Friday, February 17, 2006

Way to Go, Grace

There are few nudities so objectionable as the naked truth. ~ Agnes Repplie

My wife has less-than-subtle ways of reminding me that I am a klutz. Tonight it involved opening a new box of plastic wrap.
Plastic wrap is the ninth wonder of the modern world, right after duck tape (and it is DUCK, not DUCT; “DUCK” is a military acronym for the product that was originally developed to keep LST’s and tanks stuck together). My wife is a firm believer in its use. In fact, she wraps a sandwich more thoroughly than the priests of ancient Egypt wrapped mummies. She also uses more square feet of plastic wrap than they used square feet of cloth, which means we use a lot of plastic wrap. So it was with some joy that we found that a store brand wrap worked as well or better than the brand names. Unfortunately, the box was designed by either a madman or a really shrewd marketing man, more likely some combination of the two.
See, on most wrap boxes, you open the flap and stick in the box, pulling the wrap between that flap and the outside of the box, cutting it on the exposed teeth. The problem with plastic wrap, of course, it that it tends to slide down into the box, forcing you to pull the box open, scraping your knuckles on the cutter in the process, to fetch forth the wrap. The store brand, though, had a clever difference. After opening the flap, you remove a section from the top of the box, creating a slot to pull the wrap through. Then, when you cut it off, there is still wrap protruding from the slot. Very clever.
Except that in removing the slot material, you can easily rip off the whole front end of the box top, meaning that, after being cut, the wrap falls back onto the roll, which is a real pain. So removing the slot material has to be done carefully. This is what my wife was attempting to do this evening, when I volunteered to help.
“Gimme that,” I said sweetly.
“No,” said my dearest, “You know how you are with sharp edges.”
Oh, how sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a wife’s rebuke.
I can’t help that I was born a klutz. Not only do I manage to cut myself in clever and imaginative ways (fortunately, I clot well), I have no athletic ability. In fact, attempting athletic endeavors tends to lead to injuries.
In my mind, of course, I can readily visualize making smooth moves in any athletic arena. It seems so effortless. For example, when I played golf, I could imagine my swing being as smooth as that of Jack Nicklaus. My practice swings bespoke imminent birdies and pars. Unfortunately, my real swing looked as though I was stricken by St. Vitus’ Dance on the down stroke, followed by an epileptic attack on the follow-through.
At least I never suffered an injury playing golf. Basketball, on the other hand, has been a virtual house of horrors. My ankles got to where they would start to hurt when I walked into a gym. I played on a team in an industrial league once. The entire team was lousy, but we had the best looking uniforms in the league, so it wasn’t a total loss. As bad as the team was, I still was the guy on the end of the bench, getting in for a couple of minutes a game. Finally, as we were completing a 1-12 season, the team captain said all the bench warmers (which was mostly me) would start the last game.
You know, when you’re 1-12, it would seem we couldn’t have done much worse than the regulars.
Anyway, I was excited, so I began the warm-up drills with a vengeance -- and managed to seriously sprain my ankle during the layups. I mean seriously. Ankles are not meant to make crunching noises when you land. I still got to start, but after limping up and down the court a couple of times, I came out. To add insult to injury, I had to miss a day from work and was told that if I was going to hurt myself playing basketball, I should take up another, safer hobby.
My dear wife waited until I healed to rub it in. But she only did so for a short time – like about 20 years.
Oh, about the plastic wrap box. I’ll have you know I successfully removed the slot material without damaging the box top. It was a job beautifully done, and I even managed to get out of the kitchen before my wife saw the scrapes on my knuckles.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Valentine’s Day

We are all a little weird and life's a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love. ~Author Unknown

More years ago than I like to think, a group of us were sitting in the break room of the company where I worked, when the discussion turned to what the various female clerks and secretaries had received for Valentine’s Day. Eventually, one of them turned to me.
“Did you get something nice for your wife for Valentine’s?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I got her a saber saw.”

The woman gave me a fish-eyed look, then said, “And I suppose she got you a dozen roses?”

“Nope. Big box of chocolates.”

Absolutely true story. This is what happens when two people understand one another.

My wife and I have been married for about 33 years (together for 34, as she likes to remind me). And, with the exception of a couple of occasions when each of us wished to wring the other’s neck, it’s been a pretty successful run, with no end in sight. Therefore, I feel that I have some insights that may be useful to those of you who are just setting out on this road, contemplating taking the step, or have noticed Paw polishing his shotgun.

Do not take advice from divorced people. Divorced people spend a lot of time explaining how everything was the other person’s fault. The ones that don’t are smart enough not to give advice.

If you marry a divorced person, try to marry one who was hitched to a real jerk. It’s much easier to shine if your predecessor was a loser.

If you’re a man, understand two rules: 1)Your wife is always right; and 2) if in doubt, refer to rule 1. Don’t fight it. You’re going up against a few billion years of evolution. Consider yourself lucky; in some species, the male is good for a jolly and meal – as the main course.

