Sunday, November 18, 2007

Catching up With the Week

A MIXED WEEK THIS was, the last before the final plunge into the holiday season. The week ahead, though truncated, might be even crazier, at least until I go home on Wednesday night . . . which might not be at 5:00. But first, this week.

On Monday and Tuesday, the managing editor (who works in another office) was in our department. She greeted me Monday morning by asking me to write another whole column for the December issue, which is supposed to go to press on 11/20. The issue was already running late, partially due to her; she made some requests on a nearly completed article, queries of a frankly passive and paranoid nature, and requested that the PR department of the institution mentioned in the article review it. This set off a mini-mutiny in the department, but it typifies the very tentative approach our boss takes in making decisions or trying to change things at the 11th hour. It's one of the few negatives of the job, but insofar as she's otherwise a pleasant person who can be swayed by reason, it's mitigated somewhat. Still, there are limits. But adding a new column that late wasn't one of them; I'd come to expect it.

For the next two days, I was fiercely busy at work, mostly writing, which I enjoyed. Autumn weather also returned, with chill nights and gemlike skies of pure blue. The trees in my workplace's parking lot blazed in the sun like raging gas fires. We had a company Thanksgiving lunch Tuesday, an actual catered turkey dinner but at midday. The company also ran a side-dish and dessert competition, so we had a wide variety of both to choose from. The rest of that day was a bit of a blur, though my progress list did have other stuff I'd written on it in a tryptophan-and-sugar-induced coma. That evening, I went with Steve and Jen to a local pizza/Italian joint for dinner. This wasn't one of those weeks that showed a net drop in weight, as you might imagine.

On Wednesday, despite my immediate boss splitting time between the December issue and a year-end special publication that she'd gotten at the last minute from our managing editor, we seemed to be making headway. Then one of the group who works on the magazine announced she'd be quitting at the end of the month. This detonated like a bomb that leaves buildings intact but destroys motivation. The employee in question is a former professional in the field the magazine covers, so her input into content-heavy articles is critical. She is also able to explain complex concepts in that field to the rest of us in accessible English. She writes our editorials, and her experience helped us connect directly with our readers in ways the rest of us might not. Worse, she is an absolute blast to work with. But she'd been butting heads with the managing editor, including a couple of times recently when said supervisor took issue with pathetically ridiculous minutiae. With several of our former colleagues working at local publishers in our field, our coworker cast her eye around, found a better option to the one she faced under this regime, and gave notice.

So this cast a pall over the rest of the week. The department had been under full strength before this year, after my predecessor left in the early spring, and I'm told those three months before my arrival were hellish. (Not that I'm Superman, but even a thoroughly new trainee doing some of the basic labor would've been preferable to folks doubling up on duties as they were during that stretch.) Getting email from my managing editor, the immediate cause of the problem, was difficult, as was replying civilly . . . especially, as is typical, when the requests had nothing at all to do with completing the December issue.

But Wednesday and Thursday were otherwise writing days — again, among my favorites. I felt a cold command of the various projects, as I did when I regularly typeset a complex, table-heavy accounting newsletter in 48 hours back at the salt mine. Priorities were clear. Tools were readily available. Distractions melted away. On Thursday night, I put in a half-evening at the regular poker game. I should note that I had hit the gym every day this week since the previous Saturday, and I am convinced that this physical devotion kept my mood and energy up to the level the week's chaos would demand. Only playing until 11:00 was part of this fitness drive, because I wanted to hit the gym Friday morning. Although I lost two buy-ins (ran high pocket pairs into AA twice, goodnight!), I rode home with a high spirit; I'd dodged a couple of dangerous traps, too, something I wasn't capable of this time last year.

I did indeed go to the gym on Friday morning, and I erased one more item from my to-do list at work. Then I grappled with the column my boss had told me on Monday to slip into this issue . . . and I screeched to a brake-locking halt. This column is best written over the course of the month leading up to deadline, not the week; it comprises small items harvested from various Web sources, which were not yielding their usual bushels of fruit when shaken. I spent much of the day trying not to grow more frustrated than the task warranted by wrapping the stress of my coworker's reasons for departure up with this current challenge, but by lunchtime, it was too much. Even at the best job, one needs to get the hell out now and again. So I bailed for a local Chinese joint and sank into some Empress Chicken and a book on investing for an hour, bookended by leisurely drives beneath wind-buffeted trees and swirling storms of gorgeous leaves. In sum, quite therapeutic.

My boss and I already have accepted that this book will be late, primarily due to our boss's tampering. So when I returned to the office, I set the troublesome task aside and concentrated on another item I had to write (which by its nature goes in last minute anyway, so now was the time). Just to keep my hand moving in the Natalie Goldberg sense. It worked, and in fact I was able to pull in a lot of material for the January issue. I feel if we can get back to setting these issues up a lot earlier than we currently are, we'll be able to negotiate around the tendency of the managing editor to tinker with things and greatly offset the schedules. That might have to wait until we have a full crew again. Busy winter, this may turn out to be. At least it's an employed one. And as the soon-to-depart employee confided in me, "You're gonna have no problem. We know a lot of people in this industry. You're in." Hopefully not something I need immediately, but I did give her my personal email address so we can stay in touch.

Still, this last day of the week wasn't without further twists. The managing editor has been paranoid about licensing, and she sent a letter requesting rights to run a chart to one of our story sources for the December issue. The source freaked out and denied us permission to run the chart. For this article, it subtracts the same sort of structure as removing the actual road from the George Washington Bridge might. The group's artist had already scanned, retouched, and placed this piece, amid laying out the year-end publication ensnaring my boss — in essence, he was doing two issues this month. He was blissfully unaware of this, having taken Friday off. I dread his reaction upon arrival tomorrow.

By Friday night, I was looking forward to an idle weekend. Or at least a weekend that followed my own schedule, which I had in spades. I needed to begin prepping for a Christmas party next month. I also had to grab a gift and card for my mother's birthday today. The day went well. I hit the gym shortly after the opening and had a fine 30-minute stroll on the elliptical trainer and hit my abs (or at least the region of my abs, which are in there somewhere, I suspect). Chores went well and were limited to my town, which at least afforded me the privilege of walking through the chill fall air to get them done. I headed down to the Edgewater Whole Foods to secure a box of Seventh Generation dishwashing powder with one of several coupons kindly provided by their customer relations point person.

New York City lies just across the river from that Whole Foods location, and I sat for a while regarding the apartments of the Upper West Side, Columbia University, and, more distant, the rise of Midtown's skyscrapers. I do miss working there, even if I understand how much the commute took out of my daily life. Fortunately, tourism has become considerably easier: New Jersey Transit now runs more trains to Secaucus and Hoboken on our local line, not only on weekends, but inbound late on weekdays. Now catching a weekend show or attending an evening event doesn't require negotiating rush-hour traffic to get to Hoboken, and then the accompanying parking nightmare . . . just catch the late train on a weekday, or any of them on the weekend, and you're all set. I'm still getting used to hearing trains pass my window on Saturdays and Sundays, but I'm sure they'll prove valuable as long as I'm living in this area. Getting my weekend dose of the city is now as easy as buying a couple of tickets. Very exciting.

As evening fell, I hit the Blockbuster for a movie. I'm all but committed to securing a Netflix account. Blockbuster is sorely lacking. I did manage to find the film I wanted, Untergang (a 2004 German film about the last days in the F├╝hrerbunker, as seen through the eyes of Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge), which turned out to be very good (aside from three minor-to-moderate historical inaccuracies that someone who hadn't recently reread The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and who wasn't an anal former Jeopardy! winner, might not have picked up). But for them not to have any Family Guy discs aside from the last season — not even the first season, monstrous sales of which were the trigger for getting the show back on the air — or the first season of Venture Bros. marked this place as no longer suitable for my erratic video needs. If I can justify the monthly outlay against the films I actually want to see (and there are a lot; I've shaded my theatergoing way back in the past 18 months, because it's seemingly still illegal to shoot movie-house cellphone users in the back of the head), I'll sign up.

So that gets us to today. The three days of next week's work week will be, er, interesting. I am taking it one task at a time; I just need to complete the work that had me frustrated on Friday, and then I'll just assist my boss in anything I can do . . . assuming, of course, she can extricate herself from the year-end thing she's been tangling with reluctantly, instead of the December issue. I don't have any significant holiday travel to worry about next weekend, just cleaning and party planning. Assuming the art director doesn't go after the managing editor — who is scheduled to be up here tomorrow and Tuesday — because of the art swap. Then you might hear about my office on the news.

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