The west end of Market Street is where the street-front retail businesses finally run out.  Along the four lane street, now narrowed to only two, retail gives way to residence.

It is at this point of transition where four-story brick buildings fill city blocks on both sides of the street.  As a child, the only brick buildings in the neighborhood as large as these were schools, and so I believed them to be, until one day, riding in the back seat of the family car, I looked up into an upper story window to see a woman wearing a kitchen apron, helping a child stir a large spoon in a mixing bowl.  I think I asked my mother if they taught cooking at that school.  I was told they were apartment complexes, something my young mind had not yet encountered.

To the east of the apartments was the Sloop tavern, one of the last of the street-side businesses.  Despite the obvious reference to boating, the place attracted workers from the window factory on the waterside of Market, which contributed to its reputation.  Situated between the street and the railroad tracks that paralleled the shipbuilding shoreline, the blue corrugated metal buildings of the window factory employed scores of workers.  The din of metal being forced into specific shapes could be heard at all hours.  Three shifts of workmen wearing identification badges came and went; well-worn work clothes and boots, ubiquitous cigarettes, silver or black lunch buckets.

Between the apartments and the tavern was a simple, two-story, unadorned concrete building.  Two small loading dock doors hinted at its purpose.

My best friend worked there after school.  I had music lessons, swim lessons, a newspaper route.  But Ed had a job.  A real job.

Raw materials arrived on trucks, came in through the street level loading dock door.  Brown corrugated cartons with shipping labels left through the other.  What happened between the two doors was manufacturing, conversion of basic materials into finished products.

Hand-operated metal-working tools filled workbenches in the center of the main shop floor.  Around the perimeter concrete wall stood power stamping presses, 1-ton, 2-ton, 5-ton machines that caused the floor to tremble when the ram was tripped and sheet metal yielded to shapes defined by the stamping dies.  Metal shears, band saws, drill presses and spot welders.  In a small, walled-off area were an engine lathe and a Bridgeport milling machine.

I was used to working with hand tools in my father’s basement and garage.  But this; this was a new world, a chance to do real work, with real industrial tools and machinery, to turn steel into specific forms, welded together, assembled with electric motors, rotating shafts, bearings, painted and labeled, ready to fill customer orders.

For a young guy who did not yet perceive a wider world, who had not the capacity to foresee a direction for himself, it was an incubator, a step from the basement and garage, from using my fathers tools, to learning production techniques, tools and materials, learning to form, to weld, to paint, to assemble, to inspect.  It was a chance for a kid to work in a shop, alongside men who’d worked their entire lives, to be handed a paycheck every Friday evening, to stand in line at the bank, to leave the tellers cage with more money in my hand than I’d ever had at one time.

For several years, it was what I did.  When high school ended, I worked in a succession of shops.  I learned arc welding in the dimly lit, below-ground hell of a technical school, surrounded by men preparing for their certification tests, so they could get jobs at the factory where railroad boxcars were made.  I carried a union card as a production sheet metal worker, the youngest guy at a line of welding machines, making parts for prefab fireplaces.  I drove a forklift.  Loaded trucks.  Unloaded trucks.  Stocked shelves.  Pulled orders for parts.

Five years later, on the other side of the waterway from the window factory, another business was taking hold, what we might now call a technology start-up.  An engineer with a successful career at the university medical center made the decision to strike out on his own.  Apparatus created for scientists and research doctors formed his product line.

I was there looking for work.  Without an appointment, the shop floor supervisor spoke with me.  We talked about the work I’d done elsewhere, the machines I’d operated.  In the end, he had no job open that day.  “But there’s a new guy here, in the office at the end of the hall.  Why don’t you knock on his door?”

Dave was there, behind his desk and he too invited me in, without appointment.  As we spoke, he described what he’d been brought in to do.  Materials Management, he called it, a manufacturing discipline to integrate planning, acquisition and deployment of the parts, pieces and other goods needed to make products.  As he spoke of it in conceptual terms, he also painted a picture of how he saw it all working at that company, his objective for transforming the way manufacturing supply would be done.  His immediate need was for someone who would help transform the building across the street, just leased for expansion, to prepare the new space, build a new stockroom, move the inventory.  But more than that, someone to learn the principles of Materials Management, to calculate reorder point (ROP), reorder quantity (ROQ) economic order quantities (EOQ), to keep records using Kardex files, to estimate lead-times for the Purchasing Agent.  He’d teach me, he said.  He wanted to train someone from the ground up.

