Tuesday, August 28, 2007

At what point is it just too bizarre?

While I'm politically active, President Bush just continues to stun me with statements so nuts and so fantastically disingenuous that I'm left with little else to say, other than endless repetition.

He announced his concern that Attorney-General Gonzalez's name has been dragged "through the mud for political reasons." Excuse me? Who would know more about how to do that than Bush? Just as the tip of the iceberg, remember Sen. John Kerry?

Remember "the uniter, not the divider"? Remember the guy who wasn't going to get into "nation building"?

And remember that MANY REPUBLICANS as well as Democrats have strongly indicated their complete lack of confidence in Gonzalez. Whether on his own, or as Bush's lap dog, or both, Gonzalez danced over the law, crushing it like grapes, drunk on the wine.

But Bush's stubborn stance--on Iraq as well as this--just leaves me speechless. What's left to say beyond the obvious?

I DO believe that many excellent public servants are among the Republicans in Congress. But they've also been rubber-stamping the destruction of the U.S. Constitution (not to mention the lives of American, Iraqi, Afghanistan and coalition force citizens) by this administration solely for the sake of the political power of their party, and I hope Americans in the next election will finish the job by sending the rest of them, however belatedly repentant, home.

Enough is enough. No, Democrats certainly aren't perfect--but they're the best chance we have in the short run.

One step at a time.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Hatred of Silence

I went for my daily run this morning, choosing as usual to run through the state forest surrounding Stoney Pond—a useful strategy when running with a husky, as I do regardless of weather, including today’s cold drizzle.

I was not alone. Some kayakers also decided to visit the water, choosing to shout and howl at nothing, an annoying if not unusual addition to a generally peaceful exercise, the sound heard everywhere. After all, why not venture into nature if not to disturb it? Campers blare radios, college students leave broken bear bottles as a record of a raucous party—aside from the understandable (to a degree) screaming children.

Why do people oppose quiet? Car radios boom enough to deafen not only the occupants (dangerously), but also anyone in the vicinity. Isn’t life agitated enough to want a little peace? Apparently not.

I can think of meeting after meeting, with both business people and academics, featuring mostly people talking to hear themselves talk, ignoring that someone else has already raised that point. Why? Such a practice only keeps us at the meeting longer, without progress. Richard Russo, in his novel “Straight Man,” asks about the last time someone changed thinking after hearing a cogent argument. The answer is satirically clear. We think what we think, shouting too loud to hear other voices.

I’m reminded of the movie “Jarhead.” The two Marine snipers featured have an opportunity to take out a target when they are supplanted by an air strike. They beg to be allowed to shoot anyway, despite that their action would mean nothing overall. When the war (the first Gulf conflict) ends, they lament that they never got to fire their weapons. Winning wasn’t enough—they wanted to make their mark, even if pointlessly. Needless emotional noise.

Think also of the political accusations over the past few decades amounting to “They stole our issues!” This is distressing—public admissions that the issues were never the point, only the credit for them and the ensuing power. [For me, if you can take one of my issues and see it achieved—you go!] It’s just ego.

Shouting to hear ourselves shout. Not discourse, is it? Why do we so oppose peace?


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Fear This

Yet again, President Bush has tried to bolster his credentials and his power by appealing to fear—this time attempting to draw comparisons between his middle east meddlings and World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, arguing that “staying the course” in Asia proved wise when completed, catastrophic when abandoned. Interesting if weird parallels, as WWII involved fighting Japan, an imperialist power (as the U.S. has become), Korea, a Communist threat to world security that never materialized, and Vietnam, another instance when listening to the French would have been wiser.

His purpose, of course, was once again to argue that his warmongering keeps America safe from al-Qaeda, ignoring that Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist organization until the U.S. invasion, glossing over his complete failure to capture Osama bin Laden—in fact, the president doesn’t even bring it up anymore. He DOES like to keep trying to scare the public, warning that another attack could come at any moment, and claiming his administration’s policies have so far prevented such attacks (an unsupported claim), ignoring that his administration dropped the ball and allowed the 9/11 attack he loves to reference so frequently. Truth is, we’ve been LESS safe on his “watch.”

His blind obsession with Iraq, fought on the heels of Afghanistan, has made the country even less safe, straining the military so far that commanders warn we can’t continue past this spring, while officers quit in droves and troops fall to the extreme stress of drastically increased deployments, and the U.S. commitment needed to end the mess with no end in sight. U.S. military planners had always prepared to fight wars in two theaters simultaneously. We’re doing that—for longer now than we were in WWII. Another conflict would leave us simply vulnerable. Imagine Iran and North Korea decide to push their advantage and attack together. We couldn’t handle it. We’re weak.

