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Saturday, August 3, 2002


I'm still out of town on a top secret mission. Really. It's a secret. Top secret. Only my employers, close family, and some confidantes know what it's about.

But that's another matter, and I'll reveal the nature of my mission soon enough. But right now I want to address some of you who were kind enough to challenge me in a civil manner in the Comments section of my last post, as well as those of you who have no social graces. No need to name names, especially since most of you in the latter camp didn't have the testicular fortitude to use your real names.

Back to the slap-down at hand. There are two criticisms of my story about the airport revolt, offered by several people. The first is that I should know better than to show up at the airport only 45 minutes before my flight. The second is that I'm being a troglodyte homophobe by picking on the effete man at the ticket counter.

Like everyone else, for several weeks after September 11th I dutifully showed up two hours before my flights. Then the airports relaxed it to an hour. Then, a few months ago, the Wichita airport posted little signs at all its ticket counters, directing passengers to arrive at least 30 minutes before their flights. Last I checked, 45 minutes counts as at least 30 minutes. What's more, 45 minutes has always been enough time at the Wichita airport, except when American Airlines stacks three flights 25 minutes apart.

But that's not the critical point here. The point, the thing that sticks in my craw, is that the airlines have the gall to instruct us to show up 30 minutes early, and yet they lack the competence to live up to their end of the bargain. And that's what this is a matter of -- competence. A few simple methods would have moved that Wichita line quickly, and that means I wouldn't have needed to seize authority, which apparently gave a few of you uncomfortable tingly feelings.

This episode, in other words, was not a matter of too many people trying to go somewhere at the same time, or of passengers arriving 45 minutes early when we should have arrived three hours early. It was a matter of people with neither training nor incentive nor a willingness to exercise plain common sense being given veto power over a hugely important economic activity, with the rest of us refusing to question them because we conflate patriotism with kowtowing to someone in a polyester uniform.

Still, I can understand how many of you, not knowing the Wichita airport, would think I was silly to arrive only 45 minutes early. Up until this time, 45 minutes has been more than adequate. I'll certainly arrive earlier from now on, since I am confident that the Wichita airport's management will not accept my upcoming offer to connect them with a throughput optimization expert.

Others of you took issue with my characterization of the snippy little ticket counter clerk. Specifically, you thought I was making fun of him for being gay. I find this curious, because until I read your comments, it hadn't occurred to me that he might be gay. He acted like a girl, he had poofy hair, and he needed a good hard slap. But I don't equate these traits with homosexuality. Do you? It amuses me when the self-appointed apostles of sensitivity get snared in their narrow-minded conceptualizations of people. For the record, when I ridicule men who behave like sissies, it's because I don't like men who behave like sissies. The fact that you've equated girly with gay would appear to be your problem, not mine.

But thanks for reading. Kisses.

posted by Woodlief | link | (24) comments

Friday, August 2, 2002

Rebellion at the Airport

I'm not a confrontational person by nature. If my steak is too rare, or someone breaks in line, I'm not one to make a fuss about it. But I have my limits.

I led a revolt against airport security yesterday. They've had it coming. I'll wait longer in line in order to keep the airplane safe. I'll submit to having my less than fresh boxer briefs fluffed on the return trip by someone named Delbert who couldn't spot a shank if it was stuck in his porkchop gut. I'll have my luggage x-rayed, my belt buckle checked and re-checked by unusually interested minimum-wage rent-a-cops, my children patted down while swarthy young men with no luggage board unmolested.

I will put up with all of it, but I will not let this nonsense, this massive managerial incompetence disguised as security enhancement, cost me my flight. Today, they pushed me too far. I arrived at the Wichita airport with my wife and two little ones 45 minutes before our flight. We endured an especially slow trip through the American Airlines ticket counter line. Here's a quote from the effete little man who took our bags: he didn't say "I apologize for the confusion," or "sorry we didn't separate people who are on the earlier flight," but instead, "I have to put up with this every day." How difficult for you, Emile, or Jamey, or whatever girly little name you go by. Tell the other girls at the hair salon about it.

So, we rounded the corner and saw a 150 foot line waiting to get through security. Let me paint the complete picture for you, because this helps one see why people who don't get paid very much generally deserve what they earn. At the head of the line is a single security guard, checking tickets and ID's, taking about 30 seconds per person. Thirty feet beyond him are two x-ray machines, but only one metal detector for passengers to walk through. Security guards are manning the x-ray machines, and one is searching people who set off the metal detector. A clump of security guards are standing to the side, having a nice conversation.

