I just turned down an all-expense paid weekend trip to Miami. Will someone please commit me to a mental institution? (All I ask is that it not be one of those franchise chains like McCrazies’ or Batshit Barn, but instead have an idyllic name like The Heather On The Lakes at Woodcrest Home for the Disturbed.)
The free trip didn’t come without substantial strings attached. No, I wouldn’t have to hear a brief presentation on the glories of owning a time-share in the Everglades called Mosquito Cove. No, it wasn’t a transfer stop on my way to Guantanamo where I would stand trial for looking up al-Qaida on Wikipedia that time. And no, I wasn’t being presented to the press as the new quarterback of the hapless Miami Dolphins.
It was to be a business trip. I would be “helping out,” as we call it in the trade, on a session in which attorneys, accountants, bankers and assorted others would pull all-nighters to finalize the wording of some obscure financial document. My role would be as proofreader, assuring that the document retained the highest quality possible while the attorneys added a comma, then twenty minutes later the accountants took the comma out, then the bankers got into a drunken fistfight with the underwriters before everybody compromised on a semicolon.
I seriously considered taking the trip before telling my boss I’d have to decline for undisclosed reasons (I needed to do laundry and I didn’t want to miss elimination night on “American Idol”.) I honestly regretted not taking my proofreading talents to South Beach because I knew, from past experience, it held the potential of being very little work and a whole lot of waiting around in a 36th floor conference room with a view of Biscayne Bay. I’ve done this many times before and could guess that what was predicted to be an intense round-the-clock drafting session might easily devolve into me sitting by the pool all afternoon. This, despite the best efforts at financial regulatory reform.
About a decade ago, I’d jump at these opportunities all the time. Most trips then were to the Tampa/St. Pete region. I’d move in to a nearby Residence Inn for several weeks at a time, then show up for eight hours a day at a beautiful office park where I’d eat shrimp salad pitas and correct the occasional typo.
I got so good at this that other trips soon followed: to Atlanta, to Pennsylvania, to Miami, and to New York. The best business trip I ever took was to the Big Apple in 2000, when I spent two entire weeks in a lavish Hilton right across from the World Trade Center, working maybe five hours a night for a high-profile client who demanded a proofreader on-site, even though that reader read mostly The Village Voice with only occasional glimpses at the boring details of the ill-fated AOL-Time Warner union. (I tried to tell them “No! No! It’ll be a disaster!” but they’d just keep hissing “synergy” and ask me where else would people be going in the next ten years to hear “you’ve got mail”?)
I had the best time spending the day roaming lower Manhattan in those pre-9/11, pre-financial meltdown days. The weekend was even better. Saturday, the first warm day of spring, I hiked up through the Village, up Broadway, all the way to Central Park where I saw both the spot where John Lennon was shot and Cindy Crawford pushing a baby stroller. I tried to walk back downtown but got caught up in a Gay Pride Parade and nearly converted in the excitement until I hailed a cab for a return to the financial district and heterosexuality (thanks to free Spectravision). Sunday was also fun in an entirely different way; a cold front brought snow showers to the city, coating the lovely homeless people in a raiment of white.
After a three-year hiatus during which business travel was sharply reduced by my company, I returned to the road but this time for a different purpose. I was one of several people designated to act as an outsource trainer, bringing the civilizing influences of two-em paragraph indents and ragged right margins to the heathens of South Asia . Between 2003 and 2008, I made six trips to India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and can claim at least partial credit for creation of the Asian Tiger that ate up so many American jobs. (You’re welcome.)
The biggest difference between travelling to “help out” a drafting session and being a visiting trainer has to do with control. Under the former scenario, you pretty much have to do what your hosts tell you to do, which can vary from simple proofreading to collating some paperwork to taking the blame for the ill-conceived merger between Bed, Bath and Beyond and the American Nazi Party.
When you’re the trainer, it’s you who calls the shots. Especially when you’re the mighty American and everybody else is eager-but-dusky Asians. The local management team caters to your various training essentials — “I’ll need a case of Pepsi, three dozen dry-erase markers (the kind that you can ‘huff’) and a cadre of young boys to wash my feet,” I typically demand. “Chop chop!” — then pretty much leaves you alone with your class of trainees. As a conscientious employee, I’ve always tried to inject a fair amount of useful information into my presentations, but have few qualms about giving a connect-the-dots assignment for the afternoon I want to skip out and visit a volcano.
The temptation to be avoided in such a situation is to train them completely wrong as some kind of guerilla effort to halt the march of economic globalization. Rather than introducing them to the techniques of scanning through a converted word processor manuscript to watch for corrupted characters like ξ and ♥, I could tell them they want to be sure to insert the phrase “Death to U.S. imperialists” into little-noticed corners of proxy statements. A few well-placed errors like this could restore the U.S. to economic dominance and give me a hearty laugh at the same time.
Unfortunately, I always chickened out, especially in Sri Lanka where a civil war with the Tamil Tigers meant armed troops on every street corner who’d be more than happy to machine-gun me down for such whimsy.
So, instead of spending a balmy few days romping on the beach with LeBron James, Gloria Estafan and Don Shula, I opted for another boring weekend at home, dreaming of what might have been. I hope that Miami survived without me.