Friday, December 28, 2007

Schizohedron and the Beanstalk

THIS IS ONE OF THOSE posts for which having a digital camera would be useful, but I'll do the best I can to describe the result of an accidental bean sprout toughing it out in the most unlikely place.

A few weeks ago, I brewed up a batch of chili. I use dry beans whenever possible instead of canned. Dry beans hold up better during the long simmer, ensuring that my frozen batches — stored in my fridge like so many cryonic heads — will not turn to mush when I microwave them back to molten, superspicy goodness. I pick through the beans before cooking to weed out any tiny stones or funky wrinkled beans (isn't that a comic strip?), then rinse the remaining ones in a colander.

While doing this and pouring them into my pot, a lone pinto bean got loose into the sink. I tried to pick the wet little bugger up, but couldn't get a grip on it. So I used the plunger end of my sink plug to push it down through the trap and out of mind.

Or so I thought. Somehow, this tenacious bean wedged itself into the sink plug. I found it weeks later, when I removed the trap to clean it out. There, snuggled between the metal bars that act to anchor the trap in the sink, rested the bean, its spotted shell pale and discarded and hanging on the edge of a whitish, inch-long sprout. From the other side of the bean emerged a root.

I had, in effect, created a bean sprout.

This isn't the first inadvertent germination that's occurred in my kitchen. Months ago I'd kept a rhizome of ginger past its stale date, which then put forth roots. Had I any spare soil in the joint, I'd have planted it just to see what might happen.

I still don't have any bags of topsoil, but I do have a number of existing plants, including one that's rather too small for its pot. I carefully extracted the sprout from its metal lodging, dug a hole in the huge pot just mentioned, and dropped the seed in. I then covered it up and watered the surrounding area.

For a few days, nothing happened. I figured, the worst thing to occur would be the main plant gets a small, rotting seed on which to feed, Nothing like a little spare nitrogen.

This is where the camera would come in handy. If you ever grew vegetables from seedlings, or experimented with seeds in grammar school, you know what a bean seed looks like when it finally pierces the earth and extends its head to the sun. (This picture will help fill in the blanks.) The sprout appeared quite suddenly over the course of yesterday, greeting me when I finally staggered home from work, and is now a good 3½" tall.

My next course of action will be to buy some soil, extract this bugger from its current bed before the roots get too complex, then plant it in a spare 2-lb. yogurt tub I've got lying around. In an ideal world, I'd then transplant it, along with scores of other seedlings, into a garden. Not an option as an apartment dweller, sadly. I'll let it grow as much as I can get it to inside; I believe beans are annuals, so this might have a built-in stale date. Still, as a surprise science experiment, it just shows how relentless life can be.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

2007 Goals: Unwrapped

FOR THE PAST 360 DAYS, I have had a plain #10 envelope staring at me from the ledge of the whiteboard that hangs on the inside of the front door to my apartment. The main and return addresses are identical: Both are mine. Last year, I was inspired by a columnist to write down a bunch of goals for 2007, but not to look at them . . . only to have a vague idea of what they were, and to strive toward fulfilling them.

Upon reading this list of 36 dashed-off ideas, I believe the Marketwatch guy must have a better memory than I do, because I clearly forgot a great number of these right out of hand. Although he counts a good year as one in which he hits half of his goals and comes close on the other half, I would've counted this as a good year had I simply been able to recall half.

I suspect I'd do better with the plan I considered adopting on the first day of 2006, on which I recounted the SMART system for setting goals: they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. Having a predictable plan of events, like my current exercise week, with recognizable goals and the steps to achieve them all drawn out, seems the best way to go for me.

Still, a look at a few choice items from the 2007 mystery list might be interesting:

Find a new job: This was the first item on the list. I didn't really begin looking in earnest until I started my career development training in April. Fortunately, this step only took about 3 months.

Lose 38 pounds by 12/31/07: The closest I came was about 14 pounds in June, when I was home most of the time and able to go to the gym whenever, as well as to adhere to a stricter feeding schedule than I had while I was in the city. At this point, I'm down about 8, owing to the cold blowing my exercise schedule late last week.

8 or more hours of sleep per night: Got a lot better at this after the end of the last job. By some miracle, my sleep schedule didn't creep forward as much as I thought it would during my layoff. During my last 3 months at the salt mine, I'd get maybe 6 tops, 3 on poker nights, because it didn't matter. Now, it tends to be around 7 to 8. I naturally arise at or around 5:00 now if I go to bed at 9:00, no small feat on either end.

Maintain a regular exercise regimen: 4 times weekly minimum: Became a solid feature of my time between jobs, slacked off a bit during the late summer, then I became disgusted with myself, wrote an angry rant and posted it for inspiration on my bathroom wall, and started daily visits in mid-November. Aside from the cold virus–related disruption, I've been a rock.

