Monday, June 27, 2005

Work to Live

Technology is arguably one of the most defining industries of our society over the past two decades. Hard work has been deeply entrenched in its culture since its early beginnings. During the dot-com boom, the myriad of startup companies insisted on complete and unwavering dedication from all its employees. Anything less would be detrimental to all hopes for the fledgling company's success. From this, the Silicon Valley work ethic emerged, and now, it continues to thrive long after the infamous dot-com bubble burst.

This culture has taken its toll on those who must live with it on a daily basis. I cannot count how many people I meet at my company who are feeling the negative effects of constant pressure, an ever-increasing workload, and unrelenting stress on their minds and bodies. For them, work is their entire life.

This place we call Silicon Valley is a breeding ground for burnouts.

When I first joined this company, one of my coworkers was a man who simply chose to work 16-hour days, weekends and holidays, for no reason other than he had nothing better to do. He didn't have many friends or family around, he wasn't married, so he spent his entire life working.

He was our boss' favorite, too. She used to give me endless grief over the fact that I preferred to work regular business hours unless there was a looming critical deadline.

What kind of culture rewards those who dedicate their entire existence to their work, and punishes those who choose to spend some of their non-working time on their hobbies, interests and loved ones ? This, I will never understand.

It is a vicious circle. My former coworker spent all his days at the office because he had nothing else to do. Yet, he could not meet new friends or form relationships with others because he was always at work.

One must admit, however, that he chose this path.

There was a time, in my previous job, where I made the same choice. I was working 12-14 hour days, trying to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of a busy Network Operations center. I was constantly stressed out, stuck in the endless cycle of repeated caffeine intake, inability to sleep, and still more caffeine. Before long, my body broke down, unraveling itself in a scary anxiety attack one day while sitting in traffic. That was the wake-up call I so desperately needed.

No job is worth one's health, sanity, or mental well-being.

It was then that I learned that I must set boundaries for my work time, and take steps to consciously reduce my stress level. It was a difficult transition for me, being a dedicated, hard-working, high-energy person with a passion for helping the customer and the company. It was one of the toughest things I ever did, but ironically, it made me a better worker, and greatly improved my quality of life.

At my current job, I have attempted to keep a similar, more reasonable pattern. Of course, all bets are off when a critical deadline needs to be met. I have done the two weeks straight of 14-hour days numerous times. I have worked until all hours of the nights and weekends to help our team meet a commitment. However, during non-crisis times, I choose a more normal and sane schedule.

Even with a relatively typical workday length, I still suffer the ill effects of 120 miles of round-trip commuting. I spend 3+ hours on the road every single day. My department frowns upon ongoing telecommuting agreements, so that is not an option. Add this to my other activities, and I am constantly on the go, with no time left to relax and recharge the batteries.

When was the last movie I saw in the theater ? I don't remember. How many DVDs have I watched at home in the last year ? One. How many TV shows would I really like to watch but don't have time ? Plenty. Currently, my only TV exposure is listening to it while running around cooking, eating or doing housework.

This past weekend, I decided that something needs to change.

So yesterday morning, I started a new ritual. Instead of jumping out of bed, rushing off to the grocery store, and running around taking care of the myriad of weekend chores and errands, I did something radically different. I took quiet time to myself. I walked over to the Starbucks outdoor patio, and accompanied by a hot cup of coffee and a slice of low-fat blueberry cake, sat down and read a book.

Me, the always-moving, always-shaking go-getter, sitting down for an hour and reading a book. Imagine that.

I can't remember when the last time was that I did this. With this commute, my only reading time in the past few years has been on a plane or on the stationary bike. But yesterday, I took time out to sit down and read - and nothing else. It was just me, my breakfast, my book, and the soothing Northern California breeze.

I work to live. I do not live to work.

Yesterday, under the green Starbucks umbrella, I reaffirmed this commitment. Never again will I fall prey to the persistent cycle of overextension, sleep deprivation and declining health. Of course, I still put 100% of my heart and soul into my job. If they need me to step up to the plate, I will - with every bit of energy and dedication I can possibly muster. However, I will always strive to keep myself balanced and centered, never forgetting to take time out for life.

After all, when work is gone, life is what remains.

For me, love, laughter, activities, learning, friends, family, and reaching out to touch the lives of others are what persevere when work is stripped from the canvas of my existence.

I now ask you who read this: what remains on your canvas ?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


A friend of mine recently wrote about a disappointing experience with a new female love interest. Their first date, by all appearances, went well. The conversation was good, completely absent of the awkward silences between topics that often accompanies a first date. My friend was hopeful that his dinner guest would be interested in a second outing together. He believed that they had interacted well, and that possibly, there was a basis for continuing the acquaintance. Until he received an email from her a day later.

In it, she said that although she enjoyed their time together, there was no "chemistry". As such, there would be no second date. Obviously, my friend was disappointed.

It made me think: what, really, is chemistry ? What is it that draws us to some people, and repels us from others ?

Chemistry is something intangible, unexplainable, yet crucial to a continuing acquaintance, friendship or intimate relationship. A person can seem like the perfect mate on paper, but upon meeting and interacting, the chemistry can be entirely absent.

The logical, engineering-type mind may think, "How is this possible ? He/she should be perfect for me. How can there be no chemistry ? It doesn't make sense."

As my friend and his dinner date have demonstrated, chemistry does not follow the rules of logic and reason. Two people may have similar personalities, and may match each other's "lists" of desirable qualities, yet upon interacting in a more intimate environment, they discover that the chemistry is entirely absent. Conversely, two people that have seemingly divergent interests and personality traits can still have chemistry between them if they connect in other ways.

We humans form connections with one another on many levels; some superficial, others much deeper. Shared interests and experiences are a common bridge. Similar personalities and senses of humor are another. These connections can lead to acquaintanceships or friendships, but true chemistry runs even deeper, extending into the farthest corners of one's heart, at times morphing into a pervasive emotional bond.

Chemistry must be mutual. What one person may interpret as chemistry may simply be an interest based on the more superficial, on-paper characteristics and similarities between the two. It is not enough to compare one's own "list" with the qualities that the other person displays. In order for true chemistry to exist, both parties must feel it and perceive it, beyond the limitations of rational interpretations.

Chemistry cannot be created. It either is, or it isn't. There is no rhyme or reason to it, no predictability, no scientific explanation. It's just there. You know it. You feel it, when you look deep into that person's eyes and see that spark, that fire, that shine that says "I get you."

When attraction is mixed with a deep, emotional connection, and a spark of admiration, an intimate bond can emerge. This, I believe, is the basis for the deepest, richest, and most fulfilling of relationships.

What my friend perceived with his date was likely a rationalization of their qualities and personality traits. The two, as individuals, are good people, but sadly, are not suited for one another. As such, his quest continues for that elusive, unexplainable entity we call chemistry.

I hope that someday it finds him - and each of you as well.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Where is My Head ?

When I was younger, I had the undesirable habit of losing things. I'd put something down, forget where I left it, then spend the next several minutes retracing my steps. There were times when I had to return to the house more than once to retrieve items that I needed. The worst was when I'd forget my lunch on the kitchen counter. Luckily, my mother sometimes noticed, and kindly and generously brought it to me. I still thank her to this day for sparing me from inevitable starvation.

This characteristic has unfortunately persisted to my adult life. Although I am normally organized and efficient, when the stress and distractions start to pile up, the forgetfulness resurfaces.

This week alone, I have misplaced:

- My pager (found it under my karate bag the next day);
- My driver's licence (found it in the laundry after it had been stashed in my pants pocket);
- My sunglasses (still MIA).

I had to return to the house twice on Wednesday morning - first for my gym bag, then for my softball clothes. This is not normal. Really !

My father, cursed with the same affliction, used to say that I'd lose my head if it wasn't screwed onto my shoulders. After this week, I must grudgingly admit that he was right. :)

Today is the day I will take a deep breath, rid myself of the worries for the tough week ahead, reset myself and chill. I think the outdoor patio at Starbucks, along with a nice, strong cup of coffee, is calling me.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

But They're So Durable !

This entry takes us back to approximately the year 1980. My mother, always exceptional at finding a great deal and new ways to economize, noticed that a local gas station was having a very special promotion. With every fill-up, and an additional $2, customers were entitled to one full place setting of dishes. A dinner plate, a salad plate, a bowl and a mug, all for a mere $2 and gas. What an irresistable offer !

For the next several weeks, my mom faithfully visited this gas station on every fill-up, bringing home a big, square box each time. By the time the promotion ended, she had amassed at least 12 place settings. A great score at the time.

The problem ? These dishes were butt ugly. Tan-colored, speckled, ribbed in dark brown, they were as generic and unappealing as one could get. Granted, they were well-made, but downright painful to the eyes.

Fast-forward to today, the year 2005, and these monstrosities still remain as the primary food serving apparatus for my parents' spacious, well-decorated abode.

What is wrong with this picture ?

The inside of their house was recently repainted with a collection of modern, pastel shades. The kitchen is a muted but tasteful yellow. There is a cheery picture of some grapes and other fruit hanging on one wall. A nice gold-colored tablecloth adorns the eating surface. And on top of it, my parents place these 25-year-old gas station dishes, still as awful as they were in 1980, for the viewing enjoyment of the family and its guests.

This is just so not cool.

So this year, for my mom's birthday, I decided to do something about it. With the cooperation of my sisters and father, I rounded up a complete redesign of the kitchen's accoutrements, keeping true to the new indoor color scheme. Not being the most creative type, this was quite a challenge, but I believe I came up with something a little more esthetically pleasing. The result:

Aw yeah ! Now that's what I'm talking about !!!

When presented with this modern, colorful design, my father could not help but remark, "Those old dishes are still nice. They're so durable !" This is the same father who resisted replacing the tired, aging microwave with a new one, even when it took twice as long to heat something up as it should.

Yes, Dad, the old dishes are durable. They're also hideous.

Quarter-century-old gas station dishes BEGONE ! Go quietly into the night, taking your inherent uncoolness and ugly-ass color scheme with you ! Avaunt ! Return not until the next family barbecue, to be slaves to the concrete patio and butter-fingered guests !

Mark my words. If I see those old dishes in the upstairs cupboards the next time I visit my parents, there will be trouble.

The most glaring kitchen issue is out of the way, however more work is needed to be done. Perhaps this Christmas, Mom and I will sit down and have a little chat about the mismatched, dollar-store cutlery collection. Not now, though. Baby steps. One at a time. :)

Friday, June 10, 2005

It's Just a Beer

Those who have known me for a while are aware that I have never been one to drink alcohol. This has been my choice for as long as I was old enough to know the difference.

When I was a teenager, my refusal to imbibe was all about rebellion. I was rebelling against the high school notion that one must drink in order to be considered cool. At that time (and now), my preference was for people to judge my coolness based on who I was, not what I chose to consume. As such, I faithfully downed my soda during the weekend get-togethers while everyone around me descended quickly to the depths of intoxication; then later, picked up their car keys and drove home.

This avoidance of alcohol has continued throughout my adult life. Even while my various softball teams were participating in the customary bonding ritual of after-game trips to the bar, I stayed true to my decision, clutching my glass of soda while sharing the pizza, wings and nachos with my teammates.

Through this, I realized that turning down a drink that is offered, even when done as kindly and politely as possible, still resulted in some hurt feelings and confusion. I began to ask myself: What, really, is the big deal ?

We are not in high school anymore. My level of acceptance within a group is not dependent on whether or not I drink. I know how to moderate myself. I know that I run a negligible, if any, risk of overindulging or becoming dependent like my late uncle and grandfather had. Although it remains that I should be free to gently turn down offers if I so choose, what truly is the harm in accepting ?

After all, it's just a beer.

This train of thought came to the forefront recently when my firefighting class met at the pizza parlor after our final exam. I was offered a glass of Hefeweisen by a fellow student that I respect and admire highly. At that moment in time, I was at a crossroads.

Do I refuse, as I always had done, out of habit ? Or do I accept ?

What is the harm in accepting his kind offer ? For the first time, I could not come up with a good answer to that question.

I know better than to pound back an entire pitcher on my own. Accepting does not mean that I drink myself into a stupor, throw up, drive impaired, or say and do things that I later will regret. It simply means that I take the frothy mug, and continue participating in the group activity.

So I chose the Hefeweisen. I casually sipped it while sharing in the pizza, the laughter, and the good-natured joking and storytelling amongst the group.

That single glass of beer, faithfully counted in my Weight Watchers points for the day, is an example of how life can be so much richer when one abandons a black-and-white way of thinking, and embraces the many shades of gray in between.

I used to think in black and white all the time. With my family upbringing and the personalities therein, it was my only frame of reference. According to my family culture, there was only one 'right' solution to every problem. Other options and interpretations were rarely considered, if ever. The notions of compromise and a 'win-win solution' were foreign. The only goal was to get one's own way in whatever method possible. Every decision, every action, was all or nothing; that was all I knew. My complete rejection of everything alcoholic was a reflection of this.

In the years that have passed, I have grown and matured, and have come to appreciate the drawbacks of this way of thinking. The aggressive, my-way-or-the-highway approach does not respect the feelings of others, nor does it consider the myriad of possible solutions to a given problem. Granted, there are some issues that have very clear-cut choices, but in many cases, the best answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Stephen R. Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" speaks about searching for a win-win solution, one that offers a suitable compromise, and that satisfies the wants and needs of all parties concerned. After reading that book, and truly absorbing its message, I reached an epiphany. Life isn't about all or nothing. It is about everything within the two. That is where I want to be.

Since then, I have consciously worked to rewrite the scripts of my upbringing, to deliberately step back from situations and consider as many options as possible. I made it my goal to venture into the areas of gray, and strive for a win-win solution that takes into account the wants and needs of everyone involved. It is an ongoing process, one that I have not yet perfected, but that I still endeavor to keep in the forefront of my mind.

Win-win isn't about one person getting his way, and everyone else acquiescing. It is about all parties agreeing to a mutually satisfying solution, even if concessions need to be made. It is not about choosing black or white, but about considering all that is in between. There is no more worthy goal than that.

That night, at the pizza parlor, what was in front of me was not just a glass of beer. It was a gateway to building stronger, deeper relationships with people, and a reminder of the infinite value of the many shades of gray.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Public Service Announcement

When visiting the chiropractor, be sure to expel all excess gas before submitting to the spinal adjustment.

That is all.

Friday, June 03, 2005

In the Name of Beauty

As a prelude to my youngest sister's wedding, we, the bridal party, were treated to a midday excursion to the local beauty salon. We were to receive manicures and pedicures. Having only worn nail polish twice in my life, this would be a new experience. I entered the upscale, perfectly adorned establishment this morning, coffee in hand, not quite knowing what to expect.

Firs and foremost, I was never meant to wear nail polish.

The esthetician had to redo three of my nails because I accidentally touched my hair while they were still drying. She scolded me for not being careful enough as I transitioned my hands from the ultraviolet nail dryer machine to the table. A little later, I noticed that I had dented the polish on two others, but I didn't dare say anything. I think she would have unceremoniously chopped my head off if she found out. So I kept it quiet.

Drying problems aside, the manicure itself was a breeze. Buff my nails, put on a zillion coats of polish and clearcoat and who-knows-what else, and we're done. Sounds easy right ? I thought I was in good shape. Until it came time for the pedicure.

Now keep in mind, I have never had this procedure done before. I work out rigorously, I take karate, I run, I play sports - so my feet are perpetually beat up. I have multiple calluses from walking, running, and kicking the sandbag at the gym. I have one half-black toenail (don't ask me how I did that, I don't remember), some red scuff marks, and a recently-popped blood blister courtesy of last week's karate class. Not exactly dainty, but I prefer it that way. It no longer hurts when I kick the sandbag.

It did feel rather strange to have my toenails buffed and filed, but everything was going just swimmingly until the esthetician brought out the foot file. This ominous tool features an oval-shaped piece of sandpaper, used to buff the extra skin and calluses off one's foot.

Pure torture for those of us who are really ticklish.

I could not help but clutch the armrest of the couch and grit my teeth as she raked this thing back and forth across all surfaces of my feet, wearing down the protective outer layers and exposing the sensitive skin underneath. It was agonizing, but I endured it for the sake of my sister and her wishes for her wedding. When it was finally over, I breathed a grateful sigh of relief.

Little did I know, but that was just the beginning.

With a big, sweet smile, the esthetician proudly announced that she was going to wax my toes. And once she was done with that, she was going to wax my eyebrows, too.

What ?!? Wax ? On my eyebrows ? And my TOES ?!?

No WAY !!!! No freakin' way ! I steadfastly refused.

Unfortunately, I was rendered powerless by the esthetician's guilt trips, the bridal party's begging, and their assertations that this procedure did not hurt. They pleaded that I had to do this, for my sister and for her wedding. Everyone else did it and they survived. My protests were met with the sincere promise that it really wouldn't hurt.

They lied.

Three years ago, while playing softball, I was walloped by a screaming one-hopper at third base. The ball was hit so hard that I barely had time to react. It echoed a sickening -SMACK- as it impacted my thigh and ricocheted sharply into left field. The umpire, seeing the force at which the ball hit me, stopped the game to ask if I was ok. Although unnerved, I shed no tears. Without uttering even a whimper of discomfort, I shook it off. I obtained an ice pack for between innings, and played out the rest of the game. Suck it up and keep on playing. That's what I do.

Yet, when this evil, wicked lady with the hot green wax and merciless paper strips attacked my eyebrows and toes, my tolerance failed me. For the first time in my life, I was broken. It was not by lifting weights, not by running 7.5 miles, not by kicking and punching until my limbs were jellied from exhaustion. I was broken by the wax. It hurt so damned much that tears came to my eyes. I was powerless to stop them. I could barely restrain myself from cursing like a sailor amongst these proper, refined ladies with their perfect hair and makeup.

I have run up and down football stadium stairs with 100 extra pounds on my back and shoulders. I have had two teeth dislocated by a line drive. I have done so many push-ups on my knuckles and fingertips on the hard, wooden dojo floor that I nearly passed out. I endured it, conquered it, rose above it, refused to succumb to the discomfort. But I have never in my life experienced a sharper, more screaming pain than those sticky white strips being mercilessly ripped off my body.

Why do women do this to themselves ?? They willingly and systematically plunk down their hard-earned cash for these procedures, enduring whatever pain and agony goes along with it - and for what ?

Yes, my eyebrows look just a little cleaner than they used to. My toes look, well, bare. Both areas are red and irritated. I suppose this is society's idea of beauty. But mark my words, it was NOT worth the pain. I'll keep my slightly messy eyebrows to avoid this torture. I'd rather be kicked in the stomach by a well-meaning but errant White Belt than go through this again.

But the precedent has been set. The foundation is in place. Next year, around this time, our other sister will be getting married.

Lord save me.
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