Secret Santa Sucks

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My fifth grader Elizabeth had a Secret Pal gift exchange the last day before winter break. Although more politically correct in name, it sucked just as much as the not politically correct Secret Santa.

I had not played Secret Pal-Santa in years and unfortunately for both Elizabeth and me, I did not make the connection between Secret Pal-Santa and the trauma that can be inflicted by its nefarious relative, the White Elephant.

The original White Elephant gift game was not only a fun and comedic bonding experience, but it provided a convenient opportunity to transfer the clutter in your house to someone else’s house. Hate both that ugly statue that your mother-in-law gave you and the lavender perfume from Grandma? Put ’em together in the same bag. Problem solved.

Lamentably, the White Elephant took a turn for the worse about 10 years ago, when people were either too attached to that Chia Pet or too lazy to dig it out and wrap it. Instead folks went out and bought gift cards, food or alcohol, leaving the recipients of the true White Elephant gifts depressed and bitter.

This problem has been slow to be recognized by party organizers across the nation (or at least the state of California) who are in denial and still insist on calling it a White Elephant gift exchange. Most people have enough social cognizance to realize that, despite the name of the game, it is unacceptable to bring a White Elephant gift, particularly when the instructions include spending guidelines.

Still, there’s always that one person who refuses to conform and puts a damper on some poor participant’s holiday cheer. At work, this is usually a temp with nothing to lose or the guy in IT who is using the gift exchange as a means to extract revenge on you for bugging the heck out of him all year.

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Three years ago, thanks to one of these people I was the proud owner of a previously-enjoyed Queen CD box set. Not that I have anything against Queen, per se, and if it had been Queen singing the holiday hits, I may had felt differently, but who wouldn’t have preferred the Moose Munch / Jack Daniels gift set?

Familiar as I am with the perils of the White Elephant, I had regrettably not applied this knowledge to Secret Pal-Santa. When Elizabeth came home with a bio sheet on her gift recipient (favorite color, animal, hobby, book, etc.), we put our heads together. The directions were vague, but certainly we were supposed to spend some amount of money on something cool. I took a cue from my friend whose son is in the other fifth grade class and hit the 99 Cent Store, where Elizabeth and I had fun picking out a pretty little box and a necklace and candy to fill it with.

When the Secret Pal-Santa exchange day finally arrived, I couldn’t wait to finish up my PowerPoint, so I could get home from work and hear all about it. As soon as I walked in the door, I sat Elizabeth down to debrief her. She was not very enthusiastic about sharing the details, which I guess had to do with the fact that after all our effort, she only got a miniature cupcake that was suspiciously missing half the icing.

To add insult to injury, the recipient of Elizabeth’s gifts was not impressed with her 99 Cent store treats and was happy to share this fact directly with Elizabeth. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to the fact that this pretentious little 10-year old’s bio stated that she loved shopping and iPads. Clearly chocolate and cheap fashion jewelry weren’t going to impress her.

Luckily, there is always revenge. Since I teach the class’s volunteer art lessons, I’m considering what kind of public humiliation I can subject this kid to during the next lesson. (This is why they should screen parents before allowing them to volunteer.)

The key to White Elephants and Secret Pals-Santas-Reindeer-Whatevers is, like most things in life, managing expectations. I think I will suggest that in future years the teacher add a disclaimer and note at the bottom of the instructions stating something to the effect of :

Kids: don’t get your hopes up; your Secret Pal’s parents might be emotionally-unavailable tightwads. If you get more than a crappy pencil drawing with a lot of erasure marks and your name spelled wrong, consider yourself lucky.

Parents: if the recipient of your kid’s Secret Pal gift is a snot-nosed brat, feel free to be an emotionally-unavailable tightwad. Better yet, give that kid a Queen CD box set.

Good Parents Don’t Play Monopoly

 

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It’s a universal truth that I am a crappy parent. I yell; I have little patience; I sometimes use bad language when I’m yelling with little patience; and the biggest of all telltale signs of a bad parent, I played Monopoly with my kids…and was ruthless.