If you’re a woman, let your spouse win once in a while. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Men, should your wife ever forget your wedding anniversary, memorize the event. Trust me, you will need it at some later date. Women have a natural aptitude for anniversaries, birthdays, and the names of third-cousins-twice-removed. They take slips like this seriously. When you forget the name of her cousin-that-she-hasn't-mentioned-in-five-years at some critical juncture, that one slip of hers from years-gone-by will be your salvation.

Everybody is good at something or at least thinks so. Discover your spouse’s area of expertise; admire it; buy gifts that go along with it; but never, ever, offer advice about it. My wife doesn’t tell me how to fix computers, and I don’t tell her how to make quilts. The fastest way to build animosity is to offer suggestions when the spouse is having difficulty in that area; it’s even worse if you happen to be right.

Chocolate. Need I say more?

We all have good days and bad days. The trick is not to have your bad days on the same day.

If your spouse is really sick, it is not a good idea to either comment about how good you feel or to complain about the crick in your elbow. Just shut up about your own health and be solicitous.

Allow me to close with a touching story. An elderly couple was sitting on a park bench, with the husband lovingly holding both his wife’s hands. A young woman stopped and looked. She came over and said, “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice how sweet the two of you look, sitting there and holding hands.”

The old lady said, “He’d better, dearie, because the minute he lets go, I'm gonna punch his lights out.”

There’s a couple that understands one another.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Wobbling Along

The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell. ~Confucius

It is extremely rare that I find myself in complete agreement with President Bush, but I have to say he's hit the nail on the head this time. Upon being informed that the top selling auto company in the U.S. was now Toyota, he is reported to have said that American auto companies need to build better cars.
I hope the extravagantly paid executives of GM, Ford, and that All-American company Daimler-Chrysler are listening. I doubt it, though, because it would interrupt their frantic calls to Congressmen demanding tariffs and government-sponsored loans. Besides, the President didn't really go far enough, because the problem is not just building better cars, but to actually quit finding ways to torment their suppliers and just concentrate on their own problems.
Actually, the auto makers have found all manner of methods to waste time and money, but I can speak first hand about how they do it to suppliers, because I worked for one of those suppliers.
The Detroit auto makers have made great noises for years about their devotion to quality. The fact that the Japanese auto makers run rings around Detroit when it comes to reliability has never gotten in the way of GM and friends devoting tons of money and people to various quality improvement schemes. The problem is that these schemes do little to improve quality; in fact, meeting the Detroit requirements takes time and resources away from actually trying to provide quality products. Let me explain.
GM had a program called Mark Of Excellence. I won't go into the voluminous details of how it worked, but it involved generating huge amounts of paperwork and statistics, most of which did little in reality to improve products. Part of the MOE process was to endure a GM team on site for three days who picked through records, tied up all the managers, and generally brought things to halt. At the end of the agony, the team gave a report of its findings with recommendations for improvement. But, the three team members create their reports independently rather than consulting with each other and combining their findings. As a result, we were treated to hearing the Engineering team member say that we didn't have certain procedures in Quality Control, while the Quality Control representative had already approved those self-same procedures. When this was brought up to the team during their presentation, the Engineering representative said, well, that's too bad, but we can't change the report now.
If we had thought their report was going to have any real impact, it would have bothered us. In fact, U.S. automakers go for the lowest bid supplier and quality-take-the-hindmost. Only when a supplier turns out total crud do they start considering that the phrase “Good, Fast, Cheap – Pick two!” may apply to them.
But it's not sufficient to send in the MOE team because that only happens every few years (or never again, if you get smart like we did). Each plant has quality improvement teams, any one of which is liable to send representatives to your plant to tell you how to do your business. Then, the Purchasing group started their own program. None of these programs will accept any documentation or data produced for the others. In Purchasing's case, this was understandable. Once, when presented with our data, a Purchasing man went ballistic because it showed a period of large variation. Yes, it did, i said, and here's what we did about it. “You can't show data like that! Take it out of the report!” In other words, I don't care what's really happening, just give me pretty charts.
Compare this to a Toyota visit. We were about to begin making a product for a joint GM-Toyota venture, which was under control of Toyota. Their quality auditor came to our plant, spent two hours looking things over, completed his checklist and told us we were good to go. While I was pleased, I was worried that there had to be more to it than this, and I said so. “Nope,” he said, “It looks to me like you can make the part to the specs we ask, and that's all that counts.” Now why didn't GM pick up on that from their partner?
As if the surveys and improvement programs weren't enough, every so often, a group with nothing to do at headquarters would descend on our plant with a product “improvement”. Once such team was determined to get to the bottom of the iced-up lock problem.
This will come as a shock to Northerners, I know, but door locks freeze up in the winter. The complex reason for this is that, since there is no way to hermetically seal the lock, water gets in, particularly when people drop keys in the snow first. When it's cold, water freezes. GM engineers had managed to grasp this through the use of lots of charts graphing temperature versus complaints about frozen locks (I am telling you the truth; they needed charts to prove that more locks freeze in February than in July).
What they hadn't figured out is that if you put a drainhole in a lock cylinder, it works best if it's positioned underneath the cylinder. Unfortunately, GM's design put the drainhole on TOP, where it didn't do much good. So, when the Engineering Product Improvement Team showed up saying that frozen lock complaints had to be reduced, we brought up this obvious fact. But they didn't like it because: a) There would be a one-time tool charge to change the hole position; and b) they hadn't thought of it. Their solution was to pack the lock full of grease because, if it was full of grease, there would be no room for water. Of course, the grease in locks is not cheapie stuff, so the price of a lock set increased by a nickel, which doesn't sound like much, but multiplied by the number of vehicles sold, it adds up.
We pointed out that car owners would not appreciate getting lock grease on their clothes, that owners would just squirt WD-40 or something into the lock to get rid of the grease. But, no, by golly, extra grease it would be.
A couple of months after implementing this thoroughly messy solution, one of the engineers came back to view, with great satisfaction, the fruits of his labors. By the wildest of coincidences, a plant quality improvement team member was visiting on the same day. She said the plant was happy with our lack of defects, but they were concerned because there seemed to be a lot more grease in the locks. It got on the operators' hands, and they had to keep cleaning up to avoid getting goop all over their workstations and all over the cars. You can only imagine the satisfaction I had in introducing her to one of the geniuses who had called for the increase in grease.
They never came to blows, but we did have to ask them to step outside because their yelling was disturbing the office staff. I vowed if GM Purchasing ever called again asking for phony data, I'd give them her phone number.
I'm guessing she works for Honda or Toyota now. GM couldn't have stood her common sense for long.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Quick Cancellations

