Friday, February 22, 2008

Fill in the Blanks: Politics Edition

I CAME ACROSS THIS QUOTE from The New York Times. With a couple of key identifiers blanked out, can you tell me who wrote this and approximately when? No Googling, now!
For now, we should make every effort to look at the bright side of the [ . . . ] Administration. It has been a failure of such monumental proportions that political apathy is no longer considered fashionable, or even safe, among millions of poerple who only two years ago thought that anybody who disagreed openly with "the Government" was either paranoid or subversive. Political candidates in [ . . . ], at least, are going to have to deal with an angry, disillusioned electorate that is not likely to settle for flag-waving and pompous bullshit.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Requiem for OTB in New York?

I'M NOT SURE HOW THEY managed this, but New York State's Off-Track Betting Corporation, set up in the 1970s to manage horse race wagering in and around NYC, may shut down in mid-June because it has achieved the dubious distinction of running a money-losing bookmaking operation.

My grandfather is probably cursing in his grave.

I know nothing about the art of handicapping Thoroughbreds, but my maternal grandfather had the touch. For a Hell-fearing Irish Catholic who survived the Depression, he had no qualms about betting on cards or the ponies. Before OTB, he would study the Daily Racing Form and call my "aunt" Lizzie to transmit bets to the bookie who lived on her apartment building's ground floor. The parlors opened just in time for his retirement, and he enjoyed his trips to the Castle Hill or Parkchester offices in the Bronx, even if they took a bigger bite out of his not infrequent exacta and daily double hits via the state-run pari-mutuel system.

Evidently, this vig was not enough to keep OTB solvent. New York's experiment in taking the race-betting business from the city's bookies and the Mob could end, barring sale of the operation to another manager or a renegotiation of the profit split among the city, state, and the association that runs NYC's tracks. And don't think the Mafia won't welcome the extra business. Hell, they never stopped booking race bets, OTB or not. Via a guy in my poker game, I could reach a bookie within two phone calls if I wanted to get some money down without hauling my ass over to the Meadowlands or into Manhattan.

Sadly, any horse betting on my part is strictly gonna be for fun and small potatoes. My grandfather slipped off to the big OTB parlor in the sky before passing along any of his handicapping secrets. I've only ever thought about betting on a horse when I worked in the city, and could walk two blocks to an office in Midtown to make a nominal bet on the odds leader during one of the Triple Crown races. I did experiment one year with boxing a couple of horses together, which, if I am correctly recalling the details, allows one to win, at a reduced rate, no matter what order your horses come up, as long as you pay for all the potential bets in that combo. I lacked the deep understanding to seal that sort of deal, and lost the $12 or so it cost me to conduct the experiment.

I have to verify the testimony of several commenters in this City Room piece: The environment and crowd at OTB offices is unique. I recall wandering through the crowd of regulars clustered outside the Midtown office, all sucking down cigarettes between races or while reading a Racing Form. Inside, sheets covered one wall, each one listing the individual races and horses at tracks across the country. The decor and seating was the same batch-bought low-bid generic quality as you'd find in a DMV office. Old TVs — no flat screens for this venerable parlor — hung from the ceilings or were set in the walls, so wherever you looked you could watch your financial fate unfold. And of course, dozens of bettors, slouching or sitting with foot-bobbing tension in their seats, chatting like Talmudic touts about some horse's prospects, waiting in line to make or cash in on a bet, from all realms of city life, were there to strive against the odds, play a hunch, or construct some elaborate system of bets across several races to bring home the long green.

Still, with comfy horse parlors in the Connecticut casinos, the Borgata in AC, and of course sharing the same space as the sports books in far greater luxury in Las Vegas, a few hours of two-buck longshots might be a nice side dish to a long day of poker or craps degeneracy with the gang. Just a bummer that I would have to travel so far to do so. As much as it might be worth funding New York's social services via some more reliable and transparent method, it will be a shame, and a piece of city history lost, should the green-and-white OTB signs cross their final finish line this coming June.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Building a Reputation a Second Time

A THOUGHT JUST OCCURRED TO me regarding the workplace into which I'll walk tomorrow.

With each of the departures in the past 3 months, a piece of the company's institutional knowledge of me has disappeared. I'm not talking about my skills and duties. I mean what the company knows about my personality, interests, work style, and the other sorts of facets someone's only going to absorb after extended interaction with me.

Aside from our artist (with whom I've enjoyed the same sort of personal conversations and detailed work discussions as I have with the three folks who've left) and my managing editor (with whom I communicate in techno-stutters in emails and every three weeks or so in our office, and even then I filter myself), tomorrow I will feel like I'm entering a neutron-bombed city.

