Thursday, June 25, 2015

Today's lesson: Our ability to observe and report

Do you have memories of an elder entertaining you with personal tales? Harry relished telling stories of his life that could keep us engaged and teach a lesson. He never ran out of these off-the-cuff tales in his public speeches, at social occasions – and especially around the family dinner table. Ask him a question or bring up a topic, and he’d give us a story, starting with, "Did I ever tell you about the time ...?" I discovered the following story in Harry’s computer files, from an email in 2010.

Harry was probably telling us a saga, or maybe a joke, before Thanksgiving dinner in 2009. I recommend keeping a tape recorder handy for such moments.

People have the power to look, but do not necessarily see. They have the ability to see, but do not necessarily observe. Here’s a situation that has been acted out time and time again in classes teaching observation methods. 

Seeing is believing – or is it?
A redheaded man is standing at the podium on a stage delivering a lecture on observation to a class of seven adults, four men and three women. Suddenly a gunshot rings out offstage to the right. Two men rush on stage, one from the right where the shot was heard, and one from the left, both brandishing revolvers. Both are wearing ski masks. They meet at the center stage at the podium, and both face the speaker, turning their backs on the audience. Both point their revolvers at the speaker and both shoot him, two shots from the assailant on the right and three shots from the one on the left.

The speaker slumps to the floor, dead. The two killers run offstage, each exiting in the opposite direction from the side he entered. Through the entire episode, which takes less than 10 seconds, the audience remains frozen in their seats.

The witnesses are asked to write a complete account of exactly what they observed for the police, who arrived 20 minutes later, while the incident is still fresh in their minds. All of them saw the same things. Yet each one turned in a markedly different account.

How to explain it? The fact is no two people can witness anything in the same way. That is why all witness accounts of accidents are questionable. It is why police must have at least two witnesses who agree on what they saw – something very difficult to obtain. It is not my intention to teach you how to observe, but to tell you how I was taught to observe.

My first lesson was to describe the act I mentioned above. How many shots were fired? Describe the speaker. How many men came on stage and from where? What kind of guns were they carrying? Describe the men: tall, short, White, Black, etc. Describe the room: the number of entrances and exits, height of the stage off the floor level, number of steps to the stage? Describe all my fellow audience members in detail, etc.

Every one of the seven of us, who were already supposed to be partially trained observers, turned in different accounts of the same incident. All of us saw different things. None of us was completely accurate. 

Make it a habit 
So, we start all over with basics. Count the number of doors, entrances and exits. When you enter a theater they always tell you to look for the nearest exit. Well, look around for every exit and fix your mind where each one is. How many lights, bulbs in the chandelier, lamps? Note everything in a room, such as pictures on a wall and the number of windows, curtains, window shades, blinds, shutters, etc. Start by doing these things consciously, forcing yourself to observe everything. After doing so all the time, everyplace you go, you will find yourself doing it automatically. Then you graduate to the next of many levels.

At the next level, you start looking at the people you meet. You know how tall you are, so you have a basis for comparison. Estimate the height of each person you meet today. Then describe the body dimensions and features: hair color and style, complexion, skin color, shape – heavy, slim rotund, round, muscular, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, long-legged, short torso, shape of head, ears, eyes, eyebrows, etc.

If a friend of yours went missing, would you be able to give the cops a good description so they could look for him or her? What were they wearing when you saw them this morning or yesterday? You can practice by writing a description of a stranger you saw on the street today. Describe people till it becomes almost habitual. You will find yourself looking at people differently. 

The next level
You are a passenger in the back seat of a car and you’re taken for a half hour drive. When you get back, you immediately sit down and write a report of where you were. Describe every street, every turn, how many traffic signals, buildings, houses, anything unusual, etc. Even people you saw walking.

As part of that exercise, a few extraordinary sights were planted along the route, such as a man wearing an overcoat on a warm summer day and a woman wearing a fur coat. Later you go through the same exercise at night and later still you go through it again, blindfolded, when you describe everything you heard or smelled or felt. How many stops for traffic lights, how fast you were going, etc. 