All I knew was I needed a job, so I agreed.

I received much more than a job.  I became Dave’s pupil and protege.  I took direction from Dave, worked at home in the evening from self-study courses in three-ring binders, turning my work in to Dave, subject to his critique and counsel, read text books by Oliver Wight and Joseph Orlikcy, author of Material Requirements Planning; The New Way of Life in Production and Inventory Management (1975).  Dave’s objective was to implement the newest computer-driven tool of the discipline, Material Requirements Planning (MRP).  But first, he needed the owner of the company to buy a computer.  In the mid-70s, that was still a huge undertaking for a small busness.  It would be a long wait.

After a few years under his guidance and mentorship, the day came when I was called to his office.  The company was enjoying success with its medical products.  Dave was about to open a new position in his small Materials Management department.  Would I be interested in leaving the stockroom and warehouse to moving into the office, to become a buyer, an assistant to the Purchasing Agent?  Uncharacteristically, and without anything like full understanding of what I was committing to, I said yes.

Words spoken in the moment can be of no apparent importance.  Intent, thought, purpose, meaning, action, consequence are often absent.  But in the rear view mirror, these may become visible, at length.  The events of a moment may then reveal something not apparent at the time, some meaning not foreseen, which eventuality may loom large in retrospect.

A second desk came from somewhere, moved into the office of the Purchasing Agent.  About the size of a folding card table, but a desk nonetheless.  Steve sat at his regulation-size desk, an arms length away.  I now had two mentors.  Dave had left the commercial aircraft company, sought out positions at small businesses with promise, allowing him to broaden his span of control in the science of supply management, to be a change agent.  He’d managed to lure Steve away from the jet factory as well.  Under their guidance, the focus of my day became the provisioning of nuts and bolts, belts, bearings, pulleys, sprockets, chain.  Mechanical stuff, things I understood.

My initial contact with the suppliers of these industrial goods was by phone.  Eventually, salesmen arrived in the lobby asking to meet with me.  Later still, I visited the suppliers businesses, to survey their premises, machinery, operations, to evaluate them and their people for possible business dealings.  I found myself in shops of all kinds, not as a workman, but as a customer, a representative of my employer.  I was charged with the responsibility for sourcing and acquiring goods and services.  I was still in my element, in places like those where I worked after school, not with a tool in my hand but with knowledge, and the ability to make informed decisions for the betterment of my organization.

Eliyahu M. Goldratt, in The Goal, says his book is “…about new global principles of manufacturing.  It’s about people trying to understand what makes their world tick so they can make it better.”

The main character of his story is Alex Rogo:

Going into a plant is like entering a place where satans and angels have married to make a kind of gray magic.  That’s what it always feels like to me.  All around are things that are mundane and miraculous.  I’ve always found manufacturing plants to be fascinating places – even on just a visual level.  But most people don’t see it the way I do.  

Past a double set of doors separating the office from the plant, the world changes. Overhead is a grid of lamps suspended from the roof trusses, and everything is cast in the warm, orange hues of sodium-iodine light.  There is a huge chain-link fence which has row after row of floor-to-roof racks loaded with bins and cartons filled with parts for everything we make.

Out on the floor, a reel of shiny steel slowly unrolls into a machine that every few seconds says ‘Ca-Chunk’.  Machines.  The plant is really just one vast room, acres of space filled with machines.  They are organized in blocks, the blocks separated by aisles.”

The Goal, A Process of Onging Improvement, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt
Copyright 1984 Eli Goldratt and Creative Output BV

The fictional Alex Rogo and I are alike.  And it’s true, most people don’t see it the way we do.

Every time I walk onto a shop floor, it’s like being home.  Irrespective of whatever is being made, even if it’s a plant I’ve never visited, it is familiar, comfortable, known.  Without having ever met them, I know these people.  We talk.  We examine engineering drawings.  We discuss design, manufacturability, tolerances, setup and change-over time, JIT, one-piece flow, quality standards, inspection criteria.

Over time, in other companies, I have managed requirements for steel, aluminum, machine parts, sheet metal assemblies, extrusions, castings, electrical apparatus, printed circuit boards, electronic components, entire turnkey subassemblies, capital equipment, professional services.  I have helped each business identify sources of outside services and supply, from service providers with capabilities, materials and expertise which our organization did not possess.  From Chester A. Karrass, I learned to negotiate.  From Lee West, I learned how design engineers think, how to evaluate the capabilities of equipment and the people charged with running them, to assess results.  From Phyllis Miller, I learned to understand and appreciate business law, to write effective statements of work, create and manage contracts, resolve quality and performance problems, the orderly methodology of maintaining, and occasionally terminating, a business relationship.

