Feb 22

Friday Five: Birthdays

This week’s Friday Five is about birthdays.
1. Hey, baby, what’s your sign? Do you think it fits you pretty well? Sagittarius. I have no idea what that’s supposed to say about me, and don’t care, since I consider astrology to be complete nonsense.
2. What’s the worst birthday gift you’ve ever received? If I’ve ever received a really awful one, I don’t remember it. But since my birthday is December 20, I usually can’t recall whether a gift was for my birthday or Christmas anyway.
3. What’s the best birthday gift you’ve ever received? See #4.
4. What’s the best way you’ve celebrated your birthday thus far? It snowed on my fifth birthday, and I spent the whole day playing in it. This was a big deal in Louisiana, where even very light snow was rare. I’m not sure I had ever seen snow before, and getting enough to build a snowman was awesome.
But my birthday in 1979 was even better. It was the last day of exams at the University of South Carolina, and the dorms were closing for the holidays that evening; everyone had to be out by 7:00 p.m. So after my last exam, I packed my bags and settled down with a book by my tenth-floor window (which looked out over the parking lot) to wait for my parents to make the 90-minute drive from Rock Hill to pick me up.
Afternoon turned into evening, and the parking lot began to look increasingly empty as the other residents left. At 6:00 I was anxious enough to call home, but no one was there. Presumably they were already on their way to Columbia, but when would they get there? I ate supper and continued waiting. It began to get dark. I started making a list of people I could call who might let me spend the night if my parents didn’t show up before the housing people threw me out into the street. Finally, with a few minutes to spare, my family’s van pulled into the parking lot and I went downstairs to meet them.
The van contained not only my parents and both my siblings, but also Virgil, whom my family had brought along to help celebrate. The interior of the van was decorated with balloons and streamers, and as soon as I got in, the party began. When we reached Rock Hill, Virgil told me to drop off my bags and get in his car, because we were driving to Charlotte to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which had premiered ten days earlier (but which I hadn’t had time to see, due to exams).
I would have been happy to celebrate my birthday merely by finishing exams, going home, and being with my family again. To be treated to a birthday party at 55 miles per hour all the way from Columbia to Rock Hill, and then go see the long-awaited Star Trek movie with my best friend, was too cool for words. I’m used to having my birthday be pretty much overshadowed by Christmas, but in 1979, it was the other way around.
5. What are your plans for this weekend? Tonight my family is making one-handed brownies (no one can use their dominant hand), which should be an interesting exercise if we can avoid making a mess of the kitchen in the process. Tomorrow is Diversions, the monthly get-together with friends to play card and board games. We don’t have anything planned for Sunday, so maybe I’ll finally be able to unpack our new computer and install Windows XP.

Posted in Me
Feb 20


I gave blood today, my 34th time since I first donated on November 5, 1979. (Why do I remember the date? Because it was the same day that Jack the Ripper and H.G. Wells arrived in San Francisco via time machine in Time After Time. Bleeding was, I think, a highly appropriate way to commemorate the occasion. I’m sure the Ripper would have approved.)

Afterward, I followed standard Red Cross procedure by sitting in the canteen area for at least ten minutes, eating snacks and drinking Diet Coke. I followed my standard procedure by not recording those snacks in my Weight Watchers journal. This is the only time I ever eat anything off-budget. I figure the caloric loss of a pint of blood entitles me to some extra intake. Maybe this is cheating, but since I can only do it once every two months, the potential damage to my diet is pretty slight.

It would be nice to know whether I’m overcompensating (is a blood donation worth one Little Debbie cake or two? Can I also have a packet of peanuts?), but I don’t see any way to be sure. The Weight Watchers Food Companion lists some pretty obscure foods (cooked armadillo is 1 WW point per ounce, the same as a cup of loganberries), but nothing about human blood. And somehow I can’t bring myself to call my local Weight Watchers office and ask.

Surely this question has come up before. What happens when vampires need to lose weight? Some of them must end up joining Weight Watchers (attending meetings at night, of course), but when they bite someone, how do they record the point value of the, er, meal? Perhaps a future episode of Buffy will address this issue.

UPDATE: Addressed, but not by Buffy.

Feb 15

Friday Five: Good eats

This week’s Friday Five is about food.
1. What was the first thing you ever cooked? Probably scrambled eggs and bacon. I vaguely remember working with my siblings to prepare breakfast for Mom on Mother’s Day.
2. What’s your signature dish? I’m not a competent enough cook to really have a signature dish, but my family seems to think I know how to prepare pizza. It’s true that I worked for three summers as a cook at Pizza Hut, and I can competently build and bake a pizza, but if you ask me to make the crust, I’m more or less helpless. At Pizza Hut, the dough was premixed by the time I got hold of it, and I used a spiffy electric roller to produce nice, even, flat crusts. When I’ve tried to produce a crust by hand with a rolling pin, it has always come out uneven and lumpy. So these days I prefer to use one of the ready-made pizza crusts you can buy, and build on top of that. Bobolis also work OK.
3. Ever had a cooking disaster? (tasted like crap, didn’t work, etc.) Describe. Sure, lots of them. That’s why my family rarely lets me cook any more. I’m just no good at it.
4. If skill and money were no object, what would make for your dream meal? No object? Hmm, that means I could hire a team of biotech researchers to develop low-calorie versions of some of the foods that I used to scarf down when I was in college, but wouldn’t dare eat nowadays (because I don’t ever want to weigh 230 pounds again). I could also hire Stephen Hawking to build me a time machine, so I could visit restaurants that closed years ago. With that infrastructure in place, I would take my family to eat at Adger’s Wharf in Charleston, SC, circa 1985, when it was the best seafood restaurant I had ever set foot in. (I don’t even know if it’s still in business, but the last time I ate there, sometime in the late ’90s, it was under new management and was a mere shadow of its former self.) And if calories were no object, I would also want to visit Yesterday’s, in the Five Points neighborhood of Columbia, SC, and have the Confederate Fried Steak one more time.
5. What are you doing this weekend? Tonight, having dinner with with Miles (a friend from way back who’s been living in Europe for several years, but is in town for a couple of weeks). Saturday, attempting to install a second satellite dish with the help of several friends who actually have a clue how to do that. Sunday, attending a party in Miles’s honor. I also have a new computer, monitor, and laser printer that are still in their boxes because I haven’t had time to unpack and install them. I like to think I’ll get a chance to do that this weekend, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

Feb 08

Friday Five: Truth or dare

I decided last week to start participating in Friday Five as a method of breaking the Blogger’s Block™ that has plagued me for months now. I’m not exactly sure how or when Friday Five originated, but I’ve encountered a number of blogs that feature it every week. The idea is simple: every Friday, five questions are posted, and you answer them in your blog. (Exactly who chooses the questions is not clear. I’m not sure it matters.) It seemed like a useful exercise to force myself to write something at least once a week.
It never occurred to me that on the second Friday after I decided to do this, the questions would all be about, well, sex. I stared at the list for several minutes this morning, trying to convince myself to just take a deep breath and answer them anyway. But I think I’m going to chicken out. My children read this blog, or at least they can if they are sufficiently bored, and I’m just not comfortable listing my erogenous zones, or recalling the most unusual place I’ve ever Done It, where they can see. I’m not convinced anyone else who reads this blog really wants to know those things either.
So I’m going to scroll back through the Friday Five archives and find a previous Friday whose questions I’d rather answer. Call me a wimp and a coward if you want.
1. What do you have your browser start page set to? My private home page, which is just a table of links to the sites that I look at on a more or less daily basis.
2. What are your favorite news sites? I’m still trying to figure that out. I used to read CNN’s site every day, but lately I’ve become dissatisfied with the quality of their coverage. I’m been looking at a lot of other news sites in an effort to find a replacement, but haven’t settled on one yet.
3. Favorite search engine? Google, of course. Is there any reason to use another one?
4. When did you first get online? Define “online.” My addiction to computer networks dates from 1988, when I started my first contract job at IBM and discovered the company’s internal network. In particular, the internal discussion forums were a revelation to me. They were all theoretically business-related, but there was a lot of friendly banter and camaraderie in some of them, especially the ones devoted to language and writing-related issues. I had never encountered that sort of global virtual community before, and I loved it.
The Internet and Usenet existed at that point, of course, but they were not easy to get access to. Basically, you had to be a university student or an employee of a big company to do it. But by 1989 I had found a group of geeks in my area who has set up a local UUCP network to share a dial-up Usenet and e-mail feed (provided by Data General at first, and later the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina). It was a kludgy setup, but it meant that I could send and receive e-mail, and read and post to newsgroups, on my home computer. By early 1990 I was discussing Star Trek trivia in newsgroups.
5. How do you plan to spend your weekend? At the beach! My gaming group is spending the weekend at Fort Caswell playing Dungeons & Dragons, celebrating Denise and Virgil’s birthdays, and generally enjoying each other’s company.

Posted in Me
Feb 06

Ghost town

On Monday, I talked to one of my former coworkers at Alcatel. He informed me that the technical writing group that I used to be a part of has basically ceased to exist.
I was laid off from my contract position at Alcatel on April 2, 2001, after working there for five years. It was a shock, of course, but I had been laid off before. Most of my fifteen-year career as a tech writer has been as a contractor, and contracts sometimes end with little or no warning. Thus, I was better prepared than some of the half-dozen others in my group who lost their jobs that morning. (One of them was a graphic artist who was not a contractor and had been with the company for twenty years.) No, what was most shocking about the layoff was that Alcatel Raleigh had been steadily expanding for the entire time I was there.
When I arrived at Alcatel in March of 1996, the building where I worked included a big empty space that my new coworkers called the Ballroom. It had previously been a factory floor, but the manufacturing operation had been moved to another building. To give you an idea of how big it was, I have to describe the one time I actually saw it used. Every year, in early December, the company treated everyone to a free holiday dinner. It was a company tradition: turkey, roast beef, ham, dressing, vegetables, rolls, dessert, the works. In 1996, Alcatel rented enough folding tables and chairs to fill the Ballroom and was able to seat the entire workforce of the Raleigh site — not just my building, but all the manufacturing folks, and everyone else from several other buildings — in that one huge room.
By the following December, this was no longer possible, because the Ballroom was gone. The company had renovated it and turned it into office space, subdividing it into several smaller spaces and filling them with cubicles. (Subsequent holiday dinners were served in the company cafeteria in multiple shifts.) Similar renovations were going on in other parts of the building; most of the Receiving area, for example, was walled off and turned into offices and meeting rooms. This was all necessary because the workforce of the Raleigh site was growing rapidly, and office space was needed for all the new people. My department was no exception — our area had several empty cubicles when I arrived, but these were soon filled with new employees. We eventually ran out of space and had to move to another part of the building after it, too, was renovated to maximize the number of offices it contained. By 2000, the building was pretty much maxed out, and there was talk of Alcatel acquiring another building in the area and moving some of us there.
That’s why the layoffs in April 2001 came as such a shock. After five years of continual expansion, the last thing I expected was for the company to start cutting its staff. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but I can guess. Like a lot of companies in the data communication business, Alcatel was riding the crest of the Internet boom, selling networking hardware to the companies that were building the new online economy. The company’s rapid expansion was no doubt based on the assumption that the boom would continue. When the dot-com meltdown occurred, Alcatel must have found itself with a lot more employees than it needed.
I was fortunate to be in the first wave of layoffs. The job market hadn’t gotten nearly as tight as it would later in the year, and a writing position came open at IBM just when I began looking. (It also didn’t hurt that I had a brother working at IBM who was able to put my resume in the right hands.) In the months that followed, I read news reports of further staff reductions at Alcatel Raleigh, and realized that I was one of the lucky ones. Had I managed to hang onto my job beyond April 2, I would have still have found myself unemployed a few months later, when jobs were scarcer and IBM was no longer hiring.
When I called my ex-colleague Mark this week (to arrange to return a couple of books I borrowed), he brought me up to date. Alcatel Raleigh had announced another wave of layoffs (the fourth, I think) earlier that day. Mark hasn’t lost his job, but the entire technical writing group (what’s left of it) has been outsourced. They are still sitting at the same desks and doing the same work, but they are now employees of an outside agency that provides services to Alcatel. Their jobs have been “guaranteed for six months” (for whatever that’s worth), but no one really expects to be there much longer than that.
Mark describes the building I used to work in as “a ghost town.” Almost all of the new offices are empty. Mark thinks that the building, and perhaps the entire Raleigh site, will probably be closed down later this year. I’m sure he’s right; it can’t be cost-effective for the company to keep it open with so few people working there.
I try to imagine what the place looks like now, but I can’t. I suppose I could go visit Mark during the day, and he’d probably be happy to show me around. But I don’t think I want to do that. I’d rather remember Alcatel the way it was when business was booming, the future was bright, and we all thought the good times would last forever.

Feb 02

Road trip

Well, the new computer did arrive. The new monitor, however, did not. It was shipped separately and may not get here for another week. So the new computer will have to wait. So will the copy of Window XP that I bought on the way home from work last night.
It’s just as well, because I’m not going to have time to fool with it today. I’m off to Lexington, NC, to have lunch with my mom and pick up some items she’s bringing up from Rock Hill. Specifically, two of my dad’s extra satellite dishes (he has a closet full of them) and a dress Mom made for Laura. One of the satellite dishes is for Bob, and the other one is for me.

Feb 01

Friday Five: Scars

This week’s Friday Five is about braces and sutures and scars (oh my!).
1. Have you ever had braces? Any other teeth trauma? When I was seven, dental X-rays picked up a permanent tooth that, while still inside the gum, was in two pieces. It was surgically removed — and when I say surgically, I mean under general anaesthesia, in an operating room. I actually spent the night in the hospital, probably the first night of my life away from my family.
I wore braces for two years in high school. After that I had a retainer, but it caused me to lisp, something that’s difficult to deal with when you’re a socially awkward and self-conscious teenager to begin with. I finally just quit using it. (As a result, a tooth slid out of alignment and I now have a gap between my front teeth. Yeah, just like David Letterman.)
The standard adult complement of teeth is 32. But the surgery cost me one permanent tooth, four more were pulled as part of my orthodontic treatment, and I only grew one wisdom tooth (most people get four). If you do the math, you’ll conclude that I only have 24 teeth, and you’ll be correct.
2. Ever broken any bones? Just one — my right femur, in a car wreck when I was 20. Six weeks in traction, then nine weeks wearing a cast, then four weeks on crutches. I have never taken the ability to walk for granted since then.
3. Ever had stitches? I got sprayed with glass fragments in the car wreck and looked pretty bloody by the time I was pulled out of the wreckage. But the blood was from superficial nicks to my face and scalp that didn’t require sutures, just Band-Aids. (Scalp lacerations, even very small ones, bleed like crazy.) The only trauma I’ve ever experienced that required stitches was ridiculously minor: while mopping the floor at Pizza Hut (where I worked for three summers), I managed to cut the webbing between my right thumb and forefinger on the edge of a steel prep table. The cut was tiny, less than half an inch long, but it wouldn’t stop bleeding. I finally had to go to an ER and get three stitches to close it.
If non-trauma sutures count, I’ve had surgery twice on my left wrist, and twice on fingers of my right hand. (UPDATE: As of November 2006, the latter number has risen to three.)
4. What are the stories behind some of your [physical] scars? I have chicken pox scars on my temples and face, which resulted from catching the virus from my two-year-old daughter when I was 28. There are scars on both sides of my right shin where the metal pin was inserted through my tibia for the traction setup for my broken leg. I also have a small triangular scar at the base of my right forefinger (glass fragments from a broken terrarium, 6th grade) and a scar on the back of my left knee from a piece of metal at a construction site when I was five years old. (What was I doing at a construction site? My parents took me to see how our new house was coming along.)
5. How do you plan to spend your weekend? If Federal Express delivers my new computer, I’ll probably spend a good bit of the weekend installing and configuring it. I also have to do laundry, wash dishes, and try to get started on spring cleaning. On Sunday, of course, I’ll be at a party with friends, celebrating the fact that we’re not watching the Super Bowl.

Feb 01

Attack of the critics

The buzz about Star Wars: Episode 2, The Attack of the Clones is gradually building. I only wish that professional critics and fans alike didn’t feel compelled to use this as an opportunity to bash Phantom Menace by saying that they hope Attack of the Clones is better. I have never understood why Phantom Menace is the target of so much derision; I was and still am delighted with it. I have had difficulty articulating what I think is so wonderful about it, however. Now I find that I don’t have to, because I can simply point people to this article by Dr. Kelley Ross.