Now, here's how they do things in a real airport. One guard will stand at a table, helping people get their computers, phones, etc., into plastic trays. Another will assign people to x-ray machines and metal detectors, in order to save the inevitable time people take trying to make up their own minds. In an airport where the security is really on the ball, like Dulles, for example, a thick crowd can move quickly.

But this was Wichita, and the security guards didn't care whether that line stretched two feet or two miles. At this point we had twenty minutes remaining before take-off. After waiting seven or eight minutes and moving 15 feet, I did some quick math, and figured we weren't going to make it. As I was doing the math, the gate agent announced over the intercom the last call for our flight. So I led my little troop to the security guard at the front of the line.

"Excuse me," I said to the guard, "that was our flight they just called." The guard gave me an annoyed look, then took another person's ticket before replying.

"There are people in front of you."

"Yes, but we'll miss our flight."

"Some of them might be on that flight too, and they were in front of you."

Like I said, I'm not a confrontational person. But my options, as I saw them, were pretty narrow. Do the job these slobs should have been doing, or miss our flight. So, I shouted to the crowd behind me: "Okay, people, who's on the 11 o'clock?"

Several people raised their hands. The security guard started shifting from one foot to another. "C'mon up!" I shouted. "Fall in behind me!" About 20 people stepped out of line and congregated behind me. My wife was mortified.

"Okay," I said to the guard, "now all those people are right here."

"That's not what I meant, sir. You shouldn't have done that. There are people who were here first."

I shouted again to the larger crowd. "Does anybody mind if those of us on the 11 o'clock go first?" Some people towards the front shook their heads no, and a couple of people told us to go right ahead. I turned back to the guard, who was looking exceedingly uncomfortable. "There," I said, "nobody minds if we go ahead."

"You're not supposed to do that, sir. You can't go in front of people."

"Look, I'm not trying to make trouble here, but if you don't let us through, we're all going to miss that flight." The guard looked at my newly formed platoon, then at me. He sighed and held out his hand for my ticket. We all made it to the plane.

Power to the people, baby. Fight the Man. Dare to challenge stupid. Take a stand, and your fellow man will stand with you.

Much later, on the plane:

Wife: "You were pretty confrontational back there."

Me: "They left me no choice. The people in the crowd dug it."

Wife: "I can't believe he let us through."

Me: "He was intimidated." (long pause) "I suppose he and his buddies could have forced me into some back room" (only if I let them, I thought).

Wife: "Yep, and all those people who were digging you would have gotten back in line and left you hanging."

Me: "Sheep."

posted by Woodlief | link | (78) comments

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

The Lawnmower Song

Does anyone know what the Lawnmower Song is? I'm asking because Caleb requests it every night.

Every. Night.

Here's out ritual: First, I get his PJ's on while he dances all over my feet and pooches out his belly, making the whole enterprise a challenge, which seems to be his goal. Next, we read a story, which is usually the same story we've read for several weeks in a row. Once he gets on a story, that is the only story worth reading. Right now he's stuck on "Busytown," though I think I'm transitioning him back to "Curious George Goes Fishing." Oh, for the blissful days of "Goodnight Moon." "Busytown" is just so, well, busy, and Caleb is like Howard Cosell, with a comment on everything, and some sort of weird programming that requires him to repeat a sentence until I confirm its veracity.

After the story, we say our prayers. Then I turn off the light while he climbs into bed, and then the following exchange takes place:

Me: "What song would you like for me to sing?"

Caleb: "Umm, the mawnbower song."

Me: "I don't know that song. What other song would you like?"

Caleb: "It's from the mawnbower book."

Me: "Okay, now what song would you like?"

This is followed by a selection governed by the aforementioned rule applicable to stories, namely, that it will be something I've sung for the last 47 nights. We were on "Away in a Manger" earlier this summer, and now we're on "You Are My Sunshine," which I improvise with a verse about Caleb. (Because someone will ask: "You are my Caleb, my Stephen Caleb, and I will love you -- all the rest of my days; I will hug you, and I will kiss you -- please don't take my Stephen Caleb away.")

So, what the heck is the Lawnmower Song? Is it a real song, or is he just messing with me? He'll do that, you know. He kind of smiles when he asks for it, like he knows it doesn't exist. Maybe I should make one up, something like:

Lawnmower, lawnmower Cuttin' my grass all day Cuttin' in the mornin' Cuttin' in the noontime Cuttin' my cares away

or, I could do a riff off "The Wheels on the Bus":

Oh, the blade on the mower goes round and round Round and round Round and round The blade on the mower goes round and round All around the yard
The carb on the mower goes putt putt putt Putt putt putt Putt putt putt The carb on the mower goes putt putt putt All around the yard

And so on. That would throw him off his little two year-old game, to have me actually sing something the next time he asks for the Lawnmower Song. At the same time, if his cultural knowledge is greater than mine (a distinct possibility), and there really is a Lawnmower Song, I don't want to screw him up with a fake one. You parents understand my dilemma. Any ideas?