I guess this isn't unique, considering other departments at countless other companies have dissolved like mine has, leaving only one or two veterans or wired-in survivors to tell the tales of the earlier generations. It's the first time it's happened to me, though. It offers a rare second chance to define myself again.

Randomize Checklist Items for Better Compliance?

I WAS DELETING OLD EMAIL yesterday, when I found an idea I'd conceived at my last job. See if this makes any sense.

Before we sent finished newsletter PDFs to the printer, I and my fellow page monkeys would circulate a printout of the job with an approval sheet. The sheet had three checklists, each containing slightly different items (but always in the same order), so the newsletter editor, design manager, and the designer could review and sign off on the job . . . about nine questions for each person.

I noticed that the editors tended just to breeze through the questions. One barely every looked at the job itself; she just checked off the items and signed the bottom. I felt compelled to review those items for real myself on those few occasions I had to get her approval for jobs. But it got me to thinking:

Repeat users of any sort of checklist eventually memorize the order of the items, if not the letter. This can foster complacency, especially with rush or multiple jobs to review. Why not have as many forms as there are checklist items, each with a different item sequence?

This would force folks to read the list more closely. Also, by breaking up the usual sequence of examination for a publication, they might catch errors that a lockstep front-to-back review — the quality of which already may be under siege by stress, distractions, or ennui — would neglect. Instead of starting with the volume and issue numbers on the cover, then the cover table of contents, then the company logo, and so forth, force folks into the middle of the book, then the back, and from there to wherever, so the rhythm of following the normal sequence has no chance to charm someone into false security.

I suspect there's a minimum amount of questions for which any sort of randomization would work. With only three items, there's no point in scrambling them. Even with eight or nine, sharper or idler minds would eventually notice the patterns and perhaps unconsciously anticipate the next item. But folks like the person I mentioned above who sign without reading might be jarred into paying attention, or at least be held more accountable for neglect-born errors.

Never had the chance to try it at the last place, and we don't have such a final-signoff checklist at the current shop. I'll file it away for the next place if they need such a boost to the system.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Machinations and Contemplations


Let's say you work in publishing as the most recently hired staff member of a particular periodical. You don't know everything about your magazine by any stretch, but you've already done well in a few early tests that show you have promise and learn quickly.

Over the past three months, three of the five staffers who share the editing duties have left: a specialty editor with expertise in your magazine's subject matter and audience; your immediate boss, the site manager for the pub; and the other editor, who also has journalism experience. The fifth member of the team, the managing editor (ME), is part of the reason the other three have left. (All three are now at the same company, in the same field but catering to a different audience therein.)

Based on information from one of the departing editors and the ME, you know your job is secure, or at least as secure as it gets in a company that already has laid people off and now plans to cut the rent by shrinking into half the current office space. The readership seems devoted to the publication, and you've received technical and professional training in the next steps the company wants to take to stay competitive

You have just survived an extremely harried onpress cycle normally accomplished by two people. You demonstrated some good management and delegation skills in cutting just the right corners and rerouting individual tasks to get the pub out. Ordinarily, your departed boss would have directed the typesetting, proofreading, ME approval, and prepress work, with you helping her continuously to route or verify each element along the way in the manner of an ink-stained Igor. Instead, you fulfilled both roles and kept the pub from slipping past its last-ditch deadline, despite a balky computer and the midweek illness of your staff artist/designer forcing you to seek alternatives for both.

Now, your former coworkers have been reminding you to send them a resume so you can jump aboard. This seems to be what they expect. To underscore this, a fourth person from your company — a former staffer on your pub but who had been working for another magazine — has also given notice and will sign on with this rival shop. You're not getting any direct pressure, but there seems to be an assumption that you see the ME and the company as a whole in the same light they do, and will soon get as fed up as they did.

Let us add that you get a little leery of folks who expect you to join a set frame of mind; that you realize you fall easily into groupthink and consider it one of your faults; that you in fact sometimes go to perverse lengths to disappoint expectations like this, even when you know they might have a nucleus of truth. So you have to work to find your true motivations in situations like this before either jumping to conclusions or being deliberately contrary against your benefit.

Now, let's say you have less of a history with the company than your former coworkers, have no idea of what the "glory days" might have been, and believe that they are gilding them somewhat. You've met the previous ME (who always seems to get the upper hand in esteem vs. the current ME according to your old workmates) and read her memos, and feel that she may have been a truly unpleasant person to work with. She also works at this other company. Further, you don't perceive the belt-tightening and reductions in schedule wiggle-room, freelancer budget, and other previous features of your current company to be any different than those transpiring across the publishing industry . . . which invalidates another couple of your former mates' criticisms. You see these changes as challenging, but also as challenges, possibly to be circumvented successfully.