Bush’s arrogance and go-it-alone attitude has left the U.S. with few friends, and mostly made clear to foes that the only power we respect is nuclear power. Hence, the sooner a nation can achieve nuclear weapons, the better. How does this make us safer? We’ve given them every incentive to ignore diplomacy and pursue arms.

And how about the cost of all this invasion? The U.S.S.R., remember, fell under internal economic pressure, not at the hands of enemies. The increase in U.S. debt is financed by overseas borrowing, and adding this to our large, continuing trade deficit will only hasten our almost inevitable second place status to solid, expanding economies like China, India, and the European Union. This won’t help our safety either—in fact, it will largely prevent our recovery.

What is it about 9/11 that makes so many Americans so myopic? Take the hero worship of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, praised for his leadership following the 9/11 attacks. Yet what did he do other than what any mayor would have had to do?

And while Bush harps on the New York attacks, he gutted every dollar he could from every program he could, leaving FEMA a shell of its former self with an incompetent political appointee at the helm—not to mention denying global warming and pulling out related environmental treaties and programs, a step toward more frequent and more destructive storms. He has come as close to repealing free speech as possible, hand picking audiences, censuring media images of the war, using the justice system to harass politic opponents, and spying on U.S. citizens while striving to keep such practices secret from Congressional oversight. How does this make us safer?

All in the name of 9/11.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

An Answer to a Conservative Republican

Comment from a discussion board:

"As a conservative Republican I want our [next?] President to have a desire to make the United States a freedom-loving world-leading capitalistic democracy not a shackled world-following socialistic communist nation."

Then you shouldn't have elected a president who has trashed U.S. freedoms, corrupted the judicial system, slowed economic growth and ballooned the national debt--the latter extending the 25% of the country Reagan sold to foreign interests by ignoring reality and turning the largest creditor nation into the largest debtor nation in just one president's time in office. Today, under "we'll just borrow the money" Bush, that's been so radically expanded that China and Saudi Arabia, in particular, own so much of U.S. debt that we CAN'T choose to just go our own way--they literally own us. Further, President Cowboy's policies have virtually ensured that we're stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to the tune of billions (not to mention straining the U.S. military to the point where even the commanders say we can't sustain it past the spring--face it--this "Conservative Republican" president has weakened our nation for years to come). U.S. citizens' negative savings rate doesn't help—EVERYBODY seemingly just charges what they can't afford--then are surprised when they lose their homes, all while driving new trucks with 12 mpg and 8 year car loans, as many of my neighbors do, owing more on the truck than it's worth.

I'm sorry to say it, because I fervently love this country, but America is falling--and we've no one to blame but ourselves.

Ideological denial will only worsen an already tenuous situation.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Best and Worst of Words

Someone recently started a discussion thread on a message board, asking for each user’s favorite word, remarking that as writers, we should have some insight. People posted many interesting choices, but my initial thought is also my final response: the.

What word could prove more useful? Want to mark any word of your choice as a noun? The. Sure, other words can do this, but most are limited in their capabilities. Demonstrative adjectives (that, this, those, these, and other such words) can do this, as can count words (numbers and relative quantity indicators), but these are subject to external circumstances. A and an can mark nouns too, of course, but they’re constantly jockeying for position, always looking over their shoulders for what vowels or consonants might be following—let alone possible exceptions. Even then, their indications are indefinite. Adjectives, with or without additional modification from adverbs, just steer information obliquely. The, however, knows its own mind. This is definitely that. It’s THE noun, not a suggestion or a possibility. The is the anchor in an uncertain world.

That uncertainty is the root of my least favorite word, usually applied in the phrase “in conclusion.” I forbid using this marker in my classes, arguing that such a flagged conclusion can’t be leading up to much. Mindful of this rule, one of my poetry students. a college senior, submitted his final paper with his final paragraph beginning “to conclude.”

Yeah, that’s better. Why not just write, “So where’s my paper leading? To what final point? Final argument? Well, no point, really, so let me just repeat the stuff I already said.” Twenty-five words instead of two! That’s gotta help meet the minimum length. It would at least be more honest and more entertaining, if still pathetically weak in content.

So “conclude” becomes a sorry attempt to “occlude,” merely to include what the student should preclude, clearly choosing to exclude more effective approaches, preferring to seclude any real thinking process, clearly not at all clude in.