The test
And here’s a test after you have achieved a fairly high level of competence at the skill of observing. Drive down one street of a residential area, slowly. Keep your eyes open and try to remember everything you see. Afterward, park the car along the curb and write down everything you saw. How many houses on the street, cars parked in driveways, people walking, mowers mowing, house numbers, license plates, picture windows in houses, color of paint on doors, etc.

I’ll bet you think that’s not possible, but you’d be surprised how you can be trained to observe and remember. To make it a little more difficult, wait till after dinner in the evening to write it all down. 

Let’s practice our observation skills with this 1970s photo. What do you see?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Dad's advice on reading and speeding it up (and why JFK called him on it)

Oddly, the only photo I found of Harry reading a book was to his grand-kids in late 1984. Its a good one, though, to honor his memory on Fathers Day.

Harry Zubkoff was a voracious reader and book collector; he pored through several books a week for pleasure during most of his life. (Where he found time to work, be a family man, and pursue other hobbies remains a mystery.) He filled bookcases and shelves throughout the house, and kept a hefty stack on his bedside table. It wasn’t easy getting him to part with his books each time he moved to a more suitable home.

Harry emailed the essay below to a young correspondent in 2010, at age 88. As in other essays on this blog, he imparts advice through a personal tale. By the way, I shortened this one; I never had the pleasure of editing Harrys writings until I started this blog. You see, it was always the other way around – I’d go to him for editing tips and creative quips (and thoughts on office politics).

No matter what profession you choose for your life’s career, one of the most important skills you can acquire is reading. Reflect on this for a moment. We learn to read beginning in kindergarten and develop that skill through the early grades of elementary school. Certainly, by the time we’re 8 or 10 years old, normally we have mastered the skill of reading. Right? Wrong!

The trouble is, most people never progress much beyond the basic reading skill they’ve mastered by the time they’ve reached 6th grade. The average reading speed of a high school student today is 350 to 400 words a minute, with a comprehension quotient of 85 to 90 percent.

I am as ordinary as they come. I have had to wear glasses to read since I was in high school. Near-sighted, but distance and depth perception is okay. I qualify for a commercial pilot’s license, where the vision requirements are stringent, but I need glasses to read a map flight chart. My starting reading speed was about 500 words a minute, slightly better than average, but not extraordinary. 

Take a course or do it yourself
Then I took a speed-reading course offered after hours at the Pentagon. One hour once a week for eight weeks. They measure your speed and test you for comprehension. At the end of the course I was reading 2,000 words a minute with 90 percent comprehension. I took the course two more times, six months apart. By the end of the third time, I was reading 4,000 words a minute. Over the next few years I regressed somewhat and finally settled down to about 3,000 words a minute – still respectable but not outstanding.

You have to force yourself to keep pushing it if you want to go above 3,000. BTW, these speeds are for light reading, like novels or magazine stories. For heavier stuff, like newspaper reports or study materials it goes down even further. No matter how much it slows down, however, it is still faster than the average speed of less than 500.

You don’t have to take the course to increase your speed. Some things you can do yourself, or force yourself to do. I should also mention that I was so enthusiastic about the course and recommended it so highly that they made it available to anyone in the Pentagon during working hours and supervisors could give their employees time off (with pay). I made everyone in my office take the course, some of them twice.

What they do in the course is, with a special camera, take a picture of your eyes as you’re reading. What they found was that everybody has the same bad habit. When you read a line, your eyes go back and scan the same line again. Why that happens, nobody knows. But in effect, you are reading that line twice. As soon as you become conscious of that fact, you can start forcing yourself to stop it. By stopping your eye from going back and scanning the line again, you can save a fraction of a second per line. Force yourself to go on to the next line and the next, etc., without going back to scan twice.

When you have mastered that, you will already have increased your speed considerably. The next step is to try to read a whole line at a time. Stop trying to read each word. You know, as we read we unconsciously mouth each word in our minds. Stop yourself from looking at each word. Stop thinking each word in our minds. Try to take the whole line into your head at once and then go on to the next line. In effect, take a picture of the whole line in your mind and then the next line and so forth till you get through the whole page. After doing this till you can do it without thinking, the next step is to try to take a whole paragraph at once. Now this may sound impossible, but believe me, it can be done.

