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About three decades ago, I was walking the corridors at my work and saw a short yet poignant story pinned to the outside of some cubicle. I never forgot about it.
Let’s take a look:
This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.
Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job.
Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.
It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
So succinct, yet so expressive of the practical issues surrounding shoulda, coulda, woulda, perfectly knit together!
This reminds me of another story I have heard when I was a small boy.
This is set in India where it is auspicious to bathe the idol of Lord Shiva in pure milk.
Once, a king ordered that a huge vat be set up at a temple for an elaborate ceremony of such a bathing. All the merchants of the kingdom were asked to privately donate a jug of milk each by pouring their offering into that vat while praying and seeking the Lord’s blessings. The vat, filled with such donations, would provide the milk required for this special ceremony. The vat was so huge that people needed to lift their jugs above their heads to pour in their offerings.
Each merchant reasoned thus: “All the other merchants will be adding milk into the vat. If I just take a jug of water and pour it into the vat, it wouldn’t make much difference. I can save some money.”
One by one all the merchants made their private offerings, secretly applauding their own smartness.
After all the offerings were collected, the priest arrived to find a sumptuous supply of pure water for the Lord’s bath.
The question arose in my mind if the Missing Milk story forms a good example of the parable. I can see it being argued both ways, so I asked around. I got some feedback from my friends and family and the verdict is clear.
In response to my question whether the story exemplifies the parable, we have:
The biggest issue I had with the parallels between the stories is that the parable talked about a job that anybody could have done. Meaning it would only take one person to do it. Nobody did it. The milk story seems to fit better with the model that the job to be done, gathering pure milk for the bathing, could only be done if all the actors did their part.
So I was grappling with the suitability of the story as an example. Noting the overwhelming endorsement of the of the applicability of the story as an example, I got to thinking again.
Then I got it: the job to be done is not what I thought of initially. It can be entirely different:
Eliminate the incentive to cheat!
Now we are cooking. Let’s take stock.
So, we are back to the observation that anybody could have done the revised job. Nobody did.
This premise started to lose luster when you include somebody and everybody. It is possible to account for their sentiments expressed too, but only with a little stretch of imagination. Things still didn’t gel.
The common theme, as identified by my friends and family, expresses the parallel the best: Personal Responsibility.
Brilliant, would you say?
Does this gel for you?
“I don’t have a coverall to go into the crawl space,” said the technician.
He said that with a straight face too. I was watching him closely.
You may not think much of it, except, he was the one the extermination company, let’s call X, sent precisely to deal with our situation. A stinky one at that.
I mean it literally. The stink in the air was unmistakable. However, it was building for a few days and it took my wife and me a couple of days to make sure it was reason enough to call X.
We put through the call on a Friday. Big mistake. Extermination needs are supposed to arise just on weekdays, during working hours. How dare we hope for prompt service when all the overworked technicians were more than ready to throw in the towel on the work week and were dreaming of a cold beer to ring in the weekend!
We got graciously pencilled in for a visit by the gentleman who stood in front of us. Not on the Friday when we called, but on Saturday, in the afternoon. In the meantime, the stink was getting meaner.
At the point when the technician declared his inability to visit our crawl space, we got into a staring contest. He was hoping for a quick and easy resolution where we’d excuse him and he could go his merry way home. And we were incredulous at his preposterous declaration and were also waiting for a resolution that would make him relent.
The silence was deafening and seemed interminable.
We won that battle in the end (the war was another matter). He mumbled something to the effect that he’d try and find a dirty coverall from a previous job and go down to take a look. He vanished for a few minutes and returned, clad in a coverall. The garment didn’t look dirty!
We were relieved to have someone finally go into that crawl space and get rid of that pesky rodent that was stinking up the place. We were sure that our problems would be solved in a matter of a few minutes, once the technician went under there.
Little did we know.
Literally a couple of minutes were all it took for him to resurface, but with no gift in hand. We learned why.
“I can’t go through your crawl space. I’m too big,” was his report. Again, he was very sincere and apologetic. He went on to explain, “You have some duct work down there. I can’t get under them. I’m too big. We need to have a skinny person go through the space.”
Now, what are the chances that X would send someone matching the body size requirements on a Saturday evening when this determination was made around 5pm? Our hearts sank. But we put up a brave face and tried to appeal to his sensibility.
