Draw Strings

We were in one of our monthly operations reviews a while back. Various operations managers held court, putting up on the wide screen arrays of numbers that numbed and points that seldom made a point. My mind tends to wander – as do my eyes – in such meetings and I noticed, to the left of the screen, an easel with a pad of 3M self-stick easel paper. On the sheet was a technical drawing left over from a previous meeting.

I had no idea what the drawing was supposed to represent. It looked like some kind of compressor with tubing and a circular object coming out of the loop. Perhaps it was a balloon. Of course it couldn’t be a balloon but, in the absence of more information, why not? For the ignorant, nothing and everything are possible.

The thing about the drawing is that it I’m pretty sure it was there when we met for the same operations review one month earlier. Yet another month went by and I – and, apparently, only I – noticed it was still there gracing the left corner of the conference room. Well, grace is probably a large word, because the drawing was as crude as it was curious.

Anyway, at a break, I sauntered up to the easel when no one was looking, took a marker and wrote Helium Machine under the drawing.

I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame – and then I drew that too.

A week or so after that, I went up to the easel and, when no one was looking, took a marker and colored in the balloon looking thing. I made it a bright orange, just so no one from Minsk to American Samoa could miss it. A few days later, I drew a pin with the no (circle-backslash) symbol around it. Underneath, in print letters, I wrote NO BURST.

This went on for a long while, new elements being added to the sheet with each passing month. On the lower left, I drew the edge of a table, onto which were placed, in sequence, some very colorful balloons, a party blower and, finally, an invitation to Jane’s birthday party. I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame – and then I drew that too.

To be fair, every element looked sort of technical. I even wrote in a mathematical formula with a sigma, a cosine and several square roots. Not once, in the seven months since some engineer first drew some device on that easel did any of the senior managers say anything about it or the absurdly complex and highly suggestive post-modern piece of artwork that it had now become.

I guess broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow was right. The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.

H.O.G. Tied

Early in my career at the Small Office, I became friendly with a guy in shipping – a foreman we used to call Snake. His nickname had nothing to do with his personality and everything to do with a stunning diamondback rattlesnake tattoo that covered nearly the entirety of his back. He did a few favors for me and, when the time came, I put in a good word for him, helping him get promoted to supervisor. He always had a walkie-talkie attached to his hip and, when a crackely voice would reach out through the static, he would acknowledge it with an “I am listening”. The “I am listening” became his trademark – even more so than the rattler.

Well it happened one day that I was going to a funeral way out in the East End. It is a thing in the Small Office that when a close relative of an employee dies, a notice goes up on the bulletin board and, almost certainly, a crowd will gather and find its way to the funeral. In the company of our pretty but poutish advertising manager, Whiny Baby, and Sue O’, my assistant, I made my way to an older, less savory part of town.

It was around lunchtime and we had time to kill before the funeral, so we drove around looking for a place to eat. We had no idea where we were or what was available. My best guess was nowhere and nothing, respectively.

We eventually found a hole-in-the-wall eatery and decided not to be choosers. We parked the car nearby and went inside. It was a bit divy, the menu was overly simple, the two grizzlies hunched over a corner table were sketch, and the waitress was rather indelicate to say the least. All considered, I figured the food would be good.

It was like we had landed on the set of Chopper Chicks in Zombietown.

I heard a throaty rumbling outside and took a quick look. There were about a half dozen Harleys and a bunch of Hell’s Angels types congregating in front, no doubt for their daily prayers. I looked to the womenfolk and they looked back, eyes wide. It was like we had landed on the set of Chopper Chicks in Zombietown and everyone here was Billy Bob Thornton.

The waitress or whatever she was dismissively looked down at us. Well, she said impatiently, what’ll it be? I was thinking of asking for a tall glass of milk but thought better of it.

Just then, I heard my name called out. I spun around. It was Snake, all decked out like some outlaw biker. He roared, grabbed both my shoulders and practically hoisted me out of my chair. Snake barked at the waitress, told her to bring us all burgers and brews and then sat down to talk. Whew. So this wasn’t going to end up being the Northville Cemetery Massacre after all.

