Sunday, June 19, 2011

Jackie Chan

Today I assisted as my friend E moved her cat Jackie Chan (or Ms. Chan, as we often call her) to her new house. My friend E has two cats and a dog. She and her husband moved most of their possessions the dog and one cat over to their new house last night. Today we were moving the other cat.

Ms. Chan is one of the cats that hide. I joke with my friend E that Ms. Chan is an odalisque, because she's generously proportioned, she likes to hide and she has eyes that would not be out of place on a Turkish slave girl. Also, she reclines on her back like a Playboy model (another friend of mine calls her "Porno Kitty" for this reason.)

Although I've known Ms. Chan for several years and have been a frequent guest at her house the extent of her familiarity with me is that she will sit near me and purr (provided I don't touch her) or, lately, if she's in a good mood, I can hold out a hand and she'll rub her head against it.

Yesterday, her owners moved most of the furniture out of the house where she lives (including the cabinet under which her basket is) and didn't come back until this afternoon. That was bound to mess with her little kitty head a bit. Later today we came back to move her and she sensed that Something Was Going On. She went and hid under the couch. To get Ms Chan into the cat carrier, my friend E told me to leave the room and put a bowl of yogurt out. It took 5 minutes of coaxing before Ms. Chan would come out and I heard a few "Ow!"s before she was unceremoniously dumped into the cat carrier. I thought "this is not likely to improve her outlook or make her a friendlier kitty." And I felt sad for her because she didn't actually get to eat any yogurt.

"She's going to cry all the way to the new house." My friend E told me. "You and Ms.Chan can make angry cat noises through the whole ride!" offered E's husband M. We gathered up all Ms. Chan's stuff--her catnip and her litter box and her bed full of enough cat hair to knit another cat and drove across town. E drove, I held the cat box. Not surprisingly, Ms. Chan complained the whole ride. Because she is a big cat, I could feel her changing positions in the box. We spoke soothing words. I meyowed with her. We got her to her new space, set up the food dish, water dish and litter box and let her out.

It's fun watching cats explore new spaces. Her tail was twitching the whole time. She found a tiny crawl space she could sneak herself into (we got her out and blocked it) and then went to "hide" behind things left on the floor under a desk.

I went in to check on her before I went home for the evening and she not only rubbed her head against my hand but actually let me pet her. Well, maybe even thought I'm not her favorite person, I'm at least familiar.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Today, For Example

I knew it was going to be a long day. How did I know that? Well, as I have mentioned a few times my employer is in the process of going through a merger. They’ve hired a woman with a CFP® and an MBA to help them integrate the two firms—I’ll call her Marie. She works out of both offices (Massachusetts and New Jersey). I enjoy working with her, but the weeks that she is in Boston are always busy, full weeks for me. This week this was doubly true because some of the integration projects have moved beyond planning and into implementation*.

As is often the case, when I find I have 5 things to do in a day I’m probably lucky to accomplish 2 or 3. At the beginning of the week Marie and I had 15 things we needed to get done together. As the week progressed I started to feel nervous about there still being 6 or 7 things left on the list. Yesterday at about 5 we made a list of stuff that still needed to get done (not just because it’s easier for us to do it when we’re in the same office but because it needed to get done, but because if we didn’t get them done other things would be delayed.) In addition to these 5 things that we needed to do, she had 5 meetings today and I had 3. One of these meetings was a kick-off meeting for a project I was supposed to lead—which is its own special kind of Hell. That’s how I knew today was going to be a long day.

I prepared for my long day. Last night I went to Harvard Bookstore to replenish my supply of mystery books. When I got home I picked out clothes to wear—a shirt with a collar and smart skirt and heeled sandals. Some days it’s important to dress comfortably and some days it’s important to dress well. People do take you more seriously when you’re dressed well, but more importantly you take yourself more seriously when you are well dressed (my colleagues in New Jersey would not be able to see how I was dressed over the telephone, but that didn’t matter).

I got up early and took an earlier train into Boston. I was both tired and wide-awake at the same time, with my stomach tied in knots. This is not a pleasant combination, but as I walked from Back Bay Station I reminded myself that while this was going to be a long day I am very, very good at managing to get multiple things done while feeling stressed out (as my coworkers and B school colleagues could attest, I do some of my best work while well dressed and jumpy) so while it wouldn’t be fun to be me today I’d still get through it all. This is not a small point.

Unfortunately for me, my Super Power is working very well in a pressure cooker. I didn’t have time to obsess over how I was going to deal with the kick-off meeting for my first inter-office project. I had to overnight the hard drive with our data on it to the outsourced IT partner, discuss the 7 things I and Marie needed to get done, call a vendor and have a difficult conversation, and papermail signed contracts to another vendor. The meeting went badly (as I knew it would—I was presenting something that I expected to be unpopular) but hey—on to the next meeting (with some of the same people—equally unfruitful).

