this week, Andrew (@itsswanny) began following the news about the earthquake in North Korea. He was watching @breakingnews, a news feed that serves the twitter community. They reported an earthquake in North Korea. It was clear very quickly, to @breakingnews, to @itsswanny, and to many other people that this wasn’t a normal earthquake.

Andrew’s interest was triggered by his interest in showing the value of non-traditional news organizations in reporting breaking news. It likely wasn’t triggered by a personal connection, though he knows that there is a very personal connection to the actions in Korea.

My dad spent a couple years of his life in Korea, and the rest of his life being affected by that experience. He watched friends die, holding at least one during those last moments. Because of his role in the military, he was aware of horrible things that happened to many people on many sides of that conflict. He was seriously wounded. Memorial Day has never been an abstract concept for him.

He didn’t talk much about his experiences. I remember only three short conversations. I did, however, do some reading to understand better what had happened.  (The book I read, among others, was The Korean War by Max Hastings. I have it here on my shelf.)

At times, Dad referred to the fact that it wasn’t an officially declared war. It was called a “police action” by President Truman. For not being a war, Dad thought, there was a lot that looked like war.

The fighting ended in 1953 with an armistice, a truce. The line that was drawn when the fighting stopped wasn’t far from the where the line had been when the fighting started.  The battleline had moved far south and north and south on the peninsula before stopping.

There was a lot of fighting and destruction and death for no apparent purpose, and no apparent peace.

That’s been troubling me all week.

Two generations have reached adulthood since my dad was nearly killed in a war that wasn’t a war that ended without peace.

How often, I ave been thinking, do we move to avoidance rather than peace? How often are we willing to accept a suspension of conflict rather than waging peace? How often do the agreements that seem to cover over something lead to trouble for the generations that follow?

At this point, there is nothing Dad can do about this unresolved, reboiling conflict, though I am sure he prays. At this point, Andrew’s interest is more in the reportage than the resolution of the real-world conflict. (Though you can see from the picture that he was involved in his own peacemaking police action just before the earthquake on the other side of the world.)

At this point, I don’t know what I can do. About the tension between nations, that is.

About highlighting the need to wage peace, however, I can start to do something.

Starting with mentioning it.


Just yesterday stories

line drawing of a coffee cupJust yesterday, someone told me that I tell stories well. She said, “you have a gift.”

She’s right. There’s a gift. Two of them, really.

An academic dean was looking for a speech teacher. He found me, in Texas, finishing the first half of my doctorate. He invited me to interview and then, when some people weren’t completely comfortable with me (imagine!), flew down to Texas to meet Nancy and to see me teaching at UT.

That was twenty-four years ago this month.

I started teaching at Fort Wayne Bible College in September, 1985. I taught three sections of public speaking and two courses in broadcasting. For the next five years, I taught two or three sections of public speaking every semester as well as courses in study skills, critical thinking and Christian worldview.

Richard gave me the gift of incredible amounts of time in front of people helping those people figure out how to be thoughtfully effective in front of people.

One of the things that I started very early in my teaching was telling stories to illustrate points. Richard labeled one type of those stories. He called them “just yesterday” stories.

You know them. A person will be making a point about the value of a product and say, “just yesterday, I saw…” A teacher will try to explain how this abstract concept relates to these sleepy students and will say, “just yesterday, Jim was asking me how to make his roommate quit …”

Somehow, in a classroom, “just yesterday” is far more compelling, far more relevant than “here’s a story I learned in grad school” or “when I wrote this lecture five years ago, here’s the story I made up” or “let me tell you this joke I found in Reader’s Digest, but you can pretend you have never heard it before.”

Richard didn’t teach me to tell stories, but he gave me the gift as a young faculty member of the label for a powerful kind of story and the encouragement to use those stories in my teaching. And after more than two decades, I have spent a lot of time finding stories and analogies and metaphors in my daily life.

Today, when I tell stories to illustrate points, and there is a glimmer of understanding because of a story, it’s because Richard gave me permission and a platform for practicing.

I moved on from that school seventeen years ago. Richard died several years ago of cancer This week, the latest version of that school dies, after a couple name changes and a merger that never quite worked.

But sometimes, I remember those days like they were just yesterday.

the saw

closeup of a chainsawIt was taking forever.

The ice storm brought down branches. We piled some in the backyard to turn into fire wood for the next ice storm.

The power company decided that they didn’t want branches falling on the power lines again. They cut down branches and trees. They piled them in the back yard.

After six months, it was finally time to clean up the pile of branches, clean up the woodpile. Andrew started working on the pile, moving the old wood closer to the house.  I got out the chainsaw.

It started fine. It cut poorly. The blade was dull.

I have no idea when it had last been sharpened. Three of us have used the saw for different projects. We have a couple files, but none of us have used them.

I splurged on a new blade (I’ll get the old ones sharpened later). I put it on. I started the saw. It cut great. But it stalled. I kept trying.

It was still taking forever.

“Don’t push so hard.” Andrew mouthed the words over the roar of the saw as it started again.

I turned off the saw. He said, “You only changed the blade. It’s still the same saw. It cuts better, but it doesn’t have more power. Stop pushing so hard.”

Andrew has never run a chain saw. Never. How could he know what he was talking about?

  • Not like my great-grandfather who homesteaded land in northern Wisconsin, turning jackpine into 2 by 4 studs.
  • Not like my grandfather, who would wake us up at 7:30am when we were on vacation on some of that same land. He woke us up because he had been up since 5 and the morning was half gone and he knew we wanted to cut down that oak tree while we were on vacation.
  • Not like my dad who spent more time building men than cutting trees, but still understood the value of letting the tool do the work at its own speed.

How could Andrew know anything about not trying harder than the tool, this 22 year old who five days ago asked a girl to spend the rest of her life with him, cats on the porch, her brother watching from the doorway, the neighbor loudly backing his car out of the driveway? Except the girl laughs because though it wasn’t the huge romantic event, it was a request perfectly suited to the two of them.

Steven Covey talks about sharpening the saw, about spending time to make sure that your tools are in good shape. I thought about that as I was trying to cut with a dull blade today. I thought about that as I had to figure out how to mix gas for the saw. I thought about that as I had to find the tool to take the saw apart to replace the blade. I thought about how much time I don’t spend on keeping blades sharp.

But then Andrew put it in perspective. Keep the blade sharp. But use it at the speed it was designed for. Relax. Let the tool do the work. Because maybe, if you slow down and let the work happen at the right speed, you can hear generations speaking in the voice of your son. As you spend time with him. Sharpening your saw.

a long weekend

I’m taking one.

Why am I telling you?

Because the way my brain works, I am always writing, always thinking of what to say. Unless I excuse myself from the room for awhile.

So that’s what I’m doing.

I’ll be back next week with a story that runs from one old friend to Extreme Makeover. I’ll talk about what the pastors in the back row were doing. I’ll talk about the girls at the other table. I may think out loud about the struggle we have with deciding how to respond.

But that will be then. For now, a break.

Have a good weekend yourself.

Remember someone.


Breaking news

I sit in my office.

I’m waiting for news.

Our son has an engagement ring. He has been saving for a long time. He paid cash. He has money left.

We’re pretty sure we know what the answer will be. But we’re still waiting.

Nancy’s at home. I’m at my office. We are both checking twtter, checking flickr.

Yes. Really. We know that Andrew will let us know with twitter. tweet about andrew's engagement.

And then it comes. The first time I see the ring is on twitpic. The way Nancy and I know that we can stop talking about Andrew’s girlfriend and start talking about his fiance is by both seeing it on twitter.

That should come as no surprise, I guess. Some of you know about how they got together by reading about it at (You’re fired) My family has bee part of my writing here, mostly because of what I have learned about life, about God, about communication and community and caring by living with these people. And I’ve mentioned them often.

So I thought you’d be interested in how much of a collection of geeks we’ve become.

Watching twitter.

Waiting for news.

just decide

two napkins with the word stay written on eachThey had been debating the future for years.

Every side of every option had been considered. It had been weighed. It had been discussed. It had been reviewed.

They wanted to do the right thing, the thing God wanted, the thing that would be wise and honest and supportive. They wanted to know. But they couldn’t decide.

And now, everything was in the air. All options open.

And paralysis was starting.

“On the napkin write ‘stay’ or ‘move’. What *you* think is the thing to do.”

I handed them each a piece of napkin.

It took 10 seconds.

They both wrote ‘stay’.

Now they had a place to start. And they did.

Just write the word. Pick one. Start.