Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Sticking to the Menu

I'M NOT TOO HAPPY to admit that I have been a massive slacker this week, particularly with respect to my dining options. I bought bagels for breakfast each morning and purchased something in the city for lunch each day as well. This adds up. Though my spending records show I did better than last month in eating as many grocery-born meals and saving cash, I honestly try to keep from buying food in the city down to once per week, if not once per pay period.

Worse, this wasn't the best food on the planet to eat while keeping my weight under control, if not reducing it. Bagels are basically simple-carb globs. I got a burrito on Monday and Tuesday from Chipotle, and pizza today. I did manage to hit the gym last night, and tomorrow is my next workout day, so I'm at least staying active. Nicer weather and brighter mornings are luring me out of the house to the gym more often. Soon I'll even be able to take some good-length walks.

Still, as I have seen in many forms across several fitness-board posts, the war against overweight is won in the kitchen. I've got to admit the last year was lacking in that respect.

I attempted to institute a weekday vegetarianism. I kept meat to the weekends, and also tried to bring food as much as possible. This effort wasn't altogether successful. I didn't gain as much muscle weight, even with the protein shakes after working out, as I had wanted. Dropping fat is a two-step process, both increasing cardiovascular activity and building lean muscle.

I was better off when I was bringing carefully planned omnivorous meals into work, as I did back near the beginning of this blog, here and here. I think I could do better on the nutrient ratios, perhaps go for a 20% fat and up the complex carbs by 10%.

This would also help regiment my weekends more. I was making nice prepared meals for the week on Sundays with solid regularity. I also brought sandwiches for lunch, healthy ones with lowfat cheese and mustard instead of mayo. Spending some time shopping, cooking, and apportioning became a habit, one I can resume. And of course, all of this helped me get the hell out of the house faster in the morning and damn well saved me some coin. It was working, too; my percentage of body fat dropped, and some muscle was beginning to grow.

I do recall dropping out of the habits, however, and finding it tough to resume them. That was the same fall/winter in which I was too exhausted to organize the holiday party. I went through a difficult emotional separation whose details need not appear here. Still, there was no use to pile up excuses so high that I could not climb over them.

I am entering my final month of employment at the current place. It's not too late to exercise some self-control, both over my exercise and eating. I'll need both when I am on my own, especially if it takes some time to get employed again. And there's also that not-dying thing. This month saw the anniversary of Nick's death, and although I know that had nothing to do with physical fitness, I am doing myself no favors by remaining at this weight. Carrying extra weight exacerbated a knee injury my mother received 10 years ago, and she has steadily lost mobility and endurance as a result of not dropping any pounds. Furthermore, if I go out on my own as a freelancer and have to get health insurance, a slender frame will cut costs. All manner of reasons to go back to what was working.

If I am relegating the meat of the job hunt to weekends, I can stuff the mornings or evenings with exercise, and at least look presentable in interviews and at the two weddings I will have the pleasure of attending this coming spring. At which, of course, I will be sliding right off the wagon in both diet and temperance. Those days excepted, I can surely do myself a solid by easing back on the extreme of vegetarian weekdays and at least bringing balanced meals, with a limited amount of lean meat. Hell, I've read a number of obits recently with folks living to 100, and my own grandparents made it well into their 80s, two of them after lifetimes of smoking and drinking. I can be better to myself in some ways, but in others, I think I can fall back on a good set of genes.

And maybe a safe-deposit box full of stents.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Stock Spaz Welcomed With Open Wallet

THE FINANCIAL MARKETS DID their best imitation of a sake-crazed kamikaze pilot today, with the Dow alone dropping 416 points. The other major indexes followed suit, with sellers outnumbering buyers on the order of 20:1. The folks gathered on the podium balcony at the NYSE looked distinctly relieved when the session was rung to a close.

Strangely, I am unworried. As a 401(k) investor, I have an interest in seeing my mutual funds grow. I certainly checked them when I returned home. But I wasn't panicked. This represents a reversal of demeanor from what I would have exhibited less than 10 years ago. Expensive lessons learned from the dot-com rollercoaster have given me a distinctly longer view, and a greater appreciation for index funds and diversification, than I had as a fledgling investor last decade.

In October, when I flipped my old 401(k) money into my current (and soon to be former) company's fund, I let it enter the money-market option. I then spent the rest of the year moving the lump sum into the specific mutual funds in preset chunks each week. I wanted to take advantage of dollar-cost averaging and buy lots of the funds at lower prices if I could. This way, if 2007 represented an end to the rally roaring along since July 2006 and, more broadly, the beginning of the Iraq War, I at least bought some of the lots more cheaply.

This worked well. The market ascended through the end of the year, so when 2007 hit and I was able to begin depositing new cash into my 401(k), I had already realized a gain. I have been contributing the maximum, to get as much of my remaining paychecks under the shelter of the tax-advantaged plan, and if I had had the option, I'd have deferred each paycheck between now and my layoff into the 401(k). Alas, they max out your per-check contribution at 50%. Pansies.

By coincidence, last Friday was a payday, and our 401(k) funds deposit after market close the following Tuesday. This means my purchases tonight will be at a significant discount to the fund prices I paid a fortnight ago. (Yes, I typed fortnight.) It says something about me that I went home smiling about this prospect.

After losing significant amounts of money in the tech crash, I finally accepted the wisdom of allowing index funds with low expense ratios represent the backbone of my portfolio. I do intend to fill out those larger indexes with exchange-traded funds that capture the Russell small-stock indexes. This is not to say ownership of individual stocks is wrong. I simply don't have the time to research, build, and monitor a properly diversified portfolio. With joblessness looming, what cash I have is best kept liquid. As for short-term ownership, I try to scotch those get-rich-quick urges by applied financial-probability research in the guise of my weekly poker game. Jim Cramer is absolutely right when he writes that, as emotional, impulsive human beings, we all need a speculative owning in our portfolio to satiate our urge to gamble. Mine would probably have the ticker symbol POKR.

This summer, I tested myself to see if I had the demeanor to own a single security and not monitor its progress all day. I bought a small amount of a large-cap tech stock shortly after it issued positive earnings. I kept checking the price via a Mac desktop stock widget, reading about it on the Web, and calculating how much I would make if I sold it at a certain point. I eventually decided enough was enough and sold for a small profit after 3 business days. As is typical for quick in-and-out buyers, the stock spent the next 4 months adding 6 more points, indicating that either I had to own multiple, diversified companies, or merely do what I was doing and let index funds and dollar-cost averaging do all the heavy lifting.

I don't intend to touch my 401(k) money for a good 30-odd years or so. The gyrations of the past 10 years have shown me how consistent, measured purchases across time are better suited to my attention level and temperament. I'm tickled pink to get more chunks of shares tonight at a discount price, because long term, these shares will go up with the indexes they track. Should I find myself with more time and a more comfortable cushion of cash, once my job situation stabilizes, perhaps then I will fill out my retirement income with some securities purchases. I'm in no rush, though. Treasury bonds are returning an annualized 5.268%. You cannot beat that with a stick. I believe I'll take that risk-free five points and let the market mayhem play itself out as it may. With, of course, my weekly nighttime daytrading in POKR shares.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Thou Shalt Not Fold: Poker Tourney Part II

Note: The first part of this saga, and capsule descriptions of the players named below, can be found here.

