Friday, December 31, 2010
I sort of caught myself going down that road today but had to nip that pity-party stuff in the bud. Here's the backdrop:
For New Year's Eve, I decided to spring for a suite at a hotel in CT near the casinos and just throw an open invite out in the direction of some extended family who like to go down there from time to time and gamble. Personally, I couldn't gamble to save my life, but unlike people with gambling problems, I don't pretend to be able to (remember, nothing is funnier to me than the way every person ever dealt a hand of blackjack at Foxwoods is 'up' over the course of their careers). But anyway, I'm down for the spectacle, or the restaurants, or shows, or whatever other draws there might be.
A few took the offer up, and a few others didn't. No big surprise there, that's sort of how open invites tend to go. I figured it was time for a 'last big hurrah' before some Army commitments take me out of the picture for a bit, so I didn't mind the cost, and wasn't looking for a flowery 'thank you' from any corner.
What I wasn't really ready for, though, was a lot of extensive questioning and second-guessing from an extended relative who has been repeatedly demanding to know 'The Plan' since the idea was conceived. It's like, no matter how many times I've tried to convey that there was no plan (and that's the whole point!), it didn't seem to register. I just sort of meant to reach out, open some doors (literally), and let whoever it might be sort of do whatever they might do. Anyway, after SEVERAL new rounds of scrutiny regarding "The Plan" (hey, who appointed me for that anyway?) I'll admit my frustration started to show a bit.
And then I realized something -- this is ignorable. I don't have to pout and shout about how "a simple 'thank you' would have sufficed," or get upset about it, or any of the above. To the degree that I can, I'm going to stay away from the refrain listed as the title of this entry, too, because I think it's often used obnoxiously. No one likes ingratitude, BUT:
(1) Before people complain about ingratitude, or about blowback from their 'good deed,' they need to ask about 'demand signal.' Way too many times, I've seen friends and colleagues complain about others' ingratitude in the face of their own generosity, but way too rarely does the complainer stop to try to frame it through the eyes of the other. It's like, let's say you're REALLY into a sport or a band. If you've got a spare ticket, the person you're offering it to probably doesn't care as much as you do, so if all you get is a muffled, "Thanks, man" then that might actually be a proportional response. Back when I was single, I had someone get upset at me because he'd given me the name and number of a female friend of his who lived down in Malden, and had told her to expect to hear from me. I never called or otherwise pursued, and he got really torqued about it...but I had never asked him to do it. There was an assumption built into the initial effort (which admittedly came from a good place), and that same assumption drove him to get upset later on. Ditto for any of the gazillion-million ways people think they're doing others a 'favor' that just might not be all that favorable!
(2) No one should do ANYTHING for which they automatically expect gratitude. Hosting might be a good example of this. It's like, yes, you've probably spent a good chunk of your own money on food and drinks, and you've opened up your home to people, but the key there is that it was all voluntary. Unless someone made you do it, you can't complain about who did or didn't bring or appreciate what. Going around expecting gratitude from people all the time is just a 'sub-optimal' way to go through life, IMHO. Stop trying to keep score, and start enjoying.
And last, the one that I'll have to adhere to now:
(3) If you think you're trying to do something nice, and someone is giving you grief for it, don't fan the flames. It's like, okay, I get it...somewhere, some wire got crossed, something was misinterpreted, and one person who thought he was doing something really nice confused another person who perhaps expected something more, or just different. Raising the ante, or even voicing my own frustration to the third-party who has been relaying all of this 'Planning' confusion, just makes it worse. All I can do is store it in the back of my brain somewhere, because if I do it again, then it really is my fault.
And on that note, time to stop blogging and start having fun -- it's America's greatest secular holiday!!!
HAPPY NEW YEAR and best wishes for 2011! (And, as always, thanks for reading)
But the amazing thing is that it's all awesome. It's not one of those massive books that makes you wish it had been edited better, and that you just keep reading out of a sense of commitment. Instead, it's a magnum opus that addresses a myriad of contemporary American issues of all sorts, and gives revealing and meaningful biographical information about a lot of people who still loom large on the contemporary political landscape (like our current Vice President).
A buddy of mine sent me this link, which talks about how the book was not initially well-received, but has sort of flavored with age and developed a following among people who've discovered it at used bookstores (like I did) and fallen in love with it.
If you have the time and the dedication, check out "What it Takes."
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Sunday, December 26, 2010
Here's what is about to happen:
1. We are going to get walloped with some heavy-duty snow Sunday afternoon, night, and Monday morning.
2. It will be really hard or damn near impossible to get around on Monday.
3. By Tuesday, it won't be so bad any more. The roads will be passable, the supply chains will flow (remember, the profit motive isn't all bad), and somewhere, birds will chirp.
Does that make me an Apocalypse Denier? Am I just being skeptically contrarian by refusing to participate in Anthropogenic Idiocy in Supermaket Parking Lots and Aisles (AISPLA)?
I just feel that I'd be placing my safety and that of my family in far greater danger by trying to fight off crowds of frantic AA battery hoarders and maniacal milk stocker-uppers at Hannaford's or Market Basket than I would by taking the dire risk that we might go without resupply of those items for a roughly 24-hour period starting Sunday night.
I have a feeling that with some pluck and some know-how, we'll make it!
Last week I had an interview up in New Hampshire. I would say it went really well (but then again, studies show most interviewees overstate their performance), but could have been a Hindenburg-style disaster.
The week before the scheduled interview, a buddy of mine who is a) slightly older; and b) much wiser about such matters, called me. He insisted I come down to Boston to do a mock interview.
"You may think you can just wing it by being friendly and generally well-spoken, but trust me, you can't," he insisted. He couldn't have been more correct in that statement.
By no means was he out to sucker-punch me in that practice session, but he still had me squirming and stammering a bit on even some of the most standard interview questions (i.e. Tell me about yourself, walk me through your resume, and describe a professional failure of yours).
After we wrapped up, he started off, "Well, there's a small percentage of interviewees who absolutely blow it, either by being obnoxious, or standoffish, or timid, or whatever else could tank a person in 30 minutes' time. You're not in that category, but..."
He was being nice about it, but the fact was that I had put forth a "C+/B-" effort, and had come off as rather amateurish. A good interviewee has already thought about how he or she might answer such questions and also has several "hip-pocket" anecdotes ready to go for the inevitable follow-up questions like, "Oh, really...tell me about a time you acted that way," or "How have you implemented that concept in a real-world setting?" etc. A varsity-level interviewee has an idea of how he might crisply and confidently answer a wildly open-ended question like "Tell me about yourself" in under 30 seconds. If the interviewer wants to probe further, she has the freedom to do it, but under no circumstances would the interviewee be stammering and "uhh-ing" wondering whether to wrap-up or keep rambling.
I took his advice and spent the next couple of nights Googling likely questions and then thinking about how I might answer them. I came up with 8 or so "hip-pocket" examples of ready-made stories I could tell if asked about a success, a failure, or a difficult boss or subordinate, etc. The idea, of course, is not to sound rehearsed or too polished, but to not have to mentally *fish* for the answer you'd give to a 101-level question.
This preparation was worth its weight in gold.
After a little distraction about the snow falling outside (which may have been a test to see whether I'd sit down first...I didn't), my interviewer started off with, "So...walk me through your resume," and then a dozen or so boilerplate-type questions. I didn't answer them robotically or recall them from memory, but the fact was I never had that "uhh....uhh...." sort of moment that would've sent things downhill in a hurry. As a result, I stayed confident and relaxed, which fed itself into a neat little positive feedback loop throughout the interview. Concise, crisp answers, 30-45 seconds apiece, with follow-up only as requested.
That may all sound really obvious to you, but unless you're a frequent participant in job interviews (from either side of the table), it might not be. The trap that I think many people could fall into is this: "I'm friendly, I make good eye contact, I'm articulate....I can wing this -- what could go wrong?" The answer to that is that plenty could go wrong. If you haven't taken the time to at least ask yourself -- and then answer out loud -- some questions about your personal work history that require some introspection and follow-on analysis, you definitely don't want to be doing it for the first time in the booth. You might think you sound great, but much like the amateur stand-up guys who suffer from what Jay Leno calls "Laugh Ears" in the book Leading With My Chin, you might not sound so hot from the other side of the room.
As the buddy in Boston was telling me today in an e-mail, all people who are great at anything prepare. Michael Jordan shoots lay-ups and free throws during the shootaround. Punters stay limber with practice kicks along the sideline. Opera singers go through the scales in their dressing rooms. And so on and so on.
People who study performance psychology -- whether in academic, athletic, artistic realms, or wherever else -- consistently report that it's the people who are *slightly nervous* who perform the best. Not the Nervous Nellies, but also not the people who think they can just coast through without a care.
If you're getting ready for an interview, whether for a graduate school, a professional board, a new job, or whatever else, you should get a few butterflies. Then, you should try to anticipate the dozen or so most likely questions you'll be asked, and then make damn sure you're not a deer in the headlights on Gameday.
With a nod to John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, anything else is preparation for failure.
There was also a good article about this unit in today's Globe.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Councilor Franky Descoteaux said she supports the long-term of goal of more Lowellians working in the city, but also does not believe a residency requirement should be mandatory.
"Practically, however, as municipal employees' pay and benefits increase, and as taxpayers, and state and federal agencies place higher demands on government systems, I am more inclined to prioritize getting the best possible value in an employee -- including education, experience and aptitude -- rather than whether they come from Lowell or not," she said.
Descoteaux said she would be willing to look into policies that give new hires incentives to move to Lowell, including providing a one-time monetary benefit to those that do so.
As a sideline judge, I give the quote here a "10" because it hits on all the important points -- first, that an in-city residence mandate is a bad idea (chiefly because it would limit the available pool of people to draw from, and all the outside experiences/opinions they would bring to bear); second, because it hits on the idea that we're going to increasingly rely on government services in the years ahead, and that we should expect much from its well-compensated employees (Luke 12:48); and thirdly, that a commonsense middle-ground solution could allow the city to draw from a worldwide labor pool but then incentivize city residence and then benefit from the way that would enhance the tax base and generate more social capital across the municipal gov't/private citizen sphere.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Cliff Krieger eloquently answered the "Why this group?" [in addition to the dozens of other veterans' groups in the Greater Merrimack Valley] question on his site.
As he writes, every group has its own vernacular and its own common places. Global War Vets has its place, and the group has tons of growth opportunity.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
I didn't really *get* it because I assumed most of the Khmer speakers in the movie were found right here in Lowell, so I couldn't figure out why their way of expressing those things didn't sound right to a native Khmer speaker born in the States in 1985 or to another born in Cambodia in the mid-1970s.
Either way, I give some credit to the filmmakers for not whitewashing the city in the early 1990s. I didn't live here then, but I'm well aware there were already tens of thousands of Cambodian-Americans living in Lowell at the time. Even by just including the scenes where Dicky (or is it Dickie? I see a 50/50 split in the print media) walks by a friendly group of Cambodian-Americans, this film avoids the revisionism of productions like the blockbuster "Pearl Harbor" which rewrote Hawaii's ethnic makeup in order to make the Japanese seem more like *them* and the Hawaiians more like *us.*
Regardless, movie stereotypes cut many ways. For instance, how many people in Lexington were represented by the guy with the sweater thrown over his shoulder who butts into Micky and Charlene's conversation outside the art house cinema? Not many.
I'm always reminded of this when I think about how a friend of mine and his then-girlfriend reacted to the forgettable and formulaic 1990s film Maid in Manhattan. After the film ended, she started off right away about the tiresome way that Hollywood paints Latinas as "sultry" and "fiery," and how the storyline relied on a wealthy white man who saves the day.
Rather than become defensive or apologetic, he just said, "Well, I get tired of the way movies like that caricature white people as a bunch of soulless bumblers who are emotionally tone-deaf and uncaring towards others."
Fair enough. I remember a college class in which a student complained (in the same 90-minute period, mind you!) about the way African-Americans are negatively portrayed in popular media and culture, and then went on to say how she hated The Cosby Show because it showed a stable, wealthy, two-parent black household with a doctor/lawyer couple and well-adjusted kids. "We're not all like that! I don't want white people to see that and then draw a conclusion that all is just perfect in our community these days!"
I can empathize with both of her points, which are not necessarily self-contradictory. But I think everyone who enjoys TV and movies needs to first acknowledge that visual art forms with highly restrictive time constraints are never going to depict all the subleties of life, or of people, in an accurate way.
Let's agree on that first, but also be unafraid to call out offensive or tiresome stereotypes in movies, or the offensive way in which certain ethnicities can be multi-dimensional but others introduced for tokenism or just to teach the other, *real* characters important life lessons that will then make them more whole.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Pat was the first person I met when I came to Lowell in March 2008, looking to buy a condo downtown. On a cold but tolerable day, I popped into the office on Central Street, just before that little turn where it becomes Prescott Street (right next to 1 City Square, and across from the Post Office) to see a guy with slicked-back white hair reading a newspaper and chomping on a cigar. I explained why I was there, and he dropped whatever he had been doing to give me an animated, guided walking tour of Lowell...for the next two days.
He took me all around the downtown, explaining not just what everything was but what it had been, two, three, or more iterations ago. All points were emphasized by pointing the cigar towards the ground and an "I'm tellin' you, kid." He told me all about the old days of the trucks carting in booze, the epic brawls with hammers, and, of course, the "massage pahlahs." I think by the time we were done I had Jack Kerouac's daily routine damn near committed to memory.
We checked out many of the buildings downtown while he caught me up on Democratic party politics (he had been a big Hillary for President guy) and I told him that all the news from Iraq wasn't bad (I had just gotten back a couple months beforehand).
I wound up closing on the spacious place on Market Street with the breathtaking view of downtown and the mountains way out beyond, which I stretched myself to get into but am now just a year or two away from going from red to black on the equity thing.
From then until recently, I would run into Pat McCarthy every now and then, either at TEFKA* Sangria's, Brew'd Awakening, Towers News, or anywhere in between. Because we didn't see each other often, there would always be new milestones to report when we did, and a ten-minute errand could become an hours-long event. One thing that really stands out is that Pat always went way out of his way to introduce me to all the people he knew. He would grab me a seat right in the middle of groups of friends who'd know each other, literally, for decades. Effortlessly, he made it seem as if we did, too.
The topics were always wide-ranging, the stories were always colorful -- even if sometimes apocryphal -- but it was always lively and worth the time to talk with...er, listen to, Pat.
*The Establishment Formerly Known As
Sunday, December 5, 2010
So in the National Guard, there's a fairly steady undercurrent of tension between the part-timers and the full-timers. The attitude of the part-timers tends to be something along the lines of, "Those lazy bastards. They've got all month to plan just two days of drill, but somehow things always get messed up." Many full-timers tend to think, "Those ungrateful bastards. I work so hard to make sure all the paperwork is in order, and I'm lucky to even get as much as an acknowledgement for it."
I have a fairly interesting window on it all, because I sort of sit between the two worlds. The units can bring more FTSP (Full-Time Support Personnel) on board during special projects or near units' mobilization dates, who essentially augment the *real* full-time force by working during the weeks and the drill weekends but in a temporary status.
As with any longstanding dispute or misunderstanding, the truth falls somewhere in the middle. However, if I HAD to pick a side, I'm going with the part-timers. They're the ones who SHOULD have everything in order for them on the weekends. They're the ones who make the sacrifice of juggling two jobs, and they're the ones who lose financially when things get screwed up.
To use a not-so-hypothetical example, let's say someone who worked a civilian, private sector job planned to take the month of January off because he had been promised a course that ran the entire month (and would pay him his regular base pay, plus travel and allowance costs). Then, when the time came to input the order, the full-time Officer in charge arbitrarily decided, "No, I don't see the need for this...it can just be completed online instead on the soldier's own time." Never mind all the e-mails and phone calls during the months prior (during which time the desk jockey Officer could've voiced those thoughts). More importantly, never mind the well-being of that soldier. His civilian employer had already arranged for him to be gone in January, and the soldier had already made travel and lodging arrangements for the course. The person making that decision is going to be paid handsomely every 1st and 15th of the month regardless, and has apparently forgotten that it's not that simple for everyone else.
On a smaller scale, other things like this happen from time to time. Training events get planned or cancelled without all the people involved being notified. Bureaucratic snafus keep people from getting the proper (new) pay after a promotion. Security clearance packages get lost in the sauce. And so on and so on.
In almost all cases, it boils down to one simple thing: People not treating an individual situation as if it were *their own.*
In other words, let's say you send a mortgage check to Wells Fargo every month on the first. Let's say you usually notice it clear your account sometime around the seventh. If it gets to be the 11th or 12th of the month, and you don't see the updated bank activity, what are you going to do?
Don't worry, I'll answer for you.
You'll call to see what happened. You'll want to figure out if it was a Post Office issue, or if the bank had been backlogged, or if there was some type of problem with the check, etc. You might offer to have your check voided and write a new one, or to see what the manager can do for you, or some other proactive solution...What you WON'T do, however, is just sort of *let it go.* You don't want to get hit with penalties or other bank issues for something that wasn't even your fault in the first place.
Really good bureaucrats treat their jobs the same way. They follow up. If they don't hear back from an important e-mail, they call. If that doesn't bear fruit, they call around the office they need to find someone else. They double check. They keep lists. Basically, they take ownership of their role, and treat everyone's issue like it were theirs.
Unfortunately, not-so-good bureaucrats "fire and forget." Yes, they may show basic competency by sending someone's paperwork off to the equivalent of the "Top Men" warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they don't take that next, critical step of making sure it actually got there. Not-so-good bureaucrats are very good at using the defensive mechanism of insisting that "it's not a big deal" to address other people's concerns.
The problem is, it is a big deal. If your application package for a Company Commander position, or your paperwork packet for a security clearance, or your eligibility data for a VA home loan were on someone else's desk, it would be a really big deal to you. If you lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and took a month off of your civilian job because you had been verbal and written promises to come on orders for equivalent or higher pay, but then had that rug pulled out from under you, it would be a really big deal then, too.
When people completely lose sight of that, they deserve a wake-up call that, unfortunately, usually never comes. This is sort of a tautology, but the people who least need the wake-up call in the first place (i.e. the most 'tuned-in' bureaucrats) are also the quickest to see the light when something gets screwed up and then try to fix it. And, of course, vice versa.
Bear in mind, this isn't just more public sector self-loathing stuff here. I think this sort of thing applies to ALL large organizations, and can be felt by anyone who has ever tried to resolve a bogus insurance claim, or moving violation, or clerical error on a bank statement, etc. It's YOUR big deal, and not theirs, and that's obvious from the manner and attitude with which it's being handled.
That's *sort of* okay and expected when we're talking about impersonal and anonymous settings, esp. when you consider the person handling it may have hundreds or even thousands of cases and could NEVER be expected to treat each like they were his or hers. However, when the scale is far smaller and the relationship between supporter and supported is more explicit, the type of callousness that leads someone to say, "Just do it online," without a shred of regard for how that might affect the person in question or his family is, well, unacceptable.
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
If you don't follow the link, I don't blame you. I don't have such a hot track record of following links I see in blogs or in forwarded e-mails, so I'll steer clear of hypocrisy land and just give you the Readers' Digest edition:
The city of Newark has an $83 million budget shortfall. Its mayor -- who happens to be one of the most phenomenal people in public service today on any level -- needs to address that. He met with the Fraternal Order of Police, tried to get some negotiations but, in NATO terminology, wound up with NO JOY. So his only option, even amidst rising crime rates after years of positive trends in the city, was to make layoffs.
Camden had it much worse, by the way. That far more bedraggled hamlet across from Philadelphia just cut half of its police force. Bear in mind, Camden consistently ranks as "America's Worst City" in statistical formulas that measure quality of life.
The worst part of all?
This is just the beginning. Because the union was unwilling to compromise with the city, all those jobless policemen and their families wind up in the loss column, as does the Mayor, and, way more importantly, all the law-abiding citizens of Newark. The Union can claim some sort of Pyrrhic victory, and you could *sort of* say the other 87% of police benefited, but the new conditions of the city might not even make that true.
All this reminds me why President Obama deserves across-the-board applause for the two-year freeze on federal wages.
And who should be the first people celebrating that decision? Federal employees, that's who.
No typo there, and I'll wrap this up with my point, which I used before in reference to Vallejo, CA and also to recent events here in Lowell. When public sector salaries and benefits are allowed to spin out of control due to cozy negotiations or ridiculous, runaway annual *bumps* in a non-inflationary environment, the eventual effect is that the house of cards will come tumbling down and public sector workers will be out of a job. With the public services they perform taken away, there are lots of losers in the equation. This is what SC Jim Leary was getting at last week -- if the teachers' union tells the city to pound sand rather than compromise, the current school budget will be the victim. The assistant librarians and the media specialists and the coaches and the paraprofessionals would directly suffer, as would the students, and just about anyone with any education could tell you how that would adversely affect the rest of the city.
I'm not a gambler, but I know this: If someone said I could either keep my current wage -- albeit frozen for five years -- or choose an alternative where my agency would face 40% cuts over that time, possibly in an arbitrary manner, I would be plum crazy not to take that first option. I would even take a 10% cut rather than option two.
But looking at some of the visceral outrage to the President's decree, I'm guessing that not every servant of Uncle Sam sees it quite the same.
We want to share with you tragic news from the Kingdom of Cambodia. On November 22, 2010 there were 450 people confirmed dead (stampeded) on the final day of Cambodia’s annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
We are hosting a memorial service and accepting donations for the victims and their families for this tragic loss of life. We invite you to come together in a memorial service this Saturday to mourn the loss of their lives and to share the grief of the victims’ families.
WHEN: DECEMBER 04, 2010
TIME: 9:00 AM to 12:00 NOON
WHERE: Sompao Meas Restaurant
450 Chelmsford Street, MA 01851
Monetary Donation can be made payable to:
Koh Pich Victim Relief Fund c/o Sam Meas
P.O. Box 1323
Haverhill, MA 01831