Sunday, April 17, 2011

In which I gasp in horror and astonishment as a co-worker uses a word he thinks he made up but is a real word not used in polite conversation

For a while, I worked in let's say Omaha at one of my company's factories there. I was there only for six months and then was supposed to move on. It was supposed to be a special project, developing a long-term strategy for the factory to take it beyond its current use as a milk carton folding equipment manufacturer, which might sound like snoozeville but really is not.

When is the last time you bought milk in a carton?

Ha. See? You buy your milk in a plastic jug. But remember when milk used to come in the same kind of carton that orange juice comes in now? That carton is called a gabletop carton. The carton flat is made at a combination cutting/printing plant that takes huge rolls of very expensive containerboard and prints them with one hopes a nice four-color roto design and cuts them into two-dimensional forms that are later folded and glued into milk cartons.

As you might imagine, the milk companies do not fold and glue these flats by hand. No, there are machines that assemble the boxes for filling.

My company had a factory that made the machines that assemble boxes for filling.

But a factory of this sort can make other machinery. My job was to explore the options: were there applications in the perfume market? In the processed food market? Where? I had six months to figure it out and help the plant manager develop a strategy.

The reason we needed the strategy is because the market for milk carton folding equipment was nosediving.


Plastic jugs. Plastic jugs were the culprit. Plastic jugs are not folded and glued on milk carton folding machines. Instead, they are blow molded on blow molding machines.

The blanks for the milk carton cost many dozens of cents, especially with nice printing.

The plastic per milk jug is just a few pennies per.

A blow molder?

Cost about $100,000.

So you. You might not be a business person, but analyze this:

You have just spent $100,000 on a blow molder (your fixed cost). It costs just pennies for the plastic for each milk jug the blow molder makes (your variable cost).

Are you going to keep putting your milk in paper cartons (at maybe 40 to 50 cents each) if you have a new $100,000 piece of equipment standing in your packaging plant? Or are you going to say, "Dang I've spent $100,000 on a piece of equipment that doesn't cost much to operate so I think I am switching to putting my milk in jugs?"

That was our problem.

One month after I had moved to Omaha, which is a lovely lovely city and I would move back in a second, my division got a new VP who said, This is our new strategy and you better do it or else you know what.

Which meant all of a sudden, I had nothing to do.

And I wasn't clueful enough to hang out in the plant and ask the machine operators, members of the autoworkers union even though what they did had nothing to do with cars (this is what I remember, 12 years later, but I can't find anything about it on the website, so maybe I am wr - wr- wr - not right about that), what projects they might have had for me or better yet, what problems they might have had that I could help solve, although there was this inventory analysis that I should have done and would have been a piece of cake with the spreadsheet and programming knowledge I have developed since then.

I blew it. Too shy. For dumb. I love manufacturing and processes and I would love to get my hands on that kind of thing today. When you're middle-agish, you don't care so much about what people think and are a little more intrepid.

The plant manager (PM) still wanted to work out a new strategy for the plant, even though we had our long-term marching orders. I facilitated meetings, developed presentations, and tried to make myself useful.

There was a management retreat. The PM wanted me to attend to facilitate, develop an agenda, etc. He had far more confidence in my abilities than I did. He had hired me out of the Miami office after we spent one day working together and one evening at supper (with a bunch of other people - sheesh - not like a romantic thing).

A week after he returned to Omaha, my boss came into my office (sigh - back when I had my own office) and told me that PM wanted me to come work for him in Omaha. I called PM and asked if he wanted to interview me or at least see my resume, but he said no, he knew enough. If only I could impress recruiters like that now.

Back to the management retreat. We went to this very nice golf resort. I got my own little cabin because I was the only woman. The five men shared a larger cabin and that's also where we had our meetings. I arrived the first morning to find about ten pounds of candy strewn around the room in small and medium bowls. Good candy, too. Three Musketeers. Reese's Peanut Butter cups. Almond M&Ms.

There were golf posters all over the living room. Not my choice of decor, but it was a golf resort. What do you expect?

We started the session. I was taping huge sheets of paper on the walls and writing on them with magic marker. We took a candy break and one of the guys, Gary, the plant accountant, was goofing off. He was describing their golf game the night before and how he had hit the ball into the smegma.

"Into the what?" I asked.

"The smegma," Gary told me. "You know - the tall grass near the pond, like this." And then he gestured toward one of the posters, which did indeed show tall grass near a pond.

"I don't think that's what that word means," I told him.

I did know what that word meant and I would rather I did not. A previous boyfriend - an eye doctor with a lot of arcane and trivial knowledge - had explained it to me once, perhaps as we were having an argument about circumcision and my position that it was mutilation no matter if it happened to a boy or to a girl but more likely just because he wanted to tell me something a little icky.

"No, that's it," he told me confidently. "I know because I made it up."

"Noooooo," I said slowly. "It's a real word."

All the other men were looking at us now, including my boss, the plant manager.

I should have dropped it. I should have just shrugged and said, "Whatever," then pulled Gary aside later to tell him what it meant.

But I didn't. I was a little rattled by the whole thing and not as poised as I should have been.

So I told him. In front of everyone, I told Gary what it meant. I was clinical, but I told him.

His jaw dropped.

Everyone's jaw dropped.

They looked at me kind of funny. Me, the only woman in the group.

The blood left Gary's face. "I didn't know! I mean it! I didn't know! I'm so sorry!"

"I know," I told him. "Don't worry about it."

He babbled. Apologized. I told him to stop. I left the room, took a bathroom break, gave the conversation a chance to change.

When I returned, nobody mentioned it again. But later that afternoon, Gary found me and pulled me into the kitchen, next to the caramel corn.

"You have to believe me, I didn't know," he pleaded. "I have three daughters. I really really didn't know. I wasn't trying to harass you."

What? He thought I thought he was trying to sexually harass him? What on earth was HR telling people?

"Don't worry! Really!" I insisted. I had thought it was just kind of funny, although a little uncomfortable. "I know you didn't mean anything by it."

I returned to Omaha that night, not because of the smegma incident but because PM had only wanted me there for one day of meetings - the single cabin was a bit expensive and I really couldn't stay in the big cabin with the guys.

We had the weekend to recover, but that next week at work, Gary sought me out again to apologize, explaining again that he had three daughters and was not a harasser. Poor guy. He really and truly had had no idea. Had probably heard the word once without hearing the context or definition and it had stuck in his subconscious, just waiting for the perfect moment to emerge and embarrass him.

Maybe I should have sued. I would be sitting pretty right now on my ill-gotten gains on the account of someone who spoke neither out of malice nor out of knowledge.


  1. If you are into British Humour, you should watch an old series that was a favorite of my children and their friends, called Red Dwarf. It is very entertaining to hear the main character use the term "Smeg" and variations of Smegma in the same vein that the French use "merde". My daughter's sixth grade boyfriend kept questioning why they constantly used this made up word, to the point where I had to call his mother, a gynecologist, and ask her to explain it to him.

  2. Buh? I buy milk in cartons all the time. Around here the only milk that comes in plastic jugs is gallons and occasionally half gallons. If you buy a quart or a pint of milk, unless it's the fancy artisan milk that comes in glass bottles, it will be in a carton.

    I feel so behind the times. ;-)