Monday, June 28, 2021

HAZOP Blues III: The Final Insult


In two recent from-the-archives posts (here and here) I described my old job, decades ago, scribing HAZOPs for a consulting firm. While discussing those posts with an avid albertnet reader, I happened to tell the rest of the story: how I came to my senses and bailed on that job, going out in a blaze of … well, if not glory, at least a fireball.

As I recounted all this I realized the story of my departure made a pretty good yarn. Thus, I’m providing here the world premier of the rest of the story. (What follows is as true as memory permits.)

HAZOP Blues III: The Final Insult –December 1995

Eventually it dawned on me that my job wasn’t going to get any better. I was never going to finish a workday at a reasonable hour; our reports, comprising reams of paper in giant binders, were always going to be FedEx’d at the last minute, and I was always going to be sprinting down the sidewalk to the FedEx office mere minutes before they closed. We were always going to be facing a workforce shortage, and the entire staff would always be disgruntled. The cush local contracts were always going to be snapped up by a competitor or done in-house (in fact, we’d just bid on a job in Korea that, if we won it, would have me living in a hotel for several months). And perhaps worst of all, none of this would ever end, no matter how dicey things got, because petroleum companies have deep pockets, lots of things to HAZOP, and seemingly infinite patience for flaky consulting firms that overrun their budgets. It was time for me to look for a new job.

Actually, I’d already started looking, months before; the recruitment process (at the firm that still employs me) took over six months. This was awkward because my employer had switched to a business casual dress code but I needed to continually slip out at lunch for interviews, in a shirt and tie of course. I solved the problem by simply continuing to wear a suit, every day, while the rest of the staff wore khakis and polo shirts. When questioned by my incredulous colleagues, I replied, “I just think a suit is more professional.” To my great surprise, one of the engineers followed suit (no pun intended). This all worked out fine until I had an interview on a Friday, as I’d always observed my company’s “casual Friday” policy. I solved that one by packing casual clothes in my bag, changing into them in the bathroom after the interview, and dropping the suit off at the dry cleaners on my way back to the office. BAM!

Finally, the recruitment process (which included, bizarrely enough, a Computer Programming Aptitude Battery Test), finally completed and I was offered the new job, at an up-and-coming company that all the cool kids wanted to work for. Oddly enough, the very same day I received the offer letter, a colleague of mine (the receptionist) walked into my office, asked if I had a minute, closed the door behind her, and asked, “Do you have low self-esteem or something?!”

Bemused, I stammered, “Why would you think that?” She replied, “Because you’re still here! What the hell! You appear to have a pulse … why would you continue to put up with all the bullshit they pile on you?” I grinned and said, “Well, believe it or not, I have just received an offer at another company, after months of interviewing, and I’m outta here!”

“Thank God,” she said, clearly relieved. Now the only chore remaining for me (besides my regular workload, of course) was giving notice to the boss.

This would be difficult. For one thing, my boss was always on the road and barely ever had time to talk, so this would happen over the phone at his earliest convenience. Plus, he was the kind of guy who views everything that ever happens in the entire world as a series of win/lose propositions, and he couldn’t stand losing. Thus, I know he’d try to talk me out of leaving, even though I’d already accepted the new position. Fortunately, this would be our last real dialogue. History had shown that once an employee gave notice, the boss would basically never talk to that traitor again. The grudge was swiftly formed and never relaxed.

After trading countless voicemails over a day or two, my boss, D—, finally called with time to talk. This was at about 5 p.m. my time; he was a couple time zones ahead on a HAZOP trip with one of our senior engineers, C—. Now, I need to pause for a moment to describe C—. He was a brusque, stuffy Englishman with little patience for incompetence … and this was a trait he ascribed to almost everybody. My own start with him had been rocky, as he’d had to interview me (along with the rest of the staff) before I was hired. I’d been coached by my wife on how to interview: at the end, you should ask the interviewer point-blank if he or she has any misgivings about hiring you, so you have the chance to address them. When I put this question to C—, he retorted sharply, “Well I can’t see that you have any experience or qualifications of any kind!” Over the time I worked with him, though, I managed to win him over. In fact, he became something of an ally: since he considered so few people competent, he valued those who passed muster.

Sure enough, when I gave notice, D— put up a big fight rather than simply accepting my resignation and wishing me well. “How can you leave?” he demanded. “I just gave you a ten percent raise!” This was true enough; since my interviews had been going well and I didn’t want to blindside my boss with my inevitable departure, I’d trotted out a laundry list of grievances during my last review, and he evidently felt desperate enough to keep me that he got pretty generous with the salary. (This was a lot easier than resolving my grievances, after all.) But money isn’t everything; I told D— now that my decision had to do with overall career prospects. “How can you say that when the sky is the limit here!” he cried. I mentioned my lack of an engineering credential and he boomed, “Just look at J—! Last week she was a junior engineer … now she’s Director of Software!” This didn’t make any sense in this context, because she did have an engineering degree. And “Director of Software” simply meant managing our HAZOP software vendor, which a rhesus monkey could have done.

