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 Amazon.com. 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.