This decision mirrors the one to baulk against concision, circumventing precision by changing expletive openers like “it is” and “there are” to “it’s” and “there’re” rather than exercising incision in favor of much more definite subjects and verbs. Such an inclination to decline more effective approaches in order to recline will ultimately leave the student facing quite an incline, but this seems systemic in his native Incline Nation.

I do try to intercede, as I want students to succeed, but when they proceed to embrace approaches that precede college level writing, they prevent any hope to exceed grade school competence, and I can only concede.

The student’s stated goal, incidentally, was “to just earn a C.” Mission accomplished.


Monday, August 13, 2007

ODO the Odometer

This morning, after I settled my dog in the back seat and started my Toyota Yaris on the way to our morning run (the dog and I go for the run, not the car, which simply waits for us patiently), the dashboard displayed a character I hadn’t seen before—ODO.

ODO stood there, his hand on his hip, the other pointing to the gas gauge, directly at the half-full point.

Now, I DID appreciate the heads up, as I generally strive to keep the car’s tank at least half full, but this was the first time I’d seen ODO. Granted, at 11,709 miles the vehicle is still somewhat new to me, and the fuel gauge, built from eight dark bars piled atop one another that suddenly disappear as the fuel is spent, does take some getting used to. I actually prefer the old gauges, as the dark bars can vary from 30 to 80 miles traveled, but still, I thought I had adjusted.

I took another sip of coffee. I’m a morning person, but as I also tend to work late and too much, I’ve learned from teaching many eight o’clock classes that a little more coffee can work wonders.

Then I took a closer look. I collect bills on the dash, just under the center-mounted display assembly, so that I remember to pay them promptly. Reflected on the display’s clear plastic was the “Printed on recycled paper” logo from my phone bill, the logo neatly forming ODO’s head atop the image of a gas pump, the nozzle and hose forming ODO’s hand on his hip, the dark triangle indicating the midpoint of the gas gauge suggesting ODO’s other hand, pointing to the half-full tank. His name appeared to the right, just over the digital mileage.

This is not the first time something like this has happened.

One night, not long before midnight (as I discovered later—and a very late hour for me), I was suddenly awakened, and slowly focusing my eyes, glanced at the digital display of my alarm clock.

Alarm indeed. The display read “hE:ll.” Huh? While used to the tyranny of time, this was the first time a timepiece had been so poignant about it. Then, less than a minute later, the display changed to “SE:ll.” Now, I do have some investments, but they are primarily in mutual funds in my 403(b) and Roth IRA accounts, not instruments I need to anxiously track as a day trader. Still, all investments entail risk, and I was moved that my clock felt so strongly that it took the time to wake and warn me.

Just one minute later, the display warned “9E:ll.” I didn’t understand, but I was slowly moving from groggy sleep brain to thinking, waking brain. When the display changed to “LE:ll,” I sat up to examine the clock, and by “8E:ll,” I realized that one or both cats had raced through the room, overturning the digital clock (and disturbing my sleep). Since neither cat knows much about finanacial markets (indeed, they can't even SPE:ll), at 11:39, I righted the alarm, and by 11:40, I was drifting back to sleep.

I am comforted, though, knowing my clock (and my cats) would take the trouble to warn me in the case of a financial emergency. No doubt it’s taken its successful sentinel role rousing me each morning (not to mention the cats) to heart, and seeks to expand its responsibilities. No harm in hard working ambition!

However, I’m often not at home—and frequently in my car. Nice to know ODO will be looking after me during those times.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Liberal? Conservative? Are You Sure? [A Rambling Economic Romp]

One of my students wrote a paper attacking the views of the liberal media, particularly George Will. No, that’s not a typo—that’s what she wrote, and what she meant. I wonder if staunch conservative Will realizes he’s converted. Truth is, the media has become quite conservative—look at FOX news, for example.

Other discussions in both the classroom and the corner store reveal a disturbing reality—people pick their favorite label, then their views. Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative—these seem to be just words divorced from popular policy, and those misunderstandings lead to poor national choices.

Consider the proud Republicans who argue we must protect American jobs from foreign competition. Are they aware this is the Democrats’ position? Republicans would argue for free trade. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) especially seems to be a lightning rod, approved under President Clinton, despite the reality that the pact created ten times the number of jobs as it initially cost, the benefit continuing, the cost history, affected employees the beneficiaries of funding to cover the transition (and that funding exceeded the cost).

The WTO (World Trade Organization) also draws some fire, while other lesser known but important agreements, such as cooperation among the Pacific rim nations, seem to escape the radar. Any introductory macroeconomics text can lay out the well established case that such international trade benefits all parties (see comparative advantage). Why the opposition? More benefits are imported than exported.

