Dark Horse

It was after supper. My wife and I were getting set for an evening of Downton Abbey with a side of some delicious apple crumble cake. I heard a familiar ping coming from the distant counter where I dump my keys and cell phone. A text was coming in. I could have just let it go and focused my attention on the misadventures of the Crawley family, vicariously joining so many suitors for the hand of Lady Mary. Instead, I allowed curiosity to get the best of me and checked out my message.

There was no name attached to the text, just a phone number. I didn’t recognize the number or even the area code. The message was short: Hi. I’ve been in an accident and am at the hospital undergoing tests. Will call you tomorrow.

What the heck, I (more or less) said to myself. This is serious. Someone I know is hurt and I have no idea who. I checked the phone numbers of colleagues at work and, when I came up empty, friends and relatives. It bothered me all night.

The next morning, I asked my assistant, Sue O’, if she recognized the number. She told me it was Phil Haggerty’s cell phone. Phil is one of the young upstarts we have looking into new ventures. He had just returned from a vacation in Europe. Phil may just be the healthiest person I know. (He is one of the all-organic lunchtime gym crowd I recently wrote about.) He has a beautiful daughter named Abigail who shows up at the Small Office from time to time. She would have been with him when the accident occurred.

He wasn’t sure to whom he was speaking and why.

Phil did phone me the next morning. He explained in a halting voice that he had gone horseback riding and was thrown by his horse. He landed on his back. Phil continued talking, but his speech was becoming increasingly slurred. He thought he heard a crack when he landed and he felt a searing heat go through his body. He couldn’t move. He was afraid for a second that he would be paralyzed. He then told me that he had undergone a number of tests and that the doctors had not said much to him. He had been given a shot of morphine not that long ago. By this time, the morphine was clearly fulfilling its intended purpose; I think that, at one point, he wasn’t sure to whom he was speaking and why.

Phil is a man in his prime. But he is also now in traction and possibly in trouble. It is an abrupt and startling turn of events.

Life has its highs and lows; we have to learn how to handle both with grace and dignity. Hence the wisdom of this American Indian proverb: It is not enough for a man to know how to ride. He must also know how to fall.

Throne for a Loop

Quid rides? Mutato nomine de te fabula narrator. (Why do you laugh? Change the name and this is your story.)

So here’s a few things you’ve got to know about black widow spiders. Not the Small Office version, not our head of human resources, filled with venom and shrouded in mystery though she is. No, the real black widows. They are rather shy creatures, preferring to stay low to the ground, hidden in dark corners. They seldom bite unless threatened or (literally) pressed hard and, even then, won’t necessarily waste their venom on you; they’d rather save it for a meal. The venom won’t kill, though it could make you quite ill.

Black widow spiders are also kind of neat, with a very complex system of communication. They can transmit very detailed messages using vibrations and pheromones deposited on the silky threads of their sticky webs. The scent will tell visiting males if his female host has mated before and if she is hungry. Both would be of keen interest to the male if this particular female is the kind that consumes her mate after sex.

Now you are likely very confused, still unsure if I am talking about black widows in general or the one in particular. I cannot blame you; personally, I can hardly tell them apart.

Anyway, our Black Widow has an office with its very own bathroom. It makes sense to be self-contained; everything HR should be kept under wraps after all. And low to the ground and hidden in dark corners.

Earlier this week, she had an important management meeting to attend and, knowing it was likely to drag on, decided to lighten her load. On this day, however, fortune was not on her side. Her toilet blocked.

So more latin: Media vita in morte sumus. Smack in the middle of the day, her life going along just fine, everything came to a sudden stop. Our Black Widow was in deep… uh… trouble.

Now she was not totally helpless. She had a plunger standing at the ready in a corner. And a knife and fork for that matter. This happened before and Black Widow knew what to do. She plunged. But nothing. She plunged again. Nothing again. Plunge, plunge. Nothing, nothing. This was not a good thing. The hourglass tattooed on her abdomen was filling with panic. Plunge, plunge.

She tried to break up the pieces, but the hardness she showed others was coming back to her in spades and the pieces held firm. The cookies, shall we say, wouldn’t crumble.

