Monthly Archives: September 2012

Stories People Tell Me (#2)

“The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things: Of ships and shoes and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings….” (Credit: Lewis Carroll, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’)

This is a continuation of Stories People Tell Me (#1)

5. Mad Men: In the mid Sixties, and beyond, I got to go with my boss to Madison Avenue and meet the “Mad Men,” a current term for the aggressive and creative types who produce the advertisements that compel us to purchase the products of America. The products, which, as the movie title so aptly put it, include: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The “Mad Men” told stories.

5.1 One of my favorite stories had to do with a certain shampoo which years ago had peaked sales-wise. The company naturally wanted to sell more, but there was no place to go. They seem to have penetrated every market they could identify. They challenged their advertising agency to  come up with a  new plan to increase sales.

The advertising agency, after much thought and discussion, did exactly that. They came up with a way to almost double sales without new products, new markets, or additional expense. They did it with a two-word change to the label.

In the instructions section of the shampoo bottle label, they added these 2 words: “Rinse, Repeat.”

5.2. Once we were in the City for lunch. The agency took us to Tavern on the Green. It was in Central Park and was quite elegant, atmospheric, and expensive. Money was no issue as the agency would just add it to our corporate bill, in one way or another.

The big exercise/adventure thing at that time was SCUBA (e.g. “Self-Contained Underwater breathing Apparatus”) diving. The agency guys drank martinis and told wonderful stories of their great underwater adventures.

One of the guys was pontificating on diver safety: The need for a partner, equipment checks, awareness of weather and the diving area, and the importance of a sharp knife. attached to your belt or boot. I said, “A knife like that wouldn’t be much good against a shark now, would it?”

He replied, “Sharks sense blood in the water. The knife is not for the shark. The knife is for your partner. It buys time.”

5.3. Our advertising director, Bill,  had a drinking problem. That was a relatively common problem among these high strung, high stress guys. The company gave him a break and shipped him off for treatment and protected his job – all at company expense. One noon in the City, our mutual boss and I walked into a pub for lunch. I heard the boss take a sharp intake of air. There was Bill, sitting at the bar, drinking. He saw the boss at the same time the boss saw him. He immediately went into defensive mode: “It’s only white wine,” Bill said. “I can’t get drunk on wine.”

The boss looked at him and said: “Yes, Bill. That’s why they call those elegant gentlemen you see lying in the alley, ‘Wine-Os'”.

Bill paid his bill and left. He left the company soon after.

5.4.  The best presentation I’ve even seen was conducted by Leslie, an agency principal.Leslie was an amateur mountain climber of some fame, and one wall of his cathedral ceilinged office  was the rocky side of a mountain. It was made of real rocks, floor to ceiling. I didn’t see its like again until several years later when such climbs were in pricey exercise gymns and on cruise boat work-out areas. Leslie had it first.

As the presentation began, Leslie stripped to his dress shirt, slacks, and boots. He attached his climbing equipment. The theme was “Preparation.”

Then he began his climb. He called this phase, “Campaign Initiation.”

He ran into a few problems, halfway up the wall, which he promptly dealt with, calling them “Obstacles and Objections to be Resolved.”

He reached the top, sat on an outcrop of rock, and delivered  his words on “Success.”

Then, he repelled back down, while talking about “Follow-Up.”

Finally, he landed, removed his equipment and talked about our business, calling it “Asking for the Order,” while he asked for our order.

He got it.

6. Tom the Conservative: Back in the 1960’s, before casual work wear was discovered, all the men came to work in suits, jackets, and ties. They believed that management and clients both took their first impression from your appearance, e.g. “You are what you look like.” Tom was Vice President of planning for the Fortune 500 firm we both worked for. Tom was straight as an arrow. He had several degrees from prestigious universities, belonged to the right church and clubs, and was surely an Establishment Man on the way up. He was also a great guy, and when we sat down together, it was not economics we discussed. It was office gossip, corporate politics, and naturally – we told stories.

One day, I joined him for coffee in his neat office and noticed that showing between his tailored pants leg and his (five pound) black wing tip shoe was (horror of horrors!) a white athletic sock. I managed to check out his other leg when he changed positions, and on that leg we wore his standard, black, executive hose. One leg white sock, one leg black sock. I had to ask him about it.

“Oh, that,” he said. I have an allergy causing a rash on my left foot so the doctor told me to wear a white cotton sock for a while.

“Then,” I asked, “why didn’t you wear a white sock on the other foot too, instead of the executive hose?’

He looked at me in surprise. “If I did that,” he said with a shudder, “people might think I was wearing white socks with a business suit. This way, they know something’s wrong and will ask me, like you just did. Then, I can explain my situation and they will understand  and know that I am properly dressed.”

I thought that was wonderful, Establishment logic.

7.  Tales by Leo:

Brother Leo made a career developing and implementing management testing systems, interviewing and reporting on candidates being considered for promotional opportunities, and speaking and counseling top management on organization matters. He collected a lifetime’s worth of business anecdotes. Here are a few of my favorites:

7.1. Roland was a brilliant and somewhat eccentric senior engineer in one of Leo’s client accounts. He was not a people person, had no interest in a management role, and wanted to be left alone in his lab, where he performed beautifully. His management was savvy enough to let him be – but they did want Leo to have a chat with him over lunch and see if there were any issues that should be confronted.

Luncheon was always the same with Roland: He ordered hot soup, a sandwich, and ice cream. He ate them in this order: The ice cream, followed by the sandwich, followed by the soup. “Why did he do that?” they wondered.

When Roland arrived at the cafeteria table with his usual 3 items, Leo watched as Roland ate them in his usual order: The ice cream, the sandwich, the soup. In a roundabout way,   he asked Roland about his unusual eating sequence. Roland was mildly surprised by the question. “It’s only logical,” he said. “I eat the ice cream first so it won’t melt. The sandwich I can eat anytime, but I choose to eat it second. That gives the soup a chance to cool.”

Now it all made sense.

7.2 Robert was a hard driving senior executive with a successful track record who was being considered by the Board of Directors for the recently vacated CEO position at the firm. He seemed a shoe-in for the job. Unfortunately, he wasn’t selected. It went to a lesser qualified candidate who seemed to have some political connection with an important board member and it was he, not Robert, who got the job. Everyone waited for Robert’s inevitable explosion, recriminations, and heated resignation. The office staff even started a “Ghoul Pool” as to the day and hour it would happen.

Leo was on the firm’s consulting staff, and Roger called him into his office. “You know what happened?” Roger began. Leo nodded yes. “Everybody’s waiting for me to go off the deep end. I hear they’re even betting as to when it will happen.” Again, Leo nodded yes. “Did you buy a ticket?” Leo said no.

“Well good; don’t waste your money picking a date. It’s not going to happen,” Roger said. “I’ve worked too long and too hard to burn my bridges behind me. I will not trade 20 years of work for 20 seconds of satisfaction. I’ll go, but I’ll go on my time table.”

Robert was as good as his word. His record was well known in the industry and they also knew the story. Within 6 months, he was recruited and hired into the top job with another firm. He resigned from his current post, helped ease the succession, wished everyone well, and left for a more important and remunerative position like the classy guy that he was.

7.3  Leo and I were once discussing an individual known to us both who had really made a botched job of an important assignment that he should have been able to accomplish with ease. I commented, “I expected more of him. After all, he has 20 years of experience in that kind of work.”

Leo replied, “No one has 20 years of experience at anything. After some point, we all stop learning and start to coast. The most you can hope for is 10 years of experience twice. The majority of managers have 5 years of experience 4 times. Some have 2 years of experience 10 times, and, at the bottom of the heap, you find the people who have 1 year of experience 20 times.”

I often think of that when I have to put someone’s years of experience into perspective.

7.4 Leo dealt with a number of family businesses that had some unique problems. One of these was dealing with a family member in an important company job, that he just could not handle. In the case of a family concern, this is both a business and a personal problem.

One day, Leo spoke with the patriarch of a successful family manufacturing firm who told him this story: “My oldest son came to me recently, and said that he should be announced now as my successor as president and CEO of the business. I asked him why he felt that was appropriate and he responded: “Because I am the senior son.”

“I told him this story I heard years ago: When the turkey farmer dies, the farm owners recruit a new turkey farmer. They do not promote the oldest turkey.”

7.5 Talking about different things together: Leo was working a project with the CEO of a large, multi-divisional company, with branches all over the United States. He said his biggest concern was in the communications area, where people might misunderstand, and misimplement, some corporate communication.

He told Leo about the time he had his secretary call the manager of one of his small mid-western plants, and ask what their summer hiring policy was. She told the plant manager there was no rush, it was Friday, and if he could get it to her the following Monday, that would be fine.

The plant manager hung up. He called in the HR manager and asked about their summer hiring policy. The HR manager said they didn’t have one. They  just hired people if they needed them.

The plant manager said, “We’ll have one by Monday!”

The entire HR staff was called in for the weekend job. The found out what the competition was doing, locally and around the country, what the appropriate laws were concerning the matter, and established pay scales and a review procedure. By Monday morning it was written, bound, and off to the the CEO’s office via same day freight.

That afternoon, the CEO watched his secretary haul in this heavy loose leaf binder and place it on his desk. “What is that?” he asked.

“That’s the summer hiring policy manual from the plant manager I called for you last Friday.”

The president said, “I don’t want that. Call him back and tell him my sister’s kid lives near his plant and I was just wondering if they were hiring for the summer.”

Leo is still out there and keeping his hand in with the new generation of business leaders and business hopefuls. And, I hope, he is working on “The Book.”

8. Artie D, the Logical Lawyer:

My colleague, attorney Stan Driban, once characterized Artie D as “A logical man in an illogical world.” That is a perfect description of my long time friend.