We went around and around for something like 45 minutes, by which time I had ceased to bother explaining myself and simply restated, again and again, that I’d already made up my mind. Finally the dreaded call ended.

A couple days later, D— and C— returned to the office, their HAZOP over. D—, looking in at me, stood there in the doorway for at least ten seconds, clenching and unclenching his jaw, like he was trying to decide whether to even say hi. Finally he walked up and said, “I just gotta tell you something. When C— got the news you were leaving, he was—he was devastated. I’ve never seen anything like it. He was so upset, he had to leave the room.” I was, needless to say, totally taken aback. I mean, this was a company that simply couldn’t keep people. It seemed like every week someone left, and some new guy started, like a revolving door. Could C— really have been that surprised? And to be that upset didn’t make much sense anyway … it wasn’t like I was the backbone of the operation or anything (though I’m sure I had the fastest time of anyone on the run to FedEx). I didn’t know what to say, and D— left my office without another word.

I futzed around at my desk for a while and then C— came in. He said, in his starchy British accent, “I just want to say thank you.” I assumed he meant for all my hard work over the last couple years, but I wasn’t sure and didn’t want to assume. “Um … for what?” I asked. He replied, “For a really great evening. You see, when you gave notice, D— and I were at a restaurant, about to have dinner. We ordered a nice bottle of wine and a bunch of appetizers and then he stepped away to call you. Well, he was gone a good while and in the meantime the wine and appetizers arrived. I didn’t feel like waiting so I just tucked right in. I ate one appetizer, then another, had a glass of wine and then another, and still D— didn’t come back, so I just kept going, and before you know it, I’d eaten all the appetizers and drunk all the wine! Still D— didn’t come back, and after all that wine I had to piss like a racehorse! I couldn’t leave the table, though, because the waitress would think we’d skipped out on her. Finally D— came back and gave the bad news, but I couldn’t sit around and listen—I had to run to the bathroom! I barely made it in time! But other than that, it was great … all those appetizers and all that wine, all to myself, and I didn’t have to make conversation or anything. So anyway, I just wanted to thank you for a wonderful evening.” With that, he turned and strode out of my office. Ah, I thought. All is explained.


In those days, when you gave two weeks’ notice you actually did work for two more weeks, rather than being immediately escorted from the office by a security guard. Thus, I had a chance to help recruit and train my replacement. He seemed like a good guy and in fact held a law degree. He seemed to hit it off just fine with most of the office, though one colleague said, “Wait, that’s the new technical assistant? He doesn’t look anything like Dana!”

During my final two weeks I continued to wear a suit and tie, because I didn’t want D— to realize just how long I’d been interviewing (i.e., deviously planning my departure). The new guy wore a suit too, which I chalked up to his being new and wanting to make a good impression. But months later, I came back to the office to visit (and to buy one of their old computers), and this guy was still wearing a suit, despite the whole rest of the office being dressed business casual. I asked him why, and—looking confused—he said, “I just think it’s more professional. In fact … didn’t I get that from you?

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Sunday, June 20, 2021

Father’s Day Focus - Are Parents Interchangeable?


It has become traditional, or more to the point inevitable, that on Father’s Day I reflect on my role as a parent. This year I was also plunged into reflection by a Culture Desk essay I read in the paper titled “Celebrating mothers who taught me how to father.” I’ve blogged before about whether fathers are necessary and what fathers are for and realized I’m not done grappling with these questions. In planning this post I reached out to my brothers, my wife, and my kids, and their feedback is incorporated in what follows.

(Above: the card one of my kids made me this year.)

The Chronicle essay

The essay in the San Francisco Chronicle is by Kevin Fisher-Paulson and describes how he learned how to be a father from three friends who are single mothers. These women, he asserts, have to be “mom, dad, coach, buddy, the works” and are thus in a great position to share their wisdom. I like the article but it left me a bit confused, because Fisher-Paulson is gay, thus his kids have two dads … so don’t they have to fill the role of mom, too? Aren’t he and his husband really learning how to father and mother from these women?

I was also a bit puzzled by Fisher-Paulson’s fairly traditional sense of what makes a father, given how nontraditional his family is. He cites a number of fathering skills the women taught their sons: barbecue, lacrosse, screen defense, how to install an outside heater. He concludes, “Some days I worry that I will not have taught my own sons how to be a father, that my boys will grow up without knowing how to change the furnace filter” but that “Deirdre, Jill and Sarah taught me that a son does not need instruction as much as he needs support.”