Just master each step along the way and you’d be surprised at what your mind can do. 

A presidential anecdote
In the early 1960s, after Secretary of Defense McNamara had designated the Air Force as his Executive Agent to do what we had been doing for the Air Force – to do it for the whole Dept. of Defense and all its agencies, we started getting requests from other government agencies to provide copies of our publications for them. The White House was one of those agencies; specifically, the Office of the Press Secretary and the National Security Advisor asked us to send them material pertinent to their interests.

By the summer of 1963, I was sending the Press Secretary several dozen articles a day of special interest to the President, and he, the Press Secretary, Pierre Salinger, used to call me once or twice a week to ask for things. So a call from him was not unusual. One day, when I had sent him a really heavy bundle of articles to read, he called and the conversation went like this.

“Harry,” he said, “somebody here wants to talk with you.”

“Okay,” I said, “put him on.”

Next voice I heard: “Harry? This is Jack Kennedy.” As though I didn’t recognize that distinctive voice.

“Yes, Mr. President,” I had enough presence of mind to say.

“These articles you send me,” he said. “Do you read them all yourself?”

“Yes, sir,” I managed.

“Well, I just wondered,” he said. “I read about 4,000 words a minute myself and I have a hard time keeping up with it, along with all the other things I have to read. How fast do you read?”

“Oh,” I said, “I read close to 4,000 a minute, too, Mr. President. Do you want me to cut back on these things?”

“No, no,” he said. “I just want to be sure that you suffer as much as I do. Keep it coming, and thanks.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” I said, but, in truth, I’m not sure if he hadn’t already hung up.

I also recall that at a press conference some reporter asked him how he thought the press was treating him and he replied with that famous smile, “I’m reading more and enjoying it less.” 

This looks like the the early 1960s (notice the skinny tie). 
Could it be the day Harry spoke to JFK about – of all things – speed reading?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A story about the press – with humor and a challenge for all

When a social worker asked Harry, at age 92, to name an accomplishment he was most proud of, he answered, my writings. So, in honor of Harry's birthday on this day in 1921, I pulled out a magazine article published in 1970 – an old one, but one I know made him proud – called “The Press and Public Opinion.” I grabbed the following excerpts from the middle of the story because they show his signature use of humor in the form of anecdotes and analogies.  

Probably every President since Jefferson has had similar complaints [about the press]. Woodrow Wilson started his first conference by saying: “I feel that a large part of the success of public affairs depends on the newspapermen …” But before long he was saying: “I am so accustomed to having everything reported erroneously that I have almost come to the point of believing nothing that I see in the newspapers.” ...

President Truman once wrote to a reporter: “I wish you’d do a little soul searching and see if at great intervals, the President may be right.” And according to Theodore Sorensen, President Kennedy never challenged the accuracy of Oscar Wilde’s observation: “In America, the President reigns for four years, but Journalism governs forever.” ...
So government and the press, like it or not, live together in a sort of miserable marriage. It reminds one of the story of the disciple who asked Socrates whether it was better to marry or not to marry. “Whichever you do,” replied Socrates, “you will regret it.” ...

An old story illustrates this skepticism most apply. A fellow asked a friend what he should do about a very critical article in the newspaper. Should he demand a public apology or file a suit for damages? His friend listened to the complaint and then said: “What should you do? Do nothing. Remember, half the people who read that paper never saw that article. Half of those who did read the article did not understand it. Half of those who did understand it did not believe it. And half of those who believed it are not worth bothering about.”

Here's Harry around the time he wrote "The Press and Public Opinion," 1970 (when neck ties were starting to widen). I was in college then, although I first saw the article some three decades later when I started a position as a speech writer. That's when Harry went down to his basement and retrieved a pile of large file folders (those brown accordion folders that stand up, and a little dusty) and handed them to me to take home. They were from his Pentagon days, tightly packed with speeches, articles, poems, editorial tips, and -- best of all -- his archive of humorous anecdotes, scribbled or typed on papers and index cards. And, yes, I did recycle a few of his jokes.

