Friday, November 27, 2009

The Human Cost

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that I've recently joined the ranks of the unemployed. This only happened to me one other time, near the beginning of my career. Back then, I had a new job within about a month. Even this time around, I already have a couple of prospects, one of them quite promising. Even if those don't pan out, my status as a long-tenured worker qualifies me to receive employment insurance benefits for almost a year, my wife still contributes her small, minimum-wage income to our budget, and I've had some financial help from my extended family as well. I'm not too concerned about my family's financial well-being ... not yet, anyway.

There's a psychological side to this as well. I've heard the loss of one's job compared to the loss of a loved one. I agree that there are some similarities. The full impact of the loss doesn't sink in right away. It takes some time to come to grips with the new reality. The first week or two spent at home feels something like a regular vacation. It's not until the third or fourth week that you begin to understand that you're not going back to the place where you've become accustomed to spending the better part of your waking hours, in some cases for most of your adult life, ever again. You begin to feel lost; to wonder, "What's next? Where do I go from here?"

Then a sense of futility begins to take hold. You think about all of the things that you did while employed; the projects, the meetings, the routine operations, and you realize that, now, it's all gone. In the long run, none of it mattered, and your best efforts weren't enough to save the organization. Suddenly, all those years begin to seem like so much wasted time.

I'd like to share a sad story that was told to me by a former fellow employee just yesterday, because it really crystallized for me the human cost that's so often overlooked by the unfeeling financiers who make the decisions that so profoundly impact the lives of real people, based only on dollars and cents. After the news broke that the organization was in receivership, she walked into the office of one of the plant managers and found him gathering up his personal belongings. Having finished packing everything into a cardboard box, he took one last look around his office and, seeming satisfied that he'd forgotten nothing, he prepared to take the box out to his car. His visitor noticed that his gold quarter-century service pin (he had been with the company for over twenty-five years) was still on his desk, and warned him that he'd forgotten it.

"No, I'm leaving it," he replied, "it doesn't mean anything anymore."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dental Spa

My dentist recently moved his office to a new building. The new office is much nicer than the old one; bigger, more spacious, better parking and, get this, there's a flat-screen LCD TV mounted over each of the chairs so that each patient can watch TV whilst having their teeth drilled or cleaned or whatever it is they're having done. The hygienist who cleaned my teeth during my last visit explained that the TVs help to relax some of the more nervous patients who tend to be jittery about the idea of a dentist probing their mouths with sharp instruments. Well yes, I suppose so ... as long as they don't hook the monitors up to a DVD player showing "Marathon Man". The icing on the cake is the dentist's personal office. The chair on which he reclines his patients actually has a built-in massage.

"So, how do you like the new office?" asked the hygienist. (Why do they always wait until your mouth is full of tubes and hoses before asking their questions?)

"It's good to see where all my money has gone," I answered, taking advantage of the split-second that it took her to move a tube from one side of my mouth to the other. (You get good at these things after enough visits to the dentist).

"Like, I must've heard that from just about everyone who's come in here today!" she gasped, rolling her eyes. Hey, don't ask the question if you're not sure you want to hear the answer.

Seriously, though, I have to commend my dentist. Sure, he obviously does pretty well, but at least he's put some of that money back into making his patients' experience a more comfortable and pleasant one. He could just as easily have kept the old office and used the extra cash to build himself a swimming pool or buy a new Mercedes. I wasn't being completely cynical. It really is good to see where all my money has gone. My dentist beats my government in that way.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Years ago, shortly after I joined the company where I've worked for the past ten years, I fixed a problem with the program that processed outgoing invoices. It was a particularly obscure and vexing problem. Several programmers had looked into it without success. Perhaps, being relatively new at the time, I approached the problem without any assumptions or preconceptions or perhaps I was simply able to focus better because I was not yet bogged down with other work. Whatever the reason, I eventually found and fixed the problem.

After the next batch or two of invoices had been processed correctly and it became apparent that the problem was, indeed, a thing of the past, I received an e-mail that a co-worker had addressed to the entire I.T. staff, including my boss, which read:


Andy found and fixed the program that was fouling up WCUD01 for much of last week and the beginning of this week. On drop ship orders with substitutions and multiple invoices, any invoice after the first would pick up the account values for previous invoices and, of course, not balance.

NO MORE ----- Andy has fixed this and our mornings should run much smoother for 2000 and beyond.


I smiled and moved my mouse pointer over the DELETE MESSAGE button and was about to left-click when I suddenly paused and decided instead, for no particular reason, to leave the message in my In Box for a little while longer.