I came away with more questions unresolved than answered. The essay challenges—but also reiterates and thus runs the risk of reinforcing—stereotypes about which parent does what. (I don’t mean this as a criticism: challenging the reader without resolving everything is often what a good essay does.) So I’ve been pondering the matter of whether there is any consistent, demonstrable difference between the nurturing and other resources bestowed on a child by a father vs. a mother. Are parental roles interchangeable? Does the average kid get A, B, and C from Mom and X, Y, and Z from Dad, or is it totally mix and match?

Some obvious parental differences

Clearly there are fundamental biological differences I won’t ignore. To newborn babies, fathers fall into a large category (comprising about 7 billion people) of “not Mom,” meaning they’re not just useless, but in fact barely exist. My brother Bryan echoes this, describing how his wife “certainly had the upper hand initially,” as “it would be many months before the child even realized who I was and that I had anything to do with her at all, while she knew right off the bat where her milk came from.”

I don’t think this is a huge deal, though, in terms of the overall relationship between parents and kids. After all, the breast feeding generally happens before the child is capable of forming long-term memories. And while breast feeding is important, it’s not the be-all, end-all.

There are of course more minor differences. Moms are certainly more valuable in the realm of purses. As a single man, one of the things I looked to marriage for was to have access to my wife’s purse—not to put a lot of stuff in or anything, but because when I need, say, chapstick or a toothpick, there’s a chance it’ll be in there. Kids benefit from this too and in fact it’s far more likely they’ll want something—gum, loose change, cosmetics, a hairbrush—that’s in there. For all the societal changes we’ve seen, it’s almost unheard of for a man to carry a purse.

Many men, meanwhile, still know how to tie a necktie. I taught my younger daughter, in fact, when she needed a necktie for a costume. And men are still on the hook for doing the household jobs that require brute force and drudgery, as detailed here.

But seriously

Okay, I had a little fun there … just seeing if you’re still awake. Of course there are many more noteworthy differences. One, which my wife and both daughters agreed on and which I’ll concede I know myself to be true, regards physical safety. My wife is far more concerned with safeguarding our kids than I am. I’m not talking about home invasion or anything (though I keep a big Maglite next to my bed and fantasize about one day getting to use it) but about keeping the kids out of dangerous situations in general, whether it’s bad neighborhoods or risky activities.

(Speaking of home defense, I once sneaked out of the house in the wee hours of the morning, and just as I made it to the driveway the front door burst open, and there was my mom, in her nightgown, with a large frying pan in one hand and an iron skillet in the other, yelling, “Who’s out there?!” while my father stayed in bed, no doubt sleeping peacefully.)

Here are a couple of examples from my own parenting life. When our kids were very young, my wife found it tiresome taking them to the playground because she feared they’d fall off the slide or jungle gym or whatever, so she would supervise them closely which was exhausting. When I took them, I’d bring a paperback. Or there was the time I had my brother’s family over to visit and their three-year-old went straight to a giant pile of Lego my kids had out, and I asked, “Should I be worried about her choking?” In the same instant my brother replied “no” and his wife replied “yes.”

Another example of this different risk management approach: when I was coaching my daughter’s high school mountain bike team, we were all descending Mount Tam one morning and my daughter was riding more aggressively than usual. Not terribly surprisingly, she crashed. My reaction was twofold: as a father of course I was somewhat alarmed, but as a coach I was glad to see her pushing it a bit to improve her skills. (She wasn’t hurt.)

My wife contends that if the men had to carry those babies around for nine months in our wombs, we’d be a lot more vested. I think it’s also possible that, convinced as we males are of our own invincibility, we may well project that onto our kids.

Now, in terms of sports, math, home repair, and other activities traditionally associated with males, my family members all agreed that the teaching of these things simply falls to whoever is most capable. My brother Bryan described how, as a math major working in tech, he was naturally the one who taught the kids “how to employ the quadratic equation in real life scenarios.” (I hope this was a joke.) He also has the role of fixing broken things around the house, so he said “it was natural for me to show the kids how to take apart the dishwasher or zip-tie something together.” He was quick to add, “I did not discriminate when it came to these sorts of lessons, I was more than happy when the girls wanted to learn something ‘manly’ or fix something. In fact, I would often recruit them just because they were girls.”

Similarly, in my household I do the computer and IT stuff, am more helpful with math problems, and fix the bikes, and I do as much as I can to teach these things. My wife does most of the cooking and gardening, and thus the kids learn these from her. But it could easily be the other way around, in my family or any. My brother Bryan pointed out, “If our roles were reversed and [my wife] was the one running in the rat race, she may have had more practical influences on the kids (how to treat coworkers, how to get ahead of your peers, that kind of thing).”

This being said, it’s not hard to find lots of examples of fathers handling the math, home repair, and sports end of things. Could these truly be a man’s domain? It’s sometimes tempting to think so; just watch small children play and you’ll see predictable gender differences. When our family randomly came to own a toy B-52 bomber (maybe from a garage sale?) they didn’t exactly play war with it. I caught one of them tucking it under the covers of her bed and she announced, “I’m putting my little plane-y to bed.”

