Friday, March 30, 2007

Layoff: Endgame

WORK RESTS FOR NO man, even one who is being laid off that very day. From the moment I arrived in the office, I had some issues, which the outsourcing folks has posted, to review for press. Proofs of a project due to go to press in June — for which I had set first pass because I assumed nobody would recall how to do this project in my absence — needed corrections. I also wrote a long email about how to handle this project when the time came. Let it not be said that my company didn't earn value from me until the very end.

I signed my term paper about halfway through the morning, after I had completed the work I just described. My supervisor followed soon thereafter. From that point, I considered myself more or less free to go around the office and say my goodbyes.

I was pleasantly surprised to find folks spontaneously offering to act as references should a prospective employer request some. My supervisor, who had expected to move swiftly through the office with only a few protracted goodbyes, seemed amazed that she received the same reception. She shouldn't be. I pulled her aside yesterday to give her a goodbye card in which I summed up her awesomeness as a manager and a friend, and the folks she met today communicated the same message.

To each person I visited, I gave a sheet of note-cube paper with my true-name email address (I made one specifically for job hunting) and my cellphone. I am entertaining all offers. Of course, determining exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life is an ongoing and open question, but to have several sets of feelers out is a great asset, no matter how many opportunities they end up locating.

One woman, with whom I had had a very fruitful chat about job opportunities in less conventional areas, presented a case for my qualifications as a tech writer. I do know a woman who does this for a living, but my coworker in this case felt this term was being applied to a very broad skillset across several specific jobs, and that my writing ability combined with editorial and design skills added tremendous value. I will add this term to my job searches and see if there is indeed this diversity of positions. This is a career that thrives well as a freelance position, a potential long-term goal of mine, so it's doubly of interest.

My supervisor had asked late in the day if I wanted to get lunch, and when she returned to her cube — and was surprised by how much time she had taken — I was ready to go. Joined by a department-mate who is on the block come December, we made our exit after turning in, Dirty Harry Callahan–style, our badges. My super was kind enough to treat me to lunch, and we sat, finally free, and watched Chelsea pedestrians pace by in all of their multicolored sartorial variety.

From there, we headed to our respective subways. I set down the monstrous plant I was carrying home to give her a big see-you-later hug — she graciously invited me to her graduation party in May — and then covered the last two blocks with my department-mate to the PATH station. When the Hoboken train arrived, I gave him a handshake and a big hug of his own, dragged my plant onto the car, executed a flawless Nixon exit, and began my last ride, for now, to Jersey from south Manhattan.

In all, the entire experience was low key and mundane. Surprised? Don't be. At this point in my life, some calm grace is welcome. If there was going to be any drama, it would have been yesterday, between me and my supervisor; I pulled her into our director's empty office to give her the goodbye card, because had she read it out loud, there was a good chance I was going to cry. I remained entirely composed then, and today as well. I suspect it's because I intend to keep in touch with her, quite possibly as soon as tomorrow morning, as I sent her a thank-you gift of flowers to brighten the apartment in which she's gonna be stuck, for the next several days, finishing her thesis project.

I am proud to have left such a positive impression with people, that they offered their aid in my search and their sincere best wished and regrets at my departure. Though I might have spent more time there was good for my career path, I worked to make a difference, and the reception I got from my now-former coworkers confirmed that I was successful. That I did this merely by doing the best work I could, and in acting in the office as I would like to be treated myself, gives me hope that I will find a receptive audience in the next office.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Graphic Designers, You ARE Replaceable: WSJ

REMEMBER THIS POST? Perhaps at the time it sounded paranoid, perhaps even colored in tone by my looming layoff.

Think again. Consult, if you can, the March 28, 2007 Wall Street Journal. The lead story, "Pain From Free Trade Spurs Second Thoughts," bears grim news and a shocking statistic, if true. Princeton economist and former Federal Reserve board vice chairman Alan S. Blinder has shifted his view on the dubious benefits that free trade might bring America, particularly the cost to U.S. knowledge workers. To quote the article:
Mr. Blinder . . . remains an implacable opponent of tariffs and trade barriers. But now he is saying loudly that a new industrial revolution — communication technology that allows services to be delivered electronically from afar — will put as many as 40 million American jobs at risk of being shipped out of the country in the next decade or two.
Next to this lede is the following table, lovingly recreated by Yours Truly, and the stat I described as shocking.

Worried yet? I sure as hell am.

My career was much on my mind today. I took my final personal day (which I couldn't redeem for cash) to launch my job hunt. We had been given a month of consultation with a career transition and coaching firm, and I called them this morning to set up my first appointment. My journey there begins this coming Monday, and I won't even have to go into the city, as they have an office not 12 minutes away. It should make attending several meetings there, if necessary, far easier. (Though I will miss the city.)

I also registered with the creative-field division of a major recruiting firm, with whom my supervisor had made contact. I called to speak with the guy she was using, only to find that he was no longer with the company. This was a surprise to my supervisor, who hadn't been in touch with him for a few weeks, simply to concentrate on winding work down and completing her graduate school work. She did rustle up a new name for me, but I have also registered online, and once I post a resume, someone who has taken this fugitive guy's clients may contact me (and hopefully my super!) to start sending me on interviews.

On that resume topic. I had to set work on my resume aside earlier in February when the remedial work I needed to exert on the outsourcing crew became daily and frequent. It's mostly done, but I am sure it could use some polishing and rewording to maximize its chances of passing through the scanners and word-sniffers now used to supplant human judgment at the first stage of resume screening. This is one of the ways in which the career center will help, and one of my friends, the talented and wise Jen, has offered to review it as well. I feel certain all of this attention will make it the best it can be.

But, if my profession is going to be gutted on these shores, to what end? Back to Blinder. After supporting free trade and decrying industry-sponsored protectionism, which won him fans in the NAFTA-oriented Clinton White House, Blinder began during this decade to have misgivings about how free jobs might be to slip across the border, and not just to Canada or North America:
At Princeton, he began to reassess some of his views on trade. Visiting the yearly business gabfest in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2004, he heard executives talk excitedly about moving jobs overseas that not long ago seemed anchored in the U.S. . . .

Mr. Blinder says he agreed with [then-chairman of President Bush's Council on Economic Advisers, Blinder's student at Princeton, and apparently callous supporter of outsourcing, N. Gregory] Mankiw's point that the economics of trade are the same however imports are delivered. But he'd begun to wonder if the technology that allowed English-speaking workers in India to do the jobs of American workers at lower wages was "a good thing" for many Americans. . . .

Mr. Blinder began to muse about this in public. At a Council on Foreign Relations forum in January 2005 he called "offshoring," or the exporting of U.S. jobs, "the big issue for the next generation of Americans." Eight months later on Capitol Hill, he warned that "tens of millions of additional American workers will start to experience an element of job insecurity that has heretofore been reserved for manufacturing workers."
Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin prodded Blinder to write an essay about outsourcing, which was published in Foreign Policy, and which gave rise to an eventual, refined number of between 30 million and 40 million "vulnerable" jobs. The WSJ article describes the "divide" as not being between jobs requiring education and those that don't, but "between services that must be done in the U.S. and those that can — or will be someday — be delivered electronically with little degradation in quality."

From my piece earlier this month:
Here's a better question. Whether I am exercising my design talent as an independent contractor or an employee, I have to be concerned that someone will try to find a cheaper worker to do the same job. What skills or talents do I possess that I can channel into work that cannot be sent overseas?

Warnings of negative employment trends in creative industries will not come from top management until it's too late. Why should they tilt the crystal ball until the second they're done with paying American salaries? We have to do our own research to find out what skills U.S. companies are eager to outsource. Doing good work may not be enough any more. Employers are clearly willing to settle for less quality in favor of more, cheaper product and higher profit margins. Sadly, this affects editors, designers, Web programmers, and maybe even editorial assistants — don't believe for one moment that tasks like manuscript prepping and entering handwritten author corrections can never be sent out of the pricey New York market or entirely outside the country. They may even try to outsource writing someday. I cannot rule it out.
To quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, "Boy, do I hate being right all the time! "

The article does offer counter-arguments from other economic and public-policy thinkers, but I have seen enough from my own experience to credit Dr. Blinder with the guts to say something very real, if politically unwelcome, happeing in today's economic environment. I'd write the paper to commend Dr. Blinder and the article's authors, David Wessel and Bob Davis, for their work and for putting it on A1. Unfortunately, my severance and retention bonus are contingent on my signing a document in which I am unable to describe the workings of, or be seen as critical of, my former employers.

So what do I do? Return to school for management training and reenter publishing on that track? Would that potentially put me in the position of headsman at the next round of layoffs at some company? Could I carry out that sort of order? Already I feel like a collaborationist for helping the bastards at the top profit from my departure and that of my teammates. But if it means I secure a little money to armor myself, via skill acquisition or career training, against the next surge of layoffs, is that so evil? I don't have answers to those questions, though I believe they are worth asking at the career-consulting firm I will visit this Monday. Surely they have their fingers on the pulse of job trends.

To my potentially jobless fellow 178,529 graphic designers, I repeat: Are you replaceable?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Early-Spring Raid on Atlantic City: Part II

AFTER A DELI LUNCH (mental note: Pickles's pastrami is just a touch fatty; try the corned beef), Dave (aka the mighty Felix) and I had the yen to try our luck again. We paid, headed out to the Boardwalk, huddled into our coats amid the cold early-afternoon air, and tromped back north to Resorts and the Trump Taj Mahal, for craps and poker, respectively.

The casino was much busier, and the poker room looked full. Still, seats open constantly at no-limit hold'em tables, and I had a choice of several open chairs. I sat at a different table than the first time, with a new bunch of chips and hope in my veins.

So imagine my happy surprise when I looked down at my second hand and found Aces! After a few people limped into the hand, I raised to $10. I only got one call. The flop came Queen high, with 2 spades and a Ten. I bet $30 to deter a draw to the flush, but he calls after a few moments' thought. Considering he didn't enter for a raise preflop, I had to doubt he had two Queens in the hole. I also couldn't put him on Jack-Nine — giving him an open-ended straight draw — which you wouldn't call a single raise with preflop. (Maybe a Foxwoods player would.)

The turn was a blank, making neither the straight nor the flush more possible. I bet $65 to give him no odds to justify continuing with the hand. If he called here, either he was slowplaying a set, had Ace-Queen with a spade on one or both and was ignorant of the crappy odds I was giving him to see the river, or was doing the same with Ace-King with one or two spades. He thought for a long while, then called.

The river was the Eight of Spades. I immediately cut out a stack of red, $100, and pushed it forward. An instant call or raise here would mean he hit his flush. Based on how I had trashed his pot odds for draws on both flop and turn, I couldn't put him on a flush, much less a straight. I also wanted my swift bet to represent a made flush. The other player muttered as much to himself as he thought about a call. That he had to think gave me optimism that my Aces were good.

After a couple of minutes, during which he kept agonizing about losing to a flush and how the call would be stupid, he called. "Do you have the flush?" he asked?

"No, Aces."

"Oh, I win." He showed Ten of Spades with an Eight. The Eight of Spades had given him two pair. He had called this far on a gutshot spade draw and second pair. Unlike my earlier loss that day, this was a bad beat, a suckout on the part of a donkey who had no right to call my three aggressive bets. Sickening.

I gritted my teeth, said nothing, and peeled 10 $20s off of my roll to bring me back up to $300. I watched him do the same thing against another player with Aces in the hole a couple of hands later, so I was hopeful I might get some of the money back. Alas, he and his two friends at the table racked up their chips and left shortly thereafter. Very frustrating.

I got little chance to replenish my deficit from the other players, as Felix appeared at one of the exits, lacking some of the usual spring in his step. The dice were just as cruel this round as they were the first time. The only mark in the plus column was my hit-and-run on Resorts earlier that day. Thus it was that we, two whipping boys for the cruel lash of probability, headed back to my car and hit the road.

Despite the losses, it was a fun trip. I hadn't seen Dave for some time, so we got a chance to rap about this and that for an extended stretch without worrying about our employers wondering why our emails had nothing to do with work. (Granted, I am on my way out, but Felix just might want to retain his position for a little more time.) We returned to Bergen County in fine time, and I bade him goodbye as I returned to my apartment. . . .

. . . to inquire more closely about a call I had received from Danny, the co-host of the regular Thursday poker game, to see if the match was still on for tonight. Yes, I had decided to continue my binge. My mishaps earlier that day were neither demoralizing nor costly enough to deter my last-waltz binge of poker that weekend. Danny told me the game would be held at the home of a fellow player, so I grabbed some makeshift dinner, rested a bit, and eventually sped north to Rockland County and my third game of the day.

SEVEN OF US MET in the host's basement, a full-foundation unfinished cellar cluttered with the usual trappings of suburban life, plus a few unusual items: a dusty, half-stripped old jukebox; a wall of streamers, Mylar balloons, tassels, and other party supplies; a tank of helium for said balloons; the remnants of a home office, complete with a white board bearing the ghostly traces of some meeting notes; and in the center, the bright green felt of a poker table. The host permitted his players to smoke, so he and a couple of them lit up, passing a coffee can for ashes, as the nonsmokers among us grabbed sodas and frozen beers stacked on an end table nearby.

It stood in stark contrast to the waitresses, bowtied dealers, and bright lights and wide space of the Taj poker room, but in its social-club ambience, it was damn perfect.

With less than the usual 10 players, sometimes it makes sense to step up one's aggression a touch. I did so, raising with a wider range of starting hands, like suited Kings or Aces, or even suited connecting cards like Jack-Ten, to throw folks off. Twice, this style of play forced me to fold when the board made hands stronger than mine almost certain winners, and I had to toss my cards to big bets. I rebought for $45 twice. In the back of my mind, I made some calculations about how much I was down for the weekend, but I resolved not to let these rebuys deter me from my style of play. In the right circumstances, it could pay off.

I soon had an opportunity. I bided my time, watching my poker buddies spar while waiting for decent hands to begin working. Two players eventually busted out, leaving five total. Getting hands to be heads-up between me and only one player would therefore be easier. I was dealt Ace-King of the same suit, and I raised, only to have Danny reraise me. I called, and we both went to the flop, which contained a King. I bet out, trying to take the pot down. Danny called. The turn was a blank, at which we both checked, but the river put a possible flush out there. I decided to end the hand or at least clarify it by going all in.

This knocked Danny for a loop. He knew I was the type to bet out if my small-to-middle pocket pair caught a set on the flop. There was a smaller chance I might have either hit the set on the turn, or actually might have bet top set, three Kings, on the flop. Danny began to doubt that he was good. I made it worse by posing the possibility that, with the table short on players and my starting hand range wider, perhaps I raised with two connecting flush cards and semibluffed on the flop to represent the King.

Now, I rarely speak in these sorts of confrontations. I learned this from one of the younger, yet most skilled, players in the game. He, too, is usually silent in big pots when folks are contemplating calling his all-in bets. One time, when he spoke, it threw the opponent completely for a loop. In fact, that opponent was the same one I faced in this hand, Danny, and my speaking had the same effect on him. Wondering if he was still ahead, he turned up his hand without folding. Pocket Aces. He held the winning hand, but he did not call, instead testing my reaction.

Think back to Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi is dueling his former student, Darth Vader. Kenobi sees he is hemmed in by a phalanx of stormtroopers, but that his young charges are on the verge of escape. He makes his decision, based on a deeper wisdom Vader can never understand. Kenobi offers Vader one last, knowing smile before he accepts his fate.

I looked at Danny and smiled that very smile.

Twenty seconds later, Danny set the chips in his hand back down, picked up his cards, and tossed them into the muck.

Naturally, I flipped up my hand before pulling in the chips.

Seeing Big Slick there haunted Danny for the rest of the night.

The other big hand came when we had dropped down to four players. I looked down to find AA, which I raised. At this point in the evening, at least one person was raising per hand, and getting a call about 50% of the time. This time, I was raised from my nominal $5 to $12. The raise came from Paul, who had the biggest stack of chips in the game.

No way was I folding, but I didn't want to scare off a potential payoff from KK or QQ by acting too swiftly. I looked at him, checked out the pot, "thought" a moment, then reraised him, replacing my red $5 chip with a green $25 one.

Paul also took some time to think, then declared another raise, to $50. A minimum raise, or "minraise," in this spot could only be KK or, perhaps, Ace-King suited. Now, some of the players in our game have a superstition about pocket Aces, in that they prefer to see a hand end before the flop if it means avoiding having the opponent crack their Aces by catching three of a kind in the next five cards. Mathematically, AA beats KK by the river 81% of the time, so this is specious reasoning. I therefore felt I had a chance to extract some more money from Paul, so I minraised back, dropping two more green chips into the pot.

Now Paul went into the tank, genuinely fearing AA. With a massive stack behind him, the individual call of $50 wasn't so much. With a nonthreatening flop, however, or one with an Ace, he had to know I would get the money into the center at some point. This was exactly true, with my preference being to go all in on any flop with no King. Still, the gears turned in his head. With what other hand could I minraise him back? Me, one of the tightest players in the game? After surely turning these details around in his head a thousand times, he made the call.

The flop came maybe Eight high, no pair. I went all in. Again, to theatricize things uncharacteristically, I shoved my chips in slow motion, humming the Imperial March as they approached the $200 already in the pot. Calling my bet would cost Paul about another $115. It represented about 20% of his huge chip stack. Still, nobody wants to undo some of the good play they've executed all night, not even if all of their gains have come on a single buy-in.

Paul thought long and hard, decided he might have a chance, and called, tossing his Kings face up in front of him. I obliged his suspicions with my Aces.

The host, who was dealing the hand, initially gave Paul and me heart attacks when he dealt out two Kings for the turn and river, but these were from the second deck not in use, through which he had dug in anticipation of seeing one of us show Kings. The real turn and river were of no threat to me. I dragged in a pot considerably bigger than my losses for the day.

I ended the night a winner, even after losing $100 to Danny when his two pair partly avenged my earlier bluff on him. I dug my way out of the $90 hole at this game, and put myself within $15 of even (with my craps win) for the weekend. I staggered off to my car, leaving behind some players incredulous at the style of play I had exhibited that night, and drove through the early morning back to my welcoming bed.

I hope all of the players from Saturday night will be there on this coming Thursday for the regular game. I want to use this recent experience to leave them guessing as to what sort of game I'm playing. I know Danny will still be tilting from folding the winning hand, and Paul may overplay a strong hand while looking for some payback. I will do my best to handle both with the unusually sharp perception I showed, even in the depths of a long day and a deep evening, that night.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Early-Spring Raid on Atlantic City

WHO HERE IS SICK of hearing me natter on about work? Yes, I thought so. Why not a short recounting of my weekend of gambling degeneracy, from the glittering towers of Atlantic City to the smoky basements of Rockland County? Yes, that will provide a fine change of topic and tone.

Dave (aka the mighty Felix) and Steve were set to join me this Saturday for a raid on New Jersey casino center by the sea. Sadly, at the last minute, fate intervened and prevented a direct reprise of our excursion last June. Felix called to report that Steve was "not so much hung over, as still drunk." So it fell to Dave and myself to forge ahead.

Now half of a duo, I grabbed my copy of the soundtrack to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and motored over with my co-conspirator to the traditional pit stop of the Emerson Dunkin' Donuts. From there, we made fantastic time zooming south through the cool morning air of early spring, reaching AC without so much as a rest break — an amazing feat, considering both of us pounded caffeine on the way.

Once again, we parked at Resorts for our initial foray. Dave has been hot for a rematch here for some time now, and my plan was to let him and Steve damage the casino's P&L statement with some dice while I sought out prey at the poker rooms at the nearby Trump Taj Mahal or Showboat. With Steve gone, I felt bad about leaving Felix alone right off the bat. Not that he'd really be lonely; craps is a social game, so one finds friends quickly, especially during a profitable roll.

Despite my preference for games with an edge in the house's favor, I felt a yen to join in. I wasn't going to return to Las Vegas until 2008 at the earliest. The job hunt beckoned as well, making East Coast casino trips doubtful. If my search were to take a long time, I would certainly cut out my local poker game as well. This was really my last chance for a while to have some fun smacking money and the laws of probability together to strike sparks. With a "what the hell" shrug, I yanked out my bankroll and peeled off $200, much to Felix's approval.

I decided to start slowly, with only two bets working during a roll. The man to Felix's right sevened out, as did we, but the next guy went on a nice tear, putting me back to even and $103 ahead. When he finally rolled a seven, I decided to take the wisdom of one of my poker gang to heart. This guy has a habit of taking a hundred or two of a respectable poker win to the craps table to see if he can make the pile a little bigger. If he gets another C-note or so, he just calls it a night and runs to the cage. With more willpower than I have ever exerted at a craps table, I placed my now-healthy pile of chips on the felt and said, "Color me up!" Three black and three white checks in hand, I bade Dave good luck and made for the cage like a shot.

My next destination was the House of Blues poker room at the Showboat. I spent a good (and profitable) few hours there last year, but this time, only two $1/$2 no-limit hold'em tables were running, and the table they were just starting was a $2/$5 table clearly full of local players who all knew one another. I knew how that script would end. I might as well have gone to the men's room, written SUCKER on the mirror, and positioned my reflection under it. I bailed on the Boat and took my freeroll C-note over to the Taj.

Considerably larger than the House of Blues room, the Taj poker room was already lively in the late morning. Several $1/$2 no-limit games were running, and I was quickly seated. I found the table passive, with an average of six players merely calling the preflop bet of $2. I felt like I might be able to do some good here.

I did pick up a healthy pot with a flush about a half hour in, when I was dealt a pair of Tens in the hole. Two players had called ahead of me, so I raised to $10, getting a cold call from one behind, and calls from the other two already in for $2. The flop came Q 9 T, with no matching suits, giving me a set of Tens. One of the players ahead of me bet, I raised to $70, and got two calls. By now, there was about $250 in the pot.

The turn was the worst card I could see: a Jack. From watching the other two players in this hand, I knew either of them was capable of hanging onto a lone King, either with a suited card, or another straight card of a different suit, through a preflop raise. I knew one of these guys was going to show me a straight at the end of the hand. The first player to act checked, the next one went all in for $79 to kick the pot up to about $340, and I called without hesitation. I knew the third guy was, at minimum, going to call his straight here, rather than reraise all in, for fear of scaring me, his only customer with more chips, out. So I could count his $79 call as part of my pot odds of about $420 to my $79, or 5.25:1. There were 10 cards that could help me by making a full house or quads: the fourth Ten, any Queen, any 9, or any Jack. My odds against hitting these hands were 4.6:1. Furthermore, I had a strong feeling I could pull at least another $100 out of the other opponent, if not another $300 (the size of my remaining stack) if I could get him to call an all-in with his straight. I was in a better spot than it might look.

Sadly, a 4 of diamonds hit, and I checked back when my opponent checked. Sure enough, he had the straight, and a monstrous pot was shipped the opposite way. I still had the vast majority of my starting chips, but losing the money I had made up with the flush was a bummer.

I didn't have a chance to try and get it back at this table, because Felix manifested, low on funds and ready for lunch. The table had been no kinder after I had left. I endorsed this lunch idea, so I cashed out my stacks, and we noshed at the Pickles deli at Bally's, plotting our next move.

More details tomorrow!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Deep Focus, Motivation, and My Career

WHILE SCROUNGING FOR A legal pad Friday evening to record some job-hunting to-do's, I found one that had about 15 pages of notes I took from stock maven Jim Cramer's belated radio show. Around August of last year, I got curious enough about his theoretical stock-analysis talent to record, from his radio podcasts, his stock predictions. For a few weeks, as I headed into work on the train, you could have found me with my headphones on, yellow pad on my lap, jotting down Cramer's impressions of this or that security. I transferred these notes into an Excel table at work, along with closing price of the stocks on the day he made the call, and I planned to mark the position of the stocks at 1-week and 1-month points past his call to test his wisdom.

As it turned out, I need not have been so diligent, as Cramer's stock calls were also being recorded with price information on, and was transcribing calls made during his media appearances. And the news of the layoff forestalled any possible investment study and commitment of capital I might need for short-term survival. Still, the documentation remained. I read through these notes Friday and marveled at how deeply I had concentrated on this task. My notes were quite detailed; I had even made bullet points out of Cramer's evidence for or against a stock or sector. I took inspiration from this effort today.

I will give you another example. A photographer documented the disassembly of the famous Stardust sign days before the casino-hotel was demolished (RIP). As you can see, the order in which the workers removed the letters was unintentionally (?) comical. I thought this would make a great avatar for one of my online forum accounts. So I dragged the shot onto my desktop, fired up Photoshop, and did a simple crop job, like so:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I opened an Photobucket account, loaded the icon up, linked it to the forum, readjusted the image size again in Photoshop to prevent distortion, and I was all set. Some time later that day, though, I decided the crane had to go. Lacking work, I reopened my icon, and set to work. Though I am a tyro at Photoshop manipulation, my teammates at work have said that much of what they do in retouching shots is trial and error, just experimenting with tools, brushes, blends, and color sampling until they feel it's right. So I got right in there with the eyedropper tool, painted out the crane, and restored the T and A (har) on the sign.

This left a large blue gap where the crane had been, and where I knew, on the sign, there had been stars. So I searched up a picture of the intact, unobstructed Stardust sign as a guide, then copied, pasted, and touched up some of the stars on my original shot from elsewhere on the sign. The result was far better:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Granted, this is all child's play for someone who bangs out gigs of photo manipulations all day and night. It was encouraging for me, an autodidact on Quark, Illustrator, and InDesign, to see I could wade into Photoshop and get results, even on a small scale.

During this whole procedure, I lost track of time, the office, incoming email, anything unrelated to the task. When I checked the clock, it was well past my usual lunchtime. It was the deepest I had sunk into a task at that computer, in that office, in weeks.

I have noticed that, when I assume a task in a field that interests me greatly, my reserves of effort seem limitless. Few of my previous jobs at this company could harness this sort of focus. I worked on an accounting newsletter, which had a half-day turn on getting first-pass proofs out, on which I would bend my will intensely on crafting detailed tables of company information, generating pie and bar charts, and copyfitting. I always knew the clock was ticking, so I had to rely on myself to get details correct the first time, to avoid having to backtrack, redo, and thus burn schedule. I loved that title, despite the late nights and early mornings I had to put in for it. Sometimes, looking at the finished product the next day, I was surprise I had been able to accomplish something so complex in such a tight spot.

I've seen this trait in other endeavors of mine. Insanely detailed dungeons I made as a young adolescent for Dungeons & Dragons. A pages-long travel guide to Las Vegas written, on the spot and with minimal Internet research, for a friend with a visit cued up. Mix tapes laid painstakingly down, track by track, with more care than sound editors exercise on TV shows. Let's not even get into love letters. If my interest is engaged, my endurance and drive spike. If it flags, my mind wanders, I procrastinate, and the work suffers.

What does this mean for me? What I need to do is find a job — maybe even a career, if that's what it takes — in which I can align my interests with my labors. Yeah, I know a zillion career and self-help books and courses exist that preach this platitude. What is worth recording, and acting upon, is my noticing the trend, that I can still feel this passion for something in publishing and graphic design. What I did for this company, earlier accounting title excepted, was largely uninspiring, a self-inflicted wound I admit. I needed to see that there were tasks and projects in my field that could light me up like this silly icon job did. I need to know that the searching I do from this point won't result in another job where I feel lax, wasted, and uninspired by most of the tasks I do.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Are You Replaceable?

MY DAILY DUTIES ARE simple now. They weren't always so, but most of my job functions are no longer in my hands. I approve newsletter issues that have been typeset overseas for press, and I then confirm that they have been placed on the proper printer's FTP site. Errors, once rife, are considerably fewer, especially now that they are using the same software that my department did. We are three issue-months into the transition. From the comments between the in-house editors and the outsourcing folks, I can see that they are now receiving files prepared according to the long-heralded change in production methods that finally started during my last weeks at the job. I've already had the chance to approve for press a title done in this fashion. Looked identical to the product my department provided. The editors are pleased with the results they are getting. This, too, I read in an email on which I may or may not have been accidentally cc'd.

I am forced to conclude that I was replaceable. So were all of us in the design team.

Perhaps I and especially my supervisor should take some solace in the rapid improvement we achieved since the first, haphazard issues the outsourcing bunch laid out. We worked very closely with them, my super even reviewing first-pass proofs for the first and second months, to minimize editorial/scheduling trauma and preserve the pubs' look and feel. We successfully got them to switch back to InDesign from their little-known layout software, and to use our tried-and-true templates. My super drilled the lessons into their heads over February again and again until we got consistent results. I helped as well, spotting her in reviewing these titles when she got swamped, and writing a comprehensive guide to doing a weekly title with a 24-hour turnaround that resulted in proofs with barely any corrections the first time through.

Our job during these last few months has been to ensure that this transition would succeed. We have done so. The typesetters overseas absorbed our seemingly endless feedback and got better quickly — faster, even, than some domestic folks I have trained in person. In other circumstances, we would be rewarded for "efforting this cost-saving initiative." The only problem is, the final step in the initiative is our departure.

We realize now that we were the ones who cared the most. The editorial directors only need the publications to be printed correctly and mailed on time. Marketing barely gave half a fuck until some goon needed a pallet of samples for a trade show. Our director hardly knew what we did until he was forced to take the work away and we began telling him our duties. Our old boss had cashiered us long ago to concentrate on her pet production-switch product, and our new boss had other things to worry about and was frequently bewildered with our work and the trafficking demands, all of which she will shunt to a sister office as soon as my supervisor is gone.

Again, there might be a positive lesson here. I have had the pleasure of more time to discuss work and life issues with my supervisor, and I commented that all of this transition, and the ignorance we discovered on the part of our upper managers, gives me hope that I might have a strong chance to launch my own business, as a freelancer most likely. Clearly folks have succeeded in my company by talking a good line of shit with a few nuggets of truth and some promises about savings as a garnish. Might an honest belief in my talent, the ability to point out to others why it is worth hiring, and a deep care for the fruits of my labors be more effective than this?

Here's a better question. Whether I am exercising my design talent as an independent contractor or an employee, I have to be concerned that someone will try to find a cheaper worker to do the same job. What skills or talents do I possess that I can channel into work that cannot be sent overseas?

Warnings of negative employment trends in creative industries will not come from top management until it's too late. Why should they tilt the crystal ball until the second they're done with paying American salaries? We have to do our own research to find out what skills U.S. companies are eager to outsource. Doing good work may not be enough any more. Employers are clearly willing to settle for less quality in favor of more, cheaper product and higher profit margins. Sadly, this affects editors, designers, Web programmers, and maybe even editorial assistants — don't believe for one moment that tasks like manuscript prepping and entering handwritten author corrections can never be sent out of the pricey New York market or entirely outside the country. They may even try to outsource writing someday. I cannot rule it out.

Some ideas: Branch out from your traditional role or your job description, or add new skills or certifications on software. Cross-train on the skills of another department. Ask to learn the details of finances, subscription fulfillment, promotions, anything that — if you are laid off — might give you an edge on snagging an open job in another department for a short while during your hunt. (A month or two of full health coverage while you search can save a lot of COBRA money.) If your boss fosters an "us versus them" attitude toward other departments, reach out discreetly and try to learn why. Make connections. They might welcome a person who doesn't exhibit the same mindless hostility, and you could possibly temp for them if your boss lays you off, or even switch your primary creative skills over there before a layoff. For this I have an example:

Nine months into my stay at the current company, it was decided that typesetting be moved entirely out of the editorial department, where I had been doing both editing and layout. My bosses, both poisonously negative people, hated the production people for various petty reasons. Nevertheless, I tried to work amicably with the designers (my current supervisor among them), because I, too, did layout, and could understand the technical points that inspired fear and resentment in my technophobic editorial bosses. I would have quit had I not been known as a more reasonable person in production and, therefore, specifically sought out as a new recruit. My editorial department head didn't tell me about the offer for 2 weeks because she was afraid I was going to quit if forced to work for production! Showing interest in the other department in this case got me a lead that spared me a second job hunt within a year.

Now that same department is letting me go. In doing so, they forced me to accept a truth dawning across more and more creative-service folks these days. You might be replaceable. My task now is to develop defenses against another layoff, the skills, connections, and experiences that will make me stand out more than just being a salary on an Excel table, a keystroke away from being deleted.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Clock Ticking on Chelsea

I'M STARTING TO TAKE notice of the many features of Chelsea that I will miss when I leave my job in 8 days. Even with a blanket of increasingly filthy snow draped over the area, I realize that each walk I take between the PATH station and my building brings me closer to the final march out the door. The physical office itself I can take or leave. Chelsea, and its proximity to the Village, I'm going to miss.

It amazes me that great areas of this district were, not 20 years ago, still only marginally habitable. Life pulses through these streets, in the shadow of century-old brownstones and brand-new condo towers. True, this trend can go too far, and we don't want to lose all of the deep character that lends the area its charm. I hope to find the same combination of lively commerce and sleepy residences there if I have the opportunity to return for recreation or even future employment. If nothing else, I will be eager to greet a new menagerie of dogs and their humans making their rounds about the neighborhood.

Of course, there's little to rival a three-minute walk that gets you into Greenwich Village. I didn't need a crappy day in the office for an excuse to drift south and wander amid irregular streets, carefully appointed window displays, and bookstores groaning with ancient paperbacks and academic tomes waiting to share their wisdom and reduce my pocket money by a notch.

I also enjoyed my close proximity to the Hudson. I had a rare opportunity in being so near to the water's edge. There were times when I would get frustrated with work, claustrophobic, or starved for sunlight and waterfront wind, and dashing across the West Side Highway to watch the water roll along was precisely what I needed. Sometimes I would steal over in the late afternoon, feeling the sinking sun on my face, believing that being fully awake in the majesty of that river was infinitely better than drowsing off over the half-baked tasks my department director set blindly out for us to interpret.

I don't know where the next job will be. Maybe in the city, maybe New Jersey, quite possibly someday the same place where I live. I hope it affords me the chance to get back into the city as a tourist, sometimes as an admirer, for myself rather than as a forced march through the valley of absurdity. Whether in Midtown or Chelsea, it was sometimes easy to lose perspective, to forget that my desk just happened to be in the greatest city in the world. One of my goals this year was to get outside more and enjoy nature. I believe that can be broadened to appreciating the world without a roof, be it from the edge of the Hudson while watching Hoboken twitter and buzz, or in the shadow of Rockefeller Center, surrounded by tourists, letting my gaze slide up the skyscrapers into the limitless blue toward which they strive.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Al Leong, aka the False Yaphet Kotto

IN THE DAYS BEFORE the Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia, when "Internet" was somewhere that Ted Kennedy whacked tennis balls while drunk, it took more legwork for a movie fan to trace the career of his or her favorite actors. This was especially true for character actors. True, you might remember a person's face from one film or TV show to the next, but picking his or her name out of the credits, especially when that character merely appeared as "Guard" or "Henchman," was difficult without some fast taping and freeze-framing. (Did I mention we also lacked TiVo? Oh, the indignity.)

My friends and I reached adolescence in the 1980s, the Golden Age of the Action Film. We spent our nights playing Dungeons & Dragons or a host of other roleplaying games, and our audiovisual backdrop for this mayhem was a festival of endlessly rerun bullet operas on HBO, TNT, and the USA Network. By this method did we memorize such epics as Aliens, Lethal Weapon, and Big Trouble in Little China, as well as dozens of B-grade offerings at the unlikely hands (and sometimes feet) of the era's gun-wielding, roundhouse-kicking steroid abusers.

Casting agents for these films invariably turned to a regular cadre of action-film utility players for stuntwork and bit parts that usually ended in on-screen death. Working both ends of this equation was Al Leong. If your movie-watching history matches mine, you know of whom I speak. Asian gent, bald crown, long fringe of hair, bushy handlebar mustache. His characters were dynamic and generally doomed. You saw him electrocute Mel Gibson, watched him lead a gang of Tongs into battle, and laughed as he snarfed a candy bar amid the burglary in Die Hard.

My friends and I naturally picked up on the fact that Leong was typecast. We never actually got his name, though. For a while, he was "that guy from [insert film here]." Somehow, one of us — possibly me — got it into his head that this actor's name was Yaphet Kotto.

Now, we had seen Yaphet Kotto in a few things as well. He was an ill-fated crewmember of the Nostromo in Alien. He challenged Britain's greatest secret agent in Live and Let Die. And he was the FBI nemesis of bounty hunter Robert DeNiro in Midnight Run. Somehow, like a virus jumping species, Al Leong became, in name, Yaphet Kotto. It sounded exotic, had great "mouthfeel," and gave our geeky teenage minds a feeling of smug insider knowledge.

To be clear: This is Al Leong.

And this is Yaphet Kotto.

Why yes, my friends and I function quite well for Mongoloids.

It wasn't until the release of the aforementioned Midnight Run in 1988 that we learned our mistake. Whoever that nimble Asian mook who died in every film was, he wasn't named Yaphet Kotto.

With no swift or convenient way to find out his true name, said actor was dubbed "the false Yaphet Kotto."

People, we called him this for the better part of the next decade. Even after we saw him in more films, even when we could have stayed during the credits to settle, finally, the mystery of who this diehard from Die Hard really was, whenever we saw him, my friends and I would squeal with delight and say, "It's the false Yaphet Kotto!"

It wasn't until the Internet had wormed its way into every home that the resources finally sank to our level of laziness, and one of us learned that this guy was actually named Al Leong. I'd like to think that, on the other side of the country, Al felt a shiver of relief go through him, temporarily displacing the aches and pains from a hundred hyperkinetic stunts and a thousand explosive squibs detonating across his career and anatomy.

Then Steven Seagal probably broke his neck.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Layoff: Two Weeks and Counting

THE FOUR MONTHS SINCE I learned about my approaching layoff seemed to fly by. An entire Thanksgiving and Christmas season, and all of winter, including a Super Bowl, skipped past in the wink of an eye. I have captured some of the passing time here in this blog, but much of it probably comes across as a blur to those not attending this spectacle on a daily basis.

Nor would you want to read such a day-to-day archive of one topic. Honestly, if I were to look back on this or any record of my life, and work is one of the most prevalent topics discussed, I would have to question my priorities. Currently the tag is in the top three of my post categories, but my layoff, and the decline-and-fall details of my department's slow unwinding, distort that figure far past the true percentage of my life — or my concerns — that the tag occupies.

You'll have to bear with my focus on work for just a little longer, before the tag of job hunting gets a little more play. I expect a rising tone of optimism in these posts, surely with occasional dips, but the ending should be happy, one would hope even past the first 90 days.

The 2 weeks ahead will contain 70 work-hours during which my actions will define the closing impression I leave. As much as I would love to heed the advice of the mighty Felix, who maintains that I should arrive on my final day wearing a bathrobe (to which I countered that I was thinking more along the lines of a smoking jacket), I am devoting some time to how I need to exit this company. Several folks with whom I work, or at least interact, I will miss. One, my supervisor, I will miss a lot. Others, I don't care to see again. Each one deserves some form of goodbye, because one never knows when one is going to happen upon them again. My industry is a big one, but it can be very small, sometimes when it's least helpful . . . although at other times, when it's the very help you need, it can be a lifesaver.

My friend Matt had an excellent idea, which he has practiced when changing jobs. In his formal goodbye to his colleagues, he has left open the possibility of consulting for them down the road, and invited them to contact him for terms if they should need the expertise and experience of a former insider. Simple enough, and possibly lucrative should the offer be accepted. Networks need tending, especially when you no longer show up daily to maintain them. Placing this sort of offer in the hands of my managers can serve two purposes. First, it lets them know that I understand the logic behind the layoff from their standpoint, and in this sense there are no hard feelings. Second, it frames the conditions under which I will act in the future toward their business interests. Simply put, I will not give it away. I'm happy to answer questions, provide insight and assistance, on the same basis that I did so when I punched their clock. For any services rendered, I will be paid.

My supervisor and I have discussed our soon-to-be-former coworkers often in the past few weeks, especially in terms of how the changes sweeping through the department have spotlighted their strengths and failings as managers. She cited one example in which our director disappointed her with his shrill weakness, and I said, "It's in the clutch when a person's true character comes out." She agreed.

I realize this attitude applies to me as well. I have reacted to some of the insanity — the cleanup of repeated mistakes, the lambs-to-the-slaughter sense of inevitability our director has exhibited, the needless adoption of over-complex and costly workflow procedures — with sarcasm, sometimes with anger and pointed frankness, but always from a forward-moving vector. I was told by P, the representative from the job-placement service who visited us last November, that during layoffs and other tempestuous transitions, "they don't keep the dummies." I have tried not to be a dummy. My boss has told me repeatedly she appreciates what help I have provided. It lets me know I have shown, if nothing else, class in eclipse.

I did tell my boss that she and our director need to choose carefully what they ask of my super and me, because our time is limited and we need to concentrate on only what is vital. This transition has displayed deep ignorance on the part of our managers of what occurs in the trenches (our last attempt at a departmental procedure manual stalled in 2002). The person lined up to inherit most of my super's duties is a well-intentioned dilettante. What I want to do is to minimize the trauma of our departure on the schedules of the publications. Getting those out on time to subscribers has always been my top priority. I lived and died on deadlines. They make us money. None of this other bullshit — who does the work, this new production method, how it is repurposed — is as important to the bottom line as sending 4, 6, 12, 24, or even 52 issues to waiting eyes and hands on the dot each time. The more I see my bosses get sidetracked by minutiae, as one of them was last week for the better part of a day, I wonder how anything I help them understand on the way out will stave off the shitstorm that will engulf them when my super and I are no longer manning the turrets.

I will do my best to cover my own needs, and to depart with grace, on the final Friday of this month. I shall document this last leg of the journey with, at minimum, diligence, if not the same degree of grace. Stay on this frequency for exciting updates.

Friday, March 16, 2007

NYC Type Geeks — Denied!

I'M PISSED! THE NYC debut of Helvetica: A Documentary Film is sold out already. The feature-length film promises both a historical study of the eponymous and ubiquitous sans serif typeface, and, according to the site, "a larger conversation about the way type affects out lives." I had seen a notice about this film some months ago, before it began a round through the festival circuit, and I assumed it would have an extended run in the home of the global publishing industry, New York City.

Not to be! According to the site's schedule page, the screening at the American Institute of Graphic Arts this April will be the only one for now. The Helvetica blog mentions that they are putting together a full-fledged run, though, so I'm hoping I'll be able to see the film before the DVD release, which seems to be scheduled for the fall.

This is not my first spasm of font fandom. I geeked out on a trip to the Grolier Club back 'round the turn of the millennium when they presented an exhibition of the work of type Übermensch Hermann Zapf. I viewed Zapf's sketchbooks, type studies, calligraphy, typeface-sample posters from the foundries where he worked, and of course samples and printed uses of his classic faces: Palatino, Optima, and ITC Zapf Chancery and Dingbats. I got to see the way a craftsperson became an invisible lens through which readers view their language. It's easy enough for anyone now to drag down a menu and choose a digitized version of these faces and not realize that they didn't always exist, that someone had to create them. I gained new respect for these humble families of letters, numbers, and symbols by seeing the process that led Zapf to decide on their serif weights, the roundness of bowls and , the proper looks for the italic and bold fonts in these faces, and all of the other decisions — historically informed as well as instinctive — that guided his hand.

I look forward to seeing Helvetica. I see this face every day (though not usually in email programs, where the hated bastardization Arial is its doppelgänger), and yet I know nothing about its designer, the foundry where it was born, or how it fell out of favor with some designers. What does it say about me that the films I've most wanted to see in the past 2 years are this, 300, and the Klaus Nomi biopic The Nomi Song?

Punched Out Early

WITH A SLEET STORM raging across the area, immobilizing airports and glazing roads into skating rinks, I decided to head home on the first train out. My supervisor had taken the day off, I had completed all of the few tasks I had to perform in her absence, and I wasn't feeling that lucky coming up sevens on the train. Normally it blasts through everything, but tonight, I suspected I would be joined by half of New Jersey's commuting corps trying to flee home early. It being a Friday, few folks would need a lot of nudging to head home for the additional reason of getting ahead of a storm.

I've been fortunate enough not to have to leave work for illness midday all that often in my nearly 8 years with this firm. It's not as easy as my last job, which was a 25-minute automotive dash between work in Mahwah to home in Hackensack, with gas stations, bookstores, and other bathroom-equipped establishments all along Route 17 to backstop me mid-puke. In the city, you're at the mercy of bus and train schedules, and in the case of the bus, midday it's a milk run that makes Every. Goddamn. Stop. along the Palisades and down through the tainted fens of the northern Meadowlands even before it creeps with painful sloth through the lower armpit region of Bergen County. This is a joyous thrill-ride on a bouncing bus while succumbing to stomach flu.

I returned home today without delay or incident, and immediately felt like I had come home on a sick day. Ridiculous. Old instincts die hard. To counteract this feeling, I went out and cleaned off the car. Insane as this sounds, I have a trip to the gym planned for tomorrow morning. This might be done in whiteout conditions, if the wind kicks up. Right now it looks damn Christmas-y out. Tomorrow it's supposed to stay cold. It might be safer to trek to the gym on foot.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Not-So-Great Trainless Robbery

THE IDES OF MARCH bore ill tidings for my morning train today. I actually arrived at the platform in haste, having run through my morning routine (emerging from a box of my native earth, feasting on the caffeinated blood of the living, kissing the various succubi around the castle farewell) in less time than I would have hoped for. I reached the station with what I thought to be about 3 minutes to spare.

When it turned into something more like 10, I began to wonder what the problem was. The weather was warm and moist, with none of the threatening rain or snow we were in store for later in the week. I hadn't heard anything on the radio, although it takes a massive problem on the commuter railways to reach the traffic reports. None had been broadcast, though.

Eventually, I and the other assembled commuters heard the speakers at the station crackle. These speakers, which judging by their muddled fidelity were post–Cold War surplus from a Kazakhstan officers' lounge, never bear good news. This time, they informed us that our train would be delayed for about 40 minutes.

I was in motion before the end of the squawk. To where, though, I wasn't sure yet. The bus station, right across the street, would accept my monthly train ticket for passage to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. From there, I could use my MetroCard and zip downtown to Chelsea. The other destination — my apartment — also had powerful appeal. I have no layout work. I left early twice this week without backlog or recrimination. A slow day of resume work, housecleaning, job hunting, and a long stretch on the elliptical trainer all looked like good options.

By the time I reached the bus line, the argument for work had won out. My last piece of layout work was set to be done for the first time at the outsourcing shop, and I figured I might be needed to unfuck any fuckups. I admit a perverse glee at doing so. So I decided to snag an express bus and roll over to the salt mine.

The driver of the first bus in line had good news. Aware of the train snafu, NJ Transit had designated her bus as an express to Hoboken. She hadn't gotten all of the details yet — which made her a little anxious — but she had been told to make stops at the train stations until her bus filled, and then hit the highway. As I got on the bus, I heard her ask one of the passengers how to get to Hoboken. Not good!

I sat there for a while, wondering if I ought to wait for another bus. I had visions of the driver wandering off of the Turnpike at the wrong exit, then either getting mired in the labyrinthine one-way streets of West New York or Union City, or missing the 495 exit completely and barreling past the industrial wasteland of Elizabeth and the airport, down into the green heart of New Jersey, and across the Delaware Water Gap into Philadelphia. Then I'd be stuck dealing with fuckin' Eagles fans.

Fortunately, a NJ Transit car pulled alongside our bus. The bus driver chatted with her coworker, then returned to let us know our final destination would be Secaucus, site of the train transit hub, from whence we could finish the journey to Midtown or Hoboken by rail. This was an easy trip on the Turnpike, so I settled back, fired up my iPod, and awaited our next move.

That turned out to be parking next to the train station to admit the stranded commuters there, who now learned for the first time that this bus could get them down to Secaucus. (Such an elaboration on the plan had not been announced over the speakers.) Those choosing to come along all but filled the remaining seats on the bus, and we only made one more stop for riders before we jammed onto the Turnpike.

The rest of the route was routine. I caught the first train out of Secaucus, edging along with most of my fellow bus-mates past a ruddy, middle-aged conductor who commented that we looked like a parade. Humor may or may not have been the best choice there, but I didn't give a shit. From Hoboken, it was the usual PATH tube in, and a moderate walk to the office.

Depending on where my next job is, I may be heading into my last 2 weeks as a train passenger for work. I have to say, as compared to the bus, the train on average has been far more consistent in mechanical function and schedule than the buses I took for 5 years into the city. During that period, obscenely disruptive construction during both drive times would turn Route 80 between Hackensack and the Turnpike into a slow-motion deathmarch. Snow or heavy rain would render each ride a swerving funhouse attraction. And the assemblage of jokers they would certify to handle the buses . . . though most were conscientious enough, occasionally you'd get one whose idea of a good time was taking an overpass curve at 60 and feeling a full bus rock onto its outer-edge wheels. So trading over to the train, despite the higher cost, was no sacrifice at all, and on the whole, those few disruptions don't really register.

I can't say, from the vantage point of early afternoon, that I would have missed much had I opted to sleep in. I'm assuming the conditions that snarled the southbound trains won't pose a threat to the northbound homeward ones. I'm finally jumping back into the poker fray tonight, and I'd hate to have my chance to slowplay a hidden set of 3s curtailed by someone tying a damsel in distress to the tracks.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Pledge to Redress My Habits

THE FIRST GREAT CHANCE I had to correct my patterns of poor diet and no exercise came when I was 16 years old. Taking advantage of my new driver's license, I could drive myself to a gym one town over. I was about 180 lbs. at the height of five-sevenish, a fair amount of it fat. My parents pointed out a sign-up deal for the gym in the paper, so I took advantage of it.

At the time, I was about 10 years into a sedentary life. Although I played soccer for 6 years in grammar school, my position — halfback — was assigned by coaches wise enough to realize I would be useless as an offensive player and fatally leaky as a fullback or goalie. Thus I got little real exercise. With the double-whammy of video games and Dungeons & Dragons hitting me as my age reached double digits, a long love affair between my ass and a couch began to the clatter of dice and digital explosions. I rode my bike to school on nice days, but once high school began, the bus replaced the bike, and another avenue of regular exercise was closed.

So I decided to give a regular exercise regimen a try. I signed up in my workout clothes and was straightaway taken on a supervised introductory lesson. Having expressed an interest in weight training, the instructor led me to the Nautilus machines upstairs. A legend on the wall declared, "SEVEN DAYS WITHOUT NAUTILUS MAKES ONE WEAK." I eyed some of the bulky specimens lugging iron about and grunting their way through intense sets and wondered if any of them even skipped a single day, much less seven.

I began my journey by cycling in place; a 12-minute warmup on a bright yellow Lifecycle. I dutifully pumped along, listening to the loud in-club radio and craning my neck to inspect the women in the adjoining aerobics studio. (I was 16.) When I finished, my guide handed me a clipboard bearing a grid that listed the various Nautilus machines, along with blank rows for exercises I might add on my own to customize my experience. From there, we made a circuit through the steel maze of torture implements, recording initial weights and reps and proper seat settings, as I went from doughy newbie to . . . sweaty, exhausted doughy newbie.

I began a thrice-weekly routine, coming to the gym after school, sometimes after dinner. I slowly filled in my log sheet, raising my repetitions and resistance slowly. And it worked. I was building arm and back muscles I had never felt before. I found my waistbands looser. My shirts sagged slightly at the gut.

Sadly, I sabotaged myself with a poor diet. A great deal of the quest for fitness is achieved in the kitchen. I was still living at home, so I was eating the Standard American Diet — which, to her credit, my mother prepared with verve and love. She didn't know I needed to cut back to the essentials and avoid starch, gravy, and dessert. Neither did my trainer mention anything at all about such a need. By the summer between high school and college, I had developed an unprecedented sweet tooth for jellybeans, Gummi raspberries, and other such bagged, per-pound candy. I was doomed. I dropped out of the gym and gained all of the weight back.

I made another push to drop pounds in freshman year of college. It might surprise you to learn that at one point, I had lost 28 lbs., a far cry from the stereotypical "freshman 15." I somehow found it easier to control my diet when it was portioned out by a commissary, and we had a free-for-students gym with a track, exercise bikes, and Universal machines. This drive stalled in April, when I allowed the stress of final projects and exams to become an excuse for eating junk food and straying from my regular gym visits. When I returned home that summer, I was back to my pre-college weight.

I spent the rest of the available time at college in which I might have resumed my efforts instead to becoming a gloomy geek, letting my hormones and the comfort of being a miserable victim rule my existence. You all know the type. I could have thrown off this depressive attitude with proper diet and exercise, but I didn't have the will or wisdom to break free of these self-pitying behaviors, and my attempts to cut weight via these methods were sporadic at best.

This mood carried past college and into my early twenties. Though I signed up at a new Gold's Gym near my house, and I visited with some dedication, I never got the message that I needed to adopt a revolutionary diet compared to the slop I was eating. A breakup in the mid-Nineties became my excuse to gain another 30 pounds. I did obtain a NordicTrack machine, and I used it to keep myself from gaining more weight, but still, if I insisted in eating Doritos and fried food on weekends, I was going to undo any good work I did when I attacked the machine every night.

Once I moved into my current town, I rejoined my first gym, which had become a mecca for racquetball players. It was a pain in the ass to navigate around them each morning, as they had a habit of surrounding the entrances to the courts in the building with a half-acre of their racquets, bags, shoes, and other impedimentia. Although the gym had upgraded its weight-training equipment since the late Eighties, the physical plant was poor, with moldy ceiling tiles in the locker room, malfunctioning televisions, and crowded conditions during peak hours. They only began cleaning up their act when ground was broken for a New York Sports Club a few blocks away. I set my membership payment plan to month-to-month at the old place and preregistered for the NYSC weeks before it opened.

I have been exercising for nearly 2 years at the new place, and although I have kept myself from becoming even more grossly distended, that's not the goal. Recovering the strength and proportions best suited to long-term health is the goal. It was only in the past 12 months or so that I truly learned the proper way to eat for an active lifestyle. I gave it a run earlier this year, and now, I am returning to this wisdom. I can report that, since the beginning of this year, I have lost 9 pounds of body fat, and with diligence, I will complete the new introductory workout routine I have adopted and move up, with habits and diet set firm, to a more rigorous and comprehensive program.

It is to that 16-year-old self that I dedicate my current efforts. I endangered your health, magnified your isolation, dampened your self-esteem, and destroyed your attractiveness. I may have cost you a life with a loving woman. I cannot let mood, employment, or poor eating habits further destroy what is left of your future. I deeply apologize for letting you down.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Best iPod-Related Purchase I've Ever Made

I AM NOT A BIG "gadget guy" or any sort of audiophile. My stereo dates from 1993, and my car radio is stock unmodified Toyota gear. However, I do own an iPod (2003 vintage), and I have never regretted the purchase I made shortly after loading my first MP3 onto the beast. That would be a pair of Sony MDR-V600 headphones.

From the start, I noticed a strong difference between the marketing value of the iconic iPod earbuds and their functional worth. I found them not too much better than the foam ones you can get at a drugstore. Worse, to make the music loud enough to hear clearly on the train or bus, I risked having it bleed out to annoy other riders. At least, I imagined I might be as annoying to others as they were with their up-to-11 earbuds blasting lousy Top 40 music across the train. I was facing deafness either way.

Enter the Sony. I bought my first pair at Best Buy. The decision had nothing to do with a deep insight into the tonal quality of the headphones, the dynamic bass or any of that logic. They were in my price range, they covered the entire ear, and they seemed well padded. Sold.

The difference was stark. In addition to making my then-meager collection of MP3s and iTunes files sound far better, they blocked out all cellphone chatter short of that emanating from two seats over. This was heavenly. Plus, I could use them at work to listen to WFMU via the Internet.

Shock absorption from the inside of my bag eventually loosened a wire in the right earphone, which rendered them shamefully mono. I relegated that pair to sweaty duty on the aerobic-machine TVs at the gym, and immediately bought another pair, more cheaply this time via

By this point, my office had moved to its current location. My surrounding coworkers, just outside the range of my civilized workgroup, included my drama-queen then-boss and an executive with a laugh that would sound much better through the heel of my old Doc Martens. The cans became less of way to enjoy music than a felony suppressant.

Within this space, I was able to lose myself in the rhythms of typesetting. William S. Burroughs wrote a speculative essay on a man who discovers and masters the practice of DE—"do easy." Effort is exerted in precisely the right measure and direction, and the resulting actions flow so smoothly, so naturally, that the reactions almost seem to precede them. I came close to this ideal when in this state. Pages flowed forth, text finding its proper place with little prompting. I wove tables and charts into their proper size on the first try, and they all but jumped into the columns of text by themselves. In this sonic womb, I could spin two or three sets of first-pass proofs, if uninterrupted, in a few hours. I wasn't conscious of the mouse, my email, the Web, the rumbles of hunger, the passage of time. Even the exact music didn't matter. I was in a sacred space, practicing my craft, not entirely sure myself how the finished product had appeared.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Burning Down the Apartment

THIS DAY WENT TO HELL early, but this evening I came close to bringing the flames right to my kitchen. Nothing like a visit from the town emergency crews to wake a body up, to say nothing of the rest of the building's residents.

I bailed early on work, having no work to do and not needing to stick around either to monitor the outsourcing gang or to search for a job. I was looking forward to dinner — not just the eatin', but the makin'. As part of my plan to eat more wisely, I had purchased some beautiful Empire chicken breasts at my local Trader Joe's. My plan was to grill these on my cast-iron stovetop grill, making at least four meals' worth of protein for my accelerated gym schedule.

For those who have never visited my apartment, its major flaw is a lack of ventilation. My apartment building is a hotel-style structure, in that I have one wall of windows, the other being contiguous with the central hallway. I have a floor fan and an air conditioner, but they only blow air around and into the apartment. The fan over my stove only filters fumes, and has no port to the outside. On those few occasions when I cook anything smoky, I have to be quick about it, lest I set off my apartment's smoke alarm.

Being aware of this, I halved the breasts lengthwise to make them thinner. I then brushed them with olive oil and sprinkled them with McCormick Lemon Pepper & Herb Grill Mates rub. I brushed the grill with oil as well, let it heat up, and dropped on the chicken. At their thickness, I figured 6 minutes on one side, 5 on the other, and they'd be done.

I got through the first 6 minutes with minimal fumes. The smoke began collecting during the second stretch, mostly from particles of the Grill Mates shake that were carbonizing rapidly. Although I had my floor fan aimed at the stove to carry any smoke away from my main hallway, I still got a complaint from my smoke alarm. I turned the chicken, then aimed the fan directly at the screaming disc on the ceiling. It quieted down. I turned back to the kitchen to find it billowing with smoke . . . which promptly sparked the smoke alarm again.

I dragged my stepladder under the box and pulled it down from the ceiling, hoping to disconnect it. No dice; even as I did so, I remembered it was wired into building current. I had a black wire going one way and a white wire going another and it was still BEEP BEEP BEEPing in my hand with my other hand clutching my ear which didn't do squat. . . . and by this time I could barely think straight from the alarm, which I would like to say explains the inscrutable burst of logic that motivated me to open my apartment door, after turning off the stove, to let the smoke vent into the hall. . . .

. . . where the building fire system began shrieking.

The building fire system, which is wired straight to the town fire department.

I ran back to the stove, double-checked the OFF status of the burners, tonged the chicken (which looked quite nice, actually) onto a plate, and dumped the still-smoldering grill into my oven. Then I called the list of local resident managers (ours just got canned, so we have a trio of backups from other, nearby buildings) to let someone know the company wasn't in imminent danger of losing an apartment building. By this point, the town fire alarm, sounding like an air-raid siren, was echoing across the landscape. I knew I'd have guests soon. I decided to go downstairs to let them know there was no danger — and then a knock came at my door.

It was one of our local policemen. I quickly assured him there was no fire and no damage, that it was just a cooking mishap. (I also thanked my lucky stars I hadn't hosted poker the previous night, and have a table full of professional plastic cards and high-denomination chips in great lovely incriminating stacks to explain.) He seemed relieved. I told him I was going to meet the firemen downstairs to let them know there was no emergency.

Outside, the chaos I had inadvertently wrought was in full swing. The average age of the residents here is about 66. My dear elderly neighbors, bent over canes, trunding along with walkers, were slowly making their way out of their respective lairs, shuffling in pairs as though they had chosen fire buddies upon moving in, making their pained way down the stairs . . . I felt so awful. I tried to say to them it was under control, that there was no danger, that it was just an idiot bachelor overreaching the limits of his cooking abilities, but they just dutifully kept descending the stairs.

Around 15 of my co-residents had already gathered in the lobby, and were milling about trying to decide whether it was a real fire or a false alarm. I told some of the more attentive ones the facts, relying on them to spread the news. At that moment, two firemen came in, casually dressed rather than fully garbed for an inferno, and I quickly told them the basics. I led them up to my pad, now slightly less smoky but at least getting no worse, while the strobes and sirens screamed in the halls and still more stunned residents poked their heads out to see what the ruckus was. I felt like crawling under the rug.

Two more firemen, these guys actually in the traditional suits, arrived on my floor from the opposite direction, and their cohorts confirmed there was no need to escalate matters to ladder-and-hose work. They checked out the area, made sure my windows were open and the air conditioner was on, and deemed the place under control. One guy went down to check if the stairwells were vented, which — if they were — would enable them to shut down the alarm. Fortunately, they were, and in a couple of minutes, as one guy advised the team on the truck to stand down, the mind-shattering shriek from the halls fell silent.

I should add that each time I encountered another fireman, I apologized profusely for being such an idiot and dragging them out for nothing. In turn, they all told me not to worry about it, that it was no problem, and that it happened all the time. (Not to me!) I assume they were just relieved to find no full-fledged fire in progress and no lives in jeopardy.

The cop who had arrived first took my name and number, just for reporting purposes; I hadn't committed a crime, though I joked I was guilty of aggravated crappy cooking. I also went downstairs to thank the rest of the firemen for arriving so swiftly and, one last time, apologize. As before, they shrugged it off. Considering we just lost nine children from the same family in the city to a horrific fire this weekend, a simple stove mishap on the part of a solitary retard must have been a joy to find. I wandered back up to my place, telling any neighbors I ran into that I was sorry. If only to spare my enduring embarrassment for the rest of my stay here, I hope some of them lose the details of today's events to senility.

Alone at last, I steamed some broccoli, dropped two pieces of chicken onto a plate with it, and ate.

And for all of the tsuris its creation evoked, that chicken was pretty damn good.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Crawling Into Henry Rollins's Head

I THINK MY OVERALL mood is dipping somewhat. Friday night and last night, my nightstand companion was the prose and poetry of Henry Rollins. I had consulted Do I Come Here Often? for his inspirational essay on weightlifting, "The Iron." From there, I read the rest of that book, and then found myself hip deep in See a Grown Man Cry/Now Watch Him Die and Black Coffee Blues. This indicates to me I'm brushing along the emotional walls somewhat.

I first became aware of Rollins when I saw some of his early, slender books of poetry during college at Newbury Comics. Not being into free verse, and not realizing his background, I did little more than skim the books and groove on the clever titles. It wasn't until 1994 that I dug a little deeper, aided by a then-new acquaintance at work who owned most of his works. When I got her a Rollins disc for Christmas, I made a friend. I subsequently borrowed from her, then bought for myself, all of his books, including the Black Flag tour diary Get in the Van. This from a guy who knew barely anything about punk rock and even less about Black Flag other than their contribution to the Repo Man soundtrack, "TV Party." This being the age before Wikipedia, indeed the dawn of wide public access to the Internet, I learned about Henry Rollins through his words before I understood his biography. A contemporary New York Times article filled in the blanks.

Since then, I've stayed current on this "aging alternative icon," as he described himself at Irving Plaza the first time I saw his spoken word show. I've enjoyed spotting him in unlikely cameos in films like The Getaway (as a cop!) and Heat (where he had the honor of being thrown through glass by Al Pacino). Knowing how lowly his origins were, anytime I saw Rollins sneaking into the Hollywood machine and making off with a bit of its lucre was a fist-pump moment. I have to admit, though, it's sometimes difficult to sqaure the kinetic, witty, self-effacing, no-bullshit raconteur of his spoken word gigs with the tortured, self-doubting, lonely warrior that huddles in subzero tour vans and dodges enemy fire while threading through the post-Apocalypse killing floor of LA.

It's the works that arise from the latter Henry, the one who truly lives only when he's performing, lifting, or diving into the grooves of some 40-year-old record, that I read when I get moody myself. I have little to bitch about, really. In no sense can I compare myself with a man who watched his best friend get his brains blown out. I find it easy sometimes to disappear into his nihilism, even as I know the words are products of his unique moods and mindset. And truth be told, his later works do contain celebratory moments of discovery and wonder, so it's not all darkness and black stretches between tour dates.

The question is, why am I seeking his work out? From what am I hiding? Why am I crawling into his words, as he might do the same with a Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk LP? I've embarked on a new job hunt, I've created a so-far successful workout schedule. The last thing I need to do is walk along Rollins's lonely footsteps when I need to be more extroverted than usual and get the hell out there in many different ways. Perhaps that's just it. I'm digging into the familiar. At least it's legal.

For a while, as I was returning the Rollins books to my shelves, I regarded the rest of the tomes forcing a deep bow in the top shelf, and decided, I can probably live without a lot of these. I can live a leaner life in ways other than just diet. I would give them to my friends, but they're in the same boat as I am, with a few walls of books each and possibly even more in storage. I don't want to have to screw around with shipping each time I sell these on eBay, so what I will do is hold some sort of cull-fest and drop the winnowed texts off at the library for sale or their own shelves.

That might also be part of it — shrugging off excess resources that don't serve my goals or further my relationships with my near and dear. Rollins followed a clean road through temptation across his touring career. Maybe I am attracted to this asceticism. Such considerations risk sounding hollow coming from a well-fed First Worlder. It doesn't mean I can't live more honestly, more simply, or more in touch with my deeper needs.

I'm fairly certain I won't find them in the documentation for someone else's life, though.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Rolling Start at the Gym

I RETURNED FROM THE gym about a half hour ago. Feeling good. More crowded than I might have guessed. I was able to navigate my way around with little trouble, because I was doing a whole-body routine with only one rep each. I have been reading the posts of a classic old-school bodybuilder, Dave Draper, a contemporary of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his weightlifting heyday. I had been fumbling my way through a homebrewed routine for some weeks, with gaps in attendance due to soul-crushing bullshit at work. This is unwise from a health standpoint and wasteful of money. So I selected a beginner's program from Draper's site and decided to begin it with deliberate, humble care.

This week, I have trekked over to the gym three times. I created a chart in InDesign at work, in my copious free time, to track my progress. This act alone put me in the spirit to be able to look back a year from now and see just how much work I've put into improving my health and cutting my body fat. I set it up for three lifting workouts per week, as opposed to the four I had been trying to do before this. Insofar as I've been doing some work before this, I consider this less of a cold beginning than a rolling start, a reboot.

This was a practice week to test out the exercises on this plan. I wanted to make one change per week. The next is to adopt a better diet. I am returning to eating five to six small meals per day, including a decent, homemade breakfast every day, and special attention to pre- and postworkout nutrition. I want to develop one solid habit at a time. I have tracked my spending for the past several months, including a category for "junk food" purchases, and I can see where my will has been weak. If I'm stuffing myself with filling and nutritious clean food each day, I'll have less desire for trash. I'm looking forward to rustling up large multiday meals on weekends, especially on the Foreman Grill or my cast-iron stovetop grill. I anticipate setting off my smoke alarm at least twice per week at this rate.

I will take a day every so often to "cheat," either to eat like mad or to snack on "forbidden" foods, which will coincide with my birthday each month. I can't be expected to be a monk each and every day! But my reward will be baggier clothing, more stamina, better sleep, and lingering glances from women who are moderately (as opposed to blind stinking) drunk.

My time away from work, if extended, needs to be disciplined. I've seen how I can slide off an established schedule without structure. Including regular, healthful food in each day, premade as much as possible, along with regular, progressive exercise, will keep my spirits high and my health on the grow while I look for a job. I know there will be streaks, especially if it takes a while, when I will be discouraged in my job hunt. Having a solid record of successful physical training and nutrition will buoy me through these spots.

Once I do get my next gig, I will decide how best to integrate my program into the new arrangement of hours in my day. With any luck, I'll have to bring in a photo to show my new coworkers just what I had to do to get into the shape I present to them. Believe me, I have plenty of potential "before" pictures. I am very eager to craft the "after."

Tips for Fair Workplace Compensation

ONE OF MY COWORKERS today mentioned she had stayed until 7:00 p.m. last night and didn't get home until past 8:00. I immediately told her to make sure she gets that time back from the company. I've put in my share of late nights and early mornings — sometimes in the same day — and it took me some time to realize that you will only get from a corporation what you either ask for or take. My father, a lifer at a Dow 30 company, had the same attitude: Take everything the company offers. Though what follows might sound like sour grapes in light of my impending layoff, rest assured my feelings on this topic coalesced long before I was told I would no longer be needed at my current workplace.

Here, then, are my thoughts on garnering all that is due to you from an employer. I am not a financial planner, lawyer, human resource officer, or labor relations specialist. I am an American worker in the early 21st Century with 15 years of employment experience, who is simply sharing some wisdom and caution that — like anything you read on the Internet — should be verified independently and customized to your specific needs. There is a universal appeal, however, in watching out for your own ass.

Paychecks: Karl Marx was a dingbat in a lot of ways, but fundamentally he was right: We sell labor for money. You may love your job, but you're not a charitable organization. Take every dime due you.

Know what you are worth. Research your profession online. Contact career counselors. Survey hiring managers and human resource experts. Go into the interview armed with the salary range your experience and job responsibilities command in the market. Like a martial artist's years of sparring, this knowledge will give you a confident stance from which to engage the interviewer. Once you are hired, let the employer mention a figure or range first. Request more: in cash, but also in benefits, the date your healthcare begins, earlier salary review, options vesting — they expect you to bargain, and the vast majority of negotiations win at least some additional concession. This is your first contact with your human resources officers, and possibly with your future managers (who will sign off on any future raises and perks). Show them now you are unafraid to speak up for yourself.

Benefits: A wide range of overt and hidden benefits await the modern white-collar worker. Take them all.
  • 401(k), 403(b), or other tax-deferred plan: A shocking number of my coworkers do not participate in my company's 401(k) plan. This is suicidal. Even a conservative portfolio of index and bond funds has a far greater chance than Social Security does of surviving the depredations of inflation, taxation, and Congressional kleptomania. Contribute as much as you can. Learn the Federal maximum for the tax year and strive to max it out. If you are servicing debt, like student loans or a mortgage, at least defer enough from your paycheck to exploit fully any employer matching contributions or profit share. Employer matches are free money.
  • Company stock: Some companies offer discounted commissions on purchases of their shares. Others offer them as tax-deferred elements of retirement programs, or as options. These all can be excellent bargains, but — HUGE caveat — as part of a diversified investment portfolio. I can name the reason why in two notes: Enron. Do all the research on your company's business prospects that you would do when buying securities of any other corporation. Don't let any feelings of loyalty or sentimentality blind you. Be as cold and dispassionate as your company's board of directors would be in selecting an acquisition target.
  • I add on both of these counts that most companies consider retirement education a participant-driven activity. Aside from quarterly account statements and flyers from the fund company, annual reports, and maybe a yearly visit from a harried fund rep 'round enrollment time, you will be left to do your own homework. High schools and colleges provide almost no personal-finance education. Ransack your fund company's Website and your library for solid financial-planning information and the skills to give your retirement money the best chance to grow.
  • Flexible Spending Accounts and transit benefits: Again, many of my coworkers eschew these benefits. Be smarter than they are. Medical expense FSAs can be used for a wide variety of procedures and expenses. And as our parents age, the dependent care FSAs can be vital in obtaining compensation to give them the quality care they need when they can no longer care for themselves. More recently, companies have offered the same sort of plan to offset mass transit or parking costs. All of these reduce your taxable income and are far saner ways of lending the Feds money than having it taken out of your paycheck and getting it back with no added value or interest.
Extra time (not overtime): I will dwell on this point because it is the most widespread — and the most uncontested — inequitable transaction between worker and employer in this country.

Face it: If you're a white collar worker, you (a) don't get overtime and (b) have been asked or at least pressured to work beyond the usual 8 hours. Should your boss approach you for this, don't panic. Enact what you might call a graceful exchange. If a supervisor asks you in person to stay late, make acceptance of this request conditional upon recompense. Time off in exchange for extra work is the most obvious way, but has a fatal flaw. If you leave amicably or are laid off, few if any employers will financially compensate you for this extra time the way they might for unused "official" vacation or sick time. To compromise, tell your boss on the spot that you would like to take that time off within that pay period. You want to come in later one day, or leave earlier the next Friday. Don't offer a reason; state your demand confidently and without an attitude. You are setting the terms on which they will request this of you in the future, so it's best to tell them early that you will not be a pushover.

Before end of business that day, summarize this verbal exchange in an email that forces your boss to repeat the answer in writing. For example: "To review what we discussed, will I be able to take next Friday off in compensation for the extra time you have asked me to work this week?" Maneuver the manager into answering your question. You therefore document that you addressed it, and you can smoke out the sort of manager who refuses to back up words with written confirmation. You know the cliché about verbal contracts. Show them you see through their game.

You might be told that extra time is routinely expected of all employees, perhaps out of some nebulous sense of gratitude for having a job or working for their fantastic corporation. This is especially true in workplaces where you're supposed to take the example of your coworkers, all laboring well past 5:00 or arriving before dawn, as an unwritten prompt for your own behavior. I disagree. Their gratitude for employment is demonstrated every other week in the form of a paycheck. Any other time they take from your life should incur a debt to you. Do not be afraid to exact it.

Maybe your industry prides itself on short-term sacrifice for long-term rewards, such as the first few years of law practice, game programming, Web design, or the like. Keep in mind that these benefits might lie over a horizon that you never get the chance to reach. Employers can and will lay you off with no warning, explanation, or recourse. Even in fields where such early-career monasticism is the norm, take something for yourself on a regular basis. Don't let duty or tradition turn you into a perspective-challenged robot for the sake of a fat future salary or a portfolio full of options.

You might fear not being perceived as a "team player." Fuck that noise. Ask to meet the rest of this mythical team, and whether its members would be willing to pick up your kids, shop for your groceries, get your car inspected, enjoy a midweek date, or do any of the other things you might pack into an already crowded day, while you sit in the office for a few more hours. Ask them if the team will give you that time back at the end of your life. You got that job on your own, you'll retire from it alone, and though you may be part of a group layoff, expect no support from this "team" when you make that long last walk to your car. Give your employer nothing without getting something tangible in return.

Vacation and sick/personal days: This is not grammar school; you will not be graded for attendance. If you are, you work for hypocritical control freaks and you should start job-hunting.

My father took every sick day he was granted each year, whether he was ill or not. Never underestimate the power of what my friend Dave dubbed the "mental health day." And if you are sick, take a sick day and stay out until you are no longer communicable. Why else would the company grant sick days unless it wanted to you recover and avoid infecting the staff? Stay home, get well, respect your coworkers, and avoid catching something worse in your weakened state. Unless you carry a weapon for Uncle Sam, you will not receive a Purple Heart.

As for vacation time: Plan to take it all. I frequently hear complaints from coworkers who claim not to be "able" to take a vacation day. Too many people get into the habit of believing they "can't" take time off, only to take vacations in haste and with little planning at the end of the year for fear of losing the days. Chart your time off early and make your plans known to your boss and your workmates. The only reason not to take regular breaks is when you are soon leaving the company and they are compensating you in cash for those days.

In your obituary, nobody will eulogize you by writing, "He never took a day off." Take every day offered. Refresh your mind, fill your lungs with outside air, and let the sun shine on your face, whether from your front porch or a tropical sky. Enlightened employers recognize the benefits of well-timed and frequent time off. More common is the sort of employer that will do nothing to remind you of the time they owe you.

Training: A wise boss once told me, "When you stop learning, you're dead." Accept the chance to learn new software, procedures, and the functions of other departments. Attend seminars (which also afford you networking opportunities.) If your company offers regular training or sponsors continued certification, take them up on it. Keep yourself fresh and competitive in the market. If they actually offer tuition reimbursement, seriously consider continuing-education courses or graduate studies. This will pay a double dividend: You get a boost on paying for the education, and you will increase your potential future earnings.

Don't be afraid to ask for any of the above. If your company doesn't offer these opportunities, perhaps nobody's requested them yet! You ought not to be disciplined for requesting the skills and tools to do a better job. If your employer refuses to offer training in your field, begin searching for a new job. Don't stay in a workplace that discourages education.

Miscellaneous perks: Computer-purchase loans, auto leases, society or professional memberships, life insurance, accounting or tax-preparation assistance, subscriptions to technical periodicals in your field, payment of entry fees for creative work into competitions, and discounted tickets for entertainment or sporting events are all worthy of consideration.

Use your company's willingness to provide anything I've discussed as a gauge on how long you stay there. Get out when they no longer serve you. They employ you. They do not own you. They don't govern the course of your career. Only you can decide when your work and your interests no longer follow the same track. Identifying and accepting this sort of discrepancy is not a mark of failure. I define a failure as someone who neglects to collect every cent of compensation and every hour of time off he or she has earned, who instead works weekends and Federal holidays because they think this will impress their bosses. Don't work for your boss. Work for your professional development, for the satisfaction of meeting your goals, and for the means to enjoy a comfortable, well-rounded life. Work for yourself.