Conference Life

Last day of the conference on Business Ethics. So far the presenters have been in unanimous agreement that business should be ethical. Maybe next year I should propose a paper arguing against ethics just to liven things up a bit.

It has been an interesting experience. I’ve presented at some ASME conferences before, but those were to a very technical crowd, and one that is dominated by folks from the business world. This conference was primarily academics. The similarities and differences are telling. Some observations…

Combs are still optional in academia

They get the “pony tailed consultant” types showing up at their conferences too, cornering unsuspecting presenters looking to latch onto them like leeches to extract business and/or original thinking.

This conference being sponsored by the Vincentian Colleges (Niagara- St. Johns – DePaul) begins each day with a short speech by an overweight, gregarious, ruddy faced priest. Made me feel like I was back in High School, and I mean that in a good way.

Academics aren’t very nice to each other. Odd.

I am as knowledgable about certain subjects as several of these professors. Seriously, even reading and studying on my own. What do they do all day?

My presentation was mostly well received. Not being an academic I was a little worried about that. Only one guy jumped on me when I stated that some HR Performance Management systems are unjust. Since he taught in an HR program he took some issue with that. But, several others chimed in to my defense, and I held my ground that when Human Resource performance management systems begin to manage people as resources, instead of humans, by imposing arbitray measurements, they are indeed unjust. The lefties in the crowd (which, this being academia was damn near everyone) nodded in approval.

As for the rest of my trip, it was bittersweet in the usual 20 Prospect way. WNY in autumn can be achingly beautiful. But still the ruins of what was, and the ghosts of what might have been were all around. Seeing family was wonderful, but seeing the real 20 P and all the other places from my memories really tore me up inside.

Farewell Batavia, until next time…

Business Ethics is not an Oxymoron

kajbjurman1

The true purpose of my trip to Western N.Y. is not to gorge myself on Pizza and Wings, but to participate in a conference. I will be presenting here in Niagara Falls. I will not be representing my Dark Corporate Overlords. Instead I am just there to embarrass myself in my capacity as a (former) Grad Student. Wish me luck as I expound upon the Dehumanizing Evils of Six Sigma and Scientific Management.

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St. Paul, Minnesota – 1992

This story begins with fate. For it could only have been fate. A planned mid-winter maintenance outage at the Minnesota Power plant in Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota called me from my temporary home in Denver. Winter and summer were our downtime, as the nation’s power plants ran full force to heat us and cool us. So it was strange to be called to the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota the first frozen week of February.

My best friend Chris was in his second year of Graduate School at the U of M, so I flew out on a Friday to spend the weekend in the Twin Cities before heading up to the range. Living alone in hotel rooms, in anonymous towns, it was nice to be able to re-connect with people who actually knew your name.

Chris was working in the labs at the St. Paul campus, and living in a flea ridden dump on Temple Court with two other grad students, and two filthy slobbery hounds, in a rental we lovingly called the “Schweine-hundt house”. He was soon to be engaged to his lovely wife Sue, who had recently moved out to St Cloud, to attend grad school in close proximity to him. So my arrival was a re-union of sorts and at the tender age of 22, reunions always promised drinking, and laughter. (Still do actually)

Friday began with happy hour at Ciatti’s on Larpentuer, where the lab crowd gathered for cheap eats and beer, and it ended sometime after bar close, with my face buried in a bowl of Beer Cheese soup at the Embers on University, merrily slurping away much to Sue’s horror and amusement. I had yet to be domesticated, and my manners pretty much reflected a life lived in power plants, and among Union labor.

The plans for Saturday evening were much more low key. Dinner out with some couples who were friends of Chris’. My expectations were set pretty low, so I was surprised when one of the couples showed up at the Schweine-hundt house with a lovely single woman in tow. She wore a brown leather bomber jacket, big round glasses, and had long brown hair. This was not on the published itinerary for the evening, and things began looking up.

We met for Pizza at the Green Mill on Grand. Three couples, and two single – unattached kids. We were seated next to each other, and began to talk. She was a nurse in the cities. She grew up and went to college in Wisconsin. Her connection to the lab crew was through her nurse friend Jennifer, who was married to one of Chris’ lab mates. Her being there was accidental. She had no plans for the evening, and had just tagged along because she was leaving in the morning with some friends for a girls trip to Jamaica. She figured a dull evening out for pizza was a good way to pass the time until her trip.

When dinner was over we headed to O’Gara’s for drinks. I started telling her my story, which was always a tough one to explain. “You live in Hotels?” You don’t have an apartment? You travel around the country? They pay you to do what?” I had a hard time believing it myself, and I had already been doing it for a year and a half by then.

