Lesson No. 1: Remember what day it is
Two years ago, in a fit of hubris, I published an essay on this page boasting about my skill as an April Fool's prankster. ("Fool's tools - for jolly jokers and wicked wisenheimers," March 31, 2003.)
"What on earth were you thinking?" my wife asked. But she asks that all the time, so I wasn't worried.
I should have been.
One of my duties in the Monitor's newsroom was to supervise a group of extremely bright junior editorial assistants, whom we call JEDAs. These wonderful young people had graduated from the most prestigious universities. They could interview sources in foreign countries over the phone. They could explain the political implications of Bolivia's tariffs.
It was my job to make sure the JEDAs delivered the office mail, which was not the most glamorous part of their day. If they wanted to do it in French or compute the square root of the number of letters, fine with me.
They also had to distribute the morning newspapers. Everybody knew that the editors could easily pick up their own newspapers when they arrived, but the Paper Delivery Duty remained - despite persistent complaints - as a kind of rite of passage.
I wouldn't have cared, really, except that when an editor didn't get his morning paper, he would let me know. I'm sure no one ever thought it, but in my mind all I heard was, "Can't you keep your people in order?" And then I would call the JEDA on Paper Delivery Duty and see what had gone wrong. It was tedious and a little annoying, but we endured.
Well, early in the year, a child-care issue made it difficult for me to come into the office on time. That had evolved into a permanent late schedule for me, which was tolerated by management but never officially approved, so I was nervously doing my best to show that I could maintain my various editorial and managerial duties even when I wasn't physically in the office.
When the morning papers weren't delivered or weren't delivered correctly, editors would track me down at home via e-mail or on the phone, which made me feel like a slacker and a bad manager, which was probably true. And it's that anxiety that brings us to April Fool's Day 2003.
Around 7 a.m. I received an e-mail from someone in the Op-Ed section complaining that she hadn't received her newspaper. There was nothing particularly unusual about that, so I apologized, sent off a message to the JEDA assigned to Morning Papers, and went back to my cereal.
Over the next hour, a few more e-mails came in with the same complaint. I sent off another message to the Morning Paper JEDA and began to feel the first sweat of embarrassment that my managerial negligence was on such wide display.
At 8:15 an editor wrote to say that someone had dumped hundreds of papers on her desk and around the floor. Before I could deal with that, the newsroom's head librarian wrote that she was missing all the morning papers - and needed to check a few stories that were not available online.
And then another editor wrote to let me know a JEDA had hit her in the head with a flying newspaper.
I sent back messages to everyone, à la Alexander Haig, assuring them that I was in control here. I also started calling, perhaps a little frantically, trying to reach friends in the office who could tell me what was going on. No one picked up (caller ID).
Then a senior editor wrote to say that I had to do something, because one of the JEDAs looked entirely out of control. As you might imagine, this is not a common problem in our office. I sent more messages. I placed more calls. Nothing. I lost my appetite and put my cereal in the sink.
Another staff member wrote that our editor-in-chief had called a special meeting of the JEDAs. This is it, I thought, the final exposure of my managerial failure.
Panicked to reach him before the emergency meeting, I called his assistant.
"Oh, Ron," she said sweetly. "I'm so glad you called. Where are you? Paul's been trying to get in touch with you all morning."
Before I could explain (or make something up), she patched me through to the editor himself. He sounded annoyed, maybe even a little alarmed. This from a man who stays cool when foreign correspondents are missing in war zones.
"What is going on, Ron?"
I started to sputter explanations and excuses, but then I could hear faint laughter in the background. Suddenly, it was painfully, horribly clear that I'm not, in fact, the master prankster. All my JEDAs were standing around the speaker phone in the editor's office loving this.
But like any good manager, I took credit for their success.