At the same time, the same people oppose the United Nations, or any attempt at meaningful international law. So, while importing inexpensive food, clothing, toys, and so forth, we also abdicate the safety standards we trust in the U.S., putting ourselves at risk. Sound counterproductive?

How about fiscal responsibility? Instead of runaway spending and high taxes, we should pay as we go!

Not a Republican position—Reagan quadrupled the national debt, changing the largest creditor nation into the largest debtor nation. Clinton turned that around, generating the largest peacetime expansion in U.S. history, upsetting the conventional hawkish view that expanding economies need a war. Bush brought the U.S. back to both war and burgeoning deficits.

Interestingly, here Democrats and Conservatives agree! Pay for programs, wars as they come. Vice-President Cheney disagrees, claiming “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” That’s like running up your credit card, pretending you’ll never have trouble making payments. It only works so long. As Howard Dean noted, “borrow and spend” isn’t better than the “tax and spend” mantra often leveled.

Think we need to reel in such spending? Great. That’s Republican—until you talk about which programs you want to cut. “Wait! I just want to cut the waste!” You know it’s not as easy as that, right? And I’m sure you know cutting your household spending isn’t as easy as deciding to do it.

Take health care. The U.S. spends more per capita than any nation—yet we’re the only industrial nation without universal health care—25% of Americans uninsured. So what? Their problem? Not when their serious conditions find their way to the emergency room at tax payer expenses instead of cheaper preventions. “Yeah, but universal health care will mean trade-offs!” You don’t think we have trade-offs now? Even if you think we should just abandon those people without means, that will inevitably affect the crime rate for people with no options and nothing less to lose. Fine? More law and order? That costs money too.

Or military spending. The U.S. spends more on the military than any other nation by a fantastic margin. Overkill? What are we really getting for it? Rumsfeld sent us down a path (ignoring Gen. Colin Powell—what the hell does HE know about Iraq…) merely stretching and demoralizing our forces, even causing commissioned officers to quit in droves. That’s money down the drain.

Much of this economic mumbo-jumbo is built on misunderstandings. In the 1920s. Americans benefited from sales to Europe, temporarily ravaged by WWI. It didn’t last, catching up to us in the 1930s. Prosperity returned in the 1950s—selling to a Europe ravaged by WWII, but again, this couldn’t last. In the 1960s, Democrat presidents ran up the deficit, and in the stagflation years of the 1970s, conservative Republican Nixon abolished the gold standard to allow currency to float—and wisely so, to the chagrin of conservatives.

Here’s the thing. We talk about liberals and conservatives, but we inherit these labels and their positions from talk radio instead of thinking for ourselves. Consequently, we even end up voting for the people whose positions we oppose—we just don’t know it.


Thursday, August 9, 2007

An Interview with General Discussion

I had always wanted to meet General Discussion. His mere presence was overwhelming—he’s on practically every Internet forum. At the same time, he has no profile on any of these sites—a mystery. So, when I was granted an interview with the General (I’m sorry, but conditions of the interview precluded sharing specifics), I was understandably elated.

I decided to lead by asking about his path to such influence.

“Well, I’ve been known by many names,” he began. “I started as Private Chat, the identity under which I took Corporeal Form. As Sergeant-at-Arms I was able to Captain-my-Views until I had achieved the rank of Major Misunderstanding. And with a Colonel-of-Truth, I ascended to General Discussion.”

I expressed my reservations about such a questionable rise to power.

“What you don’t understand,” he explained, “is that most people don’t care about reasoning. It’s all about speaking your mind, laboring under the delusion that other people care and will listen. No. You have to FAKE debate.”

“Surely that’s unfair,” I protested. “I regularly see people vociferously debating a host of issues!”

“That’s where you’re mistaken,” he answered, implying via body language that you don’t get to be a General without good reason. “People don’t debate—they REACT.”

“I don’t think I can agree.” Frankly, I was quite taken aback.

“All right,” he answered. He thought for a moment. “Consider your favorite Internet discussion boards.” I considered. “Can you identify a few people who consistently seem the best debaters?” I could.

“Well,” he continued, “Look at their patterns.” I was confused. “They don’t just jump in and respond to any comment.” Now I was really confused. The General looked at me, a combination of bemusement and exasperation, then continued. “They wait,” he explained. I stared at him blankly.

“They wait,” he repeated. “They let people make their points. Then, they respond to the group, addressing the sense and content of all those posts.” I still didn’t get it.

“Look,” he sighed (I could tell he was patronizing me). “Presenting a thoughtful view supported by careful argument is difficult.” I listened, waiting. “So, people don’t bother. They throw out their opinions.”

