March 28, 2002
Impermeable


The memo lands in my e-mailbox this morning, as I'm lingering over a second cup of Peet's Dark Roast. 

It's from the Dirt Company corporate headquarters in Los Angeles -- marked Super-Quadruple Read-Me-Right-Now Or-You're-Fired-I-Mean-It!-Urgent -- and it is addressed to everybody in the company.

I pop another wedge of tangelo into my mouth and open the e-mail.

Armand, the company president, is issuing a new directive: effective immediately, Dirt Company employees will no longer be permitted to use the terminology 'impermeable membrane' when making recommendations for vapor barriers beneath floor slabs. "You should refer to it as a 'vapor barrier' or 'visqueen,' " the memo says. "Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES ARE YOU TO IMPLY THAT THE MEMBRANE IS 'IMPERMEABLE'!!! " Anyone caught in violation of this new policy will be in big, huge, gigantic bunches of trouble. Furthermore, Armand requests that 'impermeable membrane' be immediately added to the permanent list of Taboo Words ... along with never, none, nothing, all, always, only, ensure (all variants), insure (all variants) and the other 43,897,621 words and phrases that are permanently banned from the Dirt Company lexicon. The e-mail was written and sent, on Armand's behalf, by Diana, his Executive Ass.

Even from four hundred miles away, I can actually hear Diana grinding her teeth into little pointy stubs.

Once or twice a week, one of these deathless missives goes out to everybody in the company. Armand will not respond to any e-mail composed in Arial 10 pt. font. Armand is restructuring the vacation request policy: if you've submitted a request for 2002, it will have to be resubmitted and reapproved. Armand would prefer that the company name come before the salutation when answering the phone ... i.e. "The Dirt Company, good morning," as opposed to "Good morning, The Dirt Company." Armand has banned colored Post-It Notes: from this point forward, only the standard yellow sticky note will be permitted.

Armand obviously graduated summa cum laude from the *Franz School of Pointless & Irritating Micromanagement.*

Armand and Franz have a lot of stuff in common, actually. They are both urbane, well-educated gentlemen of European extraction. They are both in their early to mid fifties. They are both well-respected within their industry. (At least, they're well-respected by anybody who doesn't have to actually work with them.) They are both fond of vintage sports cars, fine beaujolais and designer neckties.

And they both instill rabid, wild-eyed terror in their employees.

I've watched the way my co-workers react when Armand calls our office every day. ("You didn't tell him that I was here, did you??") I've listened to the way they scramble to come up with legitimate reasons to be out of the office when he is in town. ("I am having my wisdom teeth extracted again, OK?") I've listened to lunchroom horror stories about cancelled vacations, aborted bazillion dollar projects and critically important meetings, blown off at the last minute.Witnessing all of this is déjà vu all over again for me ... except that this time around, I'm not the one sending out the memo/re-rescheduling the meeting/calling the airline to cancel the flight. 

Now I'm on the receiving end, along with everybody else.

The funny thing is: I'm probably the least-intimidated person in this entire office, where Armand is concerned. Three years with Franz have rendered me emotionally immune to this sort of capricious, *I can because I can* executive nonsense. It's like measles: once you've had them, they lose all power to make you itchy and scabby and miserable again. Having seen how this stuff works from the inside-out  ...  knowing that a crabby memo about impermeable membranes probably has more to do with a hangnail (or a hangover) than with any genuine anger towards the hapless Dirt Company schmuck who used the phrase in his last environmental report ... has given me a unique perspective that my co-workers might not share. Also, I fly pretty far beneath the radar around this place. Most of my interaction with Armand is courteous, direct and conducted over the phone. I give him my patented "I am absurdly happy to hear from you!" treatment, whenever he calls. I thank him for holding. I almost never hang up on him or transfer him to the wrong extension or accidentally call him "Boo-Bear."

It's a professional relationship that works for us both.

Plus -- for all the similarities between Franz and Armand -- there is one critical difference: while Franz was usually less than four hundred feet away from me, at any given moment, Armand is four hundred MILES away. That means that while he may be *my* occasional ice cream headache ... he is someone else's daily migraine.

When I've finished my second cup of coffee, I take a peek at the contents of my *In* basket. (Two reports to reproduce, a letter to type, a nice big stack of filing ... and not a single soggy Kleenex in the pile.) It's going to be another calm, quiet, productive day at The Dirt Company for this reformed Executive Ass.

In the meantime, I've already added "impermeable membrane" to my list of Taboo Words, as requested. (As long as Armand's name is on my paycheck, we play by his rules.) While I'm at it, I'll probably also toss "impermeable membrane" onto my personal list of *Words That No Longer Have The Power To Make Me Grind My Teeth Into Little Pointy Stubs* ... a list that includes "dwarf schleffera," "jackass," "Rolodex," "nincompoop," "colonoscopy," "incompetent sack of shidt" and "Offset Barrier Type-Y Crossings With Signalized Crosswalk Indicators."

And I'm sending off a big bunch of *positive thought molecules* to Diana in Los Angeles. She can probably use them.



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