Let’s be honest, Monopoly is not for the faint of heart. It’s a high-stakes, cutthroat game. You purchase as many properties as possible with the ultimate goal of staying out of jail while building a bunch of cheap, plastic, substandard housing units and bankrupting the heck out of everyone who is forced to pay you rent.

My 10-year old, Elizabeth, who is a sweet kid and naïve to the ways of economic power plays, discovered my dusty old Monopoly game from the 1970’s a few months ago and embarked on a campaign to convince me to play it with her.

This is not a game that children should play with adults. Actually, it’s not a game that adults should play at all. If you get pleasure financially ruining those around you, you most likely have a prosperous career in Corporate America and don’t need validation through the board game. You don’t have time to move a shoe from Marvin Gardens to Pennsylvania Avenue. In fact, you already missed three important calls in the time it took you to tell your kids to take a hike.

 If you need validation through the board game, you were probably passed up for that last promotion and are passive-aggressive. Go directly to Therapy; do not pass Go and no, you can’t collect your $200. Well, at least that was what you got in the 70’s; no idea what inflation has increased the payout to in today’s version.

If you are neither of the above but have a highly competitive nature, resist any temptation to play Monopoly. Instead, use your powers for good (e.g. to brainwash your colleagues at work into believing you know what you’re doing and following your lead.) Whatever you do, do not let your kids persuade you to play “just this one time.”

For weeks I endured plea after plea, which increasingly characterized me as a negligent parent who deprived her children of important family bonding rituals like game nights (where the game is, of course, Monopoly). This was worse noise pollution that the compulsive office whistler who worked at my company last year. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fire my kids or even send them to Human Resources for a warning.

Finally, beaten-down, guilt-ridden and in a state of weakened common sense, I gave in. Giddy at their victory, my kids pulled out the game and immediately started arguing over who got to be the dog. We settled the issue with a dice roll, which Elizabeth won and then promptly forfeited; after all that, she decided she’d rather be the car. Go figure. With the initial drama of the game behind us, they helped me set up the board as I explained the rules.

For the first hour of the land grab, it looked like my little 6-year old, Corinne, was going to mop the floor with us. She had wisely purchased several key properties and had a continuous inflow of rent. I beamed with pride at my offspring’s prowess. Although she wasn’t able to obtain all the properties of any one color and therefore couldn’t properly inflict financial doom on us, she clearly had potential.  I nurtured a secret hope that she might be our meal ticket when we hit retirement.

By the end of the second hour, the tide had turned in my favor. I had, without cheating, managed to secure Park Place and Boardwalk. I put three houses on each, sat back and waited for the inevitable. With my opponents’ (I mean, kids’) bankruptcies just around the corner, I almost turned into the office whistler myself.

To her great misfortune, Elizabeth landed on Boardwalk almost immediately. Sans sufficient cash on hand or enough property to mortgage in order to pay me the rent due, I made her an offer that she couldn’t refuse. She did refuse. The evening just took a turn for the worse.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t put the head of a horse or even the head of her favorite stuffed animal in her bed. I did, however, pick up my cell phone and pretend to call my “hired help”.

 In retrospect, I suppose I went a little too far. While Elizabeth sobbed at the table and I apologized profusely for my cold-blooded collection tactics, Corinne smartly decided she was getting out of the game before I took her down too.  As the scene progressed, my husband shook his head knowingly and explained that he had endured a similar fate while playing Monopoly with his father when he was Elizabeth’s age. He sympathized with her plight.

I finally managed to convince Elizabeth that my Godfather-esque offer (to take 2 of her properties and most of her money) was a well-meaning effort to allow her to stay in the game rather than flat-out bankrupt her. I conveniently left out the part about the perverse pleasure I got from dragging out the game when I was ahead. As her crying subsided, I realized that before ever playing another game of Monopoly, I should go directly to Therapy; do not pass Go.

 

5 Ways to Improve Your Corporate Communication Skills

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Appropriately expressing one’s thoughts and ideas can be challenging in the business world. In light of certain communications I’ve recently been subjected to, I feel compelled to share with you some DOs and DON’Ts which will hopefully help you climb the corporate ladder more quickly and do so without getting on your colleagues’ nerves any more than necessary:

1. DON’T sign your e-mails with your initials unless you are high up on the corporate food chain. These are the only people who have earned the right to save precious time by signing with two letters.