A challenge, still relevant for all
On a more serious note, below are a few more paragraphs from the same 1970 article, “The Press and Public Opinion.” The last paragraph might look familiar to some of you.

Our elected officials risk a disastrous confrontation with the voters if they embark on an important policy without first making certain that large body of Americans is informed about it and has had an opportunity to discuss it. Whatever the government seeks to do – whether it seeks to negotiate an arms control or disarmament treaty, or a treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or an agreement to limit the production of ballistic missiles – there must be broad-ranging public discussion about the objective and the means of attaining it.

The discussion takes place primarily in two places, the Congress and the press. The people participate only vicariously, in a sense, but their concurrence is absolutely imperative to the success of any long-range policy. …

The ultimate burden, therefore, falls upon the individual citizen. If he wishes to be well informed, he must read widely in the press and listen widely to the broadcasts. No one example of either can serve him adequately. Moreover, he must add up what he reads and hears over a period of time and apply his own thinking processes to what he absorbs.

Did you recognize Harry's challenge in the last paragraph? It was his mantra: Read many news sources, or watch many TV news channels, before you make a decision about what’s true and right. I heard him give that challenge a hundred times over many years to anyone who would listen. And yet, how many of us really take the time to apply it?

Harry’s story about the press ends with – what else – a humorous anecdote. You can find the full article online. If that link doesn’t work for you, search the internet for “The Press and Public Opinion Air University Review.”

The joke’s on Harry
Cartoonists liked making Harry their subject. Does anyone know
the date or backstory for this one?

Friday, June 12, 2015

The value of learning and journaling, according to this self-educated man

In his elderly years, Harry mentioned in an email to someone close to him that their regular correspondence "gives me an excuse to write about my life, at least bits and pieces of it." He also said that he would save some of those emails in a file, like a journal. The excerpts below are from those saved emails. For me and other family members, they offer formerly unknown bits and pieces of my father's life.

I've always had a thirst for knowledge, so I read a lot and even studied subjects that interested me. So, in some ways I became what is usually called a self-educated man. That may be satisfactory to some extent, but it's not the same as the education you get in a formal way – in school. For one thing, in school you're forced to study some subjects that hold no interest for you. That in itself, disciplines you, forces your mind to work in ways that you don't like. Just doing that is valuable exercise for your brain.

The greatest value of a college education is the discipline it instills. And, the truth is, that while you may learn a little bit about the basics of a few things, you don't really start getting an education until you're out of school and working at your chosen profession. I missed that for myself. Now, I have to work very hard at trying to learn something that does not interest me.

It's easy for me to learn about things that I'm interested in. There's no end of information on the internet on almost every subject you can name. The trick is to distinguish between good information and bad or phony information. There's plenty of untrue or false info on the internet, too. So you cannot rely solely on what you find there – you also have to look elsewhere if you're doing research.

A little enterprise
Anyway, for a few years, in order to make some extra money, I started a little enterprise called "Articles on Demand." Believe it or not, there is a demand for people who can write articles on any subject. So, I was asked to write articles on some very weird things – for example, a 750-word piece on the number of fresh-water lakes in the world, where they are, how much water they contain, how they were formed, etc. Did you know that Canada has more fresh-water lakes than all the rest of the world combined?

That one went over so well that I was asked to do another on fresh-water rivers in the world. Did you know that the Amazon River in South America has more fresh water flowing in it than all the rivers in the rest of the world combined? Well, to do the research for those two pieces required more than just browsing the internet and, since I had no interest in it, I found it hard to concentrate on it, but I forced myself and ultimately found it interesting. It's the compiling of figures and statistics that I found hard to put together, but the final results after a lot of hard work, I found fascinating. 

At home in 2011, Harry pointed out to dear friends his name in Years of Upheaval, by Henry Kissinger. Could this be the book that Harry discovered his name in while auditing a university course after he retired? Harry refers to those college days in the paragraphs below. The tribute in Kissinger's book: "I owe a belated thanks also to Harry Zubkoff, whose news clipping and analysis service based in the Department of the Air Force has been of enormous value to US government personnel for years and has been an invaluable research aid for my staff in the preparation of White House Years and this volume." 

