Bad News for Noobs: The Worst of The Terse
How little notes can strike sour ones
By Ed Goldman
I recently read a business story about the scariest two-word note a young wannabe executive or law firm associate can read: “Please fix” (abbreviated as “pls fix”).
The idea of the story was that the note could easily ruin the evening, weekend, vacation and social life of the recipient as he or she struggled to repair something without fully understanding what might be broken.
Like most of you, I’ve received very brief notes from various sources throughout my life that messed with my digestive tract.
Teachers were probably the worst of the terse. They might scribble AWK (for Awkward) over a sentence in an essay I’d written, for example. I confess that the first time I received one of those, in about the seventh grade, I thought the teacher was imitating a crow complaining about its abandonment issues.
Then there was the ultimate fear inducer, usually scrawled in what I took to be ALL-CAPS ANGER at the top of a term paper I’d turned in: PLEASE SEE ME ABOUT THIS.
What was I to conclude from a note like that?
Had my teacher discovered I’d cribbed most of the information, writing style and even punctuation for my paper on “Our Friend the Steam Engine” from the World Book Encyclopedia, which was the hard-copy Google of my youth?
Moreover, had I failed to realize she may have her own set of the exact same reference books?
Correspondingly, was I therefore stopping by her desk for a serious scolding on my way to suspension, a firing squad or worst of all, a note to my parents?
That day my 50-minute class seemed to last 14 hours until it ended and I had to see my teacher about whatever “this” was.
The first time this happened, I lucked out. The teacher must have had an Encyclopedia Britannica, not a World Book, and what she wanted to see me about was that I ought to consider pursuing a career as a writer. She even said I wrote “good copy” and I wanted to correct her by saying, “Actually, I copy good writing” but I was still so young and so relieved—and, when it came to school assignments, so remarkably amoral.
A few years later, during the cosmic belch in my life during which I was a stage actor, the worst note I received from a play’s director was a note about notes: “Please stay after rehearsal for some notes,” he wrote and had his assistant director deliver to me in the dressing room. I was busy slathering Noxzema all over my face to remove the makeup that made me, at 22, look like a man of 51, the role I was playing in a production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”—which the playwright had thought of as a comedy while everyone who saw or was in it thought was a tragedy.
I think even the director may have started out thinking it was a comedy—but once he saw how his cast performed it, he joined us in agreeing it was a tragedy. What can you say about a play being acted out in a theater in mid-Winter when the heating doesn’t work? At one point, a character screamed, “Merciful God, it’s so cold here!” and the audience applauded more than they did during the curtain call.
Anyway, I went to see him and, sure enough, he liked everything about how I was playing the character except everything about how I was playing the character. “Why do you think a 51-year-old man would walk with the posture of a 22-year-old?” he demanded. I told him because my dad, who was 57 at the time, still had good posture, even with severe back injuries he’d suffered as a young firefighter.
To suck up a bit, I added that the director himself, who was 73, still walked pretty bouncily. That turned the tables, and in the next few days of rehearsal, he even told the makeup guy to “go easier on the age makeup” I was wearing.
The net result was that by the time we performed the play, it took me much less time and less Noxzema to clean my face. After that, the tersest note I received from him was “Pls kp doing what u-r doing.”
Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).