Archive for November, 2008

Thanksgiving weekend musings

November 30, 2008

Among professional writers, I think the best job would be working in the press office at the State Department and the worst job would be as an editorial writer. At the State Department, every time there was some international catastrophe, it’d be your job to come up with the modifier that expressed the unparalleled level of concern all Americans felt in this time of tragedy.

“Hey, Bob,” your boss would instant-message you, “how concerned are we about Finland being invaded by space monsters?”

“Pretty darn concerned, I’d imagine,” you’d respond, stalling while you reached for your thesaurus. “I’d say we’re either ‘profoundly concerned’, ‘gravely concerned’, ‘momentously concerned’, or ‘really, really super-concerned’.”

“Good job, Jim,” the boss would reply. “We can always count on your sympathy.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the poor editorial writer, whose job it is to be outraged by mass murders, supportive of the local blood drive, and troubled by the rise in teen pregnancies. Only blatantly obvious and widely agreed-upon opinions are allowed. It’s only if you want to end your career in a hail of indignant letters to the editor that you could endorse an armed revolution against the government or a boycott of Girl Scout cookies.

* * *

I went to the mall this weekend, not because I needed anything but because it’s required by federal statute. I avoided the so-called Black Friday (which I thought is what they used to call Good Friday and actually seems like a better name, since it wasn’t good that Jesus was crucified but rather it was black, which I think in the current reference indicates retailers’ profits) like the plague, which was also black but not as popular. Anyway, my wife and I went on a rainy Saturday afternoon, mostly just to see the crowds and punish ourselves for eating too much turkey.

What I like best about a crowded mall is a game I made up that I call “mall-walking”. It’s not the slow-paced circuits made by energetic seniors, but rather an attempt to dart as fast as possible through crowds of zombified shoppers, imagining I’m avoiding tacklers while returning a kickoff for a touchdown. It’s best to walk quickly rather than run, unless you want to really be tackled by security guards. You start on the clockwise side, so you have a few “blockers” going in your direction but most everyone else is coming toward you. Extra hazards include kiosk merchants trying to rub you with cologne samples, restaurant workers trying to hand you teriyaki chicken, slow-moving family blobs who spread out six-wide, and fast-moving professional shoppers erupting unpredictably from storefronts. If you make it to the goal line (a pod of easy chairs containing heavy-eyed husbands who, before the mall was redesigned last summer, had to seek out the bedding section of Sears to recline their slumping figures) without being touched, you win.

I still think this would make a great video game, where you could use famous malls or other high-traffic areas – Times Square, the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo, penitentiaries serving the U.S. Congress – as different game fields. Electronic Arts, are you out there?

* * *

One of the most embarrassing situations I’ve ever encountered happened recently in my office. Coworkers were circulating a card to send to someone’s father who was about to have a serious operation. I was vaguely aware that someone in that family was in the midst of a health crisis, and had wrongly assumed that a death was involved.

When the card got to me, it was left at my desk with the inside open, so I could add my thoughts and/or prayers but I couldn’t see the message printed on the cover. Too quickly, I scrawled my message: “Thinking of you in your time of loss.” It was only when I closed the card to pass it on to the next person that I realized it wasn’t a sympathy card, it was a get-well card.

My callous lack of sincerity was captured in permanent ink. It didn’t matter that my sympathy was in one sense technically suitable – there probably was going to be loss involved in the anticipated amputation of his arm. But it was pretty clear that this wasn’t the kind of loss I was referencing and, even if it was, it was a pretty insensitive way to express my wishes.

Switching into recovery mode, I considered my options for fixing the hideous error. I obviously couldn’t run out and buy a replacement card, because of all the original messages already affixed. I considered white-out, but the glossy smear would only draw more attention and some curious individual would inevitably scratch it off to see what was underneath.

The only other choice was to work with the existing ink-strokes and modify them to change the message. After about 20 minutes of work, I got it to read “Thinking it’s your time to floss.” I had no idea what this was supposed to mean. My hope, however, was that my coworkers would think it was a friendly inside reference that only the patient would get, and that the patient wouldn’t know who I was anyway.

* * *

I called my insurance company this morning to investigate an apparent error in billing that cost me about $250. I was almost positive I was right, but even the smallest doubt seems magnified when you’re dealing with a sophisticated multinational computer system. I actually got through the automated voicemail system relatively unscathed and in touch with a real live person, who turned out to be quite helpful. After the usual small delays (“our computer seems to be a little slow today,” he says as he looks at my premium history in a grid that dictates how nice to be) he located my account and the source of the problem. “Yes, I think our records may be in error,” he says. “Will it be okay if we make the correction in your next billing period?” Yes, of course, that’s great, I say.

Then comes the little trick they’ve apparently taught every help desk in the world in the last year: “Before I let you go, can I interest you in our new 3.5% APR certificate of deposit?” While you’re still in the throes of relief over your billing being corrected, there’s a piece of your willpower against solicitation that has become slightly weaker, and they’re damn sure going to take advantage. I very much want to return the favor of helping this individual like he’s just helped me, and $5,000 does seem like a small price to pay. But in the end, I recover enough to politely decline.

 

 

 

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My life as a football fan

November 28, 2008

I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember, but I’m not sure why. In recent years, I’ve been able to put my attention to the game on a more sane footing than when I was young. I understand now that the outcome of a contest played by rented behemoths who’s five seconds of action is constantly interrupted by hopped-up robot graphics, slowed-down replays and giant pickup trucks running over things has very little to do with my happiness. Or at least that’s the way it should be.

That’s not always how I viewed it. My earliest memories are not of watching others play the game but rather participating in the activity myself, a concept now seen as hopelessly quaint. Larry and Lloyd and Ricky and I would take over the only open area in our Miami suburb – a public street – and play two-on-two games with gutters for sidelines and mailboxes for goals. It was a touch game consisting almost entirely of passing, since tackling on the asphalt was frowned upon by our moms and pediatricians. (Tackling was done only when we couldn’t scare up the four-person minimum and resorted instead to a backyard version of the game called “kill the man with the ball”.) We’d play for hours at a time, up and down the street with scores often soaring into the hundreds, interrupted only by the occasional cry of “car!” to avoid being struck by an oncoming vehicle.

