I am a technology reporter. All day long, I type about technology. So-and-so has released Version 5.1, formerly version 5.0, as an enterprise-wide platform of e-business solutions. I don't know what this means. An integrated software package to combine engagement management and trial balance. A multi-user platform billed as an e-tailing solution for midsize businesses.
Software, hardware, just-rightware. Broadbands, servers, providers, bundles and applications for the mid-market and the enterprise level. I have had this job for a year and a half. I had it a month before I realized that nobody knew what "technology" meant, even though there's a lot of money in it. Many seem to believe that technology means something they cannot catch, like the memories in an old room.
Until this job, "technology" always meant something to me. It used to mean pinball. Then it meant "Space Invaders." Then it meant huge blue CompuGraphic typesetting machines. Then it meant a GameBoy, and an ill-treated product called a "personal word processor" with which I chased a freelance dream unburdened by Wite-Out. Later, technology meant ways to file a story. The Internet has brought newswires into every home computer, but I remember sitting in a newsroom in just 1995 when the photographer monitoring the AP desk said, "Hey, there's been some kind of explosion in Oklahoma City."
I work hard at my job, paying attention to the money others are making. But these days "technology" pretty much means stuff having to do with my baby boy Alex. Alex's technology sure doesn't look enterprise-level. Rubber tubing up his nostrils. Aluminum air tanks with chipped green paint, festooned with "Property of..." stickers from about five home-equipment companies. Into the hole we let them cut in his stomach runs a plastic tube for the formula, which comes in a pop-top can and is called Peptamen Junior. A Pulse-ox monitor with those big red numbers that the wide pinball machines had in the early 1980s. Four kinds of medical tape. Q-tips.
I hear that the healthcare profession lags technologically and is unprepared for Y2K. I think the healthcare profession is simply unprepared for patients who know how to spell "e-mail." Our latest delivery of oxygen tanks was fouled up because somebody forgot to use a pen; Alex's big oxygen tank looks like one of the torpedoes Humphrey Bogart sticks out the bow of the African Queen, in a movie that takes place in 1914. If we call our nursing service on the weekends, we get what sounds like a beeper number for an import-export firm; no one calls back. Our nurses keep Alex's records in a three-ring binder that's twice the size of the Manhattan White Pages. My wife Jill recently made out on the faded carbon-paper notes that one nurse claimed he was getting "Peppermint Junior." Our first pediatrician couldn't send faxes on Wednesdays.
"The doctor doesn't have e-mail, does he?" I ask my new pediatrician's secretary.
"That is correct," she says. "He doesn't."
"Do you have e-mail?" I ask my insurance company.
"No," my case worker says, "because if we did too many people would send us e-mail."
On my days off, I look for a solution for a midsize, enterprising year-old baby. Twice Jill and I have tried a Playground Application on Alex. It's a new playground by New York City standards, relatively clear of litter, with rubber matting under the climbing toys. All I ever saw under the monkey bars of my grade schools was asphalt and broken Pepsi bottles, and I feel behind the times.
This is Saturday, and a clean autumn breeze kisses the playground from over the Amtrak yards, snapping the leaves into the chain-link fence and causing Alex to narrow his eyes as we wheel him to this playground for the second time. I'm pushing the carriage; Jill walks in front. "He's smiling!" Jill says. "Jeff, he's smiling! He knows where we are!"
There is a swing for babies, three minuscule seats chinking in the rail yard breeze. The seats are some thick, black plastic, the size of a serving bowl or an old-style football helmet turned upside-down, and we wrap a towel around Alex's middle - the first time in the swings, he slumped - and thread his legs through the openings in the bottom. Alex knows what this technology means. His 19 pounds hug the hard rubber as the breeze kisses the bottoms of his feet and his arms hang behind the chains. We make sure there's enough slack on the technology - a tube - from his nose to the oxygen tank slung under the carriage, and we give him a push.
He floats away then back, away then back. At the height of his tiny swing I hook the hard leather with my hand for just a second, then let him go. That he loves, floating down to his mother, then back to me. I get in front and arrest him in mid-swing with my head and shoulder, grunting like an NFL film. His face splits with daddy's antics, with the rush of air away then back, away then back. Splits with the peace that comes from weighing nothing in the air between two strong chains. (Early Winter, 1999)
On the other side of Y2K, my wife Jill and I may realign our work lives.
Right now my work life consists of going to an office and reporting on how to run a CPA firm. I research and advise accountants how to make money and retire early, then I ride the subway home to Alex, my former-preemie son, and take care not to step on his oxygen tube. It gets to me.
As Jill and I talk about the future of our work lives, I hear the Internet has changed the construction of resumes. Multiple pages and nouns are in, even though I've spent my career pursuing one page and verbs. I also hesitate to get a new job because 1) no office could be kinder than the one I've been in during Alex's hospital adventure, and 2) I hate offices, and I know the next will be just like this one, where I close my door, don't do lunch, and don't care who else does.
Every good job I do is a base hit for someone else. The only reason I go to the water cooler is to see the little bubble come up inside the tank.
If it weren't for the IRS, my streak of occupational independence would be unbroken. Last time I walked tall and fast was 1991, the last year I was a freelancer, when the I celebrated every Friday night with a 60-block walk. That was the last year every one I belted was a base hit for me. It was the last time I felt good about what I did. Eight years ago. Almost nine, ever since I got it into my head that I needed a steady job. I wound up at an understaffed daily in upstate New York - I tell everyone I "did two years upstate" -- then I went to a suburban weekly chain outside Baltimore. Then I landed this job, and this insurance policy.
Jill, on the other hand, loves offices. She got a job at that upstate daily shortly after I did, and I remember looking across the newsroom and seeing her laughing with her assistant -- an assistant! -- while she sorted press releases to throw away. Everybody stopped by her desk.
"I love making plans," says Jill, who frankly equates offices with telling people what to do. Three jobs ago she told a lot of people what do to as the editor of a community weekly newspaper in Manhattan, and I guess she thought she was telling me what to do on those whole Friday afternoons I'd loll in her office and fantasize.
These days Jill earns money through the Web, copyediting for a friend of ours in the Midwest and selling junk on ebay. It isn't really junk - unless you count my giant plastic Washington Redskins sneaker - but pretty good stuff we don't happen to need anymore such as books, clothes, salt and pepper shakers, her old maternity shirts and preemie PJs. She also takes care of Alex, which means overseeing the visiting therapists and manhandling his oxygen tanks onto the baby carriage when she wants to take him to the post office, a frequent destination when you're trying to make money on ebay. She aims to sell $100 worth of crap a week. She's turned our kitchen counter into a fulfillment center, and the postal labels are stacked atop our hard drive neat as a Bicycle deck awaiting a card trick.
She hits ebay especially hard on my days off, when I assume many of the duties of caring for Alex -- re-threading the feeding tube in the pump, finding a working Pulseox monitor, boiling water for sterilization, stocking cribside with precisely four cans of food - with the same multi-tasking, squirrel-like energy and five-minute attention span that used to make hitting the laundromat such a pleasure. If I could do this all the time, I'd be a happy man.
Happy as Jill in an office. I told her this, and she promised to work on her resume. That was a while ago.
Also, I maintain this Web site. I post notices of new essays to about 20 forums and propose mutual links with 10 new places a week, except for the weeks when my paying job pulls at my time. In one year I have earned $437 from these essays, or 34% of one month's rent. That is a hard tug against a strong current.
"Stimpson had no plan," the chairman of the awards committee will say, "but he nonetheless worked for years -- almost two of them -- at this writing for no money, solely to bring the story to the world." I don't know what the award will be, but it will be significant enough to not consider $437 "money." I will decline the prize, insisting that instead it be given to Alex. No no, that the prize money be given to a charity in Alex's name! The banquet room will rise to its feet, except for Alex, who will be asleep in the carriage. At undermanned dailies coast to coast, headlines will roll.
Then Jill and I can both stay home, which will be another job in itself. (Winter, 1999)
Today is Pearl Harbor Day. Fifty-eight years ago the Japanese bombed Hawaii. Five years ago, I asked a Pearl Harbor survivor what he thought of the Japanese today. "I still do not like'em," he said.
I was never in the military; I was born in 1962, and the only wars I witnessed were waged in arcades. Veterans' days do, however, take me back to when I worked at a daily newspaper in upstate New York and appropriated the World War II Anniversary Beat.
This paper was big on weekend "packages," bundles of features that start on the front page and end in a center spread somewhere behind the obituaries. The editor was especially interested in the project, since he had scored a hit at his old job in Rochester by running a 50th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor Package. So, in May of 1994, the city editor noticed that in less than a month it would be the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of France. Who wanted to work on it?
I did. I supervised the maps, which amounted to helping the graphics guy point-and-click until arrows were spearing the coast of Normandy to pinpoint the location of every local resident who was anywhere on that side of the Atlantic in June of 1944. I wrote a pig's share of the stories, and I talked to the people, mostly the white American-born men, who were there. A former paratrooper told me about surrendering to the Germans. One guy told me how his back still ached half a century after his glider hit a tree in the hedgerows. The voice of another guy broke just as he recalled spotting the yellow tee shirt of his buddy in the red surf of Omaha Beach. (Later, this same guy's voice broke at precisely the same moment on a CBS special, except on CBS he said the yellow tee shirt became an orange jacket and I suspected I'd been taken.)
I remember another guy, small and stooped. He came in with a cane and I think bad teeth, and a couple of young men kept him from falling as he took a chair in the back room of Holly's Army Surplus Store in Ithaca, N.Y. This guy was one of those interviews where you catch only syllables and must build your story from the nods. He said when the front of the landing craft came down on Omaha Beach his boot stuck in a grating on the deck.
"Do you know," he said, lifting the cane, "that every one of those bastards knocked me down getting off that boat!"
A few syllables later I learned they also all got shot before they ever made it up the beach. "Every one of them," he said.
E.B. White said the worst time to be born is 18 years before a world war. I agree, but these stories were my kind of stuff. Through the last of 1994 and all of 1995 I seized command of the anniversaries: Battle of the Bulge ("All I remember is the cold," said a former infantryman); Iwo Jima ("Take that island? I didn't think they were serious!" said a former marine); the death of FDR ("We thought it was some kind of sick joke..." said the tee shirt guy). To mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I found a concentration camp survivor who had met his wife in the camps. She refused to be interviewed; neither one would show me their wrists.
In August of 1995, I interviewed a Japanese woman who'd been a little girl living near Hiroshima 50 years before. She said her uncle drove into the city on the morning of the blast, and vanished. For graphics purposes, one German lent me his Hitler Youth photo. Most everybody I talked to had some kind of aged picture, usually of a ghostly young face in black and white. Most all the pictures were yellowed and crinkled at the edges.
With Holly lining up the contacts, I branched out into other wars. The local Vietnam vets gave me a plaque and a prime-rib dinner. I still have the award, and though it was no history-changing event I remember the prime rib. By the time the 50th anniversary of V-J Day rolled around, the city editor reckoned I could get a free drink in any VFW in the county.
The last five years have gone fast for me, through, and I didn't get a chance to thank Holly before I left that newspaper. I did ask him once how the guys were doing. "Not too good," he admitted. The guy with the cane was sick. The tee shirt guy had a bad heart. Eventually, time claims what the enemy did not.
I've never gotten back to that thrill of covering something I knew, that sense that I was at least telling the stories and collecting the yellowed photos of people who were at great events, even if I hadn't been there myself.
Life changed, to revolve around a son who was born premature a year and a half ago and who only this summer came home. I play with him in his crib, making a buzz like an airplane swooping low to the attack. In the bouncer and in the carriage we play tank. I hold up the stuffed monkey on the railing of the crib and say, "Look, Alex, Nazi Sentry Monkey!" Then I go ka-pow and spin the monkey and let him fall. "Dad games," my wife says. I wouldn't do it if Alex didn't laugh and laugh. (Winter, 1999)
Write All About It
Yesterday morning, on the way to the dentist, I didn't realize I'd stepped into the street until the car was almost on me. Half and hour later, I rode the gas and Novocain and never, ever wanted my head to clear. On the way to my office I rode the subway and walked the sidewalk and looked in no face.
I should be happier. My baby boy Alex is apparently home to stay. He's standing in his crib and often making his way in mini-steps around the edge by holding the railing. Every night at around six o'clock I get him to mess up the blankets with tiny spoonfuls of blueberry-apple baby food, a lot of which makes it into his mouth. In fact, this essay was going to be about Alex's eating.
But I've learned to scratch the worst itch with these essays, and this week's itch is about what was on my mind as I stepped into that street. So I write about it and hope I feel happier.
Some people might say see a doctor. Good advice, except that doctors got me into this (as any reader familiar with my 1998 will attest). I did go to see a head doctor 13 months ago. I told her about Alex, who was still in the hospital at the time, and about one doctor had said that Jill and I had compromised Alex's course of treatment by our questioning. This psychiatrist, pregnant at the time, stared out her window at the Christmas lights and pronounced that what my family had gone through was "inhuman." She did give me a prescription for featherweight Valium.
Going to a doctor is no answer; they can mail me prescriptions. I know! Let's make a list, good stuff first:
The Washington Redskins are in the playoffs. By the time you read this, however, they will have lost to Tampa Bay.
My wife Jill and I have some freelance work. She copy-edits articles that say things like "12-month period" instead of "year." I write these articles.
We're also talking about buying an apartment, but I'm not sure this belongs among the good stuff. "Are you happy at the prospect of owning a place?" Jill asks. I say yeah, I guess, but the idea summons up a picture of me shackled to a job.
Now the bad stuff:
Sleep. We all got an unbroken six or seven hours a while ago. Then Alex stayed up late on the first night of Chanukah - I can still see him waking in his carriage at grandma's at quarter to nine, struggling up like Dracula from the a tiny coffin - and sleep hasn't been smooth since. His pulse-ox alarm goes off with no reason until the dawn, when the New York City garbage trucks show up under our bedroom window to practice their backing up. Rare is the morning Alex doesn't spit up. Through the long, dark nights Jill and I have squabbled over the pillows, the bed space, and whose turn it is to get the hell up and smack the pulse-ox. "I hate you at 3 a.m.," she tells me.
Insurance. Somehow we changed insurance companies in December, and in one of those coincidences with which contemporary U.S. medicine brims, this company doesn't work with either of the home-equipment companies that supplies Alex with air and food. Today the new supplier brought the "new" equipment - some of it built during the Korean War, some of it built for adults, most of it just plain wrong.
My job. I write for a magazine that pays slavish attention to what advertisers want. This runs against my journalism instincts, but since I'm hardly Peter Jennings, who cares? Except I ignored a big advertiser in a recent story and they wrote me a long and surly letter. "As I read the article," the woman who works for the advertiser wrote, "I must say my first reaction was shock and then, frankly, outrage. The obvious lack of objectivity and due diligence was appalling." I bet this woman has healthy kids.
I'm sending out resumes. Great time to look for a job, they say. Except a new job is a dumb move if you're looking to buy something as expensive as a Manhattan apartment. And I've never enjoyed the resume game. Three bosses in a row have hired me then made fun of my cover letter, so I don't write one anymore. Just a resume, e-mailed in text format. I'm not spending even 33 cents on somebody I haven't met. "Look at my Web site!" I tell them.
Writing for my site usually makes me feel good, and I enjoy the three or four days it takes to put out an essay. But this morning something I wrote for the job made me feel good:
"This letter is to announce that I resign my position effective immediately. Circumstances in my personal life, unpredictable at the time of my hiring, have intensified to the point where my work can no longer be up to the standards of this company. I have the highest regard for the kindness and professionalism shown to me by my supervisor, colleagues and management during the past two difficult years. I wish all of them good fortune in the future."
I wrote this letter in five minutes, using all the objectivity and due diligence I'm capable of right now, and I feel good about it. I stashed it away safe. If I have to pull it out, it will be to say just the right thing before I grab my coat and head for the street. (Winter, 2000)
"You're smart, you work hard, and you have a strong desire to be successful. Yet, like many others, you probably wonder why you're not able to achieve more." - From the motivational group Franklin Covey, concerning their program on "The 7 Habits of Successful People."
Frank, you have to understand that I have a lot on my mind. Alex is beginning to take more and more by bottle, though he's hardly sucking it down in a way you'd expect from a 20-month-old. Actually you'd expect a 20-month-old to be tucking into mashed vegetables. Particularly this morning.
It's 6:35 a.m. I have been up for four hours, ever since Jill and I awoke to discover that I hadn't connected Alex's feeding tube last night. We'd gone out to dinner and I'd had too much Pinot Gregio, not falling-down tipsy by any means but certainly not-doublechecking-the-medical-gear-you-at-one-time-didn't-know-existed tipsy. At 2:30 we stumbled out to find the pump stupidly dripping onto our floor, a puddle from my muddle.
"We've identified five main reasons why many people who work hard everyday (sic) aren't as successful as they should be." The first reason: "Individuals don't communicate."
Jill called me careless. I called her something else that sounded loud at 2:30 a.m. Jill then communicated her position successfully. So did I. I moved to the couch.
Now I sit in the pre-dawn shadows of Alex's room listening to the humidifier hum and wondering what Jill's first words will be when she wakes up.
Two: "There is a lack of trust."
Instead of saying anything when she wakes up, maybe Jill will sing. Jill has had a strong desire for success in getting Alex to eat, and attains it by singing to him. The ABC Song. Working on the Railroad. Ol' McDonald is good for four ounces. Jill can sing many of these songs straight through. I didn't know she knew so many lyrics, and her voice is kind of sweet. Like most moms trying to get her baby to eat, though, she's run out of original lyrics. This morning some of her first words, to the tune of "The Whole World In His Hand," were, "He's got Doc-tor Lar-ry ... in his hand, he's got Doc-tor Lar-ry in his hand..."
Dr. Larry (not his real name) oversees the tiny manhole they put in Alex's belly last spring, supposedly so my son could eat without risk to his lungs. It's a long story. Dr. Larry's attention seems to be drifting. Earlier this month, he didn't call us back for four days. Still, he is sort of playing God on how much and when Alex eats. The further we get away from hospital doctors, the brighter Alex seems.
Reason three: "Inefficient systems discourage productive work."
Sometimes, though, you can't help being inefficient. One of Alex's therapists says that he wants to do things, but doesn't know how. I think that sums up me, too.
Reason four: In times of drastic change, people get confused and distracted. Five: Crises force fast decisions that are often reactive, not proactive.
Four and five met last night in my head, I guess to swim in the Pinot Gregio. There I stood in the clatter of a Friday night restaurant, after a day of being smart and working hard, the phone mashed to my ear while into the mouthpiece I demanded: "Does Alex have his binkie?" I was trying to communicate with our babysitter, a gold-hearted neighbor whom we definitely owe a bottle of wine and who was having trouble getting Alex to sleep.
The 7-habits process promises nothing short of life-changing results. All results have changed my life, at least lately, here in the shadows as the Windows clock ticks toward six. I've also checked, and "binkie" isn't listed as one of the seven habits of successful people, or even as one of the habits of seven successful people.
"Does he have it!?" The bartender did not turn around and admonish me for disturbing the drinkers.
Good. Because any success I have in my life right now has a lot to do with whatever makes me stand in a public place, the wine and the years creeping up on me, and shout words such as, "Binkie!" (Winter, 2000)
How I Spent My Winter Vacation
After my paternity leave began last December, my family and I did many exciting and fun things.
The first thing I did on my vacation was stop wearing a watch. The second was break down cardboard boxes. We had just moved and every day presented some 20 boxes to empty, flatten, and tie with twine. I went through two balls of twine and got three paper cuts. At vacationís end only four cartons were left, and they were in corners and filled with crap.
We also fixed up our apartment. As usual, bookshelves were the key to our house coming together. We arrayed three tall shelves along one wall beside the couch. We double-rowed the books and piled stuff on top such as Jillís grandmotherís candlesticks and the chessboard I made in seventh grade woodshop. The shelves seemed to sway like skyscrapers in a stiff breeze, the difference being that youíre sure the skyscrapers arenít going to tip over. Later Jill wanted the couch moved and we bought more shelves, so weíre not done there.
Turns out we bought the last apartment in the Western Hemisphere that isnít cable-ready. The cable man re-holstered his drill and announced that everything would have to be moved away from one wall before we could even think about the privilege of paying $50 a month for TV. Since we had another baby on the way, we decided to wait and see how much time we had for television.
We didnít have much after Dec. 18, when Edwin was born. We named him after Jillís father and grandfather. His nickname is Ned. He is a good baby. Thatís what Jill says about him in the same tone Mrs. Seinfeld uses to tell Jerry heís ďa wonderful, wonderful boy.Ē Ned woke up a lot at night but Jill mostly handled it, so I got to sleep until 8:30 -- some days 9:30 -- which is the mark of a real vacation.
We all got colds, and kept passing them around until Jill said she was sick of ďthe sound of snot in kidsí noses.Ē Ned sneezed out a lot of his but Alex, who hasnít learned how to blow his nose, needed wiping. Alex also had a nagging cough, and one other time almost had to go to the hospital. In terms of illness, this has been a long winter.
It was cold and snowy during my vacation. I wore my silk long underwear and lost a pair of earmuffs. We got three blizzards, and after the first one Alexís grandfather found, in Brooklyn, one of the last unsold sleds in New York. We bundled Alex up and pulled him through Central Park on a cold day. I think heís looking forward to spring.
I think heís also looking forward to school. We toured three pre-schools for Alex, which necessitated a lot of phone calls and appointments and cab fares. He played in the classrooms while school officials watched him; it was hard to watch him get judged. In the last school, he played for several minutes, then stopped, looked around, and cried. This school will have 50 applications for six vacancies. We have to write all the schools thank-you notes for seeing Alex.
Caring for two healthy little ones wasnít the mark of a vacation, real or otherwise. Iíd never had a newborn and a little kid in my house before. Every few minutes Jill would call my name, or Alex would let something crash, or Ned would need a change, a burp, a binkie, or just a shoulder to cry on. I began using a notebook to write, grabbing moments when they winged by.
ďI cannot see Jeff staying home with two kids,Ē Jill told her cousin on the phone the other day. That had been our plan as Jill would go back to work, but now I guess Iím the one just headed back to work.
Working at home was also difficult because Jill and I use one computer, and it has a lousy Internet connection. We got booted off a lot and had to re-connect. Last month we made 691 local calls between our two phone lines, most of them to AOL. In between swear words at the computer, I did laundry. We have a new laundry room in our building: clean machines, hot dryers, all run on a money card. I never did learn how to fold, though. Our babysitter Stacy concocted a mean impersonation of me trying to fold laundry, in which she rolled a piece of laundry over and over into a ball and patted it smooth. I thought her impersonation was far-fetched. Jill thought it was funny.
I donít know how Iíll find time to do laundry when I get back to work, but I suppose Iíll get through somehow now that vacationís over. Besides, thereís always next year. (February 2001)
Go to Chapter III.
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