Saving a lot of money and almost getting killed


(Originally written Aug. 30, 2014. This is an edited version of that)

Dear Ezra and Lian (when you’re a little older),

A couple weeks ago, my co-worker and I helped save the people of Ontario a lot of money. It’s not a big deal. The people I work with do this sort of thing all the time. Nobody congratulated us or gave us a gift. It was just another day at work. Within a couple hours, I had made a few paper work mistakes. My intelligence and work ethic were being questioned. It was all in good fun. It’s what people, especially guys in an industrial environment do. They laugh at one another when they make mistakes. Then we fix the mistakes. It’s a little bit mean, but my little buddies, you need to learn to let things like this go. You will get yourselves needlessly upset if you don’t. You will waste too much energy on it. Take satisfaction from doing a job well. Smile at the jokes, keep your head down and keep on working.

My co-worker asked a good question. I went and argued his case. Due to a miscommunication and misunderstanding, one of our generators was going to be shut down for 40 hours longer than it needed to be. “Equipment breaks and people make mistakes.” It’s one of the first things I learned when I started working full time when I was 19. Same job as I have now. Even highly trained and paid professionals make big mistakes. There was going to be a lot of chances to correct this mistake and I’m fairly certain someone else would have found it. “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It was just a stupid mistake. No one was trying to rip anybody off. Maybe I’m more forgiving than I should be, but you both need to learn to forgive people their stupid mistakes. It is not just good for them. It’s good for you. You can’t spend your whole life hoping people get what they deserve. You will be miserable. Let it go.

Here’s a story from 20 years ago when I was 21 that will tell you what I mean. I had a little job to do at work; close 2 little valves and open another. Hang yellow tags on all 3. I found the right valves. Just then, two other operators walked up and took off a yellow tag off the bottom of a tank near me. They walked away and I started my job. I closed 1 valve and put on the tag. Then I noticed the floor drain 1 foot away from me started to have some steam come out of it. Hmmm. I opened up the second little valve and put a tag on it. Now there is water and steam bubbling out of the drain. I go to close the last valve, but I hesitated. I looked at the drain again. I stopped what I was doing. I walked behind the elevator, picked up the phone and called my supervisor. “Hey, buddy, I’m here on the Turbine Hall doing this job. Two guys were doing a different job and now there’s some water bubbling out of the floor drain. Do you know what’s going on? Is that normal?” (Remember I’m young and inexperienced.) My supervisor said, “How much water and steam is coming out of the drain?” So I put my head around the corner to see about a 50 foot column of boiling hot steam and water shooting out of the floor drain right where I was standing. 1000s of litres of hot water was shooting in the air and spilling all over the floor. If I had stayed there 2 minutes longer to finish my job, I would have been cooked alive. It would have been very painful way to die.

I was in such a state of shock, I don’t remember anything from there until I got to my big boss’s office hours later. We went over what happened. The drain pipe on the tank had 2 drain valves which is not normal. The guys taking off the yellow tag thought the 2nd valve with the white tag was already closed, so they left the yellow tagged valve open. The guys who wrote the procedure thought the white tagged valve would get closed. We used to write all these procedures by hand. Recently we had started using computers. It saved a lot of time and stopped a lot of spelling mistakes. However, when it created a “de-isolating” procedure, it just did the reverse of the “isolating” procedure. The writers didn’t check close enough and make changes. They should have written to have both valves closed and assumed nothing. As hot water came into the tank, it went through the open valves and down the drain pipe to a “sump”. When the sump and the pipe filled up, the pressure pushed all the boiling hot water up through the open floor drain and all over the spot I was standing moments before. Assuming too much and putting too much faith in new technology caused this accident.

The station manager convinced me that nobody had really made a serious error. It was the fault of bad information and a bad computer program. He asked me not to write a Significant Event Report. (The big ones, get read all around the world-wide industry.) At the time, it made perfect sense. I was eager to forgive everyone and move on. So I did. Unwittingly though, I was covering up a serious mistake. All the procedure writers, computer programmers and workers needed to hear this story. Things needed to change so that it never happened again. Instead, I walked around work for over 17 years never telling anybody. I didn’t want anyone’s reputation to get hurt. That was dumb, dumb, dumb.

Paying attention and thinking that maybe something is wrong saved my life. Assuming everything was safe and not paying attention for just a minute meant these guys almost killed me. This is why I get more upset with you than I should when you don’t pay attention. Bad things happen when people lose focus on safety. I’m trying to protect you from a dangerous bad habit.

