The Cat’s Meow

I’m not sure why I’m on the boat.

It seemed like a good idea at the time – the seas were relatively calm and the wind seemed favorable. I came aboard to swab the decks and I worked hard; I finally made my way up to deck hand. Of course there were times we all thought the captain was a little off-balance, but the ship was still afloat so no one said too much.   It was a bit strange to be on a steamship in the age of technology, but you don’t fix what’s not broken, and after all we were chugging along and keeping up. We often saw wreckage from the high tech-ships that weren’t as sea-worthy as everyone thought. It wasn’t pretty. Occasionally we could pick up a stray crew member here or there, but let’s face it, you can only carry so many people on board.

The real danger was running out of steam. Or, more precisely, coal. In case that ever happened someone had to know how to sail. We had a plan – you know, like a backup plan – to ensure that if we ever ran out of coal, we’d still be able to navigate and move in the water by using the sails we had stored below decks. At least until we got more coal. There was a team of people assigned to the care and maintenance of the sails, to make sure they were always in top working order. It didn’t matter that we’d never actually tested the sails – we were confident they’d work, and the fact we had a backup plan was really the point anyway.

So it seemed like a good thing when I was able to move into a position on the wind team. We would learn about the elements, check what was going on around us, and make sure that plans were in place in case we ever needed to unfurl our sails. It was theoretical work for the most part, but that’s always been a plus for me. I mean how can your theory ever be wrong if you never have to put it to the test? You can be completely unskilled and have no idea what you’re talking about, but still be considered a genius. I just had to pray that we’d never run out of coal.

I was feeling pretty good about my new job when I was invited to a meeting. The Captain’s Third-in-Command, right-hand-man’s best girl Barb wanted to meet with me one-on-one. This was a big deal, and I needed to be on my game. In the meeting invite I was informed that it had been decided I was the perfect person to implement our new Cat’s Meow Strategy for wind detection.

My guess was this new strategy had to do with the fact that we had no vet on board and the two cats we brought with us to control mice turned out to be a male and a female. It’s really hard to tell with a cat until one of them is pregnant. So we now had a lot of cats and I figured someone was trying to keep it from looking like an accident. Which is easy if you just make it a strategy. I mean, what else can you do? You can’t start heaving cats overboard willy-nilly. You just look like a bad guy and the press has a field day. We had to find a purpose for the cats.

Although I was still fairly new to the concepts of wind direction, I felt confident  we would fare just fine if we ran out of coal. If nothing else I could just put my finger in my mouth, hold it up, and figure out which side got cold first. That would be the wind direction. That and a basic compass were all I needed. And if the sails failed to perform that really wasn’t my problem. All the same, I was feeling just a little anxious when I got to the meeting room. Barb came in and started talking before she sat down.

“I’m glad you were able to meet today. This project is of the utmost importance and we have a very short time frame to get it done. In fact, this has to be up and running within a week.”

“Really?” I ask, “Why? At the last check we had plenty of coal, so there’s no reason to think that we’ll be needing to use our sails anytime soon.”

She smiles, and I know I’ve asked something so elementary she’s wondering how I ever achieved my current position.

“Because there’s a deadline,” she says, quietly, patiently, kindly.

“Oh,” I’m feeling a little dense, but want to make sure I understand, “why is there a deadline for next week when we know we won’t run out of coal next week?”

She looks pleased. I assume it’s because I’ve shown an ability for following a line of reasoning. “Great question. There’s a deadline for next week because that’s when I said we could get this done.”

“O.k.” I’m pretty sure she can see my confusion, but her smile is designed to give me confidence, let me know my incompetence is not a problem, and that she’s is in charge and will lead us where we need to go.

“Well, let’s just get started and I’m sure this will make more sense once we get into it.” She settles into the chair across from me, folds her hands, places her arms on the table and leans forward. Her eyes are serious.

“You know about the cats.” It’s not really a question, more of a statement, but she is obviously waiting for a response. I want to make up for my earlier failings, so I’m eager to show off what I do know.

“Yes, I know that we’ve really got more cats than we need. Of course there really isn’t an offboarding strategy this far out to sea, so if we want to maximize cost effectiveness we need to ensure we’re leveraging all of our resources in the most appropriate manner possible.” I am rewarded with a beaming smile.

“Exactly. And that’s just what this project will do. I have every confidence you’ll be able to have this up and running by the deadline.” I don’t share her confidence, but I’m not bringing up the arbitrary deadline again. I just nod so she can continue.

“We’ve decided that the best way to utilize the cats is to have them help predict future wind direction. Using the cats, you’ll check the wind direction each day at 2-hour intervals, and then record the results. You’ll need to graph the wind direction and be able to make predictions based on statistical data. You’ll want to determine if the height of the water has any impact, and you’ll need to ensure that the sails are in operable condition.”

