Sunday, March 29, 2009

Stairways, Basketball and Cigarettes

The last time I changed jobs about a year ago, my new company took five weeks to get me set up with a computer and the necessary software and user accounts I would need to do my job. This new company had everything waiting for me on the first day.

I’ll be working with an implementation team to get a software product ready for a custom installation in Maryland. It’s a big contract, worth millions of dollars. I don’t want to name my new company, but I will tell you that our software product has something to do with real estate. My starting role will be to work on a customized training program that has a contracted delivery date that is coming up pretty fast. After that, I’ll be adapting product documentation to make it accurate for the customized version of the Maryland product.

The first order of business is to learn the product and the industry, and there’s just no way that I’m going to become competent in the short time frame available. So I’ve been testing my co-workers to see who is the most cooperative and knowledgeable, so that I can fire off questions and get meaningful answers. At my previous job, nobody was cooperative, and the most knowledgeable people were far too busy or important to bother with peons like me. So far, everyone has been really helpful at the new job.

The company was previously owned by the company president, who also owns the building in which we work. He sold the business to a company in Michigan, who now pays him a salary for his services, as well as a fat monthly rent check. It’s a funky older building, consisting of three floors. The ground floor is entered through one door, but the second and third floors can only be accessed through a different door.

The upstairs doorway opens into a very narrow staircase that can only accommodate one person at a time. If you hear someone coming down, you have to wait for them before you can go up.


Once on the second floor, the only way to the third floor is via this spiral staircase:


My desk is at the bottom of the staircase. When women use the spiral staircase, they have to clutch their skirts to their legs to prevent the pervert new guy from looking up to see their panties.

There’s a door near my desk that opens up to an outside second-floor patio equipped with a basketball hoop and netting to keep the ball inside the patio area. So far, I haven’t heard anyone playing, but a nearby door bears the telltale marks of past half-court games:



Mostly, people use it to smoke.


Crazy Gringo

Last week was the first week of my new job. I’ll write about the job itself a little later. For now, I want to talk about my new commute.

There are several routes I could take to my office. One of them is a major highway, and I’m avoiding it because everybody takes it and it’s a stressful parking lot every morning. Another route takes me directly through several congested areas on secondary roads. The best solution I’ve found is a road that takes me around the congested areas altogether. It’s a bit longer, but it’s a pretty easy drive. However, it’s a very different drive than my old commute.

My old commute took me through a couple of upscale communities with big estate homes sitting well back from the road on precisely manicured lawns. I now drive through a gritty, blighted urban landscape, full of weedy vacant lots, shabby tattoo parlors, pawnshops and strange churches that don't seem to claim affiliation with any known denomination.

Some of the churches are huge and prosperous.



Others are small and humble.


There’s actually a funny story about this last shot. I had to pull over about half a block from the church and walk to it. I fell in behind a Hispanic man who was walking the same direction. The sky was ominous, rumbling with thunder. I could sense that rain was coming, so I started to walk more quickly, gaining ground on the Hispanic man. He noticed my quickening pace and kept glancing over his shoulder at me nervously. I got within arms’ length of him just at the front of the church, and he was about to sprint for his life when the sky opened up and the rain came. I was able to fire off this quick picture and dash back to the car as the rain came down in buckets, soaking me to the skin. I’m sure the Hispanic man is in church right now thanking God for the rain that saved him from the crazy gringo.

My new office is located in a busy downtown setting, vastly different from the sterile glass-box office parks I’ve been working in for the past 11 years. I’m within a short walk of McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Chick-Fil-A, Taco Bell, Steak-n-Shake, Popeyes, and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. It’s a good thing I have bad knees, so I won’t be tempted to make that walk very often.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Honeydew List

If you’re a married man, you’re probably familiar with the “honeydew list.” This is a list that your wife prepares verbally or in written form, which boils down to “honey do this” and “honey do that.”

I’m no different than anyone else in this respect, except that when I lost my job, a lot of things on the honeydew list were put on hold because they cost money. For the past five months the list has been growing, populated with necessary tasks that we just couldn’t take care of until I got a job.

Once I got a job offer, the list suddenly became a problem. This is because for 5 months I’ve had lots of time, but no money. Now that conserving money isn’t such a priority, I’m about to run out of time. Tomorrow I start my new job, and at least 8 hours of every day will be consumed by work. What’s left will be filled with catch-up tasks and projects. I’ve been scrambling to finish as much as I can in this last week before I have to go to work.