The first football teams I followed from afar were the University of Miami Hurricanes, a pathetic bunch in the ‘60s more concerned with tanning than athletics, and the Green Bay Packers, more concerned with winning than packing. We didn’t have a pro team south of Washington back then, so proximity wasn’t an issue in my choice of gridiron heroes. The closest we ever got to the pros was when the now-abandoned consolation “championship” game was played in the Orange Bowl, and my father and I would use tickets promoters could barely give away to watch teams casually vie for the title of Third Best Team in the All of Football.

In 1967, the NFL finally realized that the South might possibly be interested enough in physical brutality and incredible amounts of sweating to support a pro team, and Miami was awarded the Dolphin franchise. They were lovable losers in those early years, featuring a head coach who chose his inept son to be quarterback and defensive stalwart Wahoo McDaniel, part of that rare breed of wrestlers-turned-linebackers who were named after game fish. The best part of those early years were the rare occasions when the Dolphins scored a touchdown and a porpoise I thought of as Flipper (though for copyright reasons, I think his name was actually “Blipper”) would leap in celebration from his above-ground pool in the end zone, then retrieve the extra-point kick on the occasions those were made.

I rooted so hard for the Dolphins in my high-school years that they actually started winning games. This was the beginning of my only recently abandoned fantasy that I could positively influence the outcome of a game by jumping up and down in front of a TV screen, crying out “yes!” or “no!” as appropriate to the circumstance. I imagined that either I had keen enough acumen to recognize quality players and coaching better than other observers, or else that I possessed a supernatural skill that somehow would propel footballs over goal lines and through goal posts. When the team posted a perfect 17-0 record and won two Super Bowls in the early ‘70s, I was proud to take the credit personally.

Shortly after I went off to college, I began to develop other interests. I worked at the school newspaper, finally found enough self-confidence to begin a form of dating, and even went to class now and then. As a result, or so I believed, the dynasty began to wane. I’d still watch when I could, on the TV in the dorm lobby, but thunderous expressions of glee or outrage had to be muffled lest onlookers be frightened. I still remember going back to my room after a narrow loss to the Raiders, and getting mad at my roommate when he teased me about my disappointment. “You don’t understand,” I tried to explain. “You making fun of the Dolphins is like me making fun of your family.” In an epiphany, I realized I was an idiot.

Fortunately, the timing of my about-face couldn’t have been more convenient, as my college team, the Florida State Seminoles, were in the midst of their worst run in school history. They had made the ludicrous move of hiring a coach with a doctoral degree who was using good-vibe pop psychology to coax the players into winning, if they felt like it. The result was an 0-11 season, followed by an only slightly improved record the next year after the coach vowed no more Dr. Nice Guy. I had picked up the contrarian nature of the counterculture by this time and, since football was only slightly less politically incorrect than the secret war in Laos, my friends and I delighted in the ‘Nolean ineptitude. Again, though, I was believing that my mental state was directly affecting results on the field.

It took a move from football-blessed Florida to the football-cursed Carolinas to finally break the spell. During my first 15 years in the region, there was again no pro team to follow and the game as played at the college level here contained more than enough mediocrity to keep me at bay. (Anyone who can get excited about a match-up between perennial rivals like Duke and Wake Forest is in serious need of a hobby). The last time a team from that Atlantic Coast Conference generated widespread enthusiasm was around the time the ocean of the same name was formed out of ancient Pangaea.

When the Carolina Panthers came into being in the mid-1990s, I followed them somewhat when they were up and not so much when they were down. Some might accuse me of being a fair-weather fan by ignoring their exploits when success was limited. But I’m not buying tickets to their games when they’re not providing entertainment, just like they don’t come to my house and run the west coast offense when I’m not providing them money. I am watching their games this season, since they currently sport an 8-3 record, but I do it by first recording the contest on my DVR and then playing it back at triple speed. That’s my idea of a hurry-up offense.

Now, when coworkers talk on Monday morning about their respective teams of preference and how “we” really handed it to the Cowboys yesterday or “our” defense made the difference, I can see the truth behind their perceived participation. As my wife succinctly put it when I got a little out of control watching a game early in our marriage, “do you even know any of those guys?”

A bad time to start eating good

November 23, 2008

Food has always played a central role in my life. I know that’s something that everyone can claim, except maybe those lucky few who survive by photosynthesis. I use it not only for sustenance and pleasure but also as a major contributor to my overall sense of well-being and security. If I have an ample store of baked goods, take-out entrees and my favorite soft drink, I feel I’m ready to survive any calamity short of a thermonuclear holocaust. My wife accuses me of collecting cookies and cakes like a squirrel collects acorns, but where else am I going to find a chocolate-chunk blondie post-apocalypse?

We’ll all be thinking a lot about food in the coming days, with Thanksgiving just around the corner. Because of its carbo-centric theme, this has always been my favorite holiday, but it’s hardly the only day where I’m thinking about the menu days in advance. As I write this posting, it’s Saturday afternoon and I can tell you virtually every meal I’ll be eating between now and the holiday five days in the future.

(This is what makes blogs so interesting).

During the workweek, I’ll have a blueberry breakfast bar, hazelnut-flavored coffee and pulp-free orange juice for breakfast, and a sliced deli turkey sandwich on Milton’s bread with two reduced-fat Oreo cookies for dessert. I’m very particular about these selections, and will not tolerate orange juice with medium pulp, some pulp, a little pulp, or one small suspicious glob you’d hope is only pulp. Pulp is for paper mills, not breakfast juices. I might allow some variation in this otherwise rigid schedule for a special celebration – the day after Obama was elected, for example, I treated myself to reduced-fat Chips Ahoy! (because of the exclamation point) – but I take great comfort in the predictability of this regime.

Dinner is my opportunity to allow a little variation in my food consumption. Tonight, for example, I’m considering the hamburger I bought but never ate at lunch today, some leftover Japanese food from my wife’s lunch, or I may just pick out some items from the prepared-food bar here at the grocery store coffee shop where I’m writing. I’ve already checked out the grilled hot dogs sitting under the warming lights and, though they look tasty, there’s a sign that says the buns are available behind the bakery counter, and I’m a bit reluctant to ask the worker there “do you have buns?” (especially since there’s a new hire sitting behind me who’s going through the company’s sexual harassment training DVD).

