When Sixes Don’t Mean Boxcars

In 2013 at the World Science Fiction Convention, I had the great fortune of meeting Arriane “Tex” Thompson.   She was and acquaintance of a friend and she joined a group of us going out to dinner.  It took about 15 minutes before she charmed the entire table.    When dinner was over, I knew she had a novel being published in 2014 and that I would be reading it.  I wasn’t sure what to expect – either I didn’t ask or I had too much to drink and the former was unlikely – but I didn’t expect a western horror fantasy novel.  Don’t take the Sci-Fi portion of the convention too literally; the fantasy genre is often lumped in with it.  No one in their right minds thinks of A Song of Ice and Fire (which you may think of as Game of Thrones) as Sci-Fi and that was why I was there.

This summer, Tex’s  One Night in Sixes was published.  Having preordered it, it came with little fanfare in a box with a smile.  I had seen the cover on line, but I had not really gauged the entire “westernness” that confronted me.  I’m not really a western kind of guy.  I can say Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour because I’m observant – I’ve never read anything of theirs.  Nor have I read King’s Gunslinger series. My father always loved westerns like “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, but I always resisted the nonexistent temptation to watch with him.  I have seen “Unforgiven” so I’m not completely clueless. Just mostly.  That’s enough from the peanut gallery.

one night in sixes

Of course when I hear “Sixes” I immediately thing of one thing.  No, not people whose looks are slightly above average, but the Rolling Stones “Tumbling Dice“.

I’m all Sixes and Sevens and Nines

As a craps player, and thank you Dad for teaching me the game and reinforcing its joys, we want sixes and nines.  But usually it is sixes and eights or nines and fives or seven and elevens.  It is context sensitive (in addition to being fully math/statistics based).  I ‘m guessing Mick and Keith don’t roll the bones for money.  So while I hoped the novel had a dice based theme, I knew better.

I opened the book and started with minor trepidation.  Was she going to brand cattle? Teach us how to use a lasso?  Perhaps chuck wagon chili was on the menu.  Oh well, I was going to find out.  It didn’t matter after a few pages of establishing the western motif, I realized we weren’t in Texas anymore.   Almost immediately I was thrust into a new world, where western elements mixed with the unusual.  Was this some post-apocalyptic future?  Perhaps an alternate universe where the weather and man’s arrogance transformed this part of the world into a heap of dry clay, ready to be molded but unable to maintain any sort of structural integrity.  It didn’t matter; the landscape in my mind’s eye provided an ample canvas for the tale to unfold.

We quickly meet Appaloosa Elim and Sil Halfwick.   My next thought was this was going to be the literary equivalent of a buddy movie.  You know, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in “The Road to Someplace” or Eddy Murphy and Nick Nolte roaming San Francisco for 48 hours, twice it seems.  But again no, the two main characters are not really buddies and they don’t really travel together.  Yes, I do have an overactive imagination.

The basic premise of the books is that Elim and Sil travel to the town of Sixes and bad shit happens.  Then it gets convoluted and worse shit happens and it continues to go downhill, with unusual characters and their veiled motivations pulled into that downward spiral ever faster.  I wondered if Tex listened to too much Nine Inch Nails while writing the book.

If I was 14, this would be where I start to summarize the plot and dissect the characters’ actions and motivation.  As an adult, I believe you can do that if you choose to do so.    What I do want to focus on is the depth and density of the detailed mythology Tex showers the reader with.  There are multiple cultures, languages and motivations that reveal themselves at her pace.    There are not any “remember when…” moments.  This is a smart book for intelligent readers.  The novel rewards both the thoughtful reader and the multiple rereads you will want to do.

She also pays homage and leverages what has been done well in the past.  I’m not about to say that One Night in Sixes is a new entry into the big book of Cthulhu mythos, but I definitely saw some influence from Lovecraft.  In my world that is always worth 3 bonus points.

Subtitled “Children of the Drought Book One”, this is clearly the first of a series, as the small print proclaims.  I’m looking forward to future books, as Tex has a fantastic way with words.  Her prose is engaging, descriptive and refreshing.  Here are a few examples.

A stab of fear pierced the fog as Elim was hauled up to his feet, and he suddenly understood done. (Page 122)

The darkness opened her eyes, angry white tears tracked down her cheeks, and found him. (Page 214)

But even with his hair half out from its tie and full pockets under his eyes, he knew better than to wait for an invitation to speak.  (Page 339)

Why yes, I did take these at random.  That’s what makes this such a rewarding read.  Her unique style fills the pages, keeping the reader – ok, me – fully in her thrall until she decided she was done with me.  Now all I can do is wait for the next book.  I’m sure I’m not the first to say this, but you’ll be hearing a lot from her.  My book collection is waiting for fancy limited versions that are trademark of beloved books.  I’ll make room for hers on a prominent shelf.

On a side note, Tex has called me “the MacGyver of Gastronomy”.  Don’t you think you should buy and read her book just for that alone?

