There is no pony.

The customer enters the pet store in which you are employed and he asks you for a pony. He says that no one else has been able to provide him with a pony, but his need for the pony is quite urgent. You try to gently explain that while you are running a pet store and a pony is sort of in line with the things you are doing, you do not actually have a pony nor the ability to get him one. As far as you know, no one in town does.

The customer becomes indignant and objects vigorously. Said objections boil down to two points:

  1. No one else can provide him with a pony, so you must.
  2. He really, really needs the pony.  It’s critical.

Tragically, the inability of other people to provide him with a pony has exactly zero relevance to the fact of your inability to provide him with a pony.  Similarly, his desperate need does not change the sad truth that you cannot provide him with a pony.

All you can give him is a basset hound with a toy saddle which may or may not have rabies; it appears superficially like a pony if you are myopic in the extreme, but will not actually serve any conceivable purpose of a pony and may very well come back to bite you.  The customer demands the possibly-rabid basset hound be called a pony, and says unkind things about you for not producing the pony when he first asked. Your boss, the store owner, tells you to sell the basset hound which most looks like a pony and least looks like it has rabies; you can call it a pony with several important caveats.

There is no pony.  There never was a pony.  There won’t likely ever be a pony.  A pony is not a thing you can provide.  You cannot ethically sell this as a pony.

Ideo bibimus.

So what are we reading?

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These were recovered from the landslide off the bookshelf next to my bed, which is too small by far.

Not pictured: dozens of emergency management and amateur radio magazines, several Baen science fiction paperbacks, David Hackworth’s About Face, Sebastian Junger’s War, and dozens of ebooks on my tablet in genres diverse and bizarre. Someday we’ll have a bed with integrated bookshelves all the way around.

All of these, incidentally, are highly recommended.  Although, in fairness, I’ve not completed all of them.

I love books.  I pity people who have somehow missed discovering the joy they can bring.  I credit my facility with words entirely to being a lifelong reader.  I can’t tell you the relief I felt when both of my sons (now 5 and 8) taught themselves to read and demonstrated an aptitude and interest in learning from the written word.  They can’t know what an incredible advantage in life that will be.

A story for you

I stumbled across my 9th grade English teacher on LinkedIn.  The profile was bare, just enough to be dead certain that it was her; it helps that she has a unique last name.

So I sent her a message with the subject line above.  This is what it said.

Once upon a time there was a boy who wasn’t all that great at much of anything that anyone seemed to value. He had an English teacher who made him write an essay for a contest, which he did with, in retrospect, perhaps too much panache. He won the contest. He had to read the essay to people. It was terribly awkward and he tried to downplay it because he really didn’t like being the focus of attention, even for a little bit.

But his teacher was absolutely convinced (or at least absolutely convincing, which to the boy was the same thing) that he could be a great writer and would of course do great things.

He didn’t–not right away, anyway. But he did keep writing, and he took limitations from his teachers (and later professors, and supervisors) as personal writing challenges. This final paper couldn’t receive full credit in less than 10 pages? Very well, he would write it in 9. That sort of thing. The challenge was fun.

He continued to prefer not really following directions except when it suited him. So of course he ended up joining the Army. It was something of an adjustment.

He discovered that not everybody was very good at writing, but he could sometimes help them get better. So he learned how to do that. And he learned the joy of editing where he could help writers polish (sometimes hack) away the imperfections of their writing and produce the thing they meant to write in the first place.

And sometimes he teaches classes full of young military people how to write things. And he remembers his teacher, and he tries to push that same confidence and determination to excel onto his students. He doesn’t know if he will succeed; it might take a quarter century, and he might never hear from any of them.

But he might.

You never know what you do that might have a very big impact on someone’s life.

Expectation management

Physically, surviving a military career is about managing your rate of death such that you still have something of your physical being left to enjoy in retirement.  (Twenty-year retirements make a heck of a lot of sense if you’ve ever encountered a twenty-year infantryman.)  Mentally, surviving a military career (or even a drill weekend)  is about expectation management.  As a general rule, military surprises are bad.  We don’t like surprises.  We’d much rather know the exact depth, length, and intensity of The Suck so that we may properly Embrace it.

If you promise us a barbecue at the end of a three-day training field exercise and deliver instead a chow hall taco bar, don’t be surprised if we fail to overwhelm in our enthusiasm.  If they promise me a five-day mission, I know now not to be surprised if it lasts seventeen days, but 2006-era me was rather unhappy about that altering-of-the-plan.  (The first and last time I ever wore that particular uniform; it was destroyed.)

Readers are the same way.  They have expectations based on what they think they are reading, and they don’t like to get lost or confused.  Challenged a little, perhaps, but no one likes to feel dumb.  It is often in your best interest to offer them a scenic viewpoint of the route ahead, perhaps a tattered road map, and the faintest hint of a breadcrumb trail as they go.  We are used to seeing these things in our reading, but we don’t always grasp their importance when we are writing.

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