A stifled shriek could be heard through the door.

Time passed. The meeting had already started. The secretary poked her head in the doorway. Is everything okay? she called out to her boss. Black Widow answered her meekly. Vibrations. Pheromones. She tried to explain her dilemma as delicately as she could. The secretary tried not to laugh. Don’t press the spider.

Well, whoever said “a trouble shared is a trouble halved” wasn’t in Black Widow’s office that day.

Her colleagues, wondering where she was, decided to check in on her. The first to arrive was – fortunately for her – Rigor Mortis. He has a calmness about him that is contagious. Is everything okay? he asked the secretary. Not quite so, came the reply. Does she have a plunger? Yes. Always. Does it have a flange at the bottom? He asked our awkwardly inconvenienced arachnid though the door. Is the flange out? I can help you if you need. Noooo!, Black Widow wailed.

General Ledger then appeared, straight as an arrow. To the heart. Then Bull Terrier. When the nature of this particular beastly situation became apparent to him, a wicked smile began to form at the corners of his lips. Can I help, he asked our mortified araneomorph. Plunge, plunge. I don’t want to bowl you over with advice, he went on. All that plunging must have made you quite flushed. He snickered.

The Black Widow went into a frenzy, pumping so hard, the soupy mess splattered all over her pants and shoes. A stifled shriek could be heard through the door.

Our supportive and mostly sensitive CEO, the Man from Glad, entered the fray. As did his bosomy secretary, Miss Pigeon. The circumstances may not have been auspicious, but you have to give Black Widow credit: she is certainly able to draw a crowd.

Well, Miss Pigeon may be top-heavy and hard to take but, as in the Desktop Affair, she took matters in hand (so to speak) and shooed everyone out of the room. She called down to maintenance and apprised them of the situation. Then she told Black Widow to clean up and get out. This she did… and well she did because the maintenance guy appeared shortly.

Undeterred by the odiferous and oleaginous slop, he worked on the blockage and quickly resolved the issue. He left with a tip of his cap and without a word.

Aesop’s fables made use of humble incidents to teach great truths. There was no great truth to our tale, however, no moral to learn, no aetiological function to derive. There was nothing to learn from it at all except, perhaps, that misery does not really love company. But, like a traffic accident, it certainly manages to attract it.

Hired Gun

“The average girl would much rather have beauty than brains because she knows the average man can see better than he can think.” (Ladies’ Home Journal)

Linda is responsible for social media. To be honest, the Small Office pays lip service to social media, being more of a “push” kind of company than a “pull” one. It focuses on the channel first and the end user second. Few of our C level executives know the difference between Instagram and Pinterest and most can’t imagine why they would care. They know about Google, but Google+? None would ever tweet or blog. The notoriety, accessibility and reciprocity that make social media work make them nervous. So Linda has her work cut out. And she works for Whiny Baby, which has its own challenges.

So it was a big deal when the company agreed to hire a second person to work for Linda. The title would be content marketer. The job is to create interesting and relevant material that will drive visitors our website. The person would have to be creative and talented and have a university degree.

Linda was in the process of interviewing candidates when one of Whiny Baby’s superiors came in from left field and offered up a candidate of his own. The message was: do the interview and, if everything is good, hire her. Case closed. So Linda interviewed this person. Everything, however, was not good.

What this person had going for her was a very healthy ego and a very useful connection. What she did not was creativity, talent or a university degree. She was not worried about being able to do the job. After all, how hard could it be? And is Linda really going to be her boss?

So Linda told Whiny Baby that this particular candidate was not right for the job, thank you for asking. Can she continue on with her original list? The message came back that, in fact, the job was pretty well promised to this person, so make it work.

Linda complained that, if she is to have an employee, she should be the one to decide who that employee would be. The message came back that this is her first hire and that she should not get ahead of herself.

When Linda protested again, an impatient and rather impetuous message came back suggesting that perhaps the issue here is that she is threatened by another woman, that perhaps the other woman is prettier than she is. Linda went ballistic.

The illusion of strength is his greatest weakness.

