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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

John:

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
staffers.

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
been there.

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.

Yrs,

MCB

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.

By Marc Fisher |  January 15, 2007; 7:56 AM ET
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Comments

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Marc--

Do you read the sports section of the Post? Have you ever met this guy, Angus Phillips? He wrote a beautiful little piece yesterday about hunting on the Eastern Shore that is a stark contrast to your style of approaching people who have different ways of doing things.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/13/AR2007011300647.html

Rather than ridicule and condescencion, he seems respectful and curious, and interested in understanding and appreciating the diversity of the human experience. Of course, he does fire off guns, so he may not be the right sort of person for your refined tastes, but it might also be an eye-opening experience for you to spend a bit more time with him and a bit less time with yourself.

Just a suggestion on this day honoring the American who's done the most to advance the cause of diversity, tolerance, and inclusion.

Posted by: Pocomoke | January 15, 2007 8:55 AM

Marc, I am an accountant. It seems that the bean counters were doing their job.
You see we can't win. Management pressure accountants to file misleading financial statements and if they object there is no recourse. When accounts do their job to to audit costs, guess what?

Posted by: Peter Roach | January 15, 2007 1:07 PM

$60 is a lot to swallow for a book you could've checked out of a library.

Posted by: Tomcat | January 15, 2007 1:10 PM

Utterly charming, Marc. Thank you.

Posted by: Staticphoto | January 15, 2007 4:29 PM

Marc, have you ever heard of the GAO? Probably not. Otherwise, you would be dead from a heart attack.

Posted by: Worker | January 15, 2007 4:56 PM

Where is your appreciation for romance, people? And how about your sense of humor? This is a great piece. I don't think Browning is disrespectful to the people in accounting, and I don't think Marc is actually opposed to accountants or that he is routinely disrespectful to people.

In fact, his columns have shown respect for lots of ordinary folks whose stories would not otherwise be told--for example, the old people who were having trouble adapting their house to meet their needs because of preservation ordinances. Lots of others too--the man who brings wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery, the boy who needed a place to practice his piano where he wouldn't disturb anyone.

I'll let Marc defend himself further if he wants to, but, really, Pocomoke, you should take a look at more of his columns before you bash him. Refined tastes? This is a man who has spent lots of time worrying about the quality of the ice cream sold at baseball games. A worthy pursuit, but hardly the pursuit of a gourmet. And, he refuses to read any book that contains a phrase written in French, clearly an indication of lack of refinement.

Posted by: THS | January 15, 2007 7:26 PM

Next time I get in hot water, I want to hire THS as my lawyer.

Posted by: Fisher | January 15, 2007 8:27 PM

Oh, that's a lovely memo. Also, I wish we could boot reflexively mean people from your comments.

Posted by: h3 | January 15, 2007 9:44 PM

h3 said : "Oh, that's a lovely memo. Also, I wish we could boot reflexively mean people from your comments."

Exactly h3! An Internet discussion board is no place for dissent. When will you people learn?

God bless you, h3, God bless you.

Posted by: BDTLR, VA | January 16, 2007 2:17 AM

h3--

The Post's policy is clear "We encourage users to analyze, comment, and even challenge..." You don't like that policy? You think only people who are not "reflexively mean" (whatever that means) should be allowed to express themselves? But isn't that, in itself, being "reflexively mean?"

Posted by: KK | January 16, 2007 9:55 AM

The stylistic merits of Phillips's piece can be debated ad nauseam, but I think we can all agree that it was more of a lighthearted sketch than a serious attempt to get at the heart of regional philosophies, which is what Marc was going for. Regardless of whether you think he succeeded or not, don't go comparing apples and oranges.

Posted by: fs | January 16, 2007 12:23 PM

h3, go ahead a boot me from the chat. Here, let me turn around and bend over.....

Posted by: Worker | January 16, 2007 3:36 PM

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