THE CARDS WENT IN the air shortly after 1 p.m. I wiped my moist palms dry on my slacks and took a peek at my first starting hand of the day: a Jack and a 7 of different suits. Easy fold there. Half the table placed two chips in the pot, indicating that they were as loose and fold resistant as I had anticipated. I intended to play very tightly until I had a starting read on how my tablemates truly played. Opening impressions, as I had gleaned from our pregame table chat, were only the beginning. I was going to have to see some play before settling on how best to handle them when we got into a hand together.

For the first few hands, my cards obliged that goal. They were all trash, most of them including a Jack and a small card. I folded dutifully, even on the big blind, when the Club Player raised and I had to toss a lone Ace with a 5. No free flop for me. The Club Player and the AC Player both tended to raise the proper amount and with pocket pairs, whereas the 18-Year-Old called with just about any two cards, raised weakly, and bled off his chips over the course of the first 20-minute round. The Fat Guy was willing to call raises with any piece of the board. Jack and the Mystery Man both tended to get out of trouble when it reared its head, though the latter did take a good hit early on when he failed to notice a flush draw that came in and took a third of his stack. The Filipina seemed to have been trained by AC, but was less skilled in betting in ways that denied drawing hands the proper odds to keep going and to fold instead.

And me? What info was I giving my tablemates? Not precious much aside from folding just about every hand. In three rotations of the deal, I saw exactly one pocket pair, 66 in the small blind, for which I completed the bet (the pot was unraised) with the hopes of catching a 6 on the flop. No such luck: Jack Queen King, with two spades. No point in proceeding here. I tossed it to the first bet. What I was getting a lot of, was Jack-rag, both suited and unsuited. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I saw a shitty Jack combo at least a dozen times in an hour.

In the four levels I spent at that table, from the 1/2 starting blinds to 10/20 later on, I had exactly two chances to make decent hands. They were both suited Aces, with which, at this table, with this many potential callers, I would have taken to the river had I hit a mere Ace on the flop with one or more suited cards. Instead, both times, the flop came all the wrong suit, in one case all spades when I held A9 of diamonds. With no Ace on the board, I was done. Between abortive starts like this, and some straight draws that never came through and for which I had to fold against massive raises, my starting stack of 150 was half gone by the 10/20 level.

This was exacerbated by some poor tournament administration. When a swift loss of players at one table leaves a significant deficit as compared to the remaining tables in the game, the director is supposed to take one or two replacements to keep the afflicted table full or close to full. In our case, we started with eight players (vs. the nine on the remaining tables), and lost two within 10 minutes (Mystery Man and, as he predicted, the 18-Year-Old). With fewer players, the button will rotate faster relative to the other tables, thus unfairly forcing more frequent payment of blinds. (Mathematically, one can also make the case that it forces a change of play style, as with fewer players, the chance of having enough preflop limpers to allow odds to bet a starting hand with straight or flush potential will be smaller than at a full table. This cuts down your starting hand range.)

With the tournament director also a player, we had a problem getting her attention to address this deficit. The Club Player and I saw eye to eye on how damaging this situation was, and we both tried to get it fixed. No dice; the director's table had the same problem, and she seemed to have a lot of folks there who needed significant hand-holding to get through the basics of poker, so her attention was not on the larger tournament. This points up the need for directors in large groups like this to be nonplayers. With two or three tables, as with the tourney I used to attend in Wyckoff, the host handled these issues with no problem at all (he actually had comprehensive, printed tournament rules). In our case, we went just about a full round of 20 minutes without it being addressed. With blinds of 10/20, this was cutting into my already diminished stack. I sensed an early exit.

At the break, our table was broken up, with three pairs of players sitting in at tables with open seats. Again, this could have been handled more easily by randomly choosing a table to send one or two players over. There is an accepted tournament procedure for selecting the exact person to send to a player-deficient table, down to selecting someone from the same position to assure continuity of deal. Not a concern in this event, it seemed. As it turned out, I and the Filipina sat down at an adjacent table, where mine was one of the two shortest stacks.

With a stack of about 85 chips, and the need to pay in 30 per round even if I did nothing but fold, I was going to have to make a move quickly. I thought my chance had come when I looked down two hands in to see my second pair of the day, Queens. Against a raise and a call, I reraised all in. To my disappointment, both opponents folded. I picked up a few more chips, though.

My end came quickly. After giving those chips right back with absolute crap in the blinds (a raise knocked me off of the big blind, and in the small blind, I got another goddamn Jack-rag), I caught King-Ten of clubs in the cutoff. The first player in raised, all others folded, and I decided to push. He flipped up Aces, actually the first rockets I'd seen all day. I caught precisely one club toward the flush draw, shipped him my remaining 64 chips, wished the table luck, and headed to the food table to recoup my losses calorically.

I would like to find some flaw in my play, but in this case, I truly had lousy cards from the first deal. With the blinds representing more than 30% of my stack on that last hand, and a strong late-position holding, an all-in was the only option. My opponent, roughly my peer, said he would have done the same. Even when I had chips, one thing I knew about this crowd was that bluffing was not going to get a fold-around if they had a remote chance of hitting the flop. I've always gotten at least one person to call, and then either I had to hit a great flop or go all-in regardless of what fell. And third-tier hands like King Queen offsuit were death against this sort of player, who is going to hang onto any Ace, and when one comes on the flop, what then?

So for now, it's back to the usual cash games for now. I did have fun, even if my cards were deader than Elvis. My urge to hit Atlantic City or Foxwoods is still there, if only to make up the $25 fee for the tournament. Felix is brewing a plan for our return to AC, possibly in late March. If I can make some solid headway on the job horizon between now and then, I will be able to reward myself with a relaxing, guilt-free trip to the gamble palaces. If I can find a cash-game table made up of some of the less-skilled players I met at the tournament, I might be able to supplement my severance pay through the fall.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Thou Shalt Not Fold: Poker Tourney Part I

I ROLLED SOUTH UNDER a grey late-February sky that, local weather-watchers claimed, would entomb the region that evening in snow and ice. With any luck, I would drive home through it, after hours of masterful poker play, flush with my winnings from the tournament awaiting me at a south Bergen County Jewish community center. The snow was the easiest barrier I might face that night. Seventy-five other players, all vying for the chance to make that final table and maybe even the top prize, proved to be a more formidable obstacle.

This new venue for the regular tournament was considerably larger. The old place was just a single synagogue, albeit with a finished basement. This complex housed at least three prayer halls, a basketball court, and two large basement activity rooms. Both were to be used today. I entered one of them with a confident stride to my step, noting with approval the 10 or 11 tables all set up, each with a hefty bowl of bagels and spreads as a centerpiece. One of the few folks already there noticed me counting the tables and chairs, as I calculated how many players we might have, and thus how large the prize pool would be. When I expressed satisfaction over this to her, she said, "This is children's ceramics. Poker is down the hall." It was then that I noticed she was spreading newspaper on one of the tables. Oops. I backed out and went one door down.

