Friday, March 26, 2010

Time To Make the Donuts

(News-Herald, March 25) We take responsibility, act responsibly, encourage people to act like responsible adults. We have long, energetic discussions about who’s Responsible For This. We wait for people who have behaved badly to take responsibility for their actions. And we can’t really explain exactly what we mean by any of it.
I’ve arrived at the following operational definition of being responsible. You are responsible for something when you decide to make it your business to see that the matter turns out okay.
Responsibility does not whine and say, “Oh, I would work on that issue, but it would be hard.” Responsibility is part of the solution; whining “It’s hard” is part of the problem.
Responsibility never says, “Well, that’s not my problem.” The best customer service workers are those who consider themselves responsible for the customers that they deal with, who don’t just shrug and say, “Well, that’s not my table/department/area.”
“To see that the matter turns out okay” means that responsibility concerns itself with the outcomes. It is not responsible to say, “Look, I did what I was supposed to do. If that didn’t resolve the issue, that’s not my problem.”
The public and private sector are filled with bad managers and workers who do not see things through. They do what they think they’re supposed to do or what they think should solve the problem. If that doesn’t actually solve anything, oh well. “Look, I filled out the forms. What else do you want me to do?” or “The paperwork says everything’s okay and that’s good enough for me” are not responsibility in action.
You can’t be responsible for things over which you have no power. I can’t be responsible for the sorry state of American health care or the ridiculous state of Congress’s “solution” because, as an ordinary citizen, I have no say over any of it.
On the other hand, in areas where you do have power, you must be responsible or irresponsible, and you can’t duck the choice. If I’m behind the wheel of the car, I can’t try to claim that responsibility for steering lies with my passengers in the back seat.
Circumstances in life put us in the path of one set of responsibilities or another. We can face up to those responsibilities or deny them, but there’s no way to make them go away. Far too many young men try to pretend that they are not somehow responsible for the children they father, but they either face up to that responsibility or act like irresponsible boys. There are no other options. It’s the irresponsible who don’t come through, step up or see things through. “I was going to, but [fill in excuse here].”
When people accept responsibility for their misbehavior, they are acknowledging that it is their job, and nobody else’s, to make things as right as they can be.
Sometimes circumstances put completely unexpected opportunities for responsibility in our paths. It’s the Samaritan’s problem—do we stop for the folks who have been mugged by life?
The modern American response is to look at the problem and say, “Oh, that’s awful. Somebody really ought to do something about that.” Surely there is an agency, government program, community organization or some other outfit that will handle it. Asking someone else to see the matter through and walking away is not responsibility, either.
To check your own responsibility quotient, apply the definition that I’ve offered. What in the world are you, today, right now, making it your business to see through to the best possible conclusion. Not hoping it turns out okay, rooting for the people who will make it turn out okay, or trying to make it turn out okay ( “try” is a word used to pre-emptively excuse the failure you plan to have).
People love to complain about the quality of life in Venangoland. That’s another attempt to dodge responsibility. If you life Here (no matter where Here is) you need to accept some responsibility for what life Here is like. If you’re whining, you’re part of the problem.
When I think of responsibility, oddly enough I think of the man in the old donut commercial dragging himself out into the world because it’s “time to make the donuts.” No whining, no excuses, no figuring someone else will take care of it—Fred the Baker would just get up and make the donuts. Responsibility is as simple as that. What donuts are you making today?

Friday, March 19, 2010

James Murrin & The Great European War

(News-Herald, March 18) Thirty-nine years ago this month, a notable Franklin figures passed away. James Murrin was a newsman, a man who devoted his life to the newspaper business and the community that supported it.
When Murrin graduated from high school in 1912, he immediately moved to Franklin to begin work at the News-Herald. He started out working for his uncle, James Borland, another great newsman and community leader in Franklin. Borland had dropped out of school to start his newspaper; presumably he did not hold Murrin’s diploma against him.
Murrin followed in his uncle’s footsteps, and not just by becoming a newspaper editor. He became postmaster, charter member of the American Legion post, a Rotarian, a life member of the BPOE, a city councilman and a member of the library board. He had a son, Ralph, and a daughter, Nita, who married Lutheran pastor Dr. Robert Thurau.
But before all of that, James Murrin fought in the First World War, and he wrote a book about it—With the 112th in France: A Doughboy’s Story of the War. Thanks to a publishing house (Shelf2Life) with an interest in publishing pre-1923 memoirs of the Great War, Murrin’s book is once again available.
Like many young men from Venangoland, Murrin served in Company F, 112th Regiment, 28th Division. In the summer of 1917, he enlisted. The order to mobilize the National Guard came on July 15. Murrin married Helen Wilson on July 20. He was 22 years old.
Murrin’s book is a testament to his background as a journalist. His reporting is thorough (sometimes too thorough—it seems that he is determined to make sure that each name of each individual makes it into the historical record).
After training in the South, the 112th shipped for France in May of 1918; they would return to the US almost exactly a year later.
The first part of their time there was spent in the time-honored game of Hurry Up And Wait. Murrin’s account is indeed a soldier-eye view of the war, often odd and unclear, cut off from any big picture that might be informing the commands the doughboys received. At one point the company is kept shuttling back and forth between two locations for no apparent reason.
Without whining or complaining, Murrin captures a sense of numbing drudgery, marching, waiting, sleeping, marching. The men pass the time with the simplest of activities, perhaps enjoying impromptu concerts by the regimental band.
The band of 112th gets its own chapter, a source of morale and pride in difficult times. The 112th Regiment Band would have a lasting affect here at home—many of these men (Coulter Hoffman, Major Olmes, Roy Miller, Harland Mitchell) would become important local musicians, and many would form the core of the celebrated American Legion Band of Oil City. Murrin lavishes considerable appreciation on the group.
He also shares a love and admiration for the commanding officer of the 112th, George C. Rickards. The young soldiers expressed great respect for Rickards, who by Murrin’s account was fifty-eight years old when he traveled to fight in France.
Ultimately the 112th ended up fighting in the battle of the Argonne Forest, one of the many incredibly costly battles of the war. It was part of a final offensive push that broke the back of the German army, and the cost was tremendous: the 112th went into the Argonne with 77 officers and 2892 men and finished with 10 officers and 533 men left on the front line.
The First World War should be better remembered. Not only was the war a study in the massive carnage that can be created by clueless leaders and aimless conflict, but a century later we still live with the effects. After the war, victorious powers decided to clean up the map by combining small countries into larger ones like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Iraq, and heck, we’ve hardly had any trouble in the Balkans or Middle East since then.
When the war is studied, it is usually in the large scale; it’s worth it to see how it looked to the average soldier, and in Murrin we have an average soldier who has above average reporting and writing skills. Some of the details are mundane (sleeping through the unit moving out) and some are surprising (discovering German faux tanks made of scraps of wood). The fact that he is a local, a man who would come home to be a pillar of this community, is a bonus. You can find the book on or other reputable on-line booksellers.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Theater and Colons

(News-Herald, March 11) From my mailbag:
Dear Fake Journalist Guy, What do you do with a bunch of ideas that are too small for a full column. Signed, Fake Reader.
Dear FR. By use of seamless transitions, we make separate ideas seem totally related. Watch. Sincerely, FJG.
Sometimes when a week is dragging on, you need a break from routine. For creatures of habit, it can be as simple as a different breakfast cereal. After a steady week of Cheerios, little marshmallow charms can create some excitement.
But sometimes that isn’t enough. So last midweek, I arranged to change up my routine with a colonoscopy.
This was a routine procedure, one of those tests one gets as a reward for being A Certain Age. It’s not the procedure itself that is the fun part. The night before, you drink four liters of a mix-it-yourself concoction made from the sweat of demons who have been roasted while being whipped with the rotting skunk skins and packed in blue cheese.
Okay, I may exaggerate, but when medicine admits on its own label that it tastes awful, you know you’re in trouble. Colyte’s label says, in part, “Keep this refrigerated because when it’s cold it will gag you less” and “Seriously, you want to gulp this down as quickly as possible.”
The stuff lived up to its press. Tastes rather like brine, with a relentless numbing saltiness that skips over the taste buds and heads straight for the gag reflex. I did try mixing this with cran-apple juice and quickly realized that A) it still tasted horrible and B) I had just made MORE of it.
But after a couple of hours, this magic fluid roto-roots your insides, leaving three feet of squeaky clean pipe where your gastro-intestinal system used to be. You would think that the subsequent fasting would be taxing, but by this time my weary innards didn’t care.
And here’s the thing. The next day I went to the ambulatory care center at the hospital, which is clean and friendly. Because this is Venangoland, my nurse was a woman who played in high school band with me and whose sister double-dated with my sister at their prom. My doctor explained everything to me, a nice anesthetist explained what was going to happen. Then somebody said something about injecting stuff into my iv, and the next thing I remember is waking up back in the room, more or less ready to be driven home by my sister-in-law, who deserves some sort of merit badge.
Was that it? Almost. Later comes the part where my doctor leaves me a message that the one polyp they removed was pre-cancerous. In other words, at the expense of the physical equivalent of a bad 24-hour flu bug, I get to not have a doctor tell me that I have colon cancer 3-10 years from now. There are worse things you can do than have a colonoscopy.
But there are also better things. For instance, the highlight of my week was attending Pump Boys and Dinettes at the Barrow.
The show (appearing Friday, Saturday and Sunday) deserves a larger audience. Pump Boys is a concert show, a la Forever Plaid and Nunsense, with just enough story to flesh out some fun characters and tie together a bunch of good music. The style here is what is traditional country; not glossy faux twanging, but the kind of folk-based music that can be readily enjoyed by people who don’t care for either modern C&W or typical musical theater fare.
There are some gorgeous vocal harmonies as well as some hilarious performances (hard to go wrong with material like “Farmer Tan”). Brett Sloan and Suzi Beach are, as always, total pros in their vocal awesomeness, and Richard Roberts’ skills as an entertainer are on full display. The rest of the cast is solid, but the new treat for Barrow audiences is Jim Helmetzi, a veteran bluegrass player who handles all manner of instrument and performs with relaxed, capable stage presence.
Some blues or gospel leaks in, too. The cast ably handles it all. The songs are fun, and treat small-town life with humor without dopey disrespectful cornpone abuse. You will hum many for weeks. It’s a relaxed, fun evening of good music, well-done and well worth your time.
On your way out, you’ll smile and think, “Well, that improved my week way more than a colonoscopy would have.” (Barrow, feel free to use that line on posters).
And that, Fake Reader, is how we do it.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

How Managers View Workers

(News-Herald, October 2003) I’m always interested in the fine art of management. First, teaching involves a sort of management, so I have a professional interest in understanding how it can be best done. Second, I think bad management is one of our top five biggest, baddest plagues. Others may lay the blame for the Imminent Collapse of Civilization on all manner of socio-psycho syndromes, but I think the biggest threat we may face is Management By The Incompetent.
One way to classify managers is by their view of the people who work for them. We’ll start at the bottom of the heap.
Workers are a problem. Somewhere under life’s black banana peels, we find those managers who feel that their subordinates are a problem to be fixed.
We can be talking about a wide range of problems. There are business and office managers who think that workers create problems by using stuff. Those darn workers—they want to use up supplies, they insist on having working equipment, and on top of all that, they keep taking the organization’s money for their salaries.
Or workers might be trouble because they insist on mentioning problems that the organization has. They might be rude enough to point out that the company’s fine new software doesn’t do what it was bought to do. They might insist on calling attention to some policy or procedure that keeps them from doing their jobs.
You can spot a manager who views his workers as problems because his managerial focus is on getting them to shut up and leave him alone. When the ship is going down, he’s the one up in the pilot house hollering, “Stop screaming—you’re making the boat all wet.”
The irony is that of all managerial types, this guy is least able to solve problems when they arise (and, yes, real worker-related problems exist) because he has no interest in finding, understanding or fixing the problem. In his mind, the employee is the problem, and said employee just needs to be straightened out, put in his place, set right, etc etc etc.
Workers are resources. Somewhere in the middle of the continuum lies this style. This manager sees his workers as resources to be used.
There are advantages to this. The resource manager would no more needlessly abuse an employee than he would drive a fine Porsche without oil in the engine. He takes care of his staff as he cares for all his belongings.
It’s vaguely unsettling to work for a resource manager. You can feel as if you’re in a Popeye cartoon where Wimpy is looking at you, but seeing a big hamburger instead. The prize turkey is well cared for, too, but eventually he’s just used and consumed. Not everyone’s dream for their work life.
Resource managers also have an unfortunate tendency to view workers as interchangeable cogs, building blocks to be discarded if they are defective (“defective” being defined as “different in any noticeable way”). And in the crunch time, resource managers are likely to view workers as far less valuable than the manager himself. Workers will often work well for a resource manager, but they’ll never trust him.
Workers as foot soldiers. These are the guys everyone wants to work for, because they get a few things that the other two do not.
For one, they understand who does the real lifting and carrying. A general may plan and inspire and lead and deploy, but in the end, it’s the soldiers who shoot and are shot at, who fight and create the victory for their army.
So the foot soldier manager knows that the ultimate success of the enterprise depends on his subordinates. He knows that they need to be supplied and supported and valued and given the material they need to do the job.
He doesn’t tell them that they can’t have guns because the budget was slashed and air conditioning for his tent is more important. He doesn’t court martial them for repeatedly asking for bullets, and he doesn’t put them in the stockade for pointing out that the enemy has broken through the lines.
He doesn’t let them run amuck, and he remembers that he’s the one in a position to see the big picture and set strategy. But he doesn’t throw them needlessly into a fruitless battle or treat them as if they’re expendable as Kleenex, because he knows that they’ll be most effective if he can fire up not only their blood and muscle but also their hearts and minds.
Treat workers like problems, and they learn to be sneaky and helpless and hopeless. Treat them like resources, and they learn to be cautiously cooperative. Treat them like valued soldiers on the front lines, and they will give more to the organization than you, or they, ever thought possible.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Curling and Cable