Every time you think television has hit its lowest ebb, a new type program comes along to make you wonder where you thought the ebb was. ~Art Buchwald

“The Book of Daniel”, I guess it was called, was cancelled rather quickly, prompting religious groups who protested the show to crow about their incredible power. Phooey. When these guys get “Desperate Housewives” cancelled while it’s still in the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings, I will acknowledge their impact on what we watch. Getting “Daniel” cancelled is like doing a rain dance. You dance, it rains, but there is no actual causal relationship.
Face it folks, “Daniel” had to be one of the worst concepts ever to come out of the cesspit that gurgles out new television shows. A pill-popping priest who talks to Jesus to complain about his alcoholic (or was it drug-addicted? I don’t really recall)wife, his gay son, his philandering adopted son, and his drug-dealing daughter? Not exactly “Father Knows Best”, is it? It’s one thing to rub religious groups the wrong way; satirical shows have done it for years. It’s another thing to insult the intelligence of virtually every viewer in America. In other words, O great television gurus, there really is a limit to how crappy a show can be.
It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. There have been some pretty high-profile programs that died quick deaths, even without being crass to the level of “Daniel”. Bad is bad, and if it’s really bad, people won’t watch. If the people don’t watch, no one buys ads. If no one buys ads, the show is on the rocks.
Yes, there have been good programs that got a quick ax, but they usually found their way back for another try. Sometimes, though, what the critics like is just not what the rest of us want to watch.
Ordinarily, years ago, TV execs would give a show at least half a season, even if it stunk, just to see if there was some sort of audience out there. But there was one show that was so bad that the star of the show actually came on the next week to apologize.
The year was 1961. Jackie Gleason had been one of the biggest television stars of the 1950’s, but he seemed to have run his course and had been away for a couple of years, when some creative genius convinced him that he should host a humorous game show called “You’re in the Picture.” The premise of this misguided half hour was to have a poorly drawn life-size picture hauled on stage. Guest panelists would stick their heads out of holes from behind the picture. Their task was to guess what the picture was and who they were in it. They did this by asking Gleason questions, to which he was to make funny ad-libs.
I’ll bet your ribs are aching from laughter at the very thought. Well, the only aching at the network was in the pit of the stomachs of the execs who were going to have to explain this mess. Gleason himself was mortified at just how bad the show was (and, yes, I saw it, and, lordy yes, it was bad). The network was going to allow the show to finish its allotted 7 or 13 show run (I forget which). But Jackie Gleason was old-school in the best sense of the word, and he wasn’t about to make an even bigger fool of himself nor was he going to insult his legion of fans (and, believe me, he had millions of fans) by running another episode of this tripe.
So Gleason told the network what he was going to do, and such was his stature that the network buckled. The second week of the show he came on to an empty stage and apologized. Now, being Gleason, he didn’t come out with some sad, weepy, “Please forgive me” sort of thing. Nope, he accepted full responsibility; he had to. I mean, after all, shouldn’t he have seen how bad this was during rehearsals?
However, having done that, he laid it on. He said the show was such a bomb, it made the H-bomb look like a two-gun salute. He went on and on like this, with the audience rolling in the aisles (including the 10 or 12 of us who had tuned in to see if the second week could be as bad as the first). After a while, he began to tell stories of old show business flops and still the audience laughed. He was brilliant.
For the next few weeks, there was Gleason, on what was now called “The Jackie Gleason Show”, sitting on an empty stage, talking about show business, having an occasional guest (Art Carney was one), and generally providing some really great entertainment.
But Gleason was no dummy. He knew he wasn’t a talk show host, so as soon as the required shows were done, he pulled the plug.
When someone can take responsibility for a dud and come up smelling like a rose, that’s entertainment.