If I had died, I would have been the 7th nuclear power worker to die in North America and 1st in Canada. My accident would have been front page news and studied for years by those in my industry. Grandpa and Grandma would have been offered a lot of money not to sue the company. If it went to court, it would have received a lot of attention. Given the circumstances, there was probably criminal negligence causing my almost-death. Anti-nuclear activists would have used this accident as “proof” of an unsafe industry needing to be shut down. It would have been a political and legal storm swirling over my dead body. I’m glad I listened to that overwhelming sense that something wasn’t right and moved. It would have been terrible to put my family, friends and co-workers through all that.

Keeping secrets is silly. Usually the bad stuff we worry about doesn’t happen. You will carry an unnecessary burden trying to protect yourself and others. Just tell the truth and free yourself. Keeping secrets is stupid. Others miss out on a chance to learn from our mistakes. Kids, please learn from all of mine.




P.S. Next time I tell you about one of my secrets or mistakes, I will make it a lot shorter.

Anything Can Happen in India # 3



tim 82

Dear Ezra and Lian,

Every time I think about that photograph, I chuckle. There’s Auntie Beth and our friend Sarah. They have these crazy, forced, embarrassed, awkward smiles. They each have a garland of flowers around their necks. They are being welcomed by the local dignitaries from a small town near Nashik in Maharashtra. You see at that exact moment, there is a huge express train with about 2,000 people on it. They were travelling from Bombay to Calcutta. People are sticking their heads out the doors and windows looking to see why their train hasn’t been moving for the last 20 minutes. They are staring at Beth and Sarah. They are staring at me and Mommy. They are staring at your Grandpa, a bunch of police officers and dignitaries dressed all in white. On the train platform, there is a whole little ceremony taking place.


Since your Grandpa was then the Inspector General of Police for the Nasik region which included this town, he and his family had to be properly feted and welcomed. He was there to say goodbye to his recently married daughter and son-in-law. They were travelling to Mizoram. The whole time, the train conductor is pleading with us to get on the train. I am worried that the train will leave without us. Grandpa’s right hand man says a few words in Marathi to get the conductor to hold the train for us. The train doesn’t move and around 2,000 people have to sit and be inconvenienced by this ceremony. The Canadians were dying of embarrassment. That is India. Time is not as important as it is here in Canada. “Important” people have a lot of power and common people make way for them and their kids (that is, us). Ceremony is very important. No one ever stops a ceremony, parade, festival, wedding, funeral or party because it’s too much of an inconvenience, too noisy, too late, too big, or too unsafe. Everyone just steps around it.

There was nothing for me to do, but grin and bear it. I was garlanded. I gave my “Namastes”. I posed for photographs in my sweat-stained white t-shirt and dirty brown khakis. I felt sorry for the people on the train. There was nothing I could do for them, but board as quickly as we could once the ceremony was over. This is India. Anything can happen.




Dear Ezra and Lian,

In December, 1999, it was between the First and Second Intifada. There was peace in Israel and Palestine. The Palestinian Authority especially were making an extra effort to welcome tourists for the new millennium celebrations. There were big plans for Christmas Eve programs in Bethlehem.

It was a special time. I feel privileged to have been there at that time. There were tens of thousands of foreign tourists. Every day we made new friends and would hang out and do stuff together; especially us backpackers. One day, a Buddhist friend from the U.K. and I decided we should visit Hebron. We didn’t take an Israeli Egged bus. We took a Palestinian bus leaving from the Damascus Gate.

The bus dropped us off in the centre of Hebron. We set out for the Cave of the Patriarchs, one mile away. As we walked along the street, there were two young men watching us. As we approached, one of them, pulled out a handgun and pointed it at me. I did a bit of stutter step, but I kept walking.

Strangely, the two guys never said anything. They never motioned with the gun for me to stop or to raise my hands. So I didn’t. I maintained an expressionless eye contact. I never said anything or gave any gestures of any kind. But I kept on walking. I don’t think my friend saw the gun. We never talked about it. After about 30 second of walking, these guys were now about 50 feet away from me, so I turned my head and looked straight ahead. After about a minute, I let out a sigh of relief as I figured they were too far away to shoot me now. Since I can still walk now, you’ve probably guessed that they did never fired a shot at me.

