King of the Daffodils

It was my first week as Madam Daffodils, and I hadn’t considered that it would be shortened to the pedestrian, stuffy “Madam.”  So, I had been telling my friends for days to just call me “Daf,” or “Daffy,” if they weren’t kind enough to use the full Madam Daffodils. I didn’t like being a cartoon duck or having a name that sounded similar to “daft,” a word that means stupid, but since the point was to escape the ordinariness of “Anne,” I could think of no worse name fate than to be called “Madam.” It made me feel like an old lady at a shoe store asking the clerk to go to the backroom to find a pair of brown pumps.  The last thing I wanted was to be a seeker of brown pumps—and to be so uptight about seeking the brown pumps that I would need to be called “Madam” in the process.

Some people by this time assumed I was becoming mentally ill, which helped. They felt sorry for me, and thought if they could give me comfort by calling me the full “Madam Daffodils,” they better do it to avoid facilitating my slide into madness. Though, of course, if I were really losing my mind, a psychologist would argue the worst thing they could do is “enable” me by agreeing to call me Madam Daffodils.

With spring approaching, I wondered whether I should begin preparing for my floral name companions (couldn’t call them namesakes since I was named after them rather than the other way around). Spring was the season of daffodils, so I wanted to find a place to nurture these flowers whose name I took. The problem was I lived in the East Village in New York City, and didn’t have access to fertile earth I could ask to grow daffodils. I heard about places in some of the boroughs, like Brooklyn, where you could pay a nominal fee to “own” your own square of garden, but I make it a point not to go out of my way in life, and so needed easy access. Complicating matters was Sugar Plum Jones. Unlike his mistress, Madam Daffodils, he didn’t respect forms of life other than his own. He respected me, but I suspected that was because he thought I was a cat. A psychic once told me Sugar Plum thought he was my father.  Flowers, on the other hand, were outside his orbit of respect. He immediately offended the daffodil community in our apartment. He dug at the soil at the bottom of the planter as though it were a litter box, and bit the flowers’ petals.

That’s when I arrived at my solution: I would satisfy his need to dominate by crowning him “King of the Daffodils.”  To illustrate the subservient position of the daffodils to the throne of Sugar Plum Jones, I sacrificed several of my already-grown daffodils into a crown for Sugar Plum. He batted around for about a minute with the crown of daffodils fitted around his ears, but then a calm descended on him, and while it could have been the tuna I introduced as a sacred King of the Daffodils rite, I think it was the mysterious spirit of his new mantle (and not the fast consumption of a can of fish) that assuaged Sugar Plum, lulling him to sleep under his crown of daffodils. After making myself a daffodils crown and consuming a box of Mike & Ikes as my own sacred rite, I began wondering who else I could lull into non-offensive quietude via flower crown. Sure, it was a tried-and-worn out Hippie strategy to wear flower crowns and expect empirical results, but since it worked for sophisticated brains like those possessed by Sugar Plum and myself, I thought it also could work on another sophisticate: the CEO of Noisen Media Enterprises, where I worked.

We were in the midst of a deep financial recession, business results were lagging, and the company had tried everything—layoffs, salary and hiring freezes, and crummy business travel arrangements (as a go-the-extra-mile touch of ostentatious suffering), so why not daffodil crowns?  The trick would be first getting a face-to-face appointment with David Van Doon, and then convincing him of the efficacy of daffodil crowns, explaining how what’s good enough (and empirically effective) for Sugar Plum Jones is just the thing for him.

The appointment part turned out not to be so hard. Noisen  is big on being “open,” and so Van Doon has committed himself to spending one afternoon a week visiting, in five minute sessions, any employee who signs up to see him. I expected no one would want to see him given the wave of layoffs that had gripped the company and the fact that he doesn’t look like much fun, but I discovered he’s surprisingly popular. The first open appointment was at 2 p.m. about a month from the day I decided to Crown him Human King of the Daffodils (the feline mantle taken, of course, by Sugar Plum Jones).  I realized Van Doon wasn’t a cat, but I thought the daffodils crown would work on him because he seemed feline in some ways. For one thing, he spent a lot of time grooming himself. He was known to keep a portable, fold-up mirror in his desk drawer, had a personal shopper (at the company’s expense), made weekly trips to the nail salon for manicures/pedicures, and had a habit of smoothing back his sandy hair when being questioned in “town hall meetings” by hostile employees. It reminded me of how Sugar Plum likes to lick his paws and smooth back the fur around his ears when I catch him scratching the sofa—as if he thought he could smooth out or groom off his infraction. Then, too, he wasn’t all that appealing, so if he were my husband, I think I would try letting him out at night and then letting him back inside in the morning as a way of avoiding his nocturnal caterwauling. Van Doon lacked subtlety in his approach to “workforce management,” thinking nothing of lopping off hundreds of employees at one time to enhance his financial results for the quarter. So, he seemed simple enough to be quieted by a bowl of milk after spending the night out in the rain.

