David Bruce: Problem-Solving Anecdotes

• Comedian Milton Berle once guest-starred on Marlo Thomas’ TV series That Girl, and he was a pain in the butt, complaining constantly about everything. Things got so bad that Marlo telephoned her father, the comedian Danny Thomas, to ask for advice. Danny told her, “Ask him to spell words that begin with R.” This, of course, makes no sense whatsoever, so Marlo replied, “What? Ask him to spell words that start with R? What are you talking about?” Danny told her, “Just do it.” Marlo yelled to Milton, “Hey, Milton, how do you spell recluse?” Milton replied, “R-E-C-Q-U-L-S-E,” and people laughed. Then Marlo yelled, “How do you spell remember?” Milton replied, “R-E-M-M-M-E-M-M-M-B-M-M-E-R-M,” and everybody laughed. As soon as Milton got a few laughs, he stopped complaining. Marlo says, “Milton just wanted to feel comfortable. And he felt comfortable when people were laughing. Now he could go to work.”

• Lindley Miller Garrison served as Secretary of War under President Woodrow Wilson. Much of the reading he had to do in office was dry and boring, but once he came across something interesting. A colonel had ordered a lieutenant to take 15 men across a swamp, but although the lieutenant was a capable man, he did not want to do so, arguing that the mud was too deep. However, under orders he made the attempt, but returned with himself and his men covered with mud. The lieutenant told his colonel, “Sir, the mud is over my men’s heads. I cannot do it.” The colonel then ordered the lieutenant to requisition anything that was needed for him to take 15 men across the swamp, so the lieutenant filled out the necessary requisition form: “I want fifteen men eighteen feet long to cross a swamp fifteen feet deep.”

• Educators tend to be creative problem-solvers. For example, a number of schools in England had problems with girls wearing skirts that were much too short and violated the schools’ dress codes. Teachers were spending too much time enforcing the dress code, and they wanted to spend more time teaching. They solved the problem of too-short skirts by banning skirts altogether. Now girls as well as boys have to wear trousers. Publicly funded Nailsea School is one school that banned skirts. Headmaster David New says about the dress-code violations that resulted in the ban, “We didn’t want to waste any more time on it. [The ban] just means that teachers can concentrate on what’s important in education.”

• Kathleen Engle, a middle-school physical-education teacher in Newcastle, Wyoming, is famous there for her toe talks. When kids are mean to each other, perhaps without realizing it, she makes the kids touch their toes when she lectures them “about their behavior, how it looks to others, and whether they realize what they’re doing.” Why make the kids touch their toes? She explains, “Because they’re staring at their toes, they can’t play off of each other with the rolled eyes and the shrugs and touching each other. Because when they’re looking at each other, they’re not listening to me.” This really works. She says, “Often kids will come to me and say, ‘I didn’t really realize what I was doing.”

• In August 2005 a team of cheerleaders attending cheerleading camp in Ann Arbor, Michigan, witnessed a hit-and-run accident. In order to remember the license number of the car driven by the hit-and-run driver, they turned it into a cheer. Kimmie Ostrowski, senior captain of the Lincoln High School varsity cheerleading squad, and junior co-captain Amy Sirois led the cheerleading squad, which has nine members, in chanting the license plate number until police arrived. Ms. Ostrowski said, “We just started to chant it so we’d remember it and help them get the guy.” It worked. The police traced the license plate number and found the driver.

• What is a polite way to stop talking to someone on the telephone? Mike Desert remembers talking to Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. After they had talked for a while, Kathleen said, “I need to run because my bath water is running.” A week later, Mike’s girlfriend of the time talked to Kathleen on the telephone, and after they had talked for a while, Kathleen made the same excuse! Mike is OK with that. Now, when he needs a polite way to stop talking to someone on the telephone, he says, “I need to run because my bath water is running.”

• Rosanna Gartley, a nurse in McKees Rocks, PA, had an elderly patient who was a problem-solver. He needed foot care, which normally required a 10-minute pre-soak. However, he showed up wearing shorts and rubber boots and said that he didn’t have time for a pre-soak: “I’ve got things to do.” He had gotten up early, put on rubber boots and filled them with water, and then gone about his daily routine, which included gardening and having coffee with friends. Ms. Gartley writes, “He had the cleanest, most shriveled feet I have ever seen!”

• Norman Rockwell used children as live models for his paintings, but sometimes they grew fidgety. He found a way to help keep them still. He paid the children 50 cents per hour, with the child model posing for 25 minutes and then taking a 5-minute break. At the start of a modeling session, Mr. Rockwell would put a pile of nickels on a table, and at the end of each 25-minute modeling period, he put five nickels in a stack to show the child how much money the child had earned.

• At age 16, Jessica Hopper started a band that opened for DIY band Fugazi in the Twin Cities. This was a highly coveted job, and many, many Twin Cities bands had telephoned the club’s booker to ask to be the opening band. How did Jessica’s band get the opening slot? Simple. She telephoned Fugazi directly. She says, “It worked — and p*ssed off every other band in town, because we were terrible.”

• In 1993 at the Hong Kong Open, rain washed out the first two rounds. Greg Norman wanted to practice despite the rain, so he hit golf balls through an open window in his hotel residence into the harbor. And yes, he won the Hong Kong Open.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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