But really, can we call this an innate preference when society has been ramming domesticity down girls’ throats for generations, and destroying their confidence in their intellects, particularly where math is concerned? (It’s shocking how often my wife and I heard, growing up, that “girls can’t do math.”) I’m certainly seeing a lot of changes around these attitudes now. Whereas my mom was called a dyke for playing field hockey in high school, my daughters’ high school has a very robust girls’ sports program, particularly their champion girls’ wrestling and mountain biking teams. My older daughter is more science-y than I am, and she and her two best friends crushed it on the math section of the SAT. I don’t think anybody can make a credible case anymore that kids need to learn fix-it stuff, sports, and math from their dads.

A more complex suggestion

The most intriguing feedback I got on this topic was from my younger daughter. She proposed that perhaps a child learns shame from his or her father. This gave me a jolt, needless to say. “Do I make you feel ashamed?” I asked, incredulously. No, no, my daughter said, and went on to explicate the idea: she doesn’t mean it as a criticism; it’s more like the father wants to be more stoic, even to the point of denouncing shamelessness. The mother, on the other hand, may be more freely emotional, and is more likely to model tact than to confront people.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what my daughter meant—this conversation was in a loud restaurant, and we got interrupted, and I have a hard time keeping my teenagers on such a topic for long—but it’s a good jumping-off point for me. It ties into my visceral sense that there’s a traditional male behavior that does need to be modeled, now more than ever as it’s somewhat under assault, and it has to do with keeping a stiff upper lip. I’m not holding up stoicism as a major virtue; it’s more than I’m pretty fed up with this whole emo thing.

Now, I’m not an expert on the exact meaning of “emo” but I’m talking about guys who think being really modern by eschewing traditional male traits like fortitude automatically makes them better. It’s as though appearing vulnerable, and freely describing their feelings, gets them off the hook for suffering from arrested development and other versions of age-old male prickdom. I’d rather see guys bravely facing the music than begging for forgiveness because they can’t.

The singer Lana del Rey illustrates what I’m talking about. In her song “Norman fucking Rockwell” she totally rips on her “man-child” boyfriend, complaining, “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news/ But I can’t change that and I can’t change your mood.” The fact of his writing poetry isn’t the problem; it’s that the poetry is bad, and moreover the boyfriend is too self-absorbed to realize it. She goes on, “Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all/ You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you.” Del Rey continues in this vein on the next song on the album, “Mariner’s Apartment Complex,” complaining that this boyfriend took her sadness (which is temporary) out of context, equating it with his own (which is perennial). But she offers him support: “You lose your way, just take my hand/ You’re lost at sea then I’ll command your boat to me again,” and concludes, somewhat surprisingly, “I’m your man.” No, this is not some gender change-up; the persona in this song is very much a woman. More to the point, I think she’s saying, “If you can’t man up, I will.” Just like the single moms in Fisher-Paulson’s essay, perhaps. If all moms were like Lana del Rey, perhaps my daughter wouldn’t equate such fiery criticism with fathers.

Does any of this even matter?

In response to my inquiry about parents’ roles, my brother Max took a step back and challenged whether there aren’t more important matters to contemplate:

The question about parental gender roles may need to be further contextualized. The question as you put it asks about the average kid. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 45% (2.8 million out of 6.1 million) pregnancies in the U.S. were unintended in 2011. Of these, 58% ended in birth. So the question isn’t whether a kid typically gets A, B, and C from mom and X, Y, and Z from dad. The average kid, if lucky, may get A from mom and Y or Z from dad, but rarely A, B, C, X, Y, and Z. The average kid has to grow up navigating a minefield of parental indifference and/or incompetence. 

I’ll add to this that more and more families don’t have two parents to begin with. According to the US Census Bureau, “Between 1960 and 2016, the percentage of children living in families with two parents decreased from 88 to 69.” So almost a third of children don’t have the luxury of wondering what resources derive from which parent. They only have one.

Max went on to say,

So the short answer is that gender roles in child rearing have much less bearing on the success of the child being raised than the child itself. It is ultimately the work of the kid that will determine success or failure. Sometimes researchers use twins to dig down into these matters, as a control group sort of tactic. … [One] example would be that of Remus and Romulus in ancient times, twins raised by wolves. Remus was eventually killed by Romulus, who of course, went on to found the city of Rome and the Roman kingdom. Although they both grew up with exactly the same advantages (although the sexes of the wolves have not been determined) one was wildly successful, while the other, poor old Remus, wound up dead … most would agree, less than successful.

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Better Bridal Registry Ideas


I’m not a big fan of bridal registries. Why should I be, when I’ll never be a bride? When my wife and I married we didn’t do a registry. I thought it was outdated even then, like dowries, and that was 27 years ago. But with wedding season upon us, and this tradition not going away (as much as it may morph, e.g., registering for cash, for trips, for “experiences,” for charities, etc.) I’m here to suggest some improvements.

Before we begin

I think there should be a rule that couples who live together before marriage don’t get to register. They’ve taken the fun out of everything by starting early on playing house. Part of the excitement of getting married should be no longer eating off mismatched plates and silverware (well, flatware) from Goodwill.

Limit the registry

About a quarter century ago, when I went to weddings seemingly every weekend, I sometimes found registries helpful because I often barely knew the couple and had no idea what they’d want. This is because work colleagues would invite the entire office, perhaps to pad their guest list so as to make the wedding more impressive or something. In this case I’d race to the online registry to try to snap up the cheap items like the $30 washcloths before they were all gone. Once I visited a registry way too late and all I found were grotesquely overpriced items—I distinctly remember a $80 porcelain butter dish, with a lid and everything. Who uses these items? I guess I had a butter dish long ago before it broke. It was under a dollar at Goodwill and looked strangely similar to the $80 one.

That being said, the better move would be to have a smaller wedding and assume therefore that most guests know you well enough to choose something thoughtful. Then, for people who are just congenitally terrible at choosing, you have a limited registry of affordable things. But instead of choosing a specific SKU to get just the make, model, and style you want, be more vague. Then your guests can hunt for a bargain instead of Williams Sonoma having them by the balls.

To make wedding planning easier, I’m providing a large handful of can’t-lose items that for the most part are pretty affordable. These recommendations are based on what I’ve enjoyed having, or wished I had, over my long and happy marriage.

Item #1 – Pasta machine

This has traditionally been my go-to gift for my guy friends who got married. Most of them are cyclists and thus in love with giant starchy meals and cool mechanical apparatuses.

This also seems like a nice wedding gift because cooking together is, or ought to be, a fun thing for any couple to do. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually made that much pasta with my wife, but my kids love making it with me, which gives my wife a break from cooking. (I’m not suggesting that this traditional arrangement is the way to go for all or most couples, by the way. It just happens to be ours.)

Item #2 – Zip-together sleeping bags

If the happy couple doesn’t already have zip-together sleeping bags, they totally should. What an amazing invention. You actually end up with more room than in a standard bag, because you have each other for warmth. Standard sleeping bags are designed to be a very close fit, for warmth, and I find them claustrophobic. If this gift seems too pricey, go in with another couple on it. Just be sure to sync up the left vs. right bags!

Now, you may object that not all couples like to camp. Well, here’s the thing: maybe they don’t, but if they have kids, they’re going to get dragged into campouts eventually. That’s just the way it is. So why not be prepared? Here is a chilling true story: we camped with several other families once, and one didn’t have any camping gear so they rented it. Well, whoever picked up the gear royally screwed up and unknowingly got the child-sized “Tigger” bags for everyone. They didn’t discover this until they turned in. They were good sports at first, but this was in the spring and it got really cold that night. The damn bags came up to, like, their waists. At like 3 a.m. our entire group was awakened by the sound of the couple having a major shouting match. They were freezing their asses off and furious. The one who got the wrong bags was obviously lambasted at length, but reasonably countered that the other hadn’t lifted a finger to help. They made it through the night but left in a huff first thing in the morning, instead of staying a second night like the rest of us. They are now divorced.

Item #3 – Sonicare electric toothbrush

If the happy couple doesn’t have this, they need it. Everybody does. If they do have a Sonicare, buy them a bunch of replacement heads—those are expensive. Look, this may seem hopelessly quotidian, but let’s face facts: when the blush of new love starts to mellow, and the spouses (spice?) start to get more critical of each other, they should at least have beautiful white teeth and good breath. This becomes more important in the third decade of marriage when their hair is going grey, the guy may be going bald, and their skin starts to wrinkle … they can still have great teeth.

But the real reason a Sonicare is such a good gift has to do with the next item on my list.

Item #4 – Chip clip

You know what the problem is with wedding registries? The couple goes on a little shopping spree through the kind of high-end department store that is all too happy to offer a free registry service, and they imagine themselves being all fabulous with their exquisite china, fancy-pants silverware (well, flatware), $80 butter dishes, etc. and none of this has to do with the actual, humble day-to-day business of being a married couple. The china gathers dust on a shelf, the flatware is bogus because it’s too weird so they get sick of it plus for some reason it’s not supposed to go through the dishwasher, and the butter dish is broken immediately and this seems like a tragedy based on its price tag, when really nobody should care because butter dishes are practically useless.

Enter the chip clip. Look, I know we shouldn’t even be eating chips because they’re not good for us, so any kitchen gadget that encourages such behavior should, arguably, be shunned. But this is the gift that says hey, maybe we don’t care and we’re gonna be naughty sometimes, indulge in this guilty pleasure, and the chip clip is how to be unapologetic about this. (Growing up, my family never, ever had chips around, unless maybe someone was about to throw out the rest of a bag at a swim team picnic and we inherited it. Thus, the first time I saw a chip clip, at my friend John’s house, I was enchanted.)

But wait, there’s more. Part of being a happily—dare I say proudly—married couple is running a particularly ship-shape household through sheer ingenuity and a can-do attitude. That’s where the Sonicare comes in. When you wear out a toothbrush head, you can salvage the incredibly powerful magnet from it and put it on your fridge. These magnets are so powerful you can remove them only by sliding them to the edge of the fridge. You can magnet anything to your fridge and it won’t slide down.

How does that involve the chip clip? Break the original magnet off of it—this is the weak magnet that can only support the weight of the chip clip itself—and replace it with the Sonicare magnet. Now you can clip the whole damn bag of chips right to your fridge! It’s totally awesome!

Still not sold on this, based on how very humble such a gift would seem to the recipient? Not to worry, I’m sure Tiffany sells a sterling silver chip clip for like $8,000.

Item #5 – the “I haf nofing!” bowl

Surely there will be somebody at your wedding who just loves giving beautiful gifts and will want to splurge on something. So it was for my wife and me: a college friend of hers surprised us with an absolutely beautiful leaded crystal serving bowl. Look:

We do use this bowl from time to time, and I’m always struck by its loveliness. I wash it with extreme care, always remembering the scene in Vladimir Nabokov’s excellent novel Pnin in which the protagonist, a poor √©migr√© professor, cleans up after a dinner party. This party was supposed to celebrate his getting tenure, but he has just learned that actually he’s been let go. He morosely ponders this as he cleans his own beautiful serving bowl:

He prepared a bubble bath in the sink for the crockery, glass, and silverware, and with infinite care lowered the aquamarine bowl into the tepid foam. Its resonant flint glass emitted a sound full of muffled mellowness as it settled down to soak… He gathered the wiped spoons into a posy, placed them in a pitcher which he had washed but not dried, and then took them out one by one and wiped them all over again. He groped under the bubbles, around the goblets, and under the melodious bowl, for any piece of forgotten silver—and retrieved a nutcracker. Fastidious Pnin rinsed it, and was wiping it, when the leggy thing somehow slipped out of the towel and fell like a man from a roof. He almost caught it—his fingertips actually came into contact with it in mid-air, but this only helped to propel it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge.

Now, here’s where the novel and my memory of it diverge: in my version, Pnin cries out in anguish, “I haf nofing left, nofing!” In actuality, he utters this line at another point in the book. No matter: on this (mistaken) basis I long ago nicknamed our beautiful bowl the “I haf nofing bowl.” My wife calls it this, too—and isn’t this shared private language one of the joys of marriage?

(Well, not entirely private. My kids are vaguely aware of this moniker; when I took the bowl down to photograph it today, my younger daughter called it “the Pnin bowl.”)

Item #6 – Anniversary card 50-pack

This product doesn’t actually exist, so you’ll need to do a Kickstarter or something. I’m not talking about a boxed set of small cards for people who keep track of all their friends’ anniversaries. I’m talking about lavish, full-sized cards for the partners to give each other. This can help in three ways. First, it would save time because it’s tough to find good anniversary cards as so many weddings are in June and must compete with wedding, graduation and Father’s Day cards. Second, by giving the couple a 50-pack, you’re expressing your faith that their marriage will last. Finally, you’re mitigating the risk that one of the parties will forget to buy a card until it’s too late … so you’re safeguarding the marriage!

Item #7 – Subscription to albertnet

This might seem like a pretty skimpy gift, since obviously anybody can view albertnet for free from any Internet-connected device. But this requires the would-be reader to remember that this blog exists, which so far almost nobody does. But a limited number of people can have each post emailed to them automatically, the instant it goes live. How much is this worth? Well … how much ya got?

Full disclosure: this feature doesn’t always work. In fact, I can’t say it even usually works. The emails will go out just fine for a few weeks, and then they mysteriously stop. The one shown above, from last November, is the last one that went out. So, maybe this particular gift isn’t such a great idea after all…

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Sunday, June 6, 2021

From the Archives - HAZOP Blues II: The Spawning


If you’ve been paying attention to albertnet, you’ll have seen my first “HAZOP Blues” tale, from my archives, four weeks ago. Despite popular demand, I am running the next installment, written about a week later (and circulated via email because this was before blogs were a thing).

In case you’re wondering, I left this job a few months after penning the below memoir. Like James Cameron, director of Piranha II: The Spawning, I went on to much better things.

HAZOP Blues II: the Spawning – September 22, 1995, 12:28 AM

Greetings from Pasadena.