If there is any question as to whether you are high enough up on said food chain, check your title to see if it can be reduced to a 3-letter acronym starting with the letter “C” (e.g. CFO, COO, CIO, CTO, etc).

  • If the answer is “yes”, you may begin signing with your initials.
  • If the answer is “no”, as disheartening as it may be, you must go back to signing with your full first name. Don’t be sad; at least you will no longer come across as a self-important douchebag to your co-workers.
  • If you are uncertain if your title can be made into an acronym, ask Human Resources.
  • If Human Resources informs you that you are the CEO, you may sign with just your first initial.

2. When responding to someone in writing, DO find a way to sound professional without using big words which do not belong together. For example,

  • DO say: I have spoken with John to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
  • DON’T say: I have spoken with John to circumvent recurrence.

If you are circumventing recurrence, you might want to look for another job that doesn’t require you to write anything.

3. DON’T try to get cozy with executive management over the lasagna at the holiday party. This will be seen as a last minute attempt to increase your bonus when you should have been working longer hours all year long. If you aren’t sure who at the party is an executive manager, check everyone’s title for one of the previously mentioned acronyms.

4. If you work in IT and manage to single-handedly, irreparably crash an application people need to finish their time-sensitive projects, DON’T pretend the application works fine on your end. Instead, beg their forgiveness and find someone to do your job who actually knows what they are doing.

5. When you are responsible for leading a meeting, DO make a reasonable effort to prepare first. While you are undoubtedly extremely busy, it will be a colossal waste of time to those who are forced to watch you think out loud as you try to figure out why you called the meeting it the first place.

If, despite the above, you still insist on not preparing for your own meeting, you must take the following steps to ensure your face doesn’t end up on a dartboard in someone’s cubicle.

DO:

  • apologize profusely
  • bring snacks or otherwise bribe your colleagues to not stand up and leave
  • promise to circumvent recurrence

 

Note: For an explanation of common terms used in business discussions, please refer to my previous posts on this topic: Corporate Lingo – the Key to Success in the Corporate Jungle and Heteroskedasticity.

7 Office Tips for the Holidays

With the holidays approaching, it’s important to treat your colleagues at work with kindness and respect. This is particularly critical if you are relying on them to 1) cover for you when you’ve ditched your afternoon meetings to go holiday shopping 2) put in a good word for you at year-end bonus time, or 3) wash their hands before baking you Christmas cookies.

Don’t be a victim of some of the pitfalls in the corporate jungle. Instead follow this list of DOs and DON’Ts to ensure you stay in the good graces of your co-workers.

When scheduling a meeting:

  • DO remember to actually invite the key participants. (Unless of course this is a secret strategy to have time to finish designing your Christmas cards while you wait for those participants to “dial into the call”.)
  • DO make certain your guest speaker knows he/she will be expected to say something. You might think preparation is for wimps, but that attitude will get you blacklisted by corporate Santa.
  • DO ensure everyone has time to eat lunch. If the main speaker has back-to-back meetings until 1pm, DON’T force that person to join your crappy meeting at 1pm, because you are trying to accommodate the 2 invitees in other time zones who have better things to do and won’t be attending anyway.
  • If you ignore my above advice about lunch, DO provide food. Failure to do so will ensure your speaker has low blood sugar and is incoherent. Five minutes into the meeting, that person will be deemed incompetent and wheeled away in a stretcher; you will then be expected to take on that person’s responsibilities without the additional pay or title change. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Other holiday activities:

  • DON’T bring a Queen CD box set to the department holiday gift exchange. The only acceptable gifts are alcohol (the harder, the better), gourmet food and gift cards. Anything else will cause you to be labeled not a team player. You will then be banished from participating in any future reindeer games.
  • If you overreact to some data from analytics and cause a corporate emergency in the middle of the holiday party, DON’T suddenly disappear from the premises, leaving everyone else to clean up your mess. They would rather be eating the store-bought chicken and macaroni salad at the potluck lunch. (There’s no budget for an actual company-paid meal.)

