Sunday, August 24, 2008

Inspiring Trip, and Fighting Pessimism

SOMETIMES I THINK PESSIMISM IS as reflexive a response in my system as blinking or breathing. These two functions and others like them don't veer off as unreasonably as does my willingness to assume the worst, however. May they never catch up. Better, may my flights to pessimism be delayed or cancelled.

It is in this spirit that I report being proved wrong in my initial feelings toward the Central City meeting in which I participated this week. I hope my apprehension grew from my anticipated sour experience with midweek air travel, my very real trouble in even getting a company travel account set up, and basic fear of the unknown — I'd never attended an editorial review of this type. I'd scoffed at the need to visit in person, wondering whether the cost of bringing me out there would justify the difficulty of hurdling the TSA and airline obstacles doubtless in my route.

As usual, these spectres fled under the light of actual events.

Tuesday morning found me packed and ready to fly. I used my Las Vegas packing list to assemble my gear; a fun-starved smattering of work-pertinent items and clothing bereft of the usual sunblock, desert hat, copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and poker dough. Naked, I felt.

After 2 hours in the office, I headed home to await the car service. When I wandered downstairs 15 minutes early to dump some garbage, I found him already there, catching some Z's. I awakened him and we got underway. I suspect he was sleep starved, as he spiced his 75-mph race to the airport with frequent drifts into the left lane, or the shoulder. He may have been drowsy, but it sure woke me up.

The first challenge was to get a boarding pass, which I couldn't print through the company 's chosen travel site. The credit card reader didn't recognize my purchase and instead referred me to human assistance. Said human realized my card had not yet been charged for the trips. She did so, then ground out my pass. I was glad I'd gotten there 2 hours early and during the midweek dead of August, rather than close to a major travel holiday. From there I went to the dreaded TSA chokepoint, where the line was delightfully short — shorter even than some of the 6 a.m. lines I find prior to a Vegas run. With such a small hoard of junk, I presented them with a boring X-ray profile, so I was through and clear in moments.

I boarded the Central City flight with ease, and lucked out by getting an empty seat between me (in the window seat) and the other row-occupant. Of course, the flight was preceded by about 25 minutes of delays on the ground. I realize now that the airlines are baking the delays into the ticket times, as they anticipate the impact of departing traffic and arrival snags. Flight itself was brief (compared to the EWR–LAS run) and smooth through clear weather, and with no checked luggage, I was into a cab and hotel bound swiftly upon arrival.

My hotel was one of several clustered near the Central City airport, in the midst of what appeared to be the chain-restaurant district, and across the street from both a mall and the local branch of my company. No need to rent a car. After checking in, I wandered over to the mall, which had the virtue of a local casual-dining choice; I'd scouted the area from home and decided, as with Vegas, why eat on the road what I can get at home? The burger there proved to be a solid choice, though the dessert (you can tell I was using a company card) nearly put me in a coma. Five bucks apparently buys a lot more out there, and I only made it halfway through the platter of death-carbs under whipped cream I received.

As I ate, I noticed a person who was leaving the mall with a plastic bag that advertised Free Comic Book Day. I wondered if there might be a comic shop in the bowels of the mall. A few minutes later, another person emerged with a bag that advertised a business with a fairly geeky name. That settled it. After I paid, I wandered into the mall proper to hunt this source down. No greater love there is for a geek than to patronize one's friendly local game/comic/music shop. Sure enough, not only was there a comic book shop, but two doors down there was a boardgame store. Both sported RPG and CCG sections, as well as tables on which to play them, and the comic shop also was a Warhammer miniatures dealer. Central City was beginning to look more salvageable by the minute.

Fitness and sleep were troublesome, though. The hotel featured a "fitness center," which included an exercycle, a treadmill, and a Universal-style weight center that posed more health danger in its use than its neglect. I elected 30 minutes on the treadmill the first morning I was there, and skipped it entirely the second day, resuming regular gym visits Friday. The first weight-training visit on Saturday actually showed some improvement; this makes me wonder whether I ought to add a little more rest time between lifting visits. As for sleeping, my room was close to the ice machine on the first floor. When the staff began laying out the complimentary breakfast, they needed to scoop up some ice, which they did at 5:30 a.m. both mornings. This is actually later than my usual wakeup time on weekdays, but I'd run into trouble both nights trying to fall asleep (both bed and pillow were far spongier than my home setup), so each morning I was staggering around on subpar sleep.

The next two days were spent primarily at the local office, about which I must be elliptical for security. I must say it's nicer than the one in Jersey, plus they allow employees to bring in houseplants. The first day comprised discussion of our editorial calendar for next year, as well as a look ahead at what conferences we might want to attend to foster development of these articles. It was tough to wing off for a few days for a convention when the headcount on the title was a whopping two, so with a full bullpen we can do this again now.

The second day was the money day. A pair of edit-gurus led a positive, open-ended discussion of what we'd accomplished over the past year, examining our mission, our graphic design (which we'd redone a year ago, so now was the time to see if it was working), the replies to a reader survey, and what our online outreach would accomplish . . . an area that involves me. I didn't get the chance to discuss a blog strategy, because apparently the site will be redesigned soon. We were told a couple of things we could do with the current site, the design of which was rejiggered at the same time as the print pub's, and I made it clear to the two hosts that my ability to address any of this sort of thing had been hampered by the staff shortage; I had been offloading my own web duties to a freelancer during that stretch. Those who mattered at the meeting seemed to understand this, so my ass is not on the line or anything . . . which, over the course of these meetings, I found myself once again caring about.

I took a ton of notes for what we can do in all of these areas, because we had unprecedented access to two keen thinkers on what makes magazines work. I also got the message that the new web design, as well as anything we would want to do in a blog, are up to us. I told them I would need some heavy training in these areas if I am to do anything besides just check to see that monthly content uploads were executed right; it's one of my review goals, in fact. But I presented myself as being part of a future set of solutions, not as any sort of whiner or cripple. I felt very much more part of a team effort, above and beyond enjoying the uncommon privilege of having the rest of the gang there in the flesh.

I think it's time to lay to rest any reference to our being short on staff. I never used it as a hollow excuse, but it was the legitimate reason why we weren't able to do anything besides put a monthly publication out there. With a full staff, I can ease some of my edit duties over to the other folks if the web action becomes more of a daily task — an offer my boss made unbidden after the meeting. I had been nervous about the rest of the staff getting web training that would render my own obsolete. Now there is a chance I may revisit the Central City office (where the head of all things web is based) for further, more specialized training and assistance in enacting the redesign once the staff and managers decide what we need to feature. All of this is possible now that we are well past the crisis stretch.

I thought about the ways I could make this sort of training serve me as I flew home. No trouble getting to the airport or traversing the tiny TSA line helped foster a reflective mood for the flight back. I do feel more enthusiastic about the position, which now seems at my power to craft. A former supervisor of mine used to say, "Once you stop learning, you're dead." I have the chance to stay alive in this sense now, even to flourish. Still wondering if this will truly be my calling, something I strain at the leash to do each morning. But my previous pessimism may be clouding my attempts to see what that might be.

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