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Feelin' Gouda

Smell the cheese often, so you know when it's getting old. And other gems of wisdom.

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If you live in the suburbs long enough, chances are good that you will be required to read Who Moved My Cheese?, the latest best-seller by Spencer Johnson, M.D.

The reason? Life in these subdivided cul-de-sacs gets a bit pricey now and then, and sooner or later you realize that you're going to have to work at a real job if you want to sustain your lifestyle. And that means it's almost a sure bet that you will be forced to read this latest example of managerial smarts.

Subtitled "An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life," the book has become almost as much a part of the modern workplace as cubicles and e-mail. In just under two years, it has sold more than 3 million copies, and it's been on bestseller lists ever since it was published. Cheese? is so popular that it's spawned a whole line of ancillary products like curriculum guides, golf shirts, sticky notes, calendars, and coffee mugs.

To appreciate why your employer will want you to read this book, a GRATUITOUS SPOILER is in order.

Cheese? takes place in a vast maze of "corridors and chambers," where four creatures spend their days running around "looking for cheese to nourish them and make them happy." Sniff and Scurry are mice. Hem and Haw are "littlepeople," prone to over-analyzing and procrastinating.

One day the cheese disappears from the cubicle where the four creatures hang out. The mice follow their superior instincts and leave immediately to find "New Cheese." The littlepeople, Hem and Haw, sit around acting like humans, bitching and whining and feeling sorry for themselves. One eventually does get hungry enough to venture out into the maze to find his own New Cheese.

During this ordeal, Hem and Haw believe they have discovered some truths worth remembering, so they write them on the walls of the maze. These become "The Handwriting on the Wall." Among them: "Change Happens," "Anticipate Change," and, "Smell the Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old."

And that's it. Twenty bucks a copy. Millions sold. Sticky notes and golf shirts. Why, you may join me in wondering, is this book such a hit in today's power corridors and human resources laboratories?

Two immediate answers emerge. The first is innocuous enough: Companies have bought into yet another management fad, along the lines of Total Quality Management. There's nothing inherently wrong with such fads, insofar as they keep bosses diverted from real mischief, like doing actual work.

The other reason, though, is a bit more ominous.

It seems that employers have begun to use this book as a kind of out-placement tool to help ease the trauma for unfortunate employees who are in the process of being fired, downsized, reallocated, forced into early retirement, laid off, demoted, transferred, reassigned, or otherwise screwed around with. You get to work one fine morning, find a copy of Cheese? on your desk, and you know immediately that the boss has just served you your own ass.

And I just don't get it. You take this simple parable -- which is, after all, about as complex as a Raffi song -- with its message about how we all need to accept the inevitability of change and plan for the vicissitudes of the future, and you turn it into some sort of malevolent tool to convince workaday shmoes that something is wrong with them if they don't kowtow to the belief that their jobs are inherently and permanently insecure. Or, worse, you turn this fable into a kind of hard-cover meat hook and use it to decimate the work force whenever the bottom line starts to wobble. Nope, makes no sense to me.

To say, however, that I don't understand the phenomenon of Cheese? may not be saying a lot. There are lots of things I don't understand. Among them:

Why do rainbows always appear in pairs?

Why does a sharp grounder to the shortstop always result in a close play at first?

How do flush toilets operate?

Ditto on planes?

Or, why we don't all commit to memory the closing stanza to E.E. Cummings' poem "you shall above all things be glad and young," which goes: "I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing/than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance."

But here's one thing I know I understand: If anyone ever wantonly refers to me as a "littleperson," or if they ask me to comprehend my daily predicament by comparing my life to an endless maze, I say forget finding New Cheese, because I'm going straight over the nearest wall to have words with whoever invented this weird little nightmare.

You can e-mail David Dawson at letters@memphisflyer.com.

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