There, standing next to a table full of neatly stacked poker chips, I immediately spotted the player from my home poker game who had inaugurated this tournament. He had sold his chips and supplies to a tourney regular, because he found running the game and playing too burdensome. Now he was content to enjoy a solid streak of making the final pay spots and socialize between hands. I, on the other hand, sought contentment from the 6-foot submarine sandwich being unwrapped on the buffet table. After watching three women debate the proper order in which the dishes of salads should be placed, I ended the debate by grabbing a plate and a big wedge of sandwich, slathering it with Russian dressing, and scampering back to my assigned table with a Diet Pepsi (the horrors!).

In time, my table filled in, as folks slowly drifted from their cliques, to the food, and finally to their assigned seats. The demographic skews older than myself in this group by at least 20 years. I noticed a few of my peers, along with two college-age kids, one of whom had been bought into the tourney as an 18th-birthday present from his father. They sat at my table for a while, discussing Blazing Saddles, which they had seen, along with the 1968 Producers, that weekend for the first time. I thought back to when I had first seen both of these films, and I know it was because my parents, having introduced me to Woody Allen's early comedies, knew I would also love these. It is difficult to imagine a time when I didn't have these cultural signifiers as part of my DNA.

The 18-year-old remained at my table as the hostess called for folks to take their seats for a read-through of the rules. Aside from myself, my table had seven other players. Going clockwise:

Jack: Stereotypical balding, slight-framed, retirement-age Jewish man, not unlike Lee Strasberg in The Godfather Part II. Friendly guy who expressed, along with some others at my table, a preference for seven-card stud, now somewhat overshadowed by hold'em, but once the poker game. Enjoyed TV poker, and joked that he was tempted to wear a hooded sweatshirt so he could hide like the Unabomber, Phil Laak.

AC Player: Twentysomething man in a faded Itchy & Scratchy T-shirt. I mention Atlantic City because he mentioned a procedure on misdeals as being the way things were done in AC. I made a mental note to take this guy's actions a little more seriously.

Fat Guy: Outweighed my by at least 150 lbs., which is saying something, this guy appeared to know what he was doing with a deck of cards. (Side note: There were some morbidly obese people at this game. Not merely fat like myself, but guys who, when viewed from the side, appeared to have little flipper arms, and women who would never be able to sit in coach. I did 50 minutes of cardio-machine work before I came over b/c I figured the deli noshing would kibosh my nutrition for the day, and a look at this crowd made me unique in that activity. One younger guy of normal weight for his height looked, by comparison, to have survived a hunger strike.)

18-Year-Old: Carried on a conversation before the game about his college costs and course selections while fiddling with a knockoff MP3 player, which he claimed was cheaper and better than the iPod. Ah, the vain beliefs of youth. Said he played $5 tournaments with his friends, but that he went on tilt very easily.

Club Player: I call him this because he was the one who provoked AC Player's commentary when he accidentally flipped up a card during the deal. He replied that in his experience playing in clubs, the procedure he followed (it was after the first two blind cards, so became the burn card) was standard, and continued the deal. By "clubs," I interpreted this as possibly being the underground Manhattan card parlors that quietly schooled such future legends as Erik Seidel, Howard Lederer, and Stu Ungar, such as the Mayfair and the Diamond Club. Another player to keep an eye on.

Filipina: Mind-numbingly hot American-bred Filipina nursing student. Knew the AC Player, and had a better-than-beginner's understanding of the game. Still got hung up on advanced-beginner stuff like figuring the winner when two players paired the high board card and handling blinds when someone was busted out. I graded these slight gaffes on a curve, usually one of her own.

Mohegan: Taciturn player to my right who wore a Mohegan Sun pullover. I tried to crack the ice by commenting that the casino was finally reversing its mistake of eliminating the poker room, but aside from expressing a preference, as did Jack, for stud, I didn't get to know him all that well. Too bad, as I like to know my neighbors' style of play somewhat before making the plunge into a big pot with them.

And, out of fairness . . .

Me: Seasoned no-limit ring-game specialist who trails his regular home game in skill but can ably bring home the bacon against the fish now flooding into casino $1/$2 no-limit games. Tournament newbie, especially among loose, no-fold'em hold'em players like these. Kept things light and chatty, despite my Binions visor and Caesars Palace T-shirt.

Would I hold my ground against these strangers and take their chips to the final table? Tomorrow's pulse-pounding conclusion will tell all. . . .

Saturday, February 24, 2007

See You in Poker Shul

SUCCESSFULLY SUPPRESSED AN URGE to visit one of our local casino emporia this weekend. I was in the mood for some hold'em, possibly at Foxwoods, where the maximum $1/$2 no-limit game finally has been raised to match that in Atlantic City ($300). Foxwoods takes a time charge per half hour at this game, instead of a rake from each pot as is typical in Vegas or AC, and when the max buy-in was $100, throwing $10 to the house each hour took a big chunk out of your stack. Plus, many of the dealers are slow to get the cards out and do little to quicken the pace of the game. However, combine this with the generally craptacular skill level of the $1/$2 NL players there, and it now has the potential to be quite tasty.

My reason for restraining myself is that I am returning, after a long hiatus, to a regular tournament offered at a Bergen County synagogue. One of the earliest regulars in my poker game had started running this tourney sometime before joining my crowd, and he extended an invitation to those playing. I tried it for the first time in September 2004, and I have returned a few times since. I'm not a strong tournament player, but I alternated for a couple of years between this one and a private home tourney in Wyckoff that, to my regret, broke off sometime early last year. I prefer low-entry-fee tournaments, because I'm not the best tourney player in the world. Aside from a couple of low-priced matches at the Plaza Las Vegas, my meager experience has been amateur-run events among folks who mostly know one another.

And I have to admit I prefer it this way. In a casino, I would be playing against a roomful of strangers. Playing tournament hold'em correctly, at which the wrong move can send all of your chips to another player and your ass back to the parking lot, can be a lonely, tiring experience. In the early stages, you are playing only the best starting hands, which inevitably will be separated by long minutes of tossing crappy cards in the muck, scrutinizing the play styles of your tablemates, and ignoring the many distractions casinos have to offer. And you're doing this among folks who have no reason to extend you any good will or even to recognize your existence past being a possible source of tournament chips.

The amateur matches in which I've played are quite different. They emerged as part of the great flowering of home games in 2003 with Chris Moneymaker's win at the WSOP and the debut of the World Poker Tour. Existing poker games began dealing hold'em, and groups of friends new to poker wanted to give the "TV poker" a try. The more enterprising among them tried the tournament format, and guides for running such games began to appear on the Internet. Soon, you couldn't play in a home game without one of the players mentioning an upcoming tourney with a few open seats. Most folks knew one another at these tournaments, so you could at least have some fun and not entirely feel like a ribeye in a shark tank.