I may be able to attribute some of my quirky attitudes toward food to my upbringing. My mother created most of her meals out of her Pennsylvania Dutch background until she moved to a Miami neighborhood dominated by Italian transplants from New York. This allowed her to add things like lasagna and meatballs to hog maw and shoo-fly pie, though usually not in the same meal. Breakfast was typically skillet-fried potatoes and something called “scrapple” – more appetizingly known as “liver mush” in the South — and the lunch I carried off to school usually included a can of Vienna sausages (whatever rarely harvested parts of the pig that weren’t in the scrapple were probably in the sausages). It was all very tasty and very dense on a molecular level, and was probably a significant contributor to the fact that I weighed nearly 250 pounds by the time I graduated from high school.

When I went off to college, my eating habits didn’t get any better. “Healthy” eating was a concept still in the distant future in the 1970s; all foods that didn’t contain metal filings were considered healthy in those days. Despite the fact that my favorites at the time included the Burger Chef “Big Chef” and French fries covered in tartar sauce, and I remember celebrating my new-found independence early in my freshman year by eating a two-pound bag of Hershey kisses, I managed to lose weight throughout my college years. I briefly fell under the mistaken impression that there were other things in life besides eating, some of which suppressed your appetite when taken in illegal quantities. I rarely missed a meal – to this day when I hear someone say they forgot to eat lunch, it’s as astounding to me as if they forgot to properly regulate their body temperatures – yet I somehow found a way to metabolize the calories efficiently.

When I met my future wife after college, concepts like fat and cholesterol had become more widely known, as well as the idea that green plants could be used for something other than landscaping. Unlike many kids, I actually enjoyed most vegetables during my formative years. The cartoon character Popeye got me started on spinach and from there it was a slippery slope onto harder flora like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. I never went for the likes of okra and squash because of their funny names, though that never kept me away from a McRib. My diet did gradually improve throughout my marriage, largely thanks to my wife’s vegetarian tendencies and a maturing of my tastes that allowed me to appreciate fine wines as well as fine Pepsi.

Now I have a son who eats like the typical teenager, and I find myself once again coming under negative influences. The appreciation I had cultivated of foodstuffs like tofu and tempeh is now being undermined by Rob’s affection for all things nuggety. I still enjoy good-for-you quality – right next to those hot dogs I have my eyes on is a loaf called “field roast grain meat”, the first two ingredients of which are filtered water and wheat gluten – yet I find myself increasingly drawn to fast foods. Maybe I can find a proper balance in the oxymoronically named taco salad.

One of my wife’s favorite sayings is “life is too short to drink cheap wine”. In these uncertain economic and geopolitical times, I’m tempted to agree, and extend the aphorism to include “…eat healthy foods”. I worked hard a year or two ago to lose about 25 pounds, suffering through sensible portions that bordered on the subatomic just to make my clothes fit better. Now I’m inclined to think that’s a pretty high price to pay for a single notch on my belt buckle, and find myself migrating back to comfort foods, so-called because you can trade your trim-fitting clothing for a comforter.

When I drove through KFC for my son on the way home from school the other day, and I got to smell the barbecue boneless chicken wings he ordered, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

That may yet be my fate if I don’t straighten up and eat right.

Thanksgiving comes early in the office

November 21, 2008

The turkey carcass sits mangled on the serving table, looking like the victim of a bear attack. The sweet potato casserole has been denuded of its marshmallow topping, but you could probably scrape a few more servings out of the corners of the pan if you tried. The stuffing is completely gone, serving its stated purpose of stuffing those who now lounge around the edges of this scene, barely moving except for the effort it takes to moan.

No, you haven’t been transported a week into the future by the magic of the blog. This is the scene I left behind at yesterday’s office celebration of Thanksgiving, a full seven days before most of us will commemorate the occasion.

The corporate calendar of holidays is not something most of us are aware of until we walk into work one dark January day and discover we’ve neglected to bring the green bagels for St. Patrick’s Day, which the outside world celebrates on March 17. Maybe I exaggerate a little, but not much. The government has imposed Monday observance of the more minor holidays like Presidents, Labor and Memorial days. Christmas and New Year’s are complicated by the fact that the days before them — the Eves — are in many ways more important than the actual holidays themselves. Many human resources departments have come up with the concept of a “floating” holiday for individuals to use in the religious observance of their choosing, such as Yom Kippur, Kwanzaa or Talk Like a Pirate Day. People in my mostly Christian office, for example, use their optional holiday for the day after Easter, prompting one observer to wonder if the “floating” had something to do with Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

I guess having the Thanksgiving potluck yesterday made some sense on a gut level, considering few of us would want to gorge like that two days in a row if it were scheduled for next Wednesday. The only opening left on the sign-up sheet when I got to it was “salad”, which seemed very un-Thanksgiving-like but worked for me since it was so easy to prepare (take one head of lettuce, rip to shreds, serves 20). Management was providing the ham and turkey, and everything else was being brought in by the staff, who would have a chance to dazzle coworkers with their best recipes, many of which involved green beans, cream soup and those crunchy onion things.

The sit-down time was scheduled for 11 a.m. so the organizers had the better part of the morning to set up the centerpieces, warm and then re-warm the hot dishes, and tempt us all with the smells of the season. This was to be an affair that combined our staff with workers from the front office, who we sometimes pass in the restrooms but about whom we know little else. As the serving time arrived, I was unfortunate enough to be just outside their offices when a manager called out for me to summon them. At first I was confused about who exactly he meant, and nearly beckoned the 200-plus temporary work crew from the warehouse. That would’ve been a horrible mistake, certain to result in stolen plastic cutlery and tiny, tiny portions for everyone. Still, I didn’t want to call for these front-office folks I didn’t know (“hey, it’s the guy from the bathroom – what’s he want?”) so I went to hide in my car for a few minutes.

I hoped this would have the added benefit of allowing me to miss the inevitable speech-giving and prayer that would precede the food consumption. But as the schedule started running behind, I made it just in time to hear the department head note that though these are difficult times, we still have much to be thankful for, followed by a brief blessing. Not being a currently practicing Christian myself, I’ve always felt awkward during this portion of the proceedings. It’s not because I take offense at having others’ religious beliefs imposed on me; rather, I’m bothered that I use the respectful silence to think of the sarcastic prayer I’d be tempted to offer if I’m ever called upon. Instead of beginning with “dear Jesus” or “holy Father”, the sacrilegious scamp in me wants to begin with a “good God” and then launch into several other James Brown references like papa’s brand new bag and how good I feel (so good). Fortunately for everyone, Edna does a nice reverent offering, and it’s finally time to chow down.