The final meeting that Marie and I had today was with our new phone service provider. I work in a jargon heavy industry. We write IPSs (Investment Policy Statements) for our clients. We do RMDs/MRDs (Required Minimum Distributions ) from IRAs. We have a DMS (Document Management System) a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and a PMS (Portfolio Management System) and I work in the IT department so I have a copy of 201 CMR 17 (Massachusetts data privacy law) tacked to my cubicle wall and talk to my vendors about our DNS (Domain Name Server) and our VPN (Virtual Private Network) so when I say that telecom providers are the most acronym-happy people I’ve ever dealt with, I think that statement has some weight. Worse, they pronounce their acronyms. POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) is “pots” and FOC “Firm Order Commitment” is fock. This confuses things even more—I don’t tell my IT vendor that our “dennis” (DNS) is messed up and we don’t advise our clients to set up “Iras.”

So, after a long day of meetings, when Marie and I joined our last meeting of the day and the telecom happy people kept talking about the FOC date (fock date) what were we to do but giggle into our hands? It didn’t help that their participants on the conference call kept dropping the call and having to come back in (aren’t these guys the Telephone Company? Why did we hire them, exactly?)

I left work feeling like most of my brain had been replaced with tofu, but that I’d still had a productive day. FSM help me, I’ve got to have another such day tomorrow.

*I’m being vague about this because I’m feeling paranoid about what I can and can’t say about work on the inter-webs.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

This is 2011 not 1911-a rant

And I live in Beverly--not Horseshoe Bend ID or St. Petersburg in Russia. So why is the train service so unreliable?

Today I got on the 5:40 commuter whale train to Newburyport and the train left North Station, traveled about half a mile and then sat for 20 minutes. At first they told us that the previous train had left late, and so we were being held so that we wouldn't have to ride right behind it. This narrative is suspect, since the previous train didn't stop at the first 3 stops--it runs express to Salem. My seatmate was a lady who felt like talking a bit. We discussed the situation and I said "Well at least they're not backing the train into North Station, making us all get off and get on another train." (This happened to me this winter, but I'll say more on that subject later.)A few minutes later, the train started backing up. A male voice said "This is not a good sign." My seatmate and I laughed, because well, it wasn't a good sign.

Now they told us that there were electrical problems and we'd have to take an alternate route but "there is no problem with this train." Eventually we started moving again. We made it all the way to Charlestown before the train stopped again. We were stopped on a bridge. The surrounding area was industrial stuff and swamp. We were stopped for long enough that I wondered if they were going to make us get out (and how? Where would we debark?) The next announcement claimed that because of the weather (lightning storms) there were electrical problems and that was why we weren't moving but "We are doing paperwork so that'll get us moving soon." Both my seatmate and I were mystified as to how "paperwork" was likely to improve the situation. Finally we more or less started moving.

But this is not an isolated incident. This winter, when I got to the commuter rail station I felt like I might as well be living in Horseshoe Bend in 1911 as far as the train situation went "Yes there will be a train. Sometime today." When I got to North Station one evening all the trains on the board were listed as "Delayed." Yes, there was a lot of snow, but this is Massachusetts, where "a lot of snow during the winter months" is an expected condition. Shouldn't the people who run the T and the Mass Bay Commuter Rail expect this and plan accordingly*?

On one of the evenings when all the trains were delayed, I fell in with another comrade from Beverly. We both noted that some of the trains (our in particular) had changed from "Delayed" to "information coming soon." That's nice. Our train's not just delayed-it's Wicked Fucking Delayed. The announcer kept assuring us that they were bringing "new equipment" out on the track. To me "equipment" is, power drills, tape measures, screw drivers, anti-static wrist bands, hack-saws, slide rulers, calculators, paint brushes--tools that you can hold in your hand to do...whatever you plan to do--not trains. (Which is what they meant.) My buddy and I laughed about the "new equipment."

But seriously. I live in the US. We were once proud of our railroads. They were once one of the things that Made This Country Great. Now, I live on a rail line that has a bridge that was built in the 1800s and so gets stuck open (because it hasn't occurred to anyone these past 200 years to modernize it?) The last time I took the train to New York I booked Acela tickets both ways, by my train broke down on the way home in New Haven, so they put all of us on the Peasant Train that was across the tracks (the Peasant Train stops every 50 feet between New York and Boston and they are still using the same cars that they were using when I was in high school) so I rode from New Haven to Boston sitting in the aisle next to the toilets. I didn't write and complain because, well, it wasn't Amtrak's fault--strictly speaking.

My parents went to Italy last year. Meaning no disrespect to my Italian friends, my impression of Italy (while I was living in France last decade) was that it was not the most efficiently run state("oh you sent it by post to Italy? Well maybe it will get there, eventually.") However, my parents (who don't speak Italian) were able to buy tickets--with seat assignments--on a train that came on time and delivered them to where they wanted to go (Ravenna.) They were very impressed by the efficiency of the Italian railroad.

