10 August 2017

Home Work: Mugs and Colors

We've been spending some time over the past few months doing some sprucing up around the SAR homestead. This has been a multifaceted endeavor, entailing everything from evaluating our assortment of drinking glasses and coffee mugs, to adding a couple of new pieces of storage furniture, to rearranging some of our living space.

It started innocently enough: I was in search of a replacement for one of our small Fiestaware plates that had gone missing. My Virgo mind likes order, and it bothered me that we had an odd number of small plates, but an even number of dinner plates and bowls. Also, it just bothered me that I couldn't find the other plate, or determine what had become of it.

We got quite a bit of Fiestaware as wedding gifts; we had chosen cobalt as the color we wanted and put it on our registry. (As an aside, I should point out that I was the one who chose most of the items on our registry, and subsequently was the one who went to the store and walked around with the scanner gun, because the Mrs. just wasn't interested.)

Eventually I clicked my way to the direct-sale website of Homer Laughlin, the company that has manufactured Fiestaware in Newell, West Virginia since 1936 (production ceased in late 1972, but was revived in 1986). I decided that it didn't make sense to order just one small plate, so I added two more dinner plates, which would allow us to stretch our dishwasher cycle a bit.

Before I finalized my order, I looked around the rest of the site. All the mugs that had come with the place settings had long been banished to the top shelf of our cupboard; we never use them, because they are kind of small and almost all our other mugs are around 15 ounces or larger. We'd recently had a conversation about getting rid of them, giving them to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Online I saw a newer, tapered mug design that I was not familiar with, in a 15-ounce size. I eyed the color choices, liking several of them. I added a few to my order.

A day or so later, I found myself thinking about the mugs that were on their way along with the plates. I wanted more colors of them. I found a big home sale going on at JCPenney, and with various discounts was able to order several more for around $9 each. A week or so later, everything had arrived and we had eight Fiestaware mugs in eight different colors: scarlet, slate, lapis, ivory, sage, lemongrass, poppy, and turquoise. I didn't get one in cobalt to match the plates and bowls, because I see the mugs as their own thing, separate and distinct from our dinnerware. I suppose I could still order one, but that would leave us with an odd number...
(Fiestaware is and has always been an American-made product, from a company still in the hands of family descended from its founders. Keep that in mind next time you're thinking about buying dinnerware, either for yourself or as a gift.)

01 August 2017

"Overheard": Points for Effort But Game Needs Work Edition

This one comes to me secondhand from one of my coworkers, so it's not "overheard" in the strict sense, but why mess with the formula?

On Saturday night she went to a bar, and was almost immediately greeted by a guy: "Hi, how are you?"
She responded, "Okay, thanks."
"You seem like a nice person, can I buy you a drink?"
"I have a boyfriend." (This is true)
"Oh... well, do you think you might be breaking up with him any time soon?"

20 June 2017

A Rush Hour Vignette

Normally I read the paper during my commute. I somewhat stubbornly cling to my old-media habit for several reasons: more than ever, it's important to be informed; I want to support a legitimate news organization; and it helps pass the time.

But lately my paper hasn't been making it onto my porch; I find it at the bottom of the steps, and this morning it was completely soaked from the overnight rain, in spite of being delivered in a plastic bag. So I didn't have anything to read. I had a section from yesterday's paper, and started working on the crossword, but after a few minutes my pen started running out of ink. (It's refillable, but I didn't know it was so close to running out.) I had no choice but to observe my fellow passengers, but today I was glad I did.

I was able to sit after a couple of stops, which is pretty unusual. There was a couple standing in front of where I was sitting, and a woman standing adjacent to the man. Like many other commuters, she had earbuds in. When we reached one of the stations downtown where a lot of people get out, the woman in the couple said goodbye to her partner, who bent down to kiss her goodbye. As he did so, the button on the back pocket of his pants hooked onto the other woman's earbud cord. When he stood upright again the cord stayed around the button, but he had no idea.

As I watched all of this, I looked at the woman wearing the earbuds. It seemed that I was the only person who had witnessed the whole scene; I caught her eye, and both of us started laughing at how silly it was. Clearly she didn't want to touch the back of the guy's pants, so she reached out and made a motion that moved the cord away from her body, and that was able to release it from the button. I looked at her again and said "Well played" in a quiet voice. She smiled and returned her attention to her phone.

31 May 2017

Overheard: Regional Disconnect Edition

There's something fascinating about hearing someone say, in the most New York accent imaginable, "I'm not familiar with the subway," especially since we happened to be in New York at the time. I'm trying to imagine a scenario in which someone grows up, even on Long Island or New Jersey, and still has no experience with the subway. (The Mrs. and I happen to know someone who has a similar lack of experience with the MBTA, but she's from New Hampshire so she kind of gets a pass.)

05 May 2017

Every Day Is Leg Day

As I deal with the realities of being middle-aged, I've had to confront the fact that I don't eat as well as I should, and I am not nearly as active as I should be.

For the majority of my adult life, I've been rather sedentary and rather lazy (those tend to go together). Of course, living in an urban environment and being a non-driver means I've always done a reasonable amount of walking, but as I grew older and got used to doing errands with the Mrs. in the car, even the amount of walking I do has decreased.

Now that I'm back in an office, I am a little more active throughout my day, walking to and from bus stops, going outside to get lunch, etc. After we moved to our new office space a few weeks ago, I used the elevator to get to our floor (4) for the first couple of weeks, until I figured out where I could enter a stairway would bring me to our floor. Then I started using it when I arrived each day, to go downstairs to get coffee after arriving, to go get lunch, and to leave at the end of the day.

Additionally, several of my coworkers are quite a bit younger, from mid-twenties to early thirties. I noticed that every afternoon around 3, they all left their desks to engage in some sort of group activity that lasted only a few minutes. It turned out they were climbing the stairs to the top floor (10). So I decided it was in my interest to join them.

I've climbed the stairs with them every day this week, including one day alone because they were all otherwise engaged. And they had an extra little surprise for me: after climbing from the fourth floor to the tenth and coming back down, then continued down to the first floor, then came back up to 4. Due to the design of the building, two of the flights are longer, so it's essentially like climbing and descending ten flights. My knees are more unhappy than my leg muscles, but I'm managing. I'm hoping that it will get a little easier after a few weeks.

Also, the building was constructed with an elevated first floor, so it's 20 steps up from street level, for a little extra bit of work when entering and leaving each day.

29 April 2017

Degrees of Separation

It's a little creepy that LinkedIn suggested one of the guys who lives upstairs in the "people you may know" section. Usually the folks who show up there are people I have searched for on LinkedIn in the past, or at least people affiliated with the same employer. I suppose there is potentially some zip code matching happening in the algorithm, but it's still a bit unnerving.

19 April 2017

Overheard: And You May Ask Yourself... Edition

(This isn't exactly "overheard," since the speaker was directly addressing a bus full of commuters, but it's close enough.)

On my way home on a recent workday, as the bus pulled into Ruggles station, the driver said to all of us preparing to exit and transfer to the Orange Line, "I don't know how you people do this every day. At least I'm getting paid to be here..."

15 April 2017

Moved In

The office move went smoothly, and when we arrived at the new office a week ago Monday, everything was waiting for us in our cubicles. I had very little to unpack, just a few reference books and my water bottle and coffee mug. I set up my computer, and there were IT people around to help us figure out which printers we would be using and get connected to them.

The office itself is substantially nicer than our previous space. We're now in another concrete building that was built around the same time as the library where our office was previously, but unlike that building, this one has a more conventional design with decent window area. Our section is on the south side of the floor, so we have natural light coming in pretty much all day. The other side of the floor has a more interesting view, but there are other buildings of similar height pretty close by, so less natural light is available.

