Tuesday, August 30, 2005

My anti-resume

All of the following statements are true about me, except for one. One is outright rubbish, and the rest are true, if useless. Can you spot the false claim?

  • Juggled flaming clubs.
  • Changed the head gasket on a Toyota pickup.
  • Rappelled 180 feet (55m) into Moaning Cavern at age 8.
  • Conducted two sixty-person marching bands.
  • Regularly contribute entries to the dictionary, including Spanish and Greek translations. Do not engage in omphaloskepsis frequently, but know its meaning and have run across the word while reading.
  • Played kazoo before a live audience of hundreds.
  • Have performed in Flint Center.
  • Experienced trampolinist.
  • Skilled at improvisational dance.
  • Swam the length of a 40-yard swimming pool under water, without coming up for air.
  • Able to type 70wpm on a Dvorak keyboard
  • Have never purchased a single thing from Starbucks
  • Once reminded her boss of his own wedding anniversary, which both he and his wife had forgotten.
  • Able to sing with a range of 2 octaves, with perfect pitch.
  • Can count on one hand the number of alcoholic drinks I have ever tasted.
  • Do not watch television.
  • Once went over eight years without a haircut.
  • Have helped at least one person to quit smoking.
  • Have head-banged in a public performance.
  • Have helped one person gain US citizenship.
  • Have never had a cavity.
  • Sunday, August 21, 2005

    A smaller world

    I was chatting this afternoon with a friend in England. I commented that our tiny chat room had, at that moment, 12 people in it representing 7 different countries, throughout the world. He thought it was kind of silly of me to keep track. Yes, IRC has been around (mostly without me) for quite some time now, long enough to qualify it as old news.

    May I still be allowed to marvel now and then at technology? We have figured out how to do some pretty neat stuff, from the airplane I flew on today to the digital watch that got me there on time, to the semiconductors and networks that make this blog possible.

    I say that as an engineer, one who sees behind the curtain every day. How many people really understand the inner workings of their cell phones, computers, or cars? How many people ever even stop to think about the people like me who help build those now-commonplace devices? How many engineers, who think up and implement techology, think regularly of the end user, rather than the demanding boss or the deadline?

    Once in awhile, I try to notice these everyday miracles, the person who gets to know friends around the world--friends she would otherwise never have met--and talk to them without even putting her shoes on.

    So let me celebrate a bit, please!

    Thursday, August 18, 2005


    My great grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Greece around the turn of the last century. I'm not certain of the exact year, but I know that he was in San Francisco for the famous 1906 earthquake. (He kept the right wrench by his gas meter for the rest of his life.)

    When he arrived, he went to get a job in a restaurant owned by some others who spoke Greek. The owner asked him whether he had a pair of black pants he could wear for the job. He replied that he did.

    Then he went out and bought some black pants.

    Sunday, August 14, 2005

    No apron, no jars

    Every August for the past 9 years (or is it 10 already?) I have packed a suitcase and a carload of empty jars and driven to Pam's house three hours north of here on the relatively rural outskirts of Ukiah. There, with my boyfriend's mom and her friend Pam, I get myself up to my elbows in sticky pear peelings, peaches, beans, tomatoes, jam, jelly, pickles, and applesauce. My canning trip would have been this weekend, but because of my work commitments, it won't quite happen this year.

    Nobody is going to starve because the three of us shirked our annual fruit frenzy, but it is not really August without this ritual. For one thing, it is a huge change of pace from my engineering to spend a week mindlessly processing fruit (650 pounds of it one prolific summer when we kept track). I pet the friendliest of Pam's many cats, since I have none of my own. I dump the pits and peelings over the bank for the wild deer, turkeys, and peacocks. I pick green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers from Pam's large, overgrown, and prolific garden, and we buy most of the rest at various far-flung roadside stands on the edges of their respective orchards.

    We chat about anything and everything while stirring the endless kettles of jelly and waiting forever for beans to cook. We also take plenty of shopping breaks and go eat sandwiches and cookies at the local cafés. One year we did a comprehensive cookie survey of the entire town. Moore's Flour Mill came out on top. Pam's husband spends a lot of time on the road, and she makes sure he is gone during canning week, lest he decide to meddle in our cluttered kitchen.

    We also turn out jars upon jars of the best tasting canned foods anywhere. We take great pride in knowing exactly where the apples in the sauce came from, and seeing them into jars just when they're perfect. Gravensteins don't hold well, so they rarely appear in supermarkets anymore, but there is no other apple quite like them. It might seem odd that anyone in this day and age would spend 90 minutes watching the needle go nowhere on a pressure canner just for a half-dozen quarts of pinto beans, but they really do come out softer and tastier that way. I can't stand the ones I get in restaurants these days.

    Besides, when I get back home, I get to see the look on people's faces when I present them with a jar of homemade strawberry jam. Those who have had it know that you can't buy anything like it in stores. Canning is a dying art, but it is still well worth preserving.

    Saturday, August 13, 2005

    My purse

    For some reason, purses seem to puzzle men, even though they are straightforward and commonplace. While I can by no means claim to possess an average handbag, I believe I can shed some light on this everyday mystery.

    First, please realize that women’s clothing, being inexplicably constructed for fashion above function, rarely contains pockets. The purse, then, besides being a fashion accessory in its own right, serves as a sort of external pocket to contain the keys, wallet, and other personal effects. This much, a man of average intellect might well comprehend. Why else is it my constant companion? Let’s take a guided tour inside to demystify the rest.

    My plain, black handbag, an unassuming and inexpensive off-brand, was chosen because it was about the right size for the articles I choose to carry regularly, because black goes with everything, and because it has a divided section that keeps the chaos of my personal belongings divided into neat pockets. There is a pocket for my checkbook (which I must carry mainly because there is a pocket for it, since I usually pay with cash or plastic), a pocket for my cash, a pocket for my receipts, and so on. It is like a miniature filing cabinet and has proved invaluable in allowing me to find items quickly.

    In one of these pockets, you will find a four-way pen. It writes in black, orange highlighter, and pencil. It used to write in red, too, but I have replaced that position with a stylus for my PDA. The multi-use tool is a recurring theme throughout my handbag. I prefer to carry a well-chosen few tools with many uses.

    In the deep center pocket, you will first find clipped to an outside ring a Leatherman multi-tool, anodized purple, my favorite color. I use this as much for the tool portions—the screwdrivers, pliers, and file—as for the convenience items, like the knife and the nail file. This is by no means a common choice. You would be much more likely to find eyeglasses, cosmetics, or trash in a woman’s purse, but I wear neither glasses nor makeup.

    Also in the center pocket, I carry a moist towelette saved from a restaurant, in case I can’t wash up, a case full of business cards, a three-foot tape measure (handy at the garage sales and hardware stores I frequent), some ever-present Kleenex, and occasionally a granola bar and a tube of hand lotion, if I remember them.

    On the opposite side, you’ll find a PDA that is downright old by PDA standards. It serves my purposes, though, and I choose to spare neither the money to secure a replacement nor the time to select one. In it are my address book, to-do list, calendar, and email, plus a repository of those meandering thoughts I have bothered to record and some games and e-books in case I find myself bored somewhere. In over three years of carrying the device, I have not finished more than a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories, because I seldom get bored while out and about.

    There is one empty pocket, which is also an unusual feature of my purse alone. It is sized to contain a cellular phone, complete with a cutout for the antenna. I don’t really enjoy talking on the phone or paying monthly fees, so this pocket travels empty.

    What I have built, through trial and error and a bit of good guesswork, is a compact but functional toolbox that travels with me and suits my needs. I have been known to smuggle entire novels into potentially boring functions. One friend of mine, who travels frequently, has a purse large enough to accommodate her laptop. Large or small, a woman’s purse reflects the woman who carries it: neat or messy, full of makeup, perhaps, or gadgets, or toys to distract her children. In any case, it carries the tools of the trade.

    Friday, August 12, 2005

    Taking charge, tentatively

    This week I got my first real taste of management. I started with some of the scary parts. One of the upper managers walked into my cube and without so much as a 'hello' to announce his presence and let me change gears, he began grilling me about how I planned to correct some billing mishap I had never heard of. With all the presence of mind I could muster, I listened as carefully as I could, plead lack of knowledge (true) and told him I'd get back to him. Then I called headquarters and asked for help.

    This week I also got my first inkling that I might, just maybe, be suited for this job. I had always been just a rank-and-file engineer before. What has previously been an annoyingly high tendency toward distractability might now come in very, very handy as multitasking. True, I will need to adjust the balance. Besides managing, I still have more than enough of my own work to do.

    I think my propensity for talking to coworkers may serve me well here, too. While I hope never to be one of those people who demands that the entire department attend a weekly meeting, need it or not, communication of various forms will continue to be essential. I'm even getting over my phone shyness rapidly.

    The woman whose job I'm suddenly taking over left two weeks ago, well before I was confident in my understanding of the role. I must say, I have a whole new appreciation for what she did. The handful of people in the department under her left, too, so I get to use my tenuous understanding to train their replacements. Teaching, though, will force me to understand it thoroughly myself, and allow me to meet the new people.

    It is too soon to tell whether the grass is greener here or not. So far, I am nervous, but optimistic.

    Thursday, August 11, 2005

    Garage sale finds

    I am an inveterate tightwad. I got it from my mother, who got it from my grandmother. Mom dreams one day of being photographed by a fashion reporter, not because she has any particular concern for fashion, but so that she can brag about how much she didn't pay for whatever she was caught wearing. Her outfits typically come in under $10, shoes and all.

    One mark of a determined tightwad is a propensity for shopping at garage sales. The neatnik in me tries to keep this habit to a reasonable level, but my mom's thoroughly hooked, and she has the stacks (and stacks and stacks) of stuff to prove it.

    Occasionally, we find amazing stuff at garage sales, though, and it tends to fuel the flame.

    Once, for instance, we found a serger sewing machine, one of those pudgy, miniature affairs with four needles and probably forty stitches designed for stretchy and fussy fabrics of all sorts. The serger was a bargain at $40 (only $1 per stitch!). We got it home and set about cleaning it up. With a few exceptions, it's hard to do much permanent damage to a sewing machine, and we've revived quite a number of garage sale machines that have gone on to lead productive second lives.

    We brought the machine home and the hand wheel wouldn't turn all the way around, so we started by oiling everything and picking the thread and other junk out of the bobbin case. The previous owner had plainly been sewing brown corduroy and burgundy velvet, and there was plenty of evidence of both projects down there gumming up the works.

    As I fished the brown fuzz from beneath the bobbin, I noticed a penny, way in underneath. No fingers, tweezers, pliers, or picks could quite extract the itinerant Lincoln, so we decided to turn the entire machine over and take the bottom off. It made a tremendous clatter when we turned it over, and we exchanged nervous glances. Could the entire mechanism be loose? If so, we were in way over our heads.

    Four screws later, we had the answer. Removing the bottom cover revealed about $1.45 in very small change, mostly pennies and nickels! Our theory is that somebody's toddler found a ventilation slot and decided to sock away his life savings there. The next time his mom turned it on, she got a rude shock as it made a terrible noise and ground to a halt.

    I don't think anyone has sewed on it very much, but the serger works fine now that we got her $1.45 rebate out from under the mechanism.

    This stinks!

    In the restrooms at work hangs a small fixture, a nondescript white plastic box about the size and shape of a countertop electric can opener. It is rather high on the wall, where it should be easy to overlook, just as one usually overlooks the smoke alarms, fire sprinklers, and other such routine fixtures on and near ceilings. It took me awhile, after I began working in that building, to notice it, and awhile longer to figure out that it is an air freshener.

    Now, this is no simple box of smelly goo. It is a particularly active device, for something that merely puts a fragrance in the air. To begin with, it is decidedly electronic. It has a little LCD display on the front with a digital readout showing a number. This number, when I began a month ago, was in the neighborhood of 25 and has been counting down days (or something) to zero ever since.

    It is also not merely a heated stick of scented wax. Every so often it puts forth a little spritz of smelly stuff. Perhaps it goes off once every ten minutes; perhaps it goes when it senses motion. I’m not sure. It gave me quite a start the first time I was in there--alone, I thought--and heard the little pffft of fragrance released into the air.

    As it happens, whatever stuff it squirts does not smell particularly appealing. It is an industrial, antiseptic fragrance, at best. This restroom gets frequent enough cleaning attention and little enough use that it could do without the air “freshener” entirely. Needless to say, nobody consulted me before installing this device.

    The little number yesterday reached zero, at last. I presume this means that the air freshener has run out, or is on the brink of running out, of whatever substance it squirts. I was honestly looking forward to the moment, to see what happened when zero came. (Perhaps, I hoped, the thing would self-destruct!) I was particularly looking forward to the lack of smelly stuff for it to inject with its little pffts, and inwardly hoping that the janitorial staff might not notice that little blinking zero, with the device so high up on the wall and so long between refills.

    Well, no sooner did the counter reach zero than the infernal device started to beep. Every ten seconds or so it emits a beep-beep. Smoke alarms in need of batteries are less persistent than this foolish air-freshening device, though they are of vastly greater importance. The janitorial staff cannot help but be aware of the thing and feed it more of whatever smelly concoction it burps, but I do not think they carry the air freshener with them. They cleaned this evening before I left, and they plainly had not fed the starving brick. It is probably still beeping now.

    I fly out tomorrow night, and I won’t miss that restroom one bit.