Keep a clean home; reduce or eliminate clutter, spare paper, old newspapers, and junk mail: Failed spectacularly after I brought home all my shit from the salt mine. I didn't dispose of or properly shelve any of those books or papers until late November. The newspapers waned as I stopped buying the Sunday Times and canceled my Wall Street Journal subscription (just stuck with reading it at work). I also bought a super-shredder to contend with the continued tide of junk mail. Still, there were times when I was greatly disgusted with the piles around the place, and I believe it inhibited my desire to entertain here, which is not fair to those friends who kindly host. I've succeeded in keeping the place major-event-level clean since the party on 12/8, and I intend to do so as long as I can.

Bring lunch and other work food from home as often as possible; no lunches in the city except for payday: I actually cut down to one lunch per week, and this didn't help with my habit of getting a bagel and Diet Coke for breakfast most days, but at least I saved $7–$12 per day, unlike my also soon-to-be-laid-off coworkers. I preserved the habit at the new place, even though I could drive home for lunch.

Eliminate caffeine: Now this was purely utopian. I had a whole little tapering-off regime along with this item, very industrious on paper no doubt, but it worked about as well as those that Burroughs instituted to get off heroin. The last time I am going to have the willpower to kick an addiction is during a work cutoff.

Write daily for 1 hour; post all relevant work to the blog: Though I did get more entries up this year, including my Lenten devotion, and I participated in a 100 Words month in October, I still could've done more. I take Dr. Pauly as my inspiration here; he puts in 2 or 3 hours of free writing per day, in addition to his column assignments, travel for work, poker coverage, and interviews, and if you compare the early days of his poker or personal sites to the rich and insightful posts he now produces, you can see every hour of work under the skin of his writing. It's not only the difference between Pauly's blog and a lot of other poker blogs; it's the difference between Pauly and a lot of other writers.

Spend at least 15 minutes per day outside, as weather allows: I like this one and I believe I did well with it, up until about the past month and a half. I found myself taking walks outside in Chelsea as the end of my work approached, both to get some sun on my face and lift the winter blues, to breathe unrecirculated air on my own time for a spell, and to remind myself that there was indeed a world outside that job. Once sprung, I tended to walk to the gym on many nice days, and to sit outside in the park or near my building. On fall weekends, when the weather was freakishly warm, you could find me with the newspaper and my radio, listening to football and breathing in springlike air without the allergens of May to plague me. At this job, I've tried to get outside and just stand there, away from the smokers, or to walk around the perimeter of our huge parking lot, and enjoy the free skies. All of this is an attempt to claim time as my own, outside, where our ancestors evolved, and place work in the comparatively narrow context where it belongs.

Some of the other goals are still relevant and perhaps worth pursuing this year. As I said, I'd do it visibly, in stages, not tucked away in an envelope. But if nothing else, seeing that envelope with my name on it each day did make me think that I should be doing "better," no matter what I was doing, and to find out what might comprise "better" in all my activities. So it was not entirely meritless.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Siege Interrupted by Sick Days

SECOND OF TWO SICK DAYS today. I hate being home and doing nothing. My ordinarily inviting apartment becomes a tomb after two days of quarantine, and the Internet is a grim hallway of stale content not designed to be viewed 1,000 times per day by a shut-in.

Worst of all is not going to the gym. My last visit was Wednesday morning, when I woke up with a scratchy throat that surely foreshadowed a cold. My nutrition intake for the previous four or five days had been scattered, so my muscles were a bit weaker than I would have liked. Going to the gym Thursday morning — by which point the cold had hit full force — was out of the question. Though it's not the most serious cold I've ever had (no real fever at all, little nasal congestion), it was still enough to knock me out for 12 hours or so between Wednesday and Thursday (aside from waking up briefly to call in sick). Indeed, I'm contemplating a nap right now.

This is my first stretch of sick time at the current job, and it couldn't have come at a worse time for the magazine. But I can't help that. Sick days are there to be taken when you're sick. People who go in ill are crazy. All you're gonna do is make others sick catch something worse yourself, do crappy work with little attention on anything besides your own miserable physical shape, or all of the above. I've shaken off a couple of run-down stretches where I successfully repelled others' travel-induced illnesses, but this time, there was no sense in gritting my teeth, going in sick, and struggling to do even a mediocre job for what might end up being a half day anyway.

Besides, I have an event for which I need to get better as soon as possible. Not just Christmas, which I shall spend with my parents. I got a call last night from Felix's best man, who said that the groom-to-be's bachelor party would be this coming Saturday. At this stage, it seems the monstrous neon chaos of Atlantic City will get the nod as venue. With any luck, all I'll be doing by that point is coughing out the last of the congestion and not picking up some grim virus from the casino chips. The next 12 hours will be critical in seeing how fit I am to indulge in stag duties this third time in 2007. Keep your fingers crossed — it's been a while since I placed any money at risk, and I've got the yen to joust with chance. Also like Moe Szyslak, to eat a steak the size of a toilet seat.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Five-Day Siege

HOME ON A MID-DECEMBER NIGHT, looking at my last full work week of the year, and it's gonna be a bear. And not one of those funny, tricycle-riding bears you wanna just take home and let live in your garage. No. Even if it looks like that type of bear, once you get this one home, it punches out your kid, rips the lock off your liquor cabinet, chugs your Johnnie Walker Blue, peels your car out of the driveway through the garage door, and eventually shows up on the 11:00 news being hosed off the side of a school bus after careening through a petting zoo.

Yeah, that type of week.

With one seat still open in our editorial staff, one of my stories a mere skeleton and in dire need of a rewrite, deferred days off being taken before they go stale but causing outages among the rest of the staff — including the art director (who, mercifully, survived last Monday's layoff) — and a looming, yet increasingly laughable deadline coming at the end of the week, which everyone knows will be bumped into the final week of the year, but which nobody wants to admit, this proves to be one of the squeakiest squeakers in the long history of squeakerdom. (Look it up. It's right next to w00t.)

At least I had a decent weekend to steel me for these rigors. I got some chores done and had a fine lunch at the northern Bergen haven for BBQ known as the Mason Jar, following this up with brewing a mighty mass of chili. Lunch and/or dinner for the next 2 weeks will be much simpler to assemble. Today, after the somewhat defanged nor'easter offered a modicum of hail-like snow and winds far less than expected, I availed myself of the weekend rail service recently instituted on the line through my town to attend my friend Bill's holiday party at his recently repainted condo in Hoboken.

For this, I actually left early, out of some masochistic urge to actually watch the Patriots manhandle the Jets up in Foxboro. I parked myself in front of a burger and, uncharacteristically, a beer, at a bar once reaching Hoboken. (I barely ever drink, especially when away from home, as I usually drive myself places.) This became two beers once the Jets began reverting to recent form. By the time I abandoned my stool, I — an infamous lightweight — was quite tipsy.

I threaded my way through the post-nor'easter Hoboken (barely any rain, and no ice, both far less than the weather genii foresaw) to Bill's place, where, as I said, I took in the paint job he'd delegated to his sister back in August. Very nice work, I have to say. He's been there for about 8 years, and I was stunned to see what a couple of careful color choices could do for a place. And he had more than one, too: a red entryway, light-blue kitchen, greens here and there, a touch of eggshell. It was like he moved and I didn't have to risk my bursae by lifting his couch. I can't paint this apartment with anything except water-based white pigment, so I have to live vicariously through others' design decisions. As for the party, it was a good time, featuring, as always from his place, a balcony view of Midtown Manhattan, which lit up enchantingly as night fell and the fog shrouding the taller buildings dispersed.

I scanned the glittering skyline for my old building, where I spent most of the last several years of my career. Decidedly nondescript, it was invisible amidst so many impressive edifices and shining Times Square attractions. I'd previously had a view, from a corner cube unaccountably given to my lowly self, spanning from the Statue of Liberty to Weehawken, with Hoboken and the great expanse of the Garden State as my horizon. From that cube, I could see Bill's condo building, and with the right optics, that very balcony on which I stood this early evening. I spent quite a number of moments — sometimes when coming in early or staying late to work on that beastly accounting title with the 48-hour turn — scanning the horizon or watching the Hudson roll unstoppably down to the harbor and wondering what I was going to do next, but not really having much of a push to try anything else. Not quite a designer, sort of an editor at one point at that firm, certainly not a writer, I was in a dangerous niche, where my expertise grew only slowly in any direction.

My company's move would take me from that vantage point, which I'm sure is now in the possession of one of the partners from the law firm that occupied the five floors below us and was creeping Borg-like through the remaining upper floors of the building. Does this person ever use the view for anything more than just putting the zap on easily impressed clients or colleagues? Does he or she ever just watch the river flow, the trees of Jersey stretch off into infinity, the way the land seems to roll back forever on a windy day when the smog is blown from the sky? Does this person reflect on how fortunate he or she is to have that position, and that it, like the view, is fleeting, and meaningless without realizing just what it took to get there . . . that it's better to walk away from a hateful job that offers you a breathtaking vista outside your window, but never permits you the time to look out at it?

Against this reality, having a rough schedule ahead, but one in which I get to write and see my work in print — even just as a few small items about pharmaceuticals, or buried in the context of making a rough narrative readable — where I can drive home in a quarter hour and have far more time to myself, or visit my parents and enjoy far more of their company in their later years — against this, having such a schedule doesn't seem so bad. One year, three years, five years from now, it's unlikely to make a difference, as long as I can return to what matters.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Axe Swings at Work, But Misses Me This Time

HOO-BOY, I'M OUT FOR two days, and I miss a minor massacre at work. The payroll was 18 people smaller when I returned to the desk today. Fortunately, I was not among them. I believe I've already discussed my "Fuck this, I'm going to Vegas" plan were I to be laid off twice in one year. The powers-that-be have until the end of this month to evoke this response from me. As badly as I'd love to get back to the Neon Havens, I'd much prefer to do so in the context of current employment.

This layoff was quite different than the one I endured. Without divulging too much, four teams were combined into two, leaving people who were redundant. The people no longer needed were called to a mystery meeting and given the news. While this was transpiring, the rest of the company was gathered in another conference room and told what was happening. They were therefore closeted while the first group was given 20 minutes to clear their desks and leave. I was unable to find out if they got any severance. Even if they did, compared to this, I made out like a bandit.

The dismissed folks were primarily editors or managing editors, but also included were two longtime art directors, including the chief AD. It calls to mind the study from the Wall Street Journal, and the post I wrote as a result, about the potential for replacement among graphic designers. Now we only have two ADs left, plus some junior designers and support from satellite offices. Though the chief AD was to spearhead the switch from Quark to InDesign next year, this seems to have been no defense.

We did get a pep talk about our own bright prospects, but it only steels in me the need to acquire as much training as I can, in case this is the first spasm of contractions in the coming year. Many believe 2008 will host a recession (or continue the one that we'll eventually realize began this year). No time like the present to keep making myself as versatile as possible. The company does have a forward attitude toward such training, though when I asked the person tasked with the pep talk about a course we'd had earlier in the year, and whether there would be any follow-up, they didn't recall the course. I do, and I will see what I can do to get as much relevant, difficult-to-outsource training and experience — to say nothing of connections with others who can find me work should this not work out — as I can cram into my softening brain. As good as this job currently is, my experience at the salt mine has kept me from saying that this one — or any job — is forever.

Monday, December 10, 2007

"I Love It When a Plan Comes Together"

FANS OF THE A-TEAM recognize that quote. I had occasion to use it early Sunday morning, shortly after the end of possibly my most successful holiday party yet.

Friday's day off proved very helpful in closing most of the remaining loose ends on my to-do sheet. (Amusingly, I found 2006's to-do list near the end of my cleaning maneuvers.) By Saturday, I only had to pick up a few perishables, retrieve the food, get ice, and wait for the gang to show. (I decided against waxing the kitchen floor.) The cold or whatever that had lurked on Thursday was nowhere to be seen on Saturday morning, and I hit the gym for 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer to launch the day right.

I was unable to find a suitable crudité tray at three of the food stores where I looked. The closest candidate, at the local A&P, featured carrots with that white, dried-out look, which led me to believe the other veggies in the tray were also a touch dessicated. I figured, "Screw this, I'll make my own," and filled a basket with (literally) raw materials.

From there, I returned home and did my last major bits of cleaning: scouring the bathroom, and vacuuming. This is where I had encountered the only wrinkle in all the planning. With Laurel and Hardy timing, my toilet paper dispenser fell off the wall and broke last week, which had led me to Bed Bath & Beyond to secure a roll stand. I'd figured that even if the landlord cemented it to the wall, it wouldn't have a chance to set by go-time, and if it fell off while someone was actually using it, I'd never hear the end of it. Easier just to pick up a new one and have the building manager take care of it at greater leisure. Once I'd done with the john, I gave the whole place a pass with the Hoover.

With only the catering to worry about, I felt relaxed yet a-tingle with anticipation. I also felt strong. I'd been running around for a day and a half doing just about everything, and I still felt fairly spry. This time last year, in awful shape, I was slumped on the couch, with an aching lower back (very uncharacteristic) and feet that felt like I'd run a marathon. By the time folks arrived, I was ready to go to sleep. This year was quite different. I had written on the melamine white board I keep on the inside of my apartment door, "HOLIDAY PARTY 12/8," and then drawn an arrow from the command, "BE FIT FOR THIS!!!" I don't know if I'd qualify as "fit," but I am more toned up than I was last year, with enough left in the tank to pick up the food and spend several more hours actually enjoying the company of my guests. The daily workouts and greater attention to food choices both paid off.

In my food pickup, I had a timely assist from my father. He had volunteered his services for transport, as well as for free ice from the machine in the Elks lodge to which he belongs. I took him up on both offers. The catering was done at the local outlet of Bensí, a chain of Italian restaurants in northern and central New Jersey. I'd gone to them last year, and they came through big: After a pipe rupture in their kitchen forced them to close the location where I'd placed the order, they forwarded my order to the next most local restaurant, which prepped and delivered the food with little time lost. This time around, everything was ready on target, and I got the trays onto the warming racks with time enough before zero hour to let the water hear up and the fragrance of Italian food to waft enticingly through my apartment.

For some reason, the list of residents disappeared from my building's vestibule, and a large group of my friends gathered there, putting their minds together on how to contact me. Ordinarily, one enters a code next to the resident's name, then asks to be buzzed in. But this sheet was absent, and attempts to get my land line number through directory assistance were fruitless (it's unpublished). So finally someone called up to my cellphone, and I gave them the code, which was duly entered. A minute later, I had the pleasure of admitting at least eight adults and two children at once. For someone like me, who spends the first few minutes of live party time wondering if anyone will show up, such a flood of friends was like a host's holiday dream.

The party immediately ensued. Folks caught up, mingled, swapped gifts, and of course, ate and drank. Several kind folks brought desserts, which grew in a sweet mound on the computer desk I had temporarily cleared of this very laptop to make way. I did my usual grab bag frenzy, letting guests who didn't have an Amazon package or other requested gift pick a mystery gift card from one of the tackiest bags I've ever seen in a card store. I had originally chosen this weekend to allow for the most likely date on which I would take part in the mighty Felix's bachelor party (most likely next weekend), but I believe it was also a little less stressful for folks, not being on one of the crazier shopping weekends, as 12/15 and 12/22 will be. Even if they had to drive past some of our more insane commerce centers, there's a chance they might not have had to stop at any of them.

As midnight neared, folks began to head homeward, and I reluctantly let them motor off. Closing that door after the last group was the saddest part of the entire evening, as it marked the longest possible time between this party and the next one. I reflected on all the joy and laughter I'd just experienced while tidying up, a task that proved quite simple — again, I credit exercising more as the reason I still had gas in the ol' tank.

I rate the evening as an unmitigated success. I had a great and large crowd of friends, good weather for this time of year, no cancelations, two delightful children as part of the mix, a ton of great desserts owing to the generosity of my guests, and lots of tasty leftovers to see me into the week. As much as I do to get the bones of these parties set up, it's only the arrival of my friends that breathes any life into them. I credit these dear people with the success of this year's gathering far more than anything I could highlight on my to-do list. I provide the venue; they make it an event.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Running Free of the Chicken Coop

I TOOK TODAY AND MONDAY off. I only got 5 days due to my signing on in the latter half of the year, and it took me a few months before I used the first one, partly because I was busy, but also because I didn't particularly notice being busy. Not a bad way to be. Not like the last days of the salt mine, where the only reason I didn't take my vacation days was to get cashola for them. Otherwise I would have saved them all up until mid-March and then taken them all, and the severance, with a hearty, Doppler-shifted "Fuck yoooooooooouuuu!"

At the current place, however, I've enjoyed being there. So I've been a comparative laggard in taking my time off. Now, of course, there's a mad sprint to expend it all on the part of the staff. Especially for my immediate boss and the art director; the former couldn't take any of her many days during the 4 months when they were down a person (the very gap I filled), and the latter spent the summer embroiled in the redesign of the magazine. He in particular will have worked only about a month by the time November and December both flutter into the cosmic recycle bin, due to his playing catch-up.

I have taken my Friday and Monday off with purpose. Please raise your hand if you've seen Goodfellas. Recall the music that began the "Sunday, May 11th, 1980" section? Yes, "Jump Into the Fire" by Harry Nilsson. "I was gonna be busy all day," as Henry Hill said. I had a legal pad full of tasks to accomplish for my holiday party tomorrow. No taping bags of dope to a drug mule's leg or selling guns to Robert De Niro or (sadly) making a shitload of Italian food. Though the Italian food will arrive tomorrow, courtesy of the catering crew of a local restaurant. No, in this case I had a number of places to hit across Bergen County, and the best way to accomplish this was to have the entire day to myself.

I had a sinking feeling, on Thursday, that I might lose the chance. I felt a bit run down over the course of the day, which was made worse by the long day I put in (I had to update the magazine's website before departing, which took until 7:00). Worse, one of my eyes seemed very red. I wondered if I was going to be the victim of a one-two punch of a cold and pinkeye. I beat a hasty retreat to bed once I finally got home.

My eye looked better the next day, and I went with glasses rather than contacts to give it a rest. I felt less fatigued, but on the off chance it was due to overtraining and getting a little less sleep than is optimal Wednesday night, I deferred the first-thing-in-the-morning exercise for the afternoon, my favored workout time back during my layoff. I would either do my Saturday 30-minute elliptical workout or go ahead and perform the leg and shoulder muscle exercises ordinarily slated for Friday.

Fortunately, once I got oatmeal and tea into my system, I felt much more chipper. I moved all loose paper and other junk to my bed. This cleaned up all surfaces in the rest of the apartment so I could get a rag or duster onto them. It would also force me to address all of this shit — bag it, file it, or shred it — before sleeping tonight. Nothing like an ultimatum.

Next, I composed a list of destinations, mostly in Paramus, to snag gift cards for my grab bag. I have a tradition, for those guests who want to exchange gifts but who neither have expressed a preference nor have an Amazon wish list, of putting together a clutch of gift certificates/cards and letting folks pick'em blind. Everyone loves a clean gamble.

Snow began falling as I traversed the area. I grabbed Chik-Fil-A at Paramus Park a few stops along the way. I didn't see any of the dozen or so police cars and the helicopter the radio had warned would be present at either Paramus Park or the Garden State Plaza, in a supposedly longstanding security plan that had nothing to do at all with the recent shootings at that Omaha, NE mall. So at least I was spared some tooth enamel at gritting my choppers at such an example of money-burning security theater.

I got home around 3:30 feeling well. My eye was still clearing up, and the worn-out feeling had long subsided, so I donned gym clothes and hit the club. The weight area was nearly dead, so I grabbed the opportunity of a well-paced workout and did my usual Friday work. This completed four weeks of the new program, with progressively (read as: slowly) better eating habits to go along with it, and this morning the payoff was a weight of 225. That's 15 pounds lighter than the beginning of the year. If I improve my diet further and stick to the gym plan, I might lose two or three more before New Year's. Of course, this is not something I can afford to stop: It's a lifelong need.

After finishing a strong workout (moved up my reps in all areas by a little), I returned to my lair and continued to clean. Also snagged a few decorations for the place as well. All that remains is vacuuming, waxing the kitchen floor, picking up the hot food, and waiting for this little place to fill up with friends.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Plowing Through the Snow

AS PREDICTED, WINTER ONCE again offered the NYC area a foretaste of its talents with a blanketing of snow this morning. Even with the dawn still some time off and my glasses on the nightstand, I could see the glow of new-fallen flakes on the lawn and tracks next to my building. With blades of grass still poking through the white, I knew it wasn't too deep, and wouldn't be too difficult to clean off my car. Certainly easier than the freezing rain and sleet predicted for later this evening. With the arrival time of this blight a big white question mark hanging over the land, I kept with the original plan and got out to the gym shortly after the open.

Another recitation of this gym routine will sicken all five or six of my regular readers, I'm sure, but it's important to me that I document my efforts here. I know that when summer returns, or even sooner, when snow far deeper than what we got today entombs New Jersey, it will be more difficult to sustain this rate of attendance. (Summer is tough because it takes me a long time to fall asleep in hot weather, and I won't be able to wake up as early.)

It amuses me how easily people at this gym get upset when pushed out of their own routines. When the spin class instructor is late, they mill about anxiously . . . instead of taking advantage of one of the many exercise options also available to them. Believe me, this is a well-stocked fitness outfit. I try to use a variety of cardiovascular machines, so if some are full up or out of order, I've at least got some experience with another device. I have to fight against the tendency to settle into ruts myself, and changing things up can keep your muscles and nerves guessing and ready for anything.

I'm usually very quiet at the gym. I see it as a workplace. I don't get caught up in conversations, drama, or any of that. I used to be a real sucker for that at previous workplaces, but I try to limit it now. The watercooler is for water. Likewise, I don't pay the club each month to go there and do anything but whip my doughy ass into shape. There were times during the last job when the morning gym visit was the high point of the day. I could control nearly everything that happened during that hour, whereas the rest of the day could go off the rails at any time. Now, things are much sweeter at job, but I still need the mini-vacation from everyone and everything that the gym represents. So: No cellphone, no chitchat about last night's dance-based reality show, no sympathy for whiners who don't want to wring every penny of value out of their membership dollars.

Sometimes I wonder, when a cluster of these types assembles around the spin area or the free weights (where I can't avoid them), if the club would take an extra $10 per month to give me a key and the alarm code so I could come in at 4:00 . . . and lock the door behind me.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Sprinting Toward Deadlines

I HATE TO DISGORGE week-in-review posts rather than sharing smaller items of interest during the week, but the job has been keeping me later due to the rush to press of the current issue. Also, I have been getting up at 5:00 to 5:30 a.m. successfully for the entire week to get to the gym before the rush, which causes my string to run out by about nine at night. I didn't even do too much to plan for the party, which will make this weekend a goatdance.

Let's start with Monday. As I described here, one of the team members on my magazine left that day. For breakfast, many of us brought in food. I snagged a cheese danish ring from the local bakery (which, by the way, I escaped without buying anything for myself). The managing editor was in the office that day, and took us all out for a goodbye lunch. This after we had been told the week before that we couldn't go out because the issue is late and we need to concentrate on it. The ME had said she would bring in sandwiches from the local joint, but when the day arrived, she seemed to remember this as a nebulous request that we arrange this. You might have picked up that we occasionally have to work around this person. Still beats the other job by a parsec, but a bit maddening when you need to expend the effort to out-think and anticipate. So we ended up burning extra time out eating lunches that put us to sleep in the afternoon, just when we needed to push hard on the issue and send it out the door.

I ended up staying about an extra hour four days of the five to get this done. Not worthy of a medal in the grand cosmic scheme of things. However, I did note the amount of extra time so I could take it back at a future time. Give nothing to an employer without receiving something tangible. Keep in mind that we are now down one person. My services are now even more in demand. It gives me leverage, at least until we fill that spot and the new person gets up to speed. You never like to look at things in this sort of a mercenary way, but fundamentally, unless you're self-employed, you're just an SSN in an Excel spreadsheet. The moment your financial liability (pay, benefits, training, equipment, etc.) no longer brings a company profit, you're expendable. That I have my fingers in a few crucial pies right now is comforting, but what I really need to do is develop skills that can't be outsourced.

One of these is writing. Foreign companies can compose Web pages, lay out text, even edit in a rudimentary fashion. They will never be as skilled a writer as a native with an ear for the subtleties of the language and an eye on the marketplace. When I started at the new place, I was given a writing assignment within days. I had to interview a source, flesh out her proposal into an actual article, and write it in the magazine's idiom and with the available column inches in mind. I succeeded in all three areas. But it's just a start.

With the departure of my coworker, comes the chance to do more writing of this kind. I've been composing short report-type items for columns that contain industry updates for our specialist readership. It keeps my hand moving. I've also had the privilege of heavily editing or rewriting some of our more personal columns, reminiscences from people about their profession: moments that defined their careers, inspirations that might resonate for others, success stories, and the like. These folks tend not to be writers, and the pieces need a good edit at minimum. I've been careful to be sensitive with them, though, because you don't want to bruise someone's treasured memories in the process of crafting them structurally into a more potent piece of writing. I believe I'm succeeding at that; the contributors have been strongly positive over how I've polished their work. I've done the same for a new fitness columnist whose work we've been running. Though there is less potential emotion wrapped up in each piece, and she's more practiced as a writer than the folks I just mentioned, it's still someone else's work, and I've endeavored to let her passion shine through any stylistic or grammatical revisions I've had to make.

None of these pieces carry my byline, however. I want to produce another piece like my first one, or more if possible, so I can show future employers or possible providers of freelance-work my clips. I recall that in my career exercise, I envisioned being a bylined writer. Perhaps it's not as farfetched as I thought it was, upon writing it, back in April. It's still an impressive list of goals.

Now that I think of it, perhaps this exposure to amateur writing, and the work needed to improve it, is an education in how to produce copy that editors will seek out because it spares them the effort of polishing it. Line up three equally qualified freelance creatives before a deadline-haunted editor. Two produce work that needs tweaking or refinement. One hits the marks nearly every time. Who has the edge for future business from this stressed editor? I recall the very first meeting I had with the career counselor, my first workday of joblessness, in which he said our job was to find ways to convince rich people that giving us money makes their lives easier. The statement as phrased struck me then as a touch "classist," but I understood him to intend rich as "able to purchase your goods, services, or expertise." Then as now, it also strikes me as true.

Back to last week. We all said a regretful "see you later" to our departing coworker. Her office is close by, and two former employees of my company are there and still in close contact with folks at their former workplace, so future group lunches are in the offing. Plus we exchanged email addresses, so I can continue to call upon her experience and good spirits as the months at my current place, I hope, become at least a year or two.

Tuesday through Thursday were blurs of fitting copy, writing last-minute pieces, and getting them down to the artist before having them go through the approval process. Copy was still being approved on Wednesday, and even on Thursday, I had to compose and stick in one more small (100-word) item because the ME thought we needed more in one column. I also secretly wrote a second short piece in case this one didn't work out. (I can use it next issue, though.) This was the craziest schedule since we redesigned the magazine in September. I am told we used to have considerably more time to assemble issues, and I'm not sure how we might reverse the current just-in-time trend, what with one seat unfilled now. I barely have time to plot out items for future issues while racing through the copy for the current ones. I'm sure there's some way to render that state of affairs into a positive resume entry. I did manage to make up a couple of schedules for myself, so pieces get produced and sent around for approval at regular intervals. Such a schedule has been used some months before my arrival, but when they were down one person (sound familiar?) it went off course. I hope to avoid that fate by structuring the production of copy very rigidly, so I don't have to hustle as much and potentially trip while sprinting toward the finish and wreck a deadline. Further.

The ME was in the office through Wednesday before returning to Maryland. We spent Thursday sending PDFs to prepress and approving them via an online proofing system. My immediate supervisor was out taking a much-needed day off, and our other editor was working from home to push a late piece out, so in contrast to the rest of the week, Friday was far more relaxed. My task that day was to compose a spreadsheet of all the articles for the outsourcing folks to make our Quark docs into Internet files. Next week, I will spend two days working on the Website reviewing this work and approving or tinkering with it, then make the site live. My first couple of trips through this process reminded of the last bit of Star Trek II, when Spock has uncorked the Enterprise's reactor and is diddling with its innards while getting a gamma-ray facial. I had instructions for what to, and they seemed to make sense, but Jeebus, do they really want me noodling around the front page only 2 months into my stay? Don't they know I know nothing? Evidently I knew enough, as the process worked, and the calls for assistance I've had to make during the procedure have been getting less frequent.

The only snag is that this sheet is now being reviewed by the ME, who has two other whole magazines to work on in addition to ours. Last time, she took 2½ days to approve it, sending it back at the useless time of 4:00 on a Friday. How do I forward this to the next guy and say with a straight face, "Can you get this out before you go?" I've repeatedly stressed that I will be out of the office (and unlike her, not working while out) next Friday and Monday, so I hope this lights the right kind of fire under her progress.

The exercise plan has been progressing without flaw. When I weighed myself Monday morning, after the siege of Thanksgiving calories, I was gratified to see I had lost a pound since the pre-holiday weigh-in. No small feat, what with my diabolical mother replenishing the M&M dish each time I came back to their house. (She has sequestered several tons of holiday M&Ms in a bag of holding.) I followed the same schedule this week, hitting the gym slightly late only on Wednesday, and only because I decided to take some of the time I'd been spending at work back and get in a half hour late. I regretted it: The gym was significantly more populated. Best to arrive at five. I cannot argue with the results.

I didn't even have to decide whether to play cards or exercise. Either the game didn't roll, or I was left off the invite list for this week. I'd said last Saturday afternoon that I'd play in the usual game, which hadn't rolled Thursday due to the holiday, but by the evening, I was exhausted, so I canceled. The host sounded pissed, but he only had six people to begin with, and he has an unrealistic sense of optimism during busy weekends like this one when he tries to assemble an off-schedule game. One of the players who'd committed did not want to play if we only had five players, which my cancellation caused, but I refuse to play if I'm too tired to make good decisions, and I don't much care for short tables myself. Besides, I was (and still am) mulling a trip to Atlantic City on an upcoming weekend (or may be going there as part of a bachelor party; still in flux at this point). Why play tired, at a short game where the blinds are gonna peck me to death like an insistent duck, with some of the superior players in the gang, when I can just wait until another Thursday or play against certified mongoloids at AC or Foxwoods?

The game might actually be slowing down. Full tables have been less common. As I mentioned in my last post, losses have caused some of our regulars to call a temporary or permanent halt. The host has not grasped the power of restraint, in that he has sometimes hosted two or even three times in a week, which accelerates whatever win–loss trends are present in a group. He needs a little help with impulse control (which admittedly proves profitable at the table sometimes). My own impulse-control problems mostly have resulted in me being a fatass. My job now is to reverse this trend. The cards will come when they come, and they'll be sweeter when they do. If I put my ass in a seat after a long drought of no play, and I've gotta wait an hour for a playable hand, so be it. I'll wait. Let the losers toss chips in on every marginal holding just because they haven't seen a pocket pair all day.

For that matter, let the losers eat all of the holiday sweets that will roll into the office between now and 2008. I've got three scheduled binges: the company party, my own, and Christmas. Outside of them, I will rein in my impulses and enter the new year feeling better than ever.

Today brings a binge of cleaning and party prep. And maybe a little food shopping too: Tomorrow is supposed to be a genuinely foul, wintry day. Good for staying in and writing some Christmas cards while brewing chili and watching the local football teams founder. With the bright sky beckoning me into the cold afternoon, I will get my ass in gear and enjoy being my own boss for a couple of days.