Artie and I met at 3C in 1964 and immediately hit it off despite our many apparent differences. Artie was a Brown University contracts lawyer, I was a UMass English Major working in sales support. Artie was an athlete, football player, weight lifter, and a bad man to cross on any level, intellectual or physical. I wasn’t. Artie had a grand sense of humor and enjoyed telling stories. Me too.

One of the first Artie D tales was when he told me how he kept up his reading pace while he was in the Army. He read only paperbacks because, at the end of each day, he would rip out the pages he had read and throw them away. The problem, of course, was that he’d occasionally recommend a book he had just finished to a buddy and, if the chap asked to borrow it, Artie would have to reply: “I threw it away.”

“Why did you rip out the pages and essentially throw the book away?” I asked.

Artie replied, “Every day, my pack grew lighter.”

We started lunching together in 1964 and basically kept up the tradition, with only minor interruptions, through 4 different companies, until 1999. I once told him, “I’ve heard every damn story you know in the past 35 years. Why do you keep retelling them?”

Artie replied, “They are the only stories I know.”

I guess he could have said the same thing about mine.

In our positions working with sales people, and clients, and co-workers who enjoyed the occasional (and frequent) drink, Artie once told Bill and I we had to be careful not to overdue it.

Bill said, “Artie, don’t worry. You’ll never be an alcoholic.”

Artie liked that. He said, “Because of my character and resolve?”

Bill said, “No, because you’re too cheap to pick up the tab.”

In fairness, Artie and wife Bev did enjoy the occasional weekend dinner at some nice, local restaurant. Artie told us one time how he even saved money on those dinners out: “Bev and I get dressed up, then we sit at the kitchen table with a soft light and perhaps put some music on, and we have one or two cocktails. Then, when we get to the restaurant, we don’t have to pay for drinks.”

Bill smiled and said, “Artie, why don’t you both just stay there in the kitchen, have your dinner there, and save the entire restaurant bill?”

Artie went into his think mode. It was such an obvious solution to the expense of eating out. I gather the concept, as frugal as it was, did not fly with his wife.

Like me, Artie is retired now. We still do the occasional lunches. Artie is still the Renaissance Man he always was. He consults, raises dogs, has a garden, can fix anything wrong with any car, and any house, built a pond in his backyard (“Lake Artie”) to stock fish and attract wildlife for the grandchildren, reads, and can juggle at least 3 weekend football games at the same time (twin TV’s and a radio – all at the same time).

He’s always good for some seasoned, informed, and – of course – logical advice.Artie is a good friend.

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Lists: Why Companies Outsource

When a company outsources a function or operation (e.g. eliminates that function or operation from its corporate hierarchy and relies on outside vendors to perform the task), they often have 1 or more of the following considerations in mind:

10. Whatever it is, someone in the Third World can always build it cheaper.

9. The company ends up with fewer employees to worry about, negotiate with, and pay benefits for.

8. Any cost containment activity is view positively by the market.

7. It keeps employees on their toes. Employees often willingly train their outside successors in the hopes of going with the function or at least securing a few months more of paydays.

6. The company hopes that if the headcount goes away, the expense will go away too.

5. Even if the expense does not go away, it will show up on some other part of the operating statement under more ambiguous terminology, such as “Outside Services,” and won’t be as noticeable.

4. Any term that includes “out,” as in “out the back door,” must be a good idea.

3. They know it can be done. Their sister-in-law runs a wedding planning service from her home.

2. Having an outsider around is a good idea in case the whole program goes down the chute and a responsible culprit must be identified and dealt with firmly.

1. They want to believe that “outsource” is a Latin word meaning “at no cost.”

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Fighting a Nuclear Iran

I’ve read about the ever increasing tensions between Israel and Iran over the latter’s developing nuclear capability. The Israelis believe that Iran will fire a missile at them the first chance they get. They back this up with the many quotations from Iranian leaders, and clerics, to the effect that Israel has no right to exist and should be obliterated.

The Iranian defenders make a different point: If Iran were to fire a missile into Israel, they would also kill many innocent Palestinians, the very people they support. They would also destroy sacred mosques which could turn the ire of the entire Muslim world against them. They would never do such a thing.

I fear that’s Western thinking applied to a Middle Eastern problem.

Most Americans do not understand how differently the Muslim world feels about war, life and death than we do. In our paradigm, we want to live. It was our own Gen. Patton who famously said: The secret of military success is not to die for your country. The secret of military success is to make the  other poor bastard die for his country.”

Muslims, shaped by fundamentalist religious beliefs since birth, think of death as a great honor, to be welcomed and even sought after, for the glory of their faith, and the promise of eternal happiness in Paradise. In all the wars we’ve ever fought, the closest we have come to this mentality was the Japanese suicide pilots, or Kamikaze, who rained terror on our naval forces during the latter stages of World War II. If the Japanese had more of these “martyrs,” or used them more extensively earlier on, who knows what the outcome might have been.

