The Girls Who Said Fuck


I call it “The Girls Who Said ‘Fuck’” because they are at the heart of this story, although they don’t appear for a while.  They are both dead now, and the world is sadly diminished by their absence.  I knew them forty years ago, early in my corporate career in IT.  They were a joy to play with, outstanding in my memory because of their authenticity; and their vitality.  While I knew them, they were my best friends at work, skeptics like me.

Just a couple of years ago an acquaintance I’d worked with for 20 years, since “the early days,” when our company was small, stopped with his wife for a day’s visit here in Capistrano, where we live now.    Well, he called me when I got home, and told me how he’d seen his old boss in Arizona on his way home, and John had told him, “the trouble with Macafee was he was too smart for his own good.”

This raised questions to me.  One was  why there was a question about what the “trouble” with me was.  I assumed that because I now live in a mobile home, I had presumably not led a successful afterlife in their judgment.  That is, as the Brits say, as it may be.  The othervquestion was more intriguing.  Obviously John, Bill’s former boss, felt some enmity toward me which he had never let on to.  It took a little thought to figure it out, which recalled to me the girls who said “fuck,” Kathy and Irene.  Kathy had flaming red hair, and was white.  Irene was black (as was her hair!)

This is a long-ago story, from the early seventies, when most young women did not say “fuck.”  Kathy and Irene didn’t actually say it often, but used it when they did with an admirable élan.

This story has three parts.

My first boss was a good-looking young guy, whom young women usually liked (and who was the company president’s son).  We were walking down the hall one morning, as Kathy was approaching.  She was also quite attractive, but that morning had not washed her hair, and was feeling frumpy.  Says Bill, “Good morning, Kathy.  You look lovely today.”  Kathy’s turn:  “Fuck you, Bill.”

The general manager was a pompous ass, and a horrendous bully.  His first name was Franklyn.  I named him Franklynstein.  He will appear again later.  (The nickname immediately caught fire and stuck for good.  I was so proud.)  The monster he created was himself.  He used to convene a group of “subordinates” – the only way he could get people into his office – and then hold forth to his captives when he had gas and needed an outlet (felt the need to pontificate).  Once Kathy and Irene were among his victims, when he said “damn” and then “excuse me girls.”  During their postmortem Kathy said, “Irene, next time he says that, you say, “Ah, fuck, Frank, forget it.”  A hilarious idea.  Irene could have done it, too.  She was capable of it, and was the company president’s pet.  She was his token black, always invited to sit at his table at banquets.  (One of her skills was that she could switch effortlessly between Ghetto and King’s English.)

Back to Arizona John.  He was also Kathy’s boss.  Like me he had no degree, and was always bending over backwards to conform.  (Sometimes he just bent over!)  He was constantly whining at Kathy to behave better.  She was from Mark Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Missouri.  I don’t know whether that had anything to do with it, but she was highly resistant to conforming.  One day John was cranking up his whine and Kathy said, “I tell you what I want you to do, John.  You go in that corner over there and fuck yourself, because I’m outta here.”  And she was, back to Hannibal where she stayed until she died, three years ago.

I was openly friends with Kathy and Irene, which was inappropriate to my station.  (I love that word, “inappropriate.”  It’s always seemed like a challenge set before me.)  I also resisted Franklynstein in meetings and alone with him, and bragged about it.  It was therapy to me after Franklynstein had kicked the shit out of me.  John and his best friend at work (my boss back then), on the other hand, always caved in whenever the monster pushed.

I could tell I was losing patience beyond hope in a meeting one day, years later, when he slipped into his avuncular mode, and once more began to enlighten us with his timeworn analogy about eating an elephant.  (He always started out with “but seriously, folks…”  I put my head in my hands.

“Oh.  My.  God!
We’re gonna eat the fucking elephant,
one bite at a time,
again!

“Well, Mister Macafee, perhaps there’s somewhere else in the company where you could be more effective this morning.”  Meaning, “Get Out!”  I got.  But it was clearly not a wise career move.  There just comes a point, y’know?