I was pleased to hear that they were impressed and that Italy had an efficiently run railroad. At the rate things are progressing in the US, I expect that somebody I talk with soon will be impressed by the Iraqui** railroad, as compared to ours.

It makes me angry that our rail infrastructure is such a bad state--not just because I use it to commute to my job or go to New York to visit my relatives--but on General Fucking Principle!

It is true that the railways did not start in the US---the first railroad was in the UK--but as I've said above, our railways were one of our achievements as a country. I don't know the history of how they were removed from private hands and made a public service, but it is shameful the state they are it as compared to other countries. When I lived in Paris I could get to London in less time and with less headaches than it takes me to get from Boston to New York. When I came back to the US and heard about the Acela trains they were planning to start using I was thrilled to death. But, the trains could not go TGV speed because the tracks were in a bad state.

I am not a politician, but I really don't understand what the payout is in *not* investing more in our railroad infrastructure. I have heard politicians moan about how Amtrak is not turning a profit, but isn't the point of making something a public service removing the profit motive? The Beverly Police Force is not earning a profit. I'm not suggesting that we defund them.

I work in Boston, so (even when I lived in Cambridge) showing up an hour late and saying "The T" is perfectly acceptable. But I feel that by not bothering to be reliable the T--whether it's the Red Line, the 39 Bus or the Commuter Rail is showing contempt for it's riders. "The T--where the Hell are you going in such a big hurry?"

*This really seems obvious to me--I did not need my business school professors to explain planning for expected conditions to me. I work in financial services. I know that quarter ends (and even more so year ends) and tax time are busy times. I plan my work around these times---I don't suggest that we roll out new software in December or in April. Whenever possible I do preventative maintenance before crisis times. I'm not a genius and this is not a new idea.

**Yes, Iraq--that country we invaded a decade or so ago where people still don't always get electricity or clean water

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Navel Gazing Again

Yesterday my boss assigned me a project and told me that I needed to "stay focused" on it. While I often roll my eyes at unsolicited advice (particularly from management) this suggestion highlighted something I've been thinking of for a while.

I work hard (which is why suggestions on how to do my job irritate me) but I don't always "work smart." As far as focusing goes, I'm very good at concentrating intensely on whatever is in front of me--whether it's a client that can't log into our vault to see his/her statements, cleaning the mildew off of my shower curtain, reading my book on the T or editing a paper for school. What I'm not so good at is dealing with anything with a due date later than next Thursday.

Much like my tendency to panic, while I'm sure most of this is innate, it has probably been exacerbated by working in a small business environment since college. Small businesses are lucky if they can manage strategic planning instead of just moving from crisis to crisis. And while it's nice to know that even if I'm freaking out I can perform well, in order to succeed as a human it would be helpful to have some long term planning skills.

My own inability to think beyond next Thursday is also, I suspect, partly due to my fear of failure. On the whole, my inability to deal with long term projects has been a problem. When I would think of applying to grad schools or learning to drive any time in the past 12 years, the project always seemed too big or too complicated. So for a long time I couldn't manage anything more complicated that "do the laundry" or "upgrade the server and support the result." These are both necessary things, but as a grown up, I should be able to do more than react, play "what could possibly go wrong?" and think beyond nest week. While I will always be best in the here and now, I've come up with ways of dealing with larger endeavors.

No one was more surprised than I was when I actually got into an MBA program--not because I'm stupid, but because it was the culmination of a long process that was entirely self-motivated. No mentor, manager or teacher was checking in with me--I had to make myself jump through all of the hoops. I had friends who helped me (and very helpful they were!) but I had to make myself go. I succeeded by 1) frightening myself into believing I needed to get a graduate degree and 2) dividing the project into smaller bits (parts that didn't involve thinking beyond next Thursday.) First there was the GMAT project, then there was the recommendations project, then there was the essays project (this last involved three friends sitting on me while I wrote them in Gulu Gulu and one of the three editing what I'd written.)

Now, a year and a half later I have the Driver's Licence/Car project. There is a car sitting in my parents' drive way. It is my sister's former car. It's her former car because after having her third kid she needed to upgrade to a minivan (or start making her husband ride in the trunk.) The longer the car sits in my parents' driveway, the more likely it is to become a Car Shaped Object, as opposed to a Car. Since moving out of Cambridge, I've been meaning to get my license, but it's always seemed like too much hassle to learn to drive (and oh, by the way I have a project due for work/school next week.) So this Summer the only classes I'm taking are driving classes. Is learning to drive still a big scary project? Yeah, kinda. Do I have a plan for it? Yes I do and it's not anything that I need to think farther than next Thursday to execute.