In the Eighties, when President Carter was trying to bring peace to the Middle East, a friend told me this grim tale that he had heard in the Middle East:

“The scene is somewhere in the Middle East. A scorpion and a beaver came to a swift stream which they had to cross. The scorpion was powerful, but he could not swim. The beaver could swim, but he was defenseless against the large vultures that circled overhead waiting for a chance to attack.

“Finally, the scorpion said: ‘I have an idea. Let’s declare a truce for the day. I will hop on your back and you will swim us both across the stream, while I protect us from attack with my deadly stinger. Then, on the other side, we’ll both go our separate ways.’

“”The beaver thought for a moment, and then said “How do I know you won’t attack me anyway?’

“The scorpion said: “Don’t be foolish. If I did that, we’d both drown. When we get to the other side, you  stop a few feet offshore, and I will jump to land while you swim safely in alone.’

“The beaver thought that sounded fair. He swam out a foot or two and the scorpion jumped on his back, his stinger at the ready. The beaver swam and the scorpion watched the skies.

“Midstream, without warning, the scorpion plunged his deadly stinger into the beaver’s neck. The beaver, feeling himself slipping away, said: ‘Now we shall both drown. Why did you do that?’

“Just before the scorpion went under, he replied: ‘Because this is the Middle East.'”

I thought about that story recently while discussing the Middle East with my brother Leo. He shared his views on the dangers of a nuclear Iran. I told him about my experience in 1959 as a 2d lieutenant in basic training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky.

We had two Iranian lieutenants from the Shah’s personal guard in training with us. They were crazy. Once, we were on the pistol range and they arrived late, to find no firing tables available. So, they stood behind us and fired at our targets, over our heads. The range safety officer went berserk and threw them off the range. There was not too much more he could do beyond filing a report. The Iranians thought it was a joke.

Another day, we were on the tank range, firing the M-48A2 medium tank’s 90 mm. cannon. We were loading the tank ammo very carefully. Each round weighed about 90 pounds and only required 14 pounds of pressure on the primer to set it off. If a round dropped, and hit a sharp stone for example, mostly everything for 50 yards around would be ashes.

One of our guys noticed the two Iranians. They were tossing a 90 mm round back and forth between them, laughing as they played “chicken.” Once again, the range officer stepped in and threw them off the range. Once again, not much could be done but file another report. The Iranians said, “We are men.”

The program ended with each of us making a short presentation on training and tactics. When the Iranians spoke, they said if their army went out on a live fire training mission (no enemy, just their own troops pretending to be aggressors), they counted the session a success if they only incurred a 10% casualty rate. We were horrified. That’s a number you might expect in combat. I later quipped to an old World War II master sergeant that: “If we ever go to war with the Iranians, we should just avoid them for the first 15 minutes, and they’ll wipe each other out.”

The sergeant laughed and said: “Let’s hope that never happens. Those crazy bastards don’t think like we do, nor like the Germans or the Italians we just fought. Westerners want to live. These guys don’t care. They welcome death as long as it’s honorable and glorious. It’s tough to fight a guy who doesn’t care if he lives or dies, as long as he gets to Heaven.”

Do I think the Iranians would fire a nuclear missile first at Israel, even if it meant killing innocent Palestinians and destroying sacred mosques? You bet I do. I think that in their eyes, killing innocent Palestinians and destroying sacred buildings is a small price to pay for ridding the Middle East of the State of Israel. It is their version of “The Final Solution.”

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Training the Economic Underclass

There is a big difference between education and training. In education, the student is given instruction in a broad variety of subjects, usually related to the career path being pursued. In training, the student is instructed in accomplishing one of more specific tasks in the most efficient, cost effective, and error free manner possible.

Video and computer training courses are gradually replacing live instruction. That is because they are  cheaper, consistent, and people with short attention spans are more likely to sit and watch a TV type program than they are to sit in a live classroom.

One large coffee franchise has such video programs on making coffee, displaying pastry to best advantage, and recording orders and sales. The trainee need no longer worry about properly ringing up a complicated order. The numbers on the register have been replaced by color photos of the product. If you want to ring up the big beef cheeseburger, you press the button with the picture of the big beef cheeseburger on it. No need to count back money either. The display tells you the exact change owed the customer based on what was bought and the amount given you.

What training doesn’t do, is prepare you for bigger challenges beyond the front line, entry level job. Yes, there are additional training courses for such things, but you may not even learn about them unless you display both aptitude and performance.

The logical extension of all this, I have read and been told, is that an employer can make a decision early on as to a candidate’s potential with the firm, and train them accordingly. In other words, their growth may be capped very early on based on some manager’s assessment of their value to the company, and their ability to learn.