From mingling to keeping a journal
The year after I retired, I started taking courses at the U. of Maryland – subjects that interested me or that I thought I knew something about and just wanted to see what was being taught in school. Each semester I took one or two courses, and I did that for the next 15 years, from 1987 to 2003.

Now I found myself mingling with students from 18 to 25, because I was taking some undergraduate courses and some graduate school courses. And once again, I found myself treated by my fellow students like an ancient ancestor – or a wise old man who knew everything (that’s what grandchildren think) and someone they could come to for advice and counseling.

[Harry was referring to an earlier reflection, included in the previous post: “The art of listening and consoling”]

And again, I found myself being consulted about all kinds of problems as though I had all the answers. And again, I found that I was most helpful to these young people just by listening to them and asking some pertinent questions – which forced them, in a way, to clarify their own thinking.

And I learned something else – that if you want someone to think clearly about whatever problem he/she has, get him to write it down. Put it on paper. Nothing concentrates your mind on a specific problem or issue as writing it down on paper. That’s why I would urge everyone – including you – to keep a journal and put your thoughts and reactions to events and situations you encounter in that journal, not necessarily daily, but certainly regularly.

By a journal, I mean a loose-leaf notebook, so you can move pages around, rather than a bound book where the pages are fixed in place. I don’t mean a diary, which is simply a daily record of your activities, but a journal, in which you record your thoughts and feelings about people and events. And try to use words and adjectives that convey precisely what you are thinking.

For example, if someone upset you by a thoughtless remark, try to describe your reaction. Were you resentful? Furious? Enraged? Embarrassed? Astounded? Disappointed? Confounded? Disgusted? In other words, it’s not enough to be upset. Try to pinpoint exactly how you feel. You will find, when you do that, that you understand yourself better and you actually are either more or less upset than you thought you were. And maybe even more understanding of the person who upset you in the first place. What exactly did you dislike about the remark? See what I mean?

Harry's little black notebook 
Well, guess what else we found in the smartly cluttered office Harry left behind? Right – a loose-leaf notebook filled with brief, handwritten entries. However, rather than a journal containing his personal thoughts and feelings, it appears he jotted fictional musings that he could go back and grab for his story-writing hobby. Or, had he grabbed these musings from the stories he'd finished? Could the blurbs be factual, not fictional? Or, maybe, based on fact? You decide. See some samples from his notebook below this photo.

Harry's little black notebook is undated, though he may have 
kept it while he was attending U of MD classes after he retired 
(1987 - 2003). Future generations of our family should enjoy the
 look and feel of an ancient handwritten journal.

  • Why do I fly? I thought. For space? Might as well ask why I breathe. I guess, I thought to myself, sounding pompous in my own mind, it’s because I like the feeling of being part of a huge and powerful machine that’s been tuned to perfection but that takes its direction from me. The feeling of independence and linkage, operating in unison.
  • She had large (gray) eyes, a straight narrow nose, a nicely rounded chin, and a determined mouth with lips that looked eminently kissable.
  • The flickering fire threw pictures on the wall, shadows chasing each other around the room.
  • You probably don’t realize it yourself, but you have a look – well, when you look at someone like that, I think you scare them. They suddenly realize that you are … could be … dangerous?
  • I had grown adept at instilling confidence in people – usually a few kind words would do it. And after all, what does that cost?
  • He looked harmless; a short bald-headed, mild-mannered man, but behind that bland exterior was a mind as agile and sharp as any I’d ever known.
  • Once on the trail of something or someone, there was no turning back. Impossible to quit with the job undone, the chase not concluded.
  • The expression on her face mirrored her uncertainty, her doubts, her nervousness. Still half child, part woman, she did not yet know how to deal with men like me – too old to be a boy-friend beau, too young to be a father figure or uncle!
  • He saw the funny side of everything, and his lips twitched, continuously, as though he were about to break into laughter.
  • Everything we did was a sort of river, just rolling along like the song says, through time and through generations, with new people just like us coming along while the old ones floated slowly away, transients on the water’s surface, passing from view and from memory. No matter how well known, how celebrated and honored, in a short period of time as history goes, we’re all forgotten, nobody caring that we lived and accomplished and died and scarcely made any difference at all to the current crop of newcomers. Not good for the ego, is it?