  • DO slap the office whistler who insists on whistling holiday classics for the entire month of December and has even started taking requests. You might end up in HR, but rest assured that your colleagues will thank you for taking one for the team.

Birth of the Crappy Christmas Letter

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In honor of the holiday season and with Christmas just around the corner, it seems appropriate to share the story of the birth of the Crappy Christmas Letter.

Instead of getting depressed reading your friends’ holiday letters about their awesome vacations in tropical lands or their toddler’s uncanny ability to speak 5 languages fluently, you can feel good about your life as I regale you with stories of how my plumbing backed up and spilled sewage and toilet paper onto our front lawn. (Refer to blog post #2 “Plumbing and 3D”)

So, gather around a warm fire (unless you’re in California, in which case, don’t start a fire; we’re in a drought and you don’t want to burn down the whole block right before Christmas) and get in the holiday spirit as you enter the world of my crappy life…

“Opening Remarks” – My First Blog Post

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Disclaimer

This blog[1] was my cousin Wayne’s idea. If you find it as ridiculous and nonsensical as I do, then I’ll give you his contact information and you can complain to him directly. Wayne is a writer/director/producer, so if you are indignant enough in your complaint, you might land yourself free tickets to his dinner theater (which is excellent, by the way). In fact, maybe if I complain, he’ll send me free tickets. I’ll give it a shot and let you know how it goes.

Background

In all fairness, I suppose I can’t completely blame my cousin. After all, he was just trying to help me find a more suitable forum for my middle-age ramblings[2]. You see about 10 years ago I had taken to expressing myself (that is, dumping on everyone) through an annual Christmas letter. After all, it was cheaper than therapy. However, as I got older (better said, as my kids got older), my life became increasingly more dramatic – which meant I needed more cheap therapy – which meant longer, crappier Christmas letters. Unfortunately, like with many things, holiday letters have a point of diminishing marginal utility. Statistical testing has shown this point to be about 4 pages. In other words, if you send people holiday letters longer than 4 pages in length, they will find more utility in using it to line their cat’s litter box than in reading it.

I knew I had reached this point when I stopped receiving Christmas cards from people with cats. The true enlightenment came however when I started getting requests to provide my letter in an audio format. This request came exclusively from people who had no cats or litter boxes to line, which meant that they were forced to read it and more than likely would need to take a day off work to get through the whole thing.

I try to be accommodating and took this request seriously. After careful consideration, though, I was forced to admit that an audio version was out of my league. Although I had joined Toastmasters over a year ago, I was doubtful that I could get through a 12 page letter without peppering every pause with at least one “uh”, “um” and, the real signature of failure, “you know”.

The logical solution was to simply send out mid-year update letters. This worked for awhile, but it proved not to be a viable long-term solution. This year the jig was up. It was clear to anyone who read my June update letter that an update to the update letter would be forthcoming. This was mainly due to the fact that we had purchased a house that everyone started affectionately referring to as “The Money Pit”. In Italy they have a saying about the city of Naples[3] which can also be applied to our money pit: “le storie non finiscono mai” which translates to “the stories are never ending.” How many updates to updates can you do before physics steps in and you go back in time? Luckily, right when I found myself on the edge of the swirling black hole of update letters, my cousin entered with his blog idea.

Birth of the Blog

Wayne was a child computer genius. In elementary school he could do pretty much anything with his Tandem computer, and I secretly suspect he may have invented hacking. Consequently, he has automatic credibility regarding anything computer-related, including blogs. In all honesty, it didn’t take much convincing. I was almost immediately on board, since being a blogger clearly meant I could quit my job compiling boring statistical information into PowerPoints and instead could drop my kids off at school and hang out at Starbucks drinking vanilla lattes all day.

Whether or not anyone actually reads this will be seen, but at least trees and everyone in my address book can breathe a sigh of relief.

[1] For disclosure purposes, this may not actually meet the definition of a blog, since I don’t actually know what a blog is. Using the term “blog” makes me feel cool, so I’m going to stick with it.