Things are, if anything, worse now than they were last week, so if you enjoy only upbeat tidings, please forego this missive. But if you’re intrigued by the idea of a sequel that doesn’t cost $7.50, read on.

We’re way, way, way behind schedule on this HAZOP, so the general mood is panic. My boss underbid this job by an amazing amount. It’s tantamount to saying you could build a skyscraper in the San Francisco financial district for about $50,000, in three weeks. So he’s been very tense lately. Add to this, of course, a software problem. This time it isn’t a computer glitch, but operator error. Hang on tight, because the explanation is a bit complicated.

Just before I came down here, one of my colleagues showed me how to use this special HAZOP worksheet-building software, so that I could scribe this HAZOP without looking like an English major who isn’t an engineer. (Normally, the HAZOP leader records his own sessions, but this client wanted a dedicated scribe. Lacking one on staff, my boss pressed me into service.) This colleague warned me that my boss doesn’t quite understand the software, and invariably gets his columns screwed up. The program uses various user-defined columns in which you record various things: causes of problems; consequences; and, safeguards (one column each). Suppose your cause is “valve stuck.” You might have consequences like “higher tank pressure,” “possible line rupture,” and “backflow to vessel piping.” In the next column, you list the various safeguards. These safeguards can either mitigate the consequences (e.g., a relief valve to prevent higher tank pressure, or a vent system to prevent line rupture), or they can prevent the malfunction (e.g., alarm detects malfunctioning valve and alerts the operator). Thus you have two basic ways to set up the worksheet: safeguards either relate to causes, or to consequences.

Basically, you decide which way to set it up, and then you set up the software accordingly. Thereafter, the safeguards scroll appropriately, and you number them properly, and your worksheet is organized logically. The only requirement is, you must always enter data according to how you’ve configured the worksheet—once you’ve configured it, you’re committed and can’t change your data entry protocol. My boss, I’d been warned, sets it up one way, enters the data that way for a while, and then at some point wanders off course, forgets how he’d set it up, and starts entering the data the other way, so that when you look at the worksheet, it makes no sense.

Well, knowing of this problem, I was very careful when my boss and I set up the worksheet together. I asked him very specifically how he wanted his safeguards to scroll. He was emphatic about relating safeguards to consequences. He said he always did it that way. And for the first week of HAZOPing, he was true to his word and followed his format: I numbered the safeguards within each consequence (i.e., starting the numbering over for each new consequence) and everything worked fine. The problem began when, upon reconvening the study after the weekend, he evidently forgot how we’d been doing it.

Here’s how it played out: there I was, recording away, and he was having a bad morning knowing how screwed up this project is, deadline-wise, and he whispered angrily to me, “You’re not supposed to start the numbering over at each consequence. Number consecutively throughout each cause.” I whispered back that I was doing it exactly how we’d done it the week before. This he denied emphatically. I couldn’t argue further, so I obeyed. In short order, our columns were all fouled up. Then he snapped, “You’re screwing up the rows.” What could I do? I pushed on. As the worksheet got more and more bollixed, he got more and more irritated. Eventually one of the Colombian engineers said, “Why are you numbering the safeguards that way? That isn’t how we’ve been doing it.” My boss assured him that he was wrong. Now I really began to worry.

At the next break, while the HAZOP team was off scarfing doughnuts, I pulled up a worksheet from the first week and showed my boss how we’d been numbering. He told me I’d been doing it wrong all along. So then I pulled up the worksheet setup/option screen and showed him that we’d configured the worksheet to relate safeguards to consequences, and had correctly adhered to this standard for the first week. At this news, he bawled me out for screwing up the worksheet setup from the get-go, and bemoaned that now we couldn’t fix it—that I’d basically screwed up the whole project and set us up to fail. At this point I was becoming very annoyed—enough to go after his goat. I told him that he himself had very clearly specified the worksheet setup.

Now he was good and outraged. I mean, who was I, this utterly green, English-major kid scribing his very first HAZOP, after only learning the software a week ago, to tell him he was doing it wrong? Not only had he helped to develop the software—he’d practically invented the damn thing—he’d been using it for many years, over the course of countless HAZOP’s. Did I mean to say he’d been doing it wrong his whole career!? “It’s a hideous thing to contemplate,” I said, “but that there’s what is.” Actually, I knew better than to actually say this. I just sat there, silent.

As if to finish me off, he commandeered the computer and said, “Look, I’ll pull up one of my own worksheets, any of them, to show you how I do it.” He pulled up a worksheet, and to my amusement, the columns were all screwed up. Furiously, he pulled up the setup/option screen, and sure enough, he’d set it up one way and scribed it the other. Now he was fairly livid. “Wait, that’s not a good example,” he steamed. He clicked over to his latest, greatest, most prestigious HAZOP, and said, “Okay, this is a good example. Look at this one: unless I’m totally fucked up....”