I haven't read Harry's unpublished stories, still piled in old cardboard boxes. When I do, I'll keep an eye out for the musings from his little black notebook. He may have shared stories with friends or relatives; did he share any with you?

Friday, June 5, 2015

The art of listening and consoling

Long known for having a sympathetic ear, Harry often encouraged and consoled his employees at the office about personal matters, as well as their work. He might have been doing a lot of that around the time my mom asked him if he had any advice for me before I went out on my first "date" in junior high, maybe 1965. "Be a good listener," he said. I found the following excerpt in a letter in Harry's computer files. 

Harry gave advice, but more than that, he listened. This 
must be the 1970's (notice the wide tie).

In the government, in my job, every summer for about 25 or 30 years, I had summer interns working for me, young people we hired for the summer while they were in college. Some I had for only one or two summers. Some for three or four. Some I was able to hire full time or temporarily after they graduated. And a few who worked for me summers while in graduate school working on advanced degrees.

Throughout those years, I found myself supervising young men and women boys and girls between 18 and 25 generally. And, after a while it dawned on me that they looked upon me as a sort of substitute Big Daddy or maybe an Old Dutch Uncle. Many of them confided in me all kinds of problems from financial, to sexual, to addictions, to academic failures, to career goals, etc.

If they were getting advice from me, I was learning more from them. And, the most valuable thing I learned was how to listen. Listening, I have since discovered from conversations with experts, is the best therapy you can apply to troubled persons.

What about heartbreak?
I also found the following letter in which Harry consoled someone (not an employee) about a relationship. He obviously wrote it for one person, but if others may benefit, I believe it’s worth sharing.

I am keenly aware of how difficult it is to transmit knowledge and experience from one generation to another. In our case, separated by two generations, it is even more difficult. If you confide in your parents about your very personal love life (many young people don’t tell their parents anything), then you will have received words of wisdom from them by now. I do not have words of wisdom for you. I can only tell you how I feel and what my experience has been.

To begin, we are not all so lucky as to find that one person who was meant just for you, not in a lifetime of searching. We are not all so lucky as to recognize our soul-mate when first we meet. I was the luckiest of men when I realized in my teenage years that there was one person destined for me and I knew, even at that young age, that we would marry one day. We did, when I was 22 and she was 21, and it has now been 66 happy years.

But it doesn’t mean that I didn’t date other girls or she other boys. It is absolutely necessary that each young person, both male and female, meet and interact with members of the opposite sex before they can know for certain that any particular one is THE one. In that sense, you were only doing what comes naturally and you should feel no guilt about it. If he has not done the same thing, that would be unnatural. In any case, having strayed, so to speak, you are now in a better position to tell him that you realize that he is THE one for you. If he does not accept that, then he is the one with a problem, not you.

"I was the luckiest of men when I realized in my 
teenage years that there was one person destined for me."
Now, I am not so old that I can’t remember the anguish and the agony and despair that accompany a parting of the ways. Heartbreak is a phenomenon that everyone has experienced. You are not unique in that respect. But it’s also true that everyone who has experienced it has survived it. That may be small comfort for you, but how you survive it is up to you.

You have to keep an open mind and be receptive to new experiences, maybe even new romances. And be confident in the sure and certain knowledge that, if he is indeed THE one for you, he will find his way back to you. Believe it and sit tight and give him time to find his way. And know this, the male of our species is usually slower to learn than the female, slower to come to the realization of true love, and slower to recognize what he really wants.

I realize, of course, that it’s easy for me to say these things. What’s happening to you is not happening to me. I cannot feel what you are going through. But, I do have empathy and I do, I really do, know how you feel. But you will get through it, and emerge a stronger and more confident person, believe me.

Did Harry share an experience with you that helped you make a decision?