Last Memo Wins Derek Alger From the Editor

perm_identity Last Memo Wins

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 174 ~ November, 2011

I must admit I admired my father’s drive, almost obsession, to always remain his own boss, free from any corporate entity impacting on his means of earning a living.  He was a psychiatrist, starting his practice in the heyday of psychiatry, in Manhattan, during the 1950s, but no one set his hours or told him he had to do certain things at specific times.  No, he made those decisions.  I think he worked 16 to 18 hours per day because he was devoted and fascinated by his profession, the intricacies of human behavior, but also because making more money, in his case, meant the freedom to work and live as best as he could, free from oppression, intentional or otherwise, of institutions, corporate or otherwise.

I believe it was Humphrey Bogart who once said the only thing good about having a lot of money is you can tell a big shot to go to hell. I have difficulty picturing Bogart, or my father, for that matter, ever writing memos.  Perhaps my father dashed off notes on occasion, though his handwriting was rather illegible, to his secretary or a colleague, but more for informational purposes, as a reminder of something, rather than a desperate need to cover oneself about something or other, to everyone and anyone, who might question something someday in an effort to blame or pin something on one when a culprit or scapegoat was needed.

I learned about memos from a young attorney at a corporation under the auspices of which I ran a community newspaper.  The attorney explained the mentality and motives behind such memos which helped me understand how others at the corporation thought, though such thought, if it could be called that, was primarily rooted in reactive fear, defying logic or rationality.  “You have to play the game,” I was told.  “But I don’t what to,” I replied.  “You have no choice,” the attorney replied.

Unintentionally, I was breaking the first rule of memo writing from the start.  Thou shalt always respond to a memo with a memo of your own.  I was more concerned with getting the paper out, meeting the weekly deadline to get to the printer with finished articles, than I was with playing the politics of memo writing.  But if one didn’t answer a memo, a second memo would inevitably follow rather quickly confirming that you didn’t officially respond to the first one.  Oh my God, the paper trail had started.  People at the corporation were obsessed with memos and paper trails.  And no one I knew, especially my father, could conceive of the illogical illusion morphing into reality in such a realm, so his advice about such situations, though well meaning, was completely meaningless, if not counter productive.

“But, Marty,” I said to the young attorney, “why does everyone think that just because something is written in a memo it’s true?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Marty responded.

So, there it was, if a memo came your way implying you were guilty or at fault about something, it was factual until an appropriate memo challenged such an assertion.  After all, it was on paper now, and anything on paper magically became real, no matter how preposterous.

“Sounds like an awful waste of time,” I said.

“It’s how you justify your job,” Marty said.

“What happens if you don’t respond.”

Marty didn’t know for sure, but he assured me it would put one at a terrible disadvantage vis-à-vis others who worked in management at the corporation.

I think my father would have been proud with how I handled the memo situation, but I also think had he been in my situation, he would have responded, and responded, and his fear and resentment of corporate authority would have propelled him into eternal memo writing as a means of perceived self-preservation.

The concept I learned from Marty was that last memo wins,  Apparently, so long as one was responding to memos, it signified that one was not a culprit inarguably in the wrong.  To ignore a memo, regardless of how inane or insane, was taken as an admission, a confession that one was guilty, on the losing side of whatever innuendoes or implications could be applied.

“So, last memo wins,” I said to Marty.

“Definitely,” he replied.

As a result, much of the corporate day was spent by mid and top management personnel preparing, researching, and then drafting comprehensive memos to be shot back and forth among rival parties, and in essence, everyone was a rival party.  A cc — a notation of whom else the memo was being sent to — tipped you off to how many were observing any particular memo exchange.  Not that anyone was paying attention, but in the war of paper trails, if someone was cc’d on a memo, that memo automatically went into a file of some sort, probably to never be used, but all the same, it remained available for future reference if necessary.

The few memos I felt compelled to write, more out of annoyance, I always liked to cc it to an individual not involved with the initial memo, thus adding a person who could witness the escalating exchange, because inevitably a memo would return to me with the additional person cc’d on it.  For intimidation purposes, or maybe it was simply paranoia, in heated memos, on more controversial matters, matters pertaining to possible improprieties, though always mentioned in the form of a question, the state inspector general would be cc’d.  I, of course, having been in such lower positions, knew the inspector general never saw such memos, especially ones not even addressed to him, but instead, they were quickly deleted by an intern or whomever else was charged with screening such unintentional spam.  My response to a memo with the state inspector general copied on it was to add the Governor of the State of New York to the list of cc’s on my next memo.

I certainly had an advantage because I was from a different world, a world where memos had no meaning, so when the frenzied response to mine came back, I’d write a clever paragraph, trying to utilize humor, something most at the corporation knew nothing about, and then I’d add President Clinton beneath the Governor and state inspector general.  I suspect Ken Starr never read any of my memos, but who knows, government, and especially large, incomprehensible bureaucracies thrive on memos.

The only reason I would write a second memo, the few times I did, was so I could cc another person.  This always bothered and scared the initial memo writer because he or she now knew others were involved.  And, of course, the memo writer couldn’t stop, and would have to respond, terrified under the premise that last memo wins.

I was never sure what one actually won by writing the last memo, but it didn’t matter, it was similar to the arms race, operating according to principles of its own, escalating beyond anyone’s original intention, but once the game started, one was expected to keep playing.  This was no place for Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivner, his response of “I choose not to,” would be incomprehensible, and of course, Bartleby would be an easy loser in a contemporary memo war, which has now found its way to email, where each memo, and subsequent response, is strung together like a never-ending chain letter, a letter in which most would be amazed at the petty insignificance of the first memo, forget about the resulting responses and counter responses, and third parties who felt compelled to join in the fray for reasons of perceived self-preservation, down the line if not in immediate circumstances.

I know a lot of my father’s patients were corporate CEOs but I suspect the psychiatric sessions never got around to memo writing, but perhaps they did?  But if that happened, and one listened to his or her psychiatrist, in this case, my father, memo writing at that patient’s respective corporation would cease.  The only thing I know for sure is that this is an essay, and not a memo, and no one who reads it should feel a desperate or overwhelming need to respond, there are no winners or losers based on reading this, or at least I hope not.