Our work spaces are arranged so that our desks face the wall with the windows. To the side is a low storage unit with two horizontal drawers on one side and shelf space on the other. Behind is a taller cabinet with more shelves, more drawers below the shelves, and a locker-like compartment to the side with a hook inside, for storing one's coat and other belongings. The tops of these units provide convenient surface area for displaying personal items, and I've found that the top of the lower unit is an excellent place to stow my bag during the day. There is also an under-desk wheeled file cabinet with a cushion on its top surface, for impromptu desk-side discussions or something. And all the cabinets and shelving units, including the banks of file cabinets along the walls, are white for added visual brightness (most offices choose gray or black for such fixtures).

The walls of the cubicles are not as high as those in some places I have worked, and not as low as those in others. They are topped with frosted glass panels about six inches high that serve two purposes: they visually extend the height of the dividing walls, while allowing a little more outside light to pass through and reach deeper into the space.

The desk surfaces are light-colored material that is made to look like blond wood. I've had cubicles with this type of surface before and I find it pleasant, and it also happens to match my desk at home. The entire desktop raises and lowers electrically, making it easy to find a comfortable and ergonomically preferable position for working. I had to experiment a little to find the right arrangement; I have a long torso, so placing the desk surface at the right height for comfortable typing (forearms should be horizontal) made my monitor too low. A little-used book under the monitor base solved that problem. But if I want to stand for more than a few minutes, an anti-fatigue mat is necessary.

Oh, and the chairs! The chairs in our old office were horrible. They were upholstered units with rubberized armrests, but they were really conference-room chairs and not intended to be used for desk work. I used to have to get up every 45 minutes or so because their inferior padding caused my tail bone to ache. (It's a good idea to get up and move around during the work day, anyway.) Now we all have Herman Miller Aeron chairs, considered one of the best task chairs available. Coincidentally, I bought a used one of these for myself a few months ago, when I was still working at my other job. So I now have Aeron comfort day and evening.

We also now have an attractive and much more functional kitchen with plenty of seating. There are two large refrigerators and a separate, smaller freezer. There's a Keurig coffee machine (relocated from our previous office), and now a Nespresso machine to go along with it. Neither of those are my thing, but they seem to make other people happy. Unlike many employers, mine does not stock the kitchen with snacks. Just outside the kitchen are small rooms for having private phone conversations.

While all of this is great, not everything is wonderful. My biggest gripe, and one I have had at various workplaces for decades, is that the overhead lighting is too bright. With the abundant natural light and desktop task lighting, overhead lighting is hardly even necessary, and yet we still got stuck with it. I think all of us were under the impression that the overhead lighting would be LED, but it's terrible old fluorescent lighting. The fixtures are long and narrow, suspended from the ceiling perpendicular to the window walls; at least they didn't use the typical ceiling-mount fixtures with reflectors that make the light even more harsh.

On the plus side, we have discovered that the lighting is dimmable; on the minus side, one switch controls the lighting on the entire side of the floor, so dimming the lights affects the other department occupying the space adjacent to us. I think we will be able to work something out with them, as they seem to share our feelings about the brightness.

Overall, the new office space is a definite improvement. I'm still getting used to sitting in an open area with several other people working around me, and to filtering out random noises from various sources. But I have my trusty, American-made Grado headphones, Spotify on my iPhone, and my iTunes library on an old-school iPod Classic that was retrofitted with a solid-state hard drive, giving it four times the capacity of my original unit. Now all I need is to have a dimmer switch for the lights installed at my desk...

11 April 2017

Quick Switch

It's strange to have to break out my summer sun-protection headgear in mid-April, but when it's almost 90 it doesn't make sense to be walking around with a wool flat cap on my head. Last week I wore a cotton Patriots cap on a couple of days, but with strong sun it seems more practical to have the tops of my ears covered as well. In a couple of days it'll be back to the regular spring outerwear and hats...

31 March 2017

Movin' Out

My department at work is moving to new office space in a different building. We've been preparing for the move for the past couple of weeks, packing up belongings in plastic bins, discarding unwanted files and other stuff, and labeling our computers and other equipment.

We also moved a decade ago, but that was within the same building, just from one floor to another. It was still a fairly complex procedure, but this will involve trucks and dollies and bringing everything outside during whatever precipitation happens to be falling later this afternoon. We don't have to do any of that; it's all being handled for us. We only have to disconnect our computers later this afternoon, pack the peripherals into special plastic bags, and leave everything. So work will be wrapping up a little early today.

For the whole time I've worked here including my earlier period, and for some years before that, the department has been located in a building that is also a library. I enjoyed the notion of coming to work each day in a library, but in fact there are several downsides that will be eliminated when we are settled in our new space. We've had to make do with kitchen facilities that were never supposed to be built where they are, and so have inadequate plumbing and no real space to sit and eat. We've had to share the restrooms on our floor with everyone else who passed through the library. And the building itself, built in the 1960s, has little natural light due to its structure and the unusual placement of the windows.

In the newly renovated space we will be sharing a floor with a couple of other departments, but we will have our own distinct area. We're going to be in cubicles, but the way the floor is arranged, the rows are only three cubes deep and perpendicular to the exterior wall with the windows, so everyone will get a reasonable amount of natural light. The desk part of the cubes will be situated so we are facing that direction, and the desktop surfaces are adjustable, so we can work sitting or standing. And there will be a spacious kitchen area with storage, appliances, and ample seating.

It feels good to be having a fresh start a mere few weeks after returning. Now I just have to see about getting my work computer swapped out for a Mac...

27 March 2017

Groovin' on the Bus

The things you miss when you are not commuting via public transit: this morning I got to hear someone else's music being played out of either (a) the tiny, tinny speaker of their phone, or (b) an actual radio with equally poor sound quality. The culprit was too far away for me to see the device, but I am confident that it wasn't an old-school boombox. I heard what I thought was a station ID, so it could have been a streaming radio station.

However, it must be said that the listener did have good taste: during my short shared ride on that particular bus, I got to hear "Evil Ways" by Santana and "Got To Give It Up" by Marvin Gaye.

19 March 2017

Green Light

As a guy in my fifties, I don't pay a lot of attention to what's going on in pop music. I almost never listen to radio anymore, and you may recall that last year I had some observations about how current pop sounds very homogeneous.

So it's at least a little unusual for me to be saying this: I really like "Green Light," the new song from Lorde. I happened to come across the official video online a few days before her appearance on last weekend's Saturday Night Live. Hearing the song again, and seeing her perform it, solidified my feelings about it. (Entertainment Weekly called it "the year's first great pop anthem.")

Lorde (I was quite relieved to learn that is not her given name) is a 20-year-old from New Zealand who has been performing since she was in grade school. She has a distinctive, unusual voice, and there are moments when it sounds like she isn't really a good singer, but she is. As a consumer of music I have always responded to talent, and that's what I see and hear in Lorde. It's clear that in her young life she has listened to and absorbed a lot of music, and that she is capable of using that to create something that stands apart from what most others are doing.

See for yourself. Here are both her SNL performance and the music video.



10 March 2017

Overheard: Unreliable Brain Edition

On the platform at the Mass. Ave. T station, I unavoidably overheard one side of a phone conversation. The caller asked the other person, "Did I leave my scarf in the car?" And then, after some explanation as to why she did not want to have to retrace her steps looking for it, she added, "Do you remember if I was wearing it?"

09 March 2017

Winterized

When you have a dog, but you don't have a fully enclosed yard, you have to walk the dog, regardless of the weather, so you have to have appropriate seasonal clothing. I have had to venture out with the dog during blizzards, and I have a heavy-duty Eddie Bauer down parka that I bought over 20 years ago (still made in USA, back then) that is too warm to wear if it's above 20 or so.

But when conditions aren't quite so bad, I still need to be warm and (preferably) dry. About ten years ago, I bought a Woolrich jacket from Cabela's, and somehow it ended up being designated as my winter dog-walking (and snow-shoveling) jacket. I thought it was a good idea to use one jacket as much as possible, to minimize getting dog hair on everything. The shell is a wool blend, and it has a fleece lining and also some insulation.

