A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Olde Curmudgeon -- Chapter 2

...continued from Chapter 1.

Chapter 2. Three Things

The sour-faced old man settled into the booth across the table from Jack Heller, and Jack wondered fleetingly if he had made a mistake by inviting him.  The fellow had a battered black notebook in which he jotted a few notes, slapped his pen down, and slammed the cover. "There!" he said with some satisfaction. "That will show the Manichees!"

Jack shook his head. "What?"

"Private joke.  Sorry."

"You said you knew why our meetings were so ineffectual.  You said I had to know three things.  I really only have to know one thing.  How to get corporate to approve our capital request to build a new storage tank."

The old man bobbed his head while Jack spoke, but ended by shaking it sideways.  "I thought you said you had a problem."

"That is my problem.  We need to build a new storage tank and corporate doesn't think we need one.  Like all rear echelon types."

"If you're standing in the middle of the street and a truck is coming straight at you, you don't have a problem.  You know what you have to do. Just Do It."


"Yeah, I know.  You're not really sure which way to jump.  Look, building a new tank isn't your problem.  It's your remedy.  Look, when you go to the doctor, you don't say, 'Doc, give me some streptomycin,' do you?"

"Well, no..."

"Because that's a remedy.  Do you say, 'Doc, I got some Mycobacterium tuberculosis running around in my bloodstream'?"

"How would I know which...?"

The Problem-Solving Triad
"Exactly.  But that's the cause that the solution is supposed to address.  No, when you go to the doctor, you say, 'Doc, I have a fever and a chronic cough that coughs up blood.'  You describe the symptoms and the doctor uses those symptoms to diagnose the cause and then based on the cause, he prescribes a remedy.  Symptom to cause to remedy.  That's the proper sequence if you want to solve a problem." 

"That seems pretty elementary."

"Yeah, makes me wonder why more people don't do it.  Tell me,  why do you need to build a new tank?"

Jack suppressed a flash of irritation. "Because the existing tank is too small."  He felt like adding d'uh? like the kids said nowadays, but kept things professional.  Maybe he had been rude talking so loud on his cell, but why add to it.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Wasn't that what they always said.  Of course, a Peacemaker was a style of Colt six-shooter, so who was to say? 

But the old man was shaking his head again.  "No, that's what you think is the cause.  What's the problem?  What's the itch that wants to get scratched?  Why do you think the existing tank is too small?"

Jack spread his hands, as if preaching the obvious to the ignorant.  "Because the tank gets full and we can't unload the tank cars waiting on the siding."  He added, "The tank cars are material shipments from our suppliers." 

"And this matters because....?"

"Because if we can't turn the tank cars around -- empty 'em and get them back to the railroad -- we have to pay demurrage to the damned railroad!"  Then he added, just in case his unwonted companion did not know, "Demurrage is like an overdue library book fine.  Not only that, but the materials are on our books, but we can't convert them into product yet because of the delay. Time is money."

The old man jabbed upward with his forefinger.  "That's a problem."

Jack smiled without humor.  "I'm glad you agree.  Okay.  Symptom, cause, remedy. Those are the three things I need to know?  And our meetings flounder around because...?"

"Because you and your staff hopscotch back and forth among them.  Why back in my day, sonny..."  The old man's voice trailed off and he looked thoughtful.  "Well, back in my day we were just as screwed up.  We just didn't have all these modern electronic conveniences, so we didn't screw up as fast as you kids do.  Tell you what, sonny.  At your next meeting, have someone unconnected with the issue make a complete transcription of who says what in strict sequence.  Then classify each comment as talk about symptoms, causes, or remedies.  You'll see it goes back and forth. If it's like most meetings, don't be surprised if some of it skews off onto completely different problems."

Jack grunted, recollecting that at this morning's meeting, talk about constructing the tank had segued for fifteen minutes into a discussion about union work rules. He pulled out his cell and activated it, ignoring the you-got-mail chime. The old man watched him thumb himself a memo.

"Sonny, if you need that gadget to remember three things, you got a bigger problem than meetings.  Our brains are wired to remember things in threes.  That's why fairy tales always have three tasks or three wishes.  That's why our telephone numbers come in three parts, each with three digits - or four," he added with a shrug. "A phone number is a lot easier to remember than a string of ten digits."

"Well, stranger..."  Jack scowled and held out his hand. "Jack Heller," he said.

The old man took the hand. "My friends call me Grumpy, like the dwarf."

Jack reflected that the fellow's friends knew him well. "Well, this may help with the meetings a little, but I don't know what it does for the problem.  It's a straight shot from 'No room in the tank' to 'We need to build a bigger tank.'"

"Is it?  Coughing up blood may mean tuberculosis, but it might also mean bronchitis, bronchiectasis, a pulmonary embolism, a pulmonary oedema, lung cancer, or cancer of the throat or windpipe.  Lot's of things can cause similar symptoms.  That's why you have to understand the problem first."

Jack's lunch had arrived, and the waitress set everything down in front of him.  He noticed that the iced tea had a lemon slice riding on the rim of the glass.  Wonderful.  He plucked it off and set it aside.  Grumpy asked for a refill on his coffee, and Jack told the waitress -- Betty, he remembered -- to put Grumpy's bill on his tab.  Grumpy saluted him with his coffee cup.

"So, I have to understand the problem first," said Jack.

"Right," said Grumpy.  "There are three things you need to know."

To be continued.....


  1. I can remember three things at a time but when, " you're your shoes" is one and, " zip your fly" is another there isn't Nick room for anything else especially when extraneous thoughts ruin squirrel-like through my brain disrupting everything.

  2. Darn phone. . . " tie your shoes" , and other typo s

  3. Meshes nicely with the old one about "walking a mile in the other man's shoes"!

    1. Never judge a man till you've walked a mile in his shoes. Because then you're a mile away from him. And you've got his shoes.

    2. Always one of my favorites words of wisdom.

  4. Bravo on the ‘private joke’! Now tell me, for I yearn to know: Did Jack really call the old man a dumb ox out loud, or did he just think it so hard that I thought I saw it on the page?


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