Our technician, let me call him Mr. Too Big, was a master of apologies. He profusely expressed how sorry he was, all the while reinforcing the idea that the best we can hope for was attention by the company on Monday. To prevent our despair in his presence, Mr. Too Big threw in a last ditch hope: he could try and see if one last technician still on duty could swing by and take care of us on that Saturday evening.
A few minutes later, he came back and reported that he had made contact with that lone technician, let’s say Mr. Phantom (we never saw him). Mr. Phantom would come by if he could. Mr. Too Big also said that he had arranged for a follow up appointment on Monday by another technician. And then he split.
A few minutes later, we got email notification that the service call was complete. Panicked, I texted Mr. Too Big who then assured me that’s how the business protocol worked!
Later in the evening, when I tried to communicate with him about Mr. Phantom, I discovered that Mr. Too Big had turned his phone off for the weekend.
Needless to say, we never saw Mr. Phantom on Saturday.
Between Saturday and Monday, the stink had a field day, and was starting to permeate the whole house. The saving grace was that the bedrooms were still odor-free and we quickly sealed them off with their doors shut to keep them that way.
Mid-day Monday, another technician came by to investigate. He came properly equipped, and went into the crawl space as we would expect. A little while later, he came back up, empty-handed.
“I found no dead rodent down there. But I found rat infestation with a lot of droppings,” was his report. His recommendation was to sign up for a special service to rodent-proof the house, with a 10-year warranty. No short-term solution for the problem at hand.
Since the stench was the most in the kitchen, we had him scrutinize that area as well. He spotted some droppings and found some hair.
He asked, “Do you have pets?”
“We don’t have pets, but our cousin’s dog had visited us a year ago for a few days.”
The technician was satisfied. “That can explain it.”
He found no other evidence of any dead rodent in the kitchen.
When I pressed him to take care of the problem rather than talk about it, he was visibly surprised. He offered, “I am an inspector. I diagnose the issue and propose a solution, but the actual work is done by a specialist.” Mr. Inspector’s solution? Purchase of the (expensive) service.
His persuasive argument? There was an infestation of rodents in the crawl space. Finding and removing one rodent was not going to fix it. We needed to seal the house and the (expensive) service would include vacuuming of all the droppings in the crawl space to give it a fresh start. And we were so lucky…we could have a technician come by and take care of it first thing in the morning the next day, Tuesday. These slots are normally not so quickly available.
We were at our wits’ end, and of course thought the mental peace was worth it, so we signed on to that (expensive) service. Chalk it up to clever salesmanship. It worked. We lost the war.
As it became clear that the trouble spot was likely the kitchen and not the crawl space, and the stench was becoming unbearable, we had stopped cooking altogether and would self-quarantine ourselves in our bedrooms. When meal time arrived, we would hold our nose and dash out the side door that minimized our exposure to the odor, and drive the van over to a take-out place of our choice. With COVID-19 hanging over our heads, no sit down meals anywhere either. We would drive back home, park the van in our driveway, and consume our food, sitting in the van! Camping in our own driveway! Then, of course, we’d dash back into a bedroom.
Just as we were consoling ourselves that the ordeal would at least be over on Tuesday, Monday evening handed the bombshell: X had a mix-up with their appointment calendar and the specialist technician could only come on Wednesday, not Tuesday. Our only choices were to accept the new appointment or cancel the whole deal.
Guess which option won? One more day of eating out, COVID-style.
Surprises never cease. Tuesday morning brought us a phone call from an X technician—I’ll call him Mr. Tuesday—who said he would be seeing us soon. Excited, we got into a dialog and pretty soon got very confused.
Each of us didn’t understand what the other was saying. In the end, he excused himself, checked with X, and got back with the finding. “I will NOT be seeing you soon,” was his witty retort and explained that yet another snafu at X caused him to contact us.
Wednesday was our day.
Wednesday brought in a breath of fresh air. No, not literally in our kitchen. Arriving earlier than the appointed time (how often does that happen!), the specialist technician, Mr. Fixer, got down to business. He went around, sealed off all rodent access points, and went into the crawl space to remove the dead animal.
Guess what! He emerged empty handed as well. No rodents in the crawl space.
No vacuuming of droppings either, because vacuuming only applies to droppings on the concrete blocks supporting the house; not the dirt. He was also surprised that he didn’t find the infestation reported by the inspector. Just a few droppings here and there.
Not finding anything, he was all set to leave! It didn’t make sense. I recalled Mr. Inspector’s vacillation and asked Mr. Fixer to look under the range for droppings and hair. He lay down on the floor and shone his flashlight under the range to take a peek.
That’s when I saw it.
The sparkle. The excitement of discovery. The mirth of diagnosis. “This is it,” he declared!
I was trying to recount Mr. Inspector’s uncertainty about what it could be.
“Nope, this is rat hair,” asserted Mr. Fixer. I could have never imagined how pleased I would be to find rat’s hair in our kitchen!
With a little effort, he pulled out the range from its housing. There was no sign of the rat! Sure there were droppings, and even hair, but no rat!
Mr. Fixer was visibly stumped. The back of the range was neatly sealed with metallic panels. It was designed to be pushed flush against the wall.
He started shining his flashlight into the teeny holes on the panels. Bingo! A rat was spotted inside the back panel. Mr. Fixer needed to run back to his truck to retrieve a special socket to unscrew the back panel to expose the innards and there he was, Mr. Rat!
When Mr. Fixer grabbed the carcass by the tail and gingerly dislodged it from its resting spot and dangled it in the air, I could see the rat’s eyes, face, and the whole lifeless body.
The rat got into a tight spot and couldn’t get itself out. It basically starved to death.
The real question is, how did it get there in the first place? Neither Mr. Fixer nor I could figure it out. I still don’t know.
Trapped it was, and trapped we were too.
Trapped, we felt when we couldn’t use most of our house and needed to quarantine ourselves in our bedrooms. Trapped, we felt when we had to eat in our van. But the feeling of a different trap slowly took shape in my mind.
I was running the whole experience through my mental video. Starting with our first call to X, it was mind boggling to realize how far we needed to go to get this resolved. Mr. Friday (the agent who set up the appointment for Mr. Too Big to show up the next day), Mr. Too Big, Mr. Phantom, Mr. Inspector, Mr. Tuesday, and finally, Mr. Fixer each played a role in shaping this journey.
Strangely, the one person, Mr. Inspector, who engineered the expensive solution, left me with a sense of feeling trapped.
As a marketer myself, I understand the perils of questionable marketing. Revelations from Mr. Fixer gave me pause.
The amount of droppings in the crawl space and the conclusion of a rat infestation there may have been exaggerated by Mr. Inspector.
The benefits of the expensive service agreement, as applicable to us, may have been played up. Mr. Fixer found nothing that could be vacuumed out from the crawl space, yet Mr. Inspector presented vacuuming out the droppings and having a clean start as one of the benefits for us.
Urgency is a big part of marketing, and I wonder if ‘availability’ of a slot first thing in the morning on Tuesday was a ploy to egg us to sign up for the service on Monday.
We’d never know for sure.
Do you think we were trapped?
Last month was special.
In May, my wife Praveena and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary! Sadly, I cannot but wonder if I had precipitated a crisis by planning that celebration. Let me explain.
Anniversaries come and go every year like clockwork. That’s what they do. It’s up to us to make the most of them. Praveena and I have done pretty well over the years, but there is one lingering — mostly unfulfilled — desire for an anniversary celebration: travel.
My wife’s major dream was to visit Australia for our 25th anniversary. Didn’t happen. Life happens, and it didn’t include such an interlude. We floated several other ideas in the following years, and they just floated away. There was always a reason. For a couple of travel aficionados, we had trouble planning a good travel itinerary for our anniversaries! We did make it to Joshua Tree National Park in 2016, but still no New Zealand, Antarctica, or Angkor Wat, all of which are in our bucket list. May is perhaps not the best time for some of these locations, but we can always dream without worrying about practicality!
If you can dream it, you can do it.
Late in 2019, as the 40th anniversary was coming closer, I was getting restless: I really needed to break the pattern and think of something unexpected. Travel has always been our dream for our anniversary, but it was not on the cards yet again: We had other travel we needed to make in 2020 and couldn’t swing another one on the anniversary date. We were making plans for a family get together in Florida in June/July which would include a flight between San Francisco and Orlando, and a road trip within Florida. It was when I started making airline reservation in December for the June trip that I got the epiphany.
I thought that if we couldn’t travel on the anniversary date, perhaps I could make the Florida trip unusually special. I could then let Praveena know of this special twist on the anniversary day, making it my anniversary present. I decided to upgrade the cross-country flight between San Francisco and Orlando. Following through on that decision was another matter.