Some time later, I helped out the CEO's wife with a simple printer connectivity problem. Normally, PC and network-related problems were not my area of responsibility, but it was during the Christmas shutdown, with almost no-one in the office and I was on duty, covering the Help Desk phone, so I investigated and, again, fixed the problem. I thought nothing of it until the following week, when I was copied on another e-mail which the CEO's wife had sent to my boss:

Sandy, just a brief note to let you know of the assistance provided to me by Andy this morning. I came to work to print some letters and year end documents. Unfortunately, I had no luck as there appeared to be something wrong with my connection to the printer in HR. My contact in MIS was Andy. He came right away and stayed with me to fix the problem. He was successful and I felt that you should know of his wonderful co-operation. Thanks to MIS and especially Andy. Hope that you and your family enjoy good health and happiness in 2000.

Again I smiled and then, remembering that I had never deleted the e-mail about the invoice problem, I created a new e-mail folder, named it "Kudos" and moved both of the e-mails into it.

As time passed, I helped with other issues and, every once in a while, someone would be impressed or thankful enough to send me an e-mail saying so. Each time it happened, I would add the e-mail to my Kudos folder. Last week, I counted the messages in the folder. There are 33 of them. That's an average of 3.3 things I've done right for each year that I've been with the company. Not bad!

You're probably thinking, "Well, aren't we full of ourselves?" Not really. Well, okay, yes, but that's not the point.

Times are harder now. The economic downturn has brutalized the company. Just yesterday, I learned that management's last-ditch effort to find a buyer who might save the organization as a going concern fell through. The company is to be liquidated, and I'll soon be out of work.

I knew that the company's prospects were bleak even as I browsed the messages in my Kudos folder last week. Still, the digital pats on the back brought a smile and helped me to forget the dire realities of the present for just a few moments.

From Harve:
I'm impressed! Great job in getting the payroll running again so fast.

From Cindy:
Thank-you - thank-you - thank-you so much ! What a relief after all this time not to have to print the OPLs manually ! I owe you one!

From Debbie:

From Sylvia:
Where have you been all these years?

From Bob:
I understand how stressful a situation it was for all of us, and I appreciate the extra hours everyone stayed, and Andy taking time away from his holidays to lend a hand, to ensure the system was operating properly and we were able to complete the shipment.

From Jo-Anne:
Your programs are awesome!

There's more, but I'm starting to blush. My point is that, after re-reading some of these, any fears that I had over my uncertain future largely subsided. It's as though all those people were standing over me, whispering "Hey, don't worry. You're good. You'll be fine."

In her famous 1997 Chicago Tribune article entitled "Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted On The Young" (More widely known simply as "Sunscreen"), Mary Schmich wrote:
Remember compliments you receive.
Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.
I think I've found a way, Mary. It's quite simple. Simply record the compliments. If they come in the form of e-mail or a printed or hand-written hard copy, file them away somewhere for safe keeping. If they're merely spoken, write them down yourself. Don't record the derogatory remarks. Just let them go.

People won't always go out of their way to pat us on the back when we do well. When they do, there's value in keeping some sort of memento so that we can bring it out to cheer us when we need a lift, like a trophy or a photograph of an old friend or a loved one.

The other thing that I hope you take away from this, Dear Reader, is the importance of acknowledging those who impress us and letting them know that they are appreciated. It's a small thing, but it makes a big difference.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Turn The Page

On this Remembrance Day (Veteran's Day if you're in the U.S.) I'm going to do something uncharacteristic and surrender the spotlight to those much more eloquent than I. First, I offer this excellent article by Dr. Gwynne Dyer. This and many other insightful articles are available on Dr. Dyer's web site, but I have re-posted the text here on my blog with his kind permission.

Turn The Page

By Gwynne Dyer

Two years ago this month (July, 2007), there were twenty-four left. Now they are all gone, and there is nobody alive who fought in the First World War. Well, there is still Jack Babcock, who joined the Royal Canadian Regiment in 1917 but got no closer to the fighting than England, and American veteran Frank Buckles, who drove an ambulance in France as a 17-year-old in 1918. But the last real combatant, Harry Patch, who was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, died on Saturday (July 25).

They’ve been going fast. Erich Kaestner, the last German veteran, died in January, 2008. Tony Pierro, who fought with the American Expeditionary Force in France in 1918, died in February. Lazare Ponticelli, the last of the generation of French men who fought in the trenches, died a month later. (One-third of French males who were between 13 and 30 in 1914 did not survive the war.)

Yakup Satar, who joined the Turkish army in 1915 and fought in Iraq, died in April, 2008. Delfino Borroni, the last Italian veteran, died in October. Australia’s last veteran, Jack Ross, died last month (June, 2009), and Henry Allingham, the grandest old man of all, died a week ago (July, 2009).

Henry Allingham was almost twenty in 1916 when he took part in the Battle of Jutland, the last and greatest clash of armoured steel battleships. (He saw the giant shells “skipping off the water.”) As a mechanic in the Royal Naval Air Service, he flew missions over the freezing North Sea in 1917 in seaplanes that he described as “motorised kites.” And he spent 1918 in France trying to recover British planes that came down in No Man’s Land.

"We were moving forward at night,” he recalled about the Western Front. “It was dark... I fell into a shell hole. It was full of arms, legs, ears, dead rats - a lot of dead, rotten flesh... I lay there in the dark, not daring to move, cold and with my uniform stinking. I was frightened." Sixty million men had the same memories, but they are no longer with us.

Harry Patch was an apprentice plumber when he was conscripted in 1916, and nineteen years old when he arrived at the Western Front in 1917. He lasted four months before a German shell burst overhead, killing three close friends and wounding him in the groin. He was evacuated to England, and never saw the war again.

He married in 1918, had children, followed his trade of plumbing, and served as a volunteer fireman during the bombing raids on Bristol during the Second World War. He died on Saturday (July 25), at the age of 111. So what have Harry Patch of Somerset and his sixty million comrades (for it no longer matters which side they were on) left behind for us?

One thing they would have been quite clear about: we can’t do this any more. In the First World War we crossed a threshold. All the advances in science and technology came together and created a kind of industrialised warfare that is simply unsustainable in human terms. It consumes soldiers, civilians, whole cities at a rate that endangers civilisation itself.

All the technological innovations that have been added since the First World War – armoured divisions, bomber fleets, nuclear weapons – only deepen the lesson, they don’t change it. Human beings have fought wars since we were all hunter-gatherers, and those who were good at it tended to prosper. Now, if you are really good at war, you will be destroyed.

Europe is just where industrialised total war first appeared. You can send expeditionary forces into the weaker parts of what we used to call the Third World and bash them to your heart’s content, but if you get into a serious fight with another fully industrialised country, you will be both be destroyed. (This is a lesson that emerging industrial countries like India, China and Brazil can learn cheaply from history, or very expensively from experience.)

What else did the sixty million leave us? Inscribed on the wall of the chapel at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where I taught “war studies” as a much younger man, is the first line of Horace’s poem, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:” How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country. But we don’t believe that lie any more.

Wilfred Owen was killed crossing the Sambre canal a week before the war ended. He never got any older than 25, but he put the wisdom that the millions bought with their lives into his poem “Dulce et decorum est.” It’s about a poison gas attack, and the last lines run: If you could hear..the blood come gargling from the froth- corrupted lungs....My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

It’s almost a century now since anybody but fascists and fools saw war as glorious. The government may tell us that our “glorious dead” have “fallen”, but we know that they were only teenagers, and that they died in agony and lost all the rest of their lives. Sometimes we even worry about the fact that we have sent them to kill people for us.

In 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, Harry Patch was manning his machine-gun when a German got close enough that he looked like a real person – and suddenly Harry realised that he didn’t want to kill him. Shouldn’t kill him, in fact. He shot the German in the shoulder, which made him drop his rifle, but he kept coming.

So Harry shot him again, first above the knee and then in the ankle. God knows if the German survived all this, but at least Harry was trying. So are the rest of us. Most of the time.

I have nothing more profound to add to that, so I'll leave you with this beautiful Remembrance Day video by Terry Kelly.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!
This excerpt from "Autumn Fires" by Robert Louis Stevenson pretty much sums up how I feel about autumn. This is my favorite time of year. The vibrant colors, the crispness in the air, the festivals of Oktoberfest, Thanksgiving and Hallowe'en; all around one sees a celebration of the earth's bounty even as both man and nature prepare for the winter hibernation. Alright, most of us don't actually hibernate, but there is a definite slowing of pace as winter approaches. We travel less, the shorter days leave many less inclined to work as many hours as they might during the longer days of summer, and I like to think that we spend more time in the comfort of our homes with our families.

In my hemisphere of the world, the constellation Orion, the hunter, can be seen directly overhead in the early morning hours before the sun rises. By December, it will be visible at night. Orion is my favorite constellation, possibly because I associate it with this season. It's one of the larger constellations and includes several of the brighter stars in our galaxy. There's even a nebula hiding in his scabbard. He seems to stretch out his arms as if to embrace the Earth.

Being an essentially lazy person, I don't much care for the chore of raking up fallen leaves, and their beauty as they cover the dormant, yellowing grass with a multi-coloured carpet makes me even more reluctant to remove them. I know that I'm not alone in feeling this way. In his book, "All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten", Robert Fulghum writes:

"Across the back of our house is a row of middle-aged matronly maple trees, extravagantly dressed in season in a million leaf-sequins. And in season the sequins detach. Not much wind in our sheltered yard, so the leaves lie about the ladies' feet now like dressing gowns they've stepped out of in preparation for the bath of winter.

I like the way it looks. I like the way it looks very much. My wife does not. The gardening magazine does not like it, either. Leaves should be raked. There are rules. Leaves are not good for grass. Leaves are moldyslimy. But I like leaves so much, I once filled my classroom at school ankle-deep with them.

There is a reason for leaves. There is no reason for mowed grass. So say I."

Here's to you, Robert. It's always nice to meet a kindred spirit.