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February 17, 2007
Unexpected Gifts

The date began delightfully enough. We went to a healthy restaurant specializing in Mediterranean dishes, meaning that there was a three-minute wait, as opposed to what would have been an hour wait at the wretched Olive Garden. At the end of a wonderful meal of Orange Roughy stuffed with spinach and other good things, the waitress informed us that another table was paying for our dinner.

I knew who it was, because we'd run into him and his wife on our way in. Along with his former partner in crime, he is the best leader and manager I have ever met. You've never seen his name in a paper or a Harvard Business School case study (which may well be proof that he's competent), nor has he received an ounce of recognition from the upper management of his own company, but I've seen him work miracles with manufacturing facilities, simply by harnessing the knowledge and passion of the employees.

Suffice to say that he and the other person I won't name (for fear of sending trouble their way), are my first and only business heroes. I've learned more about management from them than all my other sources of education combined, and for some reason they seem to enjoy my company as well, even though I take much more from them than I give.

So, my friend and hero paid for our dinner. On top of that, the way the waitress announced our good fortune made us sound like celebrities to the people sitting near us. An excellent way to begin the evening.

Then it was on to Barnes & Noble, which proved to be a profound disappointment. I've realized that I just don't care to pay top-dollar for a hardcover book any more. I found the book I was set on getting (see the previous post), but who wants to pay $24.95 for a big ugly hardcover book (especially when it's retailing for $16.47 and free shipping, provided your order is more than $25, at Amazon)? So I put it at the top of my Amazon wishlist, where I will salivate over it until it comes out in paperback, at which point I'll buy and likely read it in one sitting.

There is one exception to my newfound no-full-price-for-books rule, and that's when it comes to books in the Everyman's Library collection. I could try to describe them, but just look at this vivid (and true) description from Knopf:

"...printed on acid-free natural-cream-colored text paper and including Smyth-sewn, signatures, full-cloth cases with two-color case stamping, decorative endpapers, silk ribbon markers, and European-style half-round spines."

Do you remember Tim Allen's show, "Home Improvement," and that ape-sound he would make when he got worked up about tools? Insert that sound here.

So, I'm in love with the Everyman collection, even though I only have two: Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and George Orwell's complete essays (this last courtesy of my beloved mother-in-law). When I strike it rich I'm buying "The Everyman's 100", but until then I will peruse and covet and drool over and occasionally actually buy them, one at a time.

With that in mind (the coveting and drooling), I asked the nice lady at Barnes & Noble how many books they have in stock under the Everyman imprint. "One," she told me.

"Are you sure?" I asked. She swiveled her computer screen around so I could see for myself. It listed one: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. Oh well, I thought, Barnes & Noble is trying to push its own, cheaper, paperback classics series, so I can hardly fault it for choosing not to entice the buyer with the clearly superior, albeit more expensive, Everyman option.

So I began to wander the stacks. Right away, I found the Everyman edition of Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Then Bleak House, by Dickens. Then another title, and another. How could this be, I wondered, when the Barnes & Noble computer had only just snidely blinked at me with its one recorded Everyman title in stock?

So I took up counting the number of additional Everyman titles in stock in their adult literature section (because the Everyman collection, you see, encompasses religion, philosophy, and children's literature as well). Final count: 15 titles. The Barnes & Noble computer was off by a factor of 15. Fifteen hundred percent variance.

I think you see the problem. It made me think, how many of us even trust information given to us by the computer systems, websites, or personnel of large organizations any more? When was the last time you actually believed the "on-time" status of a flight listed on an airline's website? Who trusts the Home Depot employee when he tells you over the phone that they don't have that much-needed router bit in stock? I don't know about you, but I don't even bother to call a store any more, because my experience is that it's a coin toss as to whether what they tell me actually holds true.

And yet, organizations spend billions, collectively, on information systems every year, from the lowest end (the idiot teenager picking his nose by the phone), to the highest end (my favorite trend: fancy new government websites that are loaded with everything except answers to questions like, "How much, really, do we spend per pupil?" or "What are all the offices I need to get permits from before I start my business?"). All that money for information, and nary a lick of it seems to go toward providing what it is that we really need, which is reliable knowledge.

But I guess that's a critique of more than just information systems, isn't it? We are surrounded by sensory inputs, and yet we seem to be losing our grip on the things that lead to wisdom.

In the end, I came home without buying a book, but I already had two lovely books that were far better than what I'd set my sights on. The wife, you see, had slipped them onto the seat of my truck. The first was a hardcover book of English poetry classics. The other was a small hardcover early edition of Robert's Rules of Order, inspired by my recent failed bid to throw a monkey wrench into my homeowners association juggernaut.

And isn't life that way, sometimes? We think we really want one thing, but once we get close to it, we realize that we didn't really want it so much after all. And only then do we realize that we already have something far more precious. It's not necessarily as flashy or exciting or new as what we thought we wanted, but it's precious nonetheless, because it's bound up in the things of our lives that matter most to us.

I didn't get what I wanted last night. Instead, I received the kind gifts of people who are far better than me, and who care for me nonetheless. I don't see how it can get much better than that, do you?

Posted by Woodlief on February 17, 2007 at 09:22 AM