Well, we had a fine lunch: the burgers were really quite tasty, the beer icy cold, the conversation loud and friendly. We were joined by some of Snake’s buddies and all was very cool… even me in my Brooks Brothers suit. We eventually left for the funeral where things were… uh… more subdued.

The next day, as I walked through the shipping door to the office area, I got knowing nods from the guys. Word of our adventure got out and, suddenly, through no fault of my own, I had cred.

Smug and smiling to myself, I wondered, where I can go now that I’ve finally arrived?

Skip to My Loo

Earlier this week, I visited a distribution center in Boise. After a meeting in a makeshift boardroom and before a tour of the warehouse, I made a quick visit to the washroom. The men’s washroom was pretty basic but had all the necessities, including soap, a roll of paper towels and a Rubbermaid waste basket. The women’s washroom was an upgrade with an actual towel dispenser and a waste basket in blue and cream, with lilies and a lid. Oh, and there was also a mouse trap, indiscreetly placed just inside the door.

It startled me to see it and it startled me to see that it was just like the old, very crude, very nasty wooden snap traps they had when we were kids. Did people still use those things? Fear is indeed the parent of cruelty. The only difference that I could see with this variant is that the snap bar was at a 90-degree angle instead of 180 degrees. This way, I imagine, it closes much faster, so that the kill is quicker and, in a perverse sort of way, more humane after all.

Five little mice came out to play
Gathering crumbs along the way.
Out came pussycat sleek and fat
Four little mice go scampering back.

What would they do with the little nibbler if they actually caught it?

Understand that this is not some dingy by the docks brick warehouse with rats and drug deals going down after dark. This is a modern, factory-built construct with bright lights, temperature controls, phone and computer hook-ups, slick if not swanky offices, a lounge, and a fully equipped kitchenette. It is only normal then that the casual visitor would be surprised to find this low-lying, low-tech terminator underfoot. Of course, there are quiet corners and half-eaten lunches left in open trash cans, so this Small Office branch might well be open for an after-hour nosh.

The trap business left me thinking. What would they do with the little nibbler if they actually caught it? I imagine the sight of a dead… uhh… disconnected mouse – a snout here, a tuft there – would be more horrifying than a live one and would elicit higher decibel screams. It could be, however, that the trap has been there for some time, almost as a deterrent, while the clever mouse, its whiskers quavering at the insult of it all, is having nothing to do with the nasty snapadoodle. And, I wondered, if there were to be a breach in security, would sitting put you in a compromising position with no defense or escape possible?

Finally, you have to ask yourself why there is the trap in the women’s washroom only. Is that where they found the droppings? Did one inconvenienced and shaken female patron see a furry little bugger disappearing behind the toilet? Were the men just more willing to look the other way or, in the words of writer and clergyman Ralph Connor, would they be more the cowards but for the shame of it?

I wondered about all these things with one eye scanning the obvious hiding spots.

Four little mice came out to play
Gathering crumbs along the way.
Out came pussycat sleek and fat
Three little mice go scampering back.

Going Bugs

Jack Anderson is a big man. Well, he’s a wide man anyway, with giant hands and an oversized head that fits uncomfortably on square shoulders. He is an important distributor for the Small Office and could, I guess, be forgiven for strutting about like a potentate. And flying like one with his very special toy, a Gulfstream IV corporate jet. He is extravagant to be sure, but generally manages to stop short of excess.

Our cordial and not quite so colossal CEO, the Man from Glad, Bull Terrier (our V.P. Sales) and I hosted Jack a couple of days ago. Our day began with the perfunctory coffee and muffins in a small conference room at our head office. It was one of those conference rooms with floor to ceiling glass on two sides, one looking in and the other looking out onto a grey Thursday morning.

Jack took his coffee black. He must have found the coffee quite to his taste, because he quaffed it rather quickly. While he talked, his thick hands casually reached out to the coffee pot and refilled his cup, a cool handcrafted ceramic mug that our marketing team acquired for us to use as gift items.