For example, I needed new tires just when I got laid off. For five months I’ve been driving cautiously on increasingly bald tires. Florida is just about to enter the rainy summer season, and bald tires are frighteningly dangerous in a tropical downpour. So I went out and treated myself to a complete set of first-rate tires. Unfortunately, the tire mechanic told me that I also need brakes and probably shocks. Those will have to wait until my first paycheck.

The work I have been doing for the past five months has been the hard physical kind. For example, I had to clean the pool deck and patio. Fortunately, I own a pressure washer (if you live in Florida, you need one) that I use to blast away the mold, mildew, algae and clumps of pollen that have accumulated over the winter. Even with the pressure washer, it’s exhausting.

Yard work has been accumulating as it tends to do in Florida. Just because it’s winter here doesn’t mean things stop growing. I used to pay a kid to do it, but until we start seeing some money, I’ve been doing it. It’s brutally hard work for a guy my age. Today I used a chainsaw (if you live in Florida, you need one of these also) to cut back the philodendrons that threaten to engulf the house. I have nightmares about philodendrons.

The problem is that lists are easy to make. If you make lists and the things on the list get done, there’s a tendency to add increasingly difficult or unrealistic things, hoping that the boundaries of the list will continue to expand until your slave armies conquer the planet and make you God-Queen.

Today I found the following item on the list: “Pull out palm tree in front of house.” It’s almost as though my wife has no concept of the work involved. I like the use of the words, “pull out,” reducing what is sure to be a difficult, hot, filthy, job to two simple words. I have only two words to use in response: “Yes, dear.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Double Pun-itration

A friend of mine is fond of making the same silly jokes over and over again. One of his favorites is when he's in a restaurant and the food arrives before the server gives us sliverware. He looks up at the server with an innocent expression and asks, "Where's my fork and knife?" But he slurs the words so that it sounds like an obscenity.

I ran a couple of errands today and saw two things that were similarly ridiculous, in the sense that they triggered some sophomoric humor reflex. One was a sign for "Falken Tires." I hope they're good tires, because It's so easy to say "I'll never by those Falken Tires again."

The other was a sign on a painters truck that said "Faux King Painters." Once again, it's really tempting to say, "Those Faux King Painters messed up my family room." If you don't know what "faux" painters do, look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Half a Loaf

Today I received a formal offer from a software company about 12 miles from my house. The salary is awful, about 60% of what I was making at my last job in the banking software business. And the company’s product is boring, but not as boring as banking software, so I’ll count that as a bonus. The commute is the same distance as my old job, but in the opposite direction, which means I’ll be driving into the city with every other wage slave. I got spoiled driving against traffic for the past 11 years.

When I got laid off at the end of October, I expected it to take a minimum of 6 months to find work. We prepared for the worst by taking out a Home Equity Line of Credit on our house, which we planned to tap when our savings ran out. It’s been almost 5 months, and we’re near the end of our savings. We just missed the worst-case scenario, which I equate to eating your own leg for strength to walk.

The worst thing about this jobless situation is that I’m not a young whippersnapper anymore. I have a variety of stupid ailments, which require daily medication to alleviate symptoms. When my health insurance ran out, we decided not to pay for COBRA, which would have cost over a thousand dollars a month – money we didn’t feel comfortable spending. The medications I take are far too expensive to pay for without insurance, so I’ve been doing without. This means that I have to put up with some aggravations, but at least aggravations are free.

But one medication is too precious to do without: Imitrex. Imitrex is a miracle drug used to relieve migraine headaches. In my forties, I started getting migraines about once or twice a month, and take it from me, they suck.

When I got laid off, I filled the prescription immediately, before my insurance was cancelled. You only get nine pills. If I had to pay for them without insurance, the cost for those nine pills would be $288. That’s $32 a pill. Yesterday, I took the last one:


Imitrex has been around for long enough that the patent expired recently, so other pharmaceutical companies are free to make generic versions. But so far, there’s only one generic version on the market. The cost? $220 for nine pills. What a deal!

My health insurance at the new job won’t kick in for 30 days. I can only pray that I don’t get hit with any migraines during that time, because they’re completely incapacitating. Or, I can break U.S. Customs laws and order them sent to me by mail from a Canadian drug company, which only charges $79 for nine tablets of the generic version, plus $10 shipping.