This could be a real issue in keeping the economic under class in the economic under class. These people are not always getting educated in the schools. I am amazed at the numbers of people who leave high school at age 16, or even after graduation, basically unable to read, write, or even speak the language properly. Assuming they are honest and conscientious young people who want to work for a living, and get ahead in life, how will they ever be prepared for anything beyond entry level jobs?

And whose fault is this? As usual, there’s enough blame to go around. It starts with the kids themselves who have little to no interest in schools or learning. It includes the schools who are more anxious to get these kids through the system than they are to educate them. It has to do with teacher unions that have more interest in protecting jobs based on seniority more than achievement. It has to do with taxpayers who are reluctant to take on the tax burden of new schools, programs, and staff. It has to do with politicians who speak support but vote otherwise, it has to do with the parents who see all this happening and don’t even try to do anything about it.

What is the answer? I wish I knew. Never before have the schools been so packed with young people, only some of whom are there to learn. The days of “hall guides” have long gone and been replaced by closed circuit TV, metal detectors, and even armed police officers. It’s not even always clear who is in charge, the staff or the kids themselves.

Some years ago, there was a movie called “Blackboard Jungle.”  It had to do with a big city school system being run by threatening and intimidating student gangs. We all considered it fantasy. It wasn’t. It was a peek into the future, where we all live today.

I do know that our educational levels as compared with other industrialized countries seem to be lowering, year by year, bit by bit. Maybe we need some sort of “Peace Corps” equivalent, not in some far off country, but right here in P.S. 22 just down the street. Maybe the Corps would be retired educators, disciplinarians, counselors, people of accomplishment and integrity who can see the problems, jump in, and help resolve them.

Whatever we do, we need to do it soon.

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Stories People Tell Me #3

“We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel- ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.’ You’re not as alone as you thought.” —John Steinbeck

This is a continuation of “Stories People Tell Me” Numbers 1 & 2

8. A Safe Prayer: Ed loved to tell the story of his daughter’s engagement to a young U.S. Army Special Forces lieutenant. Ed decided to celebrate the occasion with a barbecue and pool party at his home for all his daughter’s and the lieutenant’s friends. The fiance’s friends were, like himself, all active duty Special Forces troops at a nearby Army post, so he picked a summer’s Sunday afternoon when they could all attend; and attend they did. About 12 fit young men showed up for an afternoon of food, drink, and sun & fun in the pool.

By early evening, the party was winding down and Ed was concerned about the soldiers driving back to post a little the worse for wear. He suggested they all sleep at his house, have an early breakfast and shower, then head back to base ready for duty. They agreed to that and had, in fact, sleeping bags and toiletries stored in their cars. Ed set them up with spaces in his den, the family room, and the living room. Within a few more hours, the house was dark and the warriors were asleep, all over the floors of the 3 rooms.

Ed went up to bed and found his wife, a religious person, just lying there looking very pensive. “Is anything wrong?’ he asked.

“No,” she replied slowly, “I just offered a special prayer unlike any I have ever made.”

Ed asked her to share it, and she said, “Every night, I say a prayer that God will protect my family and my home from break-ins by any person intent on doing us harm. After seeing those young Green Berets asleep all over the downstairs floor, I added: ‘But Lord, if such a break-in has to occur sometime, please let it happen tonight.'”

9. Sales #101: I worked for Dick, our vice president of sales, and a man of a hundred stories. He was always giving me little sales tutorials. “Remember,” he’d say, “The first thing you must sell to a customer is yourself. Then, you sell him on your company. Then, you sell him on the product.”

I figured I pretty much knew it all by this time, and one time hinted that to Dick. “Really?” he said, smiling. He tossed me a standard #2 wooden pencil. “Sell me that,” he said.

I knew I could do it. I introduced myself as a successful pencil seller of many years’ experience and accomplishment. I talked about my fine and stable company, an industry leader for nearly a century. Then I told him about this fine wooden pencil, made by experienced craftsmen from the finest ash and the best graphite. I asked for the order.

Dick said, “Not bad. But you missed one important point. Here, let me sell the pencil to you.”

Dick took the pencil, put it in his pocket out of sight, and asked me this question: “Tell me, Ed, when you buy wooden pencils, what do you look for?”

10. Mayo in the Tuna Salad: I was visiting a large client account and my contacts asked me to stay for lunch. Company policy was that if you had a guest in tow, you could eat in the coveted Executive Dining Room. We did that and, to my surprise and special honor, we were joined by the president and CEO, in person. Everybody was on their best behavior.

I ordered the tuna salad plate, and poked at it while the big guy asked me questions about our product and pricing and all the good things CEO’s like to know about. Everything was going fine, until he noticed I had only eaten half my salad plate.

“What’s wrong with your tuna salad plate?” he asked.

Without thinking things through, I answered, “It’s okay, just a little too much mayonnaise for my taste.”

“Too much mayonnaise?” He said. “I can fix that.” He took my plate and strode into the kitchen. I could hear him yelling, screaming, and obviously terrorizing the kitchen help about putting too much mayonnaise in the tuna salad plate. I shuddered listening to their abject apologies. After a while, a deathlike silence fell over the kitchen, and the CEO strode back to our table and said to me: “Try it again next time you’re here. It will be fine.” He shook hands and left us.

We were quiet for a decent interval, and then I asked my hosts: “I’m really sorry, but what was that all about?”

One of the older guys replied, “You’ve got to understand the CEO’s job. Every day he is confronted with problems and issues and decisions that nobody else but him can make. Often time there is no obvious right or wrong answer, it’s a judgement call. He has to put himself on the line with everybody from the board, to his staff, to the employees, to the customers and vendors, and even to the financial community. He can never be right all the time, or even make one single judgement that won’t come back to bite him.

“Then, someone like you comes along with a problem he can instantly understand and resolve: ‘Too much mayonnaise in the tuna salad’. He took the ball and ran. Don’t feel badly for him. You just made his whole day.”

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Heart Surgery: Necessity and Bragging Rights

My father had to be the world’s worst medical patient. He avoided doctors whenever possible, took his medications when he felt like it (usually the night before his doctor’s appointment), and often quoted me his anthem: “Don’t let anybody near you with a knife, especially a doctor, as long as you’re strong enough to fight them off.”

Fortunately, he mellowed in his later years, and we got to enjoy his company well into his eighties. However, old habits die hard. Once I sat in the doctor’s office with him and answered the doctor’s questions, basically reciting all Dad’s symptoms. On the drive home he said to me, “Next time, be quiet.He didn’t need to know all that stuff. It just causes trouble.”

We have a family history of medical humor. I heard my first bit of “heart humor” forty years ago when they carted my friend, Bill Nicholas, into the Emergency Room in Cardiac Arrest. They notified his wife, who immediately came to the hospital, walked into Intensive Care, and found Bill hooked up to what looked like every machine in the hospital. She looked around the room, startled. Bill, who was awake, managed to whisper: “Don’t turn anything off!”

In 2003, at the age of 66, I had a triple bypass: that’s real open heart surgery (although, as some friends have since told me: “A Triple is nothing. I had a Quadruple.”).

Another friend said that, “Middle age is when you get billed for all the decisions you thought you had made for free.” That’s a good point, and worthy of consideration by the younger generation.

I earned my spurs in the business world. Now I can prove it in the geriatric world too: I had what the doctors call a triple CABG (Coronary Artery Bypass & Graft), also known to the medics as a “Cabbage.”  I don’t recommend it for the casual hypochondriac; and don’t have one just for the status of it. However, it is a talking point, and the guys who went through it with me were a great and funny bunch. Referring to the long, vertical chest incision we each had, one will often ask: “How’s the old zipper doing?”

When I went in, I first remember the surgeon who came to see me carrying a huge folder with my name on it. “I know everything about you now,” he said.

I replied, “And I don’t even know if you’re a real doctor.”

“Actually,” he said, “I’m with the Placebo Surgical Team. We open you up, sew you back together, and see if that makes you feel any better.”

My friend Steve asked his surgeon if his upcoming heart operation was risky. The doctor replied: “No. All you’re putting up is a $20.00 co-pay.”

Fortunately, all went well for me. While I was in post-op, conscious and bored (as usual), they wheeled in a man, about my age, with tubes and connections everywhere. He looked like a cross between a marionette and a mummy. He was very still, but his eyes were open, so I asked him: “How are you doing?”

It immediately occurred to me what a stupid question that was. I just had to look at him to know how he was doing. However, at length, he slowly turned his head toward me and replied, “Never had a better day in my life.”

Charlie says he was having a new valve installed in his heart. The doctor was showing it to him in the Operating Room. Charlie half-jokingly asked: “Does that thing come with a guarantee?”

The doctor replied: “Oh yes, a lifetime guarantee.” Charlie says he remembers going under the anesthesia thinking: “What does that mean?”

And there were out-and-out jokes too: Did you hear that they transplanted the heart of a Rhesus monkey into the body of a fifty year old man? They believe the operation was successful, but they won’t know for sure until they get him down off the lights.

Sondra made a political commentary: She said the surgeon briefed her after her Democrat husband’s bypass: “It’s touch and go,” he said. “We’re getting brain waves okay, but the heart is weak.” The woman replied, “Oh no, is he turning into a Republican?” He recovered with no noticeable effect on his politics.

Jack saw this on a bumper sticker: “Heart attacks are God’s punishment for eating His little animal friends.”

Paul, who checks everything, says he asked his doctor how many heart operations he had performed. The doctor replied, “Over 500.”

“How many were successful?” asked Paul.

The doctor answered, “I’m hoping that you’ll be the first.”

Phil had his bypass at 85. The doctor was lecturing him afterwards about taking better care of himself. Phil said, “I promise not to die young.”

Judy’s Uncle Bun had a bypass at the age of 92. He was an active man, part-time salesman, who still drove his own car. He thinks an important determining factor in his approval for the operation was his revelation to the doctor that for his 92d birthday, he had bought himself three new suits. They did the bypass, and Uncle Bun had six more good years in those new suits.

Another friend sent me this alleged national News Release: “The AMA announced today that surgeons who play video games are more proficient at their craft because modern medical equipment is often controlled with a joy stick. However, heart surgeons who routinely lose at Wii’s new ‘Bypass Surgery Game’ should be avoided.”

Tom’s story is best: His doctor recommended heart surgery and Tom asked for a second opinion. He wanted the best and he could afford it. They sent him to a prestigious hospital in Boston and scheduled meetings with several surgeons. Tom noticed a plaque on one doctor’s office wall. It had some sort of medical symbol, the doctor’s name, and it read: “America’s Number One Heart Surgeon: 2002 – 2012.” That gave him great confidence. “This is the surgeon for me,” thought Tom.

The operation was successful. Tom was recovering in his room when the surgeon came by to check in and report that everything was fine. He said that Tom’s progress was amazing. “I knew it would be,” Tom said, “as soon as I saw that plaque on your office wall.”

“What plaque?” asked the surgeon.

“The one about your being the ‘Number One Heart Surgeon in America’,” said Tom.

“Yes,” replied the doctor, “Isn’t it great? My kids gave that to me on Father’s Day.”

And, I couldn’t close without this Jackie Gleason/Art Carney classic bit.  Jackie’s character, Ralph Kramden, had surgery and through a lab mix-up got the wrong test results back. They indicated he had but four months to live. Horribly depressed, he shared his concern with Art’s character, Ed Norton, the sewer worker. Ed dismissed the whole thing as trivial: “I have a friend who worked in the sewer with me, and once they told him he had just four months to live.”

Brightening a bit, Ralph asked: “Oh yeah? And what happened to him?”

With a bright and reassuring grin, friend Norton replied: “He lived for six months!”

Oh well. I guess that, like anything else, if you can laugh about it, you can come through it just fine.

But, like the feller says: “Take care of yourself.”

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Ossifers, Brefdast, and a Sangwidge

I am fascinated by the English language, the people who use it, and how they use (and misuse) it. We are indeed separated by a common tongue. These are just little stories about my personal adventures with the English language that have amused me over the years:

1. When I went into ROTC at UMass in 1955, we went supervised by U.S. Army Master Sergeants, working out their retirement years after World War II and Korea. They were sharp, tough, no nonsense guys. Most of them were “street kids.” They were short on formal education, but long on experience and hard knocks. They were decorated combat veterans who had seen it all, and were trying to pass some of it on to young would-be officers, like myself.

One of my favorites was M/Sgt. Flynn, a Brooklyn boy who spoke his own language and expected you to understand and obey it – fast. Once, during a weekend morning in the field, he told us to prepare for “brefdast,” and walked away. We had no idea what that was. A maneuver of some sort? A test? What was it? It became clear a little later when he stopped back to tell us he had been at the mess tent for coffee and we’re “…having bacom and aigs for brefdast.”

Another time, he warned us that unless we shaped up fast we had no hope of becoming “ossifers.” We exchanged looks once again. What’s an “ossifer?” Once again he cleared it up a few minutes later when he said: “I’ll only recommend the best to wear a gold bar, and be commissioned an ossifer in the U.S. Army.”

Another favorite was “sangwidge.” You can probably guess that one by now. For mid-day chow, we have might coffee and a sangwidge.

On the rare occasions when I see one of my Army friends again, one of us will always say something like: “In today’s Army, do the ossifers still have a sangwidge for brefdast?”

2. In the Sixties, I was working in an international marketing group. We had responsibility for marketing our products in the Asia-Pacific area. My friend Nick handled Japan, and his contact over there told him he was coming to the U.S. for a corporate visit. Nick was thrilled. He liked the guy, but had never met him, and wanted him to have a good time on his first trip to America. Nick was quite a cook and he invited the man to dinner at his apartment. He asked, “Is there anything special you’d like to try?” The Japanese thought for a moment and said, “Yes, thank you, I’ve always wanted to try pickerel.” Nick said fine, he’d be ready, and hung up. He said to me, “That’s a funny one, but if that’s what he wants – fine.”

The day before his visitor arrived, Nick drove 50 miles into the Boston fish market, and after a bit of searching, found his pickerel. He brought it home, cleaned it, got out the cook book for ideas, and decided to saute it in melted butter and serve with roasted veggies. It was a lot of work, but he was glad to do it for a friend.

Came the big night and his Japanese guest arrived. They had drinks, talked, laughed and had a good time. Finally, dinner was ready. They sat at the table and Nick took the cover off his masterpiece. The Japanese looked at it, smiled, and said, “Very nice. What is it?”

Nick said, “It’s pickerel You wanted to try pickerel, didn’t you?”

The Japanese said, “Oh yes. This is a kosher dill pickerel?”