Office chairs were pulled up to the long row of covered work tables. After people worked their way down the buffet, carefully gauging the decreasing capacity of their Chinettes against the promise of what appeared further down the line, we were told to squeeze into a seat and begin the scheduled conviviality. The randomness and closeness of this seating arrangement, not to mention my very real fear of being injured by flying elbows, caused me to linger toward the end of the buffet line in the hope the table would be too full. I lucked out and was able to return instead to my work station to eat, where I got a kernel of corn stuck between “F7” and “F8” on my keyboard.

I genuinely enjoyed the food, as did everyone else. I was also able to enjoy the air of warmth and geniality in the room without actually having to get any of it on me. We didn’t have any holiday music piped through the intercom as we’ll do at Christmas — primarily I guess because there isn’t any, except for the less-than-festive “Turkey in the Straw” – but there was a certain atmosphere that for a moment almost made me give some actual thanks.

I managed to avoid overeating, which was good since I had a long drive home to navigate in the next hour and I didn’t want to sleep through it. Others in our department weren’t so lucky, as they staggered back to their desks to face another three hours of duty. The combination of turkey, heavy carbohydrates and the kind of workload you might expect at a financial services firm during the worst economic downturn in 70 years must’ve been as tough to handle as an Ambien/opium blend injected directly into your forehead.

At least there were no Detroit Lions to send them over the edge and into lethal coma.

Achieving quality step by step

November 19, 2008

Ever since we started outsourcing a lot of our work overseas, many companies have been real big on standard operating procedures. I think the theory is that breaking down your production process into a simple step-by-step operation makes it possible for even the most untrained worker to perform. While that can work well at a very basic level for those eager but inexperienced developing-world types, it hampers the ability of us still working on American soil to find creative ways to screw things up.

About ten years ago, the rage in corporate quality movements was something called ISO 9000. The idea was that if you documented (or “wrote down”) all your processes and then operated as you said you would, nothing could go wrong. No variation was possible when humans were turned into mindless, instruction-reading work-bots. Errors in this system were supposed to be so few that a special numeration system had to be devised to describe how tiny the odds of failure were. This was the concept of “Six Sigma”, or six mistakes out of all the fraternity or sorority members in the world.

Though ISO 9000 is still followed in some corporate backwaters of the world, it gradually lost credibility in the U.S. First there was the problem that even if American workers could make sense of the instructions, there was no guarantee that just because something was written down that it would work (see the 2008 Republican platform and any MapQuest directions for just two examples). And then there was the problem with the name of the initiative itself: ISO stands for International Society for Obduration, which I think has something to do with pity, and the 9000 part represented the year in which actual gains from the program will be seen.

The remnants of this system that still exist in most lines of work are now called “standard practices”. They used to be called “best practices”, but that was considered too elitist, I guess, and it was judged more important that we do everything the same, whether it was actually good or not. Now, whether the person doing the work is in Boston or London or Hong Kong or Neptune (in the year 9000), all they have to do is go to the corporate intranet, access the development and training section, then go to the operations page, then find the kind of process they’re doing, then call up the appropriate requirements, then find the “SP”, then start looking for another job because they missed a critical deadline while monkeying around on the computer.

When you do have time to follow the standard practice, you better pull up a chair because it’s typically going to take a while to get through it. One example I’m looking at breaks a particular operation down into 15 steps, which seems almost manageable until you consider that step 8 alone includes four checkboxes followed by 16 bullet points and six sub-bullet points. Other steps are ridiculously simple, like step 15 which involves taking your page off the printer. The standard practice doesn’t tell you how many fingers to use to pick up the sheet of paper, whether to use your left hand or your right hand or what kind of protective gear you should be wearing but, as the website warns all users, “don’t use a hard copy of these instructions because they are constantly being revised in the spirit of continuous improvement.”

When despite the best efforts of the quality mavens something wrong does make it out to a client, an investigation into how this could possibly happen usually takes place. A “service recovery account” is requested of the offending manufacturing site who attempts to figure out, usually several weeks after the error was committed, what step in the flawless process was not followed. Usually, the answer is something like “we didn’t work on this job”, and the matter is referred to another location. Once the site is definitively determined, the managers there will “drill down” through a massive collection of archived paperwork to figure out which individual or team was responsible (the drilling is just a figurative term at U.S. offices but involves an actual boring device for workers offshore). A corrective action is implemented, typically a scolding email to anyone who might’ve participated in the misdeed. We’re able to report back to the client that we appreciate they’ve pointed out an improvement opportunity that has made our process even better, and that someone won’t be getting their merit raise, if it’s ever decided these will be reinstituted.

What all this ignores is that some of the steps in a process are more critical than others, and that it takes an experienced person to know when it’s safe to cut corners and skip something trivial. If sub-step 2.4.7(A)(e) involves hopping on one foot while you key in your job number, you’ll see the Bombay skyline compliantly swaying with tremors while in Atlanta they’ll just take a chance they can skip the hopping. Our overseas workers are extremely good at doing exactly what they’re told to do, knowing they could be out on the streets if it’s found they cut a corner. At best, there will be “stand-ups” (where a top manager stands up before the group and yells at them), “letters of retribution” inserted into personnel files and, worst of all, week-long reprogramming regimens that involve the south Asian equivalent of a forced march. Virtually no one gets dismissed for cause domestically, since downsizing is certain to eventually take care of them anyway.

There’s a pendulum of emphasis that swings back and forth between quality and meeting deadlines that American workers seem to be better at timing. We’re much closer to the screaming customer to be able to tell when we’re about to enter a new era. We use those all-American traits of innovation and intuition and poor reading skills to perform from the gut what we think needs to be done rather than what some piece of paper says. And we can tell when it might be a good time take a lunch break to avoid those managers who are shocked (shocked!) to learn that a standard process wasn’t followed step by ridiculous, excruciating step.

Learning to blog at WordCamp

November 16, 2008

Attendees at yesterday’s Charlotte WordCamp — you could tell it was a new media thing by how they took the space out of “WordCamp” — generally fell into two categories. There were the experienced bloggers looking to refine their skills and improve their social networking by actually meeting real people, and there were those like me, real (but old) people who had heard of blobs and inner-nets and wanted to get into this online action while we still lived and breathed. It was the twitterers and the twits. The avatars and the ava-tards.

The event was sponsored by The Charlotte Observer, respectfully called the “mature” media by symposium leaders who probably refer to it as the Observersaurus in private. I learned about it while reading an article in the paper a few months ago that promised an opportunity for new bloggers like me to learn the ropes. Publicizing the affair in the local section of the paper, right next to the article about Billy Graham “celebrating” his 90th birthday, apparently garnered little notice, and registration was wide open when I went online to sign up. When word finally made it out to the blogosphere a few weeks later, the location planned for 50 participants now had to hold in excess of a hundred.