This kind of behavior usually bought me about three months of peace, until he forgot, or couldn’t think of who else to call when he faced another problem.  He had an open door policy.  I used to warn blithe newcomers, who regularly thought they had a special, problem-free relationship with the old sadist.  I’d tell them that if they were dumb enough to go through that open door, eventually the best they could hope for was to break even, but just as likely they’d come back out carrying their head in a bucket.  Almost everyone had to find out for her/himself, though.  Hubris would doom them to this fate. (“Unlike you, I understand Frank.”)  Heh.

John and his buddy eventually resigned together because they were ashamed of themselves and said so.  They were both offered vice-presidencies to stay, but felt they couldn’t.  I thought they were shameful indeed, because I never even weighed the possibility of giving in to him.  He could make me afraid too, but I simply said in my mind, “I don’t do that.”  As in, it’s not in my nature.  After 23 years this did, in a round-about way, cost me my career; but in the meantime my conscience stayed clear.  Before that for several years I had claimed to be the Ancient Mariner of the company:  I alone was left to tell the tale.  (He had fired everyone else in what we called “upper management,” or they had run off.  For reasons to do with perceived merit I was untouchable, and loved that company as my family – at last – with rare exceptions, Franklynstein being chief among them.)

So anyhow, I didn’t have to think long to understand why John bore me some ill will.  He resented my not being amenable to the Curse of Franklynstein.

 *****

 I can’t leave the idea of clarity without telling the invaluable lesson I learned about leadership.  It is only useful if you have a good feel for people (which is surprisingly rare), but it works for parenting and teaching just as well as for business.  I will tell this story quickly as well, with regret, because I’ve spent half my life finding out how to  practice the lesson most effectively!

When I began my job as a programmer trainee, my father-in-law told me that “nice guys finish last.”  When my daughter Lisa began teaching high school history to lower-middle-class Hispanics she was given equivalent advice by older teachers:  “They need discipline.  Kick them.  Show them who’s boss.  Never smile until Christmas.”  We share a benevolent gene, though.  We made the same decision – that what they implied we should do was not in our natures, and sounded dumb anyhow, so we’d have to try it our way.  Lucky for us.

More rocket science:  if you care about your people, they will care about you.  When you are absent they will watch your back.  They will be happy.  I even see it working in a wildly-popular local restaurant (Ricardo’s).  The lesson is so dramatic because the place was previously owned by a curmudgeon (Harry), and no one went there.  It works so well, and you don’t have to hate yourself!  Win-win.  Listen up, people!

After a while many techies wanted to be in my groups; and we were highly productive.  I suggested to my male managers – gently! – that they study the egalitarian ways of the most effective women managers.  I recruited managers whom I sensed could do that.  I have never in my life conducted a technical interview.  I wanted to know what kind of person I was talking to.  And this was against the rules:  If I didn’t like them, I didn’t hire them.  (“That shouldn’t matter.”  “Fine.  And you take a running leap and impale yourself, because you are a fool.”)

We owned our pet supply store for ten years.  For the first year it was franchised.  They brought us a time clock.  I told them I wouldn’t use it.  They said I had to.  “How else will you know when employees worked?”  “I’ll ask them.”  Time to smarten up the dummy.  “You will hire kids.  They will cheat you, and usually last only a few months.”  But by then I never doubted myself.  I knew.  Had the knowledge.  They said managing kids was entirely unlike managing the professionals I’d had experience with.  I said they were all people.  Finally, they took the clock back.

I have a friend still, Elissa, who worked for us then, while she was a student.  She teaches high school biology now.  (Another rule I’d never agreed to:  I made friends with people who were nominally subordinates.  Back in Illinois, someone who will have gold stars in heaven:  Cathy Becker.  From the pet store, more gold:  Elissa Babiuk.  Two admirable people, both survivors – strong women.  Steel magnolias.  My friends.) In fact, I thought of “subordinates” as collaborators.  (If I had experience they needed to know about, I was a guide.)

I recently told Elissa about the time clock.  She was appalled.  She didn’t think anyone had ever cheated us, and kids (like she was then) stayed until they reached the next phase of their lives (marriage, graduation…)

Within the year after big-box PetSmart stores arrived in southern California, the franchisor, along with 28 of the 31 stores, went broke.  They tried to compete with pricing, a fool’s errand.  We chose to compete on service, product knowledge, hiring pet fanatics, stocking premium foods, and being nice.  It wasn’t solely idealism; it was partly seeing the obvious – that competing on price, we wouldn’t survive.

We hired nice people who were fanatical about pets.

One thing I did without thinking.  I just didn’t like it when customers abused the kids who worked for us.  So I told the kids that when that happened, they should come and get me.  If the customer couldn’t be nice then, I’d kick him out, using the old voice of authority – loudly!  “You’re outta here.  One way or another, I guarantee you that in five minutes you’re gonna be on the outside looking in.  Now get out!”  (I only did this maybe four times in ten years, because, as we had hoped when we jumped in, pet people are mostly extra nice, and made our job a pleasant one.)  The victims I kicked out were always utterly amazed, because they believed so completely that the customer was always right.  (More caca gospel.)

It felt good doing that, and there was an unforeseen benefit:  the kids loved it that they weren’t expected to tolerate shabby treatment; that we cared more about them than getting that last buck.  It contributed further to our mutual affection and loyalty.  And as they became more valuable to us, we weren’t stingy with the raises.  (This requires more steadfast resolve when it’s your own money, I found!)

The most fun I ever had with the rule was with a little fat guy with a dachshund puppy needing a harness.  I made a mistake sizing it, he called me a dunce, pulled out his pocket knife, and said he was going to cut the harness off – which was totally unnecessary.  I had an inspiration.  “Wait.  Wait.  If you cut the head off the puppy, the harness will slip right off!”  He was, of course, incensed – and called me some more bad words.

I then suggested he go into the corner and have sex with himself, as the redhead had  suggested tp her  boss years earlier.  All his fuses blew.  He ran out into the middle of the store (it was a Saturday morning) and announced – bellowed, actually, like the proverbial stuck pig – that I had said curses, and tried to kill his dog.  Stores like ours have mainly repeat customers, all of whom knew me by then to be a nice man, so they looked at him like he was crazy.  I just poked his pork, and invited him to leave.  He went squealing out into the street.  (His poor adolescent daughter was out there somewhere.  She had split at the first sign of trouble, which made me realize that she’d been through something similar before with her petulant papa.)

Just a month or so ago we were having lunch at a restaurant a stone’s throw from our old store (sold ten years ago) where we met the owner of our competition down the street.  He had married a rep for one of the premium foods we sold.  He told me how thankful they’d been when they heard we’d sold.  They both said we were still remembered in the local industry as the owners who had had the magic touch.  “A local legend,” they said.  I have to think they were just being nice partly; but to the extent that it was true, there was nothing magical about it.  No rocket science.

Back in Illinois I had preached this gospel the whole time I was a manager in the Dun & Bradstreet subsidiary.  It was such a hard sell.  Only now, since some women have found their way through the glass ceiling, have management gurus begun to glom onto it.  People back then seemed wary of it because we’re all Calvinists, partly:  no pain, no gain.  This way didn’t hurt enough!  The other problem was that this way implied granting trust.  Many people are afraid to do that; and many are simply unable.  Mild Asperger’s, maybe.  Defective people sense.  We know a small business owner with several employees who says he only trusts his pastor.  This is not good!

The Peter Principle comes to mind.  It has to do with people being promoted beyond their competence.  When I first learned about it, I thought the lesson was that one should watch out for it, and avoid it.  The sad, sad truth is that it seems to be endemic!  My company was shot through with Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss.  In that company I had more than one boss I liked and respected, but only one that was thoroughly competent.  He also must be named:  Mel Trudeau.

I like saying the names of people who stand out in my memory because of their goodness.  I feel an obligation to do it.  They deserve the tad of respect I can show them by doing it.

 *****

 One more thing about finding clarity:  I have found juxtaposition a useful tool.  When I was confronted by Ace Adkins in the post office about the goody-two-shoes persona I had brought with me from Scripture Press, his suggestion was that I “wouldn’t say ‘shit’ if I had a mouthful”.  As it happened, I had just been utterly gobsmacked by The Diary of Anne Frank.  I still think of what she represents to me as a victim of an unimaginable obscenity, and have said that she stands in my mind for all the avoidable atrocities that result from hatred, and that will continue.  Her picture is fixed in the foreground of my mind for good, on my mental desktop.  I will not forget her, ever.

Ace had survived WWII in France.  Compared to what he remembered and what I imagined, my squeamishness seemed indeed a paltry thing.  I dumped it for good.

If she had lived, Anne might not have ever said bad words.  My point is that the broadest perspective is best, and I know I will be constantly re-examining my values from here on out in that light.  In the meantime, other juxtaposed examples:  Abortion could have obliterated Anne Frank; but it might also have prevented Hitler.  If two people were on a cliff and one fell to his death, shall we say that the Lord saved the one who was spared?  What then of the one who perished?  Leave off blaming the Lord for shit.  Get over it.  It’s another form of thumb-sucking.

 *****

So I have found the only ethics (Huck’s ethics) that will do for me; a philosophy that is altogether earth-bound.  But a distinction:  earth-bound but not mundane.  For me it is completely satisfying because it rests on reality, where for me it must.  And I have identified an approach to living (transparency) that is my goal; and I have recognized the inestimable value of my friends, that is my holy grail.

In the end, I’m trying to postulate what I should do about two things:  how I should be with my friends, and what I should hope we can do for our tiny, lovely, delicate globe.

I am an intellectual voyeur, wanting walkabouts in my friends’ minds and willing to reciprocate; and a spiritual nudist.  (I take my saints plain, too).  I am willing to show my deformities as well as what’s admirable (although I will not run naked down Main Street!)  A Weavers song:  “We’re All Dodgers.”  All. All dodgers!  Listen.  Please.  They’re mocking themselves, and all of us, because of our everlasting, damnable pretenses!

I think what I yearn for in friends is intimacy, in a clean, transparent relationship.  This is difficult for all of us, because we are afraid.  We are afraid that if we are seen whole, we will not be good enough, or indeed, thought ugly.  But we know at the same time that it’s our only hope.  So over and over, we gather our limited courage and chance it again.  After a while it’s not scary any more.  More rocket science:  there’s a grand payout!  For me, I believe it’s the only defense I can mount, temporarily, against the inevitable coming of the dark:  Just hold my hand ‘til then.  Then, when I must, I will walk that lonesome valley.

Anyone remember Peggy Lee’s song, “Is That All There Is”?  Answer:  “If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.”  Well, that is all there is.  Is that so hard?  The good news for me is that since I know this, I am living my best life – and it will be enough, because there is no other option.

Another song:  Nanci Griffin’s “From a Distance.”  Distancing has its merits.  It lends an invaluable perspective sometimes.  In some ways age confers it.  I see the troubles of my youth with such understanding now.  But Nanci’s song (Julie Gold’s song) is about the earth.  From a distance it is small and beautiful, unblemished.  That perspective is good, because it encourages us to see our world as the insignificant speck that it is, and to realize that its survival is up to us alone, sadly inept as we are.  It makes me feel that we must care for it tenderly, like a hothouse garden, which in a sense it has become.  How much treasure like coral reefs and polar bears must we lose forever before we become willing to admit the problem, subdue our greed, and make the sacrifices?

 *****

 Now let me tell you where my heart is.  My heart’s in the Highlands, with Jo Stafford’s heart.  It’s a spiritual Brigadoon of my own imagining, populated by all the good people – in Win Stracke’s song, “all the good people who light up my life” – all the good people who have gone before, as well as you, my friends.  I am so glad to know you.  I hope, from here on out, never to miss the chance of saying so.

Am I a sentimental old fool, then?  Yes.  I am.  I can’t apologize, because it’s also a part of how I am made; and I was so before I was old!  But it’s also what enables me to ascend to places few others go – why all my writing is to an extent lyrical; and

what pushes me

to poetry!

 Selah.

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