 

Today’s blog brought to you by REM.  Boxcars - a carnival of sorts, if you please.

 

Lee writes a review on Amazon

I know, can you believe I’ve never written a review on Amazon before?  I wasn’t going to, but my friend asked nicely in her “you will do it!” sort of way.  My friend Bailey designed the cover and packaging Hyde by Vince Churchill from Dark Region Press.  How could I resist erotic noir? (I believe that’s how she pitched — if not, I’m confiscating that term, trademark pending.)  Not only that I got a wonderfully inscribed copy, since you all know by now I collect books, signed books, books that require you to wear gloves to touch and books that shall not be touched.

Here is my review which let’s be honest is the cheater’s way of writing a blog post.  So sue me, its not like you pay to read my drivel and be amused by my outstanding (in my own delusional mind anyway) wit.

 

Redefining Erotic Noir, Emphasing The Noir

Up front, lets recognize that a. this book is not for everyone and b. it is more of a novella than novel. That being said, I could not put it down. Everyone who read or wants to read “50 Shades of Its not really like that” should invest the time to read this. Churchill takes the tired premises of exploring boundaries and twisted (according to some pundits who prefer to keep their proclivities closeted) tastes and repackages them in a neat, digestible treat. It is like have an exceptional, experiment 5-star meal after finally acknowledging that In ‘n Out Burger is THE BEST. Your view-point changes, your tastebuds are challenged and your mind expands. Are you ever really the same after that?

I don’t want to spoil anything, as it is quick rollercoaster ride that I read in 3 sittings. Nevertheless the first twist was predictable, leaving me to wonder if… Nevermind, that was the Double McGuffin. Very little was really predictable. The main character was well fleshed out, believable and interesting. My only complaint was that it was a bit shorter than I liked, with several places where motivations and consequences could have been mined for gold. Gold Jerry! I blame the over zealous editor.

An cheers on the cover and packaging. Everything suited and accentuated the moods that built throughout the read.

Joe Bob gives it 4 stars. Sadly there was no aardvark fu. Check it out. Or be tied up and have it read to you. hmm….

Its Not Just Me with Black Marks on My Permanent Record – The NFL Joins the Party

Suddenly the news cycle and our vocabularies are filled with domestic violence, Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Roger Goodell.  It grew and spread faster than the firestorm that took down the Oakland Hills in 1991.  And then we threw Adrian Peterson and Jonathon Dwyer into the mix and the news cycle exploded all over again.  The only thing that surprised me was the national reaction.

Let me be very clear.  I am in no way excusing or condoning domestic violence or hitting women or children.  If it helps, replace the term domestic violence with “act we can all agree is completely and utterly wrong”.  It just happens to be the foundational issue that brings my focus the news circus.

When Roger Goodell gave Ray Rice a 2 game suspension and fined him an additional game check, there was near universal outcry – except of course from the Baltimore Ravens and their fans – that it was far too lenient.  After all, smoking pot gets you 4 games and it is legal in in 2 states recreationally and medically in many more.  I sat and wondered, really?  Not about the outcry, but about the on-going public reaction.

Early on I realized and I’ve tried to reinforce with my kids the underlying concept of the world:  Life is NOT fair.  The sooner you realize it and work with that, the easier it is get past the frequent disappointments you inevitably run across.  As much as we may hope and want it to be so, life and work is not a meritocracy.  Being born extremely rich can open doors and smooth out rough spots that many others are burdened with.    Money solves many issues.  Especially when you have way more than any one person needs.

In the workplace, it is not about wealth.  It is about connections, politics and perceived value.  Surely I’m not the only one who has worked with people who were seemingly rewarded for acts others were fired for committing?    Or that imbecile running a department or division because she’s someone else’s favorite child, yet continually making bad decisions, running off the talent and seemingly failing to the top.  Surely you recognize someone similar.  Maybe it’s the executive who swears and rudely belittles people in public, but is protected because he holds the key to (what is perceived to be) a key customer.  It leaves you scratching your head doesn’t it?  What happened to the HR policies about respect, diversity and open doors?  Sadly, they are often conveniently forgotten.

Managers generally make decisions and take action based upon what they believe is in their best interest.  People rarely sacrifice their best interests for what’s best for the company, especially now that “lifetime employment” is no longer part of the implied social contract or business topology.  Roger Goodell giving Ray Rice a gentle, $1million slap on the wrist was what he perceived to be in best interests of the NFL.  It definitely benefited the Ravens.  As you recall, there was a lot of hullabullo and vitriol, but nothing changed.

What changed was the leak of the video.  That surprised me, because it showed exactly what I assumed happened.  What really happened is that all the people willing to not care, suddenly looked foolish.  Not because anything changed, but everything changed.  People were forced to confront what they wanted to assume didn’t exist.  It was no longer ok to move forward.  And when people mass, so do the advertisers.  In a nutshell, let’s be honest, societal pressure was going to build on the advertisers.  That is what the NFL caved to, not the public.  Season tickets were sold.  TV contracts are measured in billions.  But the advertisers have clout.  The advertisers saw what could happen and acted.  Anheuser-Busch and Procter and Gamble made moves that may have been telegraphed prior to their announcements.

