Beating the Bean-Counters: Eloquence Against the Machine
The restaurant you ate at was just a tad too expensive and the expense report got kicked back. The bean counters send you a searing message because you dared to change flights. The number of ways in which the accountants can get under your skin is infinite, and the ordinary worker has so few weapons with which to fight back.
But the late, great reporter Michael Browning, a former colleague of mine at the Miami Herald who died earlier this month, was a master not only at writing newspaper stories, but at striking back at the Guardians of the Corporate Coffers.
Here's a classic memo he wrote in 1995 to Herald State Editor John Pancake, who is today Arts Editor of this here Washington Post. Browning was defending his claim that the Herald should pay for his purchase of a book on the trees, shrubs and vines of northern Florida and his trip to a hamlet called Marianna, where he'd been told the goldenrod was growing especially tall:
MEMO TO: John Pancake, state editor
FROM: Michael Browning, roving correspondent
DATE: Oct. 22, 1995
SUBJECT: Goldenrod expenses
I know the Gang Down in Accounting are squinting slantendicularly at this latest book extravagance of mine: Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Northern Florida and Adjacent Georgia and Alabama, by Robert K. Godfrey; and I admit
$60 is a bit much for the bean counters to swallow, even on a good day.
There have been raised eyebrows, too, I hear, at the trip to Marianna for purposes of viewing the goldenrod at its height. I can even understand why some might consider all this a waste of money.
But once the facts have been laid out, I am confident you will take my part against these picayune Doubting Thomases. Not for nothing are you known as the Ganges of Mercy and the Gibraltar of Justice amongst state desk
I think it is high time we "ripped the lid" off this goldenrod story. Too long have we turned a blind eye to the sheer magnificence of this plant, which gilds the autumns of North Florida with its showy candelabralike
blooms. Too long have we allowed goldenrod to be defamed as a common weed.
The well-known botanist, Angus Gholson of Chattahoochee, is practically a legend in these parts (Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines is dedicated to him by the author.) "A weed," pronounced Gholson simply, "is a plant that is
growing where you don't want it to."
By that definition, goldenrod is no weed. It is growing exactly where any right-thinking person would want it to, which is practically everywhere in North Florida this time of year. It's all over the swales of Interstate 10, it is glowing roundabout Leon, Madison, Jefferson, Wakulla, Liberty, Gadsden and a dozen other counties up here. Goldenrod makes autumn glorious in these parts.
But if there is a goldenrod capital of the state, it is surely Marianna. Hence the trip. Nobody could pass through Jackson County and not be impressed by the wealth of goldenrod. In some fields here, it just goes on for acre after aureate acre, and it is at its peak right now.
And they say some people are allergic to it! They are to be pitied. To step into a patch of goldenrod here is to wander into an orgy. Bees, moths, butterflies, ladybugs and other insects are gorging themselves on goldenrod pollen, and clouds of them flutter up around you as you stumble into the patch, your trouser legs getting rasped by blackberry vines.
"There goes the neighborhood!" the insects are probably saying in their buggy language, but after a few seconds of skittering about, they remember the goldenrod and return to it.
Goldenrod has no smell. It's impact is all visual: it smites your eye with luminous yellow, the brightest yellow imaginable, against blue skies and green pines. I tell you, Boss, I wish the Gang Down in Accounting could have
Speaking of the Gang Down in Accounting, I sometimes wonder if we are not becoming too cost-obsessed at The Herald these days. True, Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines, was not cheap, but where else could you learn that Chrysoma pauciflosculosa has flowers "in numerous involucrate heads more or less paniculately disposed," and that "on coastal dunes and in thinly wooded pinelands . . . the autumnal near-ground-level aspect is rather like a 'sea
of gold.' " Exactly. Beauty and utility are always at war in this world, Boss, and goldenrod has been one of the minor battlefields.
If you visit the Edison-Ford Museum down in Fort Myers -- and I will be glad to do so, if you authorize the trip -- you will see four automobile tires made out of goldenrod sap. Fact. Edison was convinced the sticky sap could be used instead of rubber and spent years extracting the stuff and boiling it down. The results were unsatisfactory. The goldenrod-rubber wore out too fast. But the tires are still there, in the museum, and so is a champion six-foot stalk of Chrysoma pauciflosculosa, nailed to a wall, under glass, like a trophy.
Think of this expense account as a chance to make scientific history. If you approve it, we shall have succeeded where the great Thomas Edison himself failed -- we shall have turned goldenrod into gold.
I would be inordinately pleased to report to you that Browning's memo succeeded. Whether the Knight Ridder corporation, a lately deceased victim of its own cost-cutting zeal and its mistrust of its own product, paid the bill is lost to history. Pancake, thrilled by Browning's prose, does recall approving the expense report, but we'll likely never know if the faceless beings in Accounting went for it. Most likely, they did. And that would have been a small victory in a tough world.
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