The Only Normal People Are The Ones You Don't Know That Well
Scratch the surface and reality coagulates into view
During my college sophomore year, my girlfriend Gail invited me to Thanksgiving with her family. It would be my first Thanksgiving away from my own family – away from the particular brand of crazy that I’d grown up with. During the three-hour drive from school to Gail’s childhood home, we compared holiday staples. I readied myself for stuffing with raisins (the Stove Top that I grew up with knew no fruit) and the unfamiliar chunky texture of cranberry sauce not served in the shape of a cylinder.
But what I looked forward to most was the change of company. After 19 years at the same table, I knew exactly what to expect. My brothers (and I) were quite practiced at which buttons to press to send my dad into a tirade about how we had it so good (we had grown up with both basic cable AND indoor plumbing, for Pete's sake). My mom would overfeed us to the point of bursting and then lament that her children needed more exercise and needed to spend more time outside but needed to focus more on our studies. Okay, yes, in the re-telling it all seems very mild but at the time it was unendurable.
While watching commercials during the annual Dallas Cowboys Turkey Day game, I wondered what it would be like to spend my afternoons with those happy, normal families that played with their new Radio Shack electronics, smiled and nodded through meals at McDonald's and healed together with Robitussin.
Normal families like those. I knew my family well enough to know that "normal" wasn’t them.
(Yes, this is a supply chain blog. I will work my way to an obtuse tangent that helps you understand why your supply chain challenges might not be as unique to you as you think. Patience.)
The promise of normal was what I was sure I would find with Gail’s family.
Her mom was a chiropractor. Her dad was in insurance and played bass guitar in a local blues band. Her older brother worked in finance. Normal.
Perfect From Far Away
Except, as songwriters Ben Gibbered and Jimmy Tamborello put it in their song "Such Great Heights" - "...everything looks perfect from far away." You have to wonder if there's a reason that song, originally released by The Postal Service in 2003, has been covered something like 20 times, including by Iron & Wine in the 2004 film "Garden State". There is an immutable truth to that line. Everything looks perfect from far away. Whether it's Seurat's pointillism or Tiger Woods, the closer you look at something, the more you see it for what it really is. A woman's face might really just be a collection of paint dots. And the greatest golfer on the planet might really be, uh well, since this is a family blog, a not-very-nice-guy-who-pulled-the-wool-over-everyone's-eyes.
Hey, I get it. We all appear perfect on Facebook. Our vacation photos make us look like the Kennedy's on Martha's Vineyard. If all you know about my family is what you see on our holiday cards, you'd think that we spend an inordinate amount of our time sitting on fences in white pants and denim shirts (and being happy about it).
And if your family is one of those families in an Olive Garden commercial, you've figured out stress-free, multi-generational dining (not to mention how to survive on fettuccine Alfredo and not gain weight).
After spending a lifetime double-clicking on that imagery... after seeing how many real life parents no longer talk to their children... And how many siblings have no relationship with one another... And how many of us secretly agree with Gore Vidal, who is purported to have said, "Every time a friend succeeds, something in me dies." ...I can only wonder - What is normal, after all?
Scratch normal's surface and reality coagulates into view.
This Functional Family
What's baked into the term "dysfunctional family" is an implication that there is a functioning opposite. A "dystopian future", after all, is the dark side of a utopian one.
But can't we all agree that neither a dystopian future nor a utopian one is likely to occur? Science fiction writers and futurists in decades past imagined both versions of the 21st Century - and yet here we are. Living in their future that really is just our present. There may not be a utopian counter to a dysfunctional family. Families just are.
After two days with Gail's family, the reality that bled into view included:
Her brother didn't work in finance. He had trouble with his finances. A shoe box stuffed with wrinkled five and ten dollar bills - a box Gail's dad didn't want in the house - became a stage-whispered point of contention. "I can't exactly tell the IRS about it," I could hear during one of her brother's exhales.
Her father hadn't worked in insurance for years. His sole revenue stream was based on the shares he and his band mates would split after their bi-weekly gig at Nick's. Working in an office was for drones.
And that "drone" button was one he pushed to rattle Gail's mom - who had spent the last two and a half decades working in an office. A chiropractic office that she built. An office with her own patients. Including Steve, who joined us for Thanksgiving. And who apparently lived part time in the house with Gail's mom in the master bedroom. Because Gail's dad slept in Gail's brother's room - and had been since Gail's brother was in high school.
Gail and I - it turns out - didn't really know each other that well. And by spring break, we were giving behind-the-scenes tours of our families to different partners.
TMZ & Your Supply Chain
Okay, supply chain guy, what’s your point?
Supply chains have challenges. And some people’s supply chains are better than others. Benchmark and long for Amazon’s supply chain all you want – the only normal supply chains are the ones you don’t know that well.
Even the supply chains that sit on the Mount Rushmore of supply chain have their idiosyncrasies and dysfunction. You think your on-time delivery stinks and your suppliers’ quality is inconsistent and your cost of goods is too high. You dream about managing a normal, functioning supply chain like the one Amazon is blessed with. But Amazon’s supply chain is a lot like pre-2009 Tiger Woods – the envy of the universe, but not without its occasional backache and tee shot into the trees.
The amount of hard work and effort it takes to become Amazon’s supply chain or the pre-2009 Tiger Woods is made painfully clear by the post-2009 Tiger. Can Amazon negotiate the criticisms over the amount of corrugated cardboard they use better than Tiger handled his public undressing? At least Amazon won’t have TMZ hiding in its shrubs.
This insightful (and worth reading) Wesley Morris article in the New York Times laments that our movie stars have been co-opted by the comic book heroes they now hide behind. The scrutiny a movie star has to endure inevitably cracks the silver veneer of celebrity. TMZ has made it clear that stars are no better than we commoners. It’s easier for Chris Evans to pretend to be Captain America - and have that character be celebrated - than to live up to public expectations of what it means to be a star. We didn't start calling them "stars" because we expected them to be of this earth. We just started to know too much about them.
We admire our stars, then we celebrate them and then we grow disillusioned. Again, the only normal people are the ones you don't know that well.
That's why break ups happen. You meet a person. You fall for that person. You get to know that person. And realize that they're not who you thought they were. You see their flaws.
You really should know going in - your new boyfriend or girlfriend is not as normal as you think they are. Just like you aren't. And they're going to see your flaws right about the time you see theirs. Does this mean your relationship is doomed?
There Is No Normal Out There
Listen, your partner, your workplace, your parents, your siblings, your supply chain - once you know them long enough, you're going to scratch their surface. Don't be surprised at what coagulates into view. It's not going to be normal, whatever that means. Understand that going in. It can't be the excuse for getting out.
And who knows? After you've seen enough of the world and realize there is no normal out there, maybe you'll come home to the reassuringly normal comfort of raisin-free Stove Top stuffing and cylindrical cranberry sauce.