Thursday, March 15, 2018

Press Hard

It's interesting how things come and go. The compact disc was released in 1982, and sales of the medium peaked in 1999. Yet here we are, only 36 years since its debut, and the compact disc is very quickly becoming a thing of the past. A recent article from Digital Trends indicates that Best Buy will stop selling CD's on July 1 of this year, and other major retailers are rumored to be considering a consignment model for selling discs. Truly, nothing lasts forever, and even though I was aware of that maxim at the time, I still took a job as data processing manager for a carbon paper company in 1980.

My employer, American Tara Corporation, was at that time one of the nation's largest producers of carbon paper. Headquartered in Chicago, and with branch offices in Atlanta, Boston, and Los Angeles, their annual sales volume peaked at about $50 million in the early 1980's. To understand the importance of carbon paper at the time, you have to know a little bit about the product itself.

To anyone born before 1980, carbon paper is something of a mystery. Everyone has heard the term "carbon copy," but many people may not know how that term originated. Carbon paper consisted of rolls of very thin tissue paper, coated with a wax-like ink, usually in either black, brown or red. The rolls were cut into document-sized sheets, and these sheets were used to make copies of handwritten or typed documents. The way it worked was that you would put a sheet of carbon paper behind your original document and on top of the second page, then another sheet between each layer below that. Often, there would be printed instructions on the top document which said, "Press Hard -- You are making xxx copies," where "xxx" ranged anywhere from one to about six. The mechanical nature of it sounds primitive by today's standards, but at the time it was, just like having no air conditioning, all we knew.

Offices used reams of carbon paper, because sheets did not last for more than one or two uses, after which most of the ink would be transferred to the copies. And "carbon copies" were a necessity as proof that the original had not been tampered with after the copy had been made, since any extraneous notations after that time would stand out like a sore thumb. Given its pervasiveness in the workplace, carbon paper held on for many years, until it was upstaged by carbonless paper and Xerox machines. One very specific niche market for carbon paper was for airline tickets -- years after the working world had adopted photocopying as the norm for document duplication, airlines continued to use red carbon in their tickets. In this application, there were no separate carbon sheets; rather, the top copy of the ticket would be coated on the back with a layer of red ink, and since all the ticketing machines in use at the time were impact printers, characters would be transferred through to the back copy. When airlines finally moved to computer printed boarding passes, it was evident that the days of carbon paper had come to an end.

American Tara was a well-managed, profitable company, and it treated employees fairly, regardless of their positions or levels within the organization. I recall being asked by my boss, the corporate controller, only a week into the job to make an emergency trip to L.A. one afternoon. He paid for a first-class ticket for me and put me up in a fancy Marriott. There were no per diems, so dining could be fairly open-ended as well, although we were careful not to go out on a limb in that regard -- we did work for accountants, after all. For me, travel was frequent, but since I was visiting the same offices over and over, I began to make friends all across the country. The work was demanding: I handled programming, support, maintenance contracts, and budgeting, but I didn't mind, because the experience was so educational. On one occasion, I even spent a week wiring a recently remodeled, high-ceilinged office with data cable, climbing on Jack-and-the-Beanstalk height ladders and soldering each individual connection, of which there were many.

Adjacent to each of Tara's administrative offices, where people in roles like mine worked, was a physical carbon paper plant. My boss told me during my first week that there was no point wearing my best clothes, since I would likely get ink stains on them, not to mention that the pervasive smell of hot ink would permeate every thread. (I stuck mostly to sport coats and dark suits.) Because of the nature of the business, our plants weren't located in ritzy areas, but the Chicago plant stood alone in this regard.

We were located on West Lake Street in Chicago, about a dozen blocks west of the Loop, in an industrial area that had seen better days. Down the street were a handful of cafes, a loan company, and a bookie joint. (The bookie joint didn't have a sign over its entrance, but my compadres told me what it was.) Prostitutes periodically roamed the streets, with the most common invitation being, "Honey, do you want a date?" One snowy, slushy winter evening, I was very late leaving the office after working on a payroll system upgrade and took a side street to save some time getting over to the Kennedy Expressway. I stopped at a stop sign, and suddenly, out of nowhere, four or five hookers converged on my old Chevy Nova, some lying on the hood of the car. I was startled and to be honest, somewhat terrified, but I motioned to them to move away, which they did in a singular collective water-parting motion. I drove very slowly past.