The tournament I will play in tomorrow had the added unity of featuring folks belonging to or friends/related to members of the same synagogue. If they don't already see one another socially, they at least meet up once a week for services. So it's more like playing in a club full of folks out to have fun and, maybe, make a little poker money. Although there were a number of nonmembers there to play, few stood out as outsiders, just because this was such a congenial bunch. One or two went the whole sunglasses-and-hat routine and played the tourney like poker robots, and in turn wasted the chance to have a good time.

I haven't won yet in this series of tournaments. The players are, on average, not skilled at this style of poker. A few of them who have played some form of poker for decades are repeat winners. The majority are calling stations, to use the poker lingo for a player who will call any reasonable bet and who are difficult to chase out of pots with raises. When you have a strong but vulnerable hand, like Jacks, you want to get those dealt a single, higher court card out, because you could be behind a single Queen on the flop. Some of the folks I will see tomorrow will simply call, and each successive call represents further odds justification for the next person to stay in. This is how I've been busted out sometimes. If the occasion weren't so much fun to attend, it would be vexing. Still, when you have to reraise with Queens because nobody folded to the first player's raise, and your reraise gets four calls, you kinda cross your fingers and toes before the flop comes down.

I hadn't played for some months because the local no-limit ring game was kicking my ass through the late summer, and I was questioning whether I was playing this game remotely correctly. Through fall and the beginning of winter, however, I made a huge comeback, beating both the local game and tables I've raided at Atlantic City. It's been ages since I played any tournament at all, so when I got word the event was on again, I registered. Last time I played, they got 64 players, each of whom paid $25 into the prize pool. I believe first place gets 40% or 50%. So at minimum, the winner got $640. If the new hall can hold even more people, that grand prize will be sweeter still.

So we'll see how well I make out tomorrow. I can't claim to be the best player in the room, but I intend to have the most fun. After these past couple of weeks, it will be welcome.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Weekends Were Made for Job Hunting

Note: Written longhand earlier tonight, on my train ride home from work.

CRAWLING BACK TO MY corner at the end of a long, if chronologically short, week, I'm reminded of how boxers feel between rounds late in a fight. I'm slumped on my stool after the bell has rung, punch drunk, vaguely following the exhortations of my trainer, hearing the dim echo of my opponent's name coursing out from thousands of spectators' mouths. Five more weeks of this current workplace will feel like five more rounds with Ali in his prime. I'm either gonna end face down on the canvas or face up in the morgue.

Well, not that dire, certainly. Still, it's getting extremely hectic at work. My job hunt has ground to a halt during the unending chaos of these past two weeks. Previously, even right after our two junior designers left, I had a lot of dead time in which I could work on my resume, search for jobs, or study training options. Not this past fortnight. If anything, ever since the Super Bowl, my boss and I have barely had a chance to breathe. I can now legitimately add the skill of trafficker to my resume. My boss and I spend much of the day trying to figure out exactly where certain jobs sit in the production cycle. The folks doing our work in Outsourcistan don't seem to share what tips for efficient design, image specifications, and color handling we share with them. So the same problems will crop up from one job to the next, depending on who is laying them out. Untangling all of these difficulties is a job on its own, and I fully intend to list this as a marketable skill on whatever finally coalesces into the form of a resume on my computer.

Not that I get much of a chance to work on it. I need to shift my job-hunting efforts to weekends. By the time I leave the salt mine, I am so mentally fried from the trafficking gymnastics that any career work is half hearted at best. Not a good way to be five weeks from being on the street. The inbound commute might be a good time, but outbound I spend trying to fight off sleep so I don't wake up in Spring Valley and have to hibernate in a fucking storm drain until the southbound trains resume the next morning. Instituting a highly productive and regimented weekend routine would break this logjam. I recall this as one of the goals I set at the beginning of the year. I also recognize it as being critical for long-term development and discipline if I am ever to become a freelance worker or sole business proprietor.

All is not hopeless, however. As frazzled and pessimistic as I may be when interacting with select coworkers who sympathize with my plight and that of my boss, I am always optimistic in my words and goals about my future when I speak with them. I had a good chat today with one of the folks who offered some ideas right after I got the layoff news. She speculated that I might have a greater facility for learning and excelling in HTML and XML than I give myself credit for, especially if I were to take formal courses in them. We also discussed how having contacts at various companies can mean a lot more than answering a Web or, even less likely, a newspaper ad. This connected with another discussion I had at the beginning of the day, who was impressed that I also had editorial skills as well as design. He told me to give him a copy of my resume when I had it set, so he could forward it to a friend of his at one of the larger NYC publishing houses. Though I may grumble at current conditions, about my future, I always address it in hopeful terms, because nobody will want to help a crank who bitches about being fired. Which I've never really done. Hell, now that I see how things will be handled there, I'm happy to go.

Other environmental signifiers of possible futures have manifested. I found a stack of flyers in the company lunchroom for the Editorial Freelancers Association, apparently left there by one of our word-mashers. I'd never heard of the group before, but the flyer, which came with an application, caught my interest. Later in the week, I noticed in the Hoboken PATH station a poster for the Freelancers Union. This one I have heard of, though not in depth. Both groups offer health insurance options, however, a topic of keen interest to me with the bug of forming my own business in the back of my head. Insurance would be the biggest barrier to becoming a solo act. So this weekend, I'll check both of these sites out to see just what reputations they enjoy and whether they would be worth joining.

For now, though, I'm content to roll along the rails, watching the magenta dusk glow its last through the black naked trees and distant Newark office towers to the west, home to a warm bed and a weekend away from the Brazil-like absurdity of my final weeks of work.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Democratic Dogfight or Darwinistic Demonstration?

MANY INNOCENT KEYBOARDS ACROSS this great land are now being pounded in anger as the blogosphere weighs in on the Great Obama–Clinton Flap. Harnessing this energy might prove a better solution than the Great Biofuel Revolution also much in the news, if only it didn’t generate unbelievable amounts of hot air.

When I first read about this, I got upset. Why are the candidates wasting time on this? Why do they retain goons on their payroll who insist on fanning the flames of picayune distractions offered by over-moneyed sybarites? If even a hundredth of the energy being expended on this ridiculous internecine sniping were directed toward (a) correcting society’s ills, (b) grooming a dynamic new generation of progressive-minded leaders, or (c) restoring our status as a trusted ally with those nations we’ve needlessly antagonized over the past 6 years, this would be looked on as the beginning of a golden age.

Some of the criticism has been ridiculous and merely points out the obvious. I take particular amusement from complaints that Hilary Clinton is “ambitious.” Folks, it takes a larger-than-normal ego merely to declare one’s run for the White House. Actually campaigning, raising money, appearing on 60 Minutes — these are the hallmarks of deep-seated ambition. To level this accusation betrays grievous historical ignorance. Thomas Jefferson, one of our most highly regarded Americans, was an inveterate political infighter and not shy about using the press to attack his enemies. He embodied ambition at each ascending step of his career.