“But others would just counter with their own opinions,” I interjected.

“EXACTLY!” pounced the General. “So experienced ‘debaters’ wait for other users to post first, and then attack those views in lieu of constructing their own arguments.”

I looked at him, stunned.

“This isn’t something new with the Internet.” He was right, of course—public discourse existed long before online discussion boards, and the General’s career predated such electronic advances. “People avoid presenting specific arguments. Doing so would leave them vulnerable.”

“Consider politics,” he continued. “People continually complain that politicians only speak in generalities. Know why? Ever heard of James Buchanan?”

“The 15th U.S. President?”

“No, the Nobel Prize winning economist.” I settled in for the lecture.

“He proposed the Theory of Public Choice. Essentially, he noticed that if a candidate for office presented specifics, opponents would then attack the details of those plans. Hence, savvy politicians avoid divulging such policy, preserving their standings in the polls—and the electorate.”

“But wouldn’t such a generalist approach just mean that voters would dismiss the candidate as superficial?”

“Apparently not.”

I looked at the ground, thinking, my head spinning.

“Look at what happens even in the primaries,” offered the General. “What happens to the front runner? Shot at from every side—within the same party! Often, someone else becomes the eventual nominee.”

I thought for a long rime before replying. “It doesn’t seem right,” was all I could offer.

The General looked at me kindly. After a while, he asked, “Do you know the story of Lieutenant Kijé?”

As a musician, I knew Prokofiev’s suite from the 1934 Aleksandr Fajntsimmer film, along with the basic plot, but not the 1927 Yury Tynyanov novella, the basis for the movie. I listened.

“Contradicting the Tsar was a crime, so when Paul I of Russia misunderstood an incorrectly copied military report, misreading it as ‘Lieutenant Kijé,’ his officers simply created the fictitious officer. The deceit expanded to include Kijé’s courtship, marriage, regular promotion—and when the Tsar finally asked to meet this man, his death and funeral with full military honors.”

I didn’t yet see his point.

“Your country,” he continued, “is based on rule by the people, is it not?” I nodded. “Well, your leader, the people, doesn’t like to hear views other than its own. So, your subordinates tell what the leader wants to hear. Recognizing that is how I rose through the ranks so quickly.”

I stared at him blankly.

"I'm your Lieutenant Kijé," he explained.

The General had pressing business elsewhere, so that had to be the end of our discussion. However, I encourage my countrymen to support this man in his bid for higher office. He has a plan to help build our nation.


Sunday, August 5, 2007

Courage, Honor, and Mastery

July 29, 11:36 p.m., Cicero police officer Douglas Pennock asked Sgt. Andrew Scherer, working in the evidence room, if he was expecting anyone—he had noticed someone at the back door. When Pennock opened the door to see if he could help, the stranger, an Army specialist just a month back from a 15 month tour in Afghanistan, raised a high caliber, semi-automatic assault rifle at the officer.

“’I can’t tell you the number of officers I’ve seen who probably would’ve shot this guy,’ said William Gaut, a former commander of detective in the Birmingham, Alabama, Police Department and a nationally recognized expert in law enforcement procedures,” adding that the officers “would have been justified…if they’d shot,” reported Hart Seely and John O’Brien, staff writers for “The Post Standard.” Instead, Pennock covered himself by partly closing the metal door, asked loudly about the rifle to alert Scherer, and talked the troubled veteran into surrendering the weapon. “Pennock did everything right,” concluded Gaut, adding that the officer deserved a medal.

Certainly people have the right to defend themselves, nor should firing on another person be characterized as easy, but taking the shot would have been the easy way out—facing down the assault rifle took far more courage, quick thinking, and good judgment. A local police spokesman, appearing at a public meeting about some recent burglaries, advised homeowners suspecting an intruder to “just get out—we can replace everything but people.”

A few years ago, I saw a piece aired by a television reporter embedded in a unit in Iraq. An experienced newsman long used to careful observation, he quickly noted that the village his unit was to patrol was uneasy—a rumor had spread that the Americans were on their way to attack the village mosque, and agitated Iraqi citizens were rapidly preparing some sort of defense. The colonel in charge of this unit, however, was faster. Just as the reporter realized what was happening, the colonel commanded in a calm, clear, but firm voice, “Everybody on one knee. Weapons down.” Instantly the unit dropped, rifle muzzles resting on the ground, held at 45 degree angles from the soldiers. “Everybody wave,” the colonel continued immediately, pacing calmly up and down the ranks to ensure compliance. “Nice and slow. Big smile. BIG SMILES. Wave. We’re all friends here. Everybody’s friendly.” And so it continued for several minutes while the situation gradually diffused. This could have been a massacre instead, even if in self-defense, but for a smart, quick-thinking commander.