About 10 minutes later we arrived at the Cave of the Patriarchs. There was a large unit of Israeli soldiers there (about 30). They provided security for this famous site. They were completely kitted out with machine guns, grenade launchers, mortars, automatic rifles, armoured personnel carriers and jeeps. They were doing running drills carrying their weapons. My friend wanted pictures with them. I took photos of him hugging young, smiling Israeli soldiers or they would pretend to be shooting him. After having a Palestinian pull a gun on me earlier, I figured I didn’t want the picture in my camera. Besides, I never used to be much for pictures.

When we went back to Jerusalem, we ended up on a bullet proof glass, tour bus. We left right from the Cave of the Patriarchs. That seemed the better way to go.

Now your Grandpa in Mizoram survived an entire career as a police officer in India. I know he experienced more dangerous things than this. I’m sure he could give you some great professional advice about staying safe. He was also the State of Maharashtra Police Pistol shooting champion. All the same, here’s an amateur’s take on things.

I had spent about two weeks enduring Palestinian violence. I had been hit with stones flung from slingshots (it hurts a lot). I had seen girls get hit and cry their eyes out with the pain. I had seen a huge fight between UN peacekeepers and Palestinians at the Damascus Gate (they were provoked by the so-called peacekeepers.) I had seen Palestinian men shout violently at young women for wearing shorts or eating during Ramadan. By the time, I arrived in Hebron, without even realizing it, I was now resisting their authority to order people around. If you point a gun at me, I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of watching me easily surrender to your will. You are going to have to order me to stop and raise my hands. You want to rob me? Walk over here and take my wallet. I won’t stop you.

It was stupid, but this is why young men do stupid stuff and get themselves shot. Push a man around long enough and he will resist. Imagine if you lived in a place where you spent your whole life like that. You won’t easily cooperate with whoever is holding the gun.

It was even more foolhardy for those two young guys to point that gun at me. There were 30 Israeli soldiers eager, trained and completely outfitted to kill them. They just needed a good excuse. Pointing a gun at an unarmed tourist would be more than enough. Young men marking territory and claiming authority over the actions of others is another good way to get shot. There’s always a bigger bully with a bigger gun.

I spent my teen years and big chunks of my twenties sleeping in a bed with a .22 rifle and a 30 gauge shotgun beside or under it. (Cue the dueling banjos music.) Strangely I never shot those firearms or any other gun. Killing rabid or nuisance animals was grandpa’s job. My grandpas and uncles hunted a lot. I’m not afraid of them, but firearms are dangerous tools. I remember in grade school, looking at a schoolmate’s leg that had just had a .22 bullet pulled out. He got shot by a hunter carelessly firing into the air. That sort of thing happens around guns. Geography affects violence. It doesn’t happen randomly. Our old neighbourhood here in Pickering had become a much more violent and dangerous place than where we live now. Our family had no reasons to justify us to keep living there. When we had finally come to accept that fact, we moved. Hebron is one of those violent places in the world. I thought it temporarily had become peaceful enough to make a trip there worthwhile. I was wrong. I ticked a few things off my sightseeing list, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

Those who live by sword tend to die by sword, or at least see more death than usual. Those who carry firearms make themselves targets for violence. Often the good done by being a police officer justifies the accompanying risk. Before you decide to bear arms, think long and hard whether what you are doing is worth the risk.

My whole encounter in Hebron involved two young men reading each other’s faces and doing a risk assessment. We listened to the other’s body language and heard no real threat. It ended well because we correctly assumed that the other posed no risk to body or ego. I never yelled for help. He never shot. We both walked away alive. Ezra, buddy, because of your autism, this will be extremely difficult for you. Listening to non-verbal communication for many people with ASD is practically impossible. Atypically, you do have some ability doing this. However, don’t let this fool you into believing you will be good at in a life or death situation. Every year many non-threatening people get killed because their risk assessments get botched and communication breaks down. It’s not even easy for trained professionals. It’s much more difficult for amateurs.

There are two main strategies, Ezra, you need to use to compensate. First, you need to use your words. You need to vocalize the words, “I’m not a threat. I have autism.” Repeat it often. Someone may misinterpret your actions as a threat or a challenge. You need to say it out loud that because of your autism, you are not challenging them. Even teachers and their aides need to hear it. You are not being oppositional or confrontational. You just need some extra understanding.

Second, don’t go to places like Hebron, unless there’s some great purpose for you there. Taking a few pictures doesn’t count as a great purpose. It is far easier to avoid complicated or dangerous situations than it is to get out of them.

This letter is already too long. I will stop now.