At this point, I was asked by Whiny Baby to intervene. Find an old cat to catch an old rat, I suppose. She came to see me, frustrated both by the situation and the need to ask someone else to resolve it. It was, she believed, a serious matter and no one, she suspected, would take her seriously. I invited her to sit in a comfortable leather chair I keep for just such occasions.

The unfortunate thing here is that once Whiny Baby’s superior “stepped in it”, it could be difficult to remove the stink it will almost certainly cause. He could well become very defensive and aggressive down the road, resentful that Whiny Baby went over his head. With seniority, after all, comes prestige and prerogative and she had challenged both.

Bertie Forbes, the founder of Forbes magazine, once said that it is not a disgrace to be defeated, but it is one to stay defeated. The thing about our senior manager is that he behaved inappropriately and then compounded his difficulties by being even more inappropriate. For reasons and, perhaps, obligations that only he would know, he dug a hole for himself. And then kept digging. He had better hope that our no nonsense CEO, the Man from Glad, does not come upon the hole and spot him there.

I will give him a way to climb out, though I imagine he’d have to hold his nose the whole time. First, he would have to lose his imperious attitude. Then he should invite Linda to his lofty perch and talk with her about her job and the new posting that she is trying to fill. He should neither mention nor apologize for the “looks” comment; the less said about that, the better. Then he should tell Linda that he trusts her judgment and she should hire whoever she thinks is right for the job. And don’t worry about the person he suggested; he will take care it. After the hire is made, drop in to see Linda and ask her with the most sincere voice he can muster how it is going. If he is lucky, that is the last anyone will hear of it.

Now this senior manager may think he has no need to be contrite. But he is not nearly as strong as he thinks he is. Indeed, the illusion of strength is his greatest weakness. And thinking he could leverage that strength was his greatest error.

If You Love Them…

Not that long ago, I wrote about a phantom mouse that, apparently, was hanging around one of our distribution centers. Now there might have been one or there might have been plenty, but a nasty little trap in the women’s washroom was at the ready should it (or they) make an appearance.

We have a small division that makes controls and instrumentation for heavy manufacturing plants. I met up with the general manager and his senior engineers in a small conference room. The building was on a canal and I guess it should have been no surprise to anyone that there was an on-going problem with rodents. Unlike our warehouse in Boise, this building was old and seedy. All manner of unseemly creatures, some tiny and some rather large, made it their home. Call it the crumbly brick menagerie.

As we talked, a large field mouse skittered across the room, hugging the wall as it ran. Followed by another just seconds later. Hither and thither they went. At one point, I thought I felt something brush against my shoe and I leapt up with a start. The others stared at me. I apologized and sat down, peering surreptitiously under the table as I did. Nothing. And then one of the engineers jumped up. I heard the GM say shit under his breath. He called out to his secretary. “Abbie! Would you kindly rid of the damned things”.

She cornered one of the critters and deftly plucked it by its tail.

She obviously could hear him from her office, right through the cheap paneling. She came in with a shoebox. We all stood up and stood back and let the master mouser do her thing. Abbie cornered one of the critters, knelt and deftly plucked it by its tail. She dropped it into the box. This was repeated several times. It did not take long for the box to be a squiggling mass of varmints.

Abbie took the box with her to the garage, opened the door and set the mice free. They scurried off, thrilled at their newfound freedom, basking in the warm, sunny day.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, perhaps a cloud, likely a tree, a large bird flew down and scooped up one of the mice. Then another. Abbie was horrified. The surviving mice ran this way and that. Abbie quickly chased down the other mice, plopping them, one by one, in her shoebox.

She brought them back into the garage, closed the door and set them free again. They scurried off, thrilled at their being home again. The winged sirens of freedom and the intoxication of a warm. sunny day no longer beckoned.

I returned to the conference room, on the lookout now, expecting company.

I do admire Abbie’s caring for all of God’s little creatures. But then I recall Hillaire Belloc’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek advisory to bad children:

I had an aunt in Yucatan
Who bought a python from a man
And kept if for a pet.
She died because she never knew
These simple little rules and few:
The snake is living yet.

