What’s in a Name?

Yesterday, a coworker told me that she’d met a couple who were also named Frost. She beamed at me as though she’d handed me a birthday cake. I’m socially awkward under the best of circumstances, so when I’m in a situation I don’t understand I tend to fight or flee.

This puzzled me enough that I couldn’t react. I’m used to getting questions about my name — am I related to Robert Frost? Jack Frost? (No, …yes, dammit) — but this approach was unknown to me. It wasn’t a question, but clearly some manner of response was expected.

“Ah,” I said. This acknowledged the statement without inviting its own response. This always seems like a good approach, and it never works. What I’d like to convey is “please stop talking to me”, but I’ve found that I can’t say that. Not because it’s rude, but because it actually extends the conversation as I’m then expected to explain in detail why I don’t won’t to talk to the person. So, “ah”.

“I wondered if you were related,” she returned, and told me their names.

Ah, indeed. I was afraid that’s where we were going.

“I have no idea, and I don’t want to know if they are,” I told her. This was a bit rude, but I really needed to convey my disinterest in the subject.

“They’re really nice,” she informed me.

“Then we’re not related,” I quipped.

With that I went back to work.

Advertisements

The Long Goodbye

Whenever a manager wants to speak with me, I expect to be fired. A good part of this is due to my nervous disposition, but coming of career age during the dotcom collapse honed my paranoia. I spent the better part of two years waiting to be fired, for the very good reason that it was happening to everyone around me.

My first tech company no longer existed by the time I joined it. Like an unfortunate teenager in “The Blob” it was being absorbed into a larger mass. I spent my first week packing the office in preparation of moving into the larger space of another victimized local company. I’ll leave the component companies unnamed, out of respect for the dead. The consuming entity I’ll name HoneyPot Inc., which is all the respect it deserves.

HoneyPot Inc. existed solely to attract a purchaser. Smaller companies were acquired but never united through any common vision or plan. Consulting firms, design shops, contractor houses: if a vulnerable service company fit a tasty category, it was snatched up by HoneyPot. The objective appeared to be to flesh out a list of selling points, presenting the illusion of a company with capabilities in all areas of internet technologies.

The reality was that each company continued to operate largely as they had before. Even the facet I joined survived as a unit within the larger office into which it had merged. I once had to use a custom font designed by a branch of HoneyPot in Detroit for another site owned by the same automotive client. It took weeks to convince the office that both vendor and client were the same. Even then they fought to have all the work involving the font done through them, on their own slow schedule of course.

HoneyPot Inc.

Artist's depiction based on eyewitness account of HoneyPot acquisitions.

B2B solution provider Business 1st Co. bought the HoneyPot collective, presumably intending to leverage some of the disparate capabilities of the disorganization. If that actually happened, it didn’t involve any of the offices I worked with. It seemed as though they woke up in bed with us and couldn’t remember the wedding, or even having met HoneyPot Inc. The pimps behind HoneyPot presumably swam merrily in their newly filled Scrooge McDuck vaults.

Business 1st would actually have done well to simply let everyone keep making money, but they had other plans. What these plans entailed remains a mystery to me, but a primary component appeared to be mass firings — charmingly termed Reductions In Force.

The first one took many of us by surprise. One day security guards showed up and some people’s email accounts and building access had been turned off. Every manager had to cut off a few team members, though our office’s losses were under the overall company percentage. One coworker of mine had gone home to India for his wedding, and the higher-ups wanted him to cut his trip short and come back to be fired.

I had only recently become an Associate Software Developer, barely on par with an intern in status and expectations, and I didn’t understand why I’d been kept. Of course it was because I was the lowest paid developer in the office. My survival through what was to come is almost certainly due to the presumed cost effectiveness of an inexperienced amateur over a knowledgable professional. This was only one of the absurdities that convinced me that I was living in a novel by Joseph Heller or John Sladek.

After the initial Reduction In Force, we were all called into a meeting where our managers calmed us with lies and half-truths. Several people felt better for it, but some of us were wary of the deliberate phrasing. “There are no plans to let more people go” is not the same as “This won’t happen again.” In fact, I learned years afterward that the managers went directly to the meeting wherein those plans were devised. At the time I took the language as standard corporate weasel-speak and hoped for the best.

Two weeks later it happened again. No guards that time, and IT hadn’t tipped the hand, but there were suspicious invitations to meetings in another building…

Nobody was calmed by the All Remaining Hands meeting that afternoon, and it surprised no one when it happened again two weeks later. Gallows humor masked our nervousness, and one employee began drawing a ghost with a raincoat and a hook (ala “I Know What You Did Last Summer”). The cartoon ghoul, named RIF, appeared on almost every whiteboard, and a full color print made the rounds with the ominous caption “I know what you did last quarter!” A few employees quite seriously volunteered for riffing, but they lasted a few more rounds.

This went on for about a year. During this time we were not allowed to take on new business, and everybody on short projects vanished quickly as soon as their work was done. We continued developer interviews — I conducted a few myself, despite my bottom feeder position — but all hiring was unofficially frozen. A core part of the branch’s historic business, on site staffing at an auto company, was sold to someone who liked making money. Nearly everyone from the small company I’d joined had fled or been pushed out.

Eventually a group of offices on the East Coast bought themselves back. For some reason our emaciated office was included in the deal. Our new overlords at WebSolder Inc. strode in triumphantly, uncomprehending of why we did not greet them as saviors or at the very least with optimism. The CEO spoke glowingly of what we could accomplish together, but we only wanted to know one thing: when would the next layoffs come?

The man stammered. Why would there be layoffs, he asked. We pressed him to say there wouldn’t be any. His weasel brain kicked in, and he said it would be impossible to make such an outlandish promise. Further pressing forced him to allow that it would take six months before management would be in a position to even consider such things. We instantly relaxed. Ah, we reflected, we’ll have a six month break from reductions.

To our complete surprise, it was actually seven months before the next mass firing.

Scatting in the Rain

When audiences first saw Disney’s “Pinocchio”, most people recognized the voice of Jiminy Cricket: singer Cliff Edwards, aka Ukelele Ike. (‘Ukelele’ was a common spelling of the day.) Edwards was a big star, appearing in dozens of films from the 1930s through the 1950s. He even briefly hosted his own TV program.

I listened to a collection of his recordings on my drive in to work this morning. I’d known that Edwards had been the singer on the original version of “Singing in the Rain”, and finally hearing him mouth-trumpeting through a verse of it delighted me.

For those who’ve never heard Edwards outside of crooning as a cricket, I’ll explain. There’s a vocal technique known as scat singing that, crudely put, involves using nonsense instead of words. The purpose is to use the voice as an instrument for improvisation. Done well, by a vocalist like Ella Fitzgerald, it’s a beautiful technique. Done by Shooby Taylor, it verges on the unintentionally humorous.

Cliff Edwards liked to scat, and the variation he used went beyond making up words. He pitched his voice high and tweedled like a trumpet. Sometimes he even used his hands as a mute. The first time I heard him do this, it startled me. I didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed silly and jarring. Now I think it’s a weird little nugget of joy. I just can’t be anything but happy when Edwards imitates a trumpet solo!

So I was overjoyed to discover that Cliff Edwards had mouth-trumpeted through a verse of “Singing in the Rain”, a song that always puts a smile on my face anyway.

Selling a Mystery

I read a lot of crime fiction, and I’m fortunate enough to work close to a great local bookstore — Aunt Agatha’s New & Used Mysteries, Detection & True Crime Books. Co-owner Jamie really knows his books, and his love for the genre is evident. I’ve had several conversations with him about books, movies, and everything noir; and he doesn’t generally display that glaze in the eyes that typically afflicts others when I speak.

I’ve been sorting through my collection of books and have donated several bags worth to libraries and raffles. After finishing a recently purchased mystery book and deciding that it wasn’t a keeper, it dawned on me that I could probably sell it to Jamie. I took it in to work with me to test this theory, and it sat on my desk for a month while mental notes about selling it piled up in my brain.

Finally on a warm, sunny afternoon I picked it up to go try my luck. Wendi went with me for the excuse to get outside. We walked into the mystery shop, and Jamie greeted us. I presented the book and announced that I’d come to sell it. He sized it up quickly and offered a dollar. That was a buck I didn’t have before, so I readily agreed.

Then he asked if I hadn’t liked the book. I admitted that it hadn’t really grabbed me. After the novelty of being set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had worn off, there really hadn’t been anything to hold my attention: murder, treachery, or the like. Jamie allowed that series didn’t have wide appeal, then as an aside mentioned that there was another series based in the UP that might be more my speed.

He walked over to a nearby shelf as he talked and deftly picked out a paperback without seeming to have looked for it. It was the first book in the series, and he thought it’d better suit my taste. Before I knew what was happening, I had paid $3.50 for the book (less the $1 credit) and was heading back to work.

Wendi glanced at my new book curiously. “What’s that?”

I stammered a bit. “He’s really good,” I finally confessed. She just shook her head and allowed that I at least hadn’t increased my book count.

Aunt Agatha’s can’t give the discounted prices that Amazon does, but I’ll happily spend a few extra bucks for recommendations based on actual knowledge.

Mitchell!

As some of you know, I’m a big fan of actor Ray Milland. Early this year, a friend surprised and delighted me with a copy of his 1974 autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon. I’m nearly done reading it, and it’s a fantastic set of stories. I mean, I’d have loved it anyway because it was Milland on Milland, but as a special bonus it’s a good book.

Honestly, it was my enjoyment of his story-telling that inspired me to get back into essay writing, leading to the creation of this blog.

Anyway, what I wanted to write about is how much I loved reading Milland praise Cameron Mitchell. Mitchell is well-known to fans of non-classic cinema, appearing in movies like “Island of the Doomed”, “The Swarm”, and “The Toolbox Murders”. Milland writes of Mitchell that he’s a true actor and a professional; a man given to wise intonations, who always travelled with multiple coffee makers to ensure the perfect brew.

It’s just great to read my favorite actor paying tribute to a working actor that a lot of people wouldn’t recognize, especially as he hardly ever mentions other actors in his book. It’s even better that he immediately followed by relating how he mocked Cameron and the others as they boarded a smelly boat for the rest of the shoot and Milland got to go home.

Now I have to track down “The Big Game” so I can giggle at the thought of the actors throwing sandwiches at Ray Milland.

The Ankle Bone’s Connected

I am a mutant.
Not the cool kind, with wings or a healing factor. No, I’m your run-of-mill genetic deviant with a mutation that does not improve my odds against the fittest. My gift is stiff ankles. To be medically precise the diagnosis was talocalcaneal ossification, which basically means that my heels are fusing to my ankles. This in itself doesn’t greatly inconvenience me; I have a somewhat restricted range of motion in my feet that sometimes puts stress on various ligaments. It was a Chevy that turned my relatively harmless mutation into a life-changing injury.
Mom did not approve of my friend Chuck. One day she fixed us sandwiches to eat. Chuck looked at it suspiciously and wound up burying it under his napkin. When I was done eating, he slid his sandwich into the trash. For a teenager, this counts as politeness. He didn’t make gagging noises or throw it on the floor, so in his mind he was courteously avoiding hurt feelings. Of course he was wrong, and I still hear about this slight whenever his name comes up.
I liked Chuck because he seemed happy being who he was, and this was completely outside of my experience. He did whatever the rest of us were doing without complaint, and if he liked sometimes to sit in his window wearing nothing but his underwear what of it? Plus, he had a car, a light blue Chevy sedan. That was another strike against him as far as my mom was concerned, but my friends and I loved the vicarious power and freedom of it. We’d take rides to anywhere and nowhere in particular, just because we could.
I was under strict instructions to never get a ride from a friend. A good part of my general anxiety has always stemmed from my inability to follow rules and my certainty of being caught breaking them. Oddly I only got busted once for accepting a ride, but it wasn’t for what I’d actually done.
I’d been invited to a party on the night of a varsity basketball game. I’d been told that parents would be there, so I was grudgingly allowed to accept the invitation. So I went to the junior varsity game to hang out before playing in pep band for the varsity game. My parents stormed in, having found out that there would not be adults at the party. This was news to me, but I was branded a liar and ordered home directly after the fulfilling my band obligations.
I was pissed at everybody, but what could I do? I waited for the varsity game to start, tooted my trombone on cue, and packed up. The first chair trombonist asked if I wanted a ride. I explained the situation, and he told me to get in the car. He drove aimlessly for a while as I ranted and blew off steam. When I’d come around to feeling better, he dropped me off.
Here’s the part where I got in trouble.
My parents weren’t hopping mad, but they were trembling with rage. They hadn’t realized (and would not believe) that there were two basketball games that night and that I’d be on band duty for the second. The junior varsity game had been in the 4th quarter when they’d arrived, so they’d expected me to return home shortly behind them. When that had failed to happen, my parents had launched an invasion of the party to search for me. I hadn’t been there, and everyone denied seeing me. That only convinced them that I was there somewhere.
Why they believed that an entire house full of teenagers would lie for me, I’ll never understand. I wasn’t Ferris Bueler, master of deception and beloved by all. I’m more shocked that nobody claimed that I’d just ducked out the back, just to sow some chaos.
Anyway, my story about a second game and a twenty-minute ride were dismissed, and I was grounded for not attending the party I was told not to attend.
This is to explain why I jumped out of Chuck’s car. I always expected to get caught, but not necessarily for things I’d actually done.
I lived only a half-dozen blocks from the high school, but the allure of piling into a car with my friends was great — even for a two-minute ride. I always got out at another friend’s house a block away out of fear of being seen getting out of the car. Chuck knew the score, and most days the little deception went off smoothly.
One day Chuck decided to be funny. He started to pull away from the drop-off point before I could get out of his Chevy and claimed that he was heading downtown. Filled with fear and possessed of poor judgement, I jumped. The landing wasn’t skillful; I splayed over the curb like so much dead deer. Amazingly I was unharmed, and I froze while adjusting to my survival.
Landing Safety Diagram

When jumping from a moving vehicle, do not rest until no part of you remains in the road.

If I’d played more video games, I would have known that you never rest until you’re on safe ground. As it was, my legs were still in the road. Concerned that I’d hurt myself, Chuck backed up.
I won’t describe the feeling of a large car backing slowly over my foot and coming to rest on top of it. The things I shouted to make Chuck roll forward worked after what felt like minutes. It seems that I sent him away after discovering that I could stand, but I really don’t remember anything other than limping into my friend’s house and waiting for the pain to subside.
At that point in my life I hadn’t been aware that you could walk on an injured foot, depending on the nature of the injury. My foot ached, but I could walk with only a mild limp. I weighed the prospect of recovery against that of explaining to my parents that I’d jumped out of a car I hadn’t supposed to have been in, and I decided that discretion was the wisest approach.
So it came to pass that my mutant power pinned my dislocated heel in place. Over time my limp became more pronounced, and pain came to dominate my life as arthritis built up in the joint. By the time I was 30 I couldn’t stand to walk more than a few blocks, and sufficient rest only brought the sharp jabs down to a dull throb.
As soon as I got decent health insurance I had a surgeon fasten my heel in a better location, making for a healthier gait and removing the space in which arthritis could form. I’ll draw a curtain over the details, while I still have a few readers. Some of my colleagues at the time got a bit queasy listening to me explain the surgery.
The surgery was six or seven years ago. I can walk now, and my doctor would like me to do more of it. Sometimes my foot aches after a lot of use, but so far it’s never approached even the background level of pain to which I’d become accustomed.
If there’s one lesson that I may impart from all this, it’s that you should really put on some pants if you’re going to sit in the window.

Dignity, Always Dignity

My typical weekday begins with Ling yelling at me as I stumble blearily into the kitchen. She’s currently our oldest cat, and she’s on a special diet to fatten her up. I scoop some food out of a can, mix it with a splash of hot water, and try to set it down before she knocks it out of my hands. As soon as she’s done eating she trots after me and attempts to crawl into my cereal bowl.

I’m used to this, and if I fail to accept it with good grace I at least refrain from throwing her out. Her previous family tossed her into the snow and moved away, and while I would do anything to avoid having her butt in my face while I’m eating — well, like Meatloaf, I won’t do that. Besides, I’m not packing all my crap just to avoid a cat.

It helps that the other cats are usually still too groggy to join in the ritual begging. Wyeth tends to stay in bed after making sure Wendi gets up, and Bogart likes to savor his final moments of owning Wendi’s chair before she reclaims it for the morning. This leaves me with only one furry adversary taking advantage of my pre-caffeinated¬†stupor. Once in a great while one of the boys breaks routine, and I have to balance cereal or coffee while playing a dangerous game of “Guess Where The Large One Will Step”. Even more rarely, and never with any warning, ¬†I’m treated to a brand new game.

This week’s novel entertainment was brought to me by Bogart and the letters ‘P’ and ‘J’.

Bogart decided to get up while I was making my toast, and he checked on the dry food bowls. The bottom of one was visible through the kibble, which always sends him into a panic. He followed me to the refrigerator for butter and jam, winding around my legs. He tried again on my way back to the toaster, incredulous that I still wasn’t feeding him. As I pulled out the toast, he lost all patience and reached up to poke me.

When the nail trimmers come out Bogart turns into a free-roaming Cuisinart. We’ve come to a truce with him; in exchange for leaving the furniture unscathed, we make no attempt on his claws. The other cats aren’t happy with this special arrangement, but they don’t have Bogart’s strong bargaining position.

Bogart reached up and poked me in the seat of my pajamas. A claw stuck in the fabric, and he tried to pull it free. Having learned never to use my own hands to help free a claw, I lowered myself to give him a better angle to release himself. He responded by flopping on his side. My pajamas went with him, and the little bastard lay there purring in my pants. I buttered my toast in shame, defeated by a critter 1/20th of my size.

At least Wyeth wasn’t up.