He had much to say over the next two hours and much to drink. At least four or five cups of coffee and, later, several small bottles of coke. This continued over lunch in reverse order, with coke the dominant drink followed by yet more coffee. Our curious and normally discreet CEO, his brow furrowed with concern, finally asked the question Bull and I had been withholding for the last few hours. He couldn’t help but notice that Jack was consuming an awful lot of caffeine. “I’d be on the ceiling by now”, he said.

Jack shrugged and explained how he was recently on vacation in South America – an Amazon cruise actually – and was bitten by some insect. He now has some unpronounceable and rather exotic disease and has to take a very strong medication for it. The medication makes him nauseous. The only cure for the nausea is caffeine. Hence all the coffee and cokes.

True to her nature, the wife repaid his devotion by running off with a wealthy sea captain.

There is Vietnamese folk tale that suggests the origin of the mosquito: A young man foolishly desired to resurrect his dead wife. She was a vain, self-serving kind of woman but, for reasons only known to him, he remained devoted to her. He made a deal with a genie to bring her back. All the resurrection would require was three drops of his blood.

True to her nature, the wife repaid his devotion by running off with a wealthy sea captain. Finally coming to his senses and deciding he no longer wanted any part of her, the young man asked for his three drops of blood back. Good riddance she thought to herself as she complied with his wish. She picked up a sharp knife and pricked the tip of her finger. But, as soon as the blood began to flow, the loathsome libertine died and shrivelled to a husk. She was reborn as the first mosquito. She set as her mission to bite her former husband, exact her three drops of blood, and return to human form. And, so the tale goes, to this day, mosquitoes bite humans, looking for that very same elixir of life.

So what, you may ask, is the connection between Caffeine Jack and the young man in our tiny tale? Well, nothing really. Unless, in their small obsessions, they were bitten by the same bug.

Three’s Company

“Be yourself, forget yourself.” I have no idea who said that and under what circumstances. Whoever and whatever, the idea is oxymoronic in the extreme. It is something like: Remember who you are but think nothing of it. Or: You are what you were but aren’t any longer. As a graduate of the School of Yogi Berra, it makes perfect sense to me that it doesn’t. Or is it the other way around?

On the other hand, listening to the odd way some people talk in the Small Office, you must wonder if they took this advice literally.

Angela is an office manager who has thick ankles and talks in the third person. She heads up a task force created to get the various, rather autonomous, divisions in the Small Office to combine their purchases in order to save money. I recently overheard her giving hell to an underling. “Angie is not happy that we overpaid for these business forms. Angie wonders why we didn’t bother getting three quotes. Angie wonders what certain people were thinking.” I can imagine what the underling was thinking… something like: maybe Angie should seek out a short pier.

Thomas, without looking up said, “I’m right here, Helen”.

Then there is Helen, a spinstery type who I believe was a sea urchin in a former life. She doesn’t talk in the third person; she talks to the third person. Helen is a coordinator in our Customer Care Center. I heard her telling an inside sales rep named Richard “Tell Thomas to not leave orders in the OUT basket when he goes home, hoping that someone else will pick them up the next morning”. She was not using her inside voice. Thomas, without looking up, said, “I’m right here, Helen.” Helen turned quickly to Richard and replied, “Tell Thomas that if he’s right here, he should enter his own orders before he leaves”. Thomas, without looking up, said nothing.

My favorite sideways talker is Don, our west coast sales manager with weirdly moveable hair. He was in a sales meeting and was addressing a dozen or so reps. It was his habit to turn every conversation into a question and answer period and to use the royal “we”. “Are we happy with our results?” he asked the assembled. “I certainly hope we aren’t. Are we going to do something about it? Yes, indeed we are.” Questions. Answers. We are twice blessed.

Was I witnessing a strange kind of displacement disorder or, perhaps, a subtle manifestation of passive-aggressive behavior? Or was it all simply a case of people being what they are and then forgetting themselves. The bard, anticipating Yogi Berra, would likely have said: To be and not to be.

Hire Education

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft-a-gley”
– Robert Burns from To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough

There is no doubt that even the best-laid plans can go askew. Including those that are well conceived by those who are well intentioned.

Someone is always being hired at the Small Office. Although I can see the benefits of adding new talent with diverse backgrounds and other points of view, my first inclination is to fill openings from within. Our calculating and, at times, contrarian CEO, the Man from Glad, prefers to go outside, caught up in the notion that recycling talent keeps the company where it is while adding talent moves it forward.

Matt is a talented kid who has the skills and the drive to be a good product manager. But he is young and has yet to prove he can successfully pilot a portfolio into fierce economic and competitive headwinds. Although his boss has lobbied for his promotion, our senior management – led by HR’s ominous overlord, the Black Widow – have their doubts. They’ll believe he could do it when he has done it and not likely before.

So we brought in a consultant to put Matt through a series of psychometric tests. These tests were designed to determine Matt’s ability to interpret numerical data, measure his critical and inductive reasoning skills, and evaluate his situational judgment.

It was a gruelling exercise conducted by a hardened and unsympathetic old timer.

“Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in they breastie!”
(Small, crafty, cowering, timid little beast,
Oh what a panic is in your little breast!”)
– Burns, To a Mouse

It was a grueling exercise conducted by a hardened and unsympathetic old timer. A very old timer. His bald head was decorated with age spots. A short, grizzled beard and sunken cheeks gave him the look of a Maine fisherman. His nose jutted out aggressively and his ears drooped. He was stooped, as if his 80 or so years were still carrying the full weight of his four marriages.

As it happened, the old gent took a liking to Matt. He informed Matt that the test results were surprisingly favorable and that he would recommend him for the job. His arthritic hands, shaking from Parkinson’s disease, clung tremulously to the test papers.

Matt went to bed that night, content and convinced that the world would be his very obliging oyster by the morning. The old timer went to bed that night and died.

He never submitted the results to his company or to ours. In fact, the results were not to be found anywhere. It was like it never happened. The Black Widow decided to hold off on the promotion. A month later, an outsider with a diverse background and another point of view got the job. And that was that.

“Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane.”
(Your small house, too, in ruin!
Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one.”)
– Burns, To a Mouse

Cheap at Twice the Price

“I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me.” – Warren Buffet

Okay, I concede. A 40-watt bulb in a cheap lamp gives off the same light as a 40-watt bulb in an expensive lamp. And a monkey dressed as a bum or dressed as a bishop remains a monkey still. But dim is dim and cheap is cheap; this is something I cannot get around.

It seems that there is competition among senior managers in the Small Office to prove who can be the prince of parsimony, the paragon of penny-pinching, the pearl of the paltry and the picayune. There is this idea that thrift equates to good corporate citizenship.

I recently described how our otherwise particular CEO, the Man from Glad, goes all penny-ante on me when it comes to hotel accommodations. In the past, I have written about a regional manager who surprised me as we exited a cab by leaping out almost before it came to a full stop. This left me alone to pay the fare and the tip. And there was the senior sales rep who, when he had to give a hotel staffer a tip, simply said, “Don’t plant potatoes in the fall”. Man Mountain, of whom we will hear more later, is a gargantuan fellow who covers more real estate than Century 21 simply by standing still. Yet when he flew into head office last month, he rented a Smart Car to save a couple of bucks. General Ledger, our CFO who pays even what is overdue grudgingly, gives restaurant waiters precisely 15%. That is, a before tax restaurant tab of $14.25 will net a waiter a tip of $2.14. He would pull pennies from his pocket to come up to the right change. Not a penny more, though he would brag that it was not a penny less.

The waiter looked at him with a dollop of disdain.

The other day, though, I believe we found our Black Knight of the nickel and dime. A few of us sauntered over to a nearby deli. A club roll is basically five different grilled deli meats on a hamburger bun. It is about $2 cheaper than a corned beef on rye. So Ned, a member in good standing in General Ledger’s white shirt brigade, orders the club roll. He then asks the waiter if he could change the hamburger bun to rye. He then asks the waiter if he could cut the five different deli meats to, say, one, namely the corned beef. Oh, and can he throw in a pickle?

Grasp all, lose all. The waiter looked at him with a dollop of disdain and said, shall I throw in fries with that? Ned smirked. The waiter kept looking at him, the dollop having grown to a gob. I’ll see what I can do, he said finally.

That, I thought to myself, is something I prefer NOT to see.