Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas tidings, etc

Lots of pressure this time of year. Money (specifically a lack thereof), family, work; hell even the weather has been a thorn in my side so far this season. Usually this sends me into a self-loathing tailspin, but this year, I'm trying to do things differently.

With that in mind, I humbly present the ten greatest things I've ever done:

10) I know it sounds cliche' (and I've left it @ the bottom of the list for that reason), but I do feel playing high school football is one of the greatest things I've accomplished so far. I only played my senior season @ Quakertown (despite being decently successful in NY, for whatever reason I was hesitant to play after I moved to PA; thereby forfeiting my chances of making any kind of big impact when I finally did join the team) and we were pretty terrible, but there's just something about playing under those lights on Friday nights that sticks with you forever. Those days were the first time I really felt a connection to anything in PA, and many of the bonds I formed on the field are as strong as ever to this day, 13 years later (yikes!).

9) It took me three tries over the course of several years, but I finally finished Atlas Shrugged back when I first started working nights in 2005. It was originally a Christmas gift from my mother, who inscribed the inside cover with her trademark effusive, lovey-dovey note:


Dagny Taggert, Henry Rearden, Francisco d'Anconia, John Galt and that pirate guy have held a special place in my literary consciousness ever since. Given the state of our country today, it might be interesting to pick it up again (maybe I'll review it for the Cannonball Read, if that isn't cheating). Even better, it would make an awesome movie.

I'm definitely proud to have a well-worn copy of Atlas Shrugged on my bookshelf.

8) This past summer I took advantage of a unique opportunity and worked for two weeks in Maine at one of my company's satellite campuses. 1st of all, this is what Maine looks like, as seen from the lens of my camera from the top of Cadillac Moutain @ 4AM:

Scenery aside, my trip up there opened my eyes, and in many ways reaffirmed that A) I chose the right career path, and B) I am damn good at what I do. I really found my niche' up there, and I helped one kid in particular make a breakthrough that most people probably didn't think he was capable of. The staff and kids of Kidspeace Graham Lake are truly amazing people; and in all honesty, if it weren't for Meg, I probably would have never come back. Believe me, they tried like hell to keep me up there. If nothing else, I hope I'll be able to get back for a visit someday.

7) When I discovered that he was 10 years old and still didn't know how to do it, I taught Aaron how to ride a bike when my father was sick back in 2006. I've had to be many things for Aaron over the years, but that moment when he actually overcame his fear (and inclination toward self-defeat) to experience the freedom that a bicycle can represent for a boy, I was proud as I've ever been of anyone. Aaron still has a long way to go, and he rarely rides his bike anymore; my work is certainly far from done there. I'll refrain from excessive dad-bashing here, but it's a shame that my father isn't interested and/or capable of doing a better job with Aaron then he did with Alicia, Matt and me the first time around.

6) Last summer was a busy one for me, because as soon as I returned from Maine, Meg and I (bought) a house we couldn't afford, and made it work anyway. I put bought in parenthesis, because the generosity of my grandmother and uncles (who own the house) is what's really enabling us to do it; a portion of our rent goes into escrow every month, and that money will go toward our down payment @ the end of our agreement. This basically gave us three years to get our shit together, and six months in, we're slowly but surely figuring out how to make it happen-both financially and emotionally. Working a 2nd job has forced me to finally understand the true value of a dollar, and how valuable my precious free time really is. I know it isn't easy on Meg or myself, but I'm beting the view from the top will have made the long, arduous climb worthwhile.

5) Sometime in my early twenties, I'm not exactly sure when, I discovered my brother isn't a total asshole. When brothers are as close in age as Matt and I are, I have to believe that the type of fierce sibling rivalry we went through is only natural. Lacking a father only enhanced that feeling, as we each strived to be the "man of the house," and each failed miserably. The rift between us was wide and deep, and we both swallowed a lot of pride to make our relationship work again. I've come to accept that Matt and I are two radically different people with radically different perspectives, and that neither one of us is ever completely in the right, or totally in the wrong either. We've learned to meet in the middle (even on the golf course) and that has suited us just fine. I'm really proud of my brother (as well as my sister and everyone else in my family, save one) and though I'll probably never say it out loud, I love him very much.

4) I have been blessed with a wonderful circle of friends over the years; that circle begins and ends with Mike Luzzi, who became my best friend pretty much from the day we met in Kindergarten. I could go on for pages describing the impact that his friendship has had on my life; suffice it to say that maintaining my friendship with Mike through the past 24 years has helped make me the person I am today. When you spend a quarter century knowing that there is one person that will always-no matter what-have your back, you can weather any storm. Mike and I are very different people on the surface, but a little digging reveals that we share many of the same beliefs and values within. Mike was always loyal to me when the rest of my friends dropped off the face of the planet-particularly when I moved away from NY. And while we've gone through many extended periods of little or no contact, we always manage to pick up right where we left off. I love all of my friends tremendously, but Mike is my rock, and I hope he knows how important he truly is (along with his family and soon-to-be wife) to me.

3) It took entirely too long, but I finally learned to appreciate my mom when I began to write in earnest. My mother is a hero. She made a life for her children out of absolutely nothing, and went from being a cleaning lady who dabbled in blueprinting to running large-scale industrial jobsites, then turned around and took advantage of a layoff that might've crippled a lesser person and taught herself to be a network administrator. I wish I would've been impressed @ the time, but I was too busy being a punkass know-it-all teenager. A decade of exposure to the world of the working has enlightened me to just how impressive my mother really is.

Mom really pushed me when I was younger, and I guess I never really lived up to my potential (@ least not yet, anyway), which has caused a lot of strain in our relationship over the years. When she challenged my teenaged apathy by inviting me to go live with my father (who at that point was the guy I saw twice a year, and who always had a present or two and a couple of hours to pay attention to me), like an idiot, I accepted. I couldn't wait to show her that I knew better. I moved to PA because I thought my mother was some kind of evil bitch hell bent on making my life miserable by turning me into some kind of architect or doctor, god forbid. My sister later told me that my disrespect and outright defiance damaged my mother in ways that I couldn't possibly imagine, and I'll never really be able to make up for that.

Long story short, I found out what a pathetic shell of a man my father really is, and my mother bailed me out. I repaid her by continuing to act like an asshole pretty much through my entire mid-twenties.

Mom never went away. She accepted that I was hammerheading my own path through the world, and our relationship is much healthier today. I hope that someday I'm in a good enough space to return the infinite favors she's done for me over the years. My work ethic and ability to persevere are a credit to her in every way.

2) With all due respect, manual labor sucks. Shortly after high school I started working with a moving company. Know how much you all hate moving? Try doing it EVERY DAY. My first day on the trucks (after like 2 days of warehouse work) it was 98 degrees and the customer was a divorcee with 7 (that's right, SEVEN) daughters. Do you have any idea how much shit a family that large has? Even as I progressed into more specialized, high-end jobs like moving medical equipment and collectible motorcycles, working for a moving company, or doing any kind of physical labor for that matter, is a difficult way to make a buck. I'm not built for it.

Though I'd talked about it on and off ever since my high school graduation, I finally got serious about going to college when I started dating Meg. I knew that working for the moving company wouldn't be conducive to raising a family. But I also knew that, at 27, I'd still have to work full time in order to keep up with the bills.

Because I knew I wanted to teach, I looked for work that would give me some relevant experience. I eventually found Kidspeace, and I started working with kids the same week I started taking classes @ Kutztown. My life hasn't been quite the same since.

I took to the job almost immediately, and in no time at all I was supervising. I love many things about the job, and I hope that the company hangs on long enough to get me through another two years of school (which won't commence for at least another year or so due to finances). The kids I work with have brought so many new experiences into my world; they are very difficult young men at times, but at their core they're just kids in need of a little attention and a whole lot of direction-it isn't their fault that (with few exceptions) their families are trapped in a cycle of hopelessness and self-destruction. Having weathered many a frightening storm in my time here, I can't wait to see what kinds of little league junk that kids leading the sheltered suburban life are going to throw at me when I eventually graduate and land a teaching job. Who knows, maybe I'll switch to Special Education after my time with the intellectually disabled at Indian Creek (a job I also love very much) or chose to accept the loan forgiveness perks of working in an inner city district. Either way, I'll be doing what I love, what I really feel I was meant to do. And I am one of the best there ever was at it.

1) If you've had enough sap, then go ahead and stop reading here...

Seeing as it's Christmas, and I am in a particularly grateful mood this year, I have to say that far & away my greatest single accomplishment has been landing Meg, and somehow holding onto her for all this time. Megan is sweet, funny, ultra thoughtful, gorgeous, brilliant, modest, surprisingly adventurous, elegant, tolerant, hopeful, conscientious, trusting, trustworthy, responsible, incomparably adorable, devoted, ambitious, amazing, and perfectly imperfect. She has the most beautiful smile I've ever seen, and she manages to wear it on even the darkest days. She inspired me to go to college, and supported me when I needed to take a break from it. She made me go to the doctor. She puts up with my constant need for attention and even my unhealthy infatuation with Christina Ricci. She doesn't mind my messes, and is more than willing to make messes of her own. She knows that I am prone to fits of doom, and she's able to pull me out of them with little more than a hug. She loves my friends & family, and my friends & family love her-I'm convinced even more than they love me. She's a dog person and a tequila girl. She has only moderately terrible taste in music. She is really, really short, and really, really cute. She talks too fast, which forces me to listen to every word. She is way out of my league. She is a lot tougher than she looks. She is far and away the best thing that has ever happened to me; I'm a MUCH better person for having her in my life. Someday she's going to have my babies and be my wife (hopefully not in that order). I don't even want to think about where my life would be without her in it. She's worth every ounce of energy I've ever had to put into our relationship, a million times over. She's the greatest love of my life, and she loves me for me. Not bad for a fat kid, huh?

Merry Christmas everyone. Thank you to all of you who are a part of me.


The "Corpse Collectors" collect indeed

Congrats to the 2008 Insomniacs Club Fantasy Football champs, Travis' Corpse Collectors, who reeled off an impressive 9-game winning streak to pull of the victory after looking positively dead in the water early in the year. Even more impressive was the fact that he survived the egg laid by Kurt Warner and still ended up with his highest scoring game of the season.

Our league is extremely high-scoring and competitive, featuring a unique 2-QB system that demands that owners stay very much on top of the action as the season unfolds. This was our third year, and by all accounts the league just gets better & better every season.

Congratulations to Travis. I feel badly that the league was free this year, since I know he could use the cash. If he has enough karma built up, perhaps he'll hit it big on the scratch offs I gave him for Christmas.

Our football league is limited to Kidspeace staff @ this time, but if you're interested, I also run a NASCAR league that was hugely successful last season (our first). I'll be posting registration information in mid-January; last year's overall champion took home $350 just in time for Christmas...hoping to grow the league even bigger this time around.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The hundred

Joey's Cannonball Read list:

1. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
3. Angels & Demons by Dan Brown (yes, I've read The Da Vinci Code)
4. In America by Susan Sontag
5. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
6. New England White by Stephen L. Carter
7. Lisey's Story by Stephen King
8. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
9. 1776 by David McCullough
10. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
11. Alaska by James Michener
12. Texas by James Michener
13. Camel Club by David Baldacci
14. Hour Game by David Baldacci
15. Stone Cold by David Baldacci
16. Simple Genius by David Baldacci
100. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Cannonball Read

Found a quasi-contest on my witty and talented friend Prisco's blog that piques my interest. He's calling it "cannonball read," and the basic premise is to read and review 100 books over the course of the next year. Seeing as I have the better part of 8 hours a night, 5 days a week to read now that I can't use my laptop @ work anymore, I might as well write about all the books I've been reading to pass the time when there's nothing supervisor-ish for me to do.

Check out Prisco's blog for the details. Im posting my 100, beginning with books that I currently own but haven't read yet. Plenty of room for recommendations, folks, but please keep in mind that I'm very closed-minded and reluctant to try anything new!

A tale of two companies

I work for two very different companies in two very similar fields. I took a 2nd job last August because I'm sick and tired of being broke, and I want Meg and I to be in the best possible financial position when the time comes to sign on our house in 2011. I was very picky about where I would work; I didn't want to just take some meaningless retail or manual labor job where I'd be forced to work with people I didn't care about for people who didn't care about me.

I stumbled upon a local company (Let's call them Prime Rib from here on) that serves intellectually disabled adults and had open positions that fit my already tight schedule while offering the relevant experience and job satisfaction that I was looking for. I was hired quickly, and have been working there for a little over three months now with few complaints. PR was recently named to that "Best places to work in PA" list, and I can personally attest to the validity of its' nomination.

My other employer (Chopped Liver, to protect the innocent-me) used to be a good place to work too. But for a litany of reasons, mostly mistakes made on every level in the company's relentless quest to be the end-all/be-all in treatment for behaviorally disordered kids across the country (and make all the bigwigs boatloads of $$$ in the process), it isn't such a great place to work anymore. A few of the gory details:

-Vacations rolled back "to better reflect industry standards" in late '07. Resulted in me personally losing 5 Vacation days this year, and 10 days next year through whenever I finally decide to leave. Cost to me (rough estimate): $560 in '08 and $1120 in '09 & beyond. Not to mention that precious "mental health" time away from the extreme stress of the job that vacation time provides is lost as well. Because I have three weddings next year, of which I am in two (and I work every weekend), I will be left with no choice but to use nearly my entire allotment of hard-earned vacation time to cover wedding-related activities in '09. My first day off next year outside of my normal Sunday/Monday rotation won't come until July 10th.

-Overtime eliminated in mid-'08; all OT must now have "administrative approval," which means that it isn't going to be approved unless there is no other feasible way to cover things. Notorious OT abusers go unpunished; instead everyone loses.

-"Census-driven staffing," meaning that units are staffed at minimum levels per the ratio specified in governmental regulations. No extra staff on hand to assist with crisis (or any other abnormal) situations. By the way, overnight ratio is 16:1; can you handle 16 rowdy (on their best day) teenagers alone?

-Many open positions eliminated; some excellent staff laid off or offered positions @ substantial pay cuts, which coincidentally hurts their ability to collect unemployment as well.

-'09 budget approved with pay cuts for every employee (more on this later).

-Most employee appreciation and similar activities eliminated or held only on employee time @ employee expense.

-"Personal belongings in the workplace" policy enacted in reaction to a client overdose on staff medication; now all employee belongings, from wallets to cell phones to laptops, etc must be locked up. While the situation that sparked this policy was a horrible tragedy and the policy makes a lot of sense when the kids are awake, what about the wee hours of the morning when staff are dying for something to occupy themselves as the kids are sleeping? If not amended, I won't be able to bring my laptop to complete schoolwork anymore once I go back to KU, unless I want to violate the rules. What's next, if a staff reading a book fails to notice a client doing something inappropriate, are they going to ban books too? Once again everyone suffers the consequences of a few bad/inept apples.

-Absentee supervisors/managers continue to collect hefty paychecks for time they haven't put in. Perhaps they'd be held accountable, if their own managers & supervisors were ever around themselves.

-Countless wonderful staff lost to frustration and better opportunities elsewhere. Those left behind wondering whey they shouldn't do the same.

Now, I am certainly not perfect. But I really feel that the problems facing CL are less a result of a failing economy or a shift in referral practices by the agencies that fill our beds, and more a result of years of mismanagement, negligence and greed on the part of those at the top of the chain of command. In this way, the problems at CL are very reflective of the problems facing our entire nation; decades of corporate greed have poisoned our economy, and now we're all paying the price.

Our new CEO, who is a bank guy, is trying everything he can to keep the ship afloat, and I applaud his efforts-I am particularly impressed by the pay cut that only minimally impacts frontline employees, who will lose less than $200 over the course of the year...pennies, really, while the bigwigs will lose up to 10% of their bloated yearly bounties-but I feel like I'm scrambling up the stern of the Titanic as it pitched up out of the sea just before its' inevitable plunge to the bottom. Will I be sucked under with it?

PR has had its' problems too. The house I work in was cited for a serious safety violation during a recent inspection, and it took a mammoth effort to remedy the situation. The difference is, PR not only aggressively treated the problem right away, it continually includes staff input in its' decision-making, because the staff who actually do the work of the company are valuable to those on the executive level. There is no Grand Canyon-sized disconnect like the one between the executive fantasy and frontline reality @ CL.

CL would do well to take a page out of PR's book. Treat your employees well, and they'll be more inclined to take bullets for you. Act like they should feel lucky to have a job, and run the risk that they actually will find another one somewhere else.

What am I going to do? Stay tuned...


The prodigal slacker returns

Remember all of those great things I was going to do this year? I didn't do any of them.

I was going to write more. I couldn't have written less. I was going to read War & Peace. I stopped lugging it around after a week or so (probably less than 50 pages in-Why the fuck did nobody tell me that half of it is in French???). I was going to be healthier. The clerks at the local Mcdonald's & Wendy's not only know me by name, they already have my order entered when they hear the signature tick tick ticking of my belagured engine in their drive-thru speaker. And yes, I was going to get that fixed too...

I was going to make more time for my friends and family. I can count one one hand the number of times I've seen my mother, brother and sister this year, and they all live within 10 minutes of me. I was going to make a better effort to move my relationship with Meg forward; most days anymore it seems like all we really are is roommates.

Life just gets in the way of good intentions sometimes.

Not that the past year has been a total loss. Meg and I are now in a house that, if all goes well, we will purchase in two and a half years thanks to my grandmother's generosity. I am gainfully employed (x2) which is more than I can say for, what, 7% of America right now? My last doctor's appointment revealed a suprisingly healthy person (good blood sugar & pressure, cholesterol, etc) is still hiding beneath all this extra insulation. I still have most of the hair on my head, and more and more on my back everyday.

I'm going to try blogging again. Maybe this time it'll stick.


Oh, and I'm going to stop signing off with pretentious mood-revealing signatures. Because that really isn't me.