Whether it was those specific moves of the realization they were coming is what moved the NFL.  Society can make changes, albeit small ones, through the government.  Capitalism is what moves business.  In my experience, and I have worked with several myopic executives, the through process usually goes something like this:

  1. What do I want?
  2. What makes ME the most money/how does it affect the stock price?
  3. Will anyone notice or care?
  4. What is the right thing to do?

To my way of thinking that is the order the NFL thought until people and advertisers noticed.  That is where the income is generated and has the potential to affect the game and its owners.  If the think about it, I’m sure you’ve seen similar reactions in your work environments.  And you aren’t on TV.

We have all seen the sales person who generates sales but lacks in other areas.  Perhaps they are selfish and not team players, putting their success above anyone else’s results.  I was once called to HR I dared to suggest that a sales executive should be able to file, retain and retrieve the monthly production sales report.  It was Wednesday and the report had been distributed on Monday.  She considered this harassment.  Nothing came of it because she harassed at least twice each quarter according to her.  Of course nothing was done to change her behavior.  She was deemed important, similar to Ray Rice and what I can only assume where his jersey sales.

Another time everyone was going out to celebrate the new job the sales manager had gotten and was sad he was leaving.  I was in the minority because I believed that the fact that he had slept with 4 of his subordinates as well as several other women in the company, was sexual harassment and his exit was good riddance.   I was quickly educated that I was wrong and I should get over my tired ethics.  I’m sad to report my ethics have not changed and I fully believe that sleeping with your subordinates is wrong.  Of course there are exceptions and there are processes, but in this case, I always felt like there was a very dirty element in this instance.

And of course there was the VP I worked for that made every decision based on how it made him look.  Because of his tenure and connections, it took wasting millions of dollars and exiling too much talent before his name was presented for a trip to the corporate gallows’ pole.  To my mind that was a form of workplace abuse.  I’m sure it is far more common than we think.  It was when I realized ideals were important, but being right was not enough.  Life was not a meritocracy.  Work was not a test where the right answer got you an A.  Sometimes, you have to purposefully get thing wrong to be seen as successful.

So while what Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and others in the NFL have done is deplorable, exacerbated by Goodell’s meat -handed handling and been too visible in the news cycle, it has been happening in business for years.  In the past, it was probably even condoned.   After all, cronyism came from somewhere.  I’m encouraged to see the national spotlight moved to domestic problems that we have tolerated for too long.  And while we are at, maybe we continue to improve in other areas, holding people accountable for all of their actions, not just the ones we find convenient.

Trouble in (slow moving) River City

Just a quick update.  I’ve gotten over my sense of loss related to the missing toothpick.  Today I glanced down because we all look where we are going.  (I was talking about transportation — get your head out of the urinal.) Much to my surprise, there was a royal  blue urinal screen.  My first thought was “what happened to the green?”  (Ok, maybe I do go there. Go! Ha!)

After a moment, I had bigger issues to ponder.  I was quickly past the “blue + yellow = green” stage.  The name of the massive screen was Rough Guy.  It’s logo was stylized diamond in the approximate form of a Weeble.  As you recall, Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.  The Rough Guy was more of a top.

Seriously?  You see where all this is headed.  Who thought these were a good idea in an office?  Clearly, they were intended for a night club of sorts.  Or a sex club.  Or both.

Wasn’t it Dr. Seuss who said “Oh, the things you’ll see!” Nope, he said “Oh, the places you’ll go!”   I guess He was right. Although perhaps he should have added, something about the objects, sitting in the places I’ll go.

It was a shitty week.  Hence the toilet humor. <shrug>

It’s an Oak Farm, Maggie

“Oh lord, stuck in Lodi, again,” echoed somewhere in the deeper corners of my consciousness. When someone mentions Lodi – a tiny rural metropolis just north of Stockton – Credence Clearwater Revival’s seminal tune about plans going sideways is always front and center.  These day, if you are paying close attention to the FX hit “Sons of Anarchy” there are several Lodi references per season, but then you are not really looking for that if it isn’t in your back year.  In truth, I live about 45 miles from the edge of Lodi, travelling through the delta.  How do I know this?  I have spent many hours racing the clock and avoiding slow moving trucks and open drawbridges to reach the truck stop there to on time for a child swap.  Good times.

Today was different.  Over the last several years, Lodi has started building a good reputation for zinfandel and other wines.  Though I might be a bit of oenophile, I had not gone tasting Lodi yet.  Today that changed.  My friend Peter was organizing a blogger preview of the new tasting room at Oak Farm and, why yes, I am a blogger.  And I do love my wine.  And I’m social and always up for adventure.   I know, you are surprised again.