He was aggressive, though hapless, about pursuing business competitors, launching products and services like the annual Executive Directory of Thrift, a yearly guidebook to the latest corporate cost-saving strategies that really should have been called the Executive Guide to Cheap, but which he really thought might be a competitor to Fortune or BusinessWeek. When asked which supplement or guidebook published by either of those brands, he never could say for sure, and would start meticulously pawing back his already amply combed-through hair. His business approach reminded me of Sugar Plum pouncing his toy mice or male cats fighting in an alley at night. He was a primal man who had put on personal grooming airs but who, at heart, was Sugar Plum’s furless, clawless brother. He also, incidentally, seemed to have been neutered as a kitten, which may explain why his pursuits always fell short of their target—he was missing that extra hunting oomph needed to get the job done.

I wanted to steer clear of becoming like one of those latter day religious prophets who hand out flowers at the airport, but I did want to offer him the crown of Daffodils as part of a proposal to be less antithetical to growth, and not to mention, just plain nicer. Van Doon was always talking about growth of finances and growth of “market share,” but that’s where his “growth” ended. My colleagues and I felt in a state of stasis if not on-the-job decline. In addition to layoffs, some of my co-workers were suffering Loss of The Small Luxuries in Life.  For instance, why couldn’t we have the fake-sugar sweetener that doesn’t cause cancer?  And what happened to our complimentary white plastic forks, knives, and spoons?  We were horrified to think the thin wooden stirrers would be the next to go.  As if the situation wasn’t bleak enough, our toilet paper had been downgraded to one or one and a half ply rather than the luxurious 2-ply standard, and the hand soap was no longer pleasantly fragranced. It was supposed to have no scent at all, but to me it smelled like women’s correctional institution or what they’d put in the soap dispensers at a city unemployment office. These latest non-Daffodil, non-growth moves were set in cascading motion about five years prior when Van Doon and the executive board decided to do away with water coolers (the kind fancy enough to get delivered every few days ). They were sure our profits would begin to soar if only we didn’t chat while drinking water. The dangers of communal water drinking to a company’s financial health was one of their big postulates. If there were ever such a thing as The Corporate Channel on Cable , I think Noisen might have sponsored public service announcements about  the riskiness of providing employees with free plastic eating utensils, too indulgent toilet paper, and a reason to congregate while under the influence of cold water.

If Van Doon could become more in touch with Daffodils (if he could even just touch a Daffodil), I thought maybe it would inspire him to nurture and grow, rather than forget to water, cut-back, and eventually pull up by the roots. My goal was that he should follow the lead of Sugar Plum (I wished Sugar Plum could be chairman of the Noisen Board of Directors), and, at least for a moment, wear the King of the Daffodils crown, but I also wanted to leave him with his own window sill Daffodil garden to care for and grow.  I would know my plan worked if our layoffs subsided, and if the state of our toilet paper improved. We needed jobs, but we also needed not to be chafed.  If Daffodil Therapy worked with Van Doon, my plan was to start a new, widespread movement in which secretly (though obviously) anti-growth CEOs were presented with Daffodils to foster more humanoid characteristics.

The first barrier to the humanoid is the reflexive response, the responses that come from (seemingly) live humans, but which sound like the voice activated systems programmed to give a set number of answers to a set number of responses. The afternoon I went to see Van Doon I anticipated feeling like I was having a conversation with an airline reservation system. “David Van Doon,” he said, extending his hand. It sounded like a person on the street corner handing out fliers, who was monotonously repeating the name of whatever brand he was hawking. I gave him credit, though, for getting out of his high-backed, black leather chair and walking to the door to greet me. I wondered why his desk and chair were arranged so that his back was facing the picture window at the back of the office. The view offered a panorama of downtown New York, with the Brooklyn Bridge at the lower right corner and the Empire State Building at the center. Hard to see any flowers, let alone distinguish Daffodils, from up there, but he could pigeon-watch, so I couldn’t imagine finding efficient piles of un-crinkled, seemingly untouched computer printouts more compelling than wondering where all the pigeons were going. “Don’t you want to see the pigeons?” I asked to cut to my latest chase. “Excuse me,” was all he could say in response, not laughing, but turning down the corners of his mouth as though I were being facetious. “What do you mean?”  Imagine, having to enlighten a CEO raking in about $20 million a year about why the flight of pigeons outside a picture window with a view of all of Lower Manhattan was more important than his sundry reports. “You’ve got a pigeon dance right outside your window. It’s cool, don’t you think?”  With that, he finally smiled a little, thinking me cute rather than serious, which angered me, though I was set enough on delivering the Mantle of Daffodils to let it go. “I have a little work to do,” he said in response, laughing and gesturing with a sweep of his white dress shirt-sleeved arm at the top of his desk. The color of that desk didn’t coordinate well with the thick black leather of his window-ignorant chair. Nobody cared enough to think of wood harmonies?  Astounding!  A black leather chair and a chestnut colored desk. I guess his designers were striving for contrast. To me it signaled a man untouched by the colors he spent his life backed by and leaning into (I got a sense not much labored hovering took place there).

“What can I do for you?” he said looking down at me in the kindly, though condescending, way of a teacher nearing retirement (or one everyone wishes would retire because he’s becoming hard of hearing and senile). Van Doon wasn’t old. In fact, I bet he wasn’t more than around 50, but he just kept reminding me of the old math teacher I had with the shaky hands who didn’t understand how I could do well at my algebra homework, but then fail his tests. “Who’s doing your homework?” he would always ask me, not believing I could figure it out if I had the time to relax and think. At any rate, there seemed a lot Van Doon would find incredulous about me if I tried to explain—which, unfortunately, I would have to do if he were to wear his crown of Daffodils. “Well, I’m kind of confused,” I said. I wasn’t confused at all, but knew he expected me to be confused, and that saying so would give me time to think of what I really wanted to ask him. “About…”

“You’ve cut a lot of jobs, and are stalling promotions and raises for at least six months, but you’ve hired senior-level people who have salaries much higher than the people you let go, and who do much less hands-on work than the people you let go.”  I was trembling a little like I do when my body is reflexively nervous despite having calmed my brain. “Those were strategic hires, like the company-wide e-mail my assistant sent last week explained.”

“Not to be rude, but what does the word “strategic” mean in this case?” I asked.

I would say that I was so meek and mild that I wondered at that point whether he would throw me out, but once I got going, I had a feeling I was in no danger of being shut up or pushed out. And not because of any grandeur I possessed, but just the opposite—he didn’t take me seriously. I was pushing into my middle thirties, and he was no more than 20 years older (though either I looked very good or he looked not-so-very-good so that it looked like more of a difference), but he affected the look of a man listening to a child. He wouldn’t throw me out any more than he would throw a six-year-old out regaling him with stories of her talking lollipop.

“I’m evaluating all sides of the issue, and keeping alert for positive synergies and abilities to facilitate our speed to market and all other endeavors to keep our customers happy,” he said, smiling and without blinking.

I started laughing, thinking he was only joking, playing the role of the prototype of the corporate man, like that famous photo from the 1950s of huddled masses of “corporate men” all wearing the same clothes, hat, and physical stance, and apparently all headed in the same direction, wherever that happened to be. When he didn’t laugh back, smile, or blink, I changed tact. I remembered that I also needed to keep my job. “Oh, that’s interesting,” I said. “Synergies are pretty important, and, of course, you can’t discount speed to market.”

“Exactly,” he said.

It wasn’t going well. The first step to Daffodils was honesty, and he didn’t seem willing to exert the effort and risk for an honest, Daffodil-worthy conversation.  Van Doon was a pragmatist who didn’t like risk. He was like a cowboy afraid to get on a horse meanwhile asking—or, no, “strategizing,”—a plan to combat the Indians that his wife would have to see through. The key to Daffodils entering the world of Van Doon was appealing to his need to be as personally safe as possible.

“What I really came to talk to you about is related, actually,” I began. “Have you given any thought to corporate social responsibility?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a hot topic right now. Did you get the company-wide e-mail last week about the blood drive?”

“Oh, the blood drive, of course, now I remember,” I said, wondering if any of us at Noisen had enough blood to spare these days to contribute. I read somewhere that extreme exhaustion can lead to anemia, and felt confident that at least several of my co-workers were suffering from it. If I hadn’t been so focused on my elevation of Van Doon to Daffodil acceptance I might have suggested a gimmicky event to promote our brands in which Noisen employees compete against each other for top vampire. We could invite all our New York City advertising prospects and have fun with it. You have to do something after all when your employees are as pale as ours were. But I digress…

“Well, not that I don’t just adore giving blood, but I was thinking it might be smart for the company to branch out a little. Instead of giving out our blood and money when natural disasters strike, I was thinking we could do something more fun.”

Van Doon smiled as if stifling a laugh. I think he liked my bit about “adoring giving blood” and “giving out our blood and money,” but didn’t want to let on too much that he found it funny.

“I’m open to all suggestions. What were you thinking?”

“Daffodils,” I said, deciding the power of Daffodils spoke for themselves.

“I’m not familiar. Is that a media company you think we could invest in or partner with?  One of the things I’m hoping to do around Noisen’s CSR initiative is collect best practices from other companies.  What kinds of things is Daffodils doing?

I hated to interfere with his rising zeal, so I decided to hedge off a bit, so to speak.  “Growing. They’re doing a lot of growing.”

“Oh, I see. They’re in a growth mode. Very impressive in this economic climate.”

“Well,” I offered, “it’s sunny days for daffodils.”

“Where is Daffodils based?  Are they a multi-national?”

“Most definitely.  I think they’re in most countries.”

Van Doon was getting more than zealous. He had begun rubbing his hands together and pacing the length of his office back and forth. The idea of a growth company in hard financial times was like Sugar Plum with the cat nip. He looked like a man about to break a code, or maybe more like a man who had been fiddling with a lock to a house he wasn’t supposed to have access to, who had finally found a way to break in without breaking the windows or setting off the alarms. There was something a little sleazy about his excitement over Daffodils.

“Do you think they might be interested in an acquisition, or, um, a merger?” he asked, forgetting, I guess, that he was talking to a “child.”

“Beats me. Why don’t you go outside and just try to pick them, and see for yourself?”  I was growing tired of my little joke. I certainly never meant to get myself creeped out by Van Doon’s scheming brain—or his “business savvy,” as it’s called around here.

“Excuse me?  Do they have offices in our neighborhood?”

“Offices on nearly every sidewalk this time of year. Look outside your window.”

Peering out the window he spent his days with his back to, Van Doon slapped his forehead and laughed. “Oh, the flower!  You’re talking about daffodil flowers?”

“Yep. Just the flowers.” I was impressed that he had laughed instead of gasped and sent me away. It might have been more of the disregard-because-she’s-at-the-level-of-a-child. But, maybe (was it possible?) he had a sense of humor.

“You want Noisen to start selling daffodils as part of our offering to our customer base—as a way of reaching out to a new market segment?”

I guessed I was wrong about the sense of humor, or maybe his wasn’t strongly developed so that he’d need a clown or comedian performing directly in front of him to sustain it past the immediate impact of a remark. “No, I was thinking that it could be both a symbolic and literal tool to inspire people at the company to be more sincere.”

“Why would you want them to be sincere?  How do you monetize that?”

Now, you’d think this question would insult or rub me the wrong way, but I felt like I understood his perspective, so I played along. “Well, salespeople, and anyone trying to convince anyone else of anything, like us writers asking reluctant sources for interviews or information, has a better shot if they ask it from a sincere standpoint. People you’re trying to get to do things can spot a phony pretty fast.”

“I still don’t understand. How do daffodils figure into all this?

“I was thinking the daffodils as a part of nature seem pure and they are what they are, as they say. A daffodil isn’t pretending or hoping to be a tulip. They’re a natural, rather than a manipulated, phenomenon. I thought maybe we could have a contest for finding the best bed of daffodils in the city this spring, and the winner would get to have dinner with you—as you wore a crown of daffodils around your head and you presented a similar crown to the winner of the contest.”

“Or—what about me—taking a, um, more active role?”

Well, I was excited, but wondered what he could be up to given his lack of enthusiasm up till now for anything outside the realm of mergers, acquisitions, “streamlining,” and synergies. “Do you want to be a judge, or the judge, of the contest, or maybe work it into an advertising campaign for one of our brands?”

“Not exactly. Let me show you something,” he said obliquely as he headed to the top drawer of his desk. He pulled out about five photos of a man with dark blond hair and about his same height wearing a variety of outfits who I can say, scientifically speaking as a resident of the East Village, was a drag queen. In one photo, “she” wore a rose in “her” hair (along with a Hawaiian grass skirt and bikini top that had been left unstuffed and flat). Upon closer inspection, I gasped.

“It’s you!  I had no idea…”

“That I’d be open to becoming King of the Daffodils?”

“Yeah.”

“And, heads-up, I’m streamlining your department if your division doesn’t make its numbers at the end of the quarter.  You might want to start polishing your resume—but you didn’t hear it from me.”

“No, of course not. So, layoffs and “streamlining” still a go?”

“I’m always looking for synergies…”

So, there you have it, Noisen’s David Van Doon isn’t evolved, but at least he’s (he’s?) got style.

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