In short, not only are you thinking of at least making a medium-term go at assisting in the reconstruction of the department, but you're mulling an application for your boss's job.

One downside presents itself: You hate training. You'd much rather be independent or at least not a manager. You have mixed memories of your last bout of running a staff. Notably, you left your first job because administrative and educational duties took you away from performing the position's core duties, which you missed.

Another deficiency is that you weren't really fully trained by the time your boss left. There were a couple of key areas in which you either never got trained, or were deemed not to need familiarity, because your other coworkers were managing them. Suddenly these people are gone, in part because they burned out on these duties.

But you're beginning to perceive how they allowed themselves to get so burned out, how they didn't stand up for their need to focus on what they were hired to do by demanding of a relatively new and eager-to-please ME the extra assistance they needed after their staff was pared back more than a year ago. You feel that you'd succeed a little better at such self-advocacy, either as a manager or merely in your current position, because – let's face it — in the short term they're stuck with you and have no choice but to listen if you need to push back.

Moreover, let's say you feel that if you can match the passion of your readers for the magazine and their profession with an equal effort to rebuild the masthead and write some fine copy, and ease your ME past some of her crazier habits — which aren't deliberately pejorative when it comes down to it — you might be able to achieve something great for the business and your own career . . . the primary constituency, as always, being your own sweet ass.

And let's also say that the worst thing that happens if you do secure your boss's job, and then decide against staying, is that you have a higher title and salary for the next employer to match.

Let's sum up this thought-experiment by saying that you have to hand in a self-review for an annual performance assessment this Friday. Like many reviews, it has a category for "future development and goals."

What might you do?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Checking Into the Nostalgia Suite at Caesars


I was in Atlantic City, at Caesars, late at night. I knew it was either the second or third leg of the Triple Crown earlier that day, which I hadn't imagined would result in a huge crowd, but it had. Even in the early morning, the casino and front desk were seething with well-dressed couples and groups.

It actually looked more like the sort of crowd that shows up for a big boxing match at the MGM Grand in Vegas: expensive suits on the men and even pricier but far skimpier outfits on the women; happy clusters of drunk LA gamblers weaving along, laughing at some in-joke; or VIPs trailing entourages or following burly private security goons. I'd no idea the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes could generate such a turnout at an AC casino. They do have race books, but they're nowhere near as plush as the full-scale sportsbooks on the Vegas Strip. My guess was that — as with Funny Cide or Smarty Jones — one horse had crushed the first two races and had been poised to win the whole damn thing. And judging from the happy crowd, he had sealed the deal.

I would've been at Caesars for the poker, not the ponies, but I got the feeling that I hadn't played yet. I must've headed down to AC on a hunch, based on the potential for a massive influx of fish due to the race. I'd brought my usual backpack of gear: a couple of books, gum, toothbrush and paste, contact-lens drops, some healthful snacks, journal and pens, spare potables, and a fresh T-shirt. (These trips tend to be daylong affairs.) I was heading toward the front desk to ask, perhaps vainly, if they had any rooms for the night . . . if not there, then at a sister Harrah's property.

I asked a female clerk that very question, sliding my Harrah's card across the desk. She frowned in concentration and skepticism, saying, "I don't know, this weekend. . . " while she typed. I watched people cross the marble lobby floor (which the real Caesars AC may or may not have; I don't recall) toward a hundred different destinatons, until I heard the clerk say, "Okay, I found you a room, you're all set!" She returned my Harrah's card on top of a printed register sheet, along with a pen.

Somehow, my Harrah's account had been linked, in the manner of Amazon's 1-Click option, to a credit card, and I was booked in before I had the chance to decide whether I wanted it or not. What the hell, I figured, it'll just be tougher to get a place to sleep later. I signed the form and accepted a door card. It was then that I recalled that I hadn't packed a new set of contacts or, uncharacteristically, my glasses. I figured I would have to make do by rehydrating with eye drops.

Unlike a lot of dreams in which I am in a large, multilevel building, I didn't spend hours wandering through Caesars's endless bowels. I have indeed had such a casino-based no-escape dream, in 1995 shortly after my first-ever trip to a gambling palace, in which I hiked through just about every public and staff-only section of some AC casino before escaping to the Boardwalk. Then a midget stole my jackpot check after the one and only Felix screwed up countersigning it three times. This time, though I headed directly to my room, high up in the property judging by the view from the window.

The room still needed to be cleaned up from the last guest: unmade bed, brimming trashcans, glasses and bottles on the dresser, and so forth. I figured I could always call down to expedite the makeup process. First I wanted to see the view. In this version of Caesars, a wing of the hotel extended onto the pier that, in the real world, stretches out from the property over the beach and Atlantic, and now supports a New Jersey branch of the Vegas Forum Shops. My room faced north, and from this high room I had a commanding nighttime view of the hotel-casinos glittering up the Boardwalk.

I then began to notice that the hotel room fittings really didn't look like the stock, mass-purchased furniture you usually find in these places. The king-size bed was topped (or, in this case, strewn) with the sort of comforter and sheets you might have at home, not the usual bulletproof bed cover purchased 20 years ago and maybe laundered annually. The furniture was more unique in design, too.

When I walked past the bathroom into the rest of the suite, I easily could have been entering someone's den. It was definitely more like someone's home, rather than a hotel room. The furniture looked about 30 years old and seemed to have been chosen by someone with tastes formed considerably before that. The feeling that I was in the home of a person my parents' age was underscored by the collectibles arrayed on wooden racks on the northern wall. (Which, like all the walls in this room, was wood paneled, not wallpapered.) Scores of small glass and porcelain figurines, knickknacks, and souvenirs occupied the entire wall on dark-wood shelving, all free of dust.

It was while scrutinizing this startling, noncontextual collection that I woke up. For explaining that last twist, I got nothin'.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

How I Survived a Hell Week

THIS WAS A ROUGH WEEK at work, but I have survived it, perhaps even prospered because of it. Time will have to tell . . . most of which I plan to spend sleeping this week off.

With the excitement of wargaming at Amy and Ratatosk's and a Super Bowl win for the Giants under my belt, I was about as ready as I could be for the task of getting the magazine on press. I had been assigned to a software training class on Monday some months ago. Good topic, piss-poor timing. (I later learned the class was being given all week, and I could've deferred this until the magazine was put to bed. That cost me some tooth enamel.) The training did give the IT guys a chance to try and get either my or my supervisor's abandoned computer up to speed on displaying typefaces correctly. I was hoping to emerge from the class to find a functional system and to get this issue done and gone. I mostly had recovered from the shock of learning, the previous Friday morning, that the other editor would be leaving the company, but I'd barely been functional through that afternoon, so I needed to double-time it on the remaining items on my big page-status chart.

When I logged into email Monday morning before training, I found a note in which the troublesome managing editor (hereinafter ME) was making promises to the printer liaison that we'd be able to get the book out by Tuesday evening. No fucking way. I still had to edit and write a few pieces, because I had spent the previous workdays pushing anything already in proofs as far to being onpress as I could. (We send individual pages and runs of pages to prepress as we finish them, rather than sending one huge PDF produced in a single DTP document.) With me as the only person who could move proofs, my edit had to sit idle.

I sent (after several rewrites to preserve future employment) a note laying out for the managing editor how this was an impossible deadline, what with my heading into training and thus unable to polish off my remaining editing, to say nothing of approving typeset copy. Making these sort of promises without consulting those who would actually execute them has been one of the biggest complaints my departed or departing coworkers have had with the ME. It stems from her being remote (based in the Mid-Atlantic region) and passive (too ready to oblige superiors or outside contacts and too scared to take risks or piss off her subordinates) When she does this, one of us has had to contact her frantically to inform her of conditions on the ground and to propose a revised, realistic plan . . . and to urge her to issue a retraction to whoever she made the original promises. The sick thing is that the ME always yields to this pressure. One of my former coworkers tried to train her away from this behavior; finding it impossible, and sick of working around her to do good journalism, she left.

True to form, after reading my email, the ME reversed herself without objection and polled the staff about how a Friday-noon deadline would work. I immediately endorsed it. She also asked if my fellow editor could possibly help in any way. I realized that she could do an edit on one of my remaining pieces while I was engulfed in training, so I asked the editor, who was happy to help and got to work.

She had the piece edited by the end of the day, but my computer was still not showing signs of cooperating. IT wanted to gut an old Mac and install new memory into my former boss's system to make it work faster. (My own font problems went back to my date of hire as well and crop up now and again, never having been solved permanently.) This provided some backhanded satisfaction, as my boss had complained for months about this slow, buggy box, and now, when it was needed, it was biting them in the ass. Schadenfreude had to take a back seat to progress, though, and as I left Monday night, I wondered if I was going to come back to the IT equivalent of an operating theater, with the guts of several Macs strewn about the cube, and both techs elbows deep in the patient, trying to coax life back in with the right combo of parts and luck.

I began Tuesday with a visit to the gym and a trip to the polls for Super Duper Tuesday, to at least start the day with two positive moves forward, in my personal life if not at work. Wise choice. Neither computer was working 100% when I got there. I usually try not to get emotionally involved when I can't work due to technical issues. At my last two jobs, I often found it tough to suppress extreme rage and frustration when a dead computer or balky software ground my progress to a halt. I finally learned to view these moments as liberation . . . an ironclad excuse to live my life and feel no tie to labor. I took some of my most pleasant walks through NYC during such moments at my last job. Why grow enraged over shit I can't fix?

But that Tuesday morning — with all of the responsibility for closing the issue channeling through me, with no way to do my work, and a fixed deadline to which I'd consented looming — when the IT guy, my remaining co-editor, and a graphic designer who works with our artist all came to my cube to ask how I would proceed, I came perilously close to letting loose a Führerbunker-style rant on how truly fucked up the entire situation was.

I instead did the opposite: I knew if I raised my voice, not only would it solve nothing, I wouldn't be able to stop until someone either knocked me out or I had a stroke. So I all but whispered my thoughts on what we could do to get things moving. I asked the graphic designer (who would provide the insight into the font-management software the IT guy lacked) to take a look at my system and see if she could get the typefaces working permanently. I requested that my fellow editor send the piece she'd polished to the author for approval. I then laid out for them what I planned to do for the remaining parts of the issue once I was able to work on my computer again. At that point, I got up and took a walk around the parking lot to let everyone work and just get the hell away from the situation.

The graphic designer is the hero of the story, because she got my font-management software working permanently, and I was able to work in Quark for the rest of the week without a single glitch. She also stepped up when the artist succumbed to the flu midweek and did all the prepress prep on our side he ordinarily would do. Once my computer was working, I moved decisively through the remaining page proofs, completed my editing, laid in the last text, and sent the final pages to prepress by the deadline on Friday. I did break my 2008 rule about not staying late or coming in early by arriving at the office on Thursday at 6:45 a.m., which paid off handsomely, and for which I compensated by vegging during the bulk of Friday afternoon after the issue went out. So the time balance sheet is even.

I can't say the same about my fitness level. I had to skip Thursday and Friday's gym visits (both lifting days), and my nutrition was abhorrent. Tuesday night, I succumbed to fatigue at Friendly's for diner-style food and a sundae. About the only highlight of the week was lunch on Friday, when I and the remaining edit and design staff took my departing partner out to lunch. When a bacon cheeseburger with fries is the nutritional highlight of your week, it's time to get control of your eating habits. This week's utter imbalance just spilled out of the workplace and hit just about everything else in my life, and although I know I can get back on track and recover the gains I'd made over the previous couple of weeks, it ticks me off to have to do so.

The sad irony is that, having carried this task out successfully under pressure, I more or less demonstrated my qualifications for my boss's position. It's still open, though I don't know if we've gotten any bites for it. I think the other folks who've left my department expect me to follow them.

Now, I must say that once we got things moving on Tuesday, the ME was nothing but supportive until the issue got out the door. She even put together one of the last pages to spell me while I completed some other tasks. She never tried to tell higher-ups we'd be done sooner, or to ask me questions about anything that didn't pertain to the issue and the deadline. I was left to concentrate solely on that goal. When I got a moment to compare this headlong rush to the finish with previous ones, I noticed I did far less complaining about the circumstances I found myself in than my former boss did. She used to come in a little late if the ME had thrown too many curves at her the previous day; and during schedule crunches, I'd see her speaking to one of the two other editors about how impossible she saw the situation, and how our ME's predecessor had been so much better, and how the ME didn't speak up to prevent the firing of the intern we apparently had to handle common paper flow, etc., etc. . . .

It was a bit of a revelation. I guess being in the thick of it during the fall, and especially when my boss's frustration rose after our clinical editor left, gave me a touch of Stockholm syndrome, which made such a conclusion tougher to reach. Funny that it emerged only after going through the fire. Maybe calling the shots alone was the key. I knew ranting about things on Tuesday morning would fix nothing, so I didn't bitch about what everyone already knew. Though I did touch base with associated folks in the office who knew the situation, I did so just to get out of my cube for 5 minutes and to brief them, not to spend a half hour complaining, only to feel pressured to make this time up after hours. Instead, I just let them know I was making progress, that the deadline was still Friday at noon in case anyone asked, and that I'd ask for help if I got in a jam. Then I let them get back to what they were doing.

At my last job, I was familiar with the challenge of a regularly scheduled crazy schedule. From 9/27/05:
For 3 years, I was the designer on a twice-monthly accounting newsletter with a 2-day turnaround. To get it on press by deadline, I had to come in early, stay late, or both. It was also packed with charts and intricate tables, many of which needed to be crafted from scratch. I would receive files, set all else on my desk aside, typeset like a maniac, and swap proofs and corrections in a frenzy of haste and tension to hit that press time. I crafted pie charts before the sun flared up the glass-and-steel skin of Manhattan. I cursed at a balky computer in an echoing empty office while twilight spread ouside my window. I watched coffee carts open for business in the morning and greeted cleaning staff in the evening. Amid office parties, I put on headphones and blocked out the bleating of my co-workers as I turned poorly formatted Excel tables into well-groomed columns of data. No oversight, no submitting it to my bosses to inspect before press, no contact with my fellow designers, just me, a pile of text, and a tight deadline.
I suspect this sort of trial granted me the skill this week to cut all bullshit and focus on the finish, two things my boss seemed unwilling to do. The question is, can I succeed where my former workmates didn't in making my workplace serve me while putting out an admirable product? Would it be more worth it in the role of my former boss?

Some things to think about while restoring myself at the gym later today. I just don't think the move to that company that seems to be siphoning off my coworkers should be as kneejerk as they seem to think it would be.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Plea for the Nominating Conventions

WITH SUPER DUPER TUESDAY PAST (and with it, my mental association of that neologism with a blowout sale at an automall), it's time to look forward, past the remaining knife fights among the candidates, to the nominating conventions. There has been chatter from the media about whether there might be one or two "brokered conventions."

I think the only reason we hear this discussion is because we've become accustomed to highly stage-managed coronations every four summers, rather than the rollicking, messy spectacles of past election years. The 2004 conventions were particularly scripted, with an incumbent Republican and a Democrat who had sewn up the nomination early in the cycle. All that remained was a parade of party bigwigs to say the more extreme things the candidates themselves wouldn't even dream of uttering, for fear of driving off independent voters with longer-than-average memories. As for the scene outside, the aggressive suppression of protesters in New York, and the herding of demonstrators in Boston into "free speech zones" (an odious term in a putative democracy), shows how little the parties wanted outside events to influence their royal weddings. (Returning that sentiment, I spent most of the week during the Republican occupation of New York in New Jersey.)

I think the bigwigs in the party hierarchy, particularly those of a certain vintage among the Democratic leadership, have a permanent scar on their memories: the 1968 Democratic Convention. Antiwar protests in the streets, widespread cynicism after the presumptive leader was assassinated, and the effective abdication of the incumbent. Add the fact that it was set in a city controlled by the Daley machine, where that mayor was so confident that he'd be able to dominate the proceedings that he got away with calling Senator Abe Ribicoff a "Jew motherfucker" on the convention floor.

Then there was the deathmarch of the 1972 Democratic Convention, extensively covered in Hunter S. Thompson's epic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. Four years after the Chicago debacle, the waning Democratic machine hacks teamed up with organized labor to oppose the upstart McGovern forces from representing the party against a seemingly vulnerable Nixon. Intricate parliamentary tactics were necessary to gauge just how much of a chance the McGovern leadership had of capturing a nomination on the first ballot. Then there was a classic back-room scrum to choose a vice presidental candidate, which gave way to the disastrous "Eagleton affair," in which McGovern was obliged to distance himself from a vice-presidential designate who hid a past of alcoholism and electroshock from the very folks who put him on the ticket.

There has to be some middle ground between the prom nights the conventions have become, and the all-out fixer-vs.-fatcat fistfights they once were. Surely the networks would prefer the former. If they know they can cut away from speakers of lesser interest, or that the whole shebang will wrap in time for a late news segment, they don't have to worry about losing ratings or getting mail from cranks who miss their regular programming. Popular voting for primary candidates and delegates should be easy for us all, but choosing a nominee and a platform ought to be deliberate, public, and done with the country's best interests in mind . . . not by settling scores or attacking the other party through endless nomination speeches. I suspect this is too much for the current cultural attention span.

As a sidelight, I am glad the early bunching of primaries yesterday didn't produce a clear frontrunner in either party. Despite McCain's wins, Huckabee isn't letting go. And Clinton's people issued a tacit admission that they haven't won yet when they mentioned they'd like to debate Obama four more times before the convention. If we entered the summer with a mass of uncommitted delegates and no clear media projection of who might emerge to lead the parties into November, I couldn't be happier.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Second Chance for Michael Vick's Abused Pit Bulls

THE NEW YORK TIMES HAS a heartbreaking story today about the pit bulls that bullethole-deficient asshole Michael Vick bred for dogfighting. Those able to be recuperated now live at an animal sanctuary on money Vick was forced to disgorge to support their upkeep and rehabilitation. But the physical and mental effects of the abuse their handlers and dogfighting opponents inflicted won't fade easily:
A quick survey of Georgia, a caramel-colored pit bull mix with cropped ears and soulful brown eyes, offers a road map to a difficult life. Her tongue juts from the left side of her mouth because her jaw, once broken, healed at an awkward angle. Her tail zigzags.

Scars from puncture wounds on her face, legs and torso reveal that she was a fighter. Her misshapen, dangling teats show that she might have been such a successful, vicious competitor that she was forcibly bred, her new handlers suspect, again and again.

But there is one haunting sign that Georgia might have endured the most abuse of any of the 47 surviving pit bulls seized last April from the property of the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in connection with an illegal dogfighting ring.

Georgia has no teeth. All 42 of them were pried from her mouth, most likely to make certain she could not harm male dogs during forced breeding.

I haven't even dared to check out the accompanying audio slide show.

And Then There Was One

NOT SURE HOW I CAN finish this post in one shot, because thinking about the situation behind it makes me want to put my head between my legs until I can breathe deeply again, but things at my once-pleasant job have gone just about completely off the deep end. The remaining non-manager on the magazine — the other senior editor — has given her 2 weeks' notice.

Things were frenzied enough during the past couple of weeks with my supervisor gone. We lost the first two days of this week to a training symposium, which — though very interesting and crammed with useful ideas — took me away from my work. Owing to lax practices, I had to help clarify some issues pertaining to the continuing professional education we offer in the magazine, both by fixing a disclosure omission from a previous issue, and (after spotting the same problem in the current issue) tracking the same sort of info for a current contributor so I wouldn't have to hear about this from our certification partner 4 months down the road. Each time I had to defuse such a bomb, I was taken away from completing the current-month issue, which just gets more grievously delayed. I did pause briefly on Thursday to email my friend and supervisor from the last job to see if she'd won Mega Millions so I could marry rich, but sadly Fortune has not rained any manna onto her aside from her outstanding brains and looks. As I have neither to offer in return, I returned to my mounds of work.

Friday was fucked from the git-go—forgot my headphones on the way to the gym, crampy muscles, slow going getting out of the house to work, fonts blowing up in Quark after an "upgrade," and a work bathroom that reeked of freshly decanted hurl—so when the other senior editor waved me into an empty office at midmorning, I knew what was coming. She's leaving for the same reason as the other two staffers: our mutual department head. I have to wonder what's keeping the management at this joint from noticing the pattern.

Said department head called me later on in the day, after she'd gotten word that I was in the know, to let me know they weren't killing the job or going to dismiss me. By that point, I was in such shock that I wouldn't have complained if they had. Compared to my mental state during the day of my layoff, I was utterly derailed.

Keep in mind that current conditions of "doing more with less" have already cost one of my coworkers his well-being. The staff artist was so wound up with stress from inheriting the work of two laid-off fellow designers, and the prospect of switching away from our tried-and-true workflow in favor of new text-handling software and from Quark to InDesign, that he blacked out in the middle of a training class. He's not the first person I've known to have the pressures of a job contribute to a breakdown.

With my computer snarled due to the font issue, the future at the magazine looking even grimmer than when my former boss struggled to get it published a year ago while down only one person, and the possibility of having to return to the job market in the early phase of a recession, I felt myself getting a little panicky, with shortness of breath and lightheadedness similar to what I felt at the WFMU Record Fair. This time I couldn't attribute it to a caffeine overdose. I rode out the rest of the day in a busy haze, trying to keep things moving by working on our artist's computer, and fielding a blizzard of emails from our boss — the cause of our problems — without answering any of them with a Harlan Ellison–like peroration of invective.

I left under a driving rain and drove home feeling like I'd been awake for 3 days. Cooking dinner was a laughable prospect. I wasn't even hungry. I posted my progress report, then finally wandered out onto the road, only to drive to a number of possible eateries and then just keep rolling, not wanting to take the effort even to look at a menu. Once back home, I finally calmed down enough to read several chapters of a book, then hit the hay.

I didn't really feel human today until I got two meals and an hour of cardiovascular exercise under my belt. I suppose getting a check for almost $28 out of the blue (security deposit interest) didn't hurt. I'm putting the next steps entirely out of my mind, and concentrating on light entertainments like a game night with Amy and Ratatosk and the Super Bowl tomorrow. I don't intend to stay in any situation that makes me unwell mentally or physically, and if the quesos grandes have some problem with that, well, they can add a fourth position to the want list.

Friday, February 01, 2008

January 2008 in Review

IT'S WORTH LOOKING BACK AT the month just passed to see how my efforts to improve have worked out in practice. Here's what I've done right, and where I still need to work harder.

Good Starts

Setting a budget for the year: At the outset of 2008, I plotted out in Excel my estimate of how my take-home pay would be spent. I found keeping up with this easier than I would have imagined. I tried to make things predictable in my spending habits, such as buying gas in $20/week portions (itself a coup, because I actually budgeted for $30/week, and also made a run to Atlantic City amid this tighter rationing). Having one's expenses laid out in such fashion is an education.

Organizing a chore calendar: I assigned a minor household task to each day of the week on a 14-day schedule. This was a great success. The place looks like it did before my holiday party. I try to do the chore either immediately before or after dinner, so I don't get involved in some absorbing book or drift aimlessly on the Internet and let it slip out of mind. The only chore I've skipped (and which I may therefore replace) has been cleaning the exterior of my car. I'm not sure why I even put that on there. Maybe I anticipated having to scour road salt off of the car more often than I have. I'm not gonna run the beast through the car wash every fortnight, I know that much. I'm sure I can find something to plug in there. Looking at the desktop of my Mac, perhaps a cleanup/backup session might be a good replacement.

Gym visits: I began the year at 231.5, having gained a little weight back after being sick and navigating through the siege of holiday treats. Despite catching a minor cold late in the January and skipping 2 days, I kept my daily gym habit and got down to 227 as of last Sunday. The program I've set up proved flexible enough to allow me to restart after I got better from the cold with minimal fuss. But I still have a lot of work to do, both at the gym and in my kitchen (and I don't mean installing new cabinets). Losing football on Sundays will be rough, as that was my entertainment for an hourlong cardiovascular tour. I may have to dig up some interesting podcasts. I am open to suggestions.

Keeping normal work hours: At the beginning of the year, I resolved to leave each day at 5:00, unless I was doing something fun like writing or updating the website and needed an empty office to enhance the experience. This has worked out, even after my boss left, when I determined not to let her absence make me as crazy as she was when she departed. It's important, even with a job whose basic functions I enjoy, to set boundaries, because all employers will take as much as they can, for as small a price as they can pay, unless you resolve to take that time back.

Areas for Improvement

My dinners are made of fail: The number one barrier to weight loss has been the radical nutritional difference between my breakfasts, lunches, and work snacks, and the dinners I end up with. Much of the chili I made for the month came to work with me as lunch, especially because Trader Joe's seems to have discontinued the brand of lunch meat I'd been getting since I started my new job. (I am an extreme creature of habit.) I did teach myself a great new stir fry recipe with TJ's pork and a few other ingredients, which actually provides a great second and even third portion of food to fill in lunch gaps. But I need either to develop more dinners like this, or to eat a largish late-afternoon meal (vs. a snack like nuts or dried fruit), and then just have a small, simple meal before hitting the hay. Homemade nachos or frozen pizza from Trader Joe's is too much starch, too late in the day, to keep the fat-loss train rolling.

Better sleep schedule: The only way to keep a 7-day gym habit working at the hour I visit it (5:00–5:30 a.m., the earlier the better, to avoid the 6:00 spin class and its awful music), is to hit the hay no later than 9:00. If I actually train myself to go to sleep earlier, with the goal of writing before the gym or eating a small pre-workout meal, that might actually creep up to 8:00. Because it's tougher for me to get to sleep in the summer, and it takes a while for this joint to cool down (though I will get home earlier, if I am still at the same place), I need to develop a better sleep routine now.

Resume revision: I had hoped to get a new version of my resume written at this point, both to include my new experiences and skills, and to shoot over to, well, just about my whole gang of former coworkers at their new location. Haven't done so yet. No reason not to. Maybe I should place it on my chore calendar instead of cleaning my car's exterior. A fortnightly career checkup? Might work. But it has to start with a resume review.

All right, this is a slightly shorter month, even with the leap day, so maybe it'll work in my favor. I'll just schedule the days I veer off plan for February 30 and 31.