Monthly Archives: March 2013

Into the Fire

When I was a little kid, my family would spend a good amount of time at my grandparents house.  They only lived an hour away, so it was nice to visit them.  On one of these particular occasions we were sitting in the living room watching television.  They had channels like the Discovery Channel, the History Channel (before it went all alien apocalypse on us), and National Geographic, which we did not have at my house, so my sister and I would watch in the evenings if there was something good on.  This particular evening we were watching a program on National Geographic, and it has sort of stuck in my head ever since.

The program was about a train in a ski resort in switzerland or sweden or some snowy country that started with ‘s’, I’m not too sure about that detail.  But train was innovative because it would take people up the to the portion of the mountain by going in a tunnel through the mountain, cutting like 10 or 20 minutes off the ride time.  This one day, as the train was going up the tracks taking people to the top of the mountain, a fire started in its engine compartment.  There is this one scene from this TV program that showed the train going into the tunnel, and you can see wisps of white smoke coming from the back of the train.  The local time for the people on the train was 2:03:10 pm, there was a little clock on the screen for our reference.  Anyway the train stopped only a short distance inside the tunnel when the fire got bad.  The sad part about this story and the reason this idea is in my head is because, there were like 100 people on this train, and almost all of them died.

You see the people on this train were stuck in this tunnel and all they could see was the flames coming from the back of the train, which was the lowest point of the train in the tunnel.  Most people reacted to every instinct that their mind and body and upbringing was telling them, run away from the fire.  You see the problem was, something else was also running away from the fire, the smoke.  It was a long tunnel.  The smoke won.  The 12 people who survived the accident did so by moving down, toward the flames, past them and down to the entrance of the tunnel where they were rescued.  It just so happened that in the second car from the back, there was a firefighter, or fire marshal, or someone who was trained enough in fire mechanics to know what was going on.  If not for that person, everyone probably would have died.

I actually thought then, and sporadically throughout my life when I remember this little television program, what I would have done if I was on the train.  The little me watching it came to the conclusion that while he would have liked to be the one to know what to do, and keep his feet about him and all those heroic things little boys dream of, he didn’t really know.  The 20 year old me writing this still doesn’t know.  Sometimes you don’t until it all plays out.

Sometimes, things have to get worse before they get better. The people that lived had to get closer to the burning and the heat of the flames before they got to safety.  To them it seemed like they had probably just jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.  Or in their case out of the frying train.  Sometimes this happens to us, in less drastic situations than being on a burning train.  Some situation that we have to deal with where it seems like no way forward is a good one.  Maybe it seems like the way that won’t get you anywhere is the easier way, or even the right way.  It maybe something at work, something with a friend, or something that just happened to stumble into I don’t know.  Sometimes we have to choose the harder path, the one filled with flames.  These are the times where we grow and learn about ourselves and others.  And we go down the hard path, the fiery one, and at some point, the fire is behind us.  And the light at the end of the tunnel is most definitely not a train.


So the other night I was eating dinner with my friend Matt.  We were eating a meal that I had cooked all by myself. I know my mother will hardly believe this but it was a meal that I cooked that intentionally included quinoa, brown rice, and snow peas all in the same dinner.  But anywho, we’re sitting there eating dinner and we’re talking about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as is our usual way, and I have this thought.  The thought was about the idea of making it up as you go along.  Just winging it.  I was sitting here eating a meal that I had just cooked talking with my best friend and I was thinking about just winging it.

It’s something that I think we don’t do enough of.  People (in general) are too scared.  There needs to be a book.  A manual.  Like a cook book.  Someone else needs to do it first.  We like to follow in someone else’s footsteps.  We like footsteps.  We left them on the moon. People like a plan to follow.  Some instruction booklet to go along with.  It makes people happier.  More at ease.  More comfortable. If there’s a plan, then we can all go along in our nice little bubble that we call a comfort zone and do our thing and follow the plan and have a good life and everyone lives happily ever after.  Or…is it really happily ever after?

You see, I say that if we all lived our lives in our little bubbles that, while we would probably be perfectly happy to just exist there, it would be far less satisfying then if we made vegetables. That may make sense later on…incentive for you to keep reading.  When we push the boundaries and go where we are not comfortable, if we just wing it, then we can truly find out what we are made of.  We can find out what exactly it is that we are capable of.  You could use a cookie cutter to make cookies.  You’d know exactly what each one will look like.  Using a cookie cutter requires basically zero thought.  Like instrument flying.  You never get to make random dough shapes and laugh at how bad they come out of the oven, or be amazed at how well it actually worked.  There is another idea with these cookie cutters as well, and it has to do with the cookie cutter cut cookies.  Each cookie will be nice and identical to the last one.  It will taste the same as all the others.  It will look the same as all the others.  It will act and think and be the same as all the others.  Just to be clear, those last few weren’t about actual cookies.

I am a space nut, and there is a really great example of humans that weren’t made with a cookie cutter doing extraordinary things by making it up as they went along.  I recently listened to an audio recording of Gene Kranz’s book “Failure is Not an Option”.  For those who aren’t familiar with Gene Kranz, he was a flight director for NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Programs.  He worked on the space program from it’s very early stages.  Now in the space program’s very early stages, there was a lot of making stuff up as you went along.  Kranz talks about some of his first assignments working under names like Chris Craft and alongside the just some of the unsung hero’s that brought this civilization to another world.  He would be given a task to complete, with instructions as simple as, write a checklist for mission control and the astronaut to follow for this procedure, or create protocols for the following contingencies.  He talks more about how the members of early mission control were winging it to the full extent one possible can because they had to literally write the book on a subject like, well, manned spaceflight, before they could actually go and do it.

They also had to be creative during the actual missions.  As I literally just mentioned the guys in mission control wrote the books that they were using to fly these missions, and inevitably things happened on the missions that they did not anticipate in advance.  Space flight is a fairly complicated subject and even the best minds on the planet can’t anticipate everything. When that happened, it was literally do or die.  Well, for guys like Kranz in mission control it was actually like do or the astronauts die.  These situations required a certain bit of creativity, knowledge (which these guys had, they were all the best of the best) and the ability to be ok with winging it.  These guys had to come through against impossible odds during some missions.  And they did.  And now there are 12 sets of footprints on the moon.

Matt, my best friend, is also one of the best at just winging it that I know.  I asked him a few times how he knows everything he does and his response is usually, “I just make this stuff up as I go along.” He’s teaching me to do the same.  Yes, yes I know, I am guilty of the very phenomenon that I have been describing. However the point of this blog is not to highlight my shortcomings, however relevant they may be.  Winging it is something that I think is crucial to our moving forward as a people. Obviously there are some things that have a plan and that have a book and that we should follow because someone else already figured out how to do it, and they figured it out right.  We have great blocks to build on.  We just need to remember to keep building.  Last time there was an abundance of winging it we got ourselves to the moon.  Which for those of you keeping score at home is 239,000 miles out in space. We are capable of some pretty incredible achievements when we go off book.

The whole reason why I went off on this little mental tangent about winging it, had to do with the meal that I was eating. You see, I made the chicken following a recipe which was great.  It turned out nice, because I followed the manual.  The quinoa and brown rice came from a box, so it had some instructions too.  Building blocks.  And alone I’m sure these two things would have made a great meal, satisfying and tasty.  But, there would have been something missing.  It would not have been as good as it could have been.  Now comes the vegetables.  There was no recipe for the vegetables.  I was making it up as I went along.  A little oil, some of these green things, maybe some orange things, some mushrooms, wait…hm maybe some more green things, now a touch of salt, taste, a little more.  It was wung, if that’s a word.  And do you know what? The vegetables were awesome.  The point here is, as we all go along trying to make a difference in this great big world, reading from the cook books left to us by those who came before us, don’t forget to eat your vegetables.