O'Gara's - Photo Copyright romadden84 @http://www.flickr.com/photos/romadden84/449975029/

O'Gara's - Photo Copyright romadden84 @http://www.flickr.com/photos/romadden84/449975029/

When I asked her what she wanted to drink and she said “Let’s get a pitcher” I knew I was in love. When she let me beat her at darts, I knew it was mutual.

We were laughing and having and wonderful time, so we were stunned when the couples stood up, yawned, and announced that they were calling it a night. It was only 9:30! We were just getting started, but we had both ridden along as third wheels and had no way of getting home. So we said an impromptu good night, and I sulked in the back seat of Chris’ K-car all the way to the Schweine-hundt house. In the morning, I left for the Iron Range and she left for Jamaica. Our destinations could not have been more different.

I spent the week working and freezing my arse off up on the range. The temperature hovered below zero the whole week. The folks up there were a lot of fun though. They are the descendants of the immigrants who came to work the Iron Mines in the early 20th century. A mix of Eastern and Southern Europeans that makes it culturally different from the rest of the Scandinavian dominated state. I was shocked and amazed to run into folks who actually knew what a Croatian was. The gregariousness of rangers is legendary compared to the frosty Minnesota-Ice of the Scandinoovians, and I did not want for invitations out for a beer in the bars of Eveleth or Virginia.

When I passed though town on my way back to Denver, I asked Chris to get me her phone number from her friend Jen, but I had little hope of ever seeing her again. We didn’t do much work in Minnesota, and I seldom was within a days drive of the place. My next job took me to Price, Utah, and from there to Rock Springs, Wyoming, and I was quickly back into the Spring outage season. It was weeks before I heard from Chris. He had gotten her phone number from Jen, but forgot and left it in his jeans pocket when he did the wash. It seemed that fate was surely against me seeing her again.

So I was amazed when I returned to the office in Denver, and heard that I had a phone message from a girl in Minnesota. She had called the previous evening, thinking that the number that Chris had passed along to her was for an apartment, and not an office. I stayed late at work that night, as my colleagues left the office, smiling and asking me who the “mystery girl” was. When the phone finally rang I just about jumped out of my skin. We talked for an hour, and made plans to talk again.

Weeks went by, and the phone calls continued. I wrote letters, and when the outage season was winding down, I drove out to see her for the weekend. Eighteen hours one way, for a 1 day visit before returning. I did it again 2 weeks later. And so it began, a long, long courtship, over an ocean of prairie. Three years later we would be married. On a crisp October day, in the great state of Wisconsin she would become Mrs. 20 Prospect. God willing, may she always be.

Happy Anniversary Mrs. 20 Prospect

Oh Batavia!

Call O’Lacys, tell ‘em start filling a pint o’ Guinness.

O'Lacys

O'Lacys

Call Main Street Pizza, and get a large Pepperoni & Mushroom, and some wings on order for pickup.

Phone the Poke’ and tell em to save me a Beef on Weck.

The Pok'

The Pok'

Tell the folks at Dunkin’ donuts to put on a fresh pot of coffee, and get a fresh batch of Bavarian Crème going.

My Dunkin' Donuts

My Dunkin' Donuts

Call the “Sport of Kings” and tell ’em to heat up some Souvlaki…well, nevermind on that last one. Souvlaki is a dish best eaten at 4am, and I think I will be asleep on Mom’s couch long before then.

Yes, I am coming home.

As this message is posted, I will already be on my way to WNY. After a short detour to Kitchener, Ontario to have a talk about that whole Butler’s Rangers incident, I will be pointing the rental car towards the Great Bend of the Tonawanda.

Monuments

When we are infants they are giants to us. Booming voices that echo around the periphery of our Mother’s world. We come to learn their smiles, and their laughter, and the feel of their rough strong hands.

When we are toddlers they are the kings of the world. All knowing, and all powerful. They can swing us over their heads, and make us laugh like no other. As we grow we come to learn their place as Atlas, holding up our world upon their backs. They are gone from us more often than Mom, but we learn to listen for the sound of their car in the driveway. We become aware that there is something hard in their world that takes place when they are gone, even if we can’t understand it. We see the exhaustion and the pain slip out when they are too tired to hold it in. We become little weathermen, reading the moods that blow like weather systems across the map of their face.

They teach us not with words, but with action. How to start a lawn mower, handle a tool, drive a car. They are the silent owners of the mechanical world, masters of a knowledge that isn’t taught in school. We are in awe of their ability to restore everything to wholeness.

Once we become teenagers we see that they are human, and we never forgive them for it.