Pyramid Scheme

I was having a coffee in the small lounge reserved for senior managers. We had installed a Tassimo-compatible machine and I was trying out the Dark Italian Roast – a full-bodied selection, says the pod, made with 100% high quality Arabica beans. It has an extra bold taste that is both sharp and intense. (Sounds like a bout at the dentist.)

I was sharing what might otherwise have been a contemplative moment with our CFO, General Ledger. He is a curiosity, with ears that make him look like Mars with its two moons. To the left, Phobos. To the right, Deimos. He is no Jupiter, thank goodness; its 67 moons would certainly have made him something to ponder.

So General Ledger was talking about this kid, Jason. Jason is working for the summer in the Accounting Department, entering data. A philosophy major, he is exactly wrong for this job, but a paycheck is a paycheck.

It seems that Anne, Jason’s supervisor, was complaining about him. Jason has six or seven stacks of soft drink cans in his cubicle, each can precariously perched on the one below – or, as he would say it, under the one above. He refers to the stacks as pyramids, which Anne finds stupid and annoying. The stacks are, apparently, in a race to reach the top lip of the office dividers. On his desk is a robot made entirely of thumbtacks and elastic bands. Anne has concluded that he had to be building this stupid thing on company time, although she does admit that it really does look like a robot.

A philosophy major, he is exactly wrong for this job.

To further confound Anne’s sensibilities, Jason works off-kilter hours, which he can do because, after all, he just enters data. He comes in at 10:00, works through the noon hour and takes his lunch at 1:30. So in the early afternoon, when everyone else is working, he is sitting back, reading Descartes’ Discourse on Method or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The other employees look at him and think he is goofing off. Then he leaves after everyone is gone, so no one knows what he is doing.

Also vexing for Anne, who would have made a good puritan, is that Jason is cute and all the young ladies in her group find reasons to drop in on him and chat. Jason is nothing if not polite and he accommodates them with charm and cordiality.

Sounds like a fine lad, I said. So what is the issue? Well, he answered, his outsized ears turning scarlet, Jason is clearly not a fit.

I sipped my very bold coffee slowly. It was still hot. Does he get the job done? I asked. Yes. Does he make mistakes? No. Hmmph, I said, in my best Tom Selleck. Clearly not a fit.

Well, I suggested, if he is cordial and likes working later hours, why not transfer him to our Customer Care Center where he could be a service rep. Then everyone would be happy… except, I suppose, the girls in Accounting.

General Ledger’s eyes lit up. Of course! Why had he not thought of that?

I don’t know. Why? But then, like the man said, as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong?

Dead End

Today is fire, tomorrow is ashes. This adage-like statement owes its roots to the Inuit, but has been lifted and flipped around by a heavy metal band called As We Fight. It is the title of a song in their album, The Darkness of the Apocalyse Has Fallen Before Us. (And so on and so forth.) I have not been able to differentiate the song from the apocalypse, the noise of the first being the finest expression of the second. But that’s another post for someone else to write on a terribly dark and stormy night.

One of our young and very promising accountants, James T., was transferred to a recently purchased, wholly owned subsidiary to become its Director of Finance. He is a math wizard who is able to make the numbers say whatever we want them to say. Which is one of the reasons he now finds himself in a mess not of his own making.

The subsidiary is not doing well. It is trailing its targets by a fair bit. The President of that company has been there for years and knows full well what it is capable of achieving between now and year end in the hyper-competitive market in which it is competing. All indications are that the company will lose share and probably money this year. But those are not the indications it is giving the Small Office. The numbers finding their way to General Ledger, our CFO with the Frisbee ears, show an upward swing in the second half of the year. The turn-around will be sparked by some aggressive pricing tactics the company has already initiated on a few core products. Apparently, at least one major customer conversion is in the mix.

Never a believer in the “big December”, I headed down to talk to their senior managers and commercial folks to get their view of things. While there, I dropped in on James.

His door was slightly ajar. I should have knocked. Well, I did knock, but I should have waited for some acknowledgment. When I entered his office, I found James hunched over his computer with tears streaming down his cheeks. I was certainly not ready for that. I gently closed the door and sat down, waiting for him to regain his composure.