Collectively, design engineering, quality assurance, process management, continuous improvement, the reduction of needs to specifications and statements of work, expression of concepts and understanding in the binding written language of business law, supplier relationship management became the lingua franca and the milieu of my weekdays.

Every requirement in every business is an opportunity.  Goldratt describes the purpose of his book as his way “…to explain my understanding of manufacturing, how it works and why it works that way.”  To “…show how they can bring order to the chaos that so often exists…”  “We simply need to look at reality and think logically and precisely about what we see.”  “Progress in understanding requires that we challenge basic assumptions about how the world is and why it is that way.  If we can better understand our world and the principles that govern it, I suspect all our lives will be better.”

My years in supply management took me from manufacturing businesses to service business, eventually to a Fortune 500 financial services company.  I never fail to appreciate how much of the principles learned in manufacturing plants come to bear on business problems everywhere.

For forty-five years, in differing ways and places, I have plowed this furrow.  Somewhere in there, it became more than a way to make a living, more than a means to an end, more than an answer to the question “What do you do?”  Somewhere along the way, the means became an end unto itself, a practice, the apparatus of achieving not only results for the business but also for myself, compensation of a kind that has, very often, transcended salary.  The attendance of memory suggest there may have been a few moments which approached something like art.  (This may be a case of objects appearing larger in the rearview mirror, but I don’t think so.)

There are aspects of my work which I am able to do better now than I have at any time before.  Skills, techniques, tactics and strategies used in business dealings continue to be honed, refined, made better with use.  When called upon, the tools are there.  They fall readily to hand, experience and instinct collaborating with a practiced ease, the proper course of action in a given circumstance, recognized in real time, as the business problem unfolds.  It is a familiarity, a surety, of a kind I have known in no other part of my life.

* * *

It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new.  But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful.  There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.”
Alan Cohen

* * *

Everything changes.  Everything is already on its way to becoming something else.

Here in my seventh decade, I can still feel the attraction, the more-or-less automatic pull toward a business problem, the gravity which draws me toward the familiar urge to engage the task, to interview the stakeholders, to understand, to analyze, assess, consult, strategize, plan, assign, bring together people and resources to create solutions.

With each year, I also feel the growing presence of another force, insisting upon its place.  It is the awareness of change that accompanies the passage of time, the inevitable movement away from the familiar.  My work and my attention seem to be in the process of being overtaken by other considerations, other aspects of life, other needs.

Part of it is the sure and certain knowledge that I am nearer the end than the beginning.  Life is no longer a limitless horizon, too abstract and too distant to be understood.  Now, at this time, there are fewer doors left to be opened.  Several choices may yet be made, alternate experiences of the next phases of life.  As I approach each set of doorways, the quantity of succeeding doors will be fewer, options reduced.  Proclivity, intrigue and serendipity may play their part in selection of the first of these.  As I go on, which I must, health, mobility, cognition and capacity may limit others.  Fewer choices; resignation, diminishment, loss.

The reality of this progression heightens my awareness.  The purpose, the utility, the function of my continuing involvement in business comes into question.  The pull recedes.

What then?

I am aware of new forces.  The push away from the familiar seeks distance from the responsibility, obligation and commitment which has defined the middle part of life, the qualities which have provided wherewithal for living, which have given something like purpose, which have also given me the affinity, appreciation and gratitude for what I have learned and done.

Then there is the responsibility, obligation and commitment which have been called upon to provide for others.  No small matter, this.  I have been likened to a rock; stable, secure, grounded.  Or the tree branch to which the kite-string of another has been securely fastened; safe, dependable, an anchor to another soul, to keep them from uncontrollably flying away on uncertain winds.

I learned about duty from childhood.  It was a hard sell with me.  I was more than willing to attach myself to whatever pleased or interested me.  Something fundamental in me loved to read, loved the visualization which sprang forth magically from words on paper, but recoiled at numbers, computation, abstractions which were not only unnatural but downright unpleasant.    Parents, schools, adults of all stripes, told me there were aspects of life which must be done, without question, without exception, whether I felt like it or not.  A grudging acceptance of this somewhat Dickensian axiom was imposed.  School.  Work.  Service to family.  The word “should” was oft heard.  I never became entirely accepting of it, the bitter taste of it never sweetened, but I complied.  Inside, I held tight to my childlike preference for all that felt good, all that was easy, all that readily and instinctively connected with various parts of me.