I really didn’t need directions, having driven far too often to Jackson (CA) and knowing there are no freeways from Lodi to there.  I was taking the road that runs east, taking longer looks at the grapevines I’d driven by many times in the past 12 years.  Turning left to go north on a well-marked road, I passed vineyards and small farm  Then, almost out of nowhere, l large attractive wooden structure rose to my left.  It was big and clearly my destination.

Oak Farm

Oak Farm

Oak Farm has been around for a while, buying the grapes for their wines, while dedicating most of its estate the rewarding pursuit of growing grapes destined to become adult kool-aid, or as you may know it, white zin.  While it is not my choice to drink, it has a huge market and no one should blamed for making money from a willing market.  I’m a capitalist and I approve this message.

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Chad Joseph, the wine maker, toured a few of us around the facility.    As we approached the new buildings, the older one, lovingly referred to as the “the barn”, looked out of place.    It fit well in with Lodi’s basic bucolic history, but juxtaposed to the new buildings, it reminded me of how people once viewed the changing world as the industrial age reached into the countryside changing transportation, farming and communications.  In this change is about destination.

The new winery and tasting room was stunning.  The court-yard between the tasting room and the winemaking facility would have been appropratiate at an upper echelon Napa winery.  It was stunning with fountains, a reflecting pool and several comfortable places for lounging with your wine and traveling companions.  Of course, this being a preview, I had to imagine the water, but we are in a drought and the water was not on yet.  Luckily for Oak Farm, and you, I have a wonderful imagination.

The winery had new tanks and equipment to go along with the new facility.  I am very interested and excited to see what they do in the coming years as they grow their own fruit.

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The tasting room was magnificent and well laid out to accommodate well over 30, if not 50.  I am not going to pretend to be the expert on the Lodi wine scene, but I can see Oak Farm becoming the destination it appears to want to be.  The room was well-organized and decorated, adding eye-catching details such as the lights without detracting from the main attraction the wine is meant to be.  The room and grounds allow a visitor to feel a bit of luxury without going too far and becoming pretentious.  IMG_3163When the room starts to fill and the wine begins to flow, I think this will be fun place to visit and hang out.  If they didn’t want me to hang out they shouldn’t have put such comfortable lounging chairs outside.

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Oak Farm is also set up for weddings with a wonderful grassy area under a 400 year old oak.  Of course if you are reading this and looking to me for advice on wedding spots, you already know you’ve made a mistake.

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I was able to taste several of the current release wines, paired with some delicious food from the Lodi Airport Café.  The food was as tasty as it looked and paired well with the wines.

Let’s talk about why you are here.  The wines.IMG_3169

The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc ($20) tasted slightly of apple with a grassy undertone, a bit of butter and a tingling finish. I like this and thought it paired well with the corn and tomato crustini.

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2012 Oaked Chardonnay ($22) had a hint of vanilla, with a good balance of butter and fruit.  It was not overly buttery as many Chardonnays are and had a nice balance of fruit notes which are my preference these days.

The (non-vintage) Tievoili ($24) is a red blend with some oak on the nose and very few tannins.  It has nice round flavor with a bit of a berry component, making me want some salumi and hard bread.  It may not be vintage designated, but all the components were harvested in 2012.  In a move as cheesy as one I might make, the wine’s name spelled backward is “I love it.”

The 2012 Barbera ($32) is dark, warm, and velvety.  It is moderately complex with berries in the middle between mild tannins and the warm glow of your smile.  There is a hint of oak in the nose.  It paired well with the roast beef crustini with a hint of horseradish.  I really want a cache of this for my meals.

The 2012 Dolce Blanc ($22) is a Gewurztraminer based desert wine.  It was not too sweet, a perfect match for a slice of deep dish apple pie with a slice of good cheddar or alternately a hard cheese course.  It reminded me of a perfect pear in a glass, slightly viscous, silky and decadent.  This was my favorite wine of the day which is unusual for me.  Oh, and it is a 750ml bottle, not 375ml.

I should mention that the food was from the Lodi Airport Cafe and was quite tasty.  It even looks good in my picture.

Oak Farm is having its grand opening October 25 and 26.  This is the sort of place that you’ll tell your friends about and build your reputation on for having found it first.  You don’t need to tell them I told you.  The environment is great and I’m excited to see what Chad will do when the estate grown grapes come in the 2017 and 2018 harvests.

This is a farm I want to visit over and over.  No, it is not Maggie’s.

IMG_3164IMG_3162(yes, I finally put me here)

 

 

An Unexpect Reappearance or Yeah, That Happiness Couldn’t Last Could It?

It had been at least 6 months, but the idiotic lady put another note on my car letting me know I may get towed because I blocked a wall that was a loading dock in some previous life.  It’s the same note she puts there all the time, but today I have new questions to ponder.  Why has she just now decided to tag my car with her ridiculous note?  Was I taking the spot she so desperately needed for her dog groomer?  I wasn’t the only one blocking the walls of her office, so were the others some sort of Oakland unicorn? Or perhaps they were her coworkers, given special dispensation to park in front of the imaginary loading dock.  We’ve already decided she’s a bit off her rocker.

