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Collecting Bones

November 17, 2002

Sketch: Regina.

Personification of a personality type common in Technology Land: the individual who becomes "indispensable" by centralizing and hoarding information which others require in order to do their jobs.

    Regina's peculiar arrogance is probably most evident in the way she responds to questions. Once, in my first week with the company, I asked her to explain some basic strategic thinking behind their technology architectures. Her reply was gobbledygook: unfocused, roundabout, off-topic, garbled, and wrong. Diplomatically I told her I didn't understand. Could she explain it again? Sarcastically, with a smirk, she repeated the same speech word-for-word, pausing every few syllables as if to imply, "You're a moron. Here's a moment for you to catch up." Like this: "Sarcastically... with a smirk... she repeated... the same speech... word-for-word... pausing... every few syllables... as if to imply... ‘You're a moron.... Here's a moment... for you to catch up. Get it now?'" After that I searched-out alternate sources of information, which led her to complain to our mutual boss that I was asking her too few questions to be taking my job seriously.

The dynamic she engenders is simple as can be. By withholding information, she makes it impossible for others to do their jobs without her assistance. When she tells her management "nothing would get done around here without me," she's relaying a truth she's created. Unfortunately this is a traditional hierarchical organization in which decision-making and information flows are modeled on the military. Which is to say, her management have no alternate source of information. To the contrary, they focus their attention on the hours she commits, her obvious dedication and sense of personal responsibility, which appear to reinforce her credibility. They come to agree that nothing would get done without her, and they reward her with further empowerment, that is, by further disempowering the people doing the work. The cycle spins.

What interests me is her lack of awareness of her own responsibility. Blind to the structural relationships, her dialectic unfolds on two levels. In consciousness she's arrogant, vain and domineering. At the deeper unconscious level she's crippled with insecurity. Her insecurity determines her need to control others. This is the motor which eventually drives the company to failure.

    Parking lot, Sausalito, afternoon on a sunny summer day, 1999. Three of you in business suits: yourself, the COO of your company, and a colleague named C. This is DotCom Land, at the height of the great Internet Bubble. You've just concluded a business meeting with representatives of a potential partner company, and are walking toward your car. Unfocused meeting, unproductive, in which the potential partners made their incompetence clear within the first few minutes, bickering among themselves and insulting each other. Wasted afternoon. You have to pee like anything. Instead your COO is inspired to talk psychology.

    She says, "C.'s a ‘Type A Personality,' aren't you C.? Like me. We have that inbuilt drive to succeed. That striving to achieve something outstanding." While she's not eloquent, she's conveying a certain pride, as if to imply, "Us Type A Personalities are the engines of progress." "What about you Mark?" she wants to know. "Are you one of us?"

    Your brain, marinated in urine, lacks the resources on this occasion to spark a diplomatic and business-savvy reply. Instead you tell her the blunt truth. "No. I associate ‘Type A Personalities' with significant underlying insecurity, as if they feel the need to prove something to the world. I feel the world needs to prove something to me, and is failing."

    Neither of them say a word on the trip back to the office.

There's only one way to repair an organization damaged by people like this. You have to whack the perpetrator. The scene is always the same. "You CAN'T fire me! The place'll go to hell in a handbasket!" Thanks, we'll take our chances. For about a day and a half there's utter panic among the project teams. Then their talent and professionalism re-emerge, unshackled. They build their own communication and decision-making structures based on real knowledge of the project and the technology. Morale soars. Productivity doubles the first week, increases by an order of magnitude within a quarter. Which is still no guarantee of success. The final outcome depends on how early or how late the problem child was let go; on the strategic technology choices which have already been made; and on the quality of the work groups now empowered.

This particular company failed because the problem child was never let go. I quit instead. I could have fixed these problems but it would have meant six months of infighting in which senior management slowly became educated re who to have confidence in. I decided, at age 43, that my blood pressure mattered more. The consulting fees I'd earned there lasted a year, which I spent writing TriadCity. The company folded in a few months.