James was being gored by the horns of a real dilemma.

James turned around slowly. His chest heaved as he sucked in oxygen. “What the heck is going on?” I asked softly. He shrugged. Then, after a pause, he unwound a very tangled tale of financial woe. Apparently, our fears were justified. There was no way the planned initiatives were going to change the results in any appreciable way. There was certainly no way they were going to meet their forecasts. Everyone in the company knew this, but the President was insistent that they move ahead with their plans and that James sticks with his numbers.

Now James had a fiduciary responsibility as chief accountant to go behind the President’s back and make all this clear to General Ledger. But that would mean betraying his boss to whom he was loyal. If they didn’t make the numbers and all this came out – that he was hiding the truth – both the President and James would be instantly fired with cause. James was being gored by the horns of a real dilemma. Or, to borrow from our adage, James was under fire and would soon see his career turn to ashes. He could see the end but could not find a way to avoid it.

Whether or not a turn-around is really in the offing, whether or not the year can be saved, it is absolutely imperative for James to come clean. General Ledger would then be in full possession of the current facts and correctly advise the analysts of what to expect; he cannot afford to lose their trust.

I told James that I do understand his situation and I sympathize with him. But he shouldn’t have to fall on his boss’s sword. If he can’t get himself to go over his boss’s head, then confront him and refuse to fudge the numbers any longer – even temporarily. Or, as the politician said, “There comes a time to put principle aside and do what’s right.”

So now, let us zip to the end of the story. James did listen to me. He drew a line in the sand. His boss informed the Man from Glad that, despite their best intentions and best laid plans, it was unlikely they would meet the numbers they had only recently provided head office.

Our no-nonsense CEO reacted swiftly. Both the President and James were summarily dismissed. An interim General Manager, one from General Ledger’s White Shirt Brigade, was appointed.

All of this proves that it is easier to die for a cause than to live for it.

To the curious reader: The actual Inuit adage referred to above goes: Yesterday is ashes; tomorrow wood. Only today does the fire burn brightly. The message is about hope, redemption, resurrection, that the burnt forest will soon regenerate and become green again. So, perhaps, there will be a new, brighter beginning for James ahead. Then again, perhaps not.

Shape Shifters

Like many companies of size, the Small Office has a health and safety policy. Related to the policy is a very enlightened philosophy of wellness: the belief is that good health and attention to safety lead to greater mindfulness and improved attendance. You don’t show up, mentally or physically, if you are sick or hurt. It’s that simple and it’s something the company is willing to invest in. So, as part of the wellness program, the Small Office is subsidizing gym memberships.

It is practically unfathomable that one or both of General Ledger, our CFO with the whirlybird ears, or Black Widow, our cranky and autocratic head of humane resources, agreed to the plan. But consent and collaborate they did, so compelling an idea it had become.

Compelling, perhaps, but it has also had an unintended consequence: a sizeable body of employees is taking off at noon every day and going to the local gym for whatever amount of exercise a person can fit in over lunch.

Color me skeptical.

It is a fad, the thrill of which will dissipate in six months’ time.

To me, you cannot get to the gym, bowflex on your in-motion nordic track elliptical hybrid cross-training cardio air walker machine, shower, eat lunch (say, a light mélange of kale and avocado), properly digest your food, and get back to the office refreshed and ready for work. All within a one-hour span.

Usually the people who would take advantage of this kind of offer don’t need the exercise nearly as much as those who wouldn’t.

Most of all, I think it is a fad, the thrill of which will dissipate in six months time. At the outside.

Besides, looking fit is the job of the tailor. You know… God makes and apparel shapes.

Yesterday, one of our marketing people left his laptop in the trunk while he was working his deltoids with competition grade cast iron kettlebells. No surprise here, someone broke into his trunk and stole his laptop. It was the second such incident this month.

I clearly differ from my colleagues on this. I believe there is a time and a place for everything. And I am sure that lunch and exercise are what physicist John Wheeler had in mind when he said: time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.