Bridge Over Troubled Waters

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” – H.D. Thoreau, Walden

John X. has colitis. His moments of desperation come and go. In between, they lie low with silent slithering like snakes in the grass, waiting for his circumstances to be at their most inconvenient before striking. They do not strike quietly.

The colitis doesn’t affect his work, but it does make his working more difficult. It is almost inevitable that if John is expected at a meeting, he will be indisposed and unavailable at the appointed hour. I am sympathetic to John because I have a child who suffers the same affliction.

It is an odd thing that his colleagues are unaware of his plight, only of its various manifestations. Unkindly, when John is under siege, they say with a snicker that he is “in his office”.

Kyle C., our regional manager for the Northeast, was traveling with John. They were on a bridge in rush hour – trapped, in other words – when John felt a cramp coming on. He quietly – almost serenely – asked Kyle if he was up for some excitement. Kyle knew of John’s issues and immediately went into panic mode.

“Don’t even think about it!” he said sternly.

“I am trying not to”, came the reply.

“I mean it!” insisted Kyle, half expecting his admonition to have some effect on the outcome.

They were on a bridge in rush hour… when John felt a cramp coming on.

John, his stomach gurgling, issued a quiet “Uh, oh. This is not good”. He smiled weakly.

Time passed and traffic moved with excruciating slowness. They were still only half way across the bridge – too close for comfort, too far from relief. They could see no ready solution to their plight… it’s not like there was a rest stop or an off-ramp available.

Well, to quote a Spanish proverb, it’s not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring. Kyle was filled with sympathy and dread in equal measure.

“You will NOT do anything bad in my car, do you hear?” It was more a pleading than a proclamation.

Traffic inched along. A crush of vehicles going nowhere quickly, at least one small drama taking place in its midst.

Like every drama, there is an ending, a denouement, so to speak. But the ending here is, all things said and done, not important. However our story turned out, the thing of it is that it took place at all. And that, to our deepest regrets, it will almost certainly happen again.

Know It All

Last Friday, at the very end of the day, we fired the General Manager of one of our divisions. K. Kalani is Hawaiian, which may explain why he seldom seemed ruffled by poor results. When he made it clear that he had no obvious solutions to the issues that plagued his division and no reasonable expectation of a quick turn-around, our considerably more intense and less patient CEO, the Man from Glad, let him go. If you don’t have a solution, you are the problem. The firing occurred last Friday, well after hours, long after all the other employees left the building.

Sometimes, on my walk from the parking lot to my office, I take a detour through shipping. I enjoy counting trucks (my simplistic early morning proxy for sales). And I enjoy listening to the truck drivers talk. Somehow they get scoops and, sometimes, they have insights that we… uh… less mobile types miss. So I stand behind the counter and shuffle papers that mean little to me so that I can blend in. And I listen.

It’s 7:00 a.m. Monday morning. The early worms have already succumbed to those conscientious greenfinches and blackcaps that have been up since well before dawn. Someone notices the success of those early birds and writes an adage.

News clearly travels at the speed of sound.

The truckers are in no hurry because we provide coffee and doughnuts. We have facilities and are generous listeners. One of these truckers – by his looks and gravelly voice, a card-carrying member of the Duck Dynasty clan – inadvertently let the counter staff in on a scoop. “So,” he bellowed, “I see you guys dumped the Chinaman.”

Putting aside his inelegant and ignorant dispatch from the front, it astonished me that he could have known about Kalani before anyone else. News clearly travels at the speed of sound. How are truck drivers so tapped in? Of course, the sun does not set on news. And the week-end is no barrier to communications. But the truth is, even I did not know what happened, only that it was likely.

The counter staff looked at me strangely. I barely looked up, though the more attentive among them might have detected a slightly arched eyebrow. I never realized how interesting Bills of Lading could be.

Circumstances alter cases, but my approach in such instances is generally this: See everything. Overlook most things. Say nothing.

Astonished though I may have been so early in the day, I did all three.

 

Let Me Paint You a Picture

It was a quiet Monday morning. I was at the office early. The sun broke over the horizon that we call a parking lot, casting an orange hue on otherwise grey buildings. For the next few minutes, an industrial park became a Turner landscape. The Small Office from the Porch of Madonna della Salute.

I enjoy the early morning because it is lighter than the rest of the day, because the press of humankind and its obligations have not yet made their presence known. It is not even that the energy is latent. There is no energy required of me at all. Except to sip my Gevalia dark roast, medium bodied, coffeehouse quality blend with just a hint of fruit.

And then Whiny Baby appeared at my door.

She apologized for coming unannounced but explained – in a soft voice so as not to disturb the morning calm – that she had something she wanted to tell me so I’d hear it from her first. Well, that was intriguing enough, so I showed her in and asked her to sit on this comfortable leather chair I keep for just such occasions.

She dove right in. “I am seeing someone in the company”, she said.

“Oh?” I replied, truly surprised at where this was now going.

“Yes, and I didn’t want you to hear rumors and wonder.” She paused, took a deep breath and then, with great effort and greater relief, blurted it out. “It’s Andrew!”

“Andrew?” I looked at her quizzically.

Andrew Green… in Accounting!” she said almost proudly.

“What about Andrew Green… in Accounting”? I asked obtusely. Green is an older man, thin, slightly balding, a perfect fit for General Ledger’s White Shirt Brigade. Whiny Baby is in her early 40s, quite attractive and, while not the life of the party, not dead yet either. This pairing would be a case of apples and boomerangs.

“You know.” Whiny Baby exclaimed. “He’s who I’m seeing!”

“Oh?” I replied, truly surprised at where this was now going.

It was still not computing. There was absolutely no connection between Andrew Green and Whiny Baby that I could see. They were on different floors, in different time zones, perhaps from different planets.

I remember when Whiny Baby first opened up to me about her marriage. She and her husband had not communicated in any meaningful way for years. They shared space and time, most of the time, but little else. In the end, their marriage ended not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but in dreadful silence. There was nothing left to say that was already left unsaid before. Ashes to ashes.

“So who ARE you seeing?” I asked, getting back in the moment.

“Andrew!” she replied again, without hesitation.

“What about Andrew?”

We went on this way for a while, Whiny Baby becoming increasingly flustered and me still out in left field.

And then… suddenly… I got it. She was serious.

And then… suddenly… another painting appeared to me. The Scream, by Edvard Munch. In his diary, Munch wrote: “I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream.”

Ditto that.

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.

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.

What’s in Your Wallet?

“In critical and baffling situations, it is always best to return to basic principles and simple actions.” – Winston Churchill

I was working on a project with a product management team from 3M. Usually I like to go down to their corporate headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, but this week, they decided to make the trip to the Small Office.

They flew in that evening. I picked them up at their hotel and we went to a fairly decent restaurant near the airport. Part way through the meal, I realized that I had forgotten my wallet. Which meant I drove without my license. Which also meant that I had no credit or debit card with which to pay the bill. I was going to be the perfect host.

I spent the appetizers running through my options – which ran from silly to nilly. They didn’t know me here, so there was no reason to trust that I would return, say, the next day with the money. I have it on pretty good authority that washing dishes is not really a thing. And I left my magic wand at home with my wallet. So first pass… nothing.

Linus (of the Peanut cartoons), for whom happiness is a warm blanket, famously said “there is no problem so big or complicated that it cannot be run away from.” That option was evaluated here and it also came up wanting: I am too slow.

In a moment of lucidity, some time between the ruffles and the truffles, I came up with a plan. Excusing myself, I went to the washroom and, out of sight and ear shot, I called our incontrovertibly heroic CEO, the Man from Glad. If he could join us, he would pay the bill and no one would be the wiser. I knew he would answer his cell – he is 24/7 available under any and in all circumstances. But on this fateful night, he was already engaged and could not help me out.

Before returning to the dining room, I tried calling my wife. Perhaps she could think of something to save the day (night). I called the house – no answer. I called her cell phone – a flip top! no less – but, again, no answer. I left messages, but I had no expectation they would be received and acted upon in time… even assuming she would be in a position to help.

I’d been gone long enough that I had to worry they’d send in the cavalry. So I returned, heavy of heart and light of pocket, to my esteemed company.

Some time between the ruffles and the truffles, I came up with a plan.

I dragged out the meal, hoping for a miracle. Various cheeses. A kind of smoothie concocted of Cointreau, a rosé wine, strawberries and brown sugar. A wonderful desert named Marie Louise, made with lobster-stuffed grapefruit, sweetness and succulence. And so on, while the clocked ticked.

And just when I figured I had run out of time and options, in swept a guardian angel: my wife. She had received my message, found my wallet, jumped into a taxi and came to the restaurant. My guests looked up quizzically as she approached the table.

“Hi guys”, she said with a relaxed smile, as if she had known them all for years. They stood up respectfully, though with not the slightest idea of who she was. She explained to them that she was at a fashion show with girl friends and that, since she had heard so many good things about these people and since she was nearby anyway, perhaps she could join us for coffee.

I could not have been more impressed and more in love with my wife than I was at that moment.

If you’ve been following the Small Office for a while, you would know that stories inevitably become sagas. So, yes, our fairy tale would end happily ever after, but it was not quite over yet. Because just when I figured I’d been saved, in swept another guardian angel: our V.P. Sales, Bull Terrier. He had received a message from our coolheaded CEO, and came straightaway to the restaurant to help me out. My guests looked up quizzically as he approached the table.

“Hi guys”, he said with a relaxed smile, as if he had known them all for years. They stood up respectfully, though with not the slightest idea of who he was.

Well we all had one last Baileys for the road, as my wife surreptitiously slipped me my wallet. So no dishes, no magic wand, just the power of real friends.

I conclude this tale with a line from newspaper and radio commentator Walter Winchell: A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out. With this, I must thankfully agree.