Dress Code

“In my own city, my name procures me respect; in a strange city, my clothes.” – Hebrew Proverb

I recently attended a market analytics conference. Various market research companies were presenting a range of analyses designed ostensibly to inform, hopefully to titillate and, ultimately, to stimulate attendees to pay heavily for their services.

This was a gathering of C-level managers, all of whom looked the part. They were all attired in suits and tinged with just the right amount of grey. As an aggregate, they were natty and sophisticated. They looked like a million dollars, even if in well used notes, to use the words of author Angela Carter.

I have been to several such conferences over the years. Dress is always business casual and that is how I packed. As I entered the large hall with a screen the size of Iowa, I noticed all the suits. My heart sank a couple of inches. I guess I should have looked more closely at the dress code on the invitation. I leaned over to a hostess and asked her if I had missed something. She assured me that there was no requirement to wear a suit and that I should relax and enjoy myself. With no alternative, I resolved to do just that.

It was as if I had stumbled onto the set of the Thomas Crown Affair.

So there I was in dress pants and a merino blend v-neck sweater over a Ted Baker London classic fit check sport shirt. Presentable, I would say. After the first Power Point, which lasted a very long 60 minutes, I noticed that most of the jackets were hung over seat backs. By the mid-morning break, most of the ties followed suit. When the conference resumed after lunch, open collars and sweaters were out in force.

It was all so very gratifying. When I first walked in, it was as if I had stumbled onto the set of the Thomas Crown Affair bowler hat scene. These people had originally chosen conformity over comfort. And then, given a viable option, they quickly opted for the relaxed fit. Good on them.

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.

Crunching the Numbers

“Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.” – Edward R. Murrow

We were reviewing our mid-year financials, running through the Profit & Loss statement, capital investments, cash flows and so on. This is, for General Ledger – our CFO with the deep-dish ears, fearless leader of the White Shirt Brigade, and resident curmudgeon – the Sermon on the Mount. It is, for me, an interminable drag.

Not that I am disinterested in the numbers but, if it’s true the devil is in the details, this place is most certainly Hell. For a full morning, we pored over the numbers, line by excruciating line. GL’s voice was an incessant drone that has approximately the kind of neurocognitive effects that you would get from transcranial direct current stimulation over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Except, instead of stimulating the brain, it dulls it to oblivion.

One of those lines, I admit, did pique my interest. In looking at our operating profit, we went into the details of our SG&A (sales, general, admin) and distribution expenses. Spending here was up year-over-year and explanation was required. Apparently revenues had increased thanks to a very buoyant market and several very successful product launches. By extension, however, shipping costs also increased, as did sales commissions. For some, it seems, this is a problem, the issue being that cost budgets were broken.

Meeting budget is serious business in the Small Office… as it should be. But the end result is that the better our top line is, the more it seems we have to defend it. Like the song says: good is the new bad. Of course, I do get the point, but the attitude gives me pause.

It is simply not important how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

To be fair, there are other accounting constructs that I do not get either. I could never really understand why accounts payable are credits and accounts receivable are debits. If we owe money, apparently, that’s good; if we are owed, that’s bad. Tell that to your spouse.

I believe all this confusion is due to the invention of double entry bookkeeping which eventually begat the balance sheet and likely the inevitable illicit practice of keeping a second set of books.

Balancing is a good thing. Minutiae, trifles, niceties, and all the tiny particulars of life that require sincere answers to stupid questions… less so. It is simply not important how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is important only that they can.

All of this whining is, no doubt, an unintended result of all that transcranial stimulation that deep-dish accounting has on me and I apologize for it.

(As an aside to the engaged reader, accountants furiously debate whether double entry bookkeeping was invented by Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan monk who, back in 1494 in Renaissance Milan, while instructing Leonardo da Vinci on the finer points of mathematics, wrote the Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita, or by Benedikt Kotrulejevic (more familiarly Benedetto Cotrugli) who, in 1458 in the bustling Croatian burb of Ragusa, wrote the breezy and beguiling Della mercatura et del mercante perfetto. I believe it is a product of Twilight Sparkle, she of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences. You decide.)

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.

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.

Mixed Message

We were in yet another interminable meeting of indeterminate value. This is a chronic condition in the Small Office – indeed, this is one of its defining characteristics – but this condition is becoming increasingly acute as summer approaches.

After a couple of hours, General Ledger, our CFO with the SETI satellite dish ears, called for a much welcomed bio break.

Cowboy Bob was, as always, relaxed and resplendent in slightly more casual attire than most everyone else, his stockman style boots perfect for the long day ahead. He is easily bored and prone, in such circumstances, to become mischievous.

General Ledger went to relieve the pressure building up in his tiny bladder. He left his cell phone on the table. Cowboy Bob reached over and picked up the phone. He tapped on the TEXT icon and then began typing. A short message to some unknown destination. He waited to click the SEND button until the second General Ledger re-entered the room. A click and the phone was set down quickly, to be as it was with no one the wiser.

General Ledger was blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama.

At noon, as our buffet lunch was being set up, our perfectly punctual CEO, the Man from Glad, entered the conference room, having been invited to attend the afternoon session. He waited his turn in line like everyone else, and then took those mean little party sandwiches to the table, along with little cheddar cheese squares, red grapes, and a small bottle of Perrier. Before he dug into this bridge ladies fare, he checked his phone for messages.

There were several, including one text, recently “sent” by General Ledger. It was a brief acknowledgment of the Man from Glad’s superior leadership skills and heartfelt gratitude for his being such a swell person. It was a short but syrupy suck-up. Our somewhat disconcerted leader raised an eyebrow and scanned the room. General Ledger was blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama and greedily gummed the pasty spreads that filled those horrid white bread triangles. His capacious outer ears did him little good now. The Man from Glad checked his phone again, shook his head and began to eat his lunch.

Cowboy Bob, cool as an autumn morning, never looked up.

This all reminds me of a line from Idries Shah, the writer and publisher of Sufi spirituality: “A certain person may have… a wonderful presence; I do not know. What I do know is that he has a perfectly delightful absence.”

Sew to Speak

A company in Tennessee supplies the Small Office with certain proprietary technologies. A group of their technical people, including their CTO, came to visit us the other day.

The CTO is a shortish, somewhat roundish, white-haired gentleman with a broad smile. He wore grey pinstriped pants held up by bright red suspenders. With his matching red bowtie, he looked a bit like Tweedledee come of age.

“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and the talking over its head. `Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; `only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’” (from Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)

We brought them to a conference room. On a side table, coffee, tea, water, muffins, cookies. With their in-flight service meager, they were more than happy to sample our wares. We then made our way to the large, glass-covered table for discussions on extending their contract for another two years.

“The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There’s PLENTY of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.”

The CTO calmly removed his pants right there and then and began sewing.

Before we started, the CTO pointed to a tear in his pants that he sustained in his travels and wondered if we had a sewing needle and thread. It was a very odd business, but I went along. I spoke to Sue O., my assistant, and she was able to produce both a needle and an assortment of threads from her purse. I returned to the conference room and handed over the tools of the tailoring trade. The CTO calmly removed his pants right there and then and began sewing.

We picked up the discussion on the contract, settling everything quickly since both sides were happy with a straight extension. The CTO put his pants back on, slung the suspenders over his shoulder, and handed back the needle and thread. I guess I must have scratched my head and opined that nobody here would have done that. And most probably can’t. He, however, found it not the least bit strange, a simple repair and on with business. “’Caint’ never could do nothing, “ he said matter-of-factly.

“Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. `I don’t quite understand you,’ she said, as politely as she could.”