3. Tony was a senior draftsman who had been brought to this country from Italy as a child, with no English language skills, and thrust immediately into school to either sink or swim. That wasn’t uncommon in those days. Tony worked hard. He soon mastered English, in his own way, and became fascinated with the language. We were in a car pool to Worcester and back every day, and Tony would always throw out a new word or two that he had just heard or read.

To pass the travel time, the 4 of us in the carpool played “Password.” It was a TV game where you were given a word you had to “pass” to your partner. You could use synonyms, images, but no gestures or any forms of the word itself. Tony and I were partners. The losers bought lunch, so the game sometimes got very serious indeed.

One day we were in a tight game and it came down to me passing Tony a word. The word was “stick.” I had it down cold. I said, “Tony: ‘adhere.'” Tony went blank. The other team got it right next turn. We lost and had to buy lunch.

Later, Tony came to me and apologized. “I never heard that word ‘adhere’ before. What does it mean?”

And I said, “That’s okay, Tony. ‘Adhere’ means ‘stick.'” It’s a synonym for ‘stick.’ It means the same thing.

Tony said, “I’ll never forget that.”

A few days later, we picked up Tony at 7am as usual, and he seemed upset. “What’s wrong, Tony?” we asked.

He said, “Oh, my little girl was playing with a friend last night and she got hit in the eye with an adhere.”

We looked at each other. “Tony,” I said, “she got hit with an ‘adhere?'”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “You know, a ‘stick.'”

3. Years ago, my daughter Mary ran a day care in her home where working mothers could leave their children while they were at the job. I used to stop by on occasion, say hello, see my grandchildren, and amuse the kids a little bit with my magic tricks while Mary made coffee.

One little girl, Olivia, was about 3 or 4 and fascinated by my magic. One day, I was leaning against the sink, having coffee and talking to Mary, when Olivia came up to me with her hands raised and her fingers stretched apart. She said, “Watch my hands.”

I thought she was showing me a magic trick, so I paid exaggerated attention to her hands, looking from one to the other with a big smile on my face.

She looked at me as though I wasn’t too bright, and said again: “Watch my hands.”

I said, “I am. I am watching your hands.”

She sighed and said, “Der’re tickey! Watch my hands.”

4. Lt. Colonel Cooney was our battalion commander at Ft. Knox during my tour there in the late 1950’s. Another veteran of World War II and Korea, he was cool, competent, and a nice guy to work for – as long as you didn’t lose your perspective.

One day, he called me in and told me how he wanted a certain field maneuver to be conducted. His instructions were clear, but complicated, and it meant a lot of extra work for me and the staff.

I said, “Yes sir, I’ll do that for you.”

He smiled, put his arm around my shoulder, and said: “Thank you, Lieutenant, but try not to think of it as a personal favor. Think of it as a direct order.”

I got the message.

5. Innocence Abroad: I first started dealing with the Brits in 1964 when I worked on staff for a multi-national computer manufacturer. We had a plant in England and one day, the boss gave me a memo and said, “Send this to Hemel Hempstead in England.” I did just that and put it in the intercompany mail. I added a note addressed to Hemel Hempstead that began, “Dear Mr. Hempstead…” and explained the situation.

I thought no more of it until a few weeks later when I got back a letter, in the inter-company mail, from Hemel Hempstead. He thanked me for my courtesy, said he looked forward to working with me, and signed it “Cheers, -Hemel.” We were to be on a first name basis.

I wrote Hemel often after that when I sent him plant policies and such. I started including little inside updates on what was happening over here. I always got back a nice note thanking me for my assistance and my amusing little updates on life in the home office. Hemel often told a few stories about life in Merry Old England. The notes were always signed: “Cheers, -Hemel.”

One day, my boss told me that the Brits were coming over for an annual planning meeting and they had asked specifically that I be invited to their executive dinner. That was quite a coup for a newbie like me, and my boss was impressed. “Who do you know over there?” he asked.

I said, “I know Hemel Hempstead. We correspond regularly.”

My boss said: “‘Hemel Hempstead?’ That is a place. Hemel Hempstead is a town.just east of London. You know, like ‘Boston, Massachusetts.’ My goodness! The Brits and their dry humor, they’ve been putting you on. Now you must attend this dinner.”

I did attend, and it was great fun. Each Brit came up to me, shook my hand, and said, “So good to meet you, Ed. I’m Hemel.”

It turned out my notes made the bulletin boards all over the plant, and everyone eagerly looked forward to my next update to my good friend, Hemel. They loved it.

They brought me some good whiskey from Duty Free along with a few booklets on Hemel Hempstead, andf an English History book. They said they’d ask my boss to send me over there on some pretext, because everyone in the Hemel Hempstead plant wanted to meet me. It was a morale issue.

Yes, it was a bit embarrassing, but their sense of humor, good fun, and friendliness made it all worthwhile. I continued corresponding with them, but this time I had an actual person’s name.

I think.

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