I’m amazed and troubled by the number of people I hear bragging they’d fire first and question later, even if that meant killing some neighborhood teen breaking in on a dare. That’ll teach him—and save the television. Technically justified, but hardly good judgment, and hardly a demonstration of courage or honor. Shooting is just easier.

And people argue the same for national issues. Just attack! America doesn’t take that! Damn the consequences. One student, studying Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” responded to the story’s account of a Vietnam village leveled in retaliation for a comrade’s death, “Well hell! They shot one of their guys!” It’s a frightening simplification, and a distortion of true courage and honor. [I had to end a relationship with a girlfriend, a Navy veteran, whose response to the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal was, “They’d do it to us—we should do it the them!” The same woman jumped for joy when her ex-husband was called up for Iraq, saying, “Let HIM get killed by a roadside bomb!”]

What is it about power that makes people in a hurry to use it? One karate instructor who ran a dojo franchise bragged about beating up a guy attempting to break into his car, hitting him, then again, and when he still didn’t fall, again…I found a new dojo.

“Everybody wonders at some point what would happen if they ever got a chance to use their martial arts skills,” notes one Aikido expert in an article I saw several years ago. He got his chance one day on the subway—a crazed Japanese gunman threatened the car load of passengers. But as he rose to confront the attacker, an elderly Japanese man calmly beat him to it, just talking to him. “At least you get it!” screamed the attacker. “You’re Japanese—you understand.” The story goes on, but it ends several minutes later with the attacker sobbing in the lap of the elderly man.

“That day,” recounts the Aikido expert, “I learned about true mastery.”


Friday, August 3, 2007

Why I Stopped Consulting

When I left my last management position some years ago, I had certainly covered a lot of ground, working in that capacity for a range of private, government, and non-profit organizations. I had bookshelves lined with a progression of management books, and since I had seen theory after theory gain popularity only to die at the hands of the next, I focused my career on approaches producing reliably demonstrative results—and successfully so, especially how to effectively build cultures to boost productivity, morale, superior customer satisfaction and bottom-line results for stakeholders.

So, knowing I was walking into an already overpopulated field, I became a consultant, differentiating my business by serving small businesses normally unable to afford consultants. My fees would be created by eliminating the inefficiencies attributable in part to labor relations and inadequate business plans, drawing on work from Drucker to Oncken along with my own practical experience.

To publicize my new endeavor, I offered to write a regular column for local newspaper’s business page, much to the delight of the editor, and then to readers. Business was good.

And not. I was perfectly happy to offer free initial visits and consultations (probably a must given my clientele anyway), considering it research as much as business opportunity, but many of these were completely outside of anything my services could address. My favorite is the auto parts store owner who decided to buy an abandoned warehouse and build a skating rink. Interesting idea, really—skating all through these rooms. He wanted me to consult about layout. I had no experience to offer him, and said so, but still took a look out of curiosity. He did volunteer that he was leaving management of the auto parts store to his daughter while he focused on his new venture. I offered my more applicable services there, but he wasn’t interested. The enterprise folded a few years later (I don’t know for what reason).

Lots of encounters mirrored this experience. In particular, people wanted anything but what I offered, not recognizing its importance—part of why so many businesses do those things so poorly. Most people know the statistics—4 out of 5 small businesses fail—but all too often blame the economy, the business climate, taxes, energy costs and so forth (all admittedly factors) without considering the most obvious, consistent reason—people make poor decisions.

This was the problem with my own business model. I assumed people would want to maximize profit (while earning a living in a reasonably enjoyable and purposeful work environment). Larger businesses are forced to adhere to such economic models (or at least pay some reasonable amount of attention to them), but ego and personality plays a far larger role than economics addresses. Small businesses are more likely to do things just because they want to do them, whether an odd location, a hobby commercialized regardless of markets, or brief hours serving the owner instead of the customer.

Further, however nicely I explained it, however lightly I tread, however much I noted that even Michael Jordan has a coach, another set of eyes, the simple reality of consulting is this—some smart ass who just walked in is going to tell you how to run the business you’ve spent years building. Sure, you called the consultant, and because you can see you have problems you can’t solve alone, but still, mainly you just want to be right, and to make the best use of consulting services, you have to be wrong. Ticklish indeed. The extreme, though, was the Brooklyn Pickle.

This popular sandwich/soup shop, located in the next county, was a referral. As I usually did, I stopped by unannounced and anonymous before meeting the owner, bought a sandwich, sat down and just watched, making notes. Several points were obvious—customers waited in a long line before splitting to order from two sandwich lines, then served by a single person who both made the sandwich fresh and walked back to serve up soup. Chips and drink coolers lined the walls of the dining area—these could be moved along the line of waiting customers, or an employee could be taking orders and fetching them. Lunch crowds don’t like to wait, as they have little time, and this could increase sales too. More importantly, EVERY server along both serving lines had to wait to conclude each sale until a single manager could ring up the sale—a major bottleneck.

Many areas of the business were quite good—the product was both excellent and differentiated. Both sandwiches and soups were delicious, always fresh, and featured “country style” with large chunks of veggies instead of the finely processed offering elsewhere. Further, offices or other groups could order six foot long subs, featuring multiple types of meat, protected with long, colorful toothpicks for easy carving, and presented in a sturdy, well designed box—delivered, of course. Lots of good material here.

Best of all, the owner wanted help to address EXACTLY what my services primarily offered—he trained employees one way, but turned around and they disregarded their training, despite repeated redirection. A personnel culture issue. The owner was going on vacation for a few weeks, but we arranged a meeting for the day he returned.

On that day, I arrived early, met the managers (who were expecting me) and spent considerable time chatting with various employees as I wandered through the operation. When the owner arrived late in the morning, we introduced ourselves, exchanged brief small talk, and he offered, “We’re having a staff meeting in 15 minutes. Would you like to come?” Indeed I would! Perfect start. We gathered.

“Hi everybody!” he announced. “First, I want to thank you all. I had an absolutely delightful time in London and Paris. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to go, and thanks to all of you, I was able to fulfill that dream!” Then on to business.

Yikes. Work hard, and one day this will all be mine. No wonder my notes were filled with accounts of seemingly hard working people who were very unhappy, including several who said, “I hope you can help us.” I didn’t feel any better about the situation when the owner welcomed me into his office, shut the door, and offered me a chair. “I just don’t get these people,” he started. “I do so much for them, and they just don’t appreciate it. Take today—I left a cake for them in the break room!” This was not going to be an easy job; the problem started at the top.

“Well, anyway…” he went on, describing in detail his problems, all of which revolved around uncooperative employees. He needed my help getting them to behave as trained. After all, he walked around, yelling at anyone not doing things exactly his way, but still they didn’t learn!

Then he leaned back, folded his arms, and proclaimed not unkindly if certainly firmly, “But before I can employ your services, I need to be convinced. How do I know you can help me? Why should I hire you?”

“Well, first, thank you for showing me your operation and giving me the opportunity to look around and talk to your staff.” He nodded in acknowledgement of the courtesy. “But Sir, frankly, I don’t think you should hire me. I don’t think I can help you. I’m very sorry.” One hard learned lesson I had forged from past experience is when not to waste time on a dead end.

He sat up straight, eyes sparkling. I had caught him completely off-guard. He was intrigued. We chatted at length, and now, largely out of curiosity I suspect, he offered me a several week deal. Greatly against my better judgment, and largely because I thought what a coup it would be to turn around such a difficult case, I accepted his proposition.

Thus started a few months of hell. He completely rejected my concerns about the logistics, arguing that “people expect to see me in the center of things at the cash register.” His employee problems stemmed from strict expectations, with no rewards for doing them, but scoldings for violating them, so people naturally just learned to avoid him, inventing and taking their own shortcuts, policy be damned. The epitome of this travesty was a long time employee he complained about the most—whose past long term job was at Disney. Now, few if any organizations train better than Disney. This was just the largest of the red flags.

I wrote a preliminary report, including that as things stood, I didn’t think the problem could be solved. Not only did it flow from the top, but also he had appointed one hard working but young and inexperienced kid as a manager. Not surprisingly, power went to the kid’s head, adding a fresh layer of hatred to an already bad situation. I added several recommendations and their rationales.

We met a few weeks later. “I went over your report,” he said. “Much of it was very hard to hear.” I nodded gently, knowing it had to have been. “I even went over it with a close business friend. He noted, ‘I can see where he’s coming from, but…’” and so forth, ultimately opting for the status quo. “So really, you’ve failed,” he proclaimed. No argument there. I suggested we settle up.

Instead, he asked me to do one more thing for him. Since I was clearly able to get people to open up and talk freely, and since he wanted to know what was really going on with his staff, he asked me to undertake a series of official interviews. I agreed, on the grounds that each interview would remain anonymous, and that I would summarize the findings as the group’s feelings. He agreed, and I proceeded.