I was also pissed because this sort of distraction gives the Republican operatives a chance to rebuild their strength and find new ways to target the nascent Democratic candidates. We need to look at the Congressional elections of 2006 as the end of the Second Age. Sauron was dispelled, but not destroyed. For there is an Eye that never sleeps in Washington, that of the Dark Lord, Karl Rove, even now setting into motion plans designed to continue Republican leadership in the executive and recapture as many Congressional seats as can be won, finagled, or stolen in 2008. It’s not that the Democrats won’t also hire soulless political ronin to groom and package their heir designate. It just always seems like that party dithers internally and cedes critical time and talking points to the Repubs, then squanders even more time before the election defending itself against meaningless charges. Witness Senator Kerry’s too-little, too-late reply to the Swift Boat critics. (Can’t recall it? No surprise.)

Yet there’s still part of me that feels this early strife is the only chance we as an electorate have to find a truly virtuous candidate. Some of these goons should be weeded out. Let them attack one another. Let America identify the opportunists and support the truly impassioned. Let their true ethics finally emerge past the stage-managed listening tours and the focus-group-tested campaign platforms. Let the Democrats shun the kingmaking charade and find someone who is not merely electable, but inspirational.

Until that person appears, keep well in mind the advice of arch-cynic newspaperman H. L. Mencken: “The only way to look at a politician is down.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Kid Without a Candy Store

I JUST RETURNED FROM a much-needed dinner at my parents' house, to discover a distressing fact: My town candy store is closing. I spotted a huge realty sign beneath the name of the joint as I drove by. And I was just in there last week for Valentine's Day.

I don't know yet whether the owner is retiring, or if this is the sad result of a downturn in business, but either way, it diminishes a chunk of my town's past by one. Grump that I am, I'm against it.

I'm not sure precisely when this shop opened. I believe they moved to my town from one of the Paramus malls, which would put it in the early 80s or so. That would put their lifespan at 25 years, which today seems like a lifetime, given the fugitive nature of establishments like cellphone stores and Chinese food joints.

One of the greatest traitors to my waistline has been the humble Gummi raspberry/blackberry blend. Alone among the Gummis, I am powerless to resist them. Sure, they turn your tongue a weird brown, and I prefer not to speculate on where the gelatin comes from, or for how long it remains in my system. But ever since I stumbled across these damn things in high school, sold in bulk at the local Shop Rite, I've been a virtual William S. Burroughs, haunting the mall or supermarket candy pits for a fix, weighing out the hookup and gauging whether my meager earnings would cover it, and then dashing off to my car to sample them. I can recall grinding my way through some particularly stale batches of Gummis, wondering why the hell I ever got these things in the first place . . . and then figuring whether I had time to hit the candy store at the Garden State Plaza before meeting up with my friends at the Triplex for, say, Robocop.

Access to these Gummis grew scarce at college, where I instead fixated on the Harmony Snacks brand of jellybeans, sold at the snack shop in the commons. It seemed I was hooked on hand-to-mouth-style candy. On and off through the Nineties, I kicked the habit, steering my intake to healthier fare, only to be sabotaged by breakup misery, or the rise of the PC computer game as graphics cards grew ever stronger. I recall spending many Saturday nights in the summer of 1996, while my roommate the mighty Felix was violating Jersey Shore noise and open-container ordinances, commandeering his PC to explore the depths of Quake, Master of Magic, and Hexen, with a brimming bag of Gummi candy sitting next to the monitor. Autofire, glucose, and Nine Inch Nails.

When I moved to this town, I noticed the local candy shop had later hours during the summer on Thursday nights. I began a ritual: hop off the bus from NYC each Thursday, grab a half-pound of Gummi berries, and catch up on Web surfing while listening to Dave the Spazz on WFMU. Depending on how trying a week it had been, sometimes I would goose that purchase up to three quarters, or even a full pound if I had movie plans that weekend. (I never once bought that overpriced candy from the theatre 'round the corner!) I was a "regular," in that the owner and counter-folks knew to reach for the jar of Gummi berries when I jingled their door. Often, from my expression or walk, they would correctly guess my required dosage.

I visited less frequently in the past year and change. I consciously tried to reduce my sugar intake and, with a switch to during-the-week vegetarianism, I also cut out the gelatin. To quell the sugar jones when it becomes irresistible, I seek out a brand of organic vegetarian jellybeans at Whole Foods. Still, I do visit this candy store for my mom's birthday, Valentine's Day, and once for my boss, when she was some years back. And when I hit the place last week, I grabbed some Gummi berries for myself, just as a VD present.

I had no inkling that they might be near closure.

So of course I will have to hit the candy store this weekend, find out the scoop, either sympathize at the closure or congratulate them on retirement, as warranted, and snag one last bag of Gummis. I hope the next tenant is a unique business like this one, unlike the Starbucks that Borged the formerly indie coffeehouse, or the overpriced Cold Stone Creamery that replaced the departed Baskin-Robbins where I used to get my birthday cones about a zillion years ago. We already have the gentrified brick-paved crosswalks and the vintage streetlights like every other New Jersey town center. Would it be so much to ask to attract a local merchant who might keep the profits somewhere in the community and not in some Barad-Dûr–like corporate tower half a continent away?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Partitioning Resources

IN DISCUSSING THE UPCOMING WFMU fundraising Marathon with my mother yesterday, she inquired how much I planned to give. I gave her the figure I tend to write in the pledge-amount box each year, and she reacted with surprise. "Don't give that much! You're going to be out of a job!" she said.

It is advice I intend to ignore. My check to WFMU is the one check I enjoy writing all year. The amount for my annual pledge will be equivalent to what my parents pay for 4 months of cable TV service and AOL. They get a million channels they never even watch. By contrast, I listen to WFMU constantly. I don't usually place my pledge money in such terms, but dollar for dollar, I get unparalleled value.

Although nobody truly wants to be without a steady employment income, I have never been in as good shape as I am now to weather joblessness. Last year, I ruminated about reshuffling my 401(k) money into my current employer's account and redistributing it for better diversification. I did both. I also put my smallish cash hoard to work with fixed-income investments to earn a bit more than the cent per month my checking account pulls in. I was already maxing out my contribution to the 401(k) fund before I got the layoff news. Once that hit, I opened a new Excel table in my finance file to track my spending and eliminate any waste. I found there was little and minimized the rest. I am in no debt, I have a functional car, and I don't intend to move just yet.

At this point, I envision being at the job until the bitter end, taking my severance and retention bonus, and concentrating on the job hunt at home, where I won't be bailing water out of the sinking ship with my boss and craving the train ride home. Unemployment will offset my COBRA, and I'll bank as much of the severance as I can until I snag a job. Our mutual nightmare is that they ask us to stay later, say through April. (I have a couple of plans in mind to thwart this, most notably approaching those who would make such a decision and telling them, on March 15, I wish to sign the severance agreement then and there.) They've already tried to send my boss to the outsourcing firm in India so she can attempt to unfuck their problems firsthand. She refused, to her eternal credit, having her March and April occupied more with her graduate thesis than any desire to extricate the department from the quagmire it's already in. Dipping into unemployment is worth my escaping the dead-end, head-against-brick-wall frustration of training these fools in the basics of typesetting and print preflighting.

The last thing I am worried about is running through my savings during my job hunt. My parents are sweet people, and justly worry about my welfare, but as expenditures go, my investment in WFMU's future is an investment in my own present. From few aspects in my life do I derive as much enjoyment as I do from its programming, its voluminous archives, and its exemplary, widely linked blog. What money I devote to this cause comes back to me manifold. Unless I become a successful freelancer, nothing so directly "pays" me. That's a potential point of overlap; in describing my Wednesday visit to the station to volunteer, my boss and I agreed that contact with such a diverse pool of talented minds could also provide business opportunities. You never know who might need some Photoshop work or proofreading done.

I simply need to pick a direction and move there with power and confidence. If I can weather downturns in said confidence, especially once I'm out from under the cloud hanging over the tattered remnants of my department, I will eventually find something worth doing that generates income, both retirement and fluid. Regardless of when that happens, WFMU is welcome to a chunk of it in just a couple of weeks.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Vitamin S and the Other Vitamin E

I INDULGED IN THE first-listed nutrient above in greedy excess this morning. Or perhaps not so excessively. While talking to my supervisor recently, I referred to sleep as Vitamin S. She takes graduate courses in addition to a full week of work, so she has been deficient in this particular tonic for some time now. With Wednesday off to help WFMU stuff envelopes ahead of its annual fundraising Marathon, and poker night this Thursday, I too fell off my usual dosage schedule of Vitamin S.

This deficiency, combined with the continuing frigid siege of winter, found me nestled beneath three layers in bed this morning well past my usual rising time. With an extra day off this Monday and few chores that could only be done today, I saw no reason to rise before the temperature outside did. And rise it did, well past freezing for the first time in a while, so that my exit was accompanied by a chorus of drips and trickles off the roof of my building. Like glacial ice, the skies shone in piercing blue, and sun glinted from cars finally shaking themselves free of imprisoning frost.

I took a spin down to Men's Wearhouse to pick up three pairs of slacks I had purchased last month. Dad gave me two gift cards for the place last Christmas, and I had received a discount coupon in the mail, so I decided to stack my bonuses like a good ex-roleplayer and grab some work clothing. (Turned out they were also running a sale, so my plunder only deepened.) Alterations on the slacks took a few weeks, probably because every other man in Bergen County who received gift cards and the bonus coupon did the same thing as me after the holidays. These new clothes, along with my existing work duds, will be used on interviews and at the next job. I don't see the need to pay dry cleaning for clothes at the current salt mine. I could compromise and launder/iron the shirts here, as I do most of my work pants (which are cotton), but frankly, my time investment can be made elsewhere. At New Year's, I made the decision that T-shirts and Dockers are just fine for the final 2 months.

That resolved, I turned to another neglected nutrient, the other Vitamin E, exercise. With the foul midweek weather, I deviated from the usual regimen. Shoveling my car out actually didn't provide much of a workout. When I began attacking the frozen mound of plowed snow behind my car on Thursday night, the plow driver actually returned to tidy up the lot. I asked him to destroy the mound, which he did as only a multi-ton vehicle with a bladed hunk of steel can. Once I had backed out and headed to the poker game, the driver cleaned my spot completely. Today's sun made short work of any remaining chunks.

Seeing as I didn't have the privilege of bending my back in the service of snow removal, I resumed my exercise at the gym this afternoon. Lately, I've been hitting the gym on a solid schedule, to good results. On weekends, I can get cardio and lifting in on the same day, rather than choosing one or the other during the limited pre-work time I have on weekdays.

So today I went nuts. Thirty minutes on the elliptical trainer, while watching part of the Hitler Network's presidential biography marathon. I was pleased to catch Teddy Roosevelt's section. I wish there were more Republicans like him today. It bewilders me that he and the current crew of jokers can share that party name. (Hell, even TR picked a new one for his third run at the White House.) They easily could have done 2 hours on this great American polymath. As it was, during my 30 minutes, I caught the tail end of William McKinley, and the beginning of our most rotund president, William Howard Taft.

After my briefing on turn-of-the-century chief executives, I took a trip into the sauna, a luxury that, again, the weekday rush usually denies me. Too bad; I might have shaken the cold I got at the beginning of the year more swiftly had I availed myself of the steam room or the sauna more often. Scandinavians swear by them for that purpose. I took a small timer in so I could mark a 15-minute stay more accurately (the sauna lacks an inside timer or clock), and brought some poker reading, Sklansky and Malmuth's essential text, Hold'Em Poker for Advanced Players, and a bottle of water, to indulge in while I baked out the toxins. I usually play no-limit hold'em when I go to casinos, like my home game, but I like the limit form of the game as a relaxing change of pace and tactics.

Fifteen minutes zipped by swiftly, and the alarm jarred me out of a dissertation on how to handle synchronized flops when holding a single hole pair. Today's lifting schedule held back, chest, and biceps. The upstairs weight floor was fairly depopulated, and I was able to strain and grunt with few observers and minimal waiting. It has crossed my mind that my impending joblessness, however brief, will offer me the chance to become more of a gym rat, in time spent there if not in physique. Perhaps if my next job requires less of a commute, I can continue such an intensified schedule. If nothing else, I can at least guarantee that I can fit into my suit for the interviews.

That's more or less all that has transpired so far today. With the Monday holiday, I am granted some leisure in when chores get done. Frankly, after assisting my absent boss two days last week, filling the time with either constructive hobbies, job hunting (which is surprisingly difficult in the demoralizing atmosphere of the office), or fitness is its own reward. A trip to one of the casino emporia is tempting, as witnessed by my recent reading material. Not tonight; I've still got some Vitamin S to catch up on. I have the evening to decide if I'll do it at all. An evening of reading, in fact, is looking quite sweet as an option right about now.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dystopian Speculation in an Ethanol Future

LET'S SEE WHAT ONE possible future might hold if we began to derive a substantial percentage of our automotive fuel from agricultural biomass.
  1. Issues relating to mass production, storage, and transportation of ethanol are resolved.
  2. Automotive and marine engine designers produce models better able to exploit ethanol blends.
  3. As with hybrid vehicles, the Federal Government and some states with poor air quality offer tax incentives to buyers of vehicles optimized for ethanol.
  4. Ethanol is adopted in all 48 contiguous states, slowly at first, then more swiftly as stations adapt (again, perhaps with Federal tax incentives) to handle the fuel.
  5. Over the next few years, petroleum drops in value by 50%. Smaller OPEC powers collapse, devouring themselves in riots.
  6. The larger OPEC countries take note and conspire to engineer a biological weapon — a fungus, a gene-ripping virus, something — capable of destroying ethanol-biomass crops.
  7. Overly focused on security theater, the U.S. government continues to fight the most recent threat and fails to authorize protection for future ones. As with 9/11, foreign operatives take flight lessons, this time for light, crop-dusting aircraft.
  8. Land is purchased around the now-massive grain- and switchgrass-producing regions of America, hangars are discreetly built, and planes are purchased with OPEC money.
  9. Those in the know buy oil futures.
  10. One clear day, scores of Cessnas take wing and crisscross a complacent nation. . . .
Why yes, both The Road Warrior and Car Wars were both part of my teen diet. If anyone needs me, I'll be somewhere in the Republic of Texas. Just look for the pimplicious purple station wagon with the axially mounted blast cannon.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Brief Pause for Real Life in the ER

A SLIGHT HEALTH SCARE is unfolding as I ride home on the train. My dad, who has a pacemaker to regulate an irregular heartbeat, had his blood pressure spike to 190/120 just this afternoon. (They have a BP cuff at home to keep tabs when he's feeling a bit off.) I got a call from my mother just as I was leaving the office, in which she told me they were taking the entirely prudent step of heading over to the emergency room. I agreed. You don't second-guess a 70-year-old heart already getting an assist on its rhythm section.

I had to pick up from context that my father was feeling well enough to drive over himself. I asked my mother how he was feeling, but she really wanted to get on the road, so I had to remain in suspense until I got to Hoboken and onto the NJ Transit line I take. There, I called them on their cellphone, and was happy to hear my father answer. He feels well, and was waiting to be admitted. I was hopeful that this would be a swift process, this being a weeknight and only about halfway through the evening rush. He wasn't overly worried. This is typical of him: the strong, silent type. I also spoke to my mother, who was also hanging in, though with an assist from two Xanax. They suggested I call before picking a destination (their house or the ER) so I didn't make a needless trip. Not wanting to deliver a mini-thesis on how no trip I make for them is ever needless, I agreed, gave them my love, and signed off.

One never likes to think about one's parents' mortality, but I've forced myself to address it in recent years. Better to do it now, than in the emotional thick of the event. Granted, no amount of planning will make it any less painful, not even the past funerals for other family members or for a friend lost far too soon. Still, I have witnessed couple of end-life legal steps they have taken, so they know I think about such matters. My dad is less open about discussing these sorts of preparations, but they still must be made. If nothing else, I have to assure them both that I will be there to support them in their pain . . . because I know that as devastating as losing one of them will be for me, it will be nothing compared to what my surviving parent will feel.

For now, I am trying to follow my father's lead in knowing he is in the right place in case anything else develops from this, and until he gets a solid word on what may have caused this high pressure, to try not to drive himself crazy speculating about it. Getting him on the phone was a tremendous relief, I have to admit. I'll still feel a lot better when I see him and have the chance to keep my mother company to in turn ease her anxiety. If need be, I will take off tomorrow to assist with whatever — transport comes to mind most saliently. It's been some time since my mom has driven extensively for herself, and with a husband in the hospital, if he is admitted, is no time to take an impromptu remedial course. Work can go fuck itself where my parents are concerned, layoff or no.

So as we pull into the North Hackensack station and draw ever nearer to the Pascack Valley, that's where things stand. I'll do what I can to support them both and take tomorrow as it comes. I'm not to the Xanax stage yet. I'm more the pound-of-jellybeans or Doritos type. Eh, at least I can get 'em on a plane without getting sent to Gitmo or some shit.

UPDATE: All is well. By the time I stepped off the train, Dad had been admitted to the ER with a normal blood pressure. After I arrived at the hospital, my mother and I got the news that his EKG was likewise normal. The three of us spent an hour or so at his bedside, chatting normally, Dad feeling fine — if hungry, as this had hit before dinner — while we awaited the bloodwork. More good news: a slight imbalance in one of his medications, but other than that, and the admonition to call his cardiologist, he was free to go. I knocked heartily on wood, my head serving as some ersatz oak in this case, walked them to the car, and headed on home. I have one stoic SOB for a dad, but I know he was happy not to have to stay the night, necessary as it might have been. Altogether, an alarm that we are all happy to report as, thus far, false.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Taking (Down) Notes

ABOVE MY LAPTOP, I have four 3" × 5" cards with advice written on them. They date back to around this time last year, when I first signed onto Full Tilt Poker as a cash-game player. They read:
Curiosity killed the bankroll!

Why are you putting chips into the pot?

Is there a reason to fold?

Shitty opponents don't justify shitty play on your part!
I intended for these cards to restrain my urge to treat online poker as a video game. Granted, I was playing in very small games — $1/$2 seven-card stud was just about the most expensive game I played, for a buy-in of $60 — and barely ever played in no-limit ring games. Even so, I wanted there to be some reminders to focus on improving my game, making the best decisions I could, and not just say "screw it" and begin throwing good money after bad.

I only played online poker for 4 months, the amount of time I was given to earn my sign-up bonus. (Poker sites offer cash bonuses for extended play, and Full Tilt's was one of the most generous.) Once that time expired, it was June, and close to my visit to Las Vegas that summer. So I withdrew my cash and flew off to the great poker Mecca in the Southwest.

I left the cards up, however. Aside from moving the PG-13 one out of the view of some children over for my Christmas party last year, they have observed my nonpoker noodlings since last summer. Two things come to mind in reading them now.

First, my urge to play online poker rose after it was practically banned via legislation ceasing money flow between Americans and the poker sites. I played every other night or so for an hour when I was working off my bonus, but I would also lapse for a week or so too. It wasn't remotely my primary source of income (we're talking $3 pots here, people), so I didn't need to play to eat. After I withdrew my deposit, my weekly real-life poker game sated my urge to gamboooooool. Yet when those craven pricks in Congress attached the antigambling rider to the Safe Ports Act last fall, I felt like firing up a sit 'n' go or taking a half hour to play a little 25¢/50¢ limit hold'em. Prohibition taught us nothing.

Second, and more important, the index cards suggest a passivity of approach to me now. Yes, it is important to think logically about one's plays, to invest money wisely in pots, to accept defeat when it is obvious, and to play one's best despite being surrounded by crummy players. My regular game is not an easy one. If you can win there, you are playing better than many of the casual players, and even some of the self-styled pros, in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. For me to have any money left after hunkering down with my regulars, I must be doing something right. Against players who haven't got the benefit of watching me play week in and week out, my style of play can be very lucrative.

I feel like the cards have outlived their use. I need to take confidence in my achievements now. I spoke with my boss for a good 90 minutes today, and we both realized how much we really do know about our jobs and publishing in general. All we need is the self-assurance to put our plans into action. When I think about what our bosses have done, with a lot less in-the-trenches experience and with a knack for fast-talking away their bosses' doubt, I marvel at what actual competent people could achieve if they overcame their doubts.

Great endeavors have been born when people of confidence have said, "I can do this myself" or "I can do this better." I suspect the notes these folks had amid the tools and wires on their workbenches, in their lockers next to their batting gloves, crowning their Smith-Coronas amid a tangle of crumpled drafts, or scrawled in grease pencil on the walls of their garages next to their prototype computers or printers built on this theme. These notes reassured them after failures and confirmed their hunches when they succeeded.

I need some notes that will guide me into my first failure. The sooner I survive it, and the ones that follow, the closer I will be to finding my purpose. It beats hiding and never striving to find it. Wayne Gretzky's wisdom comes to mind here: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." Maybe that's my first note.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Burnt Ends

I PACE THROUGH THE marble-and-concrete caverns of Grand Central Station. Like some seafaring speculator of old, I come in search of spices, seeking the rumored Penzey's shop new to the terminal. My expedition proves fruitless; although the Website declared the spice counter to be open, signs throughout the station list it as an future addition to its retail offerings.

Disappointed, I turn instead to lunch. Grand Central boasts a wide range of dining options, and my nose is lured to a fragrant lower-level arcade of food counters and sit-down restaurants. When I find myself reading the menu — and greedily inhaling the fragrance — of a barbecue joint for the third time, I surrender to my urges and step up to order. Many BBQ joints will offer a dish or sandwich of the dark, chewy bits of trimmed brisket that the cook sent back to the pit for a second smoke. True to form, this place sported such a sandwich or platter under the popular name for the delicacy: burnt ends.

I order a burnt-ends sandwich along with cornbread and a Diet Coke. After a few minutes, in which I wonder what sort of licensing and regulatory hoops they might have had to jump through to get a smoker approved in this landmark building, the package is ready. I take a place at a stand-up counter nearby and unwrap my prize.

On a dense but soft roll, a generous mound of deep-brown brisket lies amid a dollop of intoxicating sauce. Visually these morsels live up to their name; they had absorbed much more of the slow heat and delicious smoke than the brisket from which they had been trimmed. More sauce, thinner and intended as a dip or a topping, was provided in a small plastic cup. The cornbread comes in the form of two small muffins, whose scent and texture indicates they were not baked from meager commercial cornbread mix.

I lack the true national exposure to BBQ that might allow me to compare this spicy treasure accurately against 'cue hailing from Kansas City, the Carolinas, or Texas. This sample, however, muscles past the pallid offerings of the BBQ tourist traps in Midtown, and compares favorably to the brisket offered at the long-lost Fink's Funky Chicken & Ribs, and its descendant, Stickey's, once of Teaneck, now buried somewhere in Rockland County. The chewy cubes of brisket are fully impregnated with smoky flavor. The side sauce has a bright, hot tang of spice and vinegar, and I make a small mess swamping the sandwich with it. The cornbread is indeed of the more coarse, homestyle variety.

I stand in the corner of this legendary transit nexus, focus on the savory bouquet in my hands, but dimly aware of the network of tracks and trains radiating out from around me, stretching to dozens of destinations and carrying a thousand destinies through this hub each hour. I let the world swirl as it will, my own cosmos drawn down to the sadly disappearing portion of burnt ends before me, the secret treasure of many BBQ fans and the beneficiary of a pitmaster's conspiratorial care, burnt ends ending with each greedy bite.

MY BOSS WORKS THREE jobs in a single cubicle. She, like me, will be dismissed at the end of March, but she wishes that day were at hand. Though our active typesetting work has all but entirely passed to an Indian outsourcing agency, emergent duties have her in a constantly overtaxed state. Far from exercising her prodigious design talent, she is trapped in the roles of trafficker, ensuring that the outsourcing folks prepare and send the press-ready PDFs to our printer; trainer, as she schools a reluctant manager in a remote office in her purchase-order and traffic duties; and supervisor, now of a diminished staff of me, but also of spot requests from others in the company who want to get every barely relevant request in before we both depart.

Each of these duties comes in the form of a massive flood of email. In the space of a 15-minute break, she will get another 30 messages, of which perhaps a tenth will not require her to cope with the aftermath of our bosses' idiotic decisions. The customer "service" rep at our new printer, an in-house press chosen for budgetary reasons over the swift and unerringly competent shop we had been using for the better part of a decade, is a hostile and defensive shrew who carbons a dozen staffers and my boss's managers with each disputatious point. The outsourcing contact has to be led, like a squirming child, through each correction and detail, the hurdles of the time-zone distance and inexpert English making each additional email a drawn-out telegraphic affair of waiting and further explanation. And the managers of our editorial departments have reacted to recent changes with technophobia, finger-pointing, and yet more cc'ing of my boss's managers, who refuse to get involved with decisions they may secretly regret and with staff who will be gone in 8 weeks anyway. Each email falls into my supervisor's inbox like another lash across her dispirited back.

When she warns our bosses of possible complications as we switch the method by which the outsourcers will produce newsletters, she is told not to interfere or that her warnings mark her as opposing change. Yet when she tells our director that she cannot call up our database program to track the progress of our publications through the production cycle, she is asked, in all seriousness, why she would need this access. Our editors recoil in horror at the mistakes made by the outsourced typesetters and the needless delays they have inflicted on our fast-turnaround titles. One biweekly title required a full week and change to have a first pass of proofs made. Other manuscripts sit untouched on the FTP site, requiring my supervisor to prompt them repeatedly to do this work. This is how our firm saves money: Our typesetting is done late and amateurishly, and printed at a shop on the cheap where they never informed our scrimping bosses that they can't handle pubs over 32 pages or with covers printed on different paper stock. My boss has had the pleasure of discovering and resolving — often solo — each of these problems over the past couple of months, in addition to the light personal diversions of taking graduate courses in design and finding a new job.

I watch her smolder under this unending tide of absurdity. I envy her future coworkers who will see her true range of talents, those that our current managers miss, instead burdening her with additional labors as the days tick down. Our managers never saw it fit to educate me in her duties, so I have few ways to fight the myriad fires that spring up at her desk. All I can do is watch her fray under this pressure, each week of these redundant duties charring to insensibility, her Fridays mere burnt ends of stress.

I RETURN FROM GRAND CENTRAL, lunch the high point of my day. My daily typesetting work has been gone for a couple of weeks. I would like to say I concentrate on polishing my resume or locating the next job. But this office drains my optimism. I should be experimenting with Photoshop, researching the requirements of the next phase of my career and the rigors of freelance life, enacting my tentative plan in any way. Getting paid to stare at an empty inbox is more demoralizing than you might imagine. Watching my conscientious and diligent supervisor get ignored when she warns our higher-ups of possible pitfalls is incredibly discouraging. It makes me forget how lucky I was not to be dismissed on the spot during the layoff, sent onto the street with a box and the phone number of the unemployment office. I morbidly call into question my prior loyalty to this company and wonder how sheltered, how afraid of change I must have been to compromise to the point where staying there had any advantage over departure into the unknown.

I fear making the wrong move and getting stuck for another six or seven years in a job I will come to regret. I fear choosing another profession vulnerable to outsourcing and being interrupted by the needs of some board of directors drawing lines through boxes on an organization chart. I fear not having a supervisor who has been an inspiring, congenial guide, and the adaptations I would need to make to become responsibly self-employed. I fear the depression that might follow if such an experiment in freelancing ended in failure, and the negative parental input that would provoke. This saps my will to experiment, and makes me conscious of how far others at my age have gone, including some at my office, merely because they talk a good line of shit and don't care if their witless plans ruin the careers of others.

So I sit at my cube, listening to my boss pull her hair out, while I creep through the job-hunt process, halfway through my final sentence in this jail with a paycheck. Even after consigning much of the clutter at my desk to a Dumpster, a few back issues remain, reminding me of what I enjoyed doing for so long here, and haunting me with the injunction not to be so lost in such pleasure that I lose sight of my future. I know a world awaits me after I leave this place. Any world outside this office ought to be more attractive than sitting amid the burnt ends of a career, stirring the embers for some lingering warmth.