Holidaze

IMG_3446Holiday shopping is in full swing. Secret bundles under the bed, shipping notices for things in process, and my tattered list full of cross-outs and revisions. The last thing I expect is a package at work addressed to me. It is ominously large and not a candy assortment from a vendor. Now I remember that somehow, in a pre-caffeine fog, I agreed to prepare for another professional exam, and these are the study materials. Oof – not how I envisioned my holidays.

I have less than a month to complete my first review of the content of this thick book (curiously, they only number the pages within each chapter, but not cumulatively – I guess to stave off intimidation), and I’m scheduled to attend a review class the first week of January. So that means that I’m devoting all the remaining days of December to study. Just when I thought I might spend weekends shopping or decorating, I foresee that I’ll have a highlighter gripped in my hand most days and nights.

Thinking back to college, this would be the time of year we were all studying for finals with no time to even think about the holidays until that last exam was complete. Arriving home on the 18th of the month seemed to leave plenty of time to get it all together. So maybe that’s the trick, to put myself in a college mindset, knowing that I’ll spend multiple hours each day head down in the book. For realism, I should go to the main library after work and sit in the stacks till they close.

Instead of carols or sugar plums, my head will be filled with
Twelve Investor Profiles
Eleven Customer Communications
Ten Equities
Nine Variable Products
Eight Options
Seven Offerings
Six Account Disclosures
Five Market Analyses
Four Margin Calls
Three Debt Types
Two Clearing Brokers
and a Practice Test in a Pear Tree!

I think I’ll wear my ugly Christmas sweater the whole time.

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‘Tis the Season

treeAfter Thanksgiving it’s impossible to resist the magnetic pull of Christmas. No more juggling for shelf space with back-to-school or fall holidays, it’s now full-on Santa. My emotions are mixed: excitement, dread, fear of missing the best sale, denial, and hope that I’ll come up with some gift ideas.

The assault is coming from all sides. The escalating number of e-mails from retailers and a mailbox full of catalogs make me feel suddenly way behind on my shopping. There are a surprising number of events to take in around the city. No fewer than a dozen holiday-themed stage productions, the Christkindlmarket, ice skating, concerts, holiday parties, light festivals, craft fairs, and even pub crawls (thank you Wrigleyville for this actual event description: “bringing the drunken stupidity of the summer months into the holiday season…the 12 Bars of Christmas has a history of violence, property destruction and general debauchery.” Eek.

It feels like we should have the entire month of December off to take in all these fun activities, but it is not to be. Instead, I’ll be commuting to work in a red and green decorated train car, passing the Macy’s holiday windows, dropping money in the Salvation army bucket outside our grocery store, and admiring the decorations adorning my office building. Around the edges, I will try to shop locally, devoting a weekend day or a lunch hour to some in-person browsing. And of course, I’ll shop online hoping I haven’t waited too long to allow for shipping time.

Other than some young nephews, my gift-giving is to other adults who know how to shop for themselves, so it’s fun to find something they didn’t know they needed: something silly to put in a stocking, a book to make them laugh, or tickets to an event. We may eat at a special restaurant, see a quirky version of A Christmas Carol on stage, or catch a new movie in a theatre with comfy reclining seats. Maybe this year my family can take curling lessons (a real thing)! Afterward we can shake off the chill in the new heated domes overlooking the Chicago River (also a real thing). Whatever we do, it’ll be good to be together, whether we wear ugly Christmas sweaters or not.

Evaluation

employee-performance-review-template-wordIt’s that time of year again – no, not the roaring retail lead-up to Christmas – time for the activity that strikes dread into the hearts of workers everywhere: annual reviews! It’s when we look up from our keyboards and realize we’re running out of time to do all those things we said we’d do when we set our goals last year.

A performance review is a great idea in theory. We can all use some praise and constructive criticism. Best case, we should be having regular, open discussions with our manager and peers – check-ins that keep us on track and encouraged. But either organizations are too big, or too “flat” giving one manager way too many direct reports, so that it becomes an onerous task to give frequent, balanced feedback to everyone on your team.

