The winding road to good judgment

Let's all agree right now that we are going to be decent to one another, regardless of the decisions we make or the different directions we may be headed. The kind of thought it takes for each of us to judge another's situation is too complicated for us to think ill of one another.

A guy cuts you off in traffic, someone commits to a party and then doesn't show, a colleague doesn't hold up his or her end of the deal. I suppose we have to take others' actions into account when we make plans, but we should be as kind as possible in how we treat someone, regardless of the silly things we think they do.

I've done lots of silly things! If I could go back - man, would I do things differently. I'd change about everything I've done except marry Kerry, and even that was probably ill-timed. But I think the "Star Trek" TV-show writers were right: If Captain Picard had been allowed to undo that one poorly thought-out night - a bar brawl when he was young - he never would have become the man we watched season after season. Maybe that poor decision made him into that guy.

And that brings us to Larry Mayo.

Larry is one of the world's most respected glaciologists. If you need to know how old it is, where it's going, and how long it will take, Larry's the guy to ask. He flies all over the world studying everything about glaciers, and teaching those who care. But at home in Fairbanks, Alaska, sheep are his thing. He and his wife, Gail, might be the hardest-working sheep farmers in the world, making a go of it during the long, cold subarctic winters.

So they had the good stuff wherewith to fertilize my vegetable garden. Kerry's garden, actually, I was just labor. Every spring we would drive our '63 Chevy 4x4 pickup to their place and fill 'er up. One spring was particularly mucky. It was taking longer than usual to melt the snow, run it away, thaw the ground, and then dry it up. Spring is always long that far north, but that year Kerry was particularly antsy to get started.

We didn't see Larry walking up the road, as we were trying to decide whether the ground was solid enough for Moby Dick - the great white whale of a pickup - to make it across the field and back without tearing up the field too much. It's one thing to rob a man of his manure, it's another to leave big ruts in his beautiful field.

After watching us walk back and forth trying to decide if the ground was solid enough, Larry asked what we were doing. "Trying to decide what Larry Mayo would do," I said. "He's pretty smart, been around a while, I know he wouldn't tear up his neighbor's field. He's got good judgment."

Larry laughed and agreed, and offered to share his secret with me. "You know how a guy develops good judgment, don't you?" I was all ears, waiting for the wisdom of the ages to be bestowed on me. "Through experience."

Um, OK, I guess.

Then he says "And you know how a guy gets experience?" Again I'm all ears. "Through bad judgment."

I was on my way! If the sure path to good judgment was found by exercising bad judgment. I had plenty of that, no question! No problem, no worries; all I had to do was to keep being a bonehead, and my success was assured. What a relief. I think.

Moby Dick made it in and out that day with only minor wear on Larry's pasture. The garden went well that year as usual, thanks to the sheep and a lot of hard work. But it's not as though Larry survived the relationship entirely without his patience being tested.

A couple of years later, I borrowed $6,000 from Larry to buy the materials to finish building a roof on our house as winter was closing in. I was unable to pay the loan back on time. Bad judgment. He had a tired 1944 Farmall tractor, though, and I had a toolbox and a lot of energy. Experience. We finished the house without any more loans from friends, and haven't done that sort of thing again. Good judgment.

It all works out, struggling our way along trying to figure things out. I am grateful to the people who suffered through the times I've been clumsy. I don't do it as often anymore, thankfully. These days I'm tempted to be more patient when someone talks during a movie, shows up late, doesn't do what he or she should, or pushes a really bad idea.

If you think about it for a minute, it's pretty impressive how many judgments we all make every day. Starting with the decision about when to get up, it's remarkable that things don't get mucked up any worse than they do. The world is without our footprint every morning when we start.

So let's agree that we'll be decent to those who impose on us while they are gaining experience. At least we know that they are actively taking the necessary steps to develop good judgment.

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