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Friday, August 11, 2017

Layoff Lessons

I was laid off in late June, along with a large number of colleagues.  It came as a complete surprise to me, and, I believe, everyone else at my place of work.  I would give serious props to the powers that be for carrying off such a surprise, except that I think planned surprises should always be pleasant.  If you're going to ruin someone's day (and possibly the weeks to come), it's just good manners to throw a few clues their way beforehand.

I didn't feel like writing about this until now, which was a struggle, since it was really the major event of my summer.  But I have a part-time job now, and circumstances seem a little brighter, so I thought I'd share my layoff lessons.  This was my first layoff, and I keep thinking it will officially grant me adult status or something.


  • The first couple of weeks will be taken up writing awkward emails.  I have been truly touched by the number of people who have helped me during this time.  Every single person I've told about my layoff has been sympathetic.  Many friends and colleagues have investigated leads and put in good words for me, and I have been very grateful.  One way in which people have helped has been to give me people to contact about various leads.  So, for the first couple of weeks, I wrote a lot of very awkward emails that I feared came off something like this:  "Hi, You barely know me (or don't know me at all), but how would you like to review my resume/keep me in mind if a job opens up/hire me for a consultancy down the line?"  But, having written a good number of these emails, I believe it is absolutely worth doing.  Everyone I have contacted has been very kind.  One of these emails even led to my current part-time job!
  • Annoyances at home will become more annoying.  Unless you are financially secure enough to take a vacation with no income, you will suddenly be spending a lot of time at home.  Irritations that were once the domain of evenings and weekends will become the bane of your existence all day every day.  Our broken toilet reached nearly apocalyptic proportions in my mind by the time it was fixed.  Even more disturbingly, it was starting to seem like a metaphor for my life.
  • You can never completely prepare yourself for how you'll feel.  Even though the timing of my layoff was surprising, my job never seemed super stable.  At some point, I decided that I was going to stay there as long as I could anyway, and that if I lost my job, I would deal with it then.  But giving myself that pep talk ahead of time didn't spare me from feeling sad and disoriented in the aftermath.
  • Always have a plan for the next thing.  My job had some built-in instability that not every job has.  But I'm not sure how many truly stable jobs there are anymore.  I had decided while I was still working to explore some new career options, and I've written some about the evening classes I've been taking.  I am so glad now that I started taking those classes because in the short term, they've given me something concrete to focus on, and in the long term, they're part of a plan to hopefully have more professional stability.  But it was key that I started those classes while I was still working because I think it would have been much harder to switch focus and come up with a plan right after being laid off.
  • People can help you, but nobody can make it "all better" for you.  My first instinct, upon opening my layoff letter, was to start crying on the nearest person's shoulder.  I think this would have seriously unnerved the person who was sitting closest to me at the time, so it's a good thing I didn't.  But I realized later that what I really wanted was for someone to make everything better for me, but that nobody could.  It's great to reach out to people for help (and to help your fellow laid off colleagues if you can), but in the end you have to make sure you keep moving forward and don't get too caught up in shock or sadness.

Wishing everyone stability in jobs they like!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Read This! The Home That Was Our Country, By Alia Malek

I've never written a real book review before, and I see no reason to start now, but I do want to pass on a wonderful book recommendation for anyone looking for something to read:  The Home That Was Our Country, by Alia Malek.

Alia Malek is the daughter of Syrian immigrants to the US.  In 2011, as the Arab Spring began, she moved to Damascus to reclaim and restore her beloved grandmother's apartment.  Her book combines her own personal experiences and family history with considerable historical and political background on Syria.  This made it an easy, enjoyable read.  I don't want to criticize books on history or politics that lack personal stories, exactly, but those sometimes require concentration that I just don't have with everything else going on in my life.  I was able to mostly read this book on buses and trains, and it made my time in transit seem to go much faster!

Of course, one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that I spent a year in Syria.  I loved reading about some of the places I'd been and the cultural practices that I'd observed.  But I think anyone who has been following the current situation in Syria would find this book valuable.  It demonstrates very charming aspects of Syria, without glossing over the terrible things that have happened there (Alia Malek even provides details about how her own extended family was affected by the human rights abuses there long before 2011).  She also provides a insights about both contributing factors to the current situation and trajectories the country may be on.  Best of all, Malek tells stories of Syrians who have tried, often at great risk to themselves, to improve the situation in their country.  For a variety of reasons, such stories are not often covered in the mainstream news, but I think it's very important that people know about them.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ai Weiwei Exhibit In DC

For anyone planning to be in the Washington, DC area before January 1, there is a great Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Hirschhorn that I highly recommend.  Ai Weiwei created portraits of political activists and prisoners of conscience out of Legos!  Scott and I went to see it a couple weeks ago.  The level of detail was incredible.

As we entered the exhibit, there was a disclaimer sign explaining that the choice of portrait subjects was Ai Weiwei's and to please not be offended with the Smithsonian if you disagreed with any of his choices.  I'm ashamed to admit that I did not recognize the vast majority of the names.  Probably the one that would have been most controversial among Americans was Edward Snowden.  I would not have chosen to include him myself, but I'll have to agree to disagree with Ai Weiwei on that point, just as I've had to agree to disagree with a number of Americans.

Aung San Suu Kyi, possibly one of the most famous subjects of Ai Weiwei's Lego portraits.
One useful feature of the exhibit was a touch screen in each room where visitors could look up information about the people featured in the portraits.  If it weren't for pesky social niceties like needing to share with others, I probably could have spent a lot of time looking people up because I was so curious.  One thing I noticed was that Ai Weiwei included a number of Uyghur activists in his portraits.  Just one more thing for the Chinese government to dislike him for, I guess.  Here are a few more photos of some of the portraits:

Roza Tuletaeva is a Kazakhstani labor activist.  Interestingly, we never heard about her while we were living in Kazakhstan...
Liu Xiabo was China's Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died recently.
Ahmed Douma is an Egyptian activist and blogger who has been imprisoned by three consecutive governments.

The week we saw this exhibit later brought problems with taxes, air conditioning, plumbing, and internet connectivity.  One of the hidden benefits of seeing an exhibit like this is that it reminds me that even a bad week for me is still a cake walk compared to what some people are dealing with.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Least Dignified Kind Of Home Repair

We are currently experiencing plumbing problems.

In this case, "plumbing problems" is a euphemism for "our one and only toilet is broken."

Technically, it is still flushable.  But in order to flush, you have to lift the lid off the tank, pull the chain that has come disconnected from the flusher, and make sure it doesn't slip under the flap as the flap closes.  A lot more trouble than simply pushing the flusher, if you ask me.

This has been a problem for just over a week now.  The bottleneck in getting this fixed is that our apartment complex has none of the needed parts on hand.  These parts have allegedly been ordered, but have not come in yet.

In the meantime, we have also been having problems with the air conditioning.  Every time someone from maintenance comes to look at that, I feel compelled to ask about the whereabouts of the magical toilet part.  And then every time, they go and look at the toilet, and just like that, we're having an actual conversation about the toilet.  I thought conversations about the toilet were supposed to be a thing of the past once I became old enough to stop asking permission to go to the bathroom.

It occurs to me that plumbing problems could be at least a temporary cure for arrogance; it's hard to think too highly of yourself when so many conversations are at least tangentially related to bodily functions.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Best Laid Plants

Contrast the following two pictures from my weekend:

Three large, juicy cucumbers from my balcony plant...


And the puny haul of wineberries I got from the wild plants I walked by today...


It's probably a good thing I don't have to rely on my hunting and gathering skills to survive.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

More Balcony Gardening!

I wrote here last year about my small balcony garden.  Neither my need to create peace around me nor my desire for tasty food has diminished since then, so I'm growing a balcony garden again this year.  I know it is very possible to conduct background research on gardening and plan accordingly, but I've decided to just buy plants that sound tasty to me with no thought to whether my balcony is a good place for them, and just learn from the experience.  Here are this year's lessons:

1.  Dill and bell peppers don't love what my balcony has to offer.  Both bit the dust quickly.

2.  Success can vary widely even among members of the same species.   The basil plant I bought from the farmers market is tall and bushy.  The basil plant I bought from Whole Foods is short, stumpy, and being chomped on by bugs.

3.  Mint has dreams of world domination.  This has actually been a lesson every time I've grown plants on any balcony!

4.  Cucumbers also have dreams of world domination.  We bought a cucumber plant from the farmers market this year when it was still very small.  It is magnificent now and is sending leaves out between the railings on the balcony.  It seems to be attracting a good number of bees, so I'm looking forward to getting fresh cucumbers!

5.  Tomatoes are moody and unreasonable.  I grew a tomato plant on the balcony last summer, and it did fine.  We didn't get a ton of tomatoes, but we got a few, and the plant was tall and healthy.  This summer, three cherry tomato plants died on the balcony.  In theory, at least, they should have been getting enough sunlight because they were in the same place as on the balcony as last year's tomato plant.  I now have a beefsteak tomato plant that hasn't died yet, but also hasn't grown any taller or grown any blossoms.  I'd love to solve this particular lesson/mystery for next year because I was really hoping for a bumper crop of tomatoes.

Basil, mint, and cucumbers are definitely keepers for next summer.  I may try green beans, too.  Anybody else growing a garden this summer?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Life's Little Triumphs: A Large Company Underpromises And Overdelivers (Sort Of)

This installment of life's little triumphs is pretty overdue at this point.  I've been meaning to blog about it, but this particular little triumph came at a time when I was trying to orchestrate a series of larger triumphs (spring semester final exams, then the GRE, then the start of a challenging summer session), and I've been distracted.  But I think most of us need all the triumphs we can get, so better to write about this late rather than never!

It all started last fall when my old food processor finally bit the dust.  It served its purpose for many years, but was never entirely satisfactory, so I decided to upgrade.  I researched Consumer Reports and settled on a Cuisinart model.  I was very happy when I first used it as it was clear that it was a marked improvement over my old food processor.  BUT!  Not long after my new food processor arrived, Cuisinart announced a recall of millions of its food processor blades.  At that point, I wasn't too concerned because they made it easy to request a replacement blade online.  I requested a replacement blade in December.  Cuisinart didn't provide a time frame for the new blade to arrive, but I decided it might take as long as several weeks since it was right before Christmas.

What I considered to be a reasonable period of time came and went.  I called the recall number in February.  The employee who answered (and who sounded utterly defeated on the phone) told me that they hadn't forgotten about me and that my blade would ship in March.  I decided I could live with that.

March came and went, and my blade didn't arrive.  I emailed Cuisinart in early April.  They sent me a response saying that (a) estimated delivery was "after April," and (b) I could still use all the attachments that came with my food processor except for the recalled blade.

This was not terribly encouraging news to me.  In my mind, "after April" can mean anything from "the blade will arrive in May" to "your as of yet unborn great grandchildren will receive the blade sometime after you're gone."  Also, the ability to use the other food processor attachments is useful only part of the time.  I would no more grate chickpeas for hummus than I would puree potatoes for latkes.

This story ends happily, however, as my replacement blade actually arrived before May, if only by a few days!  Thus, this mildly annoying saga in my life came to an end, I was able to use my new food processor blade in time for pesto season, and now maybe I can give hope to anyone else waiting for a replacement Cuisinart blade.