I scanned my options on Expedia for making this happen, and my heart stopped! What I was going for would cost us a pretty penny! I reminded myself why I was doing this and the objections quickly vanished…we have come a long way together and this one-time expense was worth it. Still, it took me some time to muster enough courage to click that final submit button, but I did it: I committed to travel by First Class! Praveena deserved it—she has waited long enough for a treat like this. When I made the reservation in December, I told my wife that flight was all set, but didn’t go into the details.
The charm of a well-intentioned surprise is its revelation. The price paid for this reward is the wait till that day.
With the booking done, it was time to make some plans. We started chalking out excursions to explore three different National parks — the Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas — over several days, not to mention a visit to Key West. Summer heat and humidity can be a detraction, but I come from South India and I don’t think Florida can trump my experience of walking bare feet through an open corridor, midday, on a sizzling granite floor in the April heat at one of the temples of South India.
I have forever longed to visit Key West. Can’t really say why; it just seems like a fun trip. Perhaps it has to do with it sporting the southern-most point of Continental US where you should be able to see sunrise and sunset on the ocean from the same point. It’s nostalgic because I lived for many years just 12 miles from Kanyakumari, the southern-most point of India, where I could do the same with ocean sunrise and sunset.
Or, perhaps I was hoping to get a glimpse of Old Man Santiago battling the marlin just like Hemingway saw it. Or travelling on the 7-mile bridge through the Keys much like the San Mateo Bridge across the San Francisco Bay. Anticipation of the unknown is wonderful.
All that trip planning was exhilarating, but I needed to make sure I didn’t blurt out the key surprise. It was a torturous wait of five months to keep the surprise for the reveal.
Reveal I did, as planned. Happy 40th Anniversary, My Dear! Everything gelled for the surprise. We never purchase a first-class air ticket to go anywhere. What a fitting celebration!
Alas, it was too good to last. As much as I savor the happy culmination of the five months’ wait, I can’t help feeling that my plans had unintended consequences. My decision on December 9, 2019 — when I made the booking — was to pave the way for our Florida trip to be enjoyed in style. What has happened instead?
Man proposes and God disposes!
The husband who decides to surprise his wife is often very much surprised himself.
Just a month after I booked the tickets, in January 2020, we heard murmurs of COVID-19 when China released news of its impact on Wuhan. But life went on as usual here in the U.S. even until mid-March. No hint of any danger to our travel plans. Then everything unraveled within a month and it became clear in April that our travel plan would be toast.
Once before, I had a cancelled trip like this one: A much awaited trip to the Vatican was thwarted due to my needing an appendectomy three days before the start of that trip! My luck with special trips, the once-in-a-lifetime kind, seems suspect: Something is bound to happen to sabotage my plans. I am convinced that this luck of mine was the true cause of the global pandemic, a means to this sabotage.
Don’t believe me? Consider the evidence:
On December 9 when I bought the ticket, COVID-19 must have been giving Chinese officials grief. China announced the specter of COVID-19 to the world in January, so they must have been battling to contain it in December. Thus, December 9 was as good a date as any when the fate was sealed for the global COVID-19 outbreak.
Hence my assertion: I (really, my luck) may have triggered this pandemic! I am sticking to it.
There is no silver lining for the thousands of people who succumbed to the pandemic or the millions of people whose lives have been turned upside down. But there is one to my quest.
Positivity is essential for happiness in life.
I have been able to successfully keep the surprise gift a secret from my wife. I can say that with confidence. I let Praveena read this narrative up to the previous section and I submit her outburst as evidence of her surprise: “Oh! We were going to travel by First Class? You actually did it? You’re kidding me! First Class! Wow!” Precious moment, indeed. The wait was worth it. Mission accomplished! We have been able to enjoy the idea behind it, keeping in mind that it’s the thought that counts. Praveena is with me on my conspiracy theory too: “We were going to travel by First Class? I am sure that’s why this [pandemic] happened. Positive.”
Moreover, all our plans could be cancelled without financial loss. The whole affair turned out to be a NO that just means NOT NOW. The travails of today portend a better tomorrow. We’re thankful for that anticipation.
Most importantly, my wife and I are here together today and we were able to celebrate our 40th Anniversary. That’s priceless!