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Posts Tagged ‘Memories’

Finding My Niche

Before I retired and became a man of leisure, I was an ordinary working dude. A nine-to-fiver. A white-collar wage slave.

Over the years, I came to know a series of corporate cultures that were every bit as Kafkaesque as the world of Dilbert, but without the humor.

Some of those places — actually, most of those places — were dreadful, borderline dysfunctional organizations. Bureaucracy, politics, and incompetence were constant obstacles. In truth, the organizations were not so much managed as mismanaged, and everyone knew it.

And, oh, how I hated it. The pomposity of the corporate caste system, the norm of inefficiency and waste — everything about it was offensive. I was in a state of constant indignation.

Probably, eventually, I was destined to leave corporate life behind. I had no idea what I might do to make a living, but I wasn’t making peace with the life I was leading.

Then, in 1989, when I took a new job in metro Atlanta, I got a lucky break.

The job was in the advertising department at Lithonia Lighting, a national manufacturer of commercial, industrial, and residential light fixtures.

The position, it turned out, provided a niche that gave me unexpected protection from the worst of the corporate crapola. I was able to do my work in a manner I found acceptable. It was a gift from God.

The details are a bit tedious, but I’ll try to keep it simple.

Lithonia Lighting hired me as the company’s first professional copywriter. The Advertising Department staff included graphic designers and marketing types, but no writers.

I soon learned that, in large part, I was hired to fix a chronic and maddening problem: the higher-ups were tired of being sued, sometimes by their own sales reps, over typos and inaccuracies in the printed material describing the products.

For a long time, the bosses had been reluctant to hire a writer. This was a company of and for engineers — real men — not some useless liberal arts major.

But they finally relented, and there I was, a detail-oriented guy with a knack for writing, grammar, proofreading, and similar skills that the engineers, poor things, clearly lacked.

The inaccuracies in the sales literature were having real consequences. When a contract is signed to supply the light fixtures to populate an office building, a factory, a mall, or whatever, the financial commitment is significant.

And lots of variables are involved — wattage, voltage, light source, lumen output, fixture dimensions, and more. If the products delivered are not precisely as quoted, and don’t perform precisely as promised, the manufacturer (or the manufacturer’s rep) is legally liable.

Lithonia Lighting was capable of manufacturing countless product variations. The technical specifications for all those theoretical products were maintained in a vast set of central files. The files amounted to a blueprint of what could and could not be manufactured.

When the sales reps needed descriptions of specific products to facilitate a deal, the company would refer to the official files and furnish the necessary information to the reps. In effect, documents describing any version of any product were available on demand.

When a product was modified or a new product variation was created, the central files were updated. Thus, theoretically, the sales force always had access to the latest and most accurate information.

In the years before I came along, the central files had been maintained and updated by a succession of employees — product engineers, marketing trainees, sales people, and others.

They were, to be sure, sincere and capable folks in their areas of specialty. But ensuring the accuracy of a huge mass of constantly-changing data was not among their skills. Hence, they decided to try someone like me.

Owing to the scale of the task, I was allowed to hire a few young copywriters fresh out of college. Like most writers, they were naturally detail-oriented and undeterred by what others might see as overwhelming and unmanageable.

And it worked. Within a year or two, we brought discipline to the system and restored the data files to a state of accuracy that was, if not perfect, at least acceptable. The lawsuit problems faded away. The bosses were pleased.

As a result of all this, management tended to stay out of my way. They were happy to let me do my thing, more or less undisturbed.

Because I was important to them in this manner, I was exempt from many of the petty annoyances of corporate life.

When a stupid management fad came along — Six Sigma, Core Competency, Management by Objectives — I wasn’t forced to endure the training sessions as were my peers.

And never once was I assigned to the universally-hated duty of helping to conduct the periodic inventories of the main warehouse, which was the size of the Pentagon.

As time passed, the people changed, and the tools we used and the tasks we performed evolved. But the work remained interesting and fun.

The Advertising Department, an enclave of creative types amid a sea of math and science majors, was never dull.

And I stayed plenty busy. In addition to overseeing the product data, we produced product catalogs, prepared advertising and marketing material, wrote news releases and newsletters, and edited a steady mass of correspondence.

Yes, the place was still a typical large corporation. The bureaucracy was appalling. The mismanagement, at times, was spectacular and stultifying.

But I stayed anyway. For 25 years.

All because I got lucky and found my niche.

Managing

 

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One day back in 2002, my mom called and said excitedly, “Rocky, have you heard that new Johnny Cash song, ‘The Man Comes Around’?” I had not.

“Oh, you need to hear it. Johnny Cash is always good, but this song is something else. It’s… biblical.”

She tried to explain, but it was futile. I had no idea why the song had her so amped.

When I finally heard it, I understood her enthusiasm.

The song was the title tune on Johnny’s 2002 album “American IV: The Man Comes Around.”

Wikipedia explains it thusly:

“There are numerous biblical references in the lyrics. A spoken portion from Revelation 6:1–2 in the King James Version introduces the song. The passage describes the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, each heralded by one of the ‘four beasts’ first mentioned in Revelation 4:6–9.

“The musical portion then begins with Cash reciting that ‘the man’ (Jesus Christ) will one day come to pass judgment. The chorus indicates that these events will be accompanied by trumpets, pipers, and ‘one hundred million angels singing.’ The voice of the Lord in Revelation is often likened to the sound of a loud trumpet. Revelation 5:11 states that John saw that there are millions of angels in Heaven.

“The song also alludes to the Parable of the Ten Virgins from the Gospel of Matthew with the lyrics ‘The virgins are all trimming their wicks,’ a reference to the virgins’ preparation of the Second Coming of Christ.

“The phrase, ‘It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks’ cites Acts 26:14, where Paul the Apostle describes meeting Jesus while traveling to Damascus. It is a reference to a Greek proverb where a kicking ox only injures himself by attempting to kick against a goad, intended to represent the futility of resisting the Lord.

“Elsewhere, the song mentions the wise men who bow before the Lord’s throne, and cast their ‘golden crowns’ at the feet of God. Revelation 4 refers to elders who worship the Lord and ‘lay their crowns’ before Him. ‘Alpha and Omega’ refers to Jesus Christ. ‘Whoever is unjust… etc.’ is a quote from Revelation 22:11.”

Mom was right. Johnny Cash going Old Testament biblical is something else.

The Man Comes Around

The Man Comes Around

By Johnny Cash, 2002
Written by Johnny Cash

And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder:
One of the four beasts saying: “Come and see.” And I saw.
And behold, a white horse.

There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names.
An’ he decides who to free and who to blame.
Everybody won’t be treated all the same.
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around.

The hairs on your arm will stand up
At the terror in each sip and in each sup.
Will you partake of that last offered cup
Or disappear into the potter’s ground
When the man comes around?

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singing.
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’.
Some are born and some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha and Omega’s Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
The virgins are all trimming their wicks.
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom.
Then the father hen will call his chickens home.
The wise men will bow down before the throne.
And at his feet they’ll cast their golden crowns
When the man comes around.

Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still.
Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still.
Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still.
Listen to the words long written down
When the man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singing.
Multitudes are marchin’ to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’.
Some are born and some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha and Omega’s Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
The virgins are all trimming their wicks.
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

In measured hundredweight and penny pound.
When the man comes around.

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts,
And I looked, and behold: a pale horse.
And his name that sat on him was Death.
And Hell followed with him.

 

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Torque

I believe in maintenance. When you maintain things, small problems are less likely to grow into big problems.

For example, I get myself checked regularly by an assortment of medicos. Not just my GP, but the dermatologist, the ophthalmologist, and the periodontist. If something needs fixing, in me or on me, I want to know about it, pronto.

This philosophy also extends to my vehicles. I take them in for regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly and, knock on wood, head off serious issues later.

My mechanic is a life-long local, a soft-spoken family man of about 40. He’s a pro, very conscientious, well regarded hereabouts.

But sometimes, stuff happens.

One morning several years ago, I took my Subaru to his shop for an oil change. It’s a fairly large operation for this little town, with half a dozen mechanics working in the bays. While I waited, one of them would change the oil, inspect things, and rotate the tires.

After about 30 minutes, the deed was done. I exchanged pleasantries with the owner, paid the bill, and drove away.

100 yards from the shop, the car suddenly lurched and pulled to the left. I stopped immediately.

When I got out to investigate, I discovered that the left front wheel was askew on the wheel studs. Three of the lug nuts were loose, two were missing.

For whatever reason, the technician had failed to tighten that wheel. As I drove away — fortunately at low speed — the nuts had unthreaded themselves, and the wheel was on the verge of coming off. Yikes!

I walked back to the shop and gave them the news.

My friend the mild-mannered owner blew his top. He was as angry as I’ve ever seen him — close to breaking things

Finally, he calmed down, collected himself, and dispatched a truck and two employees to retrieve the Subaru.

Fortunately, no damage was done. They made things right and triple-checked the work. The owner offered a heartfelt apology and said I was ready to go again.

“You know,” I told him, “This surely was a freak thing. Your guy probably just got distracted. You can bet he won’t let it happen again. Don’t be too hard on him.”

“No, this is unacceptable,” he said. “He and I are gonna have a come-to-Jesus meeting, and then I’ll decide what to do.”

And there, for me, the episode ended.

Since then, no one at the shop has mentioned that particular unpleasantness. A few times, I was tempted to make a joke about it, but I always stopped myself. Too touchy a subject for levity.

But last month, while I was at the garage for an oil change on my current vehicle, I got curious and decided to ask.

As I was preparing to leave, I said to the owner, “Got a minute? I’d like to ask you something.” I turned and went outside, indicating that I wanted privacy, and he followed.

“Remember that time a few years ago, ” I said, “when I drove away, and the front wheel on my Subaru –”

“You bet I remember,” he said. “It was a nightmare. A low point for this business. ”

“Well, I never knew who did the work that day. You said you planned to read him the riot act. How did things work out?”

How things worked out was a bit surprising.

The come-to-Jesus meeting was brief, animated, and, no doubt, one-sided. But the mechanic had been a steady and reliable worker, and he kept his job.

More importantly, the shop put new procedures in place aimed at preventing similar screw-ups in the future.

First, the shop’s standard work order was changed to include new checkboxes about lug nuts and the proper torquing thereof.

Under the new rules, mechanics are required to look up the manufacturer’s torque specifications, tighten the lugs as recommended (it was 75 ft-lbs in the case of my Subaru), and record it on the work order. Individually for each wheel.

After that, a second mechanic is required to check the work and add his initials to vouch for it. Four wheels, four initials.

Yikes.

The moral: preventing human error is a tough and never-ending job.

It’s pretty much hopeless, but you have to try anyway.

Torque

 

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Sometimes, an improbable thing happens, and you are left flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. Such a thing happened to me, very memorably, about 10 years ago.

Back in the 1950s, when my dad was in the Air Force, we lived in Europe for a few years. I attended a high school for U.S. military dependents in Stuttgart, Germany.

Living in a beer-centric country like that, and being a red-blooded teenager, I was an expert on the numerous breweries, biergartens, and gasthauses in the Stuttgart area. I probably knew as much about the local breweries — the products, histories, reputations, and relative merits — as the natives did.

Breweries were, and still are, ubiquitous in Germany. The German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, is home to some 175 breweries. Stuttgart itself has many dozens, the largest and most popular being the Dinkelacker brand. (In German, the word Dinkelacker means wheatfield.)

The improbable part of the story came about one weekend not long before I retired, as I was browsing through a local antique/junk store. On a dusty lower shelf, I discovered three brand-new, unopened 50-packs of bar coasters that advertise — I kid you not — the Dinkelacker brewery of Stuttgart, Germany.

I stared in disbelief at the logo so familiar in my youth. I was stunned, practically a-swoon. The fact that I, Rocky Smith, would find a huge stash of those particular coasters 50 years later on another continent — well, it was highly improbable.

It was absolutely thrilling, as well, and I gleefully purchased the three 50-packs for the princely sum of three dollars.

I’ve been using the coasters freely around the house for the last decade. They hold up really well. Clearly, my remaining stash is a lifetime supply, and then some.

Dinkelacker

At some point, my thoughts about this unlikely occurrence turned to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Specifically, I was reminded of the “Infinite Improbability Drive,” which, according to the book, allows a starship to go anywhere in the universe instantly. A very convenient plot device.

Engaging the Infinite Improbability Drive, you see, suspends “normality” and means that, in theory, anything is possible. As explained here, however, there’s a catch:

But I digress. The discovery, by me, of those bar coasters in that junk store is a hugely unlikely thing.