(News-Herald, March 4) It has been almost a year and a half since I gave up cable television.
I’ve been reflecting on this because I’ve had my first strong feeling of deprivation. It was tough to miss the Rose Parade, and I miss regularly watching the Daily Show.
But Winter Olympics time came, and I was not able to watch curling.
I’d never known about this sport until the last winter Olympics, during which the riveting act of sliding a slow-motion stone across ice captured my attention. I glanced briefly, and then succumbed to the sporting equivalent of the just-one-more-potato-chip phenomenon that allows television to magically erase untold hours of a human being’s life.
Curling—the only sport for which there is no slow motion replay because the sport is already in slow motion. Curling—where we see the perfect yin and yang of a hurler who seems almost frozen in time, flanked by the ice-squeegee guys (I may not have entirely absorbed the correct jargon) scrubbing the ice with feverish blurred intensity.
Despite this test of my resolve, cable did not re-appear in my home. I have learned too many valuable lessons in its absence.
Good shows are better in concentrated doses. I’ve been netflixing my way through many series, and they are much more fun this way. I’ve watched the first six seasons of NCIS in less than a year, the first two seasons of Big Bang Theory in just a few months. Turns out tv characters are like real people in one respect—the more often you see them, the more you enjoy their company.
Best part of dvd viewing? Every viewing choice is a deliberate choice, instead of sitting passively waiting to see what the cable might throw at your brain next.
Do you have any idea how many ads you’re watching? Seriously. If you are watching traditional television, about a full third of the time you are paying for is being spent trying to sell you stuff. It’s like hiring an encyclopedia salesman to interrupt your family’s dinner.
Old shows are fun. Okay, some are perhaps not as much fun as we remember. F Troop is still funny, but not as ribsplittingly hilarious as ten-year-old me thought. On the other hand, Moonlighting is actually better than I remember, particularly without the long gaps between new episodes (but oh those eighties shoulder pads and giant hairdos). Jack of all Trades, a vehicle for the awesomely under-appreciated Bruce Campbell, should have survived longer.
And television may not have been any better, but it was surely cheaper. Watching the Man from UNCLE chase bad guys around the same parts of the same back lot is cheesetastic good fun.
Words are so much better than pictures. I don’t mean spoken words, because my message to the talking heads on the tube is “For the love of Mike, please shut up!”
When a South American country gets all torn up and the international tsunami warning system is set at Freak Out, here’s what I need you guys to do: Point a camera at the pertinent images, put up a bottom-screen crawl that includes your two or three sentences of actual information, turn off your microphone, then go out for a hamburger and a round of golf.
News outlets have carried their unreasoning love of pictures and babble onto the internet, where it would be just as easy to post the pictures and the text of What We Know So Far. Some outfits get that (thanks, CNN) but others feel sure that I want to see the same thirty seconds of footage looped incessantly while some poor news reader finds 147 ways to say, “We don’t really know much more than that, so let me repeat it some more.”
Some times—most times—paragraphs of text that are regularly rewritten by people who have taken five minutes to check their facts and think about what they want to say—those old-fashioned paragraphs of text are way more useful than some pretty dolt doing babbling news improv.
It’s amazing what you can get done when you aren’t waiting till the exact hour or half-hour to start. In truth, the single worst thing about my relationship with cable was not the empty wasteland of its content, but the way it could make hour after hour of my life disappear and give nothing in return. That is the very definition of a bad habit. I miss curling, but it’s not worth a return of the monkey to my back.

From my Flickr