Friday, September 30, 2011

New Job: Memoirs of an Ex-Techie

The Setup

So the other day I was working an event.  The event?  A visiting Ambassador giving a speech to Americans on the status of the geo-political alliance of select nations he represents.  It was my first official night working as a tech for this new job I've just started and I didn't want to mess it up.  Tech isn't really my thing anymore (partly because I just don't have that much black clothing) but I wanted to be a team player and show my new bosses I could take on responsibility outside of the office.  I wanted to shine and prove that I could represent our company with pride and eloquence.  And I certainly didn't want to look like a fool in front of an Ambassador.  That's my sister's specialty.*

I show up.  I'm wearing my blacks.  I'm calm, I'm cool, I'm collected.  I've been given a simple task:  make sure the event goes up on time.  The event is simple enough; it's just a powerpoint.  With a man talking.  Not that big of a setup--just a couple microphones, a podium, some cables, a table with linen and water and viola! you have a classy setup for a classy man.  No problem, right?

The Problem

It's about five minutes before people--real people, not just people that theoretically are arriving but real, live, human beings that have come here, come to see my event and be in the room that I'm setting up--start to arrive.  That's when the first bump of the night happened.

I go over to my boss's boss, who happens to be there as an audience member, and ask politely, "When are they bringing in their computer to set up their powerpoint?"

She responds just as politely, "Oh, you're providing them with the computer."

And then her smile falters a bit, "You've got a computer for them, right?"

And I say as calmly as I can, "Oh, did not know that.  I was told that they were bringing it in."

"Well, you can provide them with a computer right?" she smiles again, "I don't have to worry, right?"

This is about when the night started to take a turn for the bad.

"Oh no, you don't have to worry.  I'll let you know if you need to worry."

I stroll back over to the stage.  My tech--let's call him Ben for the sake of anonymity--is finalizing the cabling for the computer, the computer that I've just been informed is never to going to arrive.  I inform Ben of the latest development in our setup.  We both share a look of mutual understanding.  We need a solution.  Fast.

The People

For anyone who has not worked as a tech--or perhaps wonders what working backstage of a theatre would be like whenever out watching a play--there is without a doubt something wrong going on that you are completely unaware of.  It could be a missing prop, it could be a light cue that was fumbled, it could be a line that was dropped.  But, it's in moments like this that the onstage techs become the true actors of the evening:  they will carry off every fumble and every blurp during the performance with complete indifference for the outside world.  They will walk patiently and talk quietly into their headphones that the stage left pillow is missing and would the actor be willing to bring it on in the next scene even though they'll be on fire for the duration of the second act?

On the outside techs look calm and quiet.  But, on the inside stress is building to an incredible level.  And it's a very lonely form of stress, mind you, because the public is right there surrounding you as you shift bits of props and furniture around.  And while they are gambling on about how they interpreted the first act, you're fully aware that your star kid performer is actually stuck on a bridge in traffic with his parents because they thought it was an eight o'clock show and not seven and he's on in ten minutes.

To breathe a word of this to the public would be unprofessional. It would ruin the theatrical experience. It would be the end of the theatre's magical deception. But, most importantly, it would be a failure. And you, as a techie, would rather die than admit failure.  No, really. You. would. rather. die.

This is the other reason why tech work isn't really my thing anymore.**

The Goat

So, people are filing in, holding their drinks in one hand and explaining their jet lag with the other.  I'm waiting to hear back about whether or not we even have a computer onsite to use.  

There is one and Ben plugs it in.  But, when Ben climbs back up the stairs to the tech booth he is unable to get direct signal; it's like having a big screen TV with no remote.  Ben tries a second backup computer--this one doesn't even go so far as to get an image on the big screen.  Now, I can't speak for Ben.  So, I'll just tell you how I felt:  stress starts to rage through my body and it is then that I discover another attribute about my psychological/physiological makeup I was previously unaware of:  apparently, when I get really stressed, I turn into a fainting goat.  Ever seen this video?

Just like those little guys my leg muscles freeze up when my fight or flight adrenaline kicks in.  I know this now because at one point I had to bend down to remove some cables (since we were ditching our original setup plan) and I couldn't do it.  I couldn't bend my knee.  So, still trying to look calm, cool and collected in front of the now fiercely growing crowd, I did what can only be described as a poor attempt at the Trepak dance:

This is about when I consider walking back over to my boss's boss and telling her "You have a Myotonic Dystrophia-prone Event Coordinator and no computer, with an Ambassador waiting to talk to this growing crowd about how relationships with people are going smoother since technology has become an added attribute to society.  Worry.  Now."  

The Solution

I didn't end up having to do that.

Another thing you must know about working in tech:  for some reason, and I feel superstitiously scared of letting you non-theatre people in on this secret, but there is always something that comes along (usually) that stops the production's problem from turning the show into a complete meltdown.

Sure, there is an awkward moment; the stage hand backstage might experience a mini version of cardiac arrest; the audience might clue in that something wasn't quite right when the music kicked in on top of someone's line. But, there is some magic to live theatre that causes some solution to appear last minute, some sort of idea that hadn't been tried before that is discovered just at the last possible second before you, the techie, can bear it no longer.

These moments--and I tell you as a theatre kid who has worked in professional theatre for over six years now--have happened with almost every show I've worked on.  And each time they happen, it feels as if the solution to the problem could not been realized *without* the stress of a hundred oblivious eyes surrounding you.

Ben came up with the solution.  It was all him.  I take no credit.  I still don't quite fully understand what he did.  But, basically he pulled the computer offstage, put it upstairs in the booth and plugged it in directly from there.

It was still wonky.  We were still dependent on a system we had half-hazardly setup fifteen minutes after the presentation was supposed to start.  I had to run up to the stage in the hushed quiet of the Ambassador's entrance and manually hand him his remote for the powerpoint I had just previously raced/limped down from the tech booth.

I remember squeaking out, "Mr. Ambassador--Sir, here is your remote.  For--for the powerpoint."  I handed it to him and he grunted, "Oh.  Thank you."

I had no idea if it had batteries in it.  We didn't have time to check.  Watching him talk for the first five minutes until he clicked his first slide was an eternity because if that little piece of plastic and metal didn't have batteries in it then we were sunk.  Then I really wouldn't have been able to do anything because both my legs would have frozen up and Ben would have been left in the tech booth on his own trying to manually click the slides himself.

But, it worked.  The Ambassador spoke.  The people clapped.  The questions were asked and answered. And aside from the mics not being properly set--just fyi: ALWAYS TAPE CABLES TO YOUR MICS--and the Ambassador literally pulling his cable line out of his microphone, it ran smoothly.

At the end my boss's boss congratulated me on how on top of everything I was.

I smiled and awkwardly slapped Ben on the chest saying, 'It was all him!" (Note to self: don't slap the people you're grateful for).  But, that was the end of it.

That was my first gig at the new job.


*My sister works in Disaster Relief with USAID.  She was deployed to Tokyo immediately after the Tsunami hit Fukushima.  Now, as a representative and worker of the US she is to automatically introduce herself, her status and working position to any higher ups wherever she gets posted.  While at US Headquarters my sister rides up an elevator of some high rise to take notes at a meeting.  The meeting was about the latest updates on the crises and a bunch of representatives from America as well as Japan were to be there.  A man gets into the elevator with her and smiles politely.  She smiles back and waits for her floor.  The bell dings and she walks out ahead of him towards the room and sees two Marines on either side of the double doorway entrance to the big pressroom.  But, as she approaches to walk through the doors, with the man following her, the Marines take an immediate Ten HUT and salute fiercely.  Fiona, my dear, sweetly unassuming, awkward-when-given-too-much-attention sister, internally goes "Huh?"  She looks back, sees the man behind her again and it hits her like a ton of bricks:  the man riding in the elevator with her was the American Ambassador to Japan.  He smiles again serenely and beckons her to go ahead of him.  She didn't want to walk ahead of him now; she's missed her chance for formal introductions and the marines are waiting on her to move. But, he was being gentlemanly and motioned to her ladies-first.  She has to oblige, as it would be ruder to do otherwise.  So, she walks through the doors and is immediately bombarded by the press, snapping photo after photo of her.  They stop when they realize it's not the Ambassador but an awkward white girl with glasses.  The man of the hour finally enters, at which point the press snap back into action.  My sister I believe then hid herself somewhere behind a decorative begonia bush.  Our family has a special knack for entrances.

**I need failure to be an acceptable part of my work environment.  It's not that I consistently fail at my work.  In fact, I have incredibly high standards for my work output.  But, I will fail if you tell me not to.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Two weeks ago I took the GRE.  I almost didn't.  I showed up 7am early on Wednesday morning outside my hometown's quietly hidden test center.  I walked in to find myself in the midst of a small crowd of unspoken stress.  One woman was off to the side, talking on the phone next to a girl half her age and majority her looks, staring blankly off into the distance.  I wisely conclude, "She's missing her test.  Poor girl."  Confident that I wouldn't make the same mistake, I strode over to the check in station and proudly handed my ID over saying, "Here to take the GRE."

That was when I was informed that the computer server was down and I could either wait to talk on the phone, like this woman right here, or take the little business card that was handed to me and call on my own time.  Subdued by this news I sat down and figured, "Well... I'm here.  Might as well wait."

Waiting, it turns out, was another poor judgment call.  Just FYI, in case any of you are considering taking a nationally ranked standardized test and your computer server goes down on test day, the customer service phone tree by law will not take more than one customer on one phone call.  Security reasons.  Go figure.

So, I went back home.  I got onto my own phone and then was on hold for an hour and a half.  I got through, rescheduled for two days later and that's how I found myself in the middle of downtown San Francisco in the back of a sky scraper building, coming face to face with something I've been denying for years.

I Do Not Read Directions

I hate admitting this because anyone who doesn't read directions, according to everyone around me from grade school up to my very first job in customer service, is an idiot.  And yet, anyone who works in Marketing and hears you bemoaning that "They didn't read the directions!" will say to you:  "Duh."

So, it goes both ways.  I feel bad about it but we're also told since day one of our lives in computer/advertisement-happy-land to split our attention focus, to multi-task, to scan rather than read, to be "efficient" in pulling out information from the deluge of materials that come our way every day in life.

I'm making excuses.

The point is, there I was sitting down to take my Graduate Record Examination and I found myself slipping, slipping, slipping away.  I don't mind being asked math puzzlers or being asked to answer questions about vocabulary.  I love algebra, calculus and geometry.   I love learning new things about the English language.

But, as I was sitting there, it became quite clear I had a problem that wasn't going to go away.  And the problem wasn't the test.

I'm Not Allowed to Talk About the What Was On the Test So I'll Talk About What It Was Like Taking It With a Fake Question Instead

So, I'm sitting there and it doesn't really matter what the question was about, so I'll just give you a rundown on the inner monologue I had while reading:

1960s....marine fossil records... I wonder what I should make for dinner tonight?  I do have that eggplant I've been meaning to dice up for a bit... and I still have some falafel mix left over but I don't think I should get into the habit of frying things that often--FOCUS BERYL--volcanic activity causing ruptures... marine biologists have come a long way in developing new strategies... I wonder what Rickey's making for dinner?  I should txt him when I get out of this test.  This test that I'm taking RIGHTNOWFOCUSBERYL... 


Fossils... fossil record... marine biology... you know, that girl was a marine biologist.  She was so cute...calling someone more than once when you don't hear back...that's ok right?  God, that is not ok.  I should let that one go. But, she did at least not hate being around me and Marine Fossil Records In Volcanic Ash Can Be Found Stirred Within The Ancient Sea BedsI wonder if I could trick her into liking me... or maybe she'd like me if she thought I was a science geek like her--like if I started to drop random latin-sounding words around her for animals that aren't native she might fall for it:  "There is the girafficus bigamous spotticus onnicus the bottomus..." 

Then again, knowing my luck, she'd be like "Actually, their name is giraffa camelopardalis" or something.  Ugh, stupid science girls who aren't stupid enough to fall forFOCUS BERYL I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL MAKE YOU RETAKE THIS TEST IF I HAVE TO.  




Marine fossil records in volcanic--Oh.  

It's A.  

Next question...

About four hours and thirty minutes later I was done.


WOO UPDATE:  Woo has a problem with her favorite puppy toy.  We at the Baker homestead are now very painfully aware that Woo sometimes believes her stuffed animal doppleganger is in fact a real dog. 

She will place it in her bed and if we're not careful a sick, sad cycle will begin in which she just starts to stare at her "buddy" waiting for it to do something, to move or at least play back.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Out to Lunch With a Test

So this week was kind of a cluster of not good scheduling.  And, I'm quite surprised to say it really wasn't my fault.  So, I'll be back next week to tell you the lovely story of what it means to miss your GRE test and have to figure out a way to take it so that its returned scores don't come back after you apply to Grad School.

Also, hi.

How are you?

No, really I do care.  I'm not just asking this question because I have the urge to surreally change the subject.

Anyway, I'm out.

Ok, so I lied about really caring or not.

But, please.  Leave me some glorious updates on YOUR life as I will be absent from discussing mine presently.

It would have been more about Colin Firth, anyway.


p.s. Depending on how much flack/feedback I get about Colin Firth, that may or may not still happen.  Two Party Democracy:  it makes half the population unhappy.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Human 2.0

"The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind."  
- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

I am coming back from a week of incredibly intense experiences, one right after another.  Needless to say, the gearing up to those pivotal hours was emotionally overwhelming at times. I don't want go into detail on how I reacted during the bad parts, nor do I really want to publicize the parts that had me acting like a little kid who just was given a brand new Playmobile Pirate Ship.  (That was what I got for my 5th birthday, by the way.  I was a lucky, lucky kid.  And hell yes, I still have that sucker.)

But, it has gotten my thinking thoughts going again.  Having gone through a record run* of stressful experiences, I was faced with people (including myself) who willingly created conflict rather than smoothed the passages for communication.

Retail Is The True Test Of Faith In Humanity 

I don't know if you know this but I have had a lot of experience working in customer service.  And anyone who has worked in customer service knows to the full extent that there is a portion of the human population that will misbehave, act out, yell, throw tantrums, threaten, humiliate and verbally abuse the other human given the doleful task of handing them their bill.  In those moments I found myself repeating an odd inner mantra, sighing:

"We're animals."

It's a simple mantra.  It got me through the day.   But, I noticed I was saying it a lot, which brings about two possible facts:  1) I don't know when I've beaten a line to death and 2) A lot of human beings "misbehave" a lot of the time.  Not willing to accept number 1, I have since decided to methodically examine conjecture number 2.

Luckily, I have a human test subject that's willing to give me feedback on her recent personal experiences being human and dealing with emotional stress:  me.

Unattainable Life Goal No. 576

I'd like to think of myself as tough.  I'd like to think that I can handle bad.  Sure, I'll get mad when I watch an animal get abused by a human, and yes, I will turn into a puddle watching The Lion King.

Lion King: Years of Therapy in the Make
But, in general I try my best to stay calm when the people or worlds around me come crashing down.  You might not think it to look at me (I do look like a goober) but I have immensely high standards for my behavior:  during hard moments I inevitably feel ashamed of showing my true emotions as I feel it would reveal that I am less than a full grown, mature adult human.  

Perhaps this is because my role models as a child were Mr. Darcy, John Harmon, Martin Chuzzlewit and Elinor Dashwood, i.e., English aristocrats who all have the interpersonal skills of a dried walnut.  

Mr. Darcy's attractiveness summed up
Regardless, I am attracted to this. No, not Mr. Darcy--although I want do want to be him; he wears fantastic clothes.  Being perpetually mature, emotionally under control is something I wish to achieve.  

And in reflecting on this latest unattainable goal of mine, I am seeing that I'm not the only human who has made the human mistake of thinking we're bigger and brighter than we really are on average. My case in point:  If humans really were divine then customer service would be a breeze and everyone would want to do it.

Naturally Emotionally Immature 

The majority of evolutionary scientists** contend the beginning of Human Civilization (as in, agriculture, the written word, technology and increase in longevity) began to kick off around 10,000 years ago.  Right?  So, before agriculture, humans were hunter-gatherers, as in nomadic animals, running around trying to live long enough to breed.  Then we sat our seeds down and slowly stayed put.  Then that gave us time to develop strategies for static living conditions, language, culture, shared technology, mass food production--all the big stuff.  With me so far?  Great.  Because this is the last time you'll see me try to summarize human civilization's evolution in four sentences.

Here's the upswing I'm seeing of this evolutionary track humans went on 10,000 years ago:  Setting aside the change in gene frequencies in the human brain, psychological traits (which are still results of our chemical, biological, environmental and cultural inheritance) in the human brain haven't really changed in the last 10,000 years. Yes, our technology and accountability for a wider range of knowledge about the world and ourselves rapidly expanded.

But, we haven't.

I want an expansion pack.

In the heat of the moment, how often do people really try, really actively work on rising above the need to HIT IT WITH A STICK ?  I think our struggle as humans is not so much how we "rise above" being human--but how we deal with ourselves when we don't reach the standard of our preferred definition.

Conclusion:  Humans are naturally emotionally immature. We have the same cognition ability as Ms. Gatherer way back when. She would have eaten her weight in Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey if she could have gathered it, just as much as my friend Rickey would if no one was watching him. And even then he'll still eat it. I've seen him do it.

It's not healthy.  But, it's natural.


*If you're scratching your head going, "Jesus, what happened to you last week?" then here is the factual answer:  Within 48 hours I turned 25, officially spent a morning mourning my grandma's death, which caused (as death usually does) familial strife, went to a wedding for my two good friends and I asked a girl to dance.  I want to be noble and say hitting the quarter-century mark, dealing with death, mama-drama, or even watching my friends turn into a family has transformed me into a more maturer me.  But, instead I just keep kicking myself in the head that I must have looked like an idiot asking a girl to dance--a really, really pretty girl--only then to realize I don't know how to waltz.

**If you're like me and like to watch science discussion videos for reassurance, then check out what evolutionary psychologist, Professor Satoshi Kanazawa, said during his interview on The Big Think.  He discusses some interesting points--some I find myself cringing over because they sound potentially like sweeping generalizations about women (Dear Scientists, stop leaving out lesbians, love, Beryl).  But, his take on the psychological evolution of the human brain is fascinating.  He only gets away with it from me because he goes on to compliment those who are "unnatural" by saying we're more "intelligent."

After doing some more research on Prof. Kanazawa, I've gotten the sober reality check of a lifetime from other leading scientists:  Dr. Kanazawa is a bit of a hack.  But, you have to admit, he gets his attention from the likes of me because the idea of sweeping generalizations over time is always fun; it makes one feel connected somehow...this is turning into a metaphor for religion...oh dear, not my intention.  Anyway, so I officially apologize to anyone who is completely dependent on my scientific delusions for accuracy--this just goes to show you that anyone is susceptible to falling down the rabbit hole of theory versus factual, methodical proof.  I've left the original link I had advertised above so that anyone can make their own decision on the value of his theories.  But, now you have a link as well to Dr. PZ Meyers, who will quite happily yell at you for believing anything before researching it, first.