Even random chance seems… highly improbable.

Normality

 

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ABC Package is a large and well-stocked liquor store in Athens, Georgia. From its convenient location on Atlanta Highway, it has served the alcohol needs of the University of Georgia student body for 25 years.

abc-1

ABC Package opened in the early 1990s, coinciding with the years my sons Britt and Dustin were students at UGA.

Both boys, it turned out, conducted business with surprising regularity at ABC Package. I learned this when I would balance their bank accounts (this being the old days, before debit cards and such, when writing checks was still a thing), and I would see checks payable to ABC Package.

Oddly enough, they both had the same explanation for this — five years apart, mind you — which they expressed to me with sober, stone-faced sincerity.

The conversations went something like this…

————

Rocky: Britt, I balanced your checkbook yesterday and made a deposit. I see you wrote four checks to ABC Package. Seriously?

Britt: Oh, that. Well, the thing is, ABC Package is the only place in Athens that will take a check for cash. I go there to get spending money.

Rocky: You don’t go there for beer or liquor or anything.

Britt: Nope.

Rocky: I see.

————

Rocky: Hey, Dustin, tell me about these checks to ABC Package. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?

Dustin: Dad, it isn’t what you think. ABC Package is the only place in town that will take a check for cash. That’s why I write checks there.

Rocky: So… you write checks to a liquor store, but not for alcohol.

Dustin: Correct.

Rocky: I see.

————

All of which reminds me of the classic question, “You expect me to believe that? What do you take me for?”

The correct response being, “Everything I can get.”

abc-2

 

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The 1995 folk song “Lake Marie” by John Prine is an odd one. It’s a beautiful ballad that combines three storylines — A Native American legend, the rise and fall of a marriage, and two gruesome murders — and weaves them together with sausages sssizzlin‘ on the grill.

Lake Marie is a real place in southern Wisconsin. Prine knew the lake from summer vacations there as a Chicago teenager.

He found the beginning of the song, the story of the Indian tribe, in a local library. The middle section, about good times at the lake and meeting a girl, is largely autobiographical. Prine explained the third section, the murders, in the late 1990s:

“The suburbs were kind of thought to be a pretty safe place at the time. And then some of these unexplained murders would show up every once in a while, where they’d find people in the woods somewhere.

“I just kinda took any one of them, not one in particular, and put it as if it was in a TV newscast. It was a sharp ‘left turn’ to take in a song.”

And it works very well.

prine-j

Lake Marie

By John Prine, 1995
Written by John Prine

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

Many years ago, along the Illinois-Wisconsin border,
There was this Indian tribe.
They found two babies in the woods. White babies.
One of them was named Elizabeth.
She was the fairer of the two,
While the smaller and more fragile one
Was named Marie.

Having never seen white girls before,
And living on the two lakes known as the Twin Lakes,
They named the larger and more beautiful lake ‘Lake Elizabeth.’
And thus, the smaller lake that was hidden from the highway
Became known forever as ‘Lake Marie.’

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

Many years later, I found myself talking to this girl
Who was standing there with her back turned to Lake Marie.
The wind was blowing. Especially, through her hair.
There was four Italian sausages cookin’ on the outdoor grill.
And they was sssizzlin’!

Many years later, we found ourselves in Canada,
Trying to save our marriage.
And perhaps catch a few fish.
Whatever came first.
That night, she fell asleep in my arms,
Hummin’ the tune to ‘Louie Louie.’
Ahh, baby. We gotta go now.

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

The dogs were barkin’ as the cars were parkin’.
The loan sharks were sharkin’.
The narks were narkin’.
Practically everyone was there.
In the parking lot by the forest preserve,
The police had found two bodies.
Nay, naked bodies!

Their faces had been horribly disfigured
By some shhharp object.
I saw it on the news.
The TV news.
In a black and white video.

You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows. Shadows!
That’s what it looks like.
All the love we shared between her and me was slammed
Slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie.
Marie!

We were standing,
Standing by peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.
Whoa, ahh oh, ahh oh.

Peaceful waters.
Standing by peaceful waters.

Ahh, baby. We gotta go now.

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More random photos I’ve taken over the years that still make me smile.

couple-on-bench

plaster-cow

shades

no-vechicles

reindog

 

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