But after many years of use, I was starting to feel like the jacket wasn't cutting it anymore. Even in temperatures around 25 to 30, with layers underneath, I was still cold, and it's not exactly waterproof or even water-repellent. Wool does have some natural water resistance, but I decided it was time to replace it with something more winterized. The challenge was finding something that hit my targets for functionality, with style being a secondary consideration, but still important enough.

I didn't want anything with down, because I already have that, plus I'm not a fan of the current trend in the styling of down outerwear (I can never not think of the Michelin Man). I did think it would be a good idea to get something with a waterproof shell, and also a hood; while I always wear a hat, and sometimes those behind-the-head earmuffs, there are times when the added protection of a hood would be welcome. I used to hate coats with hoods, but sometimes it's more important to be practical. But if I'm going to use a hood, I want it to have some insulation in it, and not just be a piece of fabric that rolls into the collar (because then what's the point?).

I spent a couple of weeks browsing through multiple online stores, including outdoor outfitters I would never otherwise have reason to visit. I saw a lot of coats and jackets that were much more than I wanted to spend, and a lot of stuff I thought was quite ugly. I kept circling back to the standbys L.L. Bean and Lands' End. Bean has serious winter parkas, as well as a number of "3-in-1" jackets, but I didn't need or want to be able to separate the jacket into layers, and I found them to be a little overpriced too.

Lands' End has had a bumpy few years, so they are always offering some sort of a discount code. If you miss one, chances are there will be another in a few days. And every now and then they do 50% off a single item. I decided to watch for one of these offers, and one showed up about a month ago. I also wanted the jacket to be red if possible, figuring it would be reasonably visible both at night and against snow.

I found a jacket that I liked, but it was only available in black, navy, or safety yellow. Yellow is not red; yellow and I have never gotten along. I don't like navy either, so that left black. (Maybe there were other colors available earlier in the season?) I wouldn't have wanted to pay the original asking price of $150, but for a marked-down $100 it was all right; with the code, half off that made it a legitimate bargain. I was pleased to find that it's decently put together, seems like it will last a while, and keeps me warm enough.

It does have a hood that's lined with fleece, so it is actually useful in the cold (with proper layering underneath). I'd had it about a week before I realized that the hood is removable. (It probably says that somewhere in the description, but I didn't catch it.) I had only one minor complaint: when it's zipped up all the way, there's a gap between my neck and the coat. When I'm taking the dog out for "last call" at 11 pm or so, I don't want to have to fuss with winding a scarf around my neck. So I found one of those "neck warmer" things to fill the space. When it's cold enough, it's quicker and easier to pull that over my head.

I just need to be careful when I'm crossing streets, and remember that I'm not quite as visible as I ought to be.

07 March 2017

Back to the Office

I've been in my new/old job for a couple of weeks now, and getting used to again having a morning routine that includes getting out of the house in time to catch a bus. I've needed to make a few adjustments, and I admit that I'm trying to keep the routine a little tighter so I don't have to get up quite as early as I used to when I did this before.

Commuting via public transit is still a mixed bag. Some mornings everything goes smoothly; I get a seat, I read the paper, stations whisk by until I look up and realize it's time for me to get off the train. Other days the train is packed way beyond what is comfortable or safe, and the train doesn't thin out until Back Bay. I sympathize with my fellow commuters, because we're all in it together. We're all on that train because we have to get somewhere and don't have any better option for how to accomplish that.

At the moment, though, I'm only going to the office three days a week. There are space issues, which is part of the reason the department is moving to newly renovated office space some time in April. After my coworkers and I were laid off five years ago the department no longer needed all that space, so it was divided and another organization took over the other part. But as time went by the headcount started to increase again, and eventually they had to start doubling up in offices.

I am currently sharing an office, meaning my desk is a rectangular folding table wedged into a corner. It's not terrible, but I feel to some extent like I'm intruding on the original occupant's space, so I work from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This also helps create a transition period for the dog, who was used to me being here every day for the previous eight months. We were concerned about how she would react to this change; we have a dog walker coming on the other days, and Charlie seems to be okay with things. It certainly helps that she's getting treats stuffed into a Kong toy when we leave, and another one when the dog walker leaves.

One disappointment: when we move to the new office, we're going to be in cubicles. They are inescapable, I guess. Given what the renovations must be costing, the institution needs to maximize the number of people who can use the space, so we will be sharing the floor with two or three other departments and the floor will be filled with cubes. We have been told that they will be equipped with adjustable-height desk surfaces to accommodate those who choose to work while standing. I'm interested in trying this, even if only for part of the workday.

But cubicles are still better than the completely open office layout that many companies have adopted (allegedly because it "fosters collaboration"). I shudder a little every time I see one of these photos, and I'm thankful I don't have to work in an environment like that. I don't know how anyone could get anything done with so much going on around them; work requires focus.

22 February 2017

Changes

Life is funny. Things happen when you are not expecting them. Generally, the older you get, the less surprised you are when something unexpected happens, but occasionally a genuinely surprising event occurs.

For the past year or so I have been working two jobs. For the second half of 2016, I was regularly working more than 50 hours each week. Plenty of people do this, but it was new territory for me. When my W-2s came I saw that I had done all right for the year, but the effort required to get there was significant. But certainly, let me be clear, it was better than not working and not being able to get a job.

I think I have mentioned before that my second job was for one of my former supervisors. What I don't think I spelled out explicitly is that this was at the employer I was laid off from five years ago, the one I had thought I'd be able to stay with until I was ready to retire (remember, I'm closer to the end of my working life than the beginning).

For a while after I started working for her again, I used to think about the possibility of being rehired full-time, but it seemed a lot more likely that the most I could expect from them is that someday they might offer me 20 hours a week. Even if that happened, I couldn't see how I'd make it work; my main job was not the sort of thing that could be done part-time, and 20 hours a week wouldn't pay me enough to live on. I stopped thinking about it.

Then, unexpectedly, before Christmas my former/current boss asked me in an email: "If we had a full-time position, would you be interested?" Just like that, with the "if" italicized. I knew there had been some staff changes and that resources were being allocated differently in their budget, but I was not expecting that sort of proposal.

I told the Mrs., who was suitably pleased. I decided not to say anything to anyone else until I had some certainty about what was happening. I made one deviation from that: I told my family, but only after a couple of weeks. I had to get through a medium-sized obstacle course of bureaucracy that took a few more weeks. I needed some idea of when they wanted me to start, so I could figure out when I needed to give notice to my other job. (I've only had that experience a couple of other times in my working life.)

The structure of the job is a little different from what I used to do, and a little better overall. Some of it is the editing work I've been doing for the past seven or eight months, which I really enjoy. Other parts of it are just what I used to do before, and while that's not necessarily as exciting or interesting, it's worth it. Some of the processes have changed, and not necessarily in ways that can be considered improvements, but I don't care; it's worth it.

Even though I was working full-time and then some for a successful and growing company, I was technically an employee of the agency that placed me in the job; the work was stressful but also tedious, I was not being paid what the work was worth, and the benefits available to me were not especially competitive. Making this change means that once again I'm part of an organization with thousands of employees, and able to benefit from that in all the ways you would expect.

So, while I am still disheartened and disappointed by what's happening in our government and in our country, on a more personal level this is a distinct turn for the better for me. And the office will be moving in a couple of months, which will provide a figurative fresh start to accompany this more experiential one. And I expect I will be able to find more time to blog...

23 January 2017

Please Watch This

Aziz Ansari is a very talented actor (Parks and Recreation) and stand-up comedian, who created and stars in the excellent Netflix series Master of None, for which he won an Emmy last year (outstanding writing for a comedy series). He also wrote an intriguing and thoughtful book on dating and relationships called Modern Romance.

Aziz hosted Saturday Night Live this past weekend, and delivered a timely, topical, funny, challenging monologue. We are going to need as much of this (sharply observed humor) as we can get to help us get through the next four years.