Now my head is reeling. Although my finger and a compass seem unbelievably unsophisticated, I know they’ll work. I’m not bringing it up. Instead I try to think this through, integrate the knowledge I have of the other working areas. All I can manage is, “But, I don’t work with the sails. The people who work with the sails are all in an upper echelon of the ship’s hierarchy. They only talk to me when they’re demonstrating that we don’t really have a hierarchy.”

She frowns and I realize I shouldn’t have said that to her. Now she’ll probably wonder who I’m talking to and what they’re saying. Fortunately she doesn’t go after that tangent – probably one of the reasons she’s in her current position. She simply says, “Well, you’ll need to tell them what information they need to provide you. You need to measure sail readiness and include that in your graph.”

I’m starting to feel like I’m not a problem solver. “O.k., I guess I’m just a little confused as to how I’m going to do that. The sails are kept below in a restricted area I don’t have access to, and anyway the sail readiness team runs regular testing to ensure the sails are wind worthy. Can’t I just use the work they’ve done?”

She is starting to look a little strained. I know she’s way ahead of me here and I’m just not keeping up. I’m really trying, but I’m just not seeing the value add.

“Don’t worry about access to the sails. I’ve got a meeting scheduled with the sail master and I’m just going to tell him he’s giving you access. Just trust me on this and don’t worry about that part.” I nod, thinking it’s not going to be that simple, and still not understanding why I can’t just use their data, but I’m going with it and assuming it will all start to make sense. Eventually. And hopefully before the deadline.

“So once you have the readiness data you can herd the cats and start the meow analysis.”

“I’ll call it the ‘Meowalysis,’” I smile. She looks at me with a frown and says, “The what?”

“Nothing,” I say and remind myself to stop talking and keep nodding. She pauses a beat and then continues.

“So once you’ve herded the cats it’s a simple matter of gathering the data. I would recommend you start individually. Take a cat to the bow and wait for it to meow. Then capture the meow data on the matrix. Make sure you get a good sample, and then analyze the meow data with the other data, and prepare your findings for the meeting. I’ll need to see your first draft with enough time to make changes before I present. Is two days from now fair?”

“O.k.,” I’m not feeling confident at all. But I’m going to make this work. It doesn’t matter what they ask, I’m going to make this work. She nods, once, briskly.

“So, I’m sorry,” I say, wondering if I’m sorry for my obtuseness, my presence on the ship, or just my life choices in general, “but can you help me understand the big picture on this strategy?”

“The cat will meow and then you’ll record what direction the wind is blowing. Eventually we’ll be able to predict wind direction by the cat’s meow.” This is said perfectly reasonably, perfectly calmly. It simply makes no sense to me whatsoever and there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this. I need to signal my understanding while clarifying what I’m supposed to do with another question.

“Got it, but I’m not sure how I’m going to determine the direction the wind will blow by the cat meowing. I mean, it might meow when there’s no wind at all.”

She nods. She looks very serious and thoughtful. This is, of course, a good point. Let’s face it, there’s no one on the face of the planet that has any idea what’s going on here.

“I’ve anticipated you would need help with that, so I’ve prepared some tools to help you.” She hands me a page of handwritten notes and hand drawn pictures of kitty faces with various un-catlike expressions. “This document can used as a guide to the meaning of meowing. Of course, each cat will have its own individual vocalizations, so the guide is really a framework – a starting point if you will – for you to develop your own meowing meaning chart. You’ll also need to ensure you track any new cats that provide input, or cats that for whatever reason,” and here her voice fades a little, “are no longer providing data.”

I run my hands through my hair. I know I’m starting to come apart a little, but this is getting crazy. “But, I don’t think cats can predict which way the wind will blow.” There. That’s a better argument. Now I’m thinking this through and focusing on the result we’re trying to achieve.

“Well, we’ve noticed that the cats don’t like getting their fur ruffled up the wrong way. You’ve seen that, right?” This is said in a ‘you’re part of the team’ tone of voice. Now she’s feeling sorry for me. This doesn’t bode well. I just nod.

“So since they don’t like it, they’ll meow in displeasure and turn to face the wind, thus providing us with information on the direction the wind is blowing.”

“Well, yeah, at that moment. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about future direction.”

She sighs. “That is why you have to analyze the meow.” The depth of my stupidity is now starting to annoy her. I just give up. I’ll figure out a way to herd the damn cats – if one or two escape no one will know unless I say something, and why would I do that? I’ll take them on the deck, wait till they meow, and somehow put together a matrix with all the data. Maybe if I use a lot of charts, graphs and illustrations it won’t matter if the data makes any sense.

“Great!” I take the guide and give her what I hope is a confident and winning smile. “I’ll have the draft ready for your review in two days.”

She smiles and rises. “Perfect! Just let me know if you have any questions in the meantime. Now I’ve got to go meet with Johnson. Those damn goats we brought on board aren’t milk goats after all, so we’ve got to figure out what to do with them. He’s got some kind of strategy he thinks will help. He’s calling it the Great Goat Rodeo. Sounds like it’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck event.”

I just nod. A goat rodeo. Should be fun.

 

 

 

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