I don’t feel like I need to get constant feedback. I’m self-motivated, and have a pretty good sense if I’ve done quality work, or phoned it in. I don’t need a pat on the head, or a handful of M&Ms after each task to keep up the good work. However, I’ve learned that it’s important to highlight your accomplishments so that other people notice them. It may take the form of updating your boss in the hallway, or a status report in a team meeting, but however delivered, it shouldn’t be overlooked.

For at least the last decade (or two?), performance appraisals have been more of a “do-it-yourself” exercise where the employee essentially writes their own review. Filled with details and all the statistics you can cram in, it feels like your one time all year to declare your worth LOUDLY. And it’s not just what you did, but how you did it. Did you cooperate and collaborate rather than leave a trail of scorched earth? Did you coach others while you were trying to complete that automation project?

Tooting my own horn doesn’t come naturally. Is it really a big deal that I arrive at work on time, that I cut a full day out of a lengthy process, or met a print deadline? In a word: yes. I may not mention these things everyday, but over time, I find they add to the impression others have of my work, and what they expect: I’m happy to take on a task and see it through to the end, I’ll accept criticism and use it to improve. I have to work these traits into my portion of the review. Of course, the manager contributes to the appraisal as well, mostly agreeing with my comments and also pushing for higher achievement. We will sit down together, discuss, and lay out goals for the next year.

So as I put the finishing touches on this year’s review, I’m pleasantly surprised at the number of projects accomplished, wish I’d made more progress on some things, and gird my loins for the challenging goals to come. A hand-full of M&Ms would taste good right about now.

Traveler

roller bag

Whether they are coming or going, people with suitcases seem to be preoccupied with their travel plans – measuring the time it takes the train to take them to the airport, or how long the bus ride will be before they’re home; anticipating or remembering the sights they saw and the people they met. When the suitcases are roller bags, they make travel look effortless while simultaneously giving us license to bring all of our stuff.

I remember the bad old days when suitcases had to be lifted by their handles. These suitcases were heavy when they were empty, so they were practically unmanageable when full. I had a giant white Samsonite suitcase that I called “Moby.” As I stumbled from the car to the earliest opportunity to check that monster, I would question all my packing choices. If I had merely harpooned that bag, I would have been a step closer to today’s relative nirvana – the roller bag.

Now, no matter how overstuffed, our luggage glides effortlessly across the parking lot and into the airport. There are still times when we are reminded of the weight of our gliding bag: when there are steps (yes, Chicago ”L” stations, I’m looking at you) and the dreaded scale at the airline counter. Turns out it matters how much weight they load on the plane, and it’s embarrassing to have to dig through your bag to extract the free weights you thought would be great to take with you.

My roller bag isn’t the snazziest one at the airport. There are silver hard-sided cases that can roll in multiple directions, or families with matching bags in a brilliant color. There’s even a riding roller bag for kids – brilliant invention – a suitcase that your toddler can ride on as you pull them through the airport because, let’s face it, they are not going to pull it themselves.

During my daily commute, I see roller bags, and their cousins, roller briefcases and backpacks. Now it’s easier to bring all those papers home from work, and transport shockingly heavy textbooks without spine damage. Unfortunately, it is the relative ease of transport that encourages us to bring it all, rather than carefully selecting what we want to haul around. This is precisely why I don’t want to get a bigger suitcase – I would just fill it up.

When I pack for a trip, I guess I’m trying to plan for all eventualities and simulate the comforts of home. Slippers, a fleece, and extra shoes in case I mysteriously toss one out a window; an extra pair of pants; jewelry and scarf combos that will allow me to make that black dress look different every time I wear it. Little things that add up till I’m straining to hoist it all into the overhead bin.

 

Coming Soon!

coming soonIn a disaster movie I’ve probably dreamed up, the unsuspecting summer crowd is enjoying the beach, splashing and squealing. Then before they can react, the ocean pulls back from shore and forms a towering wave that crashes over everyone. A few of the victims saw the wave, but were so frightened they froze in place and were lost in the surge. With a similar deer-in-the-headlights stance, I’m looking over my calendar and it appears like a tidal wave is coming…soon.

After months leading up to the mid-term elections, the ads have ceased. I sigh, but before relief can set in, I realize that there are a host of pent-up activities on the horizon. This week alone, I have something every night after work – dinners, meetings, appointments – and this is just the beginning. The following week is Thanksgiving and I’ve hardly given it a thought. Sure, I’ve arranged some time off work, and our guest room is taking shape, but there is much to be done before we can serve a worthy meal.

The grocery stores have swept away the Halloween candy and put up holiday meal displays that include everything you need for baking, gravy, yummy appetizers, football-game-watching food, and food “gifts” – do people really still make fruitcake? It makes me feel like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland who cries, “I’m late!” – I can hardly think about one holiday and they’re invoking fear of missing out if I don’t start my Christmas baking.

Theaters are selling tickets to A Christmas Carol, and The Nutcracker; reviewers are suggesting great family movies for the holidays; inflatable snowmen and faux Christmas pine boughs are already decorating the neighborhood. Apparently, this weekend is the time to buy that set of matching “elf” or “Grinch” pajamas for the family (before they run out of your size!). I’ve come to accept that some people put up their Christmas trees on the day after Thanksgiving, so any second now the tree lots will appear.

Of course, I am a planner, and I like getting things lined up and ready to go. I revel in working ahead. But sometimes, it all seems to come at once, making it harder to enjoy individual events. My plan? Take it one step – one appointment – and one holiday – at a time.

Civic Duty

vote
My first voting experience was a real throwback: our polling place was my high school. The concourse beside the gym was where the voting booths were set up, so I strode in, wondering if any of the students would cheer as they recognized me as an alum doing my civic duty (they did not).

When I had my first apartment, the polling place was in a neighbor’s home. It almost seemed like a rogue set-up (why are we standing in this guy’s garage?) but reminded me that civic-minded volunteers play a big part in the voting process – staffing polling places, ensuring each person is able to cast their ballot, managing a smile over a very long day.

In Delaware, we went to a mysterious little office building in a nearby park. I think they did some kind of data entry during the week, but that morning, a line snaked out to the parking lot in the chilly dark. I stood in line with my son, who I would drop off at daycare later.

I remember going to vote with my mom. We stepped into the booth together – the kind with a curtain that came down to about the calves of an adult, so I guess it didn’t hide preschool me at all. There was a wall of little levers that could be flicked to one side for individual candidates. The alternative was a bigger lever that you could pull for a straight party vote (all Democrat or all Republican). My mom pulled that big lever and I remarked on it out loud so everyone in the polling station could hear it. Nothing like subtlety.

In Chicago, our polling place is an elementary school next to our building. I enter a street level door, and step down into a basement room with tables set up for the volunteers who pore over listings of registered voters. I scoot up in the line, give my name, and receive the ballot – a ridiculously oversized paper form – and a special marker. I am directed to a polling station – not a curtained booth, but a small table with high sides so no one can see what I mark on my ballot. I fill in the little arrow next to the names I’m voting for, just like a standardized test. When I’m finished, I hand my form to a volunteer who feeds it into a scanning machine. My vote is complete!

Some states give “I voted” stickers, but for some reason Illinois only gives out wristbands, as if we’ve paid an entry fee for a 21-and-over beer garden. Well, I’m happy to hoist a brew, because I have voted!

Faint Images

IMG_3386I just visited a 19th century mansion in the heart of Chicago, a grand residence and shining example of the “Gilded Age” – think Downton Abbey meets American industrialist. Each room gleamed with inlaid hardwoods, marble, Tiffany glass, and glazed tiles. The walls boasted luminous portraits of men and women, but the home was literally a museum, fixed in time. I kept looking for signs of life peeping around the corners.

During a meal, the door between the dining room and kitchen would have been swinging back and forth as servers carried in steaming dishes and whisked away dirty plates. The sound of conversation and the clinking of silverware would have carried into the entry hall where a butler was gathering up wet coats and boots to be cleaned for the guests. In the back stairs, a small army of people kept the bedrooms stocked with firewood, the bedclothes washed, and shirts ironed.

While this home had modern amenities like gaslights (and later electricity) and indoor plumbing, loads of effort was required for things we take for granted today: refrigeration, a food processor, and a microwave. Instead, blocks of ice would be garnered from an ice truck going down the street, and food prep was an all-day, everyday task. Running the home was practically a cottage industry in itself.

My forebears didn’t have lavish lives. But as I go through family photos that reach back multiple generations, I see people that may have strode past that beautiful mansion. They would have been part of the wave of immigrants attracted to the US as its economy boomed, only to bust in the late 20’s. Photos of men in uniform are the only indication I have of their professional lives. I presume the women were homemakers. A bucolic afternoon in the country was surely a rare treat, a respite from domestic labor, a chance to wear a new frock and try to keep it clean.

If I squint, I can see a little family resemblance in these faces. But cognitive dissonance gets in the way. From my earliest memories, my grandmother was grey and wrinkled, so I have trouble imagining her as a little girl with skinned knees and hair escaping the ribbon.

These faint images of people forgotten, if not for spidery names penciled onto the backs of the photos, are parts of the family tree that eventually led to me. To later generations, they’ll be just as distant as any museum exhibit. A flat rendering of someone long ago who lived an unimaginable life far removed from ours.

Creepy Halloween

halloween-backgrounds-pumpkin-sunset-background-46173There’s a nip in the air and the leaves are starting to turn. Yards are dotted with color from mums, ornamental cabbages and peppers. Orange and white pumpkins are arranged on steps. Then there’s the severed hand laying on the grass next to a tombstone and a giant spider. It’s hard to ignore that Halloween is almost here.

This year the decorations in the neighborhood started going up in September while it was still 80 degrees. Eight-foot spiders crawling down the face of a four-story building, complete skeletons cavorting on the porch, full-sized demons and killers from movies stalking across the yard, limbs and bones strewn in the flower beds, bats and ghosts swinging from tree branches low enough to touch my head.

Mostly I’m walking past these homes in daylight, but some evenings after work it’s already dark and these yards teeming with decorations are creeping me out. First, they’re gory and scary. No one has an inflatable Casper the Friendly Ghost, or a smiling pumpkin. Second, when did this formerly one-evening event become a month-long extravaganza? It’s what happens when we find a good thing and want more of it, I guess.

Now we need to make room for bar-hopping costume events on the weekend before; kids-only events where a Halloween parade in costume and the attendant candy-fest can happen in a well-lit, safe place; and haunted houses and corn mazes with a resident slasher. You can also find scores of scary movies on cable to pretend it’s Halloween every night. I suppose if we’re going to do all of these things, it takes a month.

As a child, I remember getting a pumpkin, carving it into a jack-lantern, and trying to stabilize the candle so it wouldn’t keel over. This was the one and only Halloween decoration at our house. When we went trick or treating, I noticed that some homes elaborated a bit by having a stuffed scarecrow or ghoul on their front porch, but that was about it. No orange lights, no spiderwebs wrapping the fence or bushes, no zombies roaming the premises. Just big bowls of candy and friendly people at the door.

So Halloween has fallen victim to “holiday creep” – in the same way that Christmas seems to start showing up right after back-to-school shopping. Spreading out from October 31 like a killer fog from a horror movie, it has merged with harvest celebrations and Octoberfest to be one big orange distraction from the most terrifying prospect—winter.

Oddities

IMG_3332It’s that time of year again: Open House Chicago when venues of architectural, historical or cultural significance are all open to the public. My strategy is to pick a few things that are relatively close together and hope things I don’t visit will be on the tour next year. My selections yielded some surprises: huge wooden carvings, giant greased gears, a bird’s eye view, and clown shoes.

The tour of the upscale antique store was more like a museum. One room was disassembled in China, shipped to Chicago and reassembled – a stone floor hundreds of years old, and the wooden paneling forming the enclosure of a courtyard. On top of a cabinet in the next room was a large 10,000 year-old earthen jug (“we had it carbon-dated!”). But the best part was the “workshop” where unique pieces were being assembled from salvaged parts, or newly built using artists who still practiced old techniques. As we squeezed into the cramped room filled with shelves of odd things (rusty metal toy cars big enough to ride in), the wooden flower carving taller than me was hard to ignore. There were obvious vertical sections, I guess so you could get it through the door into your house.

The McCormick Bridge House is one of many structures along the Chicago River that contain the mechanisms for lifting the bridges – an event that happens twice a year to allow boats access to the lake (in the spring) and from the lake (in the fall) on their way to winter storage. This wasn’t a bridge-lifting day, but we did get to see the large, well-greased gears that drive the counterweights down so the bridge can go up. Even under beautiful Michigan Avenue, Chicago shows its grit.

I saw a crowd forming when I was still three blocks away from my next destination. About to despair, I smelled the aroma with relief: this was a line for Garrett’s Popcorn. The Cliff Dwellers Club was a modest space with a cozy fireplace seating area, a bar, and two dining rooms, but the focal point was the fabulous view of the lake and Millennium Park afforded by the bank of large east-facing windows. While not the highest observation point in Chicago, it was breathtaking. The fact that it was a clear day with a blue sky and deep blue lake didn’t hurt either.

My final stop was The Arts Club. Part gallery, part dining room, and part performance space, I had never seen this small building tucked behind Michigan Avenue. None of the art was labeled (I guess if you have to ask…). The gallery, which I imagine has a rotating display of pieces, had on this day an odd collection seemingly made of plaster of Paris: oversized clown shoes and a rubber chicken. Smiling, I waded back out into the sidewalk crowds thinking how fun it is to find new things in Chicago.

Trajectory

poolI want to put the nine ball into the corner pocket. After aiming carefully and controlling the cue stick, it should have gone right in. But the nine hit three other balls that bounced off the bumpers and skittered all over the felt. I sank the six instead and the cue ball wobbled to the side. Cause doesn’t always have the intended effect, but it may work out better than expected.

When I was young, if I gave any extended thought about my future, I imagined it laid out in an organized way: step one, step two, step three. But life had other plans. A cross-country move and a job change were things I never thought I’d face, until I did. Trying to apply the knowledge I had to a new situation, and hoping for the best seemed the only way to go forward and, on balance, it turned out OK. The key was the help others could give me – a supportive colleague, a manager who gave me a chance to take on new challenges and shine – and also taking lessons from things gone wrong – a flubbed project or a bad manager. Some job assignments helped me learn things I didn’t even know I needed. Dealing with ambiguity, building consensus, figuring out an operational puzzle. In retrospect, the detours were some of the most valuable experiences.

While I was focused on what was helping me, it never occurred to me that I may be inadvertently helping others. A former colleague told me my actions had made a lasting impression on her. I wondered, what the heck did I do? While I was busy second-guessing myself, juggling a big job and daycare pickups, I became an unsuspecting role-model. I must have fooled her by making it look too easy. A co-worker said she thought I was always polite. I paused when I heard this and wondered if that was a back-handed compliment, a way of saying I was too soft and forgiving. Rather than disagree, I did the polite thing and said thank you. Somehow, a small act of civility stood out to her. I decided that couldn’t be a bad thing.

So, this week, I’ll try to have a positive effect on others, even if I never see the result: listen to other people’s ideas, offer to help someone who hasn’t asked, say a friendly hello to the guy at the gym check-in desk who’s dying to finish his overnight shift at 5am. Maybe a good mood will be passed on to whomever they bump into next.