As we ourselves age, they become part of the background of the family. Like the house, and the car, and the great edifices upon which the history of the family is acted out. They become an anachronism, a source of laughter for the way they dress, talk, and act. Men out of time, in an age they no longer understand. We begin to see their frailties. We roll our eyes and sigh.

Then they begin to appear like ghosts in the mirror. We catch glimpse of them in the corner of our eyes. Slowly we come to understand what it must have been like. We find a new appreciation for the sacrifices that they made, that we never knew, because they never once complained. If we are lucky, we have time to say thank you before they are gone.

All too soon, they are gone, and we are left with a face in the mirror that conjures up memories. So we smile through the tears at the memories, and dig deep within us to live up to the example that they set before us when we weren’t looking, like granite monuments to inspire us. We hope that somewhere they can see us, and know. And we pick up their shop worn tools, close our eyes, and using our memory of those strong rough hands, we set to work chiseling out our own monument.

Top of the World – 1986

Another long week comes to a close here on the Front Porch. My dark corporate overlords got more than their pound of flesh out of me this week. I hates it when I have to put in an honest 40 hours to help the further their nefarious schemes. It’s bad for the soul I tell you.

So let’s end this week with a story. Friday’s are always a good day to have a seat on the porch and spin a yarn. So zip up your coat, put on a hat, pour some coffee into a thermal mug and pull up a rocker. There won’t be many more mornings we can sit out here and talk. Soon we’ll be taking the conversation back inside for the winter. But one last reverie out here in the autumn air will be good for us.

This story takes place during my last semester at Notre Dame High School. It was a long slow fade to black that semester, as I had already compiled the credits I would need to graduate, and aside from auditing a college level Calculus class over at BHS, my days were mostly spent hanging out in the cafeteria, or basking in the glow of my rapidly fading glory days.

I signed up for Computer Science, as easy a class as there ever was, this being 1986 and the PC being not much more powerful than a hand held calculator. In fact, half the PC’s in our classroom were old TI 99’s with tape recorder drives and used black and white TV’s serving as monitors. I was one of the lucky ones who drew a state of the art Apple 2 with a green monochrome monitor and integral floppy drive.

The Texas Instruments TI-99

The Texas Instruments TI-99

It was the last six months of high school for everyone involved, and even the instructor seemed to just be going through the motions. Being a nervous over achiever, I had never had a class feel so laid back. But this isn’t a story about schoolwork or computers. As usual, it’s a story about a girl.

Aside from my luck in getting one of the Apple 2’s, I was disappointed to be sitting next to Betty instead of one of my friends. Betty and I had never liked each other since I sat behind her in English class Freshman year and under an ill advised dare by my friend Dave, I pinched her behind. She responded with a right to my jaw that drew blood. After that, she was the bitchiest girl in School as far as I was concerned and I’m sure she must have thought I was the biggest creep on the planet. We ran in different circles and during the intervening 4 years had spoken less than a dozen words to each other. So I wasn’t real enthused about the prospect of sitting next to her.

As the semester began we immediately began sniping at each other. A little, at first, and then a lot. Soon, we were too busy trying to insult each other to pay much attention to writing computer code. The sexual tension was palpable. She used to wear this white blouse that had one button the size of a 50 cent piece, right in the middle of the back. It had a high collar in front, but exposed her lower back and the nape of her neck. It drove me absolutely wild.

As winter turned into Spring, we grew closer and closer. The jibes were interspersed with conversation, and jokes, and whenever there was a project that required us to pair off, we made sure we were together. By the end of May there could be no doubt that the attraction was mutual. As senior prom came and went, and graduation loomed the senior class organized a beer blast at “Top of the World”. Top of the World was a dead end road on the North side of the NYS Thruway, at the big rock cut where the highway climbs the Onadaga Escarpment. In a town like Batavia, drinking at the end of dirt roads is the preferred mode of entertainment for kids from 16 to 21 years old.

The Friday of the party Betty asked me if I was going to be there. There was no way I’d miss it. It was perhaps the only Notre Dame party I ever attended, having spent the previous few years chasing an seemingly endless stream of BHS girls.

That night, I drove to the party in the big old green “tank” that my Dad had just bought to drive back and forth to work. It was a 1972 Dodge Coronet the size of an aircraft carrier. The only draw back was it had a faulty water pump and a range of about 10 miles before overheating. The party was only about 3 miles outside of town, so I figured I would be safe.

1972 Dodge Coronet

1972 Dodge Coronet

Everybody from ND was there and the beer was flowing, but I was staying sober. I was talking to Betty all night long and working up the courage to kiss her. It was a clear, chilly evening, and the leaves were still filling out in the trees. Sitting around the campfire we could look off to the east and see the lights of the cars on the Thruway snaking their way towards the escarpment. We sat on a log by the campfire, huddling close together for warmth, the light of the fire flickering in her big brown eyes.