I arrived early Saturday to make sure I could get an outlet for my laptop’s power cord. Going through the lobby and up to the third floor of the Observer building, it was painfully evident that such a long-respected bricks-and-mortar newspaper operation was on the wane. The faded paint, the tattered flooring, the creaking elevator that failed later in the morning, trapping its inhabitant into the identity of “Elevator Guy” for the rest of the day, all served to reinforce the transition now taking place in the media world. We signed in at the registration desk, wrote our names onto nametags in marker ink that soaked through two levels of clothing as it made you high, and headed into the conference room to begin the session.

It was pretty evident right from the beginning about the dichotomy we’d be struggling with all day. Mostly middle-aged representatives of the Observer stood around the edge of the room, studying the participants like we were lowland gorillas. Their sponsorship was obviously aimed at figuring out how to get in on this young demographic and turn them into eyeballs they could charge 37½ cents a piece each day. Sharing their background if not their status among the employed were about a third of the participants. As we learned during brief self-introductions, these folks had opted for a “midlife career change”, “early retirement” or “freelance writing” that all looked suspiciously like being laid off. The other two-thirds, including the people at the front who’d be doing the presenting, may or may not have had jobs and didn’t really seem to care one way or the other. They had Twitter, and that’s all they had time for anyway.

After the introductions, the first item on the agenda was a meet-and-greet for non-beginners and a general Q&A session for the rest of us. The meet-and-greet would take place in an adjacent room, so the non-beginners were told to adjourn for about 30 minutes while the newbies remained behind to ask their stupid questions. I probably had enough experience to go either way but the prospect of climbing through all those wires and aisles convinced me to stay behind, though it did occur to me that perhaps we were being separated like the concentration camp victims told to stay behind for the showers.

I don’t know what went on the other room (I suspect there was a fair amount of snickering and cootie vaccines) but my group took the opportunity to ask variations on the same question for the better part of the session. What was a tag and what was a category? How are they different? How are they the same? What’s a tag again? What do you mean by category? A tag cloud, what the hell is that? Should I have brought a laptop?

After a break, we were again allowed to commingle with the veteran bloggers. There was a technical and design panel that gave ideas on how to make your blog stand out from the 700 billion blogs out there. We were told how to steal a theme, copy a graphic and plug in a plug-in. Most of these tips were delivered in reverse top-ten formats, a la David Letterman, which I’m guessing was supposed to make the aged among us feel like we had taken a long afternoon nap and stayed up past 11 for the first time since college. The nap came in handy, as the discussion turned to FTP, future-proofing, subdomains, RSS and microblogging, and I turned to my version of the Internet to avoid boredom. I had AOL open for about five minutes before I realized this was probably the most embarrassing site choice anyone in the room could possibly make.

After a lunch break for pizza (exactly what I thought bloggers ate), we began the afternoon session with the topic of content development. Not surprisingly, a recurring suggestion from all five presenters was that a blog should actually have some amount of content, which may not have occurred to about half the room who were waiting for the part about downloading reliable cash streams. Content was described as “king”, “queen” and, ultimately, the “ten of spades”. We were told we’d need dynamic content to attract readers but probably wouldn’t have any readers to appreciate it in the beginning, unless you worked for the Observer or developed wide social networks in places like FaceBook, MySpace and the bulletin board at Goodwill.

Some of the ideas for good content seemed to be exactly what I was already doing. One slide read “picture = 1000 words”, which I initially took to mean that the picture of the perfect web posting was something that ran to a thousand words in length. Unfortunately, what this actually referred to was the assertion that you could put photos and other graphics on your blog. My thousand-long-word essays now seem to be serious overkill compared to many of the blogs we were shown, where perhaps as few as fifty words were needed as long as several of them were “tweet”, “Obama” or “my naked girlfriend.” Apparently you can also put video on your blog, and I plan to do that as soon as I can find the port on my laptop that accepts VHS tapes.

Of course, no seminar like this is complete without the inspirational speaker offering his formula for success. Right before the keynote address, we were told that promoting your site was as simple as (now write this down) “create” plus “serve” times “community” equals “wealth”. This was about the most useless formula I had heard at one of these things since a corporate development trainer had advised me that ambition divided by talent minus honesty to the third power is greater than or equal to the cosine of success. Nobody wrote anything down, primarily because pens and papers are such primitive technology that only the older folks even brought them, and most of us were back in the lunchroom by now trying to snag a few more Chips Ahoy. Among those who remained, I did hear some tap-tap-tapping followed by a long pause as they looked for the “equal” key.

At the end, we collected our decidedly low-tech T-shirts (not at all virtual or digital, like I was hoping), said our goodbyes to the new contacts we had made, and hoped that someone somewhere in the room would be visiting our blogs.

Being neighborly in the subdivision

November 15, 2008

They say that good fences make good neighbors. Since the restrictive covenants in our particular subdivision forbid the installation of “fences, barriers or similarly containing obstructions”, we have lousy neighbors.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh. I’m actually quite fond of the neighborhood we’ve lived in now for almost 15 years. It’s a collection of perhaps 60 or 70 upper-middle-class homes built in the pre-McMansion era, when floor plans were sensible and pre-existing plant life was respected by not being slashed and burned. In fact the name of our subdivision – I think it’s “Shady Creek”, but it could be “Shadow River” or “Dappled Brook” – reflects both the old hardwoods that canopy the main road and the shallow creek that, if you don’t look too closely, runs cleanly alongside the main road.

We live on that road, on the corner of one of about a dozen cul-de-sacs. We have a nice mixture of young families and retired couples, many of them academics from the college about two miles away. We’ve seen little of the housing market distress that haunts Subprime Village at the Township at Cityplace across the way, and even enough of a progressive streak that we sported a few Obama yard signs during the recent election season. I nod to the people I pass on my occasional walks and raise two fingers off the steering wheel  (three if I’m feeling friendly) as I drive past them, and am on good if anonymous terms with everybody. Most of them know me as the Stocky Guy that Runs and would probably describe me as the quiet type should I ever be charged with some gruesome crime.

I don’t really know my immediately adjacent neighbors at all. Some community-minded type down the street recently collected names, professions and other basic data for a small directory she published, but several families on our block declined to participate in the census. So they are known to me as follows.