In fact, I liked this arrangement. He was right—I WAS good at this sort of thing, and it could potentially help improve the labor climate. I enjoyed the interviews. Enter a new snag, however. The kid manager, perceiving me as a threat to his position (probably correctly), could never spare the two key employees (including the ex-Disney worker), the “ring leaders” of the opposition to management, so I never got to interview them. Finally, I gave up and completed the report without them. I sent it, along with my bill.

The owner responded with a few notes, emphasizing that since I hadn’t interviewed the key employees, the report held limited value. No kidding. But he also included a check, paying the account in full.

I decided there were more satisfying ways to earn a living.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Two Doors Down

A few mornings ago, my husky mix, Shanti, broke her lead while I was at work and went for a run around my country neighborhood. When I returned home at 11:30 a.m. that morning and saw the broken lead (she has the sweep of the yard and several trees with 60’ of lead), I immediately rushed inside to see if anyone had called. Indeed, yes—a new neighbor who lived just two doors down.

“I have your dog,” she began, “A white dog? She was running all over the place. Anyway, I’ve got her tied up next to the barn, but I’m going out of town around noon, and I don’t want to leave her tied up, so I don’t know what to do if I don’t hear from you. I guess I’ll call the dog warden.”

I hurriedly called the number she left. “I’m sorry,” said the computer generated voice, “but this party isn’t accepting calls from private numbers.” I can never remember the code to fix that, so I just jumped in the car and rushed over there (about 600 feet).

No car. No dog. No answer at the door—although HER dog came rushing to bark at the door, and a cat snaked its way around the porch.

Back home, I called the dog pound, euphemistically called “Wanderer’s Rest,” 20 minutes away. They weren’t open—open at noon. I left a message. I waited, anxiously. I called back at noon. Busy. I called again. Busy. Around 12:30, I finally got a human, and poured into my story, looking for my dog.

“Yes, she’s here,” I heard—and then a flurry of questions to make sure she’s REALLY my dog. I answered the questions, explained again, and pointed out, “She’s wearing an ID tag with my name, address, and phone, a rabies tag with the vet’s name and number, and a tag identifying her chip number—she’s got an ID chip,” I add, just remembering.

“Well, we scanned her twice,” explained the voice, adding blithely, “Maybe we’re not doing it right.” Yeah. Maybe.

“We just need proof of her rabies vaccination, license, and a fee for her boarding.” Huh?

“OK, just call the vet (I had the number) and the town clerk and they can verify that.” Oh no. They needed documents. I protested.

“The vet can fax the certificate,” mandated the voice. “Fine,” I answered, “But I’m not sure about the town clerk—she’s only there a few hours each week.”

“Well,” came the reply, “We’ll hold Shanti here until you can get that.” I struggled to control my temper and got their fax number.

Fortunately, the town clerk DID have hours starting at 1:00 (although she was 15 minutes late that afternoon, and then had 15 minutes worth of trouble logging into her software for the dog licensing information).

The meeting at Wanderer’s Rest was terse. The woman at the desk pulled out my paperwork—complete with name, address, phone, all completed by the dog warden, noting “Time of seizure—9:15. Chasing livestock. Unlicensed. Violation of leash law.”

So much for noon. Chasing livestock? They have one horse, and it wasn’t there, presumably boarded while they’re out of town. She was licensed. She was also trailing 18’ of vinyl coated airline cable lead. Official lies.

But we live TWO DOORS DOWN. Why not simply take her back and tie her up? It’s obvious where she got loose via the broken cable, she has trees for shade, she has water—what’s the problem? I’ve certainly done this for neighbor’s dogs—and even for the one neighbor who refuses to control his dog, a chocolate lab, I just taught the dog myself to sit, stay, etc. I could have called the dog warden several times, but why punish the dog? What would that prove?

Shanti had a cream colored stain on her snout. “Oh, we give all new dogs worming medicine,” volunteered the shelter worker, noticing my examination. They had also removed her collar and had to go fetch it. She wasn’t the same dog for a day and a half.

So let’s review. Everyone knew where the dog lived. Everyone knew she had been loose unintentionally. Everyone knew who owned her. Everyone knew she had a current rabies vaccine (in New York State, rabies tags change shape and color every year). Yet, the dog warden drove to my neighbor’s house, drove 20 minutes to the shelter, filled out paperwork, drove back. The shelter workers “processed” her, including administering unnecessary medication (remember, they had my vet’s number on her tags, and anyone at the vet’s office could readily identify this dog). Then there’s the wasted time expected of my vet, the town clerk—not to mention the work time I lost.

All over a dog everyone knew lived 600 feet away.