He pulled up the screen. I was relieved, but not surprised, to see that it was just as fouled up as the first one. I didn’t say anything: nothing needed to be said. A small silence ensued, during which I put 100% of my energy into not smirking. Then my boss said, quietly, “Well, I guess I’m totally fucked up.” Less than a minute later, his shock had given way to abject panic. He immediately began complaining about the incredible stress he was under, and all the staffing problems he had, and this whole HAZOP team breathing down his neck all the time, everybody talking at once, etc.

Once the panic/excuse phase was over, he segued seamlessly into a newer, more ferocious anger, lashing out at me with everything he had, like a cornered badger. He began making harsh accusations, finding fault with every aspect of my scribing. He began to blame my inefficiencies for the project being behind schedule (which is a joke, since most of the time I’m just sitting there, waiting for the team to come to a consensus so that I can type something).

Perhaps he eventually divined that my response was not guilt and shame, but mere incredulity, for he eventually began to temper his litany with expressions like “I’m not accusing you, I’m just sayin’,” and when he had determined conclusively that I wasn’t going to cower, accept blame, apologize profusely, and commit ritual suicide by self-disembowelment, he began to shift the blame to the rest of the HAZOP team instead. Finally he settled on a single scapegoat, Salim B—, the project manager, for whom I cannot formulate negative thoughts, largely (if perhaps unfairly) due to his benign demeanor and his pleasant resemblance to Frog from Frog and Toad Together, that wonderful picture book I enjoyed as a child.

By now the team was reassembling, and we continued the HAZOP. Notably, my boss continued to force my documentation astray, continued to demand that I force-feed the data into the worksheet in a manner counter to all logic. As if he hadn’t, mere moments before, come face to face with incontrovertible proof of his error, he continued to chase me down the errant path. Resigned to our doom, I gamely continued to mangle our innocent data, hoping that nobody would spot the inconsistencies and errors we were promulgating. Sure, my victory during the break should have been sweet—it’s not every day that you can sit back and watch while your arrogant boss makes a complete ass of himself—but it was a hollow victory indeed, for this wasn’t Me vs. Him, it was Us vs. Chaos, and we were now going down together. He’s the boss, so when he loses, I lose. (And he then wins somehow, because he’s a winner—got it?)

Perhaps the very worst part about the whole sordid affair is that when the day was finally over—eight grueling dog-hours behind us—my boss wanted me to be his pal, and go out on the town with him. We went to a restaurant; over great Thai food he attempted to find common ground with me by belittling every no-good, disloyal, stupid and immoral ex-employee we ever had (and there are a lot of them). I’m no slouch, either; I expertly tossed in detail after heinous detail about every one of them. I built up fabulous psychological profiles explaining the underlying nature of each one: “What S— lacked, essentially, was confidence. He couldn’t transcend his meager fire safety background and meet the challenge of holding his own among registered Professional Engineers and Certified Safety Professionals.” My boss—PE, CSP—nodded sagely in agreement.

I proceeded to spin elaborately sycophantic soliloquies: “I’ll never forget when you first saw the problem with S—, months before he left. You hit the nail on the head when you questioned his loyalty, way back in February. I think you knew his flaws even before they became obvious to the rest of us. It’s like you said, the cream rises to the top, and we’re better off without him.” My boss had never said these things—indeed, he had promoted S— only a month before—but that wasn’t about to stop him from savoring the memory of having totally nailed it. With great satisfaction, he dragged out his well-soiled cancer analogy, acidly lancing the tumors he had removed, and ordered us another round of beers. By the end of the meal, a dozen epitaphs later, I was beginning to feel sick.

Then we went out and shot pool, splitting (alas) a pitcher of beer. Our playing was absolutely abysmal; at one point, my boss managed to launch the cue ball off the table, where it rolled all the way into the bar. I, his obsequious little helper, shamelessly chased it down and retrieved it.

Now, we’re as chummy as ever; our worksheets, which continue to twist crazily on the page, are a taboo subject. More than ever before, HAZOP is a grind. Fortunately, I’ve developed a knack for recognizing, among the rambling discussions, the special lilt to an engineer’s voice (be his accent Indian, Colombian, French, British, or Turkish) that tells me he’s settled on an idea that should be recorded. Like never before, I swing to the music of valve numbers and failure modes. Between data inputs, while the team argues pedantically over the likelihood of a 2D low-low shutdown if the stage two crude discharge separator were to encounter a closed block valve at startup, I drift off into mental oblivion, fantasizing about being run over by a truck during lunch.


An alert reader wrote to ask me how much of this I made up. Rest assured, nothing here is fabricated ... the sad tale is 100% true and (as I wrote it while still in the thick of the action) it doesn’t even suffer from the natural erosion of memory.

To be continued...

But wait! There's more! Click here to read HAZOP Blues III: The Final Insult.

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