I am aware of another new force which seeks reassignment of time, to reclaim hours devoted for so many years to the desk, the phone, meetings, one or a dozen current tasks at hand.  This force seems to want me to create space for… something else.   Vague, this one.  I am so far not aware of an exact form, cannot pin down specifics.  People ask, if not work, if not eight hours with shoulder to wheel, then what?  Only murky, half-recognizable responses come from such exchanges.

I am fairly sure I won’t be engaging in the study of Mandarin, a bicycle tour of Flanders, or admission to the university (as I once dreamt of doing in retirement).  Taking a second swing at playing music is something I already did, with disappointing results.  I feel no need to relive that particular humiliation.  I don’t play golf.  Never understood the appeal.  Buying a second motorcycle after not riding for forty years is simply out of the question.  I don’t see myself traveling.

The simple truth is I do not know.

But the direction, felt but not understood, seems real, even though the object, the subject, the noun has yet to present itself.  All I am able to summon forth so far is that the urging is palpable.  Perhaps if I make the time available, the specifics will come, of their own accord, in their own way and time.  It is as though I am called upon to create some space.  The filling may then arrive, possibly unbidden, maybe unexpected, perhaps as a complete surprise to me.  So be it.  I’m willing to rest within the uncertainty.  This business seems to demand equal measures of patience and faith.

Of the possible candidates, none is more well defined than joy, to experience joy in place of duty.  Whether I be rock or tree branch, there is a price to be paid for it.  Duty and service come, to some extent, at the expense of self, that part of the small boy I once was, who eagerly responded to whatever pleased and interested him, who sought to attach to the experiences or objects which readily found receptors in him.  This part of me is rusty from disuse.  Times when I have felt the youthful response to some impulse or other, the older, wiser man responds with a staid practicality, a predictable return to the set course.  Recognition of joy, let alone indulgence in it, has been unpracticed for a long stretch.

In my internal emotional dictionary, joy exists as something distinct from happiness.  Happiness seems to me to be about a reaction to something external, outside myself, the fleeting result of some stimulation or other.  The television commercials for the casinos show crowds of happy people, smiling, laughing, enjoying the food and the gaming, simply because they are there.  Likewise the cruise ship lines.  Disneyland.  Cause and effect.  Do this, buy this, and you too will be happy.

Joy seems more fundamental, something felt within, visceral, something of substance, put there by means which transcend a mere human experiential response provided by the worldly plane of existence.  There is something of it which is about an understanding of some kind, a resolve, settlement, sincerity, something involving the human spirit.  It is about the sum of living, all that has come into one lifetime, weighed, measured, valued, balanced and, at last, accepted, all of it, without preference or prejudice.  Acceptance. Equanimity.  Satisfaction.  Contentment.  Peace.

This intersection of Duty and Joy has not, so far, been without conflict.  How much duty is enough?  Is there some limit beyond which I will not go?  How much joy do I need for the return of that sense of wonder, the reflexive pursuit of my own interests?  Can duty and joy coexist?  Can there be balance?  And, if so, what might that look like?

Having reduced my job to half-time within the last month, I am aware of gifts, already come, gifts which have occurred during hours formerly taken up by full days of work.  My time at the desk isn’t the only thing that has been reduced by half.  So has the importance of work in my life.  Asked by a coworker, “Doesn’t it feel weird not to be here in the afternoons?”  No, not one bit.

So I wait.

I wait for more to be revealed, for an object, a subject, or a noun, or perhaps some insight or awareness, however small or fleeting.  I’ll settle for a hint at whatever may replace the role of work in my life, some sense of what may come, to actively cultivate a part of me within the spaciousness emerging from the end of the long ingrained pattern of weekdays.  Rather than specifics or outcomes, I shall rely on attention, awareness, attitude and acceptance.  I will strive to be open, willing and teachable.

* * *

This is a good time in my life. To say otherwise would be rank ingratitude. I’ve finally worked free of the agitation and misery of youth, which in my case extended well into middle age. I’ve learned better how to live, to do my part in maintaining my marriage, to master impulse and cultivate self-respect.”  “Whatever happens, I continue to have a future.
Emily Fox Gordon, At Sixty-Five, American Scholar, Summer 2013

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One Response to Work

  1. Jenifer Hunter says:

    Wow baby! Your words are so eloquent and silky smooth. They paint pictures in my head, which you know is not easy!

    Loved it!

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