I think my next move is to sell her character to TV as the next sitcom villain, a la The Soup Nazi.  I’m starting to think she’s make a great long running foil for Jeff Garlin on “The Goldbergs”.  Of course first we’ll need to address the subtle anti-Semitism on that show. I wonder if half of the country even realizes they are Jewish.  There are no cultural religious references past the traditional names Adam, Barry and Murray.  Did you miss that there was not Christmas episode? Instead there was a hilarious Thanksgiving episode, with no religious overtones, no dreidels and no latkes.

Let’s suppose the Goldbergs are highly assimilated.  That’s not a crime.  My paternal grandparents were.  But there home and their lives were not devoid of Jewish culture.  It is who we are and what we know.  No one is going to accuse me of being overly religious or unassimilated.  Yet if you look, there are religious symbols in the home, a beautiful Mezuzah on the door, a few special pieces of art here and there.  Some things should never be forgotten.  I hope that Adam’s family remember that this season.  I do seriously want Big Tasty to some sort of hardcore rap espousing the virtues of the latke.  Badly.

Murray and Pops from the Goldbergs would have a conniption with my nemesis, the parking Nazi.

<breaking the 4th wall> By the way, feel free to suggest a new name for this bitch.  She needs a more appropriate name for the next note I put in their mail box. </rebuilding the 4th wall>

Much like myself, the senior Goldbergs would ponder what type of company could this crazy parking lady work for?  Why would they let her run hundreds of copies of ridiculous notes off their copier?  Why would they allow her to antagonize the neighbors and local color?  You know that downtown Oakland, much like Philadelphia, has more than its share of nut jobs.  Why would you risk antagonizing them?  Is parking rage about to become the crisis of 2015?  I can see that.

Let’s look at her erratic behavior from a different angle.  Perhaps she pays for the copies out of her own pocket, either making the copies at some local copy shop or on her home printer. As you recall the note is written in 40pt font with a marker.  If you owned that company and you saw your employee doing that, wouldn’t you wonder what else she was doing?  More importantly, I might question what she WAS NOT doing by focusing on parked cars.  Which leads me to my most disturbing realization.

She either owns the company or holds a position of ridiculously imbalanced importance.  Oh fuck.  Imagine the poor souls whose employment depends on her making sound business decisions.  I’m still waiting for her to have my car towed.  I will own that fucking company.  Meanwhile, I guess I will work up a character treatment and see if I can get a meeting in Hollywood.

I’ve seen Episodes.  How hard can it be?

(Not So Great) Expectation, or New Uses for Toothpicks

“The San Francisco Airport train on the opposite side of the platform has just been taken out of service,” interrupted my normal morning commute.  Pulling in to the station, it was clear that the platform was full of waylaid passengers, ready to do their best sardine impressions.  My current cozy environment was about to become hot and crowded.  Luckily, I only had a few more stops.  My expectations were set appropriately; I was sitting in the middle of the train and it would be a game of commuter twister to exit.

I was not disappointed; I bumped, grinded and politely asked the woman who shifted 6mm to really move, as her gargantuan backpack still blocked my path.  Keep in mind, she was not a slip of a thing, her backpack was her reverse doppelgänger.  Eventually, I was able to exit the car before the doors closed, thought this was never a certainty.  What I did not expect lay before me.

The platform was overly crowded.  I had not thought about the effects of the mass of displaced humanity on stations down the line.  Nor did I expect the complete loss of common sense that on display like a Melissa Gorga dance single.  Imagine this, a narrow platform, crowded with displaced people, milling about like the children of South Park performing the works of Phillip Glass.  It was neigh on impossible to pass.  I felt like the Black Knight was trying to stop me from going forward.  There was actually plenty of room, but the imbeciles in front of me worked hard to block my egress.  I couldn’t imagine what they were thinking; their actions indicated their desire to force me off the platform into the path of the next train.  Luckily I persevered and made my way towards my morning coffee and ultimately, the office.

I’ve learned to set my expectations accordingly.  For instance, it never fails that at one intersection on my walk to work at least one car will ignore the stop sign and ignore my rights as a pedestrian in a cross walk.  Similarly in Chinatown, people will inevitably decide to veer to their left and force me to my left, because, as you know, “in Chinatown, no one walks one on the right hand side of the side walk.”  I guess I missed that lesson.    Especially today, when the man with the murderous look in his eye walked straight at me as I hugged the curb to my right and forced me to my left.  He must have thought walking in Chinatown was the same as driving in England.  I mistakenly missed that clear connection.  Of course, by now my expectations have been reset.

Upon entering the building lobby a cloud of noxious air assaulted my olfactory glands. In Peanuts Pigpen leaves a cloud of dust in his wake.  Pepe’ Le Pew does similarly with his stink in the cartoons.  Clearly, a woman in my office decided to merge the two characters and use the most offensive scent imaginable.  It was so thick you could almost see it.  I painfully trudged through it, wishing I had a fan to serve as my urban machete in this toxic jungle.  I was sadly aware that this woman had found a fragrance worthy of the name my internal monologue had bestowed it, au de Durian.

I could only imagine what the wearer of this odoriferous assault was thinking.  No one would notice?  Clearly everyone did.  One of my coworkers had noticed another coworker went heavy with her scent each month for a few days.  He asserted that it was her way hiding Aunt Flow from the rest of the staff.  If that was the case today, Aunt Flow came for a month with all of her sisters and half the street urchins from menstrual town.  Clearly her expectation that her condition would go unnoticed were fallacious.  Nothing like attracting attention when you are trying to slide under the radar, right?

Once in the office, my expectations changed.  I sit at my desk, trying to be productive.  I set my goals, realistically as my expectations, which are rarely too far off, are to be ignored, left out and asked to do some minor secretarial duty from time to time.  That’s my typical day.  I’ve become quite adept at laying low, not trying to help where I am not wanted and ignoring the circuitous conversations headed off a cliff when I have the answer they need.  They don’t want my input.  It has been made clear.

One area I look forward to is my (almost) daily trip to the bathroom.  I know you think you know where this is going, but trust me you don’t.  In the late afternoon I visit the left urinal and do my business.  Nope no colorful language, just efficiency.  There, pointing at 2 o’clock is a sturdy wooden toothpick, half under the urinal screen.  Why is this interesting?  Besides the fact it has been there more than 2 weeks, soaking up fluids from a myriad of human sources like some teenage biology experiment from one of Cthulhu’s disciples?  Shouldn’t that be enough?  I mean the bathroom gets cleaned 2-4 times per day.  Perhaps the janitorial staff need special nuclear gloves or tongs? Why are they waiting for the screen to expire at the end of the month?  What makes this so interesting is really a history lesson concerning small minds trapped in conflict with mismanaged expectations.

We moved into a new office almost 2 years ago.  Within a short time, the expectations of the facilities staff were out of whack.  They picked a very beautiful carpet and layout that looked fantastic in several magazines and advertising campaigns.  However, it was both impractical, counter-productive and filled with questionable decisions.  As an example, the carpet.  While stunning to look at in its large sweeping patterns of light colors and (rumor has it) just as stunningly expensive, it is inappropriate for a large office setting.

In an office of over 100 people (seems like a good place to draw the line doesn’t it?) there will be all types of people – considerate, careful, conscientious and altruistic.  Of course with that many people, you will also find some people that are rude, clumsy, unthinking and selfish.  It is just statistics and human nature.  So actions were taken.  Emails are sent out regularly to make sure people don’t fill their cups too full, always use a lid and heaven forbid DON’T SPILL!  If you sit at your desk too much, you must get a mat, to save the carpet.  What is too much?  I think its 2 hours a day. Since conference rooms are in short supply, people sit at their desks.  Yes, there was no expectation that people will react poorly when they are treated like a kindergarten class being unruly at nap time.  The key take away here is that everything was designed for looks, not functionality or actual use.  But don’t say anything; that would be worse.

But, enough about the carpet, back to the bathroom.  One of the first thing I noticed was that urinals were designed for maximum splash back.  This isn’t the master suite at some hotel where you pay $1500 a night, this is an office where functionality, perhaps even minimalism, should rule.  Facilities noticed there were puddles in the men’s room.  The pretty tile floor was not designed to hide the splashes that occur in many such rooms.  So immediately, this became a crisis.  Emails were sent, notes were posted and nothing changed.  The problem is the urinal, not the people.  Somewhere, a woman surely thought that most of the men in the office were doing fire hose impressions to ruin her wonderful bathroom design.  Let me assure you, men have limited control over how much extreme presume they can exert at the urinal.  But since her expectations were that emails and notes would run the people like sheep down the gangway to the slaughter of modified behavior, they were unrealistic.  Unless no one uses the bathroom that won’t be happening.

There were complaints that the modesty panels were being stained.  Too late.  Yes, stainless steel can be stained.  There was the infamous “hit it or sit it” cartoon, where someone drew in yellow puddles.  Then there were the fly stickers so the men had something to aim at, theoretically minimizing splash back.  While these were fun experiments, my favorite was the constant carousel of urinal screens.  One smelled like apple jacks.  One was ginormous.  My all-time favorite looked like square patch of AstroTurf.

Keep in mind, the urinal screens don’t really help if that’s not where the hose is pointed.  It is more to assuage some deranged need to control actions that are in way related to the original flawed design.  After all, Ford didn’t solve its problems with the Pinto through an extensive campaign extolling the virtues of NOT plowing into the rear of the Pinto in front of you.

Remember the AstroTurf?  It became a magnet for any debris that found its way near.  Let me be clearer.  Men shed pubic hair, on occasion.  At the end of the first few days it looked like the shower at the home of a victim on The Strain.  You’d have thought only Bigfoot used the urinal.  Imagine the end of the first week, then the first month, because that was how long the unsanitary removal cycle was.

When I saw the toothpick at the end of end of July, I knew it was going to be around for a while.  That’s why I often go at 2.  I wonder when it will point to 3 O’clock or become extinct, like the Dodo.  My expectations are that it will be my afternoon companion for another 2-3 weeks.  By then there will be more irrational expectations and ridiculous situations to be shared here.  I began to dwell on its ultimate disposal and the discoveries later day Darwins would find and attribute to it, unknowingly

Food Posts

Today I wrote about Mac n’ Cheese, but request of course. It is here: http://stuffandthingswithlee.wordpress.com/recipes-and-food/mac-n-cheese/ do any of you look at these? There will be more of course.

More Black Marks on my Permanent Record

I’ve avoided this corner of the web because I don’t want to seem harsh or only use it to vent. Let’s see how even keeled I can be today.
I’ve been pondering management quite a bit lately; more accurately, mismanagement. I see quite a bit of it these days. People often mistake management for knowing every arcane detail to the point of being ridiculous or completely controlling people so that they can’t make a decision to do anything other than breathe or shit without asking permission and guidance. Of course if management is not highly valued, incompetence and counter-productive behavior is allowed, even encouraged to proliferate.
Industry has looked to flatten management. The stock market and a generation of corporate raiders have shown that middle management was excessive and unneeded; filled with fat. Cutting out those layers in response, without appropriately adding in the skills to handle the world by managing for results and leading people to grow their skills have led to responsibilities being added to existing jobs, without the support mechanisms and guidance to help the average person. I know many people whose responsibilities have tripled (or more) in the past several years. Is this a cause and effect or is it just my time on this earth allowing me to see things differently?
There are many different styles of management and none are always correct. Different people and different situations require different approaches and tactics. I’ve come to realize that management is lost art and most of the managers I work with are a one trick pony. Years ago, I told a VP I was consulting for that he needed to stop managing his staff the way he wanted to manage and start managing the people the way they NEEDED to be managed. It seems simple, but it is not. Some people need to be micromanaged. Others need to be inspired and given goals to achieve. Others need something in between. Very few people need nothing.
Exceptional managers are often exceptional leaders. But let’s be honest, these are two very different skills and do not always go hand in hand. Very rarely do I meet a manager that understands the difference and works to make those two skills work hand in hand. There are also the needs of tactical achievement versus strategic goals. I often see managers not understanding the difference and thinking only about,” what fire do I need to put out today?” Of course putting out the fire that you started does not make you the hero either. I have learned a lot during my career and have lots of examples of styles and performances I use to keep myself in line.
I used to work for a highly decentralized company. I was responsible for IT in one division and worked hard to forge relationships with business users and find ways to improve their environment, creating efficiencies that allowed them to make more money. It was an exciting time and we improved the way things got done. Processes were smoother, productivity skyrocketed and overall profits increased. Of course some small thinkers in the corporate office only saw the increased IT costs.
One day, this company decided to centralize. One “powerful” executive had a few key phrases that guided how he centralized and remade the company, specifically the technical side. At the time I was appalled. In retrospect I see it even worse. He preached that “perfection was the enemy of the good.” On the surface, that might sound like a restating an incremental improvement goal. It wasn’t. It was his understanding that things weren’t efficient and setting the bar very, very low so no one complained and that it looked, like things were changing.
I was different than most people in my position. There were 15-20 us, running IT for the various units. I was an IT professional. I had 7 years of IT management experience prior to coming to this firm. Most of my peers were the guys that “like” computers and were moved from line jobs to IT management. A few were developers that were hired from outside, because developers make great managers. Sadly, most people don’t see the disconnection in that last statement. And again, management as a skill is disregarded.
I’ve always been an achiever. I see the endpoint, wallow through the ambiguity and find results that exceed expectations and change processes. Those results are not possible when you set the bar too low. And when you set the bar high, you identify your issues and solve them. That’s not saying “we can’t,” it is planning for the tough work that follows, even if it remains ambiguous. I’m all for continuous improvement, but creating illusions of success and change are counterproductive now and in the future.
His other favorite phrase was “some people have to take a step backward, so others can take a step forward.” As you recall, we had drastically changed our workflow and increased profits. Since other divisions had not, my division was “ordered” to adopt new processes and abandon the systems and benefits we’d implemented over the previous 5 years. These new processes were basically the processes we had left behind years before.
One example was our accounting system. We were in a specialized financial industry and had a separate accounting system for our clients. When I started, people used to run reports, analyze the reports (ok line item entries) and highlight the report; they changed the data and started over again. This process was a full time job for 1.5 people. We actually built a system to aggregate the data, highlight 90% of the needed changes and show the results of the change in real time. This reduced the effort needed to less than half of a person per month, which allowed us to assign more resources where they were needed.
The new system we required to move to worked similar to the old system, but we had to send our changes to a third party to input the changes and send us reports the next day. The new system took more than 2 people per month PLUS the fees sent to the third party. Not only did we move backward, costs increased, which represented a decrease in management pay.
I guess I forgot to mention that management was incentivized in our division by having a significant portion of pay determined by profitability. Innovation and improvement was encouraged. Yes, there was significant dissent and upheaval. It didn’t matter. It was to be. The other divisions did not have that component, so increased costs meant nothing to them. It was someone else’s decision. The fact that there were differences was completely ignored. I was not surprised the stock price dropped significantly over that period of time.
Needless to say, the innovations we had made were thrown away. 5 years later, a few were brought back as some other manager’s idea. In that way, my current role is similar. I was caretaking a department for several months. I worked with the various departments to understand their needs and goals to improve their environment. The new manager came in and decided that he knew more and contradicted every decision that had been made and cancelled every plan in place. A year later, most of them are back in place, albeit late and not understood. Imagine if he had the managerial skill and acumen to understand thing before he decided he knew best? We need not go in to the other mismanagement details.
In graduate school I did my thesis on the productivity paradox. In a nutshell computers, specifically PCs were supposed to make industry more productive. They didn’t. Much like giving a teenage power tools won’t make him a master carpenter, training, direction and leadership are needed to help one understand the craft and the art of the possible. We have a new productivity paradox. Today we throw people problems and often don’t support them with the skilled (or even competent) management talent to help them achieve and grow. Am I the only one that sees this?
Suddenly I see a world populated with managers like Ashely Broad. THAT might be worse than the zombie apocalypse.

