Friday, November 26, 2010

A Happy Thanksgiving

To paraphrase Martin Amis, no one but Tolstoy can write about happiness and still be interesting. I believe there’s some truth to that (to quote the man himself “All happy families are alike…”) This is therefore going to be a rather boring post.

I have never really been a fan of Thanksgiving. When I was a kid, we’d usually fight the traffic between New York and Massachusetts to come to Grandma’s house in Beverly. There we’d dress for dinner and eat New England food-mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, turkey and pies. Nothing had any garlic in it. I always felt that it was a silly ritual. And my sister and I always had Homework to do over the weekend. This is not to say it was never fun. One year my mom had read that the best thing to do for a turkey was to soak a pair of men’s briefs in butter and put them over the bird. So she went out and bought a pair of XL BVDs to put over the bird. I could hear her laughing from several rooms away and came into the kitchen to see what the fuss was about. And dessert was always interesting. Dad would bring Mozart balls (chocolates with hazelnuts and almond paste) and the weirdest fruits he could find in Brooklyn (star fruits, kiwis and quinces) to eat along with grandma’s pies. But the holiday has never been a favorite of mine.

For the past few years I’ve quit going down to New York for Thanksgiving because it’s not much fun at all and they’re going to see me again in a month. Even staying up here and having it with friends, it’s still not my favorite holiday. This year I found myself looking forward to Thanksgiving for the first time in-ever*. It would be a chance to relax and eat a lot among friends and not have anything to do for Work or School. I mentioned this to my best friend, who was hosting this year-along with her husband and she agreed-“I’m actually looking forward to Thanksgiving this year-when have you ever heard me say that before?” Never.

This year Thanksgiving was different for me than it had been in previous years. I feel that my friends found it different as well. Instead of “Oh God! We’ve got to have Thanksgiving. Round up the usual suspects!” It was more like a holiday. It was like a Sugar Mags breakfast date that went on all day. I haven’t seen much of my friends this term so I was looking forward to a day of eating good food, drinking good beer and enjoying my friends’ company. That’s more or less how it worked out. There were small crises-the liquor store wasn’t open so I donated an extra 5 pack in my fridge, the vegetarian stuffing had to be re-done (Thank you!), the bean dip wasn’t baked long enough to suit the chef’s taste (it was delicious though) and one of our friends had brought his computer up, because his reinstallation of Windows XP had not gone by the book and he wanted my help.

Normally, since people frighten me and I don’t know what to do in unorganized social situations I would have been glad to have an OS reinstall to do. This year I didn’t need it as an excuse to flee company, because I was actually happy to see everyone who showed up. I joked to my friend, who had brought his computer up that I felt like I was in high school again—all the polite company is downstairs but he and I were upstairs in the office trying to find a driver for the PCI bus.

But it’s not like I spent the whole time upstairs being anti-social. The hostess came to visit me and brought me beer and let me know when the pies were about to be cut so that I could go back downstairs in time. Other friends arrived with more pies (and tales of bouncing nieces).

I didn’t miss the cooking experience entirely either. I toasted some nuts for a friend of mine and watched and smelled as he made a nice sauce out of them with some wine and garlic. I also admired the bird. I don’t eat turkey or bacon, but a turkey covered in a bacon lattice with rosemary still smells heavenly. The chef is not only a wonderful cook but is also very aware of his wife’s friends’ dietary restrictions (I’m a seafood vegan, another friend is deathly allergic to milk, one of us is likewise allergic to nuts and another has a problem with spices.)

The chef had prepared to make much more food than was needed. When he said “we don’t need the salmon” I pointed out that I would eat it as would another friend. When the other friend arrived she thanked me for being pro-salmon.

Dirty jokes were made. Love lives were discussed. When the time came to eat everything was set on the table. I said that I felt like we needed to say grace. We agreed a toast would do “To Avoiding the Evil God for Another Year and To Good Friends!” Glasses were clinked. We agreed that part of the point of grace was to let people know it was okay to eat. And then we began to pass plates. It’s true we were all hungry and it’s true the chef does good work, but it was like a race to fill one’s plate. “How many brussel sprouts? How many scallops? With or without hollandaise sauce?” “Pass the shallot butter.” “CS Lewis wrote that then there was nothing heard for an hour but ‘pass the salt’ and the clinking of plates.”

Later, a neighbor came to borrow a corkscrew to open a bottle of wine. She knew she could count on us because she had seen me, the hostess and another friend headed back to the house with a 12 pack of Harpoon IPA and said “Hey!” while lifting her harpoon beer bottle to us this summer.

I mentioned to a few friends that this was a better Thanksgiving than we had all previously had together. Perhaps some of it is that we all are grown to be comfortable being ourselves—as opposed to defensive or unsure and we can just eat and drink together.

*not counting last year, when we had Green Cat Day with Indian food, Sondheim and chocolate chip cookies.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks

A year ago I had just moved up here and had finally sent in my application to UMass Boston's MBA program (but hadn't yet been accepted!) I had Thanksgiving with a good friend of mine from college. We ate Indian food. We made chocolate chip cookies. We drank a lot of beer. We sang Sondheim. We did not, in fact, dye the cat who lived at the house where my friend was house sitting-we only photoshopped the cat so it looked like we had dyed her.

Now I'm Ms. UMB MBA*. I bitch and moan a lot about school because it is time consuming and it is not always fun. But I feel like I have found my feet there. This is not at all down to anything UMB has done for me. This is due to my having been lucky enough to have good fellow students to work with as team mates.

It is true that my employment situation is far from ideal, but I feel that even the little MBA work I have done has given me more confidence and improved my relations with the friends/work partners I have at my place of employment. I say this hesitantly because they have a tendency to lay off my friends.

But we are all about being thankful now-not negative. I am thankful that when the professor in last night's class tried to launch a program to give us a demo (and we all suggested that perhaps he needed task manager) one of my classmates made me giggle by suggesting "I think it needs a nap."

I gave half of a ten minute presentation last night about a business case. While it wasn't "fun" in that it made me nervous and tied my stomach in knots, I enjoy collaboration and I enjoy feeling that we did a good job.

My sister drove her three children up to Massachusetts this summer so that they could hunt for hermit crabs on the beaches she and I had gone to as children and so they could see their Tia Cantabridgienne. My mom came along as well to help child herd. It was exhausting, but I'm awfully glad they did it.

My sister has also gotten a smartphone and joined facebook. So I can see pictures of her kids online or she can MMS them to me. Also, this makes it easier for us to share snarky commentary.

And of course, obviously there are my friends. Two of them got married this year, which gave me the opportunity to reconnect with old college friends and meet some of my facebook friends in meat-space (and their dogs!). I haven't seen enough of my friends these past few months because I am up to my eyeballs in MBA stuff, but they are still there (I'll see some of them tomorrow) and they are the duct tape that keeps me together. It's not just that they will lend me their iphones or advise me on editing problems--it's also that they will ask my advice on computer problems or trust me to water their plants and they will make me laugh until my tummy hurts.

*Well no, not really. After this term I'll have a whopping four courses under my belt and two that were waived out of eighteen total. I still have very little clue as to how the College of Management functions and I haven't talked to the IS department about declaring a specialty. But I can find classes in two buildings and I've started to get an idea about to think about the concepts presented and how to explain them to professors and my employer as well as what to expect from a class workload-wise. Or to put it another way, arriving on campus no longer fills me with dread of the unknowable.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Phone Fail!

Today, for the first time since September I had a weekend day on which I could totally goof off. I don't have my Accounting Class this week and I don't have to do the homework for Project Management this week because I've already done it. I have to present the business case the class has to read on Tuesday and my partner and I have been working on this for the past few weeks. So I've already done the reading (to say the least).
My buddies picked me up at 8:30 and I rode to Gloucester with their fluffy dog (in his pirate sweatshirt) on my lap.

We met up with another friend at Sugar Mags. Fritters were eaten. Coffee was drunk. Cohen Brothers' movies were discussed. All ate hollandaise sauce. While I like my academic life, it gives me great joy to discuss things other than Work Breakdown Structures, Critical Paths Risk Registers and Asset Impairment. I'm glad MBA Cantabridgienne exists, however it's nice to be plain old Cantabridgienne sometimes too.

We went shopping in Gloucester and bought several things. I went to Walgreens and discussed hair care products with two large men (both of whom have longer hair than I do.) I bought a bottle of water (because I was thirsty) and I put it in my purse. Because I live in New England, I prefer all my bags to be water tight. So even though this was just a handbag, it was water proof. This was problematic as I didn't close the top of the water bottle I had bought completely. One friend pointed out "you're dripping" and I noticed that I was carrying around a bag full of water-*with my iphone in it!*

I am clumsy and I am hard on my phones. They fall out of my pocket. I drop them. This is part of why I didn't own an iphone until last year. When the iphone first came out I thought it was a lovely invention, but it was more like a device I'd want to keep encased in velvet in a climate controlled safe than something I'd be willing to carry around all day. I finally caved because I realized that I needed the extra functionality that an iphone provides (more so than crackberry) and my iphone is one of the hubs on whic my life turns. It allows me to do what I need to get done be it socially, for school or for work.

Given all that I took the demise of my phone rather well I think. My friends did all they could to dry it off. They agreed to take me to an AT&T store and one of them had a spare iphone 3G which he could lend me (so that no matter what I could at least get telephone calls.) This was a big deal. As mentioned above, I have a presentation to give on Tuesday and I need to be able to talk to my partner about it in the interim. This was a bad time to have phone fail.

And this is why my friends are awesome. Because I'd spent a morning with them eating Sugar Mags breakfast and because they were helpful and reassuring and because one of them keeps all his old hardware (and so had a replacement phone for me) this was no big deal. I mean it kinda sucks but, I can still get phone calls. And ultimately, even if I do decide to upgrade now it's no big deal. But this is all no big deal because I spent the day hanging out with friends. If this had happened after a day of Accounting homework it would have been a horrible crisis.

As it was, I and one of my friends took the dog to the beach (before going to the Maul and the AT&T store) and the dog ran off the beach and dirtied his new sweater by finding a dead shark to roll in. Well, these things happen.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

So Howzit Going?

I am miserable, tired and cranky. Taking two courses is apparently much more effort than taking one (even if that one is MGT 650.) I miss having people around. I miss having breakfast at Sugar Mags and walking the dogs on good harbor beach afterwards. If I am not too busy to see people then I am too tired and bitchy to see people. This of course is a feedback loop and it makes me even crankier.

Work in my company is always busy this time of year (there’s lots to be done for clients before year end and there are budgets to be made and strategic planning to do) and I’ve felt like I don’t have the energy for it.

Tonight in Accounting class as I struggled to stay awake a thought occurred to me. “I don’t want to be an MBA candidate anymore.” All right, Cantabridgienne, I thought to myself, what would you prefer to be instead?

Clearly the first, obvious, answer was a kept woman. Since we’re daydreaming (although given that I was falling asleep I was close to “night dreaming") I imagined myself blearily kissing my theoretical keeper as he headed off the rat race (and an equally theoretical corgi jumped up into the warm spot on the bed) before going back to sleep until ten and then rising to walk on the beach with the (theoretical) dog before eating things covered in hollandaise sauce for breakfast. What could be better than that?

Certain problems with this plan occurred to me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but we’re experiencing a severe dearth of Sugar Daddies on the North Shore right now. Also, this theoretical Sugar Daddy would probably expect that I would provide certain services for which I have no aptitude and in which I have no interest. He might want me provide weird sexual favors or he might want me to clean and wear high heels and makeup (ew). Worse, he might want children (shudder). But more to the point, even if there was some wonderful millionaire who was happy to keep me as a trophy wife in spite of my disinterest in things like cleaning or decorating I have no interest in being a lap dog. It’s not that I have a problem with providing devotion or saying “How was your day dear?” It’s just that I don’t want to be in a situation where no one ever asks me “and how was your day dear?” No one ever asks the dog that. And while it would be nice to be fed and cared for, I feel like if I was (even under the most ideal circumstances) I’d be a pet. I don’t want to be a pet. I’m way to fond of my independence. So clearly I cannot be a kept woman.

The next alternative that occurred to me is that I could go back to Bunker Hill finish my Database Management Certificate, get Oracle certification and go be a DBA (that’s Database Administrator-not Doing Business As) somewhere. I could sit in a back office and never have to talk to another human being again during business hours. This plan has a certain appeal. For one thing it’s more easily done. (In fact this *was* my plan before I ditched it to go to business school). For another I’d never have to do another group project again. I’d never have to edit a group paper again! I’d much rather do SQL problem sets than Accounting problem sets. I’d never have to take any course that scared me. This is a failure point.

If I did this I’d be choosing my career path based on my weaknesses (avoiding dealing with people because they either scare or bore me) and I feel that this would be a bad idea. For one thing, I’m pretty sure employers would prefer to hire a 22 year old kid over me (because I’d be more expensive than a 22 year old.) For another it would get old quickly. I am not knocking DBAs but deciding to become one because you hate people (as opposed to because you like building databases and mining data) is a bad idea.

So apparently I’m stuck being an MBA candidate-even though dealing with other people scares me and this is a degree in Dealing With People. Even though I’ll have to take more classes in Accounting and I’ll have to take classes in Finance (the horror!) Even though I am not getting what I want out of my Project Management class and Accounting hurts my head and the thought of taking the rest of the classes I have to get through scares me.

Because it scares me it is the right thing to do. Or rather, because of the way it scares me it is the right thing to do. With a few possible exceptions (Statistics, Finance) these things don’t scare me because I’m not smart enough to do them-they scare me because they will be a pain in the ass to deal with. There will be Difficult teammates and schedules to juggle and there will be concepts I don’t get because I didn’t spend enough time with the text book. There will be ineffective professors and not enough sleep. But the thing is that none of this is stuff I can’t do. So I’ll keep at it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Perspective-A Conversation with Mom

I talked to my mom tonight. I don't get a chance to talk to my family on a weekly basis because of all of the schoolwork I've got this term. I had seen my parents a few weeks ago when they were in-state for a wedding Gloucester (I had been studying for my accounting midterm at the time. This probably made me about as much fun as a barrel full of tax-law professionals.) My parents know that I'm kinda stressed out-work is always extra Fun in fourth quarter and I've got two classes this term. While I am learning stuff in both of them, school is kind of stressing me out. The amount of time it's going to take to complete my degree is starting to depress me. Accounting is Hard-and it's an intro course. This means that I'm going to have to take several more advanced courses that make my head hurt in the same way. My IT Project Management class (for which I had high hopes) is not actually teaching me very much.

It was this second concern I talked with my mom about. I am concerned that while I may do well enough in this class (most of the work is team work and my team has some solid members, I've actually done some project management work before etc) what is going to happen if I sign up for a class that this professor offers in something I *don't* already know how to do?

My mom's advice, while not particularly applicable in this situation is worth noting anyways. "Who's the most senior professor you've had? Find the most powerful person you know and tell them about your problem." This advice worked brilliantly for navigating a New York City Public School. I can see it working in a variety of settings (which is why I'm mentioning it on the inter-webs) but it's not going to help me out right now.

Mom's second remark was that I should always remember that "In literature and in life people make mistakes..." This phrase is the start of an essay question from a literature exam. I can't remember whether or not this is from an exam that she took in college or from one of the New York State Regents exams she had to grade (or maybe both?) It doesn't really matter. It's a classic start to a literature essay question and it is a truism. It's one of the things that we say to each other. It's a "cultural object" (to use MBA speak) between us. I have no idea whether mom says this to everyone she deals with or just to me. It doesn't matter. When she said it it put me at ease.

I can't tell you exactly what it means to means to me (if I could it wouldn't be *special*) but part of what it means to me is that I can use the same brain that I used to analyze Sartre and Camus to analyze next year's technology budget or business school case studies and Accounting problem sets. Part of is just the high five or the handshake we can give each other over speaker-phone. You are still my mom and I'm still you're daughter. I am still a literature/language person even if I'm taking Accounting this term.

My snarky response was that while you may learn in your undergraduate education that "in literature as in life people make mistakes" in you MBA education they teach you how to profit from other people's mistakes. Mom laughed at this.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Perspective or the MBA Progam one year in

On the shuttle over to UMB tonight I realized that it’s probably been about a year since I sent them my application. I am awfully glad I did (obviously). And I wonder why the Hell I didn’t get off my butt and do this three years ago. I mean, I know why I didn’t do it-it was going to be too hard, I couldn’t possibly be smart enough, and the biggest one-what if I failed or didn’t get in?

Well it certainly is hard. Even when it’s easy it’s hard. What does that mean? It means that there’s no getting by on Native Brilliance. Even if I know that I (or I and my team) can slam-dunk* something, there’s still prep work to be done. Even if I can see that this paper is going to write itself I’m not going to wait for the night before it’s due to start it (like I used to as an undergrad…)

I have certainly learned a few things in the past year (not all of which are on the curricula of the courses I’ve taken.) Things like-bring snacks, if something’s bothering you, you should probably bring it up, analyzing business cases is no different than analyzing literature, etc. My assumption going in-that I was getting a degree in Stuff I Already Knew-has proved mostly false. In general I am glad of that.

It’s true that the class I had looked forward to taking the most-IT Project Management-has not taught be to be a better project manager (all it has taught me a bunch of buzz words and acronyms) and that some of the things that they are teaching are, I feel, of questionable value (how many times to I have to hear about MBTI and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and are these things really going to make me a better manager?)

However, my Accounting class has taught me a decent amount, not just about accounting, but about business in general. It has taught me to reframe the things I already know. It provides a clear framework for making decisions. It’s an interesting class to take along with IT Project Management because they deal with some of the same concepts (particularly when talking about costs). Ironically, I was rather hoping that the Project Management Course would provide me with a better framework for making decisions, but all that course has done is muddy the waters (you can use these three complicated metrics to determine what the project will cost and if it’s on schedule BUT you’re still just guessing. Oh and IT Projects almost always run over budget.)

The thing that strikes me the most about the Accounting class is that the professor is always saying that Accounting doesn’t drive strategy-it supports it. This means that if the owners decide that they are going to finance a new initiative with magic beans and fairy dust accounting has to come up with a way to, well, account for all of that. I work in IT (theoretically anyways.) The same principle should apply there. IT doesn’t drive decisions-it just supports them. Somehow, that’s not how it works. Whether it’s because accountants are more meek than IT staff or because IT, unlike Accounting, involves real physical things as opposed to just numbers it seems to me that where I work and in the cases I read there is a feeling that IT is driving the bus. Furthermore, from my own experience I have to say that sometimes that’s true (and things would just be so much easier if they let us drive more often!) However, where I work often it’s Compliance that’s driving—so maybe accountants just rolled over when they should have been more aggressive (see also Enron.)

The thing is that while I miss having more free time to sleep in, eat things covered in hollandaise sauce, walk on the beach, see my friends etc. I don’t regret school-even when it makes me miserable and jumpy. It’s true that I wish that I’d done this three years ago. It’s also true that I can see why some of my friends might look down on an MBA. Taking Accounting and Finance classes is hard, and succeeding at passing them is satisfying, but it would be much more personally satisfying to take classes in writing or literature. There’s no getting around that. However, I picked a path and the Masters Degree on that path is an MBA. And the next time I hear someone sneer about how an MBA is not a "real" graduate degree I'll bring up Accounting.

*I’m afraid that Business School has probably not improved my metaphors