Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lack of Liaison

I appreciate “liaison,” as in, “making sure needed information is shared…”

The summer after college I kept looking in on the college career center. One day the secretary offered some spelling advice: A lot of people were writing on their resume they engaged in liaison—only they were not spelling liaison properly! On another day she asked me if I would work for a weekend of stocktaking at a clothing store. It turned out several students in succession had been given the address… but then each one in succession hadn’t shown up to apply for the job, and the employer was getting frustrated, phoning the college to ask, “Where is he?” I was reliable and non-lazy, so I went on down and made some cash.

It seems to me some folks are lazy about looking for work, others lazy about spelling and still others, even if it’s a new business buzzword, are too lazy to “liaison.” I have a keen interest in liaison, in communication, because for as long as I can remember my family has been “liaison challenged.” How frustrating—but hey, that’s relatives for you.

At Home
A few years ago my brother Patrick was in town, staying at hotel, at the western edge of the city. And early one morning my brother Jim drove west to Dad’s place, picked up Dad, and proceeded to west to Pat’s hotel, a block from the ocean, just as the song birds were starting to awaken. The problem? They hadn’t properly informed Patrick of their plans, nor communicated with Pat to learn his hotel room number or room telephone number: They could neither call nor, not knowing the room, knock on the window, while of course there was no one inside at the front desk that early… So they left the hotel, without Pat, driving back east and up the Fraser River for a day’s drive to my sister’s place, at 140 Mile House—not even a village, just a couple streets. They still hadn’t learned to liaison: If only they called ahead to my sister at her isolated home then she might have baked a cake, or at least made sure there was enough coffee and cream in the house.  I don’t know: Did they just fail to think ahead, or were they lazy, or what?  (...Update: Sis tells me she had to go deliver food she had promised four days previously for a big family thingy on the husband's side, and then bow out to go and be with her surprise relatives)

When it was my turn to stay in a nearby hotel, Dad asked me to drive him to a re-union lunch, for former penitentiary employees. We had to go to the port city of New Westminster, to a part of the city where Dad no longer knew the roads: Things had sure changed since the big old maximum-security prison had been removed. The other streets, surveyed before the Great War, had followed a nice Roman grid system. Not here. I liked how the roofs of some of the tall new condos and apartments seemed to follow the staggered rooflines of “the penn,” or, as we kids called it, “the joint.” Dad and I fruitlessly drove around seeking for the address before I remembered my father’s notorious lack of liaison: Abruptly I thought of how I could get my old man to open up: “Dad, were you told what color this building is?” He had failed to tell me something important—The restaurant we were looking for was in fact in a part of the old penitentiary main block: massive and unmistakable! …

And Abroad
I would have hoped my father would have learned from his young years during the war. All too often he had to watch helplessly from a hill as the allied air force bombed allied troops on another hill. My mother’s opinion was that someone always failed to radio that the hill had been taken, that the news was not passed on. I don’t know.

It was from an earlier world war, I understand, that the French word liaison entered the business world. The best way to ensure that “obvious things” were explained and passed on was to have some one from the French army physically standing in headquarters. He was called a liaison officer. This might seen a waste of manpower, but let’s remember the officers of that war were notorious for not being very bright, while the consequences of “I thought you knew” were very serious.

In peacetime a failure to cooperate is less grave. I’m still chuckling at a company of riflemen coming off a night exercise, filing into a meadow at daybreak where the cook had enough sizzling eggs and bacon to feed an army… and then walking right on by to go to a field firing range. No one had told the cooks about the change in plans. The troops could only drool. As for me, as I trudged by I engaged in the ancient privilege of ground troops—cursing our stupid officers.

At least in today’s peacetime army they have a clue that liaison is important. When a buddy and I were welcomed to the “elite” Canadian Airborne Regiment by an elite captain, he proudly made a point of telling us that in this elite outfit information is passed on… I soon learned he only wished it was so—I ended up grinding my teeth a lot. In fact, I learned to leave the barracks bright and early on our days off—lest I be dragged off for a “training thingy” they had forgotten to tell us about.

In Business
I maintain a keen interest in liaison. How does one prevent a lack of liaison, be it humorous or grave? How might my poor relatives, who are only human, possibly have ever managed to plan ahead, cooperate, have common sense? It was management expert Peter Drucker who said every executive should make it a habit, with every new management decision or project, to ask, “Who needs to be informed?”

A good habit of liaison, I think, can go a long ways towards making up for a lack of common sense or empathy.

Sean Crawford
Habitually looking both ways before I cross the street,
In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains

Postscript: A few days after our lunch I thought of a young WWII combat lieutenant, Paul Fussell, author of the heartfelt essay Thank God for the Atom Bomb. When Fussell attended university after the war he met former rear area officers, but never any fellow front line infantry officers. Not one. As for Dad and I—The lunch food was mediocre, and the rest of the people who showed up had been solely office staff: Dad was the only one who had escorted prisoners and walked the guard tower and catwalk. My auntie Flora had been an office worker there, but she has long passed away. We won’t be back.   

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fear Fouls Thinking

As I write this, in early April of 2014 A.D., the western free world is quietly struggling to come up with some unity, and a response to the new issue of Russia annexing Crimea. Quietly? Suddenly we live in a new world. As a diplomat for one of the former eastern block countries put it, on CBC radio: “The trust is gone.”

But still, quietly? It is only the quiet of fear.

The Past
As a young soldier, I knew something about fear. In my soldiering days I found a most instructive early account of a mass of soldiers being sorely afraid in the classical writing of Plutarch, Lives of the noble Greeks and Romans. As I recall, a Roman commander made the mistake of marching his legion across the sands of the near east. The legionaries were the finest foot soldiers in the world, well trained to fight in the meadows of Europe. They carried two javelins each. These must have been a little cumbersome, a little heavy, and of no use. As they marched under the sun, archers mounted on fine Arab steeds stayed out of reach. Four feet are faster than two; arrows defeat swords on open plains. The Romans suffered their way from watering hole to watering hole. Arrows, sand, sun… Arrows, heat, thirst… Fatigue, despair, arrows… Soon the issue was not: could they win a battle? What battle?  It was: could they escape with their lives?

Perhaps, as they trudged, their bodies on automatic, they remembered sweet childhood days in Italy, listening to Aesop’s fables… There is a fable about a woodcutter who was approached by a lion who asked him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The woodcutter told the lion he was too scary for his daughter, and so the lion must first remove all his claws, and then all his teeth. After that, with the lion defenseless, the woodcutter killed him with an ax.

As for the legionaries, all that was preserving them was their unity. And their swords. It was under the white flag of truce that an Arab entered the camp of the fatigued, despairing Romans. Talking to the commander, loud enough to be heard by the legionaries, he proposed the Romans lay down their weapons and depart in peace. Back in those days a desert enemy’s word was no better than the word of a 20th century Russian communist. The commander knew this, of course. Imagine his intimidation, though, when his soldiers started banging their swords on their shields as a message to him: Take the offer! It did not end well… Their problem, as Plutarchus knew, was that their minds had been fouled by fear. They couldn’t think straight; they daren’t let themselves remember Aesop.

In my own sweet sunny 20th century childhood I was privileged to read the story of the lamb and the wolf. You probably know it. A lamb and a wolf, some distance apart, find themselves drinking from the same stream. The wolf snarls, “You are stirring up mud into my water, I should eat you for that.”

The lamb innocently replies, “Oh no sir, you are upstream from me.”

The wolf snarls, “You insulted me at this very stream last winter.”

The lamb innocently replies, “Oh sir, that cannot be, for I am a spring lamb.”

The wolf cries, “If it wasn’t you then it was your father!” and he leaps! …. As Aesop knew, the wolves of this world will always find “reasons”; trying to argue about “reasons” is like chasing a rainbow. How strange then that in 2014 we seem overly concerned with addressing and repeating Vladimir Putin’s “reasons” for taking over part of Ukraine. At we least we know better than to name the Russian people or their government. The wolf is the authoritarian, Putin.

I suppose “everybody” knows Aesop’s fables. God knows human nature hasn’t changed in two millennia. Just last Friday the prompt for my Friday Freefall writer’s group was “everybody knows.” A lot of good humane pieces came out of that prompt, and my political-essay one, too.

The Future
If you are reading this in the future, safe and smug, in some dusty cyber library, you may be contemptuous, thinking, “What’s wrong with the people of 2014? Why couldn’t they just acknowledge that “troops without insignia” were in fact Russian troops on Ukraine soil?” The answer, my friend, is that fear was fouling our minds. We dare not see, not clearly.

In safer times we could indulge in false fears. I dimly recall that after the US bombed Libya, and again, after advancing into Kuwait, my leftist friends in the Women’s Center excitedly telling how they and their children were fearful of a third world war. While I no longer move in leftist circles, I am confident that no one is saying that now. This time we can’t get so excited: the issue is too grave, the fear too real.

Maybe next time we’ll have a contingency manual of sanctions prepared in advance so we don’t have to scramble so foolishly for so long, feeling so embarrassed, seeking viable sanctions. But then again, knowing human nature, preparing such a manual is as unlikely as being unified and firm. 

The Present
April 4, Free fall prompt: Everybody Knows

Everybody knows that evil needs no excuse; we’ve all heard the story of the wolf upstream from the lamb that accuses the lamb of muddying the water. Everybody knows, from the days of communism, not to believe claims of jungle guerrillas: “We are only ‘agrarian reformers.’” Everybody knows that if it waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. Call a communist a communist. Yet if some Russians remove their army insignia, we claim to say they are troops without insignia. If Russia trumpets excuses for annexing innocent countries—along with encouraging beatings and midnight killings—then we will keep trying to address those reasons, and we’ll keep repeating them. Along with repeating “troops without insignia.” Let’s just stop it.

Maybe we can’t stop a bully, but we don’t need to feed him tea and cookies either. Let’s not be afraid to make value judgments. Let’s say, “I am not a lamb, but everyone knows you are a wolf.”

Sean Crawford 
Under the blessed shield of NATO,
A shield held up by young men and women willing to be uncomfortable
2014 A.D.

~I show my Friday Freefall writing class in my essay Freefalling Into Politics archived March 2014.

~Plutarchus knew about fear. He would show brave and famous people being sleepless and afraid in their tent on the eve of battle. I read the Lives of Plutarch because the cowboys in the Louis L’Amour westerns, who had to travel light, often carried Plutarch. (His Roman name was Plutarchus)