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments

One Potato, Two Potato

I know it has troubled all of us in the past. The fear, the anticipation, the sheer angst of waiting and wondering and not knowing. Now, all of that has changed, thanks to www.potatoinfo.org.

That's right -- no more worries about where your organic potatoes have been. This site allows you to trace them back to the grower, so you can see for yourself that all of your little spudlings come from a good home. Oh, the relief. One Potato, Two Potato used to be just a childhood game. Now, thanks to the good people at www.potatoinfo.org, fantasy has become a blessed reality.


posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Monday, July 29, 2002

Teeming With Teams

I think the word "team" is being misused. The dictionary tells me that a team is simply "a number of persons associated in work or activity." That's not the definition people have in mind when they talk about teams, though. People mean something more like this: a group of interdependent individuals striving to achieve common goals. By "interdependent" I mean simply that no individual, no matter how hard or long he works, will achieve the goals on his own. At the same time, removing him leaves the group unable to achieve its goals.

Most sports teams meet this definition, as do rescue teams, search-and-destroy teams, fire teams, and kick return teams. This is not to exclude business: there are merger and acquisition teams, strategy teams, and product development teams, to name just a few.

But the word "team" has proliferated beyond its proper boundaries, and businessmen are primarily to blame. They use it in places where only its common definition can apply ("persons associated"), but they intend for it to carry the more rigorous definition, as a means of glorifying someone's accomplishments (at the expense of real accomplishments), or of connoting commitment and esprit de corps when these are absent.

Here's a typical misuse: "I want to thank Jake and his team for successfully transitioning our color copy trays from Flamingo Pink to Pale Salmon."

Listen, Jake doesn't have a team. Jake works with three other community college students to keep our copiers going. We employee four of them so the work gets done faster, not because each plays some integral role in a well-oiled machine. In fact, the closest thing to a team that Jake has ever led is two chaotic-good elves and a neutral half-dwarf in his high school Dungeons and Dragons tournament.

This is just one type of misuse of the word "team" in a business setting. Another is to congratulate someone for his team's effort (usually his name is Rick or Chad or something else appropriately button-down crypto-fascist frat-boy) when in reality his employees did all the work, and were largely productive precisely because he wasn't involved. Thus are the ideas of team and leadership further sullied.

In many cases a businessman intends the word "team" to be a form of code, a signal that at one time he was the starting tight end for the Weehauken Red Raiders 2-A championship football team. He's also the guy who, in times of business downturn, talks about the need to "get back to blocking and tackling," so we can "make some first downs," instead of "always trying for the hail mary." He and the other high school football heroes hold close quarters in the hallway, swapping football metaphors and watching Jake with beady eyes, pondering how much it will help the bottom line to cut his "team" in half. There's always casualties in war, you know, and football is war, and business is football. Or something like that.

War, of course, is the other great fount of moronic business metaphors, from the obvious, as in "we're going to make a full frontal assault on their share of the novelty yo-yo market"; to the more subtle, like "sales force," which evokes an image of waves of guys named Dirk wading up the beaches of Normandy in their pleated slacks and Bill Blass golf shirts, armed with lattes and dainty mobile phones, to sell SUV's and water filtration systems to the Huns.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm all for teamwork (and invading France, for that matter). But some work groups simply aren't teams. Calling five accountants in the trading group a team, even though they rarely communicate and have little interdependence, merely cheapens the word.

I know, I know, in the great scheme of things we are all interconnected, one big hypernetworked goo pot of multicultural interdisciplinary cross-trained teammates, synergizing ourselves into some kind of post-Hegelian wet dream. But in the great scheme of things people who talk that way tend to be the targets of atomic wedgies, and get crammed upside down into their gym lockers. In short, they tend not to be good teammates.

All I'm asking, in this new age of corporate transparency, is that we apply a little of our newfound honesty to what we call ourselves. Not every work group is a team, any more than every secretary is an administrative assistant, or every businessman an entrepreneur. Some people just work together, some just fetch coffee, and some just spend down the assets built by others. There's no point in confusing things with bad labeling.

Who's with me? Remember folks, there's no I in T-E-A-M.

posted by Woodlief | link | (11) comments