Located in South Central L.A., our West Coast office presented its own unique challenges. Our management recommended that we leave early, so every afternoon at 4:45 PM sharp, office operations would cease, and the employees would move equipment such as adding machines, check writers, and calculators into a walk-in safe. The computer system was rack-mounted, and it was located in its own locked room, so it was presumed to be secure. Nevertheless, one evening, plant employees in the adjacent building watched two men roll the computer cabinet out of the office and down Beach Street in a vain attempt to steal it. The two thieves were spotted by plant employees, and they fled immediately. After that, I took the 4:45 PM closing time even more seriously.

The L.A. plant manager was a man named Bob Judy. He was a former Marine who, despite a sometimes rough and ready attitude, was a consummate gentleman and something of a big kid. Bob and his wife lived in a beautiful home in Whittier, California, just outside the city. I was born in Whittier, and when I told him this, Bob and I became fast friends. I spent several evenings with Bob, his wife, and others at their home, drinking wine, playing the piano, and soaking in their giant hot tub beneath the stars. Bob was a personal friend of Robert Mondavi, and he received regular shipments of 375 milliliter wine bottles, delivered to the office directly off the Mondavi truck. He and his wife maintained a small cellar beneath their kitchen. Being the consummate entertainer, Bob also kept an inventory of disposable plastic-paper swim trunks that he would offer to guests when it was hot tub time. There was nothing not to like about Bob's house.

Even with the challenges of the each of the respective factory neighborhoods, we had some fun days. At the L.A. office, a food truck would appear every morning about 9:30 and announce itself over the intercom as "Lunch-er-o!" I would stroll out to the parking lot and catch up with the factory guys while we feasted on high-carbohydrate snacks. Unlike the L.A. operation, Tara's Boston office was located in a quiet, suburban neighborhood, but once the employees found out that I was married to a native Bostonian, I immediately became family and was treated to many lively New England breakfasts and lunches. Funny things happened at that office.

Our Boston office manager was a charming lady in her sixties named Miriam, who kept absolutely everything humming. Whenever she would call with a computer problem, I knew it was real. She was adept at handling her own issues, but one morning she called me at my office in Chicago, and before I could even answer, I heard her laughing hysterically. Every morning, Miriam's first order of business was to boot the computer from a Teletype console. (Teletype machines were high-impact printers with attached keyboards and paper tape readers.) When our computer systems booted, the operators were typically presented with a message which read "PLEASE WAIT...", but that morning, Miriam was treated to an Easter egg.

When Miriam finally stopped laughing, she said, and I am rendering her thick regional accent the best I can through written words, "Rich! You'll nev-ah believe what the compu-tah said this mah-ning. When I booted it up, instead of saying 'PLEASE WAIT,' it said 'PIS-SAH!" When I repeated what I thought I'd just heard, she confirmed that the computer had indeed issued a scatological message. We never again saw that exhortation from any of our systems, but you had to think that someone at Data General (the computer manufacturer) was laughing his or her head off. That computer eventually booted up, by the way.

On another occasion, I received a call from Teresa, who was the data processing manager in our Boston office. When I answered, she exclaimed in an agitated voice, "Rich! The compu-tah is on fi-ah!" When I asked for details, Teresa told me that the entire 12 x 12 room was filled with smoke. I called our Boston service representative, and when he checked out the system, he found that a light panel on the front of the computer chassis had shorted out, sparking a small internal fire which burned its way through a circuit board. I have worked for years since in the computer industry, and not since that day have I seen a computer catch on fire.

In 1982, the owner of the company began to turn over control to his son, who lived in Atlanta and worked in the office there, so several of us were offered an opportunity to transfer south. I had worked with the Atlanta crew for several years and already had some friends there, so after an evaluation trip and some soul-searching, we decided to move. Our last winter in Chicago, American Tara hosted a Christmas party at the legendary Como Inn in Chicago, which in its 57-year history had been host to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Perry Como. We had a wonderful dinner, followed by jazz and dancing. Late in the evening, the band played "Georgia on My Mind" for all of us who would be moving to Atlanta the following summer. That's an emotional moment that I will always remember.

The American Tara operation in Atlanta was not quite the same as in Chicago, but there were some glory days. We bought a house in suburban Roswell (as far out as our realtor wanted to take us, but now relatively close to the city). In 1985, our first daughter was born, and soon thereafter, I left American Tara to explore greener pastures. Several of the Tara employees are Facebook friends, and there are several others whom I see from time to time.

There are places and times you never forget, and for me, my days at American Tara were among the most memorable. I learned from my time there that you don't have to be in a leading edge company to learn. In fact, my times at Tara offered more broad-based experiences than I've seen since, and I've worked in companies far larger and more "modern." But in a small company, you learn about people. You see good and bad, up close and personal. For its part, American Tara was in many ways a compassionate company which truly understood its people. I'd like to leave you with a story about that compassion.

