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 F├╝hrerbunker-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.

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