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.