Another Black Mark on my Permanent Record

I’m in a strange headspace these days.  There is so much going on around me, and so little going on with me.  I can usually tell things are off when I sleep through the alarm, which I’ve been doing lately.

Today, as my normal, I walked into Peet’s for my morning cup of coffee and saw to my, again totally normal, dismay the coffee of the day was the House Blend.  For those of you unfamiliar with Peet’s House Blend, let me describe it as Maxwell House meets Starbucks in dark parking lot exchanging insults.  Clearly, it is something I won’t drink.  So, as become my new norm, I ordered a press pot of one of the roasts I do like.  Today it was the Tanzania.

Sadly, however, the small press pot is 12 oz.  And by 12 oz, I mean it is about 6-8 when poured.  It is sad in its little cup, made sadder by the last oz being filled with grit.  We know the press pot, like an old cabernet, has lots of sediments we shouldn’t drink.  The first 80% was delicious, I just wanted more.

I often want more.  These days my work day is filled with small secretarial chores.  “Lee, will you order this?” “Lee, can you type this request up?”  “Lee, I created a ticket on the thing 5 minute thing I didn’t want to do, that you did last week.  Will you add notes?”  Those were the highlights of my last week.

There is plenty going on around me, but clearly I’m not being asked to participate.  Yeah, I probably did myself no favors by calling out the village idiot after a few months of him talking to me like I was a dog.  “Here boy” “Fetch!” “What a good job!”  There is more to life than peeing on the pad each time and waiting for the treat.  I might have changed the wording a tad, but the inflection and intent are unmistakable.

As an example, the parent company where I work (8k+ staff) did a survey to see how IT services can be improved.  Generally, these go by with nothing said.  This year the CIO stopped in our office (that never happens!) to give one of my coworkers and me recognition on “excellent customer service.”  This included a “Certificate of Recognition.”  I was touched, but as you might know, I really don’t want public accolades.  What I wanted less was the village idiot to comment, “Way to go on the certificate Lee!”  It was said in the same tone you’d tell Rover he was good for going outside.  I think I’d rather work with Cesar Milan.

Of course let’s compound this with 2 key facts – everyone likes to avoid confrontation and the understanding of how to manage people, projects and deadlines is largely absent.  Often, getting down in the weeds and micromanaging the details, often with incorrect information, is the substitute for superior results and achievement.  It is frustrating having insight and ideas that are not wanted.  I don’t work on areas I have unique and deep understanding of because, “I get in the way.”  I got in the way because I understood the needs of the customers and build solid relationships with them and that was perceived as being “on the other team.”  Let’s ignore that mistakes are being made daily and that misinformation and fiction are being sold as truth.

So I sit here, with my sediment laden coffee, trying to look busy and realizing how much is going on around me that I’m not doing, because I need to be “asked” to participate.    I don’t want to butt-in; I don’t want to upset the apple cart.  I let some things flounder because it is not my place to speak up.

I remember years ago in my first job the CEO describing why I felt things were going wrong.  “People need to stay in their box.”  I laughed to myself and waited till he retired.  In general business needs innovation to drive growth.  Meanwhile I am sitting in my box till 5pm when undoubtedly I’ll be asked to write an email or purchase and item and have another 10 minutes of work to do.

And then it occurs to me, as it does most days, maybe it is me.  Maybe I just wasn’t made for these times.

 

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