Around midnight  my friend Bella came by and asked me for a ride home. She had the strictest parents of any girl I knew, so I figured she’d be in deep trouble if she didn’t get back in time for her curfew. It had been a long year for the two of us, we had begun to drift into different crowds, and our friendship had become strained. So more than ever I felt obliged to be a good guy and drive her home. She only lived on State Street, so if all went well I figured I could drop her off and be back within 30 minutes.

I was nervous about being back before Betty left the party, so I turned to Betty and told her to wait for me at all costs because I would be right back and I absolutely, positively, promised to drive her home. Bella and I left the party and drove back over the college hill and down Bank Street Road into town. I kept my speed down, nervously watching the temperature gauge on the dashboard. So far so good. I pulled into the drive way and said goodnight to Bella. So far so good.

I passed the ball park, and started back out Bank Street Road and the needle began climbing on the temperature gauge. Halfway back to Top of the World steam began pouring out from under the hood. I pulled over. I pounded the steering wheel. I cursed the gods. I offered every prayer I knew to the good Lord, but to no avail. I never made it back to that party. After an hour of sitting on the side of the road, I turned the car around and coasted back down the hill into town.

When Betty did finally speak to me again, about 3 weeks later, she told me she stayed to the bitter end. Only a few stoners, and a particularly crazy S.O.B. named “Duder” were left around the campfire with her at 2 am. Duder drove her home in his Subaru wagon. He showed her the 4-wheel drive capabilities by driving her through a cornfield on the way.

I ran into Betty again one summer about 3 years later. She was working in Payless Shoes out on the West End of town when I came in to buy some workboots. She still wouldn’t speak to me. Man that girl could hold a grudge. Standing across the counter from her, watching the blood rise in her cheeks, I don’t think I ever wanted her more…

Northbound by Sunset

American Chestnut Tree

American Chestnut Tree

I’ve never seen a chestnut tree
two times eternity

Big Barn Burning

Even as a kid, there was something about the story of the American Chestnut tree that made me yearn for a past I never knew. The blight first appeared in Brooklyn in 1904, and within 50 years they were gone. Millions of trees stretching from New England to Georgia, along the spine of the Appalachians, spilling across the Great Lakes into Ontario, and along the Ohio Valley, gone. Mere ghost trees, whose trunks still exist, stumps ten foot in diameter, slowly succumbing to rot over generations.

There must be some melancholy deep within to make me sad for an event that had little to do with my life. The death of millions of trees could not have been the cause of such longing, just a symptom, like the rust colored rings around the trunks of the doomed chestnuts. No, I was born with this blight for nostalgia. This yearning for things that could never be known or experienced, because somewhere deep within I knew there was a better place, one that I would never know.

This strain is not confined to me alone. I was musing on it the other day reading the comments over at Front Porch Republic. A hang out for many such blighted souls that long for a past they never knew, and will never know. FPR is about more than mourning a past lost to us, if it indeed ever existed. Like the stumps of long dead chestnuts in the Appalachian woods, the remnants of our agrarian republic exist merely as ruins around us. Scraps of community, bits of human scaled economy, and the old regionalisms that make a Kentuckian long for the rolling limestone hills covered in blue grass, and a Vermonter to get misty like the fog hanging over the Green Mountains. Slowly, but with a quickening pace, these regional differences, these local identities, fade beneath the omnipresent monoculture.

And like the folks at the American Chestnut Foundation, the folks over at FPR refuse to give up on the past. They spend their time thinking, and writing, and arguing about the way to create a disease resistant seedling from the old republic, that can grow and flourish despite the blight around us.

Alas, the analogy does not stop there. The work that they are doing cannot yield fruit in their lifetimes.

So why do it? Why struggle to try to retrieve something we never knew except in books? Something that is so irretrievably lost, we still argue about whether it even existed. Why bother? Because they suffer the same melancholy that I do. They believe in an Eden that was lost through our own doing. One that surely can be restored if only we retrace our steps, and find the places where we took the wrong turns.

It is true stewardship work. Something that consumes the self with a guarantee to pay dividends to future generations only. It is work that by its nature will always be filled with self doubt, and self righteousness. It has to be worth it, because if it isn’t then how can we face that emptiness inside?

So keep on grafting the seedlings boys and girls. Keep grafting. We’ll go to our graves without seeing the ridge tops covered in the white flowering chestnuts, but that doesn’t mean they won’t someday stretch across this old republic of front porches again.