[2] Yes, I’ve already started to ramble in my 40’s. I’m certain my kids will catch on by the time they’re in high school and start making plans to move abroad…permanently.

[3] On second thought this may not actually be an official Italian saying. Well, in any case, I can personally confirm that at least one Italian has said this. His name was Carlo. Sorry Carlo, I don’t remember your whole name or I’d give you more credit. After all, that was 20 years ago.

Corporate Dream Careers

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In Elizabeth’s elementary school yearbook, the pictures of the graduating sixth graders are complemented by a blurb stating each child’s anticipated profession.  Some common ones are movie star, football player and astronaut. While certainly great dreams, these aren’t necessariy the most realstic goals, statistically speaking. I fear that when these children compare their yearbook blurbs to their actual jobs in 30 years, there may be some disappointment.

To avoid this outcome, there should be a better understanding of all the dream-worthy, yet realistic, jobs out there that kids can aspire to. Elizabeth is only in 5th grade, but to help her and her friends understand the true breadth of fascinating professions before it’s time to commit to their dream jobs in 6th grade, I’ve put together the following descriptions of some positions found in the corporate world:

Facilities Manager

This is a multi-faceted position. First, you are in charge of the physical assets of the company. In hopes of getting promoted, you will spend hours tinkering with the broken photocopier before giving up and calling the professional repairman.

You are also responsible for figuring out how to save space by reducing employee cubicles to the size of a hamster cage. To minimize employee frustration, make sure the now smaller cubes are each outfitted with a hanging water bottle and salt lick. Put an exercise wheel by the printer to encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Lastly, you coordinate entire office moves. As long as you act important, no one will question you on why it took a week to move the coffee machines to the new location and another whole week to move the coffee.

Career Tip: Instill fear among co-workers by holding a clipboard and walking around with people in suits. If you speak in a low voice and point animatedly to various cubicles as you mumble words like “headcount” and “bottom line”, everyone you pass will start boxing up their belongings as they wait for the call from Human Resources.

Call Center Representative

This is the ideal job for those who both love to talk and have a sadistic streak. You are the first point of contact and a stringent gatekeeper. You will enjoy further frustrating already annoyed callers by insisting they don’t need to speak with a supervisor, even though you’ve tried unsuccessfully for an hour to resolve their problem. For added pleasure, put callers on hold every time they threaten you with legal action.

Career Tip:  Increase your performance bonus by changing your voice and posing as the supervisor you finally agreed to transfer the caller to.

Accounts Payable Clerk

This position requires a high attention to detail with little tolerance for error. Your daily mission is to review and process department bills and employee expense reports for payment. As protector of the company’s coffers, you take your job seriously and are careful to reject business trip reimbursements of tips to hotel valets and bellmen without a paper receipt.

Career Tip: Wield your power by routing invoices that don’t meet your high standards to a holding queue. For added fun, don’t  mention this to the person who needs the invoice paid and act surprised when he/she questions you in a state of panic.

IT Manager

This is a job which requires strong technical and no people skills. You are saddled with budget cuts but rather than admit this, you assert haughtily that you can resolve every problem, even finding the coffee that Facilities lost in the move.

Career Tip: Stay ahead of the game by pretending to be extremely busy and hiding behind voice mail, so you can never be held accountable for these untruths. While you will be well compensated for your technical savvy, if you get hit by a bus, no one will send you flowers…though this might be because Accounts Payable won’t reimburse sympathy gifts.

IT Support

This is an entry-level position with a steep learning curve. Although you will be hired for your many degrees in computer science, when you hit the real world you’ll receive no training on how to deal with end users in a live production environment.

Career Tip: Be sure to figure out ahead of time who you can blame when you accidentally remove users’ access and delete their files.

Marketing Director

This is a job for high energy, goal-oriented individuals who don’t let rules stand in the way of a good idea. You’re tasked with coming up with creative strategies to get new customers. To do this, you do your best to alienate the legal and compliance experts who have to sign off on your wacky ideas, by acting like you know how to do their job better than they do.

Career Tip: Make everything a “marketing emergency” so no one will have time to realize how bad your idea really is.