Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything


When I was young my father would take me to an MDC skating rink. The MDC was the “Metropolitan Disctrict Commission.” It was a layer of government in Massachusetts that allowed the corrupt mayor of Boston to be corrupt outside the city proper. The MDC had its own police force, and ran all sorts of public parks and such. They constructed skating rinks here and there around Boston.

They were spartan affairs, but didn’t seem so to us, because all we had was the corrugated ice on the local pond, and we had to shovel that first. Some people think that sort of activity, born of privation, builds character. People that think that have never met me. I don’t have a trace of character, and I went through all sorts of inconveniences.

The MDC rink we frequented was on the banks of the Charles River, on the Jamaicaway, I think, and it was simply a roof over a patch of ice, with a chain link fence for walls around it, and a blockhouse where you could rent someone else’s athlete’s foot by the hour. They threw in the skates for free. They also sold hot chocolate that wasn’t either of those things. It was a long car ride from where we lived, and it seemed very cold, but we loved it.

During public skating hours, they’d play organ music over loudspeakers they had borrowed from a defunct prison camp or something. It transmogrified the music into something not quite musical. It was the same hoary old stuff the organist at Fenway Park used to play, only recorded.

There were usually a lot of people. There were all sorts of rules posted, all ignored, mostly, except by custom, but there was one, big, hairy rule that everyone followed uniformly: Everyone skated the same direction at the same time. You’d skate counterclockwise for 15 minutes or so, and then a voice would break into the groaning organ music and bellow: SKATE TO THE RIGHT!, and everyone would immediately stop and go clockwise. To this day, whenever I hear any sort of Hammond organ music, I still mutter skate to the right to myself.

I was little and in awe of my father. He could skate pretty well. I had a problem. I could only skate to the left. When the direction was reversed, I’d have to cross my left leg over my right to make a right turn, and I’d fall down. A lot.

Humans are practical creatures, and devise various strategies for dealing with such failings — almost all of which involve avoiding trying. I’d say I was cold, and sit down on a metal bench the temperature of Neptune, or hang on the boards and lie like a Turk in a bazaar and say I was tired. When the disembodied voice re-appeared and said SKATE TO THE LEFT again, I’d go back at it.

My father gave me some good advice, which I still remember. He said that if I didn’t want to learn to skate that I shouldn’t go skating. It would be a waste of time, and I should simply do something else that I really wanted to do. But I enjoyed my counterclockwise self, so it’s more likely that going clockwise was just a difficulty that I could overcome with effort and intellect. If I was happy fifty percent of the time, why not make it a hundred? 

He told me that I had to figure out the aspects of skating I was bad at, and only do them. He told me to sit on the arctic bench and hang on the boards when the direction favored me, and only skate to the right.

It’s counterintuitive to do this. Go with your strength everyone says. There’s an entire school of thought in business called the Hedgehog Strategy. Find one thing you do well, and only do that one thing.

Dad said don’t go with your strength. Take your strength for granted. Work on your weakness. It was marvelous advice, and not just for skating. Businessmen, especially small businessmen, rarely understand the concept. In large organizations, your boss exists to do one thing: make you skate to your right. Left on your own, you’d do whatever was easy and file everything difficult under M for manana.

That’s why most everyone hates their boss; he makes you do things you don’t want to do. If you were wise, you’d realize it’s in your own best interest to learn to skate to the right, but that’s not why he asks you to do it. If you don’t skate to the right, he gets fired and can’t afford to get the GI Joe with the Kung-Fu grip for his kids for Christmas. So he makes you. His boss makes him. And so forth. 

When people want to start their own businesses, 99 percent of the time it’s because they think that if they don’t have a boss, no one can make them skate to the right. They’ll go with their strength. Of course their strength is likely not of any use to the public. If you’re in business on your own, you don’t have one or two bosses. The general public is your boss, every man-jack of them. And they’re not interested in the fact that you can really check boxes on forms, or your desk is really clean, or that you’re amazing at leaving witty comments on FARK all day. They want their stuff. They all want you to skate to the right all the time. But they only have one way to make you skate to the right. They starve you out. They go away and never come back. The public is so much more cruel than the worst boss in this regard, because they almost always say nothing to you. They figuratively kill you without telling you why. They would tell you why, but listening to the customers is the A, Number One, Primary, Overarching, Central and Foundational example of skating to the right for almost everyone. That’s why salesman make so much money and do so little heavy lifting.

So my advice, for all you owners and managers and employees of businesses, is simple: Your business should skate to the left, hedgehog style, all the time. Go with your strength. All your employees, and you if you’re an owner or manager, should work on skating to the right all the time, to make it possible for the business to keep that Business Hedgehog fed, so all his spines don’t fall out from inanition. There’s a name for a hedgehog without spines that curls up into a ball and plays dead. That word is “lunch.” 

Most managers do not have a deft touch at making demands for clockwise skating. They grab you by the shirt collar and drag you to the right. My father wasn’t like that. He told me why I should try, and I believed him, and I made up my mind to try as hard as I could, because I’m stubborn. I battered my knees with fall after fall, and heard the tittering of everyone wondering who the clumsy kid was, but I eventually learned. I got to be as facile one way as the other.

Filled with a bit of pride, I said, “Dad, I think I can skate to the right better than to my left now.”

“Now skate backwards.”

8 Responses

  1. I don't have a trace of character….

    Liar. Your children prove otherwise.

    That's why most everyone hates their boss; he makes you do things you don't want to do.

    Heh. When I went to my first college, almost all the students were required to work. When asked what I wanted to do, I said I'd be happy to do any job except wash dishes. So of course, they made me a dishwasher. I can't say I ever came to enjoy the work, but I certainly got over both myself and my hatred of washing dishes. Maybe learned some other things, too. Or maybe not.

    Anyway, yeah – there are worse things in life than working on developing the skills you don't have, instead of only doing the stuff that comes naturally.

  2. Skate backwards – that's cold blooded right there.

    Thank goodness we had a roller rink where I grew up – ice went into a mint Julep and that was about it. Well, other than the mini-ice age of the late '50s, but anyone who tried skating on farm pond ice broke through that thin stuff and died.

    I once dated a redhead who thought it would be fun to see me ice skate. I think she was originally a Y*nkee or something. I am sure it was fun, for spectators, but one fall was enough to convince me that ice skating was as dangerous as skiing. The orthopedic costs can be substantial.

    So now all I do is make round things. My lathe only goes one direction. There is no B3 in the shop. Life is simple, and so, am I. It's good to recognize one's limitations.

  3. I got this guy I know named Harry and Harry doesn't mind if he doesn't make the scene . He's got a daytime job he's doing alright .

  4. Your dad was wise. You've figured that out by now, but I'm a dad, and need to complement other dads. Including you–although you're concealing most of the evidence behind that modest mien of yours.

    We can't trace your character; too danged much of it! (AWRIGHT! Fall out and blush! Fall in!)

    I always found ice skates hurt my feet–felt like the my feet sat directly on the blades. Tried again about 7-8 years ago, with same result.

    I read that before there were clocks, making circles to the right was called deazel, and left was widdershins.

  5. I always love your advice about small business. You're a one man small business administration, only without all the chaff. Thank you for distilling so many difficult and conflicting concepts about small business into something I can just put in my pocket and take home with me. I'll concentrate on skating to the right.

    Bob in Manassas, Virginia USA

  6. One-trick ponies don't have long careers. A fencer with one good attack and one good defense won't do well against the one with two good attacks or two good defenses.

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