The founder of American Tara was a man named A.M. Bridell. He had started the company himself, and he ran a tight ship, but he was fiercely protective of his employees. During the early days of the company, in the 1940's, he employed a number of young Japanese men, and several of them were still working at Tara when I started there in 1980. One day, I was talking to Mak Kawano, who was one of our chemical engineers. Mak was constantly monitoring and studying ink formulas, which were, of course, the core of our business. As we concluded a meeting one afternoon, Mak said to me, "You know, Rich, I owe A.M. Bridell my life." When I asked him to explain, he told me why.

According to Mak, A.M. had stood between his Japanese employees and agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who had come to take the workers away, presumably to internment camps. Mak said that at one point, A.M. looked the INS officers in the eye and said sharply, "You're not taking MY MEN." That was the end of the story: the officers left the premises, and A.M. assured them that they had nothing to fear. Consequently, Mak and many of the other men worked at Tara until they retired.

Mak passed away several years ago at the age of 90. Had I not heard his story, I would never have known the things he'd lived through, because he was the personification of a peaceful man. I like to think that Mak left the world knowing the spirit of goodness that he saw exemplified by American Tara, the same place where I learned that you don't have to be a giant to make a difference.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Put Another Dime in the Magnavox

Today at lunch, I stopped by McDonald's, and as I walked in, pianist Floyd Cramer's rendition of "Green Green Grass of Home" was playing. I thought immediately of my dad, because Floyd Cramer, of whom many people these days have probably never heard, was one of his favorite artists.

Although not a musician himself, my dad had a fairly broad interest in music (guess where I got that from). He listened often to the likes of Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Glen Campbell, John Hartford, and Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass. He took such an interest in Davis that he decided to make a major upgrade to our house in 1969 by purchasing a Magnavox console stereo. It wasn't a room-filling, Cadillac-length model, because we didn't have that much room, but boy-hidee, did it ever sound fine. The day it was delivered, my dad played his favorite albums, one after another. That was a landmark day on Chatwood Street.

My mom had played piano since I could remember, and she, too, was a music lover. Her interests were a bit more tame: Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy's rendition of "Indian Love Call", anything by Lawrence Welk or 101 Strings, and all the old Irving Berlin favorites. But when it came to stretching musically, my dad was in a league all by himself. He would be listening to Eddy Arnold one day, Booker T and the MG's the next, and Elvis as time was fabulous.

Growing up, I didn't learn much about sports, because even though my dad watched football, baseball, basketball, and anything else involving a ball, he wasn't much on imparting his sports knowledge, so my education is that area was (and is) still somewhat lacking. But when it came to music, he would not hesitate to play it, talk about it, and best of all, get us concert tickets. We saw so many people: the Memphis Symphony was always hosting a guest musician, and we attended those concerts about once a year. Our annual Mid-South Fair featured a rodeo, and at the "halftime" of the rodeos, popular entertainers would be featured. (One year, I actually saw the Three Stooges, with Moe, Shemp and Curly's replacement.) In 1968, we saw Johnny Cash at the rodeo. I still remember that as we were driving away from the Mid-South Coliseum after The Man in Black's show, we passed his limo and saw him sitting in the back seat, wearing sunglasses and looking out the window. He was a character of unparalleled dimensions.

One night in the early Sixties, my dad had a treat for us. He showed up at the house after work with a bag of Krystal hamburgers, and since they'd gotten a little chilled in transit, we reheated them in our oven. We finished up dinner quickly that night because he was taking us downtown to the Ellis Auditorium to see Louis Armstrong, the legend, the real Satchmo. I was only about seven years old, but I was so excited that I could barely control myself. We had great seats, and I'll never forget the way Satchmo took the stage, pulled out that white handkerchief, raised that gleaming trumpet, and started making magic.

I recall only one time that my dad did not enjoy music. One night in the early 70's, I was listening to Chicago's second album on the Magnavox. In those days, Chicago was one of the most popular bands in America, and their music was all over the radio. We had brought my mom home from the hospital only a day or two before -- she had been there for over a week -- and my dad and I had a quiet dinner. Afterward, he went to check on my mom, and I put on some Chicago, at what I thought was a reasonably low volume. A few minutes later he emerged from the bedroom and asked me to turn down the music. I did not hesitate to comply, of course, but I remember that he said, "Son, your mom is trying to rest. Do you want her to get well?" I didn't play any more music for a few days, until I saw her spirits rise. It was a moment that stuck with me, because my dad was a gentle man, and he didn't often get irritated. I figured he knew the situation better than I did.

One day in the late 1960's, while we were on a trip to Nashville, my dad took us to the newly opened Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. This was nirvana for him, and he had a running commentary while we were there. Since Memphis was home to rockabilly, blues and soul, we actually had to make the four-hour drive to Nashville for true country immersion. Whenever I'm back in Nashville, I think of that trip and his stories of going to the Grand Ole Opry at the original Ryman Auditorium, where he would listen to the legendary Roy Acuff singing "The Great Speckled Bird." It was, in my mother's opinion, one of the worst songs ever written. For that reason, my dad would bring it up over and over, and my mom would just roll her eyes and move on.

Even though it might have taken me until the age of 32 to really understand what a first down in football was, I appreciated a wide variety of music. Just like with people in general, my dad taught me that there were talents everywhere and that everyone, regardless of heritage, background, or belief, had something to contribute to the whole. He would be so proud of my daughters today: Sarah and Hannah both recommend music to me on a regular basis, and it runs the entire gamut of recorded sound. I am so grateful for that, and now that music streaming services exist, I don't have to wait to get to a music store to hear their recommendations -- I can simply enter the names in a search box, and off we go. My personal music library is constantly being enriched because of their contributions.

So there you have it: that's why I still fall asleep during "important" football games but somehow knew about Tuvan throat singing well before 1990. Put another dime in the jukebox, life big.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Change Is Good

I wish I could count how many times I've heard that expression. In the working world, it's often used in the aftermath of some unpleasant occurrence, in which it serves to appease those who may have some lingering uncertainty about the decisions that have been made. "The whole organization one level up from me may be gone, but I guess change is good." I suppose that, in that context, it serves a useful purpose. But one morning last summer, I experienced change on a whole new level.

On January 31, 2017, as part of an optional voluntary retirement program, I left a job which I had held for over 21 years. That's a long time in any position, but for me, there was no question that it was a good move. I had weathered countless reorganizations and changes in corporate direction, many with more than a little drama, and those facts, coupled with the financial uncertainty that the company was facing, convinced me that it was simply time to do something else. I had a wonderful retirement party -- people said the nicest things, and as I left the building that sunny Tuesday afternoon, I snapped a picture looking back toward the entrance and promptly made it my Facebook cover photo.

In those first few weeks away from my job, I found myself having to acclimate to such things as quiet grocery stores, an absence of scheduled meetings, and a noticeable lack of traffic (with seemingly lost drivers). In March, I accompanied my younger daughter Hannah to Washington, D.C., on a job interview trip, and when she was offered the position several weeks later, I helped her move from North Carolina to an art deco apartment in the nation's capital. I felt happy that I had the luxury of time to be part of that experience. She got settled in nicely to her new neighborhood, and along the way, we made some great memories.

Back home, the days were getting warmer. On a Monday morning in June, I headed over to my favorite local coffee shop to browse LinkedIn and Glassdoor in search of another IT position. I was somewhat distracted by a local film crew that was interviewing people to get their views on a hotly contested local election, but after finishing a delicious chocolate muffin and a large Americano, I headed home.

It had been some time since I'd caught up with Words With Friends, so I pulled out my iPhone, and that's when I noticed it -- an object that looked like a tree branch had appeared suddenly in my left eye. I called to my wife Karen, who was upstairs, and told her that something had happened and that I needed to get to my eye doctor. In a strange twist of fate, Karen was home at the time, having been laid off from her job some two months earlier. We got in the car and headed to the optometrist's office.

My eye doctor examined my eye and told me that I had a vitreous detachment, a condition which is not unusual for people my age, and that I should watch it carefully for the next few days to make sure that it did not damage my retina. Quick physiology lesson: the vitreous humor, or simply vitreous, is a gel-like substance which fills the eye. The retina can be thought of like wallpaper that covers the back of the eye and contains receptors for color and black-and-white vision. In the case of vitreous detachment, the vitreous substance shrinks; normally, this is not an issue, but in some cases, the vitreous takes the retina along with it. If left untreated, this condition leads to blindness in the eye. At that initial visit, my eye doctor wanted to make sure that this was not happening.

The next morning, Tuesday, my vision was much worse. Now, in addition to the "tree branch," my eye appeared to be filled with murky water. Also, and this was downright disturbing, I was starting to see a black bubble appearing in the bottom of my field of vision. We returned to the eye doctor, and I was told to head immediately to a retinal surgeon on the other side of Atlanta.

The story gets rather complicated from here, but to summarize, I was indeed experiencing a retinal detachment, and owing to the speed with which it was progressing, I required surgery on Thursday. I could go into detail, but suffice to say that this is a type of surgery which cannot be performed with lasers -- manual intervention is required. The surgery went smoothly, but afterward, my vision was extremely blurry in my left eye. It gradually improved, and after a time, I was able to function fairly normally, although with lingering blurred vision in the left eye. In early September, I had more surgery, this time to remove a cataract which had formed in the eye and to replace the lens with an intraocular implant. For a few weeks, everything was getting back to my new sense of "normal."

On the morning of Halloween, I noticed flashes in my right eye's field of vision. Knowing that this was a potential indicator of vitreous and/or retinal detachment, I returned to my retinal surgeon. He indicated that the retina appeared to be trying to detach, but that he would attempt a laser treatment to secure it into place. He zapped my right eye with unbelievably bright green laser beams, and I was told to rest for another week or so. Unfortunately, only four days later, on a Saturday evening, I began to see a telltale black bubble in the eye. I knew what was coming.

The following Monday morning, I returned to my retinal surgeon, and he confirmed that the right eye's retina was indeed detaching like the left eye had done, at a very rapid pace, which necessitated emergency surgery. That evening, I had surgery on my right eye. But this time, my vision was more sharply affected; for about a week following the surgery, I was unable to read text of any type or size. Karen helped me by reading my email, text messages, and Facebook posts. I would dictate replies, and she would send or post them. For all that week, I have to admit that I felt helpless. Objects were just a blur, the problem being that the first (left) eye had sustained permanent macular damage when its retina detached, rendering me unable to read text in the center of my field of vision. Now, the right eye, although repaired to the extent possible, was also a mess.

The recovery for the right eye took about six to seven weeks. During the surgery, a "buckle" had been secured around my right eye to keep the retina in place, resulting in extreme nearsightedness in that eye. I was prescribed contacts to help in the interim and was told that I would need cataract removal and lens implant surgery in the right eye. (I will actually be starting that process in the next several weeks and hopefully will be able, at the end of that time, to see more clearly.)

But enough of the physical details. What I really want to communicate here is how all this has affected me.

When I experienced the "tree branch" effect that Monday morning, I had literally been minding my own business. I was hanging out at a coffee shop, looking for a new job, and generally doing the things that ordinary people do. When the eye problems led to surgery, I became a person at the mercy of others to a degree -- I could not read clearly, I could not drive myself anywhere, and even my favorite pastime, exercise walking, became something of a challenge. In time, I was able to read and work for short periods on a computer screen, and within the last couple of months, I have started driving again, but only to familiar places and in agreeable weather. I'm dealing with it, and in fact, the whole experience has given me fresh insights.

I don't see things quite the way I did before. When you experience something like loss of vision or, to a more serious degree, a debilitating or life-threatening illness, you start to be very grateful for what you have. Little things, and to paraphrase a popular bestseller, they're all little things, just don't bother me the way they used to. I don't complain as much, because I don't see much to complain about -- I'm just glad to be able to see anything at all. I realize that there are many people who are not as lucky as I am, and to say my heart goes out to them would be a vast understatement.

As many of you know, I have always been a rather social person, some would say an extrovert, so I did not know how I was going to deal with a) being away from a work environment, and b) being by myself. Fortunately, on both counts, I seem to have adjusted. I miss my friends from work, but I see some of them on a regular basis, so I stay up to date on what's happening in my old corporate world. And as for the being alone part, I've learned to value peace and quiet. Some days, I utter no words other than asking the dogs if they want to go outside. This is a complete one-eighty from my old persona. Many of you might be surprised (and amused) to know how quiet I actually can be.

We recently were blessed with the birth of our first grandchild, a sweet boy named Brooks Macalister. His parents, our daughter Sarah and son-in-law Tom, are taking to parenthood as if they'd written the book. When I look into Brooks' bright, inquisitive eyes, I see all that is ahead for him, all the experiences, the successes, and the challenges. I want very much to get past my current infirmity so that we can explore the world together, and I know that's just a matter of time.

My wife Karen has been so incredibly supportive of me, listening to my eye stories, helping me read and navigate, and just generally being there. Our daughters and son-in-law are making their respective ways in the world, and I am quite proud of them all. My friends have gone above and beyond to communicate their care and concern. And this is what it's all about. I can forego the pace of my "old" life if this is what I get in return.

Each day that I can look out and quite literally see the world, rain or shine, is a gift. Maybe in my previous life, I took some of those days for granted, but that is no longer the case. Live it, everyone, because nothing is really guaranteed. Treasure the things you see and the days of your life, regardless of what happens, because after all, change is good.