Friends: Visiting and moving away

Last weekend was the first weekend in a while where a) I wasn’t busy with work or family, and b) wasn’t trying to paint the house. (No, I’m not done painting. I’m just sick of it.) So I opted to relax a little bit.

It was raining when I awoke Saturday. This is something we’ve been dying to happen for a while now, if for nothing else than to hopefully take some of the smoke out of the air. We’ve been plagued by smoke from forest fires in the Crowsnest Pass for days now, and it’s long since past that point where campfire smoke actually smells good. So began my lazy Saturday. It felt sooooo good.

I spent most of the day watching TV and movies, and fidding around with my computer. (It was cool enough that I could have the computer on for long periods without fear of overheating.) In the late afternoon, Stuart called to see what I was up to. Having no specific plans (outside of expecting my friend Greg to appear at some point during the day), we loosely planned for a movie that evening.

We then talked about Stuart and Therese’s big move. Therese has accepted a post-doctorate at the University of Montreal. This led Stuart to fly out to Montreal and find a new job. Which took about 20 seconds. Stuart has far too much talent and experience for his own good, it seems, and pretty much could walk into almost any agency and get snapped up right away. A better job, a better town, and a lot more than I’m being paid. [Insert sound of swallowed pride here.]

But it means they have to move at the beginning of September. Although I don’t get to see Therese and Stuart as much as I’d like, I’m about to see them even less. I haven’t seen some of my friends in well over five years. It won’t be easy having them half-way across the country.

However, I might end up following them out. Critical Mass is currently engaged in the single largest pitch we’ve ever engaged in. The potential is massive, and could totally change the way Critical Mass operates. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time, and no-one here really knows what will happen if we do win the work. (We’ve got stiff competition, so we honestly don’t know how we’ll fare.)

One thing we do know is that we’ll have to reopen the Toronto office, for a variety of reasons. First, it’s closer to the client than Calgary. Second, we’ll have an easier time finding suitable people in the Toronto market — we’ve pretty much depleted Calgary’s. Third, we’ll need to keep the team separate from the one in Calgary, partly because we don’t want conflict with existing teams.

The obvious question you know have is: Am I moving to Toronto? Maybe. And that’s about the best answer I can currently offer. I knew about this plan weeks ago when we were working on the pitch document (see 5 August 2003), and my name was on the list for the Toronto office. This is for a number of reasons, but mostly because Di (who’s leading this project) knows that when the going gets tough, I don’t leave the office.

There’s another reason other than my workaholism. I’ve been personally unable to choose between staying here in Calgary or going to Toronto. I’ve done the southern Ontario thing, so that in itself isn’t a draw for me. But the opportunities that might present themselves might be work the risk (if there is in fact any risk). So I decided that I needed the company’s opinion on where they wanted me most. Since Monday, I’ve heard answers all across the board, and no clear direction. They definitely ain’t making this easy for me.

That other reason? When I talked with Cory, he mentioned that we’re going to have a hard time getting our team up to speed as quickly as possible. He wanted to see someone with experience that he could throw to the wolves and know that they’d have them tamed in due course. Jude and Colin have either not expressed an interest to go, or have said flat out that they don’t want to go. That leaves me as the only other Web Development Manager. And since my name is on the list already, that’s just an added benefit.

Cory doesn’t want to see me go there for two years, though (the desired contracted time for anyone transferring to Toronto). Frankly, neither do I. Somehow, I’ve become oddly useful to a number of people and projects here, which is why I was having problems decide. (Allard, my boss, had expressed his opinion that I should stay.) Cory and I are already thinking that a shorter term, say six months, might be more appropriate. Sort of like the infamous Dilbert Bungee Boss.

We found out today that the client is delaying their decision a month, so the earliest I’d be going is late October. (Although I will be in Toronto Sept. 18-20 for a job fair to find candidates for the job. Anyone interested in a job at Critical Mass?) There’s no guarantees of anything, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

I spent most of the weekend thinking about how to handle this decision, and most of this week trying to figure out what the company wants. (But given the sheer chaos going on around here this week — several other clients have asked for the world by next week — I can totally understand getting mixed messages.)

Back to Saturday, though. Greg eventually did call, having arrived in Calgary later than planned owing to heavier traffic than expected and far too many people at the McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s along the way. I felt pretty bad, because we’d loosely planned to do something when he got there, but with Stuart and Therese leaving, I wanted to see them as much as possible. (I didn’t get to see Therese that night, since she had to continue writing her PhD dissertation.) Greg, it seemed, was pretty keen on seeing a movie.

Stuart, Greg, and I shared a pre-movie beverage at Eau Claire before heading in. The movie (S.W.A.T.) wasn’t exactly Oscar material, but I’ve seen worse this year. Stuart headed out after the movie, leaving Greg and I to continue our chat at the Barley Mill. It’s been a long time since Greg and I last had a good talk — in fact, it was almost a year ago (see 1 September 2002).

The following morning was my first run with dim sum in about two months. Scheduling’s been a pain, and my weekends have been so busy that it just hasn’t been possible. But this could have been my last with Stuart and Therese, so I wanted to make the most of it.

Greg and I hooked up later that afternoon, and opted for a drive out of town. (Mostly because Greg wanted to see what the Mini was like.) After grabbing coffee (for Greg) at Tim Horton’s, we headed west out to Bragg Creek, and then down to Elbow Falls. I had kind of expected it to be like the last time I was there (see 3 July 2001, Part 1) — a few people, and quiet. Instead, the entire area was full of people picnicing and jumping off the cliffs into the splash pool below.

We wandered around a bit, discussing jobs, politics, cars, families, girlfriends (well, his anyway), and pretty much anything else that came to mind. Then it was back to the road. But this time, Greg drove. Greg wanted to see what a Mini was like on the road, and I trust Greg implicitