Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Don't Look Back

The company for whom I currently work has been through a very rough patch lately, prompting me to leave for greener pastures. But I’ve given them three weeks’ notice, so I’m still technically an employee. And as an employee, I’m entitled to particpate in corporate events.

Today was our quarterly division meeting, in which various members of the management team go over the numbers and lay out the expectations. Those expectations are usually rather obvious (“improve customer satisfaction”) or vague (“find synergies within corporate business units”). In the past, the numbers have borne out management’s expectations for satisfaction and synergy. The management team strain themselves to pat one another on the back, make grandiose declarations of how hard they’ve been working to achieve those goals, and point happily at the sales projection charts. This meeting always takes place at 8 a.m., and coffee and pastries are served. Thank God for the coffee, because otherwise, the snoring would be a terrible distraction.

But this quarter, things are different. Horrible mismanagement has left the division finances in a shambles. Large numbers of employees have defected, and have not been replaced. The Executive Vice President in charge of the division was shown the door only a few weeks ago, and the division was handed over to another Executive Vice President whose qualifications are unknown to the employees. The meeting was scheduled for the unprecedented hour of 3 p.m., and even more shocking - beer, wine and hot hors d’oeuvres would be served.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Are they trying to butter up the employees, or anesthetize them?” While my supervisor informed me that my presence would not be necessary (all other employees are required to attend), I thought it might be worth seeing. If it turned out to be another snooze-fest, at least there would be beer. Plus, the management team would have to play a delicate heel-and-toe game to avoid exposing their obvious incompetence and present some kind of believable leadership. There was a definite possibility that at least one of them would be wearing his weasel suit.

The show began with a feeble corporate video titled “A New Beginning,” which presented animated versions of those pompous motivational posters that display some kind of dramatic photo accompanied by one word, such as “Determination” or “Perseverance.” This display was accompanied by the kind of music you are forced to listen to when you are on hold waiting to talk to your insurance agent.

Then the new Executive Vice President was introduced, who wore a suit with no tie, as though he wanted to seem approachable and yet still maintain his authority figure status. I noticed that all of the rest of the management team were also wearing suits with no tie as well. There must have been a memo on the subject.

He spoke with a thick New Jersey accent, and had a kind of bemused approach to his remarks, as though even he thought it was all bullshit. But he also had a kind of confrontational style, as if to say, “Just because I don’t take this seriously doesn’t mean you don’t have to.”

He quickly set the theme of the meeting, declaring that “We’re not going to dwell on the past, but rather, we’re going to look to the future.” That meant no discussion of recent events that might be embarrassing to management.

The part that I found interesting was that he made a lot of contradictory statements. For example, he spoke about leadership, and then, by way of example, said, “We should be the first to jump on the bandwagon when there’s no risk involved.” He declared that we must “Remove the barriers to progress,” and then said, “More often than not, we are the barriers.” So should we all quit, thereby ensuring progress?

But he showed his real colors when talking about Sales. “Sales runs the world,” he declared, “Everybody works for Sales.” This is the kind of thinking that I believe will hasten the apocalypse. And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, he talked about a group developing some kind of college student loan program for parents of pre-K kids. “We’re getting into these people’s pockets while their kids are still in preschool,” he declared, proudly.

Other management team members spoke briefly, and then the new Executive Vice President returned to the podium. His demeanor darkened, as though he realized he had been too light, too flippant, and needed to get tough. He reiterated the theme of “Not looking back,” and to my stunned amusement, immediately fell face-forward into a rhetorical trap of his own making, spouting the 60’s-era cliché, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Well, that was it. I got my money’s worth. And trust me, when I leave, there won’t be any looking back.

Friday, February 22, 2008

It Cost Ninety-Five Dollars

Friday evening was slipping up on me like the beer wagon in a parade, and that’s the one part of the parade you don’t want to miss. My wife and daughter were otherwise occupied, so I had what my brother-in-law refers to as a “hall pass,” where I could spend the evening as I pleased. I started asking around to see if anyone wanted to go shoot some pool after work, but came up empty. But then, like a bolt from the blue, my friend K* informed me that she and her boyfriend had 4 tickets to the Orlando Magic game that night, and they were only using 2 of them. So I was welcome if I wanted to go. I’m not a basketball fan, but nothing else was panning out, and I hadn’t seen K* in a while, so I agreed.


They picked me up, and we drove down to the arena. The seats were excellent, lower bowl, only 14 rows back, near center court. I looked at the ticket stub and was stunned to see a price tag of $95. K* hadn’t paid for them, they were unused season tickets owned by a family member. But just the idea that the tickets had cost so much got me kind of keyed up for the game, the tail furiously wagging the dog.

The show began with a bang, literally. Fireworks boomed over the crowd, flame throwers belched fire, spotlights illuminated a giant disco ball, and an announcer who drinks way too much Red Bull introduced the members of the team. A flock of cheerleaders in white go-go boots did pelvic thrusts at center court to a thumping soundtrack, the JumboTron scoreboard flashed garish, seizure-inducing advertising messages, and once my teeth and eyeballs stopped rattling in their sockets, I noticed that the game had somehow begun.

A few minutes of basketball would take place, and then one of the teams (or one of the officials) would call a time out. This was the signal for some form of depressing, offensive or disturbing form of entertainment to take place. At one point, the Magic Minis were introduced. This was a herd of kids about 8 -10 years old, mostly girls. They rushed out onto the floor and began a dance routine that involved lots of pelvic thrusting, for the entertainment of the pedophiles in the audience. The two preteen (and apparently pre-gay) boys in the group performed leg kicks and splits, which will suit them well when they’re performing Disney On Ice in a few years.

At halftime, a hideously self-involved man brought out two groups of children to play a game of Simon Says, similar to what a DJ in a bad toupee might do at a Bar Mitzvah. Energetic future Marketing executives came out and blasted t-shirts into the crowd using compressed-air bazookas. A moron in a mascot suit raced up and down the aisles, annoying the paying customers. Remember, this horror show cost $95.

There was one particular event that I found the most troubling. A three-foot-thick foam pad was laid down beneath one of the baskets, and a trampoline was set down at the head of the key. Members of the cheerleading squad would run down the court holding a basketball, bounce off the trampoline, pirouette in the air, slam dunk the ball, and then plop onto the foam pad to the cheers of the crowd. It took me awhile to understand why this bothered me so much. The athletes who have worked all their lives to develop speed, accuracy and a 30-inch vertical leap risk injury and their careers performing unassisted slam dunks. It seemed somehow demeaning, watching bleached blondes with fake boobs pretending to achieve the same goal.

Finally, the game ended The noise stopped. The music stopped. The dancing stopped. The lights and fireworks stopped. The best thing about the $95 ticket was that the show it paid for eventually came to an end.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Handling Issues

I’ve been deliberately withholding pictures of our kitchen as it slowly materializes, because I want to wait for it to be completely finished. But I’ll tease you a little bit with some details as it comes together.

One of the most unexpected things we encountered was the difficulty in purchasing cabinet and drawer handles. For one thing, there are HUNDREDS of different kinds of knobs and handles, and they’re all surprisingly expensive. IKEA carries a line of them of course, but the selection is limited, and they’re all very “Euro” in appearance. So we shopped mostly online, where we saw some exotic-looking glass knobs that were $63 each. EACH.

Another difficult aspect of buying cabinet and drawer handles is the fighting with your spouse over exactly what kind of handles to get. We need 37 of them for our kitchen, so cost was an issue. We eventually decided on two different styles of handle, one for drawers and one for cabinets. The drawer handles arrived first. Here’s one of them, installed:


IKEA makes a nice little template, enabling you to easily locate your drill holes to install the handles. Unfortunately, the template is in Metric, and the handles are in Inches. So I had to modify the template by drilling two new holes in it:



One major problem was that I had to mount two handles on the false drawer fronts on the sink cabinet. Because the sink is currently installed, there’s no room to use a screwdriver to tighten the bolts that hold the handle in place:


So I had to improvise by clamping a screwdriver bit in a pair of Vise-Grip pliers. Then I could get at the bolt heads, but I could only turn them a quarter-turn at a time. It took forever:



Until the cabinet handles arrive, we’ve been using little tabs made out of masking tape to open the cabinet doors. Cheap and effective, but I can’t wait to finish this job and be done with it.


Getting Out While the Getting's Good

There comes a time in the workplace when the handwriting is on the wall and it’s written so large, management is unable to conceal it with strategically placed potted plants. Two weeks ago, the Executive Vice President in charge of our entire division was marched out of the building by Human Resources, clutching a cardboard box of his personal possessions, glowering at the indignity.

This is a man who controlled the working lives of hundreds of employees, scattered in offices from coast to coast, and whose gross mismanagement of product development had finally come to the attention of people who are labeled his “superiors.” Never mind that it took them 4 years to notice that he spent millions of dollars on the development of a product that he decided to abandon. Never mind that they allowed him to spend millions more on the purchase of a non-exclusive license to another product to replace the abandoned product. Never mind that they allowed him to spend further millions buying another company without securing the executive team, only to have them resign and form a new company in direct competition.

Morale has plummeted to an astonishing low, valued employees are bailing out left and right, and they’re not being replaced. Instead, their duties are simply being reassigned to the remaining stressed and overburdened staff by management intent on showing a good quarterly financial statement to investors. They’ve cut their own throats by pissing off the few diehard believers left in the company.

So I sent my resume out to test the water before the Bush Recession hits in earnest and companies stop hiring. And I got a bite right away. A headhunter called me, and set up a phone interview with a company less than a mile from where my current employer is located. The phone interview went really well, and they called the headhunter within 15 minutes to set up a face-to-face meeting.

I showed up in my nice suit, only to discover that the office is casual dress every day, unlike my stuffy current job, which is “business casual” except for Fridays, when casual clothing is permitted, and all of the managers force themselves to wear dry-cleaned jeans with dress shirts and polished loafers.

At first I met with two product managers, who were friendly, outgoing and helpful. We talked for a long time. They seemed more interested in finding out if I was smart and personable than whether I was educated and experienced. They wanted me to meet with my prospective boss, but I asked if I could use the rest room first, my bladder nearly bursting. One of them led me out of the office suite and pointed down the hallway. “Turn left up there,” he said.

I rushed down the hall and turned left, only to discover a service cart outside the Men’s room, which was being cleaned. I’ve worked in lots of different places, but Florida is the only place I’ve ever worked where the facilities are cleaned during the time people need to use them. More than once at my current job, I’ve had a Bran Muffin Emergency when I found the rest room being cleaned and had to race down the stairs to search for an unoccupied stall on another floor.

Because I was unfamiliar with this building, I didn’t know where another rest room might be located. So I was forced to stand, dancing and wincing outside the door to the Men’s room, listening to the painful sounds of running water and flushing toilets, until the attendant emerged. By the time I returned to my interview, I’m sure they were wondering if I had been involved in some kind of freak urinal-related accident.

The remainder of the interview went very well, and today the headhunter informed me that they’re making a formal offer this week. I’ve accepted verbally, and I’ll be changing jobs on St. Patrick ’s Day.

I’m very nervous about it, but for no good reason. The new job is with a global company, headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland. The benefits are fantastic, the compensation is superior, and they start their employees with 3 weeks paid vacation. No wonder the bathrooms are kept so clean.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sudden Death

My pool team played in a tournament yesterday. Teams from all over our area converge on a local Moose lodge, and compete for a chance to play in the Cities tournament later in the year. Winning the Cities tournament has the ultimate prize of a free trip to Las Vegas to compete in the national championships. It’s really exciting to play in a tournament like this.

However, excitement has an ugly little companion called nerves. Normally, my team plays our matches in the evening, after a full day of work that blunts the pointy edges of my sensibilities. After a couple of beers, I’m usually loose, relaxed and jovial. But this tournament started at 9 o’clock in the morning, and I was bouncy with nervous energy.

But because it was early in the morning, I had my usual cup of coffee, which only made things worse. By the time we started our match, I was jittery and irritable, peeing every ten minutes like a greyhound. I tried to compensate by drinking a couple of beers (the Moose lodge opens the bar as soon as the tournament starts), but that only threw an alcohol blanket over the problem. Now I was not only nervous, but impaired. Strangely, I kept yawning, as though I couldn’t wake up.

During our first round, I noticed a guy playing at the table next to us. He was a big, barrel-chested man, in his late 40’s or early 50’s. His breathing seemed labored, and he was white as a sheet. After about 20 minutes, he would take a shot and then lean on the table, gasping. His t-shirt was soaked in sweat. League officials were notified, and they came down to talk to him.

It seems that his team had played the previous day, and he had suffered a heart attack. He has a history of heart disease, and is “on the list” for a heart transplant (whatever that actually means). He was clearly suffering some kind of cardiac event, but stubbornly refused to forfeit his match. He continued playing, but he would stand between innings because he couldn’t muster the energy to get to his feet. Eventually, he lost the match and insisted on driving himself to the emergency room. One of his teammates later told me that he was resting comfortably and breathing easier. Then he said, “Pool is his life.” It seems as though he’s not going to enjoy it much longer.

Our team won our round pretty handily, though without my help, thank God. I was positively crawling the walls, alternating between caffeine and beer, trying like Elvis to find that stable point between mania and depression. We moved to another table for our second round of play, and to my dismay, we played the team that had the Heart Attack Guy on their roster, though he was now at the emergency room and wouldn’t be available to them.

Our first player won his match against their team captain, and my team captain put me up next against an equally-skilled (and apparently equally nervous) player. I was so nervous, I played very badly, missing easy shots, making stupid mistakes. But I somehow managed to stay even with my opponent, and suddenly, like a miracle, the clouds parted and a great calm settled over me. I saw how to beat him, and I did.

We put up another player who lost, but we still had two matches to play – we only needed to win one. But so much time had passed, the league officials were forced to announce that Sudden Death rules were in effect. This meant that whoever won the first game of the next match would win the match, and so on. So our next player had to win his first game, no period of adjustment, no settling in, no time to overcome a case of nerves, nothing.

Meanwhile, at the table next to us, a team composed mostly of women was playing, and the Sudden Death rules applied to them as well. I was rooting for them, because women are a growing force in the game of pool, and it’s nice to see them forming teams. I watched our game and their game simultaneously. The stress in the hall was palpable, like an electric current running through everyone. You could hear a pin drop.

Our player made a spectacular shot to set himself up on the 8-ball, and then, to everyone’s shock and dismay, rushed the shot and bobbled the 8-ball in the throat of the pocket. His nervous opponent, who had been chain-smoking through the game, had three balls left to pocket, all in easy positions. He lined up on the first and stunned his team by bobbling it in the throat of the pocket. Our player pocketed the sitting-duck 8-ball for the win, and we responded by shouting, smacking each other on the back, giving high-fives and buying each other beers.

Meanwhile, the woman on the table next to us had played her opponent down to the 8-ball. She was left with a long cut shot, and she made it. To my surprise, she stood up and burst into tears, as the stress of the Sudden Death match was instantly released. All of her teammates rushed over to hug her in a sweet display of team solidarity. I hope we don’t have to play them in the Cities tournament.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Your Lungs Are Not Important

Cigarette companies have been waging a public relations battle against those who claim cigarettes are addictive and cause cancer in humans. Typically, they defend their industry by stating that no irrefutable scientific evidence has been presented to support either claim. Inevitably, they trot out their own paid scientists who declare that they have been unable to establish a cause-and-effect link between smoking and lung cancer. This argument carries as much weight with me as the proponents of "intelligent design" who are terrified that Darwin might be right.

Both of my parents smoked when I was a kid. My father eventually quit, but my mother smoked until my father was unable to care for her and we had to put her in a nursing home, which did not permit smoking indoors. Because she was confined to a bed, she spent her remaining years desperately craving cigarettes. Whenever we would visit her, there was nothing that pleased her more than to be lifted out of bed, put into a wheelchair, and wheeled outside for a smoke. She eventually passed away, but not from cancer.

I play pool in a league on Monday nights. There are lots of smokers in the pool hall where I play, and the pool hall has lots of bulky, heavy-duty air filters installed to dispose of the smoke for the benefit of the non-smokers. Every so often, representatives from the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company show up to hand out free packs of cigarettes to those who want them. The smokers stroll up to get their free cigarettes, then they scour the pool hall for non-smokers such as me. The smoker who finds me asks me if I’ll go up and get another handout of free cigarettes, doubling their take for the night.

I usually comply, as a simple friendly courtesy. The R.J. Reynolds representative has a portable scanner that they use to scan my driver’s license. As a result, I get lots of junk mail from R.J. Reynolds. It’s usually fairly modest marketing crap, but yesterday, this 5-inch square box came in the mail:


The box consisted of a sleeve, which when removed, revealed this tray:


Inside the tray was a package:


Inside the package was a cigarette box:


Inside the cigarette box was a “buy one get one free” cigarette coupon:


I’m not saying that cigarettes are addictive, although I believe that. I’m not saying cigarettes cause cancer, although I believe that as well. But I think the evidence in this package is sufficient enough to say that the R.J. Reynolds company doesn’t care one little bit about your lungs, because they’re perfectly willing to cut down oxygen-producing trees in huge numbers just to get you to buy one pack of cigarettes.

Monday, February 11, 2008


This past weekend, we made yet another trip to IKEA. This time we went to return some leftover components that remained after all the cabinets, drawers and doors were installed. The total value of the returned items was about $100. However, my wife has been examining the kitchen as the assembly nears completion, and she’s been starting a lot of sentences with the words, “What if we…?”

So on this particular visit to IKEA, we spent another $478 on “change of mind” components. We’ll be changing some hinges, removing some cabinet doors and replacing them with drawers, installing some organization accessories, etc. I can see that this project will cost us far more than I imagined at the beginning.

On the way down, we saw an airplane skywriting something over the city. I wasn’t able to get a picture of it, but as we neared IKEA, the airplane finished the words, “JESUS LOVES YOU.” Unfortunately, the winds at that altitude all but obliterated the first word before the last word was completed. The finished product looked like this:


It got me wondering, “Where do skywriters learn their craft?” So I imagine some largely uninhabited coastal area where a skywriting school is located. Every day, the sky is filled with poorly formed, misspelled words, graded by instructors on the ground: