Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The British Are Coming! (And They're Funny!)

Today I'd like to share with you something that makes me very happy, something that brings little rays of sunshine into my life every day. I trust that all my friends have refined and exacting tastes and have not totally been brainwashed by mainstream American entertainment. Not one of you watches American Idol, I would venture to guess (and if you do, please don't tell me – it would break my heart). As thoughtful and educated members of society, I'm sure you would be willing to give any recommendations I might make a chance. Like many good things in life, what am I about to pitch to you is definitely an acquired taste (for most Americans). But since it brings me so much joy and pleasure, it would be wrong of me not to tell you, my dear friends, all about it. I'm talking, of course, about British comedy.

British comedy is, I believe, superior to its American counterparts in nearly every single way. I don't expect you to come to the same conclusion, but I'd hope you can learn to appreciate the fine and subtle wit that is the British sense of humor. Actually, these statements are a bit misleading; I don't mean to suggest that all British comedy is the same. There are as many different styles and types of comedy in the United Kingdom as there are here. If you think that all the humor the UK is capable of is “Monty Python” and “Benny Hill” then you are sadly mistaken. Those particular comedy acts come from the “silly/surrealist” and “dirty old man” schools of British humor, respectively, but there are countless others types.

For one thing, the UK comprises many different subcultures, many of which have their own languages separate from English, though they aren't in all that common use anymore. What we call “British” incorporates peoples who were culturally autonomous for hundreds of years before invasions and wars forced them into an uneasy political body; peoples like the Scottish, the English, the Welsh, and the Irish and all their various subgroups. This makes for a great hodgepodge of accents as well as styles of humor. Indeed, there are British comedians and comedy shows which I don't particularly like, so keep that in mind whenever I used the term “British comedy” as if its all one big thing.

The United Kingdom and the USA are geographically far apart, as can be verified by even a casual glance at any world map. Therefore, the major problem for any British comedy connoisseur living in America is trying to get their hands on the stuff. Sure, PBS runs a few old BBC sitcoms in their late hours and “The Search for the Holy Grail” is available in any video rental store, but there is so much more. Fortunately we live in the modern, digital age where nearly anything is available over the magic of the internet. The BBC has very kindly made many of its radio shows available on its website over streaming audio for one week after they air live over there. You can check it out at www.bbc.co.uk/radio (click on the “Radio Player” button). You'll find “Comedy & Quizzes” under the “Genres” list.

We think of radio as just being for music. That's mostly what its for in Britain these days too, but they have a long history of other radio programs as well. Dramas, sitcoms, sketch shows, game shows: the kind of stuff we think only belongs on TV started on radio over there. There are number of BBC radio stations, but when it comes to comedy programs the best place to look is BBC 7. BBC 4 has stuff sometimes, but not that often. BBC 3 is BORING. FYI. Anyway, BBC7 is singlehandedly responsible for the fact that after over six months of full-time work in the corporate world, I am still reasonably sane, because listening to it at work has made even the most dull or stressful workday seem a little brighter. They play both very recent “contemporary” comedy and a lot of “classic” comedy from the 50s and 60s. In case you would like to see what all this is I'm making a fuss about, I've taken the liberty to list some of my favorite shows for you to check out:

“I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue” - the king of kings. This long-long-long running “antidote to panel games” (it started running in 1972 and is still going with most of the original crew) is pure British silliness. The regular panel members are engaged in a number of weird parlor games such as singing the words of one song to the tune of another, improvising titles of strange movies, and playing the delightfully mysterious and confusing game of “Mornington Crescent.” Graham Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Barry Cryer (who has one of the best laughs ever) are the regulars; lately there have been a number of guests taking the fourth chair including one of my favorite British comedians Jeremy Hardy. The real star of the show, however, is the chairman, Humphrey Littleton, who announces each game in his dry baritone voice and sounding like he'd rather be someplace else. Everything he says he loaded with double entendre and clever, usually dirty, alternate meanings. He never laughs at his own jokes, and indeed sounds totally bored with everything. He's hilarious, and without him the show would be fairly mundane. This is, by far, my favorite show available on the BBC internet radio player at the moment. It updates every Monday.

“Just a Minute” - a very fun and fairly erudite panel game (which also began in the seventies and is still going strong) hosted by the charismatic yet not-as-funny-as-he-thinks-he-is Nicholas Parsons. Each week four players attempt to speak on the subject which Mr. Parsons gives them for sixty seconds WITHOUT hesistating, repeating any words, or deviating from the subject. Other players can buzz in and try to take control if they feel somebody has broken one of the rules of the game. Hilarity often ensues when the contestants argue over whether that was really a hesistation or just a breath, or if that word really had been used before, or about whatever else they feel like. Regulars include Clement Freud, Peter Jones, and Derek Nimmo (who, along with the now departed but SO FUNNY Kenneth Williams made up the original four), and newcomers like the very funny Paul Merton, Graham Norton, and even sometimes people like Tim Rice (the lyricist) and Eddie Izzard. Great fun for lovers of the English language. It updates on Mondays and Thursdays.

“Old Harry's Game” is a radio sitcom written by and starring another one of my favorite British comedians, Andy Hamilton. It takes place in hell, and major characters include Satan, his servant Scumspawn who is in love with him, and the Professor, a recently deceased and idealistic humanist who befriends Satan and tries to convince him that he's wrong about humans being worthless and wretched. Its not as blasphemous as you might think; in fact, thought brilliantly funny with perfect comedic timing, its often quite touchingly poignant. Updates on Tuesdays, sometimes.

“Parsons and Nailer's Pull-Out Sections” is a topical, current-events based sketch show that is quite unabashedly liberal, from our perspective, because they are clearly anti-Iraq war and anti-Bush. But then, pretty much everybody outside the US is. Still, they aren't all politics. There are a lot of good jokes and sketches here, even though the episodes broadcast on BBC 7 on the internet are usually from a year or two ago. Updates on Thursdays.

“The Mark Steele Lecture” is a half hour lecture by the passionate and left-leaning Mark Steele on famous people in history. He has a knack for being extremely informative while also being very funny. He brings the object of his lecture to life, lets us see the human side that is often blotted out by their historical celebrity, and makes a lot of jokes by imagining if what happened then had happened today. To date, I've listened to him lecture on Oliver Cromwell, Billie Holiday, Che Guevera, Thomas Payne, Karl Marx, and Beethoven. Its a solid show. Updates Tuesdays.

“Hancock's Half Hour” is a classical show from the 50s starrying Tony Hancock as a self-centered comedian who, along with his Australian roommate, European girlfriend, and dubiously criminal friend from down the street, gets sucked into some adventure every week. In many ways it reminds me of a distant ancestor to America's beloved “Seinfeld.” The show is really at its laugh-out-loud best when it guest stars the great Kenneth Williams (the one I mentioned in Just a Minute) who was just fantastic in everything he did. Updates Tuesdays.

“The Masterson Inheritance” used to be my favorite show on the BBC radio player, before they stopped running it and before I really got sucked into “I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.” I'm mentioning it here because if it ever starts being offered online again you have just got to listen to it. A team of performers improvise a 30-minute long drama based entirely on audience suggestions, usually satirizing the Victorian moral novel genre. It's great fun for the whole family. When it was on, it updated on Thursdays, but your guess is as good as mine if it'll ever be back.

Thats all I'll talk about specifically. There are a bunch of others, but these are my favorites. One common trait I've found in British humor is that they are so self-depricating. They aren't afraid to make fun of themselves and their cultural eccentricities (for example, they suck at sports, they can be overly and awkwardly polite, they be very picky and prudish, and they elected Tony Blair, who they mostly all hate.... well, the comedians hate him anyway). We should be more like this in America. We take ourselves too seriously sometimes. Honestly, Americans can be ridiculous. If you've ever been abroad and seen American tourists, you'll know what I mean.

Anyway, please give the Brits a chance. Maybe its just not for you, but I just had to share this passion with you. Cheers!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sugar, Spice, & Everything Nice (Warning: May Contain Snips, Snails, & Puppy Dog Tails)

I wasn't feeling very well yesterday (stressed and discouraged, with a slight sore throat) and so I decided, quite selfishly, that I deserved a break from the rigorous and painful sugar strike I put myself on last week. I had already anticipated this would happen, back when the determination to eat healthy and nothing but healthy was fresh and strong, and had removed all of the obvious sources of temptation from my house. Still, in my new sugar-starved state, I was able to work around this obstacle with the help of my roommate: we baked some cookies. Ah ha! Outsmarted myself again!

Most of my life has been filled with this kind of conflict with myself. I'm always the winner, but then again I'm always the loser as well. It's a messy situation.

But that's besides the point. The reason that I had not anticipated cookies as a possible method of breaking my healthy foods-kick is because the idea that I myself might actually bake cookies did not occur to me, not just because cooking and me have traditionally gone together about as well as Hannity and Colmes, but also because I am a boy.

Something that really bothers me about our society is the classification of so many activities and objects as belonging exclusively to the “masculine” or “feminine” identities. Sewing, dolls, and cooking are GIRL things, while camping, baseballs, and farting are BOY things. And yet, I would argue, there is nothing inherent in the things I mentioned that would indicate that they belong to one gender over another if seperated from their cultural context. The critique to my argument might be that nothing CAN be separated from its context, and so its pointless to argue about something apart from the context in which it exists. To which I would respond, “Use your freaking imagination, already.” But I digress into a thereotical debate hotly debated by professors of English and of other abstract disciplines, which is altogether quite irrelevant to what I'm trying to say here.

The point is that, even though I dislike these traditional definitions of gender-allowable behavior, I still unconsciously played into them by failing to forsee myself baking cookies. This is because these definitions are so pervasive – they've been shoved into your head since you were a baby. Boys wear blue, girls wear pink, boys play with tools, girls play with Barbie, boys are physical and logical, girls are emotional and nuturing. Now I do not mean to suggest that there are not natural, biological differences between the sexes; of course there are. A simple glance at a book of anatomy will reveal several significant ones. I'm talking about behaviors. The problem is that it is impossible to determine, in my opinion, how much of what we perceive as the behavorial differences between men and women is a result of purely biological factors and how much derives from the very specific and continually reinforced gender roles that society demands us to play. Gender, in a sociological perspective, is only partly a physical characteristic; it is also a performance, a role, something you do as much as something you are.

This is why drag queens are so interesting. Ok, I've lost you, but hold on I'll explain. These are men performing the role of a woman. Yes, its still a man under there, but drag queens are often referred to as “she” or “her,” (maybe you didn't know this) when they are in drag and “he” and “him” when they are not. There's some truth to that convention. Pretending to be another gender involves more than dressing up their clothes, it requires certain ways of talking, moving, and thinking. The role part, the performed aspect of gender, becomes quite clear when its the opposite gender acting it out.

As I said before, many activities get labeled for either the man or woman's realm, and woe be unto them that try to defy these boundaries. Its quite silly in some cases. When I took a yoga class as part of my acting regimen, I could not do my excerises at my apartment because of the incessant teasing I was subjected to by my roommates, who believed vigorously that yoga was “a girl thing.” “You're the only guy in the class, aren't you,” they asked smugly. In fact, over half the class was male, as was the instructor. Yoga was created by male Buddhist monks, I think, and probably practiced for thousands of years by men. Any attempt to limit it to the feminine sphere is simply absurd.

And baking cookies has nothing inherently feminine about it! You just think that because your grandma always does it, but, I found, it is actually scientific, like a chemistry experiment. You mix together a certain number of ingredients, expose them to heat, and are astounded at the product that is created.

Another example: as an English major, I frequently enjoy books and movies that might otherwise not be appreciated by the fellow members of my sex. This includes English films with long, slow-moving plots, dry and subtle monologue, with no action sequences or sex. Many women, especially in the local culture, do enjoy these movies and so they are officially labeled “chick flicks.” “Pride and Prejudice” is an example, which was banned from our apartment by the roommates mentioned above for being unpardonably feminine. Here comes the amusing anecdote to back up my point (Mom, you'll probably want to start reading here):

A former roommate once convinced me, after some debate, to watch “Anne of Green Gables.” I had no desire to see the movie, because it was a girl movie and obviously had nothing in it that would appeal to me. He was very persuasive, however, and when I finally broke down and saw it I was surprised to discover that it was quite good. Yes, the story focuses on a teenage girl, but that makes it a “girl movie?” How many movies about young males are there, and do we consider them to be “boys only” movies? This is an evidence of sexism, in my opinion.

Anyway, after our viewing of said film, this same roommate and I got it into our heads to watch the sequel, “Anne of Avonlea” just to see how everything plays out. He didn't have that one, so we had to go to the video store to rent it. We couldn't find it anywhere, and my roommate boldy went up to the man behind the counter and asked, “Excuse me, can you tell me where I could find 'Anne of Avonlea?'”

The man blinked at him in confusion, then, his voice dripping with sarcasm and disdain, said, “Yeah, I think its over there in THE LITTLE GIRLS SECTION!” Yeah, we all had a good laugh about that. But if college age girls had come in and asked for, say, “Stand By Me,” a film about a group of teenage boys having life-changing experiences, they would not, I suspect, have been teased in any way. There's a double standard there.

To be fair, women can be and more frequently are subjected to the same kind of criticism when they try to enter into the “man's realm.” I know girls who like video games, football, math and science, and all that masculine stuff, and I'd bet they get plenty of grief from others as if there was something not quite right with them.

And that, in the end, is the proof that so much of these complex gender identities are constructed, not inherent: there are always exceptions, lots and lots of exceptions. We are beginning to recognize that some guys like to shop, have good hygiene, and dress well, but only by giving them their own separate identity in which to exist: metrosexual.We're all about labels, and society doesn't much like people who break the mold. Do I have to adhere to some abstract standard of “masculinity” and fear the reprisals if I too flagrantly break the "rules?" Can't I just be me instead of constantly worrying about fitting into some kind of prearranged formula? Embrace diversity. That's what I say.

Anybody want a cookie?

(By the way, if you've read my blog about marriage and my critique of why girls aren't cool then you may be inclined to call me a hypocrite. Please remember, that blog was written by my confirmed bachelor, woman-hating persona, and this blog was written by the literary theorist and feminist persona. Its a different personality all together.)

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Holiday Memorium

Today is the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, which has been a national holiday since 1986. Accordingly, many people do not have to work today. I do, unfortunately, but I didn't want that to stop me from thinking about the significance of the day – so I'm taking a quick break from all the ruthless taxonomy to share my thoughts about MLK.

Who was this guy? Why does he get a national holiday to celebrate his birthday? Did you know that the only other American who gets a holiday to celebrate his birthday is George Washington? It's true, I wouldn't lie. I was just reading an article from 1985 about how today's holiday came about, and apparently there were a lot of people who thought it would be a bad idea. Businesses would be closed and lose a lot of money, plus there were people who argued that Dr. King deserved no special recognition above and beyond that which so many other great Americans have received. Rep. Jesse Helms, R-NC, even denounced the late King as a communist. A compromise was only reached when Rep. Katie Hall, D-IN, suggested the holiday be celebrated on the third Monday of January, the Monday after what was very often Super Bowl Sunday, and everybody suddenly thought a day off might be a good idea. Ah, the American legal system at work: its all about demeaning compromises, but at least something gets done every now and then.

Does Dr. King deserve a holiday of his own? I must answer with a resounding “yes” or perhaps even a hearty “amen.” Often denounced and despised in his own time, King dared to speak out in behalf of millions whose voices had been ignored and repressed. He dared to suggest that human beings should be treated equally, should reach out to each other in peace and respect if for no other reason than the shared humanity they possessed. Nothing could have made him more American. The American ideal of equality, long celebrated but existing solely in the idealist's imagination, had been set forth long before by the founders of our nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...” That's a great ideal to live up to, perhaps the greatest ideal of all, and so many so-called patriotic Americans weren't and aren't even trying. It takes a true voice of courage and conviction to speak out so controversially, inviting the ire and antipathy of all those who oppose freedom and equality for all (and there are many), but Dr. King spoke and the nation listened. He joins a long line of great men and women who have, throughout the history of mankind, plead for peace. He was a great American, a “liberal,” and an idealist – and one of my many heroes. He was a remarkable man with an inspiring story, and yet the holiday's true significance comes when it is more a celebration of Dr. King's famous dream than of the man himself. I think he would have preferred it that way. I think that he, like all great men in history, thought his cause to be of greater importance to the world than himself. Let us honor him and the millions he represented by trying harder to diffuse stereotypes, to open minds, to preach tolerance, unity, and peace, to challenge all that is unfair and unequal in the status quo.

And amidst our busy lives today, let's remember that there once was a man who dared to dream a dream, a dream that we still strive to realize today. It takes all of us working together to make it happen, but I'd like to think we're getting a little closer each day. I hope we all take time to be thankful in whatever way we feel most appropriate for Dr. Martin Luther King's eloquent articulation and timely reminder of that great dream that has been taught and preached for millennia. We needed to hear it. Again. Always.

Thanks for reading. Getting off my soapbox now.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Fat Matt, Part 3

I'm fat again.

I really have this problem with dedication and commitment, you know? I dropped nearly 20 pounds for Macbeth and was well on my way towards my target weight when I kind of ran out of gas with the whole “eating healthy” thing. My infrequent indulgences in pizza, cookies, and ice cream became more and more frequent, with bigger and bigger portion sizes, and my physical activity level got a little lower every day.

Still, everything was fine as long as I was still in a play. At least then I had several hours of light exercise each night, and that seemed to be enough to keep me from blimping up too much. Well it's been a little more than a month since “Two Gents” ended and let me tell you, that month has done its work. I'm now nearly back to the weight I was at when I promised I would never let myself weigh this much again. Now, to keep all this in perspective, I'm not horribly overweight or obese or anything and I'm certainly not having some kind of breakdown or an outbreak of manorexia. My Body Mass Indicator does, however, indicate that I have moved back into the “overweight” zone. My chief concern is that of the long-term. My current weight is not necessarily that much of a problem - but if I keep certain habits for a extended period of time, there is not only the certainty of further weight gain but also of health problems the likes of which I would much rather avoid.

What habits are those you ask? I think I've identified three things that absolutely must change with my current day-to-day lifestyle:

1. Smaller portions! I think my 3 main meals of the day are made up of mainly healthy foods, I'm just eating much more of them than is healthy. Part of this problem is just being used to having a certain amount of food in my belly in order to feel “full.” There's no reason to go hungry, obviously, but there's a difference between going hungry and not stuffing yourself.

2. No more snacks! I'm seriously a huge sugar junkie. There's a big bowl of free candy at my work and I've been dipping into that four, five times a day or more. Plus there have been cookies baked at home and ice cream lonely in the freezer. Its no good going to great lengths to ensure I'm eating healthy meals if I'm gorging myself on candy the rest of the day.

3. More physical activity! Currently, I sit at a desk all day, then come home and play video games and watch TV until bed. Fixing this will require not only going to the gym regularly, but a commitment to finding activities in my free hours that are a bit more involving physically. Spencer, this means you need to take me hiking or something on the weekends. I rely on you outdoor-ish people to save me from my prison of idleness.

If I can, for once in my life, commit to changing these three things and really stick to them, I know that by the time I head off for grad school in the fall I'll feel better, look sexier, and have more energy, just like a model from a TV exercise video ad.

Did you know that over 50% of adults in the US are overweight or obese? Its true. You know, of course, that I define myself by my difference from the American majority, so its clear that something must be done.

Please understand, I'm not vain or superficial. I just want people to judge me by my looks and desire me sexually, is that so bad????

Oh, and I want good health. And world peace.

So here's the plan. Currently I look rather like this:

And within a few months I will look like this:

Its the patented Jedi Knight diet: low-carbs, low-fat, high-Force.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Idealist's Lament

I'm quite tired with people today. I'm tried of the dark and depressing aspects of human nature we see all about us: hatred, intolerance, prejudice, exclusion, demagoguery, and despair. Sure, it's in the news we get each day of still more violence and bloodshed in lands far away. But its here too, right in our backyard, in our community, in our workplaces, in us. We cannot lament the worst aspects of human nature without implicating ourselves. Perhaps thats why the reminders of our own failings as a species are so depressing – somewhere, deep down, we know that the darkness within others only proves the existence of darkness within ourselves.

Why then must we always judge and condemn each other? Why then must we still live in a time when human beings live in perpetual fear of the judgment of their neighbors? Why, in this age of “progress” in this land of “freedom,” must human beings hide the most precious parts of themselves for fear of rejection and retribution? Why must I constantly be forced to endure listening to human beings malign other human beings in the most denigrating, dehumanizing, destructive, and painful ways, giving full vent to their misguided intolerance of their brothers and sisters.

There is so much that unites us, that makes us one family. Why must we continue to look for and exploit the little things that make us different? Rich, poor, black, white, Christian, Muslim, gay, straight, male, female – these things don't really matter, not in the largest sense of the word. What matters is that we all are alive and aware of ourselves, we think and breathe and feel pain. We struggle as best we can in our respective situations to be happy, to be loved, to defy death. This common struggle of being alive and sentient in an ever-more crowded and metropolitan world should (in the most idealistic sense of the word) be enough to prove the tragically and often fatally flawed nature of intolerance to be the worst of all the sins.

I believe in the rule of law. I know that the actions of some cannot, for the good of all, be tolerated and must be punished and opposed. But there is a reason why the power of judgment is not invested with the public (you and me) but in our legal system which, optimistically, provides every single person with the opportunity to defend themselves fairly and to be treated without bias. I was also taught to believe in a semi-tolerant God who would, in the end, pronounce a final judgment on all of us, rewarding some and condemning others. If such a being exists, then a judgment of such finality surely belongs to him and we are to blame for making it in his place.

I don't know what else to say, because most of what I feel right now doesn't have any place in words. I want to make a plea for compassion, sympathy, tolerance, and forbearance, but I don't know to whom I should direct it. We are all to blame. Thus speaks the disillusioned idealist dying cynically in a flawed world.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Trials and Woes....

I guess I have one of those faces. When it comes time to hand out responsibility, I must just look like somebody who either will handle it well or, more likely, will take it without complaining too much. Its happened to me a number of times throughout my life, and sometimes I don't mind it because I can be a bit of control freak and want to get in there and do it myself. But a lot of times, I'd like to just be another one of the grunts, you know? Responsibility brings a lot of stress with it that I could do without. Especially when it does not bring along extra pay with it.

Allow me to explain myself. As regular readers of my blog will already be aware, I got a new job a couple of months ago doing vague, inexplicable work known only as “taxonomy.” It's been a pretty good job, I really don't mind it. The work itself can be tedious, yet mentally engaging in its way and, since I can listen to the BBC or music from my personal collection all day and chat with friends online, the hours fly by. The pay isn't bad, my coworkers are fun, the atmosphere is relaxed and casual, and I can wear jeans. All in all, I feel pretty lucky.

Before this week, that is. It all started a few weeks ago. You see, for the first month or so of the project, all of us were new and learning and on equal footing. There was talk from the very beginning, however, that one person should be selected to be kind of “in charge,” which would mean auditing everybody else's work and being the point of contact with our partner company on this project. Somehow, there was always this assumption, almost from the first day, that this “auditor” would be me, despite the fact that, as we got into the work, I was hardly the most productive or most knowledgeable member of the team. And, lo and behold, this is exactly what came to pass. It became my responsibility to review my coworkers performances, motivate them to meet our deadlines, and work with the other company when the program isn't working (which is pretty often). No raise, though. Don't be silly.

OK, I thought, I can handle this. Its not that bad. Its not really more work, just work of a different kind. I do less of the actual taxonomy now, though I try to do my fair share of that, because my time is taken up by my auditor duties. I still have lots of time to myself with my headphones and my favorite British comedies, so its not all that bad.

Things started to go down hill when, after a review of our company goals, it was determined that we did not have enough employees working on taxonomy to meet our deadlines. There was discussion about hiring and training up to five new people for our project. I knew I would likely be involved in that training process, but it was discussed in the abstract sense and I assumed I'd have advance warning once they had actually hired somebody.

Before continuing let me also interject that the first week of January is some kind of big company meeting in Florida. That means all the people who are actually in charge of anything are gone this week. The guy who usually runs the project server gave me a few notes and left me in charge, calming me by saying something like, “Don't worry, I'm sure nothing will go wrong.” You know a disaster is waiting to happen when somebody uses that ominous phrase.

On Monday, somebody dropped by my cubicle to ask if I was expecting a new employee today, because one was here asking for me so I could train him. I certainly was not expecting anything of the sort, but there he was. I tried to improvise the training, but I only confused him. If I don't prepare my thoughts I can't form logical sentences. I know it may seem like I'm quite adept at communicating clearly, but when it comes to extemporizing orally on a subject that is quite complex and that I'm still figuring out myself, all you are going to get is gibberish. I asked him to come back the next day so I could prepare a proper training course.

I then discovered that the powers that be had hired not just the one but three additional employees all of whom would be showing up at some point during the week to be trained. To be fair, none of my superiors have the slightest clue what it is we do so they assumed that the training process would be as easy as having the new people just look over the shoulder of somebody else and pick it by diffusion, as it were. (People often talk of learning by “osmosis,” but, though I am no scientific expert by any means, I believe that this analogy is incorrect. Osmosis, while it may be a really cool word, applies specifically to water passing through some sort of membrane. “Diffusion” is the process of things moving from a place of high concentration to a place of low concentration, which is a much clearer fit to the metaphor of knowledge transference. But I digress.) Unfortunately, in order for a new employee to make any sense of what we are doing as we work, they need to have a bit more of a formal introduction and explanation of the all the various words and concepts that make up the glorious thing that is taxonomy. I was able to throw something together, and, with the assistance of my wonderful coworkers, started training the new people as they arrived.

I had never really been on the teaching side of job training before, and let me tell you its more difficult than it seems. Imparting information in a clear and efficient matter is draining. It requires constant effort and determination. At least our trainees are all smart people who seem to be picking it up pretty quickly, when they are awake (one of them must be narcoleptic, I swear). Anyway, of course nobody bothered to set up a computer or anything in anticipation of the incoming employees they hadn't told anybody about and now everyone who could is in Florida, so training these people and also figuring out what to have them do all day has been quite a task, taking almost all of my attention.

Until the server crashed, of course. Now I had the task of figuring out why it was taking us up to two hours to save our work to the database and why many of the program functions were not working correctly. I have half of the team helping out new people step by step, slowly feeling their way through the process, and the other half sitting around twiddling their thumbs while waiting for their work to save, and we have an already impossible-to-meet deadline coming up at the end of the month! I was on the phone with the other company, running back and forth in a panic from one computer to the other, stopping only momentarily to cry on a shoulder of my patient and very helpful coworkers before dashing off to fiddle with things that produced no real result. All the while, the new people are asking “What should I do now?” which is a perfectly reasonable question and one to which I do not really have an answer.

It was a bad day. Ironically, I came in this morning expecting to continue my battle with the server only to find that suddenly most everything is working correctly, and what is still broken can't be fixed until a guy at the other company comes in to work this afternoon. Most of the new people aren't here or have been given something rather permanent to do under the care of some of the other employees and I was actually able to catch up on my work. I've done that and, unbelievably, find myself without anything to do until after lunch. Hence I'm writing this.

I think I've figured out the key to this responsibility thing, actually. I'll let you in on the secret: Delegation is a wonderful thing! You should try it sometime. The best part of responsibility is giving it somebody else, even if its only temporary. I get a moment to take a deep breath, then I'll get to go home and have a nutritious and healthy lunch (I'm eating carefully again) before I have to come back and tackle my personal giants.

I just want to go on record that I never asked for this.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year 2006!

Greetings all and Happy New Year! I just watched the big ball drop and so, of course, I couldn't help but wonder about many things. Like, for example, why the heck do we drop a big ball to celebrate a new year? When is it really the new year, since its already past midnight in a number of places in the world? Where is the first place to turn 2006? Is our calendar completely arbitrary? And, of course, what in the heck are the words to that "Auld Lang Syne" song??

Well, I listened really closely to the words this year just so that I could pass them on to you. You don't have to thank me, really. Without further ado, here they are:

Should mold in places we forgot,
and ever wrought with grime!
Should mold in places we forgot,
and days of auld lang syne.

Now, I know this doesn't really make any sense, so I did some research. Apparently the words were written by a Scotsman, who was probably drunk, which explains a lot. Also, it is a little known fact that "auld lang syne" is a common Scottish household cleaner.

How does this relate to a new year? Your guess is as good as mine.

Have a Happy New Year, my friends.