The retired couple on our right (they’re either retired or simply don’t work very hard) have lived in their house for about two years now. I thought about approaching them and introducing myself when they first moved in, but after a few near-miss encounters it grew increasingly awkward to do so. Now I mostly see the husband as he walks his harnessed cat in the yard behind our shed. Why our property is better suited for the feline constitution than his is a mystery to me, but what’s even more curious is that he does this activity in full view of my wife and me. At least he has enough shame not to wave when he sees us. I’ve seen his wife only rarely when, for some reason, a different antique auto appears in front of their home every weekend and she engages in a long discussion with the driver. Maybe they’re running a stolen vintage car ring and the cat on a tether is meant to be a cover for their criminal enterprise.

The family on our left, across the cul-de-sac, consists of a young couple with two school-age daughters. They all seem nice enough from a distance, if balloons occasionally displayed on their mailbox is any indication. I have no problem with them, but I do have a concern with one of their visiting mothers. She recently pulled up to the side of their house to witness both me and her son hard at work in our respective yards. It seemed pretty obvious that both of us were herding leaves toward the curb, where the city’s vacuum truck would pick them up in a few days. Rather than park her car in front of his home, however, she chose instead to put it on my side of the street. I was stunned at first by this blatant show of preference for her own flesh and blood, especially since she did it right in front of me. After she went inside, I continued shepherding my leaves to the curb and put them exactly where I had originally intended, leaving a small space for her late-model sedan in the center of my pile. At least the vehicle was still largely visible from the door handles up.

Behind our house is an African-American family that I also know very little about. They’ve lived there about five years now but it’s been hard to watch their comings and goings because of how our respective homes are positioned. They probably know us a lot better than we do them, since the sliding glass double doors leading into our family room let them look out of one of their bedroom windows and directly into our lives. We had a good bit more privacy until they cleared a stand of shrubbery just inside their property line about six months ago; I’m not going to ascribe any voyeuristic motives to this questionable bit of landscaping, though I cut a pretty dashing figure as I clomp around the kitchen in my pajamas. The only other thing I know about them is that, for some unknown reason, they have their grass cut by the retired Southern gentleman on their other side. I’m guessing it’s some sort of Civil War reparations arrangement.

Finally, across the street there lives a cluster of several hundred people. It’s not an overcrowded group home but instead a development of townhouses just beyond the creek. Though not technically a part of the subdivision, the only way they can come and go is via our main road so I’ll consider them neighbors enough to grumble about. My primary beef is that they and their landscapers use the grassy area visible through our front window as a place to heap their trash, in direct violation of some municipal code or other we discovered when we called the city to complain. A guy came out and posted a “no dumping” sign, which they promptly ignored except for knocking it over. When we put it back up, someone stole the sign leaving only a post, which is nice as posts go but mentions very little about the ordinance. I bet the mostly retired community that lives in this development would sympathize with our concern and might even mention it to the landscapers, if any of them spoke English.

All in all, it’s really a pretty good place to live. We may not be neighborly when it comes to borrowing cups of sugar and checking each other’s pets while on vacation, we do have a Neighborhood Watch program. I know this because there’s a sign (not yet vandalized) and because the neighborhood coordinator stopped at my door one day to ask if she could have our stepping stones. I suppose they are desirable as stepping stones go – cement, circular, about 2-feet wide, truly exquisite – but I wasn’t quite ready to simply give them away to the crazy lady who yells at passing cars to “slow down!” Perhaps, for the betterment of the community I should have.

Sunday meanderings

November 12, 2008

It’s Sunday so of course I’ve just finished up a bunch of household chores, the last of which was leaf-blowing. We’re at the peak of fall here in my part of the South, which means my tree-covered lot can be cleared of fallen leaves just in time to start all over again. My right arm, with which I held the blower, is very weak and sore right now, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I don’t type too many words from the right-hand side of the keyboard. Topics thus eliminated for consideration include hijacking, polkas, and PIN numbers (ouch!)

What I’m actually going to discuss today is a variety of short topics:

  • Is there any household chore more overwhelming than dusting? I made myself devote an hour to it this morning and I’ve barely scratched the surface (guess I should’ve used a softer cloth). Our home office with all its dust-attracting electronics was especially imposing — the shelving under our computer desk looked like a deserted alpaca refuge. After getting most of the obvious surfaces cleaned, I looked up at our wall of built-in bookshelves and realized that to do it right, I’d have to remove every book and wipe it down till the entire shelf was empty, then wipe down the shelf. Then repeat 16 times. Just as wrinkle-resistant clothing eliminated ironing and the modern blender allowed us to make smoothies without the use of a diesel engine, I wonder if technology will ever conquer household dust. Perhaps if our homes were converted into airless vacuums, there’d be no way for dust particles to travel from wherever the hell it is they originate. But then I guess breathing might be an issue.
  • I stubbed my toe badly as I came out of the shower after today’s yard work and it (eventually) hurt. The delay it takes for pain signals to travel from your foot to your brain and back is absolute torture. It’s like knowing the date three weeks in the future that you’re going to die. I kicked the tub hard and thought it was going to be a bad one, so I preemptively cried out in anticipated agony, then felt a little disappointed when the anguish didn’t materialize. This is what my life has come to.
  • Did you read the other day about the airline passenger who became so unruly during her flight that they had to subdue her by taping her to her seat? I wonder if the airline had one of those new a la carte pricing structures and charged her for the tape.
  • Wouldn’t it be great if you could live your life sequentially instead of on the normal space-time continuum? Do an entire life’s worth of a single task as soon as you’re born, then another, then another. You could take care of all the unpleasant, tedious and painful chores at one time and get them out of the way, so you’d be able to spend your final years doing nothing but the enjoyable. It might be difficult to spend eight months straight doing a lifetime worth of shoe-tying and the three weeks in the dentist’s chair would more painful than a tanker truck of nitrous could possible alleviate, but once done, they’d be out of the way forever.
  • Whenever I get a haircut, I typically ask for just a trim so it won’t be obvious. I’m trying to avoid that awkward conversation that inevitably ensues several times the next day when someone confronts you with “you got a haircut!” That’s merely an observation, not a compliment, so “thanks” isn’t the proper response and is in fact presumptuous. Maybe they’re being nice by not saying it’s the worst haircut this side of Chris Matthews. I think the most appropriate and equivalent response might be something like “you’re wearing a shirt”.
  • Speaking of which, I’ve noticed that long-haired female anchors on the 24-hour news channels invariably display half their locks cascading down in front of one shoulder while on the other side, the hair goes behind the shoulder. I assume this was test-marketed with focus groups who for whatever reason preferred this half-and-half look. I just want to know if there’s someone on set who’s responsible for making sure the hair-halves return to their proper position every time the anchor looks off to the side.
  • In these difficult economic times, there’s a no-risk way to make a little extra pocket change by visiting your favorite fast-food outlet. It’s called Teenage Cashier Roulette. Make whatever purchase you like and then give them a more-than-sufficient but wholly inappropriate amount in payment. For example, if your value meal comes to $3.88, give them a ten-dollar bill and 13 pennies. The correct amount of change would be $6.25 though, thanks to the American educational system, you could get back any amount between five and a thousand dollars. If you calculate what you’re supposed to get, you complain if it’s less and get out of there as fast as possible with your tidy profit if it’s more.
  • I was wondering out loud the other day why it seems that celebrities have such a high incidence of twins. My wife said it’s because they can afford fertility treatments and those have a greater chance of resulting in multiple births, but I think it’s because they’re at least twice as good as the average person.
  • When I get mad at fellow motorists during the morning rush hour, I tend to use under-the-breath name-calling rather than gunplay to get satisfaction. Over the years, I’ve developed a glossary of terms for different kinds of incompetent drivers that might be helpful for others to adopt. A “moron” is someone who’s driving slower than I am, an “idiot” is someone who was driving adequately until they plowed into that guardrail, and a “maniac” is someone who’s driving faster than me. A “jerk” is someone who makes a turn without a signal, won’t make a right turn on red even though the way is clear, or commits any other turning-related offense. An “imbecile” is anyone with a nicer car than me who commits even the most minor infraction (driving slightly off-center in their lane, for example). And finally, a “hat driver” is anyone older than me driving a big car at least 15 miles an hour under the speed limit while wearing brimmed headwear.

Profiles in line-waiting

November 12, 2008
     I’m writing today from our local Earth Fare grocery store, which has kindly set aside – whether they know it or not — a table and a wi-fi connection for my almost daily use. For those of you not familiar with the chain, it’s in the organic/health/inedible food segment, featuring high-end gourmet offerings along side free-range sticks and locally grown chaff. How it ended up in my rather working-class neighborhood is beyond me.
     Since I am using their space and their power and their Internet waves, I’m careful to patronize them on each visit with at least the purchase of a bottled tea (today I’m sampling the “fair trade” flavor). When I approached the checkout, there were two lines open, each of which had a single customer with a significant basket-load of merchandise. I lingered back briefly because I hate being reluctantly waved ahead when the large purchaser feels obliged to let me and my single item go through. Once each of them had committed to their position by partially unloading their basket, I picked the guy on the left to get behind.
     Usually, I’ll do some profiling of the people ahead of me before I commit to a line. It’s a sexist, ageist, racist, classist habit I have that you’d think would get me to the cashier faster. Obviously, I look at the quantity of items being purchased but that’s actually a very small factor in my assessment. The ideal people to get behind are young professionals who have that urgent on-the-go air about them. They’ll typically be paying with a debit card, usually swiping it crisply before the purchase is even completed, and the next thing you know they’re motoring out the door. At the other end of the spectrum is the harried working mom herding her kids while talking on her cell phone, the college student who’ll be digging through the 12 pockets in his cargo pants trying to scare up enough coin to pay, and the elderly couple fumbling through their belongings looking for the check book.
     Today, I waited patiently as Guy on the Left fell slightly behind Guy on the Right in their unloading. Switching lines at this point is usually not a wise option, as inevitably that speeds up the line you left and slows down your new choice. Besides, you can’t switch more than once without looking like you’re planning an armed robbery. You need to commit to your choice and stay with it unless some serious misfortune befalls the line, like a price check, a register running out of receipt tape, or (God forbid) some once-in-a-lifetime calamity like a travelers cheque.
     The line I didn’t choose is now wide open while in my line, the unloading has just finished and the customer is ready to step forward and acknowledge the cashier. I momentarily consider switching before two more carts pull in the temporarily cleared line and eliminate that option. That’s okay, though; I’m thinking my patience has paid off and I’ll be plunking my tea on the conveyor belt shortly. Suddenly, I’m horrified by a completely unexpected development: the customer in front of me knows the cashier’s mother! Soon there is chitting and chatting and reminiscing and banter, and I’m starting to wish my tea had a little more preservatives and a little less organic brown rice syrup, because it looks like I could be standing here a while.
     While the grocery checkout system we have in America has its flaws, I still think it’s better than the foreign alternatives I’ve seen in some of my travels overseas. In Manila, where retail seemed to be on steroids with the humongous Mega Mall just a few train stops down from the even larger Mall of Asia, I was in a grocery store that had no fewer than 35 checkout lines, and each of them was staffed on the busy afternoon I visited. In addition to designating several lanes as eight items or less (I think they’re on the octal system there rather than the metric), they also had two lanes marked “elderly only”. I would’ve thought this was a great idea if they hadn’t defined “elderly” as 50 and over, so I decided to be offended instead.
     In London, where I believe food stores are called apothecaries or chemists or something like that, I was too intimidated by biscuits that looked like cookies and cashiers that looked like earls to buy anything. In Bombay, the huge population apparently necessitates a whole different system that involves massing around the checkout and jostling for recognition like you were in some sort of commodities trading pit. Where there were lines, they didn’t seem to exist for any reason, as I had people literally step in front of me to make their purchase. In Sri Lanka, a rebel insurgency requires you to stand in line to go through security before you can stand in another line to do something else, so you’ve kind of lost interest by then and decide to order room service instead.
     Then there are the lines to get out of these countries and back into the U.S. Unlike retail lines, where annoyance and a waste of time are the biggest risk, the immigration and customs lines feel like actual life-or-death scenarios. When I tried to get out of Hong Kong, I had to pass through a scanner that detected my body temperature to make sure I didn’t have SARs, bird flu or other forms of excessive hotness. After it was determined that I was cool, I was challenged again at the ticket counter to prove that I was eventually going back to the States instead of staying indefinitely at my interim destination in the Philippines. My pasty features and American passport apparently weren’t proof enough that I wasn’t Filipino; I had to go through back flips to produce documentation that I had an airline ticket back home.
     Once I got to my final stop in Charlotte a few days later, my joy at being home after five weeks abroad was quickly dampened by the long, snaking line leading up to the immigration desks. About a half-dozen officers were on hand to service two jumbo jets that landed simultaneously for what must’ve been the first time in North Carolina history. Two subsections separately serviced American citizens and foreign nationals, though a third one for suspiciously dusky people who carried all their luggage on the plane with them would’ve been helpful. The perfunctory inspection that resulted in every one of the hundreds who were waiting being waved through eventually got me to my baggage and the customs officials. As soon as the official saw that I had visited something called Sri Lanka, I was ordered aside for a thorough search. The inspector was very chatty and very friendly, which I suspect was the result of some intense profiling training rather than a desire to be nice. Finally satisfied that my cheap souvenirs and even cheaper wardrobe presented no significant threat to national security, I got to meet my family and head for home.
     I suppose it’s only appropriate that the profiling came back to haunt me.

