Flaming “Cheese:” a book review

Thanks, vectorjunky.com!

Cheese? What cheese? There was never any cheese here!

In 1998 Spencer Johnson, M.D. published a book called Who Moved My Cheese?  

As they say down South: Bless his heart.*

It sold an awful lot of copies.  Mostly, I strongly suspect, to corporations who bought them by the freight-container to slip into possibly millions of employee severance packages.

Amazon’s product description goes:

From one of the world’s most recognized experts on management comes a charming parable filled with insights designed to help readers manage change quickly and prevail in changing times.

“Charming,” hm?  Don’t know if I’d use that word exactly, at least from the point of view of someone who reads it with their “pink slip” (a fashion essential for many of my Hades characters).  More like. . . condescending?  Insulting?  Insidiously invidious; I like that.  As for what it’s “filled with” – naah, too easy.

I concede that the market-targeting was freaking brilliant.  “Firing managers” who know and have to face the people they’re downsizing often feel like crap about it.  The company — which can easily afford it while slashing expenses to make their stock blip up slightly for a few days — buys these books and the firing managers feel less crappy because at least they’re sending folks out into the cold with a charming parable.**  Casualties who take the message to heart are also less likely to cause a fuss, lest they be labeled as “littlepeople.”

I also have to hand the underlying principle something (besides bits of its anatomy on skewers): It IS generally a good idea to be resilient to change.  Whether it comes out of the sky or one of the modern, smoke-free boardrooms, it’s all over the darn place anymore.  Few, if any, can escape.  Watching the first season of Mad Men, I enjoyed the reminders of how dangerous things used to be.  No one wore seatbelts; kids didn’t even have to sit still in moving cars!  Everyone smoked like chimneys, drank like Dippy Birds, and ran over each other’s feet with tractors!  However:  With the  notable exception of MadAve, livelihoods were a lot safer then.  Once upon a time “job security” was not an oxymoron.  If you showed up, did an OK job, and didn’t maim or kill your boss, you had a paycheck until you retired and a pension after that.  If you did a better-than-OK job, you got steady promotions by which you could set your calendar.  That world is gone with the lost socks now, and it behooves us to learn to roll with it.

We do not, however, have a friend in Cheese-s.  The corollary morals of this “charming parable” appear to be:

  • We must take our thinking caps off and merely react, as do the blessed little mice of the lab.  Thinking only slows us down and decreases our chance of survival.***
  • All changes “just happen” by the action of a Mysterious Invisible Hand.  NO ONE IS EVER, EVER ACCOUNTABLE FOR IT.  THAT IS THE #1 THOUGHT WE MUST NEVER EVEN THINK ABOUT THINKING.****
  • The best things we can offer one another in tough times are vague philosophical platitudes.*****
  • If we get blindsided, it’s our own fault; we should have seen it coming.******
Your Aunt Nora can’t be having with these instructions.
  • It’s good to consciously choose what to think.  There are also situations where you can protect yourself by choosing when and how much to think (for example, when you get stuck in an unpleasant situation for a while). And how do you make those decisions?  By THINKING!  Thinking is what got humanity to where it is today – able to wipe out any other species on earth, including the mice.  Anyone who tells you to quit thinking altogether, forever, may be making unpleasant plans for you.
  • $#!+ certainly does just happen; e.g., hurricanes.  However, levees breaking down unnecessarily because someone pocketed half the construction funds, and thousands of people left floating around on pieces of roof for weeks while someone dithers over signing off the disaster-relief allocation, is not $#!+ that “just happens.”  It’s particular individuals standing in just the right fulcrum spot to make the $#!+ that happened a whole lot $#!++ier.  I’m not saying to go all Taxi Driver obsessive about it at the expense of your own and your loved ones’ recovery.  But if you know a fact, tell someone that fact, even if it’s just the Internet.  It isn’t libel if it’s true.  Don’t let extremely dirty hands stay invisible, or they’ll creep away and look for more dirt to get into.
  • Slogans (e.g., “Cleanliness is next to godliness”) spouted by people who can’t translate them into useful, do-able specifics (e.g. “Here’s a bar of soap and a towel; there’s the shower; get in there and wash until all the dirt comes off”) can sorely vex some recipients.  I know this because I’m one of them.  Everybody, once in a while, has to handle being told what to DO.  Sometimes being told what to do is a big relief, compared with being stuck without a clue.  But you can’t tell a person, just like you can’t tell a tree or a rock, what to BE.  If someone has problems and all you’ve got for it is slogans, unless you KNOW that person LIKES slogans, consider just offering them some slack and a sympathetic ear instead.
  • Everybody gets suckerpunched now and then.  Not all the professionals of misdirection are running three-card monte games in alleys, and even in their absence, Murphy never sleeps.  So by all means keep your powder dry, your B.S. detector turned on, and your walking boots in good repair – but if anyone invites you to blame yourself for unpleasant surprises, it may be to divert you from blaming them.
So don’t get stuck in, but do inquire, who moved (or ate, or stepped in, or just piddled on in gratuitous wastefulness) suspiciously disappearing cheese.  If you smell a rat, say so.
However,  while a majestic aromatic pile of cheese remains within your line of sight, do remind yourself that until it actually reaches your mouth or in your pocket, it’s really “nacho” cheese.

*I like to think of “Bless your heart” as the sound of a striker against a background of hissing gas: “Attention: Here comes a flame.”

**At least until their managers sit them down, close the door, and present them with their own copies of Who Moved. . .

***Pinky, are you pondering what I’m pondering?

****Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain – the one whose pockets bulge so much he can barely walk.

*****Perish forbid we write anything on the maze wall as concretely useful as “Hey! There’s more cheese this way!” or even as practical as “Follow the trail of mouse poops!  Their noses are way better than ours!” Oh, and let’s not even talk about taking some cheese around to share if we find it.

******Even though Invisible Hands are, by nature, awfully hard to see doing anything.