My life has been spent identifying and removing variation from processes, which I think of as inquisitiveness for money. So when my fiancée left me alone to get some ribbon for a project she was working on, it was a sure thing that I was going to investigate.
I walked up the stairs to our room. On the chair next to the bed were the clothes she had worn to work; her cherry-colored heels–one upright, one toppled–were on the floor. On the bed were about a dozen little bags–little maroon velvety gift bags that tied at the top with gold lanyards.
My interest, though, was the UPS box on her side of the bed, which she had opened but otherwise left untouched.
Here is how the whole thing works. Mia had been convinced to join one of these pyramid deals where you hold Tupperware parties, except you sell sex toys instead. She partnered with another woman who did the actual presentation. Mia’s contribution was to get her friends there. (I was required to leave during the party, but on the way out I stole two prosciutto and melon roll-ups.)
I could picture it well enough, anyway. You have a roomful of women drinking wine and testing vibrators against their palms or behind their ears or knees or something. There might be one of them who would compare it to her other vibrator–and then secrets would start to tumble out–one woman’s boyfriend went down on her and another one wouldn’t. Someone might reminisce with a long eye about a guy they knew long ago, perhaps in college. He was something.
The friends were supposed to place an order, which would be shipped to Mia and then she would deliver them to the women personally. The key is that the whole thing was supposed to be discrete. The toys were in the UPS box and Mia had already been about to put them in the velvety bags when she decided they would look nice with a ribbon tied around the neck.
I stuck my nose into the big UPS box, which was filled with a bunch of smaller boxes. I took a deep breath and exhaled heavily. It had a musky scent that made me tingle like a shot of schnapps.
I pulled out the biggest one–it contained a leviathan vibrator shaped like a phallus with an appendage at the top (or was it the bottom?). It was heavy.
I considered it a promising start. Continuing, I found some lubricant that promised to induce orgasms, scented massage oil, a few formidable vibrators (one with a remote control), some glitter, body paint and edible panties.
There was one more box and I pulled it out. The picture showed a bulbous and tapered toy–shaped like an egg that had been stepped on, with a very narrow neck that led to a wide base.
The box said it was “The Intruder: Anal stimulation for experienced users.”
Experienced users? I thought. There are experienced users? And…one of them is a friend of Mia’s?
Or, what if it was for Mia? She and I had never done anything like that–or even close–but who knew what secrets people kept, especially when it came to anal intrusion?
Could Mia be secretly pleasuring herself with devices like this? Or did she want to start–or re-start the practice? With me?
I clawed through the bottom of the box looking for the order sheet. There was a ton of paper and I hadn’t found it when I heard the garage door open. Searchus interruptus. I quickly took all the boxes off the bed and put them back in the big box, stacking them carefully so they looked like they had been untouched since they left the warehouse. I pushed the flaps of the box down as I heard Mia enter the house and call to me.
I quickly moved to the bathroom doorway. “In the bathroom,” I called, closing the door softly behind me. By the time I left–including a fake hand washing–she was between the box and me. I fled downstairs.
I could hear her snipping ribbon for a few minutes. It stopped, and she came down the stairs holding two pieces of paper that she put into our shredder. My breath was only just returning to normal and I already knew that any hope of seeing the sheet that would provide documentary proof of the identity of the experienced one had passed.
I wasn’t coming to this fascination from a deficit, that’s for sure. Mia and I had an excellent sex life. I mean, nothing we did required batteries or anything. There were no cords. Beyond that, though, she did pretty much whatever I wanted, wore what I wanted, used the positions I wanted. There was oral. Sexually, I was in a very good place.
Despite our robust sex life, the Intruder played upon my mind. I hadn’t really been interested in the anus, but that was because I assumed that it was something that people I knew didn’t do. Now to find out that wasn’t true? That someone close to me…maybe very close…was an experienced intruder?
I was having a hard time shaking the thought.
That very night I reached around Mia and brought the tip of my index finger to the rim of her anus while she was riding me. She stopped and (nicely) said: “Anything but that, OK?”
My problem is that I have made my way in the world by not being able to let things go. I work at a tech company–you might have heard of us, you might not–and I’m the quality guy. I’m the one who drives imperfection out of a process, who doesn’t rest until everything is resolved. Every project must be a thing without blemish.
Not almost without blemishes. Without.
And now, I was applying that state of mind to the idea that someone in my circle was an experienced user of an anal intruder.
That was simmering on the back burner for about a week when Mia and I went to a party thrown by one of her friends.
We greeted the hosts, peck-peck, and then waded into the crowd. Tectonics pried us apart and I found myself in the corner of the room, over by the fireplace with a very long brown drink talking with three other men about Michigan football.
My mind wandered as I scanned the guests. All of Mia’s friends were here. Ergo, the woman with experience was, too.
I counted eight friends and did a “thumbnail probability assessment.” (We do this kind of thing at work all the time.)
I eliminated her friend Janet, who I had always thought was as frigid as a North Dakota fencepost. There was Catherine with the very short hair who thought everything was gross, and Millie who had the really fancy, sculpted hair and the perfect nails and wore big floppy hats and seemed to think being beautiful was the same as fucking. I eliminated both of them, too.
I was down to five. Relying on my gut, I eliminated Andrea because of the way she ate a piece of spinach pie with her pinky extended, and Samantha because of her horsey laugh.
And that left three. There was Anisa, who wore long flowing peasant skirts and ruffly tops and seemed hippy-dippy enough to be into it. There was green-eyed and freckled Kelly and there was Margaret, a woman who had recently divorced the region’s most successful and boring accountant and who seemed so game she could chew through an anchor cable.
While I made a fresh drink, I looked across the room at Kelly. She was laughing at a joke and then there was a shift in the conversation and a seat opened up. She patted her date on the arm and went over to sit down.
I watched her face closely as she lowered herself. Would her face betray anything, any kind of discomfort or pain or even a little squirm when she sat–anything that would give evidence of, well, intrusion?
She looked entirely comfortable.
On the drive home, I probed Mia for clues.
“I don’t remember,” she said.
“You don’t remember what people ordered? How can that be? I’m just curious.”
“I’m not supposed to tell anyway. It is supposed to be discrete.”
“You can tell me,” I said. “I’m not going to say anything.”
And I meant it. I wasn’t going to say anything.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Because I didn’t really pay attention. I just packaged them up.”
“I don’t believe that.”
She shook her head. “Why do you care what my friends are into?” She looked out the window. “Most men, you included, never got out of the eighth grade.” She looked back over at me. She was wearing a knee-high skirt and she crossed her legs and pulled it slowly back.
“Isn’t that more interesting?” she asked.
And it was. But that night, while I was fucking her from behind, my mind was elsewhere; namely, the anus of a woman without a face or a name.
After that party, I went to Europe on a series of business calls so I was gone for a couple of weeks. It was good for me to get away and think about something else. I can’t lie though; the Eiffel Tower and Nelson’s column took me, ever so briefly, home again.
We had a really successful trip. The company was close to a breakthrough and I was the centerpiece. Our quality process was our differentiator, and we were landing new customers everywhere in Europe.
We were stopping in New York on the way home for another round of VC funding–a virtual sure thing–and then we would be on our way to going public.
From there, I’d be set. Mia and I would get married, we’d get a vacation place and drink single malt and watch the sun set. I’d make my living as a thought leader. We’d have a cook and a cleaning lady and a Guatemalan nanny, if it came to that, and we would winter somewhere, maybe Tuscany.
We upgraded to first class on the flight home. A notebook was open on my tray table, next to a bloody mary. I was supposed to be creating a training guide that would allow others to do what I did. We had to replicate my process so that we could operate at scale.
My pen lay on top of a blank page and I stared out the window looking at long, thin cloud formations with wide bases.
Back at home, I settled back into a routine. I was working a lot. The company had moved into a giant loft downtown. We had a room for each project and I just moved from room to room, squeezing the variance out of one thing or another.
I didn’t make much progress on my manual though. Our new people were learning, but only by example, only by observing me. We had nothing systematized. This was the last thing we would have let one of our customers get away with.
I had written only this:
How to Spot Variation
About two weeks after I got back we attended at a reception held by Hippy-Dippy Anisa in the condo she shared with her husband. She looked great in her long skirt and with her flowing brown hair. She smelled great, too.
We arrived, carrying a bottle of Shiraz we had picked up on the way over. It was a very big party–there were people everywhere.
Mia went to the bathroom, wading through the crowd with her hands raised. When she was out of sight, I muscled my way out onto the deck. A few people were smoking. The deck had its own stairway up to the master bedroom above, and I walked, unhesitant and unnoticed, up the stairs and into their bedroom.
I thought: where would I be if I were an anal plug?
I started my search in a nightstand. I opened the drawer and scanned, using my cell phone for light. I found a lighter, a small bag of pot, nine or more tubes of lip balm, a handbook of Buddhist sayings, and some nail polish. And then, way in the back, rolled into the corner like a hiding cat, was a small bottle of lube.
Lube! The precursor, the pseudoephedrine of the anal intrusion trade. I had the feeling I often had at work, when you could smell that you were near an answer, when things began to form like crystals.
I looked in the other nightstand, but there was no anal intruder. I looked in the compartment under the drawer in his nightstand (no luck) and then under hers, but there was nothing there either.
I moved over to the bureau and pulled open some drawers. I found the underwear drawer and felt around–I didn’t need light, the intruder would instantly stand out inside the silkies. There were thongs and one crotchless number, but no intruder.
It was, as we say at work, a rabbit hole. Anisa was not experienced.
I headed back down the stairs toward the deck. The stairs curved and I was standing on the landing half way up when I heard Mia’s voice.
“Max!” she shouted. “There you are? Where have you been?”
“Right there? Why?”
“I was enjoying the view.”
“The view? What can you see from there?” She started to come up the stairs to check.
“It’s all good,” I said, coming down and meeting her half way. I kissed her–hard–and she was distracted long enough. I held her hand as we walked back down and rejoined the party.
Back at work my training manual continued to lag.
I had now written the first few sentences of the first chapter, which read like this.
How to spot variation.
You have to look for it. Don’t overcomplicate it or you will never start. Just start your search at a likely place, using what you know. It doesn’t have to be the best place; it just has to be a likely place.
I showed this to one of my partners and told him I was stuck. He read it and suggested I work on the other chapters in the meantime, just to make sure we “kept the ball rolling.”
I started the second chapter like this.
How do you know if you can’t find it or if it was never there in the first place?
A couple of days later I came home around 8 or so. I could hear voices and when I got into the living room, Mia was sitting on the couch with freckled Kelly. They each a goblet full of red wine and they were watching The Bachelor.
Kelly had always been a favorite of mine. She had real, red Irish lass hair and she was freckled. She was wearing a sleeveless dress (which she often did) and she was freckled on her shoulders, too, which seemed sexy to me, like some kind of natural tattoo.
I had her on the suspect list not because there was an indicator but because there was no basis to exclude her, no counter indicator, which is sometimes how it works.
I greeted her with a peck on the cheek and then Mia was a peck on the lips and fled the scene with the Johnnie Walker Blue. Two drinks later (no water, one ice cube), I had to go to the bathroom.
Once I was in there, I noticed something on the floor: a purse (a fancy purse), with a shamrock pin on it.
I locked the door.
Sitting on the toilet, I opened it with less hesitation than I would like. It wasn’t that I thought the anal intruder was in her purse. I was looking for an artifact, something that is not the thing you seek but indicates the existence of the thing, its possible presence and maybe its location. Triangulation. Sometimes you can play the angles off the caroming walls and find where they intersect.
The purse had a purse smell–musty with an accent of mint–one I remembered from when my Mother would have me get her wallet. I tilted it toward the light and flicked through it.
Mostly there was the usual stuff: lip balm and lip gloss, a wallet, a few nail buffers, pens, Kleenex, chocolates, makeup, change. There were three items that I felt had probative value.
The first was a condom of relatively contemporary provenance. That was a “more likely” indicator.
There was a WWJD key chain. That was a “less likely” indicator.
The third item was at first blush unrelated but on more direct examination was in fact a neon sign with yellow and white running lights on a midway.
I pulled out a dog-eared paperback copy of Ethan Frome. The front cover was creased like broken glass. I opened the book. It was underlined, highlighted, annotated. There was writing in the margins.
Nothing could be clearer. This was not the woman who owned the anal intruder.
At work, the pressure was mounting. We had an investor meeting coming up and they were expecting to see my manual–it had been a central part of our pitch to them. It was an intellectual asset they wanted.
My partners came in to my office on Friday that week about 6 pm. I had the document open on my computer, but I had spent the afternoon writing and deleting sentences.
They weren’t happy. It was a kind of intervention, staged by geeks with black plastic glasses and blue jeans. They asked me if everything was OK at home, and then they shared with me how my actions were impacting them, how it made them feel that I was letting them down and how I was putting everyone’s stake in the company at risk if we couldn’t deliver for the VC guys.
They were right. I knew it; I would have felt the same way if I were in their shoes. That wasn’t the point.
They eventually left me and I snuck out the back stairs.
One of Mia’s friends (Molly) was getting married and we were at the reception the next night. Molly had been at the sex toy party and I had eliminated her right away. (When I looked at her wedding dress, I knew that I had been right. Even her shoulders were covered.)
We were having a good time. I was happy that Margaret, my last suspect, was at our table. I was carefully monitoring her. She did nothing to rule herself out.
She was looking great. She’d lost about 20 pounds when she got divorced and she was in a hot little black party dress with a push up bra. Her date was a carpenter and slightly younger than her.
At one point, I went to the bathroom and when I came back everyone had gone to dance. As I pulled my chair out I saw a cell phone under Margaret’s seat.
I clicked the home button. No passcode required.
I flicked immediately into her texts with a vague idea that I might bump against something that would let me triangulate my way to the answer–and in this case, confirm what I now felt I knew: that Margaret was experienced.
I found a thread of messages with someone named Andreas (who was not the carpenter) and I opened it.
The message at the very top was a photo of two breasts that belonged (I assumed) to Margaret.
Ohhh Baby! That’s hot. Big nipples, I like that.
How old are you?
How old do I look?
Those boobs look 22.
So ru game?
Baby, I’m game.
RU game for anything?
The butt. I like to do it in the butt. It’s my thing.
Let’s keep it in here.
And she sent another picture, this one of her pussy, shaved stainless steel smooth.
I put the phone to sleep and looked around quickly. I put it back down where I had found it.
I drained my drink. I wanted another one but I was in no position to stand up.
The next day was a Sunday and I was the only one in the office, my gooseneck lamp a shaft in the dark hallways.
I was finally writing my manual. I had jumped ahead a little bit, though, as advised, hoping to jump-start my thinking and then backfill behind it.
I began a chapter this way.
The persistence of variance
We seek to eliminate variance. Variance cannot be eliminated. This is the paradox that governs our work. To think we can eliminate variance is arrogance akin to men standing on earth and believing they were the center of the universe. You can eliminate all the variance that you can see, but then you learn to see at a new level, and new kinds of variance reveal themselves. This is a cycle without an end. Variance persists, in ever-tinier essences. We can render variance insignificant. Its existence is unassailable.
The rest of the manual was recitation. It was done and on my partner’s desks by evening. I took Mia out for dinner.
Monday morning, our CEO was in my office holding his copy of the manual.
“You can’t write this,” he said.
He pinched his face up. “Are you serious?”
I was serious. “I thought I nailed it,” I said. “It’s a complicated issue that I finally solved.”
He nodded his head, not in agreement but in confirmation that I was as serious as he had feared.
“We can’t tell our investors and our customers that we are building a game-changing business on something that cannot be done.”
“But it’s true.”
“Listen, Kierkegaard,” he said. “This isn’t a liberal arts college. These guys have MBAs, OK?”
I chose my next words carefully. “I believe,” I said finally, “that admitting you can’t eliminate every variance is vital to having the kind of mind that finds almost all of it.”
“I’m not saying you aren’t right. I’m saying no one wants to hear it from their quality control guys.”
There was a moment of silence between us. He handed the manual back to me. “Take that part out and it’s fine,” he said, leaving my office.
I was pissed off about that for a day or so. I just felt like I’d uncovered a key insight into what I did–an enabling insight–and we were an innovation-based knowledge work kind of company and all of a sudden that wasn’t welcome.
I took it out. I pasted the offending insight into another document and saved it. Once we cashed out, maybe I’d take a year and write a book.
Mia and I went to dinner that night. I was quiet, drinking but not tasting rye whiskey on my tight lips. Mia was talking about her friends; I heard her only on a plane somewhere beneath my active consciousness. I was making eye contact and nodding sporadically.
I began paying attention, however, when I thought I heard the following phrase:
“…and that’s why she bought that anal plug you were asking about.”
“What?” I said. “Who?”
“Janet. Are you listening?”
Janet, the North Dakota fencepost. “I couldn’t hear you. Why did she buy it, exactly?” I asked, pausing. “She doesn’t seem like the type.”
“Of course she isn’t,” Mia said. “Her brother is gay and he came out recently and she is trying to be supportive, so she bought it for him as a birthday present. That’s why.”
I signaled the waiter for another drink. Mia would have to drive.
Back out on the street, we decided to get some fresh air. We walked and Mia window shopped.
I was aware now. As I looked around me, I could not stop noticing the many different ways that people walked. Some of them walked stiff and erect, others more collapsed. Some people swung their hands and some walked with their hands in the pockets of their hoodie.
Some women swung one arm and latched the other to their purse strap. Some people were talking and continued to gesture as if they were at the dinner table.
All around me, people were walking–the simplest thing a human did; in fact, in evolutionary terms, the first thing a human did–and yet they all did it differently and you didn’t even have to see very many of them to know it, you just had to look on one crowded street on one moment on one night.
I put my arm around Mia and she leaned into me, and we walked that way down the dusk-lit street.