Happy Birthday to me

November 8, 2008

Today I celebrate what I calculate to be my 55th birthday. When you have to do the math to figure your age, you know you’re old. When your subtraction neglects to borrow from the hundreds column and you mistakenly calculate your age to be a negative number, you know you’re really old. With this birthday today, I think I’ve passed that threshold.

There are no party plans or other significant celebrations in the works. It’s a Thursday and we’re all still real tired from staying up for the election coverage the other night, so a party isn’t really practical (not to mention that I have no friends). My immediate family will be acknowledging me with cards, gifts and a special dinner that my wife is preparing. I got a few “happy birthday’s” from my coworkers and I’m looking forward to a phone call from my parents tonight. But other than that, I’m on my own as to how I’m going to be receiving any unique treatment today.

It’s just the regular workday and the regular routine, so there’s not a lot of merriment I can inject into the occasion. I get up at 4 a.m., arrive at work by 5, take a lunch break around 10:30, get off at 1 p.m., stop by the Y for a workout, etc., etc. But I have managed to find a few small ways to honor myself on the anniversary of my birth.

·         I skipped flossing today. This part of the morning bathroom routine is always a challenge, and I know I’m not really treating myself by increasing my odds of tooth loss. But there’s not much fun to be found at this hour of the morning, and it seemed like more of a tangible treat than my other idea – to slather a little extra mayonnaise on the turkey sandwich I prepared for my lunch.

·         I chose a frayed, comfortable shirt to wear into the office. We don’t have much of a dress code, primarily because we don’t have much customer contact. I still like to wear a nice pair of business-casual slacks and what I guess is called a dress shirt. The one I picked out today isn’t what you’d call tattered but it has seen better days, like when I bought it for $2 at Goodwill about four years ago.

·         Today is recycling day in our neighborhood and it’s my job to haul the bin down to the curb. When I collected the assembled piles of newspapers, junk mail and magazines from the counter and carried them out to the driveway, I chose to toss a small batch of cardboard into the regular garbage, just to lighten the load of the bin by a half-pound or so. Sorry about that, melting glaciers.

·         Shortly after I arrived at work, my closest associate Arnie (a fellow Fifty-Something) gave me two slices of bread as a birthday present. It’s not as pathetic as it sounds. He bakes bread in a bread maker at home and this was from a nice dill and caraway seed batch he made just a few days ago. It was a little dry and a bit too seedy for my tastes but it was definitely not pathetic. He also gave me a Zip-Loc bag.

·         Though our workload has increased in recent days because of an upcoming quarterly deadline, I still had excess time to kill and used a game of Scrabble with another co-worker to help with the killing. I usually think it’s pretty bush league to play two-letter words. However, today I indulged myself by using not only “oy”, but also “oi” and “oe”.

·         Every time Arnie asked me a question or if I could help him out with a particular project, I responded by saying “Depends”. Incontinence humor is becoming a much more significant amusement for me than is probably healthy.

·         For my lunch break, I decided to take a 10-minute walk to the neighborhood diner. It was a beautiful day for early November, sunny and approaching 70. Though I didn’t stop along the way to smell the roses, I did pluck a wilting gardenia flower from a bush outside the diner and detected a slight pleasant scent before it crumbled in my hand.

·         I bought a cookie. I was going to use the change from the purchase to buy a local newspaper but as luck would have it, the change came out to be 48 cents and the newspaper stand required 50. I asked the diner cashier for change for a dollar and she declined, citing a critical lack of quarters in face of the upcoming lunch rush. Times are tough for everyone. I did find an abandoned USA Today in one of the booths, and that’s kind of a newspaper so I settled for that.

·         While reading the paper, I indulged in one of my traditional birthday customs. I always read the column that lists which celebrities are also having a birthday today, and try to figure which of them I can beat up. I’d honestly have to say I’m in pretty good shape for a 55-year-old and I think I can still take screenwriter Mike Nichols, actress Sally Field and (probably) California First Lady Maria Shriver. I’d probably choose to run from a tussle with actor Ethan Hawke though. On the “Birthdays in History” list, I feel confident that I could soundly whip March King John Phillip Sousa were he still among us.

·         Walking back to work from the diner, I took a scenic back road rather than risking my life along the shoulder of the truck-choked main highway. There’s no noise and no exhaust fumes and quite a few picturesque hardwoods, though the pastoral mood is lessened somewhat by the cinderblock back wall of a storage facility featuring the spray-painted message “redrum”.

·         Not many opportunities for self-indulgence during the final 90 minutes in the office. I climbed in my car and headed home right on time. When I hit the interstate segment of my drive, I decided I could splurge a little by declining to use the cruise control and instead went about eight miles an hour over the speed limit. You don’t get much opportunity to live life on the edge when you’re more than halfway through your fifties so I’ve decided to make the most of what time I have left.

·         When I got home, I took a nap. Not that this is really anything all that special, since getting up at 4 in the morning each day makes the nap a necessary part of staying up past sundown.

·         When I woke up, I headed off to the Y to end my day with a run on the treadmill. You might think I’d use my birthday as an excuse to skip the exercise for just one day, but I’ve found running to be so relaxing and so addictive that it would ruin my day to miss it. I did make a few concessions – I set the speed on 5.4 mph instead of my usual 5.5 and I brought the machine to a halt after only 25 minutes instead of my usual 30. If I ever used the incline feature, I could’ve cut back on that too. Maybe I should’ve tried putting the setting down below zero to see if I could achieve a negative incline, which would allow me to run downhill. On second thought, I’m probably headed downhill fast enough already.