OK, I’ll do my bit to stimulate the U.S. economy by buying products from American companies if those companies don’t hold me hostage to their bloated marketing schemes. Otherwise, those companies can sit back and watch their market share erode as financially-strapped Baby Boomers struggle to maintain their health by violating the law.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Split Rock Soup

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to one of the lawyers who plays in my pool league. She told me that she’s been working as a member of the defense team for insurance companies that insure trucking companies. It seems that trucking companies have to purchase pretty hefty liability insurance policies. Some people involved in accidents with tractor-trailers try to take advantage of the trucking company’s insurance company by faking injuries and suing for ridiculous amounts in the hope of a sizeable settlement.

As a result of being jobless, I’m trying to be careful about unnecessary expenditures. For example, I’ve been driving very carefully, to avoid getting a speeding ticket. I’ve been trying to stay healthy, to avoid having to buy expensive medications or visit the doctor.

In addition, my wife has been making lots of bulk meals from inexpensive ingredients. She’s pretty good at this, so I don’t complain at all. We lived in Boston for a long time, and she learned to make hearty homemade soups, stews, pasta dishes - all delicious and filling.

The other day she made a big pot of split pea soup, one of my favorites. I had a bowl for supper yesterday, and I bit down on this:


Not the dime, the rock. That rock is bigger than the stone in most engagement rings. Thank God I was paying attention, because I didn’t crack a tooth or lose a filling – something I wouldn’t want to pay for right now. But it got me thinking about the company that packages the split peas. I wonder if they have good liability insurance? I can't feel my legs.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

MegaCon Revisited

My wife knows a guy who works at the Orange County Convention Center, so we occasionally get free tickets to events we wouldn’t otherwise attend. For example, one year we went to a Reptile Show. I don’t have any particular interest in snakes, but it was fascinating to see the kind of people who do.

Likewise, a couple of years ago, we attended MegaCon – a giant convention for lovers of comics, anime, sci-fi and fantasy. It was full of people in bizarre costumes, exotic (often creepy) merchandise, and a pervasive spirit of fun and goodwill. We took my daughter, and she wandered the aisles with us, displaying nothing more than mild amusement.

When my wife’s acquaintance offered us tickets to this year’s MegaCon, we decided to go, because this year my daughter had an intense interest. She’s not interested in comics, anime, sci-fi or fantasy. Rather, she’s interested in sword fighting.

It seems that her boyfriend and a couple of other guys she knows are involved in a loose organization called Way of the Sword, and they meet twice a week at a local park to engage in practice sword battles using foam swords. There are different “clans” in the organization, who come together occasionally for a full day of games involving foam swords. I confess I have no interest in this activity, other than the fact that it’s free and it gets my daughter out of the house and provides her with some exercise. It’s almost entirely composed of geeky boys. My daughter’s clan was organized by a theater major who is actually skilled and knowledgeable at the use of swords, so they’re not just running around swatting wildly at each other. There’s actual training and discipline involved.

Way of the Sword had a booth at Megacon this year, and anyone who wanted to wait in line could duel with another person for a dollar. The booth was being run by the organizer of my daughter’s clan. This is him, I swear:


At one point, Darth Vader and Chewbacca engaged in a swordfight, to the delight of the crowd:


There’s a huge group of gamers who attend, because of the fantasy element found in so many console and board games. Here’s a group of gamers, watching transfixed as other gamers play:


There were at least four booths selling nothing but gaming dice, some made out of precious materials such as jade and silver. I can't imagine how hard it is to make a living selling dice.


Comics were everywhere, and lots of independent comic artists sat at tables trying to drum up interest in their products. I spoke to one of them, who said that distributors require you to have 3 complete issues of your comic ready before they’ll take you on, and if the first issue doesn’t generate at least $32,000 in sales, they drop you. It doesn’t sound like a good business for an artist, but there were dozens of guys trying to break in to the market.


In fantasy worlds, weapons are very popular. There were about a dozen vendors selling genuine swords with sharp, deadly blades. But there were only about three vendors selling Airsoft-type guns:



Because so many people attend in costume, there were loads of booths selling costumes and costume accessories. It was a strange kind of delayed gratification, where the attendees wore costumes they bought at last year’s convention, and shopped for costumes to wear next year. But wow, the costumes!












Some costumes were more successful (or perhaps just less weird) than others. This, for example, is a guy:


And this is a man who shouldn't remove his shirt under any circumstances, particularly when he's trying to look like some kind of Ninja superhero:


I asked this guy who he was supposed to be, and he told me that he was dressed as a character he had created himself. Apparently, there's a whole group of them who design their own fantasy/superhero characters and then spend months making costumes just so they can show up at this event:


But once again, despite the crappy economy, everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves: