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missives from mid-america

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PMA – My Job

I first became aware of PMA, or positive mental attitude, through Bad Brains. They’ve got it. I’ve always tried to have it – it’s much more pleasant for everyone when I’m in a positive state of mind. And with that in mind, I’m going to do some assessments of things using PMA as a guide.

First up, my job.

  1. It’s interesting. The work I do facilitates the build out of bleeding-edge telecom networks. I write manuals that engineers at Verizon, ATT, Centurylink, and other customers worldwide use. While I loved working in factories, when I did, I always wanted to do something related to technology, but I’m not an engineer. Not only do I word directly with engineers, but I also use my English degree every day.
  2. The physical environment is pretty amazing. The building in which I work was built in 1999/2000 when I was working for the company in a different location. I was able to come back years later to the “new” building, and while it’s no longer new, it’s still pretty awesome. There’s a really nice cafeteria, a huge arboretum, a gym, and a walking path around the perimeter of the property. My desk is on the North end of the 5th (top) floor, facing I-88. I can see other big businesses down this tech corridor and also watch traffic just by standing up and looking. We’re also situated across an intersection from a forest preserve. On top of all that, we’re an easy bike ride from Target, about 10 chain restaurants, a movie theater, and a brew pub. Not bad. There are two other full-on breweries less than 5 miles from here. Both are excellent.
  3. My co-workers are awesome and my boss is pretty great. Sure, we disagree on occasion. I like to charge ahead and make changes as soon as they’re available – she prefers to stick to the proven method until it’s no longer possible to sustain. She is the opposite of a micro-manager, but is still involved. Our performance reviews are usually lots of nodding. We communicate regularly and pretty openly. The other writers in the group are accomplished, nice folks, and while I don’t really hang out with them outside of work, we do pretty well as a team inside the building.
  4. I have relative autonomy. My work revolves around deadlines timed with the release of hardware/software packages. As such, there are ebbs and flows. As I mentioned earlier, my boss prefers to not meddle with things unless intervention is necessary, so when I need a day off, she presumes that I have a grasp on my work and being out won’t affect my deliverables. I don’t have to tap dance. And every year I end up with surplus vacation time.
  5. I’ll be here 10 years in June. If our new corporate HQ doesn’t shut the location down, it’ll be a pretty cool milestone to reach. I hope there’s still a service award…

All that said, I might need to make a change this year. I’m not super excited about it, but if I do, here’s what I’m excited about (PMA perspective):

  1. Shorter commute. I plan to find something closer to home.
  2. More person-to-person contact. I don’t really interact with folks at my current job in the course of a normal day. I could spend a full day at my desk with headphones on (perk!), which is not terrible most of the time, but I’m a pretty social being.
  3. Products in my wheelhouse. Regardless of where I land, I would like it to be a product that I can walk in understanding. With informational ownership, I can sell/support/develop more confidently.

That’s it. Lots of people would hate my job, but I actually like it. It’s a pretty solid match for my skills and temperament, and I think it would be interesting to do something similar at a different company. Should be an interesting year.

The Loss Column Sucks

It’s been a while since I last posted an update. It’s partially laziness, partially forgetfulness, and partially because there’s been a ton happening.

Most significantly, Jennie’s mom died. This was something we were aware could happen at any time due to her numerous, chronic medical conditions. It was a daunting list, and despite semi-regular visits to the ICU, she was able to circumnavigate the crises and emerge.

In this case, she had most recently gone through a round of cancer treatments, and even thought she might start decreasing her pain meds. I visited her earlier that week and she seemed more lucid than she had just a week prior. Jennie visited later that week and got the same impression. She seemed better to both of us.

The reality of the situation is that she probably was not better. During my visit, she made a point of thanking me for all I had done, and letting me know that she appreciated all that Jennie had done for her as well. In the grand scheme of things, I didn’t do all that much. Jennie did sacrifice a bit, and we did augment our lives a little to fit her in when she needed us.

That said, she really lived by her own terms. We had very little actual impact on her decision-making, which makes her thanks pretty important in retrospect. It’s possible that she was aware of what was coming, and how soon, and she was doing some final accounting. She had lots and lots of friends who had weathered many storms with her, but I don’t know how much she was able to (or felt compelled to) thank them. She did let us know, unreservedly, that she appreciated us.

When my grandma was near her own end, her way of controlling the circumstance was to write out exactly how she wanted her memorial service and the subsequent dinner to go. She had the meals planned based on the time of year. I think Jackie didn’t want to risk leaving without saying thanks, and this was her method of preparation.

So, now we’re tasked with unwinding 70 years of avante garde living by a capable, kind, wacky, and utterly unique person. It’s a bit daunting, but we’ll muddle through with the help of a cavalcade of her lawyer friends (one of them let us know that the bankruptcy court in Rockford was shaken by the news) and our own inside woman at the bank.

I suspect as we get farther and farther from that very sad day and start to get accounts closed and items dispersed, that it’ll be less and less sad. I’m hoping we can start to focus on the fun stuff. The genuine, hearty laughs we had on so many Sundays at dinner. The way Eli would lose his mind when her car would roll into our old driveway. The way she could get Jennie to understand something without saying a word.

She definitely lived life on her own terms and it’s hard to imagine her not here. The loss will be apparent for the foreseeable future, but I cannot believe she’d want us to be sad. Especially Jennie.

DSL Speeds

For posterity, here’s the speed test I ran on our 24MB down/1MB up DSL service from Frontier. Test was done minutes ago, before 8 AM on a Saturday morning (not peak traffic time).


Trouble is, I’m paying less, but I’m getting even less than I’m paying for in this case. And even though Frontier has outstanding customer service, I might have to break away and see what Comcast can offer to win my business.

The Hics – All We’ll Know

Sometimes, just listening to the right music at the right time is all I need to feel good. It doesn’t seem to matter when I listen to the Hics, though. I’m not sure if it’s the male and female voices intertwined or the reserved, yet silky-smooth tracks beneath them, but this scratches an itch I’ve had since the 70s. There seems to be far too little output by the duo – all I can find is a beautiful EP and this song. I’m hoping that’s just because they’re working on licensing in the U.S. or recording a full-length album. Sure hope this song title isn’t a sign.

Back on Track (mostly)

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Well, lots has changed. For example, we moved towns. The new place is actually back to where we started as a couple. It’s changed a lot, but maybe not as much as I would have expected given the financial turmoil and recovery of the years since we’ve been gone. Independent of the economy, this area resists change, which is good or bad, depending on the mood any given day.

I enjoyed being next to a very large city. We were far enough to avoid the crime but near enough to enjoy the grand-scale park district, forest preserves, shopping, and the like. The penalty was not being close enough to our oldest friends and not being able to walk anywhere but the bank and post office. Don’t get me wrong, they were a great bank and post office, but they closed pretty early each day.

Our new town puts us walking distance from a genuine downtown, lots of restaurants, Farm & Fleet (yee haw!), and the school where Eli will go to kindergarten this Fall. We know business owners, teachers, neighbors, bankers, carpenters, and lots of other folks in the town where we live now. We already feel some civic pride, and we’ve already ruined a library book by accident.

Better yet, we’ve felt welcomed. It seems like we’ve been frantically trying to get our acts together since we moved. One room is still full of old carpet and half-opened boxes. At a point, we’ll have to bow to attrition and just dump what’s left in there. We have tons to finish (window dressings, roof, landscaping, a complete bathroom overhaul) and life has a way of keeping things interesting, but I think I speak for all of us when I say we feel at home. In 10 years, I’m not sure I ever really felt that way in Sugar Grove.

That’s no slight on Sugar Grove – it’s highly underrated. I feel about it like I felt about my Saturn Vue. Probably the best car for the situation at the time and I’ll look back on it fondly, but not my favorite.

Hopefully, now that our location has settled a bit, I can get back to playing music and writing blog posts that nobody reads. I’ve missed it all.

Feeling the Love

Without getting too melodramatic, the past few weeks (hell, since Christmas) have been weird and difficult. Slicing through all the bullshit, however, is my lovely wife. With a good night’s sleep, she says the stuff that makes me want to move a mountain (which is good, because that’s essentially how much crap we have).

Also weighing in on the attempt to wring some positive from all the challenges are friends and family. Band mates with no actual band for a while lending a hand and in-laws saving the day. There was the painter who finished under budget and days earlier than anyone expected and the roofer who offered practical advice and did some difficult work for a song. These things have taken me from being overwhelmed to thinking I have it under control, which is significant.

(written on May 14th, 2015 at 10:50 AM)

Pulling Up Tent Stakes

[2/19/2015]

This time last year, we were facing the end of an era with our beloved pup. One of the common refrains was “we have to get out of Sugar Grove”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Sugar Grove, or our house, but Nina’s demise was a pretty clear demarcation point for us.

The next part of our life should happen somewhere else. We had gotten ten good years out of the area and the house, and it’s time to move on. Some things we wanted to consider were proximity to life-long friends, schools for Eli, and a place that didn’t require a car ride to everything. We want to be a walking or biking family.

Fast-forward to this past weekend – we put an offer on a house that fits most of our needs, but also happens to be less than a block from one of Jennie’s best friends. We’re very excited about moving in, and while I was a little concerned about how Eli would handle it, he seems more eager than anyone.

Mostly, he’s excited about a rock climbing wall that’s extended above the staircase with a belay rope anchored to the ceiling. He referred to it as “the house with the rock climbing wall” and probably expects it to stay. If it does stay, we’ll probably take it down and install it in his room.

The enormity of the fact that we won’t live by the Jewel or the library where he became aware of libraries might take a while to settle in, but we’ll be a similar distance from the Sycamore library in our new house, so maybe there will be enough stuff to replace what we had in Sugar Grove that he won’t miss it.

We made a similar move when I was around his age, and I really didn’t miss the old house. My bigger hope is that there are more kids in our new neighborhood who Eli can bond with and maybe even go to school with in the Fall. Probably the main point of this move is to get him set up for kindergarten and his ongoing schooling.

[5/11/2015]

Needless to say, much has changed since this was written. The rock climbing wall was removed with the kind help of Mark and Emilio. After trying three or four different painters, we finally settled with a guy recommended by my old boss from 20 years ago. This guy came in and knocked it out of the park.

After discussing it with a few people, I decided to take on the mold issue in our new Sycamore attic by myself. It looks to be mostly inert – just discolored over the years. We got a quote of $1800 to do the same. That seems excessive compared to the risk (almost none) and work (very little) involved.

Then, we got the inspection report back from the buyers of our current house. This is when the wonderful deal we thought we were giving started to unravel. They want new windows, a home warranty, and a few things that we can’t really argue with. The windows seems excessive, but the other stuff would need to get done whether they were buying or someone else was.

So, now we’re under the gun to get our stuff moved, get the basement and attic air cleared of mold spores (there’s really only one spot in the attic that has visible mold, and it’s small), fix some broken shingles, and hopefully we’re done. I cannot wait for the 22nd. I mean, there’s a ton to do before then, but after that, we’re free and clear and we’ll know where we stand.

Auto This World

Yesterday, I dropped off my 2013 Subaru Outback at the dealership for what I hope is the last time. It consumes oil and fits the profile of a small group of cars built that year that have this issue. Luckily, I’ve stuck to the manual and done all the appropriate service stuff so that this will be handled under warranty. Since the issue started, I’ve gotten to know the service staff at my local Subaru shop pretty well. First name basis, and regular checks on each others’ kids have become the norm. I bought this car in 2012 after 3 or 4 years of tracking the new body style and the declining health of my previous car.

In researching the Outback, I thought back on the history of cars I’ve owned so far, and it was a little surprising how many there were in retrospect. Some met with calamity, some died of old age, and some were just no longer useful. I’m not particularly hard on vehicles, but maybe I just have bad motor karma.

Here’s the list of cars, along with my memory of why I got them and why I got rid of them:

1981 Volkswagen Rabbit (tan): My first car. 5-speed, so learned to shift just after learning to drive. This thing had lots of miles on it, but there was also something wrong with the motor from the start. I had been saving up money to get a car and it was all I could afford, so it never got the attention it probably needed. Struts were shot very quickly after buying it, but that didn’t stop me from driving it to the quarry for some off-roading. Overall, this was a great car for learning about how engines and suspension are supposed to work. A cautionary tale, if you will. I also learned how to do reverse FWD cookies in this car, drag raced it against another Rabbit in the high school parking lot, and ultimately crashed it after the rear end got loose on a massive sheet of ice. Bad conditions + bald tires = calamity. Interestingly, the Chevy Suburban who hit me (I ended up in his lane – he had no options) had to be towed (broken radiator) but I was able to drive the rest of the way home.

1981 Volkswagen Rabbit (green): Having pity on me for the numerous issues with the first car, my folks chipped in for this one. I needed a way to get back and forth. I don’t remember much about this one – can’t even remember why I got rid of it, but I assume it had worse motor troubles. Our neighbor behind us just happened to be selling his 1980-something Datsun/Nissan (Sentra?) and gave me a deal.

198x Datsun/Nissan Sentra (silver): This was my first experience with getting scammed. Interesting that it was our neighbor who perpetrated the bad deal. This car had lots of hard miles on it, but the price was right, so I lived with it for a few years. I don’t think I was ever able to rid the interior of the after shave smell our neighbor left on the stick shift or the steering wheel. At a point, I realized why he got rid of it when it started having trouble delivering gas to the motor. A new carb for this P.O.S. was $700, and since it was an import, there was no skirting it. A used one was $500. I think I paid $900 for the car. Sold it while it didn’t even run.

(<< my actual car!)

1966 Chevy II Nova (navy blue): My favorite car by a long shot. Found it in one of the car magazines at the front of a grocery store. Bought it from a nursing student near Comiskey Park who was having trouble parking it all the time (no power steering). It was a 4-door, 2-speed, straight-6 utilitarian commuter with bench seats. I could fit my drums in the trunk and back seat with ease, plus two people. My dream was to eventually clean it up and add a trailer hitch and a nice stereo. But then I left the color-matched, fitted gas cap at Bockman’s (when they were still a gas station), the rear quarter panel got smashed in while parallel parked in downtown DeKalb*, and ultimately, the entire rear end of the car got totaled by a drunk driver, mid-afternoon, while the car was parked off the shoulder, awaiting a tow (fuel pump died). The officer on the scene said it was a 55 MPH collision, and yet all four doors still opened. That was the final straw, and after talking to my insurance agent about what the car was worth before and after that last wreck, I sold it cheap to a friend who was building a similar car. Before all the accidents and other stuff, it was easily the coolest car I have owned.

1991 S10 Pickup, Ext. Cab (white): Another great Chevy in my past. This truck was small, but with the extended cab and full-sized bed with a cap, was the perfect vehicle. It also had a V6, but smaller and more fuel efficient. And in the peak of my rock star halcyon days, it was the perfect cover. Where I had been pulled over just for having long hair in the Nova, I never once caught a second glance in the retiree-mobile. Plus, I could fit a twin mattress between the wheel wells in the back, so after a show, I always had a backup plan if I was too drinky to drive. All that came to a sudden end when I hit an icy patch (again) and slid into the open tailgate of a pickup hauling sand (and not going at a green light), thereby shearing into the motor and totaling the car. It’s possible that had I not crushed it, I could still be driving that car today.

1993 S10 Blazer (dark green): This is still my second favorite car. On the heels of the pickup, I wanted something similar, but with a back seat. The Blazer was very similar to a larger, 4×4 version of the pickup, so there was no learning curve. Also, it had a killer motor (4.3L V6) and the stock stereo worked great. For my new job, which took me all over the Chicago area, it was impractical but ideal. There was never a time where I felt trapped in traffic, and weather was no longer a hindrance to travel. On the other hand, it was not built to be a commuter car, and eventually, the heater core died, all the oil fell out, the PCV valve crippled it, and the price of gas came onto everyone’s radar. When the price of fixes outweighed the thought of a car payment, we decided to trade it in.

2001 Honda Civic (black): This car, while very nice and well-appointed for the price, was not a good transition from the Blazer. It missed everything I liked about the Blazer and couldn’t fit me with three other average-sized adult men comfortably. I don’t remember what my plan was for hauling drums, but it was clearly short-sighted. Having seen the new-ish BMW X5 launch event, and also having visited a Saturn dealership with a friend, I was more open-minded about the brand new Vue they were about to launch. In fact, I talked to a salesman and learned that not only were they very roomy inside, but also quite affordable. So, we were able to trade the Civic in on what ultimately became my most practical car.

(<< not my actual car)

2002 Saturn Vue (silver): Technically, this was my second brand new car, but I don’t really count the Civic. The Vue was engineered differently than other cars at the time. It was the first iteration of a platform that GM would eventually use for the Equinox, the SRX, and a slew of others. It rode like a car – center of gravity felt low – but had the interior space of a utility vehicle. The back seat was comfortable and also folded down flat – plenty of room for all the drums. More than once, I was able to fit a full sheet of plywood inside the car to drive it home. That’s impressive. FWD meant it typically got 28 MPG in general, so it was practical. Also, I didn’t have a major issue with the car for 10 years, which seems unheard of these days. 5 years without payments or significant repairs. Near the end, though, while closing in on 150K miles, a cylinder dropped out and while it was repaired (but never quite the same), it had done damage to the already old catalytic converter. Based on any car buying guide, a replacement catalytic converter (parts alone) would be more expensive than the retail price of the car. Plus, we had a new baby, and I didn’t want to take chances.

2013 Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium (graphite gray): I had been looking at the Outback since Subaru updated the look in 2009. They made it more roomy in the back seat and I liked the overall aesthetic of the car. I also wanted something that would handle like the Blazer in adverse conditions. There was an option for an upgraded stereo, but the standard one sounded great in the showroom. I could save $2000 by getting a manual transmission. I saved more by not bothering with a sun roof. Ultimately, after an afternoon in the dealership, I got the price and payment I wanted with an extended warranty to boot. So far, barring the oil consumption issue (not insignificant), it’s my dream car. Without the oil issue, it might have already landed in my number 2 spot. I’ll need to drive the Outback 8 more years to beat the reliability of the Vue, and retrofit a turbo to rival the speed and ass-kicking factor of the Blazer. The Nova is nearly mythical in my mind; it’d be hard to beat for the number 1 spot.

Jennie will get the next new car, so I hope the Outback can be what I originally expected it to be after the motor is replaced. At the end of this run, though, I’d really like to get a 1970 Monte Carlo – assuming gas engines are still legal by then.

[Aside: There’s a Dodge Omni somewhere in there, too, but I didn’t count it because it never ran. An erstwhile former roommate left it behind and sent me the title rather than getting it running and moving it himself. Then, I started getting tickets for the non-running car, so it wasn’t much of a gift, and it didn’t come close to covering what he owed me (and quite a few others). Got $35 for it at a bone yard down the street.]

* = While I was inside a restaurant, the car was parked on the street, 3rd in a line of 5 cars. Somehow, someone twitched or lost control for enough time to pick my car out of the lineup and smash into it. They took off, too, but a guy on the sidewalk left me a note with the license plate number and his phone number (he said he was a lawyer, would be willing to witness in court). I presented it to the police, and the cop came back and told me it was a young woman living in student/parent housing. He said she was very apologetic. I dropped it. I was broke, too, but didn’t have a kid to feed. Just a few months later, the car was destroyed, anyhow. I feel like the Nova was doomed, but offered the chance for some good karma more than once.

 

A Weekend To Memorialize

We had what I’d categorize as one of our best weekends as a family without being on vacation. It was productive, fun, and even healthy.

The fun started on Friday – we went to a Cougars game right after work and school. As usual, it was a fantastic time. The Cougars won, Eli got to see a home run (and the ensuing fireworks), and we made it to the late innings. Eli was pretty insistent on leaving at at point, claiming to be tired. I think he was not interested in the fireworks. He really was tired, though, falling asleep on the way home, then on through the night.

Saturday, we took our time getting up, made banana pancakes, then figured we’d try to get some of the remaining mulch pile dispersed. We ended up finishing the yard. Eli was cooperative, helped out a bunch, and so when we were done with a long day in the yard, we had a nice dinner and tried to watch a movie. (We settled on a few episodes of Martha, the talking dog.)

Sunday, we got to go to church as a family, although Eli decided that he needed Jennie in the nursery with him (the summer kids program is for ages 5 and up, apparently). Jennie had some furniture and things to paint, so Eli and I went to Blackberry Farm to stay out of her way. Two hours flew by, and then it was time to see our friends in Morrison, IL for their daughter’s graduation party.

Heather stood up in our wedding and Jennie has known Violet since she was born, so it was pretty gratifying to see her surrounded by friends and family, ready to take the next step in her life. Eli had a few friends to run with, and they have goats and a donkey, so it was a blast for him. Fun for us to see everyone and meet Heather’s niece, too.

Again, Eli was gassed by the time we left and slept all the way home, and all through the night.

Monday was another slow starter, but we worked inside the house a little, listened to some music, then headed out for the parade in downtown Aurora. Parking was a little tricky but we got there and saw quite a bit of it. Eli was only mildly interested. After the parade, we went to the Pendell house for an afternoon barbecue with some other families from the church who have kids around the same age. It’s always nice getting together with them. I feel like the similarities go far beyond just the ages of our kids. Even beyond the common taste in beer.

Eli ate hot dogs, cupcakes, “power chips”, and other stuff. He played on the slip-n-slide like crazy; single-handedly got the rest of the kids interested in that. He was the magistrate of the little house under the swing set/play area (until Maggie usurped his throne). The start of a storm was the only thing that would have convinced him to leave, and the timing was perfect, as he fell asleep just as we were about to pull into our driveway. Yet again, he was asleep in the car, made it to bed without waking, and slept through the night.

I definitely got some biceps workouts this weekend, we all got along with minimal fuss, and we had tons of fun – even while we were working.

Great weekend.

Dolphin Shows and Wrinkles

Jennie had a plan to go to the zoo over the weekend, but for a few reasons, it didn’t pan out like she had hoped. For her actual birthday, however, I was able to take the day off and get her there. It’s pretty ideal, because Eli loves the animals and there’s lots of walking and discussing and learning. He soaks it in and it’s fun for us to watch.

When we got there, the parking lot was full of school buses. We navigated through hordes of kids of various ages, and once we got inside, it was pretty empty. The cooler weather and threat of rain must have kept everyone away, save for the school kids. For us, it was a pretty typical visit – we saw a few favorite animals, Eli played vet for a while, and we brought snacks, but also bought some, too. On the way out, we saw hyenas leaping for some carrion suspended from a rope. It wasn’t some little jump – they were flying. I haven’t seen that before, so that was interesting.

On the way home, we discussed possible dinner options for Jennie’s birthday but Eli threw a bit of a fit in the back seat. He insisted that Jennie fix his stuffed dolphin toy. We could not figure out what was wrong, but he kept saying “wrinkles!” and pointing to its belly. Just before bed, he went back into hysterics, begging us to fix it. After lots of triangulating to determine what was actually wrong, I asked him if he somehow caused the wrinkles, and he said he had.

Then he showed us – he put a hand at the nose and a hand at the tail and smashed in, like an accordion. Mystery solved, but I’m still not sure how it’ll work out tomorrow. We might need to attempt to iron a plush toy. Better hit the sack – I have a feeling I’m going to need all of my mental strength tomorrow.

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