Monday, May 31, 2010

Variations on a Theme

A Cautionary Tale?

I did have a smartass lead-in for this. But then I realized that I should just let the story do the talking.

Once Upon a Time...

...there was a group of four merchants who ruled the tiny hub of an equally tiny kingdom.

Now, it needs to be understood that when I say 'ruled', they weren’t ‘all-powerful’. In fact, they were, for the most part what you’d probably refer to as ‘benign’. Honestly? Closer to ‘lacking overreaching ambition’. Worse, they really had no sense of the potential of the kingdom because...

Well, because they were all busy with their own problems, and really didn’t have time or the oomph to see past them.

One merchant owned a business that provided both the magical warmth of fires, and the coolness of ice.

Another merchant owned a business that enabled a person’s clothing to be magically appear brand-new.

The third merchant fed people, filling them up with a sort of culinary magic.

And the fourth- Well, the fourth designed the most basic of garments to wear...and possessed the additional expertise to repair them when necessary. It wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable to see this as ‘haberdasherian prestidigitation’. Or, magic.

And yet magic was hardly what came to mind when one wandered the streets of this kingdom’s hub.

For you see, each of these merchants owned land. Land that extended beyond their businesses, land that paid them rent by way of tenants, land that allowed them to hide within the strange comfort of their own private struggles.

But it also allowed them to not be bothered to even attempt to see what philosophers had long referred to as ‘The Big Picture’.

And so begins the real beginning of our tale. Which is, fittingly, the beginning of our four merchants’ tale, the ending of which-

But I’m getting ahead of myself here, aren’t I? Speaking of endings before I’ve even presented you with a start...

One day a wise philosopher visited this tiny hub of the tiny kingdom. He walked up and down its streets. (Remember, it was a very small kingdom, and we’re only talking about its hub.) Up and down he walked, endlessly observing, endlessly making notes, endlessly asking questions of the hub’s citizenry...endlessly scratching his head all the while.


Well, and I suppose I should have mentioned this at the beginning, but this kingdom, its hub, was struggling. It wasn’t ‘dying’, nothing quite so dramatic...though a set of circumstances in which the potential death of the hub was imminent might actually have helped, may have precipitated action. No, it wasn’t dead, it wasn’t dying, it was more-

It was stagnant.

There was no real sense of energy to the hub.

Oh, things happened, as in any place the world over.


People bought things, people sold things, people sat at the inn and ate things...

But it was as if life had never been injected into the fabric of the kingdom’s hub. (I previously mentioned ‘magic’. Don’t hesitate to think of one when considering the other. But that’s another tale, for another time, yes?)

And so this philosopher (known by many names, but here, we’ll call him ‘The Questioner’) ventured up and down the hub’s streets, talking to merchants, chatting with citizens, researching at the local library, strained to understand just why this kingdom’s hub was so stagnant. So lacking in Life, so bereft of magic.

This fascinated him, because in the peripheral areas of the kingdom, and in neighbouring kingdoms, there was some very vibrant, very real non-stagnancy. It wasn’t as if the world where the kingdom was situated was all stagnant. Prompting The Questioner to ask even more questions. Endlessly.

One day, The Questioner was having lunch at The Kingdom Inn, the hub’s primary restaurant and gathering place, coincidentally owned by one of our four businessmen. The other three merchants were there, too. As they’d heard about The Questioner’s visit, and all his enquiries, they were curious about his motivations, the answers he’d received upon making these enquiries, and the conclusions he’d drawn from these answers.

“Well, that depends,” The Questioner replied to them after they’d expressed their curiosity. “What do you want?”

All four of the merchants looked at each other, flummoxed. (Such is the power of The Questioner that his capabilities are myriad; think of him additionally as ‘The Flummoxer’.)

“What do you want?” he repeated. “What would you like the kingdom’s hub to look like? How do you dream of it being? What changes would you like to see?”

Their flummoxedness increased.

And into their states descended their unsettledness. (Because you see, this philosopher was also known by another name: The Unsettler.)

“Unless of course,” he continued, biting heartily into a chunk of fresh bread, while preparing to break off some exquisite old cheddar from a ginormous block displayed on his tabletop.

They waited.

“Unless?” the innkeeper asked.

“Unless you don’t want anything to change.”

A quartets of gasps rose up and filled the room.

The Unsettler eyed them while swallowing heartily. And waited.

“Why would you say that?” the procurer of fire and ice asked.

“Yes; why wouldn’t we want things to change?” added the clothing refresher. “We have a lot invested here.”

“And we do a lot to ensure that our investments are secured...and that they flourish.”

“Indeed?” The Unsettler responded. (Watch how he questions and unsettles and flummoxes at the exact same time; truly remarkable...and maybe just a little bit magical, I think you’ll come to agree.) “Do tell.”

What the four merchants didn’t know was that to a great extent, The Questioner had already really deduced as much as he needed about the hub of the kingdom to know what ailed it, why it was so mired in its stagnancy. Still, it was always good to get the horse to talk if possible, so you could receive the information right from its mouth.

“We have a Hat Day Parade,” the haberdasher declared proudly.

“Really...?” The Questioner asked. “What’s the purpose of this ‘Hat Day Parade’?”

“Well,” the innkeeper said, settling in to his chair, kneading his thighs as if to prime the pump for his explanation. ‘Some years ago, we decided that, since the kingdom’s official hat had finally been chosen –previously, for centuries, the kingdom’s official hat was that of our founders, but in time, it had been decided we deserved a hat of our own– in an attempt to generate unity, pride and generally celebrate the kingdom’s good traits, we started a parade.”

“Admirable. Continue...”

“So once a year, as spring fades and summer nears, we have a parade.”

“Which we help pay for,” the fire and ice man added, flush with pride.

“Because...?” The Unsettler asked, clearly using his abilities as The Questioner to their fullest.

“So that the parade would be successful.”


“And people would feel pride.”


“And they would remain after the parade and spend oodles of money.”

“Ah,” The Questioner nodded. “On...?”

None of the men understood.

“On what would they be spending these ‘oodles’?”

Frowns all ‘round. Which, in this instance, wasn’t the result of the four merchants being unsettled...but rather, once again, flummoxed. (See how effortlessly he achieves his desired effect? Back and forth and back and forth... Remarkable.)

“Surely if you had hopes that all these people who would hopefully come to see the parade would hopefully hang about afterwards and hopefully spend ‘oodles of money’...there must have been something you hoped for them to purchase.”

Cue further flummoxedness.

“OK,” The Questioner continued, “then tell me; have the parades been a success?”


“Oh, indeed!”

“We’ve always had a- a consistent turnout!”

“The sidewalks were...busy.”

“Successful, successful, successful!”

“Really...?” The Questioner asked, morphing before their eyes into The Unsettler. “So lots of sales, then? ‘Oodles of money’ spent?”



“Not even close.”

“I wish.”

“So,” The Unsettler sighed. “You pay for a the hopes that people will the hopes that they remain behind after...and spend ‘oodles of money’. And yet...they don’t. Spend the money. Because...?”

“We don’t know.”

“We’ve never known.”

“We’ve never understood.”

“It’s always been frustrating.”

The Unsettler considered this for a bit, munching on more bread, gnawing on more cheese...and downing it all with a frosty Diet Coke. “Will you permit me to hazard a guess?”

Even as he’d asked the question, The Unsettler knew that he’d...well, unsettled them with it. Still, he carried on. “It’s because there was nothing for the people to purchase.”

Oh, such a clamour arose. Four grown men, acting like hurt and bruised boys. Sullen, even.

You clean clothes,” he said to the one. “You feed people,” he said to the innkeeper. “You deal in fire and ice...and you construct and repair garments.” He waited. Bided his time. Because as all good magicians know, timing is everything. (So do baseball batters, but again: another tale for another time.) “What have you to sell to those made merry by festivities?”

More bluster.

“I have tenants! They have goods!” one cried. Then another. Then the third...and finally the fourth.

“Oh? Are they purveyors of items which an idle public can spend ‘oodles of money’ on, following a parade? Are they not merchants of such notions as- Well, shall we take a tour from west to east, then back again?” he asked, probably enjoying the moment a bit too much, but then; he’d earned the right to, with all his endless walking and all his endless questions and all his endless rumination on the gathered answers.) “Health aids and associated confections...” he began. “...picture clothing...more general confections... fish and chips...gambling-”

“Hold on just one moment!”

“Pet grooming, ‘manis and pedis’, cupcakes, personal counselling...” He watched the men deflate as he carried on. “Miscellaneous this-and-thats, more personal attention, greeting cards and paper and doughnuts...and the noble practitioning of attending to not-so-good feet.”


“Chew on that a while,” he suggested while he peeled some grapes. “And as you do, additionally consider this: a parade must have something behind it in order to be both supportable and vibrant.”

“But there is!” they all cried at once. “It’s in celebration of Hat Day!”

They all went quiet at his shaking head.

“A Christmas parade has behind it...Christmas. A month’s worth of shopping and celebration. A Thanksgiving parade has behind it the notion of a feast, of get-togethers amongst family and friends, a celebration of the yearly harvest. A national holiday parade? Well, fireworks, fair grounds, amusement parks, and, were there one in existence, a Hallowe’en parade would have that evening’s door-to-dooring, as well as parties for the adults.” Taking note of the general despondency before him, four times over, The Unsettler allowed the moment to stretch. “Never mind the fact that you have nothing to sell to the people you have come and watch your parade...but there’s nothing attached to it...” Here, he held up a finger. “...aside from goodwill, esprit de corps...and patriotism. All lovely concepts...but nothing to hang bountiful commerce on.”

Having left the room to use the facilities, our philosopher returned to find the quartet of businessmen awaiting him.

Raising an eye, he silently registered his question ‘Yes...?’

“What do you suggest?” he was asked in response. “What’s your advice?”

“In regards to what?” he replied, sitting down once more...and delighting in a bowl of ice cream that had been brought out in his absence. “I’ve heard about this local delicacy.”

“Yes, well...” the innkeeper began with no small degree of sadness attached to the tone of his voice, “we’re losing our factory.”

“So I understand. And of course, I have a suggestion about that, too. Advice.”

If you could apply a label to these men’s faces, it would be ‘wonder’. (Which most definitely means that our philosopher could also be known now as ‘The Wondermaker’.)

“However, in regards to what we should do about- About what we’d like to change...”

“About our parade, about our lack of ‘oodles of money’...”

“About everything...”

“Well, let’s go back to my initial question: What do you want?” Here, he paused, relishing the delight that was the kingdom’s Dairy’s ice cream. “”

“I want success!”

“I want oodles of money!”

“I want to not feel like everything is a struggle.”

“I want change.”

There was a palpable twinkle in The Unsettler’s eye. “Really?”

“Really!” The response was in four-part harmony.

“Very well. First, here’s how I see things: you have a veritable gold mine here.”

Picture now, four giddy men. Gone was ‘flummoxedness’, and in its place, boyish giddyness. Almost the sort where jigging ensues. And spirited clapping-of-hands.

“A gold mine that far as I can tell...never been mined.”


“Mostly because none of you seem to appreciate what you’re mining. Or the complexity of the mine. Or really...not to put too fine a point on to mine.”

Uh-oh; back to bluster.

And once again, a solitary finger was raised.

Silence restored.

“You each own sizable pieces of property. Each of you have been content to address your primary business concerns, while allowing rents to buoy you, received from tenants who in truth do little more than fill your vacancy lists. However, are any of them desirable tenants? Are any of them dream tenants? Would any of you pursue any of these tenants from other areas within the kingdom to relocate here? More to the point: would you trade them for better, more profitable, more synergy-creating tenants? Any of them? Some of them? All of them? Hmm...?”

Flummoxedness, redux.

“Gentlemen, you’re not at all paying attention to ‘the mix’.”

The four merchants stared at the stranger. “Mix?” they asked as one.

“The mix, gentlemen. The way the combination of goods being sold, wares being offered can affect the flow of shoppers. The traffic a hub receives.”

This seemed to stop them in their tracks, stunning them. “Traffic,” their chorus managed.

Traffic, gentlemen. The very construct on which all success is built. More traffic, more possible sales. But in order for you to increase traffic, you must first present the shopper with reasons to frequent the hub more often. To tempt them. And to do this, you must get the ‘mix’ right.”

Our four merchants sat mute in their not-quite-understanding state.

A heavy sigh issued from The Questioner’s lips as he moved his spoon around in the emptying bowl of ice cream. “You are all independent businessmen.”

A quartet of nods resulted from this declaration.

“But you are all entirely dependent on each other, and others besides, for the generation of ‘traffic’.”

Nothing he could have said would have set off these men more than they were then. Each took offense. Umbrage. All approached ‘high dudgeon’ apace.

The Questioner waited them out, savouring his dessert.

Finally, they ceased their conflagration and ceded the floor to him once again.

“Only one of you possesses the fabled business attribute of ‘draw’.”

They all looked around, eyeing each other, trying to solve the riddle.

Draw is the ability to compel a citizen to make a special trip. Not a trip predicated so much out on need,” he added, “but rather, out of compulsion. Out of desire. Which,” he added, playing with the liquid on his tongue, “could be considered a need after a time...”

“Which one of us- the innkeeper began.

You,” came the quick response. “You are a purveyor not only of food and drink, but also of contact. Of socializing. You assist in actually constructing a more humane social tapestry here in your kingdom’s hub. You are, beyond all others, a hub of the hub.”

Talk about setting the cat amongst the pigeons.

All our stranger could do was let his opinion play out its effect amongst the three. Because our innkeeper’s thoughts were elsewhere. “Surely you’re not saying that the kingdom needs another- That in order to increase traffic-”

“One of you is sufficient,” The Questioner replied. “You have draw. As a collective, in regards to the health of the hub, you need more merchants with draw. In order to increase traffic, in order to improve the mix...”

“In order to increase sales...”

“In order to increase profits...”

“In order to increase our happiness!”

Ah... How quickly a man’s mood can shift. So to witness four such shifts... Remarkable.

The Questioner continued. “Nobody seems the least bit interested in addressing this fundamental conundrum. in order to create the synergy that your kingdom’s hub requires in order to truly flourish, to shake off the long-borne shackles of take what you have invested time and money and years of effort to create...and turn it into something truly admirable, truly profitable, truly...kingdomlike.”

It was as if they had been told news from on-high...which they were grateful for...and yet also told something they didn’t want to hear...for which they were most definitely not grateful.

“What are you saying?” the innkeeper finally asked.

“Evolve...or die.”

“That’s not true,” the clothing craftsman opined, in a tone of voice so very much akin to what is commonly known as ‘whining’.

“Perhaps you’re right. You can keep things as they are...and things will change when you die. But if you want to truly flourish...then you need to evolve. To make adjustments to the mix. To address your traffic conundrum by way of increasing the number of draws your hub change.”


“Why not? You said you were interested in ‘change’...”

“I said I wanted change!” came the angry response. “For things to be better. I don’t want to change personally!”

“Gentlemen,” he declared at last, tossing the the spoon into the bowl, providing the perfect percussive punctuation, an effective accompaniment to his finale. “I’ve studied your kingdom’s hub, this lovely patch of civilization. I’ve gone to great lengths to examine the history of its commerce, its ups, its downs, where it’s gone wrong, where it’s gone right...and my conclusion is that you have reached a crux-point. You can carry on as you have...paying lip service to the status quo...which really is hardly more than treading water; a form of success, I suppose, but nothing to write home about...or you can commit to giving your kingdom the very best hub, the hub it deserves. I have a plan, a proposal. All you need do is decide what it is that you want. What you truly want.”

As with all good tales, our ending lets the reader decide. Between two options.

The first option had the philosopher presenting our merchants with his proposal. His plan of action, his strategy. A choice. An opportunity to mine what had long been waiting to be brought to the surface. Some sacrifice was involved, and some risk, to be sure. But the potential payoff for this choice was undeniably- Well, magical. (May I suggest that a further moniker be ‘The Magician’?)

So in this ending, the four merchants searched their souls, exerted themselves to be realistic and honest about how things had been and what they were willing to do to ensure a better future for themselves individually, as a collective, as a hub, a kingdom...and a people.

And they chose to change.
They chose to embrace the idea that there simply wasn’t enough ‘there’ there in their hub, and they made adjustments. Adjustments according to The Questioner’s plan. Some of these adjustments meant that current tenants weren’t given new leases. Instead, new tenants were pursued, ‘scouted’, if you will, because they were potential draws, because they could realistically improve traffic...because they added to the mix. In the case of undeveloped lots, where previous buildings had been torn down, they replicated this approach and went after tenants elsewhere, some from within the kingdom, some from without, ones they all agreed were ideal candidates for the hub.

The result?

Well, what happened didn’t happen ‘overnight’. But it was as close to this as you could possibly imagine.

The new businesses were instant draws.

Traffic increased immediately.

And everyone benefitted. Even our four merchants’ business sales increased steadily.

And when they had their next parade? It was tied-in with an actual festival. An arts-and-crafts fair. A giant picnic. And a film night at the local park, where the theme was ‘Our Kingdom’s Cap’. All events -including the parade- were successful. People spent ‘oodles of money’. (In fact, it was so successful that they eventually instituted another parade, one celebrating the kingdom’s flag.)

Best of all, the government of the kingdom, delighted at increased tax revenue, worked with the hub to improve other aspects of Life.

And so in the end, they all lived happily ever after.

But I spoke of a second option. This other option had them not doing anything differently, instead continuing as they had for so long a time. They were, remember, somewhat ‘comfortable’. None of them were young men. Each had weathered bad times, struggled to stay afloat, and really, in their hearts-of-hearts, just wanted to get to the end of the race in one piece. And so they did nothing. (Or what approximated nothing.) The result? Not magical at all: what had been for so very long, continued. No real draws in the hub, a mix that just wasn’t good...and so little traffic, little trade...stagnation.

So; which option do you think they chose?