    We've all heard many times the standard ideological trope that Free Enterprise is more successful than other economic systems largely because it's more "efficient." Yet in my career I've met only a handful of truly competent managers, people who know how to achieve excellence and do so. The others have been uniformly mediocre: people who built ineffective organizations with poor morale, weak strategy, and inferior products. Included in this group are famous CEOs who thought of themselves as the best in the world, and were said by the press to be so. Yet I see little efficiency in their histories. The interesting thing is that of the small group of genuinely excellent managers, all but one is a Red of some flavor, and the one who isn't will become one once he encounters the right books. This irony tickles me no end.

November 18, 2002

Subject: dress up Mondays
From: William L. on 11/28/99 10:51:06 AM

For so many of you, who've joined us recently, there are subtle points of the DotComCompany culture you might not yet appreciate. But I know many are gaining in your estimation as you cozy up to them. Like Goals. Being on time to meetings. Stupid humor.

There's another I just know you're going to come to love: dress up Mondays. For gentlemen, that means ties. Ladies, as appropriate. I'm including [the East Coast office], because I think you ought participate too. Of course, I've never been to [the East Coast office] on a Monday; Do J. and E. set the tone?

Please jump in. You'll like it.


Subject: Re dress up Mondays
From: Mark P. on 11/28/99 11:11:06 AM

For the benefit of those brand new folks who haven't heard about our various theme dress days, here's what we do the rest of the week.

Clothing Optional Fridays are probably the first thing you should know about. Sometimes this tradition catches new employees a bit by surprise. We find that, overall, it lends itself to a relaxed work place environment. Sometimes we do a full Clothing Optional Week when things are seeming stressed, for instance after the launch of a major Web site redesign. Matt S. has that "let's get nekkid" look right now, in fact.

Cross-Dressing Wednesdays are becoming increasingly popular. The Exec team has been experimenting with them for some time now, and their enthusiasm seems to be infectious. Naturally there's more of a tradition behind this theme here in San Francisco than in [the East Coast office], but rumor has it J.'s quite fetching in a taffeta ball gown.

Dress as Your Favorite Zen Movie Character Tuesday is more recent, but W.L.'s really into it so it has momentum.

Dress as Mark Phillips Thursday has been proposed, but people have complained about being unable to find enough black things and vests in their local mall.

A final note about Dress Up Monday. While the tie for gentlemen is now mandatory, there's no rule about having to wear it around your neck. Any limb or other body part will do. Matt S.'s wearing his right now and will show it to you if you ask him. You'll see it anyway after the site launches.


November 20 2002

August 19, 1988. Black felt pen. "Dolphin off the rocks, leaping & dancing like my happy heart." In microscopic script in the corner of the page she added with an aqua-colored pen, "K---- likes you."

    3am. Interior of a small bedroom, lit by streetlight through the blinds. Tall thin boy and lovely peach-colored girl lie in each other's arms beneath a single thin sheet. She's asleep, long blond hair spilled across his chest. He's awake, eyes misty, watching her breathe.

    In his journal next morning, he writes, "She seduced me with tenderness and humor, left me dazzled and sleepless, and full."

Strange that you can date the exact moment at which you experienced greatest happiness in this life.

November 21 2002

April 8, 1989. Her sister's apartment, 16th Street, San Francisco.

Sister sobbing. Torn to ribbons over the phone. She'd mocked her, like this: "He says I'm a lot more fun than you were. He says you wouldn't even go out with him for a beer when he wanted to. He says I'm a much better time." Sister throws her arms around you, shakes, sobs.

This is the only moment when you ever hated her.

    3am. Interior of a small apartment, lit by sputtering candles and the LED display of an electric clock.Tall thin boy and tall thin girl lie in each other's arms, fully clothed, on a futon bed. She's asleep, short red hair brushing against his cheek as she breathes. He's awake, eyes red, drifting with his thoughts.

"She stabbed me in the back," her sobbing sister says. (Three weeks earlier you'd said, "There's a knife in my back with her fingerprints on it.")

    He's as still as he can force himself to be. Doesn't want to wake her up.


    i love her like a sister;
    that drunk, that girl why
    i wish her all the best.
    that's all that's left 'cause she took the rest.
    a heck of a past.

    there's a drunk in my past.
    one who let me down.
    who wasn't around when they were needed.

    —John Doe / Exene Cervenka, Drunk in my Past


    the devil drives a buick.
    he sits inside & eats lunch.
    and sticks his pitchfork through the trunk & into the spare.
    and pulls out

    true love, true love, true love,
    true love, true love, true love,
    is the devil's crowbar.

    —John Doe / Exene Cervenka, True Love

November 22, 2002

MUNI train, L Taraval line, morning commute inbound, somewhere beneath Twin Peaks. Train crawls to a stop. Driver's voice on a crackling PA: "We'll be waiting here for a few. Looks like we're backed up all down the line." Audible gasp of horror ripples through the crowded passengers: This is our collective vision of commuter hell.

The people are squeezed together so tightly that it feels unhealthy. It's never pleasant but without motion you become acutely conscious that there's not enough air to breathe. Smells: shampoo, deodorant, cigarettes. You're standing with both hands on the overhead bar, canvas book bag on the floor between your feet.

Elderly Chinese woman at your side, tiny, about as tall as your hip. She's eighty if she's a day, but she's energetic and seems perfectly happy to stand. Her eyes are bright and curious, and she's looking up at you with an openly friendly invitation to say hello.

    In San Francisco you'll sometimes hear about older people who've only ever left Chinatown once or twice their entire lives. Think about that: entire lives within a half square mile. They speak no English, and on those one or two occasions when they venture out they sit with each other on the MUNI holding hands, looking at the people with suspicion, and with open-eyed wonder at the strangeness of the foreign world.

"Hel lo?" she says, lingering carefully over both syllables. She has a squeaky high voice like a cartoon mouse, and she ends each sentence with a rise in pitch, as if asking a question.

You smile. Her friendliness makes you want to laugh. "Good morning," you say, almost with a little nod. For some reason you often feel you should bow to be polite to older Chinese people.

She tells you, "I am now learning Eng lish?" She's careful in her pronunciation, clearly proud of herself, breaking multisyllabic words into multiple words of one syllable each. "While we wait? Would you prac tice with me?"

Charmed, you answer, "Yes, I'd like that," and you return her friendly smile gladly.

She narrows her eyes briefly, rehearsing her next sentence in her mind. You can tell that this one will be somewhat more complicated.

Eagerly she tells you, "I like to buy... bones?" her voice rising to an extra-high squeak. She smiles broad, showing black teeth, gold teeth, missing teeth, three or four white teeth, a weird grin which for a moment reminds you of a jack-o-lantern.

Your face falls. Uh-oh, you think. Stuck on a dead train next to Charlie Manson's Chinese grandmother, who likes to collect...bones. Creepy.

    For many years there was actually a store in the Lower Haight which sold bones. There was a cattle skull, candles, and a garland of dead flowers in its black-draped window. The place reeked so strongly of ritual weirdness, in that peculiar San Francisco way, that you'd sometimes cross the street to be away from it. "Sticks and Stones" was its name, if you remember.

"Oh?" you reply, more than a little warily.

She narrows her eyes again while rehearsing her next sentence. This one will be crucial because it completes the thought she wants to converse about.

"To make... soup!"

You sigh with relief that seems comical even to you. It's a long commute full of fits and starts, but you're glad to chat with the happy lady whose love of homemade chicken stock shines from sparkling eyes. You never find the heart to tell her you're vegetarian.

Copyright © 2002 Mark A. Phillips.

Mark works at the intersection of narrative and Internet technology. Since 1999 he's been "Cyberbard" for SmartMonsters, a San Francisco company exploring multiuser role-playing games as literature. His work "TriadCity" is home to thousands of participants from around the world. Recently excerpts from his experimental blog have appeared in Comrades, Physik Garden, and the SoMa Literary Review. For the month of November, 2002, The Blue Moon Review featured Mark as their first-ever "Guest Blogger."