Saturday, December 23, 2006

Festivus Ramblings and Catch-Up

ACCORDING TO WIKIPEDIA, FESTIVUS was an actual holiday celebrated by the family of one of the writers on Seinfeld each December 23. I therefore cobble together the scattered thoughts in this post under the flimsy tent of the unfolding Festivus holiday. We'll gather by the aluminum pole, I will air some grievances (actually only a few), and — insofar there is nobody to challenge me as head of household with feats of strength — maybe talk about the physical and mental hurdles of the last several days since I've posted.

Last Saturday, blogging was an unthinkable concept. I was cleaning the joint, buying snacks and decorations, and rearranging furniture and plants (some fairly voluminous) to accommodate my party guests. By mid-afternoon, the place was looking great. The only hitch was the catering. The restaurant called 3 hours before go-time to say there had been "a problem in the kitchen," so they would prepare the food at the branch of the eatery a few towns over (there are 6 or 7 of this restuarant around the northern part of the state). They mentioned they would deliver the food as a result, which was critical; the afflicted restaurant was just one town over, and I had planned to pick the eats up with my father. Now it was to come from Paramus Park, which, 2 weeks from Xmas, was going to be a riot scene.

I called my dad to tell him he was off KP detail and that I would get the party ice at the liquor outlet next door, instead of accompanying him to the Elks Lodge where he is treasurer and helping ourselves out of the massive ice machine in the kitchen there. With my guests bringing desserts, and the only remaining line on my list saying,"veggies" (my cue to slice crudité and make onion dip), I limped across the street for an Italian hero and returned to soak in some TV and rest my aching dogs.

With the party planning and the work I've been doing to get a new job, my gym attendance lapsed for well over a week before the party. This made the day of cleaning an exhausting affair. I patronized a local gym decades ago in which one of the walls bore this legend: "SEVEN DAYS WITHOUT NAUTILUS MAKES ONE WEAK." No joke. Between the flood of holiday gift baskets at work — which tend not to brim with whole-grain cereals and pasta, fresh vegetables, or ground flaxseed — I picked up a couple of pounds at the same time as my muscles starved for regular workouts. My feet have been hurting at the end of the day, particularly my left, which bears the weight of my work bag. Reversible, surely, but a week ago it was bugging me by the end of my party prep, and as I sat and ate, it was a struggle not to nod off on my comfy couch.

By 4:45, 15 minutes after my scheduled food-delivery time, I was getting a little nervous. I had told my guests to arrive as early as 5:00. The catering guy at the restaurant told me it was on its way over. Seconds after I hung up, I realized I should have asked from which place the food would come. At that hour, threading through Paramus traffic could take a while. I counted on a degree of fashionable lateness on the part of my guests should there be a real delay.

As it happened, my first two guests, Jen and Steve, arrived fairly close to 5:00, followed by Amie and Mike and their two children, but the food arrived at 5:15, so they didn't have to wait long. The two folks from the restaurant were most apologetic; I later learned that the problem that kitchen faced was a ruptured water main in town, and I can only imagine how many other catering orders they had to reroute as a result. Had the main plan failed, I would have put out a massive pizza order and forged ahead. Nice to live in a town with many local food options.

Folks arrived at a faster clip after the food arrived, and the party was on. Shortly before the first arrival, I had purchased about 25 iTunes cuts, some Christmas related, some from the Rat Pack era, and some from Mob movies, and I arranged these into a playlist that took folks from the Peanuts, through Vegas, and into the mean streets of Ozone Park. The catering got multiple thumbs-up, much to my happiness. My high school and college gang and the mighty Amy and Ratatosk met up, in most cases for the first time, and folks who hadn't seen one another for some time got the chance to take a break from the holiday rush and catch up. It was a great success and more than worth every bit of effort I put into it. Sunday found me very sore but very happy.

This week was a stark downhill slide compared to the highpoint of Saturday. My boss is being driven even more crazy than usual by our deeply inept printer, the XML project we are now shepherding over to the outsourcing folks, and her fear that we will be somehow duped into staying longer because they won't be able to implement the new production process well. On Tuesday, I had the first-time experience of waking up angry. Had I any days off, I would've taken one. I was spitting neurotoxins and exhaling sarin all day. Worse, we had a department holiday lunch. Deciding I would skip possibly voiding my severance agreement with ill-chosen commentary to the higher feeders on the trough, I took some of the mediocre catered food (mine was much better), returned to my desk, and worked as I ate. Now you know I was pissed.

The mood lifted by the evening, when I had a poker game scheduled at my still-spic-and-span apartment. I managed a nice win after losing my first $100 buy-in when someone reluctantly called my bluff. Shortly thereafter, I hit three sets (3 of a kind, specifically when you hold a pair and a third card of yours comes on the board) in a row and won with all three of them, including one huge pot that cleaned out a guy who has a habit of pushing in all of his chips when someone bets weakly on a flop with no visible threats. In this case, I bet only about 20% of the pot when a third 9 gave me the set, the other guy went all in, I insta-called, and my 9s held up. It pays to take notes on other players' habits, because this is not the first time I have gotten this guy with that trick.

The foul mood did not return on Wednesday, which along with Thursday were very busy workdays. On Thursday, our department director and group manager sat in on a schedule meeting with one of the two editorial groups. This group will be in the trenches of the new XML process after we leave, and they had many questions regarding aspects of the process, fine details not mentioned in any of the meetings prior to this one. For months nothing has been done on this project, and now they felt — with the increased haste on getting it launched — many small points that managers who never do the work themselves would never have enumerated were going to pile up and cause problems. I have to credit one of the editors, my old supervisor before my current department rescued me by hiring me away, with being sharp enough to realize these snags. With the design group out of the company, she surely knows that she will no longer have a tech-savvy quartet of folks who can decipher problems for her without a call to our tech support line and in user-friendly lingo.

Many little lifelines will be snipped when our little band exits the building. The loss, for some, is only just dawning. There is some satisfaction in that.

I endured the shuffle-and-mumble by way of explanation on the part of our director as best I could, survived the rest of the day, and went home . . . to another poker game. Hell yes. Three-day weekend ahead for extra sleep? Absolutely goddamn right I'm playing my rush and heading to the usual Thursday game. This one featured a number of the regulars who couldn't make it Tuesday. All the merrier, as they were in the mood to gamble.

I won two large pots with the worst hand. In current poker parlance, a suckout is the act of winning with an inferior hand which improves, against grossly unfavorable odds, to become the winning hand. It's never something you plan to do. It's usually embarrassing the first time, but the second time in a single session, it can drive some folks to take shots at you to see if they can crack your luck . . . especially if you suck out on the same person twice. An extreme, but potentially lucrative, situation would be sucking out a couple of times at a table of deeply bankrolled, loose gamblers who get outraged at this sort of thing, then having a couple of them let their emotions or egos run wild and put you all in when you're holding something like a full house. In the old days, winning in this sort of situation could get you shot!

In the first hand, I reraised preflop with a pair of Kings, the second most powerful starting hand in hold'em. I got a call from the host, and everyone else folded, so it was heads-up. The only card I didn't want to see on the flop was an Ace, but one came, a spade, along with a deuce and a ten, this being a Ten of Spades. I had a King of Spades, so I had second-best pair with three flush cards. I checked, and the host bet $15. He frequently calls raises preflop with an Ace and another card of the same suit, so after deliberating whether the spade draw gave me enough additional reason to call, I did so. Odds were better of my getting a fourth spade on the next card, but instead, I got a much better card: a third King.

Now I had him. I decided to bet out to appear like I had a King while believing that his $15 bet on the flop was an attempt to steal the pot with no Ace in the hole. So I threw $25 in. Folks have seen me bet hard with strong hands, but I suspected he wouldn't be able to throw away a pair of Aces. He obliged me by calling. Note that this left him with a stack of chips about 30% of the total pot.

The river card was of no conceivable help to either of us, so I went all in. The current pot was around $110, and with my push, nearly $200. I was offering him fantastic odds to throw the rest of his stack in. (For every five or so times he made this identical play, he would have to win only once to show a longterm profit, versus the four times he would lose the last bit of cash he threw in. He was risking very little on such a huge pot that he virtually had to call with any sort of hand.) He thought for some time, trying to figure what hand might have led me this far. He couldn't see me reraising preflop with 22 in the hole, especially out of position (I would have to act before him on the flop, which gives him an advantage). He couldn't rationalize my reraising with TT, and he believed I would have raised the Ace-high flop with the third Ten to push an Ace or two spades out for fear of his hitting three Aces or spade flush. On the other hand, why would I have called on the flop with anything less than a set, Ace-Ten, or a strong Ace?

When he called and turned over Ace-King, I could see why he had discarded my holding two Kings as a possibility. If he already had one of the Kings, how could I have more than one of them myself? It was a good situation, and though it wasn't as brutal as some formal suckouts, the odds were strongly against my hitting that last King in the deck. It was a rare situation, but the circumstances and the player I was up against made for a good read on what he had and a very confusing read on what I might have had.

The second suckout was far harsher. I was dealt black Kings in middle position, and reraised an early-position raiser to get three or so callers out of the pot. To my slight dismay, I got three calls. This made for a $50ish pot before the flop even came down. It was entirely conceivable that one of the other three people might be holding an Ace, which would replay the earlier situation if the flop contained an Ace. Plus, with this much money in the pot, it was also possible that folks were calling with suited connectors (e.g., Jack-Ten of the same suit) or an Ace or a King with a high suited card, and if the flop came with straight or flush potential, my Kings were looking like Jokers. Short of something like two Aces falling, I decided to bet hard on the flop to end the party early.

The flop came Jack high, with two clubs. Similar situation to the first suckout, except this time I had an overpair to the flop. The early-position preflop raiser bet something like $25 into the pot. Some facts about this young man. He is a bluffer, a gambler, and a believer in luck. He has poor impulse control, smoking both legal and illegal substances, drinking heavily during the game, gambling his paycheck, and sometimes having to use checks his parents give him for schoolbooks to keep him in chips as games go against him. A half-pot-sized bet could mean, from him, that he was betting with — in descending likelihood — a strong Jack in the hole, an Ace or King of Clubs with a second club for a flush draw, a medium pocket pair, three Jacks, or another three-of-a-kind with the smaller flop cards. With this in mind, and his personality, I declared a raise. After I counted out $70 in chips, but before I threw them in, he said, "If you're gonna bet seventy, you might as well go all in."

I had an early reptuation in this game of being tight (i.e., playing a narrow range of hands preflop and throwing most of them away when hit with strong bets on unhelpful or threatening flops), so this trash talk could have been a bluff that he held a Jack with a better kicker, a powerful flush draw, or a set. I barely hesitated before saying, "I'm all in." When people bluff too much, you should raise their bluffs more often, especially when a win would double your chips. He had more chips than I did, so I had to count those potential implied chips in my odds to win. He barely hesitated in turn when he called, throwing down his pair of Jacks.

I just ran the numbers on my chances at this point. My opponent now had around an 88% chance to win. I was a 7.18:1 underdog to beat him. Thus it is an amusing coincidence that popped up this quote from poker brat Phil Hellmuth, Jr. below the odds: "I guess if there weren't luck involved, I'd win every time."

Luck was involved. The turn and the river were both clubs. Runner-runner flush. Suckout City. The table exploded with laughter as I burst out of my chair to sweep in the huge pot. My opponent, though he still had some chips left, looked stunned. I'd feel bad, but this guy was the type to praise his own suckouts and use them as justification for asinine bluffs. And as the immortal Bruce Springsteen wrote, "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive."

I hung onto the vast majority of my chips for the rest of my stay. I headed out after two maniac, deep-pocketed players sat down and began sparring with each other with preflop bets of $50 or more. With a handsome win and my bed looking all the more welcome as a destination with each passing minute, I decided to retire. Had they come in earlier, I would have stayed; when I am awake, I am patient enough to wait for a prime spot at a two-maniac table and help them lose. If I've learned anything, it's that my patience wanes with fatigue. And it had been a long week.

Friday at work was a happy day, with most of the managers out, welcome tasks in my inbox, new poker cash in my pocket, and the promise of an early pre-Xmas release. I eventually drifted out at 3:30 and caught an early train home. Once there, with all of my holiday tasks behind me save celebrating it with my parents, I settled into the two Simpsons DVD sets I had received from kind friends who cheerfully ignored my gift moratorium with one of the few shows I would consider collection on disc. I enjoyed seeing clean versions of these shows, long in syndication and often cut by context-challenged networks eking out more time for vile ads.

As for Saturday, with no pressing needs aside from a trip to the gym to regain some of my strength and burn off some holiday lard, I have spent it in glorious indolence.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Putting the "Room" in My Bedroom

I TOOK MY FINAL paid day off today to clean the apartment ahead of this Saturday and the holiday party. I had done a fair amount of cleaning and party-supply procurement over the weekend, and I had toted many Hefty bags down to the Dumpster. I also put my new(ish) shredder through vigorous paces. But all of this activity paled in comparison to today's purge.

I woke up later than expected. As Tuesday waned, I felt very run down. Two of my coworkers are recovering from heavy-duty colds, and I may be fighting off a dose of what they had. When I woke up today, I felt lightly congested and warm. I soon attributed the warmth to the ridiculous weather — 50s in mid-December — and my elderly neighbors cranking their heat despite this. My throat was a little sore, but I was optimistic that this was from near-winter dry air instead of the usual first symptom of a cold or upper respiratory infection. As countermeasures go, I decided to can the trip to the gym (despite the invigorating temptation of the sauna) and get a little more sleep.

Once up, I set my priorities. I have some items in the main area that will need to migrate to the bedroom. The bedroom, although not as crap strewn as it has sometimes been, was still cluttered, so I would need to address this and move what belonged in the closets to their rightful places. This, in turn, would require me to light the tip of my staff, loosen Glamdring in its sheath, and descend into the cryptlike depths of my bedroom closet.

Down through trackless winding caverns I descended, past grim carvings cut by hands extinct long before humans rose erect on the African veldt. I threaded past layered stalagmites thicker than redwoods and far older, scattered blind swimming things as I plashed through their stagnant pools, and edged along crumbling precipices that fronted depthless vaults where dank, warm breezes breathed from far below. With time and care, I eventually reached the root of this complex, where lay scattered the dust-caked remnants I sought.

In other words, a tangle of T-shirts, shoes, and underwear. And some cassette tapes. Remember them?

With my trusty box of Hefty Bags to buttress me, I began discarding ill-fitting shoes and shirts. I eventually spied the floor of my closet. Pressing my advantage against a fleeing foe, I grabbed my Swiffer, loaded it with Endust, and swabbed the closet dust away. Between the thinned-out rack of clothing above, and the newly scoured floor below, the closet finally had the air of an organizing principle.

Next came an Ollie North–like round of shredding. With online bill payment, finding printed bills from even as recent as 2002 is like finding a letter of credit for an asbestos shipment to the Belgian Congo. My shredder dined heartily on all manner of obsolescent paperwork, producing two full Hefty Bags of grounds. Had a landscaper passed beneath my window, I could have given him a ticker tape parade.

At this point, all I need to do is fold and stash a load of whites, vacuum, and dust, and my bedroom will be in great shape. I primarily plan to use it as a coat room, but I like to have the room open and accessible, to make the joint a little less claustrophobic and to offer privacy if anyone needs it. Also, I can now leave the door open and not be embarrassed when folks pass it on the way to the loo.

The lesson this whole day has taught me is that living lean is the way to go. I simply don't need a lot of stuff. I had requested from those with whom I usually exchange gifts that we call a moratorium this year, to preserve funds for the lean times that may come if I can't get a new job swiftly. As November rolled by (but before the announcement of the layoffs), I tried to compose a list of items on Amazon, but frankly couldn't think of much to request. I can rent, borrow, or download just about anything I need. I used to have a vicious completist streak, which ran to money during the collectible card game craze when I bought box after box of Illuminati: New World Order cards. The last set of anything I felt compelled to complete was the Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings.

To paraphrase George Carlin on extremes in license plate mottos: Between the overstuffed drawing rooms of the Victorian era, and the sterile post-post-postmodernism of the houses in Sleeper, the truth lies. In my case, probably closer to Sleeper. So pass me my orb.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Entranced by Dextrous Fingers

AT THE CHRISTOPHER STREET stop on the inbound PATH this morning, a mother and her little girl boarded the train. The former was pushing the latter in a stroller. The girl, no more than 3, was quite happy, as train-bound children go, squealing and smiling as she rolled onto the car. Many kids take poorly to the rail-travel experience. Not this little blonde trooper.

Once we got rolling, the girl began studying her right shoe. She tugged at the lace, letting both ends go when the knot dissolved. She then unlaced the top two eyelets. The mother did not intervene. I credit her for this. Safe in the stroller as she was, the child was in no danger of losing her shoe to the oblivion of the gap between train and platform or anything like that.

Or perhaps the mother knew what was to follow. With strikingly nimble fingers for such a young girl, she took both laces and slowly began relacing her shoe. She managed to thread both laces back through the fairly narrow eyelets with delicacy and determination. Then she began looping the laces while musing to herself in an imitation of the singsong her mother might recite while tying the girl's shoes.

I was riveted by this precocious display. I didn't successfully tie my own shoes until I was at least 7. I didn't have time to watch the entire procedure, with the train arriving at my station before the girl could finish the knot. From what I saw, however, I am sure that the shoe was tied by the end of the line at 33rd Street. Whether it was an observant and talented girl, a mother unafraid to let her child learn when she shows a skill, or a combination of the two, it left me with some small hope that at least one kid showed a sign of becoming a self-reliant adult.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Deeply Inspired Last Friday

AT WORK LAST FRIDAY, we had a visit from the outplacement representative my company retained to help those being laid off seek new jobs. Some folks were not looking forward to the visit, which entailed an all-day meeting, and possibly a certain amount of feel-good talk and superficial job-search tips. This prejudgment would have been very wrong.

The theme of the discussion was how to become resilient in the face of change. Our rep, P, was well suited to this topic: he was a 69-year-old veteran of the Navy, three layoffs, and 9/11 (his office was in 2 World Trade). Choosing an experienced rep was a wise idea, because our group comprised a wide age range (one of the four designers being let go is around 60) and included some comparative lifers at our firm. He had a gentle, encouraging manner, occasionally poked fun at his own advanced years, and, quite notably, managed to remember people's names after being introduced. Ask yourself about the last outside-company rep you had come in, like a 401(k) drone, and whether he or she would have had the knack to mention someone's name, and the point he or she had made, without checking a nametag or seating chart.

He explained how we would learn, in the course materials and in that meeting, to accept change, especially unanticipated; to recognize how others we respect react to it and learn from it; and to make it work for us and turn it into a positive force on which we can thrive. P stressed that it was vital to recognize these facets of change, because our current work world requires us to manage it constantly. Although this sounds fairly obvious on its own, it was his way of easing into the subject so he could help us begin to take control of our careers one element at a time.

He began this transition by soliciting some information from each person there, to get a sense from our introductions and self-descriptions of how we might be handling the layoff, what we were doing in looking ahead, how we regarded our own abilities. He was able to tease out from each person's specific case some general point applicable to the others there. It also served to give some of us an insight into folks there with whom we did not work. I actually learned a lot about some folks there.

One of these people — actually from my own department, though not a regular contact — voiced a point that P seized as one of our themes: that we need to view ourselves as corporations unto ourselves, with the same attitude toward publicity, negotiation with other companies, meeting one's financial bottom line, and charting one's future. In my notes, I elaborated that this would also require one to have "conference calls" with one's self. Much as publicly traded companies have quarterly discussion sessions with Wall Street analysts on the days they release financial statements, one must perform regular self-assessments to compare one's current development, status, financial needs, and accomplishments to the goals set last "quarter." It doesn't have to be as bone-dry as that sounds; and face it, nobody else is going to make these sorts of judgments for you.

P proved to be a great resource, and I filled page after page of notes following his assessments of folks' situations and thoughts as we went through the first exercise. Some that I can tease out of the context in which they were delivered:
  • Despite the stress of remaining with the firm during our closing months, losing coworkers and inheriting their tasks, and the pressure of looking for a new job, we should work to maintain our reputations as excellent employees until the end.
  • Ask if there is any chance of receiving training in new software or job functions before we go. If the firm is generous enough to offer severance, our managers may be able to kick loose some funds to help us close gaps in our training that might help on the job hunt.
  • The vast majority of those who receive job offers ask for more generous terms — employers expect it, though they will never solicit such bargaining — and virtually all of them got something extra as a result.
  • Should I receive a job offer close to the end of our severance, and the new employer is not willing to wait the remaining time to hire me, I should ask the employer for compensation or perks to make up for the loss.
  • I should check my performance reviews for common themes, repeated instances of praise or specific skills/tasks that won credit, and use these dynamic terms and achievements on my resume.
  • Similarly, I should dig into my entire job description, and tease out strengths and skills I have developed past the initial, on-paper summary of my job function.
  • Being selected to manage this transition — versus simply being fired — indicates to other employers that we were worth retaining because of our smarts and ability to manage this situation. "They don't keep the dummies," P said.
  • Almost everything is negotiable when the job is offered: salary, vacation, early performance review (vs. waiting a year to be raised), medical coverage, training, start time, etc.
  • It is increasingly common for the first interview to be on the phone only, and for the second and subsequent interviews to be in person. When interviewing on the phone, stand. Your voice will project more vs. if you are sitting — when we sit, we speak more quietly, perhaps more intimately, which lacks impact over the phone at the moment when we need to be assertive. For the same reason, don't bend down over your notes, down on the desk or counter, while you read from them.
This list truly beggars the wealth of information and ideas P posed during the interplay with the group, but it illustrates the range of discussion we had, after P skillfully broke the ice.

After we broke for lunch, P guided us through some specific definitions of resilience and how this is necessary to cope with today's changing workplace and our shifting needs. To make this more concrete, he passed out a self-assessment for us to focus on our specific strengths and areas for improvement. (To the delight of this veteran of psychology-press copyediting, it used a Likert-type scale.) The categories we scored in related directly to action points later in the booklet, and I spent the better part of the weekend underlining and making notes on various resonant bullets in these lists. We also received two other pieces of literature I haven't dug into yet, because the first one was so engaging.

It's tough to recount all of the give-and-take P solicited, because he so directly involved our personal situations and the idiosyncrasies of our workplace in the discussion. I feel like I have a lot more options now, but more important, I want to take a bit of time to figure out my true direction. I was given some powerful tools to get this process going, and I have a free month of this firm's services to fine-tune my resume, interviewing skills, and follow-up. I thought my first step would be to write my resume, but now I feel I should sit down and write a plan for myself based on what this survey we took showed might be my strengths, career desires, and goals for myself . . . and then craft a more fine-tuned resume with a powerful statement of purpose at the top.

Rather than being some sort of Office–like exercise in doublespeak and feel-good-ese, I found this workshop and P a vital touchstone for some serious thinking about my future. If P can find a career for himself like this one, at which he is still working well past his retirement age, then I ought to take some serious steps toward finding what that my be in my case. It might not be the next job I take, and it very well may be outside publishing altogether. I think this meeting served to show a lot of the folks there that they have been walking along without a plan or a destination. I am lucky enough to have a space of time and a safety net of support to find mine. I need to do so.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bringing the Parents Onboard

I MENTIONED IN MY last entry that I had not told my parents of my slated layoff. I did so earlier today. I called home around noon, got my mother on the phone, and after she mentioned how my dad was doing with a pulled muscle, I presented the story to them as though it had just happened.

She was stunned. She didn't lose composure or anything, just listened as I gave her a brief rundown of the assistance offered and the next steps. I told her I was doing well with the news (which I am), that I needed to put together my resume as a first step (which I do), and that I won't by any means starve as a result of this (which I surely won't).

I have said before I don't want them to be worried about me, but I had a sneaking sense I was overestimating their distress. We're talking about people who have survived the tail end of the Depression, a world war, the passing of their own parents and siblings, and the fact of their own advancing age. What I tried to make clear in my short conversation with my mother, and later, in greater depth with them both at dinner tonight, was that I was looking at the future and was ready for the change.

In discussing the severance math with them. I became more convinced that finding a job as soon as possible was the primary goal. Becoming eligible for unemployment and the severance pay also puts me on the hook for COBRA, which has an expensive bite. Continuity of employment is the top goal right now.

They were supportive, if occasionally angry at my employers, though they didn't spend dinner ranting for their heads. I think they knew I was done there, regardless of what severance I might be around to collect. Telling them is a relief, though. Now for the next steps.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Layoff: Four Months and Counting

BIG NEWS, THOUGH NOT the sort one usually wants to hear without a winning lottery ticket sitting in a safe deposit box. I've been delayed in posting it because my cable access crapped out the day before I got the news (to be exact, the Thursday before Turkey Day). Now it can be told.

At the end of March 2007, I will be laid off. Two of the four designers in my group will be gone by that point, either by finding a new job or by leaving on the deadline they received (1/31/07). My team leader will also be let go on 3/30. All of us will receive severance pay, and we will be eligible to apply for unemployment. Additionally, I (and, I suspect, the team leader also) will receive a retention bonus of about one full paycheck in size if I stay through the end of my assigned term.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The day before the bomb dropped, a group of editors and production folks got a note to appear at a meeting the next day, with no agenda or purpose listed. My design cohorts had just met with some of the newsletter editors — most of whom weren't invited to the meeting the next day — on a new method of periodical production. I have discussed this boondoggle of a project before, and in recent posts under my "work" tag you can read about the extended gestation period and the long-awaited launch finally pegged to mid-November. The meeting two Wednesdays ago was our first joint editing–production powwow on this new process, and it inspired little confidence.

Based on the list of attendees, I thought at first this meeting the next day would relate to the project launch. None of the newsletter editors with whom we had met the previous day were present in that meeting room in the upstairs offices of our sister company. Folks who were in attendance, however, included my department's managers, our HR official, the division president, and a suit I didn't recognize (later revealed to be a rep from our North American headquarters). Ominous.

Our department VP led off. To stay competitive with other publishing companies, we needed to put the pedal to the metal on the project we were finally launching. It needed to be launched quickly, but cheaply, to make up for lost time. As a result, nearly 20 of the 30+ people in the room would be laid off, and their job duties moved offshore. Our department director continued, in an uncharacteristically nervous voice, saying that layoffs would roll through 2007, to get the new production cycle rolling right, and that we would meet with our managers and HR that day to discuss our new job functions if we were retained, or our post-job procedure and benefits if we were released. The president and out-of-towner gave the usual corporate boilerplate about this not being a personal reflection upon us individually, how they needed to compete, and the like, but at that point, most folks were looking at the list of names that had been handed out, trying to judge, via some temporal layoff Kremlinology, what their place in the exit-interview lineup might mean for their future with the firm.

With that, the meeting ended. Coffee and pastry stood outside for the attendees. Few touched it.

I WALKED BACK TO to my office alone. I took the time to regard the view that our sister company had. From six floors above our own floor in the building, they commanded a 360º view of Midtown, Downtown, the Village, and the waterfront from Hoboken to Staten Island. I had a similar slice of this last view in the company's previous Midtown digs, from a cube in the corner of the building, and I have missed this view since our move to Chelsea. I didn't yet know whether I was among the layoffs, but it seemed likely I and my three teammates were on the block. My job is easily portable to cheaper, overseas laborers So my attitude was more of anticipation of that verdict being confirmed, rather than genuine doubt over what my fate might be.

From this standpoint, I wanted to be alone with my musings for a spell. I felt much as I do when I view a thoughtful, provocative film. I like to be alone with my thoughts for a while, to digest my own reaction to the work. Despite having no target for my next job, I felt focused, set in a direction . . . and I wasn't really sure what direction that might be, or what might appear in the crosshairs of that focus. I think it was more the realization of just how unfocused and aimless my day-to-day work existence had become.

I've gotten to the point where — this new production method aside — I wasn't going to learn much from the job. Unless I specifically take classes in a new a skill or piece of software, no on-the-job training of worth is to be had. And honestly, none of us really wants to know this new method they're training us in, despite claims from its greatest advocate that it's going to be a worthy entry on our resumes. So one can safely say that I can't get any better at my current job. I had been flirting with the thought of what the next position might be, but aside from wondering how I would address my deficient Photoshop skills, I hadn't made any moves. The time to make said moves was at hand.

I was calm when I got back to my offices and returned to my desk. I passed some of the more gossipy members of the department, who had also been included in the meeting, clustered and presumably gabbing about their fates. I passed them by. I suspected they had nothing positive to say. I had no use for that mindset — and keep in mind I am a pessimist. I needed to act. I flipped the notes on my pad from the meeting over and began writing a list of points to raise during my impending layoff discussion: headings for info on COBRA, unemployment, references, whether I could somehow buy the computer I use at a depreciated discount, my 401(k), severance pay and the flexible spending account in which I participated, and a note for myself of all the vendors, outside editors, and in-house folks from whom I might be able to cite for testimonials to my skill. My handwriting, as it was on the notes I took during the meeting, was unshaken by nerves or emotion. I felt a little like Michael Corleone outside the hospital in The Godfather after Sollozzo's men drive by for another attempt on the Don's life, comparing the shaking hands of Enzo the baker's son with his own, steady as the steel of his Zippo.

and I sat down with the HR official and my manager, they confirmed my guess that I would be laid off. In detailing the end-of-job follow-up and benefits I described earlier, they actually anticipated most of my talking points, which I mentioned to them with some satisfaction. (Later that day, when I asked the HR person if any of the other folks asked any of the same questions or prepared the way I did, she said none had. Surprising.) I won't be able to buy my computer, and neither the managers nor the HR department can issue any sort of reference other than confirming that I worked there (for liability purposes). The rest of my points they covered in their opening pitch. I have to say that as meetings go in which one is told they're being sent packing, it was one of the more convivial. I wasn't taking it personally, I understood from a business standpoint why this was being done, and I was aware that in many layoffs, folks don't even get to return to their desks — they find their belongings in a box in the hall. I even cracked a joke based on George's nap drawer in Seinfeld. There was no way to avoid this, so why not be, at minimum, professional, if not congenial? (I found out that at least one person was so upset that she just went home after the meeting. How does that help?)

Keep in mind that this attitude is surely influenced by my personal status. I am 37, with neither dependents nor debt, 14 years of editing and design experience, a stash of emergency money, a functional car, retirement funds that could be accessed in a dire pinch, and two parents who can help in a worse one. I could always move to cheaper digs, or closer to the next job site, if a long stretch of joblessness tapped any of my savings. That will only happen after I run through severance, the retention bonus, and unemployment. I am not saying this job hunt will be a romp in the clover with satin-swathed nymphs (unless that turns out to be my next job, which wouldn't suck), and I historically have a tendency to mope when I encounter frustration . . . but nowhere near as much as I might have even 5 years ago. My adolescence took more than 10 years longer to end than it should have but it is over. I am in a far better place than in 1999, when I last searched for a job. If not ecstatic, I am surely not defeated. Not yet at least.

Back to that day. Our design group met in private to discuss our next steps. My team lead apologized profusely and needlessly — after all, she was going out on the bricks with the rest of us. She hadn't seen cuts this widespread coming, although she could discern the pattern I described in this post. She would have imagined only one or two people getting the boot (the implication being the two junior designers). Her best piece of advice was to start looking for a new job now, before the design schools released, in the spring, a new crop of cheap labor with whom we'd compete. After we shot the shit and enjoyed a few morbid yuks at the whole fucked-up nature of the situation, we returned to our desks. If anything, the office was even more quiet, now that everyone from the meeting knew their fates.

I followed my team lead back to her desk and told her that although I might not miss working for the company, I would definitely miss working for her. This is true. I trust her completely, and she has always been as open as possible with me and the team. She and I share the same disdain for the folks higher on the ladder in our department who seem more concerned with ordering lunch on the company dime and the details of their kids' school-play costumes than assessing whether this stupid job-killing project will work or not. She was genuinely touched by my admission and said she felt the same way. I don't look forward to our last day together. As I mentioned here, she has been something of a control rod for my temper amid multiple stressors. I am quite possessive of people whom I trust, and being forced apart from them gets me very emotional.

What also upsets me is Dilbert–style bitterness. I have railed against the surrender pose of the Dilbert fan before. After 2 solid hours of layoff discussion, I suddenly realized I was famished. When I went to the kitchen to grab my thrifty leftover lunch, four of the people on the list were bitching about the layoffs. I understood they were upset. One of those gathered had just moved from the city and bought a house in New Jersey not more than a year ago. But he was actually being retained until late 2007, had been demoted by my boss when he was in our group, and was still retained after being relieved of the duties that put him under my team lead's eye. Another person there was one of these young military types who has a cute answer for everything. She sounded very satisfied with the sarcastic opinions she had for those gathered. Previously she had been a tangential part of the big project being launched, which probably had her thinking, up until today, she was secure in her throne as Queen Shit. Well, she was half right.

Why would you waste this energy dwelling on the company that has just fired you? Why not direct it all to the next job, and reserve all of your enthusiasm and powers for that quest? Did these people honestly think the company cared any longer what they thought? Shit, this is nothing less than a gold-edged excuse to surf on Monster and CareerBuilder all day at work. What are they gonna do? Fire 'em?

The only part of this whole experience I dread is telling my parents. They don't know yet. I say with no hubris that I am the second most important aspect of their lives, short of each other. I am their only child. I don't want them to worry about me at all. They have their health issues to concern them, to say nothing about their private thoughts about mortality. My parents should be enjoying the booty of the comfortably retired, preferably from a sitting position in front of a gigunda television. I also don't want to be asked about this at every turn. I know full well I need to find a new job quickly, without being reminded of it repeatedly. I know there will be times when my energy flags, when I need to take a breather before the next sally. The last thing I will want to hear at that moment, no matter what spirit of support or concern accompanies it, is the phrase, "Did you look for a job today?"

With this in mind, I have told them nothing. The Saturday following that Thursday was my mother's birthday, and of course the following Thursday was Thanksgiving. I wished to mar neither. Keeping it silent past Christmas is pushing it, though, and we're not as big a Christmas family as we are a Thanksgiving one. So what will happen is, I will be "told" about this in a "meeting" tomorrow, possibly call them from work to prep them, and then go over there for damage control tomorrow night. I'll let them vent their vitriol at my employer, describe my current financial situation, tell them my steps for securing a new job, and then proceed from there.

I let the weekend pass before informing any of my friends about the layoff. I had a Devils game scheduled for the next night, my first in well over 20 years, and I decided to enjoy the night out without dragging this into it. The Devils' victory certainly didn't hurt. I had one last splurge that weekend, hitting Whole Foods and attempting to visit my favorite Indian restaurant for a buffet gorge (sadly, they were closed for renovations). I said nothing to my parents, biting my tongue when they began discussing layoffs at Sunday dinner. Next, I let my friends Amy and Ratatosk know of my fate. They are facing a similar one — worse in some ways, as their boss is selling the company, and a much higher percentage of their coworkers could find themselves jobless due to their job functions moving to other cities. (The group being laid off in my company is a single-digit percentage of total NYC staff.)

I then informed the rest of the gang via the Evite I sent for my upcoming Christmas party. I wouldn't think of canceling it for the second year in a row, but I knew I would have to tighten the belt in some way just in case the job hunt lasts past next March. So I decided to declare a gift moratorium for this year, in light of the upcoming austerity. Jen and I observed one of these last year, when she was absorbing new education bills. I'd rather have the gift of my friends, happy, well fed, and in the spirit of the holidays, than anything they could envelop in paper or dispatch from the depths of the Amazon vaults.

During the short week just past, I felt a little more annoyed by petty wastes of effort or needless wastes of money at work. The new printer with whom we are working needs us to send PDFs produced in a two-step fashion long made obsolete by InDesign's full PDF integration, because the printer has antiquated equipment that can't handle separations. I've had to sit on a couple of jobs otherwise ready for press. The delays to schedule annoyed me. I may be there for only 4 more months, but I still have professional standards to uphold. Add to this the sight of the managers I cited earlier once again having catered meetings and pissing away money that could keep us on staff for another month, and I felt the confidence I'd had at the end of the previous Thursday wavering.

This was turned around by two of my coworkers, from outside my department, whom I encountered in the lunchroom while washing up after lunch. They had heard the news, delicately asked if I was affected, and sympathized with my plight. One of them offered some ideas based on where she had last worked. She described working for an in-house production unit at one of the larger NYC law firms, and although she couldn't recommend that specific jobsite (she said it was hellish), she posed it as an example of the sorts of places I might find suitable. (She later provided me with a comprehensive list of questions a job seeker should ask an interviewer; very helpful.) It was a very energizing conversation and turned my flagging mood around.

So that's how things stand. I took a week and change through Thanksgiving to get my footing. Next is to write up my resume and research the online job sites (as well as any pitfalls of using them). From there, it's a matter of making sure I have a suit ready to go when the calls come in. At least I don't have to be as secretive about finding this next job as one often does.

Next up: Some words on the next steps in various realms of my life. For now, I need to ice down my fingers. If I were paid by the word for these logorrheic posts, this layoff would be no problem.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Peppermint Death March

I TYPESET NEWSLETTERS. They tend to arrive 2 weeks to a month before they mail out to subscribers. Around this time of year, I should have at least half of the December titles out to the printer. I'll start getting January 2007 issues around Thanksgiving. It's a bit of a time warp, but I am used to it.

What I am not used to is seeing full-scale mall Christmas pageants 2 weeks before Turkey Day.

I went to Paramus Park last night for pizza. Big spender. The food court is actually a second-floor plaza above the mall's atrium, capped by a glass roof. Noise tends to echo from the space, and when I entered the mall, I heard big, amped voices from the food court.

I was stunned to see the mall totally tricked out for Xmas. Moreover, a large area usually filled with tables for diners was hosting a full-scale pageant. Poorly amplified singing echoed off the glass ceiling and filled every corner of the food court with shrill holiday cheer. This on the second of two days' worth of 60º weather.

Wincing, I edged up to the pizzeria, which had the misfortune of being adjacent to the floor show. I'd seen the counter-kid on duty there before, so after I ordered, I commiserated with him and asked how long he'd been putting up with the noise. He said they had started that afternoon, and the mall was done over earlier in the week. So they donned the red and green when November was still in single digits.

I noticed a guy dressed as Santa Claus edging up to the scrum. The boss of the pizzeria said, "Here comes Santa! He's probably crocked."

"Wouldn't you be?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah. I'd have to be totally lit!"

The pizza arrived, and I stuffed a dollar into the tip jar, saying to the kid, "Put this toward a pair of earplugs." As I sprinkled hot pepper and oregano on the slices, a third employee, a teenage girl, covered her ears and yelled, above the holiday din, "I am so sick of this!"

I ate at a table as far as I could scrounge from the show, drowning it out as best I could with the inspired violence of a James Ellroy novel. It's not that I haven't seen any traces of the holidays this early before, or that I am a fanatical anti-Xmas zealot. In fact, I host a holiday party each year. It's just abrupt to be immersed in the season while Halloween pumpkins are still moldering on porches across my slice of suburbia.

After downing the last chunk of crust, I descended to the main level of the mall and the exits. Santa had moved downstairs, and what I heard described as a two-hour line of families was snaking around the atrium, waiting for picture time with Saint Nick. With some satisfaction, I saw two of his "elves" argue briefly before snapping out of it to smile at one of the families in line and pass some assurance of imminent service. Maybe they were already sick of the season. For them, it still stretched long ahead of them, like a road of shattered candy canes, a peppermint death march serenaded by impatient parents, frightened children, and the mindless shriek of a million shoppers' ringtones.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Schizohedron Bullet Points! for 11/8/06

  • ICING ON THE CAKE: As a nice topper to last night's Democratic election wave, today came the news that the architect of the failed Iraq war, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had announced his resignation. I can still remember, in the early months of 2001, how "Rumsfeld's Rules" were being bruited about as a pragmatic lesson on applying business leadership to government and military bureaucracy. In practice, this approach revealed Rumsfeld's tin ear for constructive criticism and dissent, and cost the Cabinet and the Pentagon a number of voices who might have helped close the Afghan campaign with authority and either approach Iraq with a definitive, massive, multilateral force — or shunned it as the quagmire that studies and simulations showed it might become. Rumsfeld's departure from the sinking ship of the Bush Administration has the feel of Martin Bormann sneaking out of the Führerbunker in the last weeks of World War II, with Soviet guns thundering ever closer and a sure trip to the gallows awaiting him. Some believe Bormann escaped the Reich, and managed, for decades, the secret network of flight capital as he restored Germany to its economic power. If modern political necromancy has taught us anything, it is that Rummy will find a new grave to haunt — though certainly none of those of the men and women who died in Iraq on his watch.
  • WORK INSANITY GROWING: As recorded here, pressure over our impending switch in how we produce newsletters and journals is rising. My immediate supervisor has been trying to point out flaws in the process that could bite us in the ass on schedules, printing, or resourcing this shit online, for which she is slowly being made a pariah. The manager of this switch has pawned her off onto a consultant — no doubt well compensated — for all answers. Trouble is, this consultant knows next to nothing about the way we currently do things. The managers who set this system up are not designers, and have shown declining interest in hearing why there might be snags. The switch to the new, in-house printers has been a nightmare of pointless, cc: everyone passive-aggressive email abuse on the part of the customer "service" rep with whom we've been saddled. And our new boss is more or less saying, "Just lie back and enjoy it." Contrary to what I believed in the other entry, the company is not paying her education tab, so she is free to bail as soon as she feels financially able. With her instructors being wheels in the magazine and packaging design industries, she could get work in a heartbeat. Now I am wondering how long I will want to stay, whether she leaves or not. She actually exerts a quiet, unconscious mellowing effect on me, whereas by this point I would have forced confrontations for the answers we don't seem to be getting. Should my boss leave, it will cost the company dearly to retain me if I am not given full, Ace Rothstein–style free rein over my sphere of influence.
  • NEW MEMORY HOLE: I bought a new shredder this weekend. My previous unit seized up after ingesting a heavy bundle of junk mail. You would not believe the load of shreddable shit that built up in the 3 weeks between losing that one and buying the new one. With the threat of identity theft always in the air, it seems like everything has to go down the chute, even the empty envelopes for bank statements and mailed pay stubs. Can't have sifting thieves determine that someone in this complex uses X Bank of Y or gets car insurance from that company with the lizard! I understand I could arrest the flow of junk mail with access to a certain trade commission's website, but last time I visited, it seemed like I had to provide an SSN. Why should I trust them any more than I do the whoring credit card companies and cable monopolies that seek to pick my pocket? These fuckers should subsidize my shredder, or at least pay my bail when I burn their missives in my parking lot.
  • REVELING IN THE AGONY OF PIE: This pie looks denser than neutronium, loaded with more sugar than the Hello Kitty works in Japan, and potentially delicious while still warm from the oven. It is the "Schadenfreude Pie," "the pie to enjoy while you are reveling in the horrible misfortunes of others. Cast your eye on its mocha might and the diabetes-inducing list of ingredients on author and blogger John Scalzi's page. I can see a scoop of vanilla ice cream dropped on top of a warm slice of this pie jumping off and running behind the couch with a cartoonish "Yipe yipe yipe yipe!" Were I guaranteed to have some co-consumers cued up to help me consume it — for Scalzi warns of the danger of eating large chunks of this murky dessert — I might be tempted to whip one of these up. Though there's a chance it will end up dropping through my floor like the pinpoint black hole in Larry Niven's "The Hole Man." Well, at least it might hit my downstairs neighbor.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Stirred by Stir-Fry

I GOT ALL CRAFTY with the kitchen equipment last night and brewed up a nice stir-fry. I wanted a dish that would provide me at least 2 days of leftovers, and I wanted the protein to be part of an ensemble cast of ingredients, not a domineering star. Last, I wanted the starch to be noodles included right in the mix, rather than rice, which reconstitutes dubiously in the microwave. I rate my effort an A-. Here's what I did.

While shopping Sunday afternoon following the record fair, I spotted boneless center-cut pork chops on sale at A&P. This was perfect. I had been leaning away from beef as a stir-fry candidate. I know there's a way to stir-fry beef to develop a crust (or as much as you're going to have on the small pieces a stir-fry requires), but in the past, I've always ended up with limp, tough slices of beef and a huge amount of extra gravy that I have had to boil off. I wasn't in the mood to deal with the mess that chicken creates. So this pork sale was perfect. Three thick chops for $3ish.

Aside from a can of Geisha water chestnuts, the rest of my ingredients would come from the produce aisle. I selected broccoli, sugar snap peas, and a hearty red bell pepper. From the vegetarian/Asian section of that aisle, I grabbed a bundle of Nasoya thin wheat noodles. What I needed for the marinade/sauce, I already had at home.

By the end of Sunday shopping, the long day at the record fair fell on me like a ton of 45s. I deferred the stir-fry to Monday night. I started with the marinade. I modified a recipe from the book that came with my George Foreman Grill:
  • ½ cup Kikkoman soy sauce
  • ¼ cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp. Argo corn starch
  • 1 tsp. Chinese five spice blend
  • several good twists of fresh black pepper
  • 1 tsp. sesame seeds
I trimmed and cubed the three pork chops and got them marinating while I set an order of battle for the veggie prep.

I realized that my flaw in past stir-fries is that I don't time the introduction of ingredients well. I would start the meat early, then drop uncooked vegetables in one by one and let them cook. I didn't have a solid idea of how long it took them to cook well, though, so I would end up with overcooked peas or inedibly raw broccoli amid fart-dry meat. I was inspired by a list of blanching times I saw for crudité prep. This time, I decided to steam them partly to doneness before adding them to the wok.

I rigged up my steaming basket and got to cutting. The pepper, I decided, didn't need to be pre-steamed if I diced it rather than just chopped it roughly. The water chestnuts likewise required no advance cooking, so I just drained and washed them and set them aside. The broccoli, however, i wanted to remain crisp without leaving it in the wok long enough to scorch the florets. So I steamed that for 3 minutes and set it aside. The snap peas I steamed for 2½ minutes. I now had two bowls of lovely emerald veggies waiting for the wok.

Into the Fire
Onto my stove went my well-seasoned wok. I put a medium-high flame under it as I steamed my last remaining item, half of the package of noodles. I have a love-hate relationship with the Nasoya semi-done noodles. I like them when I cook them properly, but there seems to be a very narrow range for success. Too little cooking, and they clump together in a starchy mass. Too much, and they become slimy. I didn't boil them because I wanted to avoid having them shed water into the stir-fry, so I thought steaming them might be a better option. Sadly, steaming them as I did seemed to guide them toward the former. I pried out the gloppy, brainlike mass with tongs and set it on the cutting board while I thought about how to cook the other half without repeating this feat. I decided to drop them on top of the fully integrated mass of ingredients and give them a quick couple of minutes in the heat that way.

By this point, the wok was hot enough, so I dropped in the pork after pouring off and retaining the marinade (for a sauce). An invigorating wave of five-spice scent plumed from the vessel as I stirred the pink cubes over its heat. Within 3 minutes, they were looking white all over, so I scooped them out and set them aside.

I poured the marinade in and let it cook down and boil a bit to kill the pork ick. Then I dropped in the water chestnuts and red pepper. Water chestnuts are absorbent of flavor and moisture, so I wanted to lock up some of the liquid before stirring in the other stuff. Note that all through this process, I didn't oil the wok. I relied only on the tablespoon of peanut oil I added to the marinade. Heavily oiling a wok to the point of having a centimeter of the shit at the bottom not only creates an unholy mess when you drop in steamed veggies or marinade-coated meat, it is the nutritional equivalent of serving beautiful organic veggies in a pork rind burrito. You're just screwing yourself.

The peapods and broccoli got about 2 minutes alone before I returned the pork, which I followed with the uncooked noodles. There was still enough sauce in the wok to coat them, so as long as I kept them moving, I figured they wouldn't stick to the sides. This proved to be a two-handed task, as I stirred the mix with the spatula in my right hand, while teasing the noodles apart with tongs in my left, occasionally using one or both to ease the wok back square over the flame. The noodles never did fully separate or get distributed through the whole stir-fry, but they seemed to be cooking without getting incinerated. This is probably the only place where a little oil might have been helpful, but I refrained.

Once it became clear the noodles weren't going to mingle as enthusiastically as I had envisioned, I declared the dish done and killed the heat. I scooped out about a third of it and headed to the table, accompanied by a late-vintage Poland Spring.

Tale of the Taste
I haven't used Chinese five-spice before in my stir-fries, and this was a regrettable omission. My bottle was very fresh, so I could pick out individual spices in the blend. The vinegar also added a lovely sour tang to the mix. The pork was perfect: tender, juicy, and flavored rather than overwhelmed by the marinade. (It only got about 20 min. tops in the drink.) My veggies were crisp and heated all the way through. The noodles were the reason I decremented myself to an A-; individual strands were cooked well, but many stayed clumped. I could separate them, but the center strands had stayed somewhat gummy and unflavored. I may have to find a different brand of noodle, possibly high-end ramen, cook it halfway in water, and then finish it in the wok, perhaps as the first ingredient. I did have to restrain myself from taking a full second helping, however, as I wanted to heat it up at work for lunch. This I did about an hour ago.

The Leftover Test
Hums there a work fridge in this nation without at least one carton of Chinese leftovers squatting near the back? In my case, it was a Ziploc tub rather than the traditional white box. Moreover, mine lacked the nasty MSG and heart-punching fat of the usual takeout meal. Restricting the oil paid a second dividend when I nuked my lunch today, in that I didn't end up with a bowl of glistening, grease-sodden food. I anticipated that the peppers would be on the soft side, which proved correct, though not to their detriment (I diced them fairly small). The meat was still tender, the veggies only slightly less crisp. Noodles were more or less the same. As I wrote this, the dish and plastic tub have been wafting a gentle scent of cinnamon and cloves my way, making me wish I had brought more with me. All things in moderation.

Options for the Future
  • I should research a better noodle choice. Even with the clumping I had to deal with, though, they reheated more appetizingly than rice would have. I find nuked rice to be rough and dry, regardless of how much water I use to cook it.
  • If I can get a decent-looking baby bok choy, I could add that for more flavor and roughage.
  • I am not entirely trusting of the bean sprouts I see in the stores, due to bacteria, but were I to find a reliable source, they go great with pork.
  • I could cook the noodles halfway, then finish them al dente in the boiling wok sauce, set them aside, and serve everything else over them.
  • I could dry-roast the sesame seeds to get a nutty flavor, or use the black seeds when I run out of the usual ones.
  • For the marinade, I could add a few slivers of ginger, a sprinkle of crushed red pepper, a dab of hot mustard, chopped green onions, and/or some fresh-squeezed citrus juice (or, at the very end of the marinating process, pineapple juice).
All in all, this turned out to be a healthful, quick-to-prepare, multi-serving meal with simple prep and minimal cleanup. After a weekend in which I had pizza on 3 straight days, I needed a heaping helping of vitamins and phytonutrients, and this meal fit the bill. It will be damn tough not to attack the third and final tub of this stuff when I get home.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Wandering Monster

I TAKE THE TRAIN in and out of the city each workday. Others settle for just the tracks.

While entering the 14th Street PATH station this week, I passed two street people on their way out. Both wore layers of dirty clothing, disintegrating shoes, and heavy facial hair. They also carried huge garbage bags over their shoulders. Not an uncommon sight in New York City, though usually not in the PATH stations, because the range of transit through the city is far more limited than via the New York Subway proper.

For those unfamiliar with the PATH tubes, the far wall of the station is lined with shallow niches. Some of them are open and join with the tracks on the other side, permitting pipes, wires, and workers to pass through. Also, evidently, street people.

As I took a place on the platform, a third street person emerged through one of those open nooks. Keep in mind that the third rail hugs the far wall as well. I watched — never having seen someone get electrocuted before — as this guy stepped with practiced ease over the shielded third rail, walked casually to the platform edge even as a train approached down the tunnel, and heaved first his bundle and then himself up onto the main floor. He then strode out the turnstile to join his comrades as casually as if he had debarked the train that screeched to a halt in the space he had just traversed.

So That's What Atheists Are Calling Themselves?

I AM AN ATHEIST. I have no use for religion in my life. My personal view is that most organized religions seduce, hypnotize, and destroy. Evangelism and fanaticism offend me. Others may worship as they please or eschew same, to the extent in both cases that it does not infringe the rights of our fellow citizens.

I do not ally myself with other atheists. I find some of their writings interesting, but I am not, by nature, a joiner of movements. I do not introduce myself to people as an atheist, because I feel opening conversations with religion is offensive, even in the case of a lack of religion like my own. I prefer to say, if pressed, "I'm not religious." I guess in Dungeons & Dragons alignment terms, you could call me a true neutral. Just leave me alone and I will do the same.

I have read atheist websites and blogs in the past, and I have an interest in reviewing some recently published books on the topic, to see if my misgivings are accurate, but from the excerpts I've scanned, they all seem like they define themselves aggressively by what they are not. In my ear, this sounds very much like office gossip. You know the tenor of this talk. Dysfunctional coworkers build their shared identity and solidarity by airing and attacking what they hate in a common office enemy. I agree with atheists' distaste for the abuses of organized religion and the self-delusion of the fanatic. But in the low rhetoric and anonymous character of the Internet, it begins to read like one-upmanship in pursuit of a party line.

In other words, like a religion.

As I say, I don't evangelize my atheism to the point of self-identifying as such. So when I read that some atheists are using the term Bright to indicate their embrace of naturalist, secular enlightenment and reason, I shook my head in pity. It's become another buzzword, another forward base from which to launch partisan attacks and to which they might retreat for backslaps and toasts after scoring a self-perceived logical coup against The Other. I object to the need for a title, an ingroup, and an Other. Absolutely, the abuses of those obsessed with a theist worldview on the Bill of Rights, the freedom of ideas, and the advance of science must be tracked, exposed, and reversed. But all this term Bright represents to this cynic is just another spoke on the wheel of religions, just another tower from which snipers might fire.

As a master text of healthy skepticism regardless of religious predilection, Monty Python's Life of Brian is looking more and more prescient.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Memo to Kerry: STFU

A QUOTE POPULARLY ATTRIBUTED to Napoleon Bonaparte instructs: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself." This is the message I have for Senator John Kerry with regard to his recent contribution to the cause of the Democratic Party as the midterm campaigns wind down. We might abridge this dictum for modern times as I have in the second part of my title.

For the past several weeks, Republican candidates across the country have been teetering toward the edge like the T1000 absorbing shot after shot in the flame and steam factory (thank you Ebert) at the end of Terminator 2. Although the recent New Jersey State Supreme Court on gay civil unions gave some of the more desperate conservatives some fear fodder, the one-two punch of Iraq and Mark Foley eroded poll ratings over September and October.

Still, it's no sure thing to swing a change of ruling party. Implying that the fate of ill-educated people is to fight in Iraq plays on a pernicious stereotype of the military, and dishonors both the men and women Kerry served with in Vietnam as well as the all-volunteer force serving across the globe today. His fit of pique at being called on this failed joke, as righteous anger goes, is 2 years overdue. Kerry should have reacted with this rage at the Swift Boat instigators in 2004, instead of lying on his side and letting these jackals nip at his flanks for as long as they did.

I hope Kerry doesn't imagine that his 11th-hour participation in this campaign will contribute to success in 2008. He hasn't got a chance. The field is wide open, as it was in 2004, but the Democratic leadership will not back a one-time loser. Did Kerry, instead, feel like he had nothing to lose, and just wanted to jab the guy who beat him? This would strike me as the sort of thoughtless, unsympathetic gaffe that the Dems have accused Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld of making while our boys die in Iraq. The last thing the Democrats need right now is to be linked with a patrician soldier-bashing loser, which is precisely the sort of slander that Karl Rove's propaganda labs would turn out.

This putative sweep is by no means a lock. Kerry should accept that the cameras are now on him, and that his best move would be to crawl back into his hole and let the Repubs continue to destroy themselves.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Schizohedron Bullet Points! for 11/1/06

  • WFMU RECORD FAIR BECKONS: Much like last year, I am lending a hand at the WFMU Record and Tape Fair, which should be a beacon of crate-digging and impulse buying for all fans of obscure vinyl and music oddities. All proceeds from table rental, admission, and sales from the cheapo record and FMU swag tables directly and 100% benefit the freeform station of the nation, WFMU 91.1. Get on out there and support one of the last places on the dial where noncommercial radio is still practiced and the wonder of the medium still holds sway.
  • DICKED OUT OF A DOLLAR: Lovely for my bank to charge me a dollar for an unplanned use of a nonnetwork ATM, which by coincidence is more than I earned in interest on my checking account last month. I called the branch to try and get it revoked, but the assistant manager claimed that they were powerless to strike the charge barring mechanical failure of the nearest network ATM forcing me to another bank. I will move up the ladder and write them a note on their website, once my blood cools, to see if they will listen to calm reason. I can only imagine they spend considerably more than a buck a head to attract, sign up, and retain new depositors. Can't say I'll ever use any of their other financial services, though, regardless of whether my apostasy is forgiven. Yeah, maybe it's just a buck, but to them it's a rounding error and a fraction of the budget they allot for lobby candy for the tots . . . and why should I be a sheep and let them take it without a fight?
  • TREASURE THIS TREASURY: Now, you want a satisfying financial experience — and no less, from a Federal Government website? Hit up the TreasuryDirect portal. The Treasury has been selling bonds online for some time, but until recently I hadn't seen their redesigned site. It is an attractive, easily navigable, ultra-secure interface through which you can handle all of your Federal fixed-income transactions. It is now as simple to buy the regularly auctioned Treasury bonds, bills, and notes, and the more traditional savings bonds, as it is to buy goodies from Even more usefully, one can send paper bonds in for book-entry conversion, in my case saving me the effort of redeeming a bunch of savings bonds over the next few years . . . and also sparing me contact with the chiseling schmucks at my bank each time one comes due.
  • HOCKEY SHOCKER: For the first time since around 1983, and only the second time in my life, I am going to a hockey game! My friend Jen sent up a signal flare for interest in an upcoming New Jersey Devils game, and she got quite a response, including yours truly. With the collapse of the Jets franchise, the mighty Felix hasn't been buying his father's season tickets, one of which I would occasionally grab if available . . . so my attendance at fall and winter sporting events has dropped to nil. The only remaining decision is whether I will be stomped for wearing my San Jose Sharks CHAINSAW jersey to the rink. I could always bring along a chainsaw in case anyone gets saucy. . . .
  • POKER OCTOBER SURPRISE: Just when my faith in my poker abilities was beginning to waver, in the midst of a choppy late summer track record at the usual game, I was proud to rack up an October of straight wins. Of particular notice was a sweet win at the Showboat — a trip report that deserves a post here — that indicated to me I can still swim in the casino poker pool. I made many good reads at the local game that saved me money and that I would not have made a year ago. I consider our game to be of above-average skill, so when I — by no means the best player at that table — am able to string Ws across the month, I feel like I have actually learned just a little more about this crazy game.
  • IF YOU BAN IT, THEY WILL COME: In a cowardly parliamentary trick, Congress tacked an anti–Internet gambling rider onto a safe ports act, which passed and was subsequently signed by Dear Leader on — fitting in the eyes of its critics — Friday, Oct. 13. I was never a dedicated or deep online poker player in the 6 months that I navigated the felt seas of the Full Tilt shark lagoon, barely clearing any of the incentive bonus with my low-limit and sporadic play. I yanked my funds months ago for the July Vegas trip and never reloaded. I barely thought about playing online until this push by the Congressional morality class over the late summer. Now that the mode of funding a poker account has been criminalized, I do think about playing, and somewhat miss it. So what has happened is exactly what transpired with the passage of the Volstead Act: Outlaw something, and folks will get curious about it. A piece in today's Wall Street Journal indicated that players are already sniffing about for ways around the funding ban. So are some of the guys in my game. I guarantee that if I rented the shuttered store across the street from my building, painted over the windows, bought three poker tables, hired and trained dealers, iced and greased the local cops and Mob, and put the word out, I could run games 7 nights a week with a waiting list out the door. To Congress I say, as we sarcastically say to the table sucker when he or she hits well: Nice hand.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Wesley Snipes To Go on Ice Again?

ONE OF THE SLEEPER classics of the mid-Nineties was the film Demolition Man. In it, Wesley Snipes (and, through Snipes's character's machinations, Sylvester Stallone) plays a criminal who, after being apprehended in the present day, is cryogenically frozen for decades in a new rehabilitation initiative. Of course, the subliminal retraining that was supposed to make him docile is replaced by a suite of skills that read like a GURPS Black Ops character sheet, and Sly is thawed to deal with the swath of chaos Snipes carves across a pacifist future.

Well, Snipes may have occasion to be put on ice in real life. News today alleged that Our Mister Blade has neglected to pay his not insubstantial taxes for some time. From the Orlando Sentinel:
Snipes, according to the indictment, sent bogus checks worth about $13 million to the IRS for his estimated tax liability. Snipes also attempted to receive, but did not get, tax refunds worth more than $11 million for tax years 1996 and 1997, according to the indictment.
Nobody really likes to pay taxes — though having to shell out a pile on Snipes-level coin would feel like a backhanded compliment to me — but hell, if you're a celebrity, known to pull down seven-figure paychecks, you gotta know the spotlight is going to be on you with greater vigor than on a shlub like me. And Snipes isn't even the first guy to short the Feds like this. The first Survivor winner, Richard Hatch, somehow convinced himself that CBS was covering the tax on his million dollars, an excuse that fell apart when he also ducked tax on a few other goodies and paychecks he picked up after the win. Hatch is now bouncing off the walls of a Federal clink. Will Wesley Snipes be one cell down?

This news comes right after I spent a late Saturday night/early Sunday morning (yes, I lead an exciting weekend life) reading Richard Yancey's riveting memoir, Confessions of a Tax Collector, which details his career as a revenue agent for the IRS. They have a direct mandate: Collect the tax. Whether it be via payment plan, or an auction of the delinquent payer's businesses or homes, Yancey executed the will of the government with increasing zeal in his career, reserving special attention for scam artists and revenue-libertarians who use pettifoggery and Constitutional chop-logic to claim that the income tax system itself is invalid. In the end, few escape, and the author is transformed by his job in alarming ways. The book reads like Brazil via Heart of Darkness and I recommend it strongly. All in all, it tells me that Wesley Snipes doesn't have a chance in hell of winning.

Why do people think they are immune to the law? Especially revenue laws, at a time when every penny that moves through the system can be followed as it goes or traced? Even the most Byzantine money-laundering schemes are eventually foiled, or at least suspected of existing even as their walls are slowly scaled by ever-more sophisticated forensic accountants and computer wizards. Joe Louis coined it, Wez echoed it, and I believe it: You can run, but you can't hide. Though I'm not saying I agree with every program my revenue funds, I do know it's coming out of that paycheck or some Agent Smith–looking motherfucker is gonna drag my ass into a fluorescent-lit sweatbox, stretch on a rubber glove, and go hunting up and down the length of my fiscal colon. And if I really wanted attention to that area, hell, there's places in the West Village'll help a man out for a few bux and a peck on the cheek.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More Sad News for the Yankees

HARD ON THE HEELS of a playoff loss, the New York Yankees have suffered a more personal one: the death, via small-engine plane, of pitcher Cory Lidle. I don't normally follow baseball in general or the Yanks in particular, but the mode of his passing — his plane flew into the side of an Upper East Side condo tower — definitely got my attention. Only later in the workday did the identity of one of its passengers emerge.

Let's back up to this afternoon. My immediate supervisor got a call from her mother, who told her a plane had flown into a building. Said boss transmitted that fact, sans specifics, to the other three designers in our group. This may have been all her mother knew at the time. Even so, she might have checked the Web for a couple of details before passing this fact straight along. (She is also the type to forward Net glurge before checking with urban legend site

So with a detached-sounding "Hmmmm . . . ," I hit up CNN's site to see what the facts were. As it slowly loaded (clearly mine was not the only inquiring mind), my boss said if we didn't feel safe staying at the office, we could go. This I needed to hear. So when I got the capsule summary of the breaking story — small plane, residential building, UES — I relaxed, and quickly let the group know that this was a limited, accident-related event and not an apparent terror attack. "Unless," I added, "the plane was brimming with anthrax."

At this stage, all we knew was that there had been a crash, with no details on victims. It was only at 5:00 or so, as I was leaving, when I heard one guy a few cubes away say, "A Yankee?!" I thought maybe one of the Bombers owned a condo in the building, and perhaps by extreme chance his was hit. Not so. Upon loading, however, I saw the first sketchy details of the story.

As I said, I don't follow baseball, so I didn't really know Cory Lidle. Was this just a terrible accident, or a deliberate crash on the part of a disturbed player whose team got washed out of the playoffs? Upon returning home, I consulted the mighty Felix as to what he knew of Lidle, aside from his being a recent acquisition from the Phillies. He said he had heard nothing to suggest that Lidle was the pinstripe equivalent of Terrell Owens. By this point, the news radio stations were both going nonstop on Lidle and the accident. At this point it does simply seem like a sad misadventure on the part of an enthusiastic, safety-aware amateur pilot.

One fact that emerged from the radio reports was that Lidle was a member of the Yankees chess club. Who knew they had such a thing? With the swollen egos on that team, I would not have imagined some of the players might devote themselves to such a slow-paced, intellectual exercise. Lidle was reported to find it calming to play a game or two before trotting out onto the diamond. I had a childhood interest in chess that, although it never developed into any sort of adult skill, did leave me with an appreciation of those who play.

I'm sure I'll get a little stuffed full of the coverage over the next couple of days. To be sure, all due respect to his survivors (including a son that just turned 6), I'm truly happy it wasn't as dire as my boss's mom had made it sound. It still represents a very tragic coda to a season that, in the end, fell well short of expectations. Hopefully the Yankees will be inspired to play with even more heart when spring training is over and they return to the Bronx, minus their fallen teammate.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tensions Rising

NO, I'M NOT TALKING about our poufy-haired buddy in Pyongyang. I'm talking at work. Over the past couple of weeks, the background level of tension seems to be escalating very slowly. I'm posting to hash out why.

Granted, we did just pass the end of our fiscal year, and all of the high managers were rushing about, trying to get the numbers all lined up in efficient, shiny rows. This trickles down to us only in the sense that those databases wherein we track our publications have to be up to date. This is a reflex I learned at my last job, where we had a spreadsheet/database program similar in intent. When the numbers indicate a project is offpress, it can be realized as revenue, and it is this final digit in the lineup that means everything to the beancounters. Still, our group keeps the database well stocked with those vital numbers, so that doesn't pose a problem.

The looming project in which we switch our production methods was rumored to begin this fall. Some said it even might launch in October. With one third of the month done, I have my doubts . . . and these are fueled by the continuing confusion over exactly how this whole system will be implemented.

I hear the manager — my former department head — who was responsible for getting the company into this way of production still fussing over minuscule details. I also hear her wasting time arguing with her husband and yelling at her children on the phone, agonizing over the thorny details of a lunch order, and laughing it up with the staff she now supervises to undertake the seemingly infinite number of remaining sticking points of this process. I hear my immediate supervisor trying to glean from said manager basic information on how we need to reformat our publications, and failing to get the information she needs. In addition to this, she is performing the duties of a publications trafficker — a position that our former manager, in a critically short-sighted act, eliminated — and fielding a tide of questions from a sister office on products with which we should have no involvement whatsoever. We have also been directed by HQ to switch printers by the end of this month for budget-consolidation purposes. All of this is being overseen by our new manager, who had our little group of designers thrust upon her when it became clear that our old boss no longer had time to devote to actually supervising us. Our new boss, who I feel has an enlightened no-bullshit attitude, is nonetheless herself learning just what she needs to do, and this in the early stages of a very busy period in the book-production side of our department, her previous, and continuing, focus in the operation.

Now you can see why it's getting steadily crazier by the week at my shop.

Things could be considerably worse. Two friends and former coworkers of mine — let's grant them anonymity here in their unfolding situation — just got word that their boss is selling the company. Because the buyer is not local, their positions are not guaranteed. I survived a round of layoffs at my company 3 years ago, but because my former department head (who, to her credit, thought very clearly when she had a specific focus like this) stuffed our desks with work, we managed to slide past the Reaper under the guise of being the shepherds of more sheep, so to speak, than the company could afford to let wander unwatched. This is not an option for my friends, one of whom stunned me with news of the sale this Friday.

We are not near that point where I work, not by a long shot. One might argue that the neck on which the axe of retribution might fall, should this new initiative fail, could simply be that of my former boss. My current supervisor can't do much to rock the boat, because the company is paying for her graduate education. She could find freelance work tomorrow with just a few phone calls, but this wouldn't cover the completion of her degree. Me? I have no debts or obligations of that sort, and I am far enough down the ladder from all of these decisions and their possible consequences not to be targeted for any failure (unless I very specifically fuck something up, which – as the entire process is not yet known to me — I don't know how I would manage).

What does worry me is that my skill set is a bit specialized. I don't have a solid command of Photoshop, and I could certainly get better with Illustrator. I'm not a "real" graphic designer in that sense. I do still have a good eye for editing, though the escape plan that I occasionally flirt with did involve easing into copyediting, jobs for which I would have sought . . . at my previous company. I haven't made up a resume in years, and I suspect mine might be a bit thin.

I will hold off on any thoughts regarding departure until I truly see this new mode of production in descriptive detail, if not in action. There could be dark humor in some of the process. For the moment, however, I still consider hitting the deadlines of my publications my top job, one at which I am good and for which the checks don't seem to be bouncing. It couldn't hurt, however, to consider the options should my stay there be cut short by someone looking to add a teak floor to his yacht in the main office.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

O Schadenfreude, O Schadenfreude

YOU CAN SING THE above to "O Tannenbaum," or perhaps "Duel of the Fates" if you wish to shoehorn the syllables a tad, but any way you sing it, it's what I'm abubble with over the unfolding Mark Foley scandal.

Do you remember how you perceived Congress and Bill Clinton before the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit? I recall the time before that as having an eerie calm, surely a retrospective illusion given the Republican-sprayed shitstorm that followed. Now, in less than a week, the Repubs themselves, a month away from a midterm election that could result in their losing control of the legislature, the entire leadership has its hands full of this mess.

One good source for daily snippets and linkage for this story has been Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo blog (accessible through my links). He has links to all of the ongoing homina-homina-homina from the Congressional leadership about who knew what about whom and when. NPR also has a solid chronology here. By all means check out just how far the party of morals and the moneyed Jesus-fucks who have worked to install it can cram their collective foot into its collective mouth trying to defend this former chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.

If nothing else, bloated hack Dennis Hastert might be in the position John Hurt as Caligula found himself in I, Claudius: figuratively locked into a corridor and butchered by his former allies as his thugs pound on the doors to save their only connection to Washington power. At best, the one-two punch of the Bob Woodward book and the Foley black hole might tilt the balance on Election Day and open a massive crack in the support Bush has to continue his asinine trade practices.

It's been a truism since the First Continental Congress, a tarpit into which arrogant politicians who think they're immortal and untouchable will stumble and sink for as long as the US of A caps this hemisphere: "Never get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."

P.S. Hunter Thompson would have LOVED this.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Thirty-One Days and All Too Short

OCTOBER IS HERE. AUTUMN will flower into its most beautiful form during this month. I wish I had more days off in which to enjoy it, but I ran through more than I ordinarily would have this spring (due to the then-imminent ban on extended time off in the summer, which eventually was lifted). I could conceivably work a little later each day and build up a couple of half-day Fridays, but once again, rumor has it we may start our new way of production later this month.

Autumn is making itself known to me in many small ways. With the windows open at night, I find myself dropping off to sleep in the cool air far more swiftly than in the artificial chill of an overtaxed air conditioner. I have smelled wood burning, and in another form of fire, the edges of the leaves are curling and turning yellow and orange as though igniting at the touch of a hidden flame. We're a quarter of the way through football season, and the weather is just right for tailgating, whether you're at a stadium or not.

I have much to accomplish this month. Foremost among them is getting my sleep schedule into order. The better evening weather should help immeasurably. Soon, my old company 401(k) should be liquidated, and the check will be in my hands to drop into the retirement plan of my current employer. (October is historically a crummy month for stocks, so I decided to have the money be in transit while the market goes through its usual tenth-month flux.) Once it's in, I have to rebalance my entire spread of funds with the next several years in mind. I also want to make a regular date with this blog, to keep the writing muscles in tone in ways my job never does.

In general, I plan to reassess many of my priorities — physical, career, financial, creative, and recreational — in this wonderful, frost-edged month. I hope to celebrate some of these improvements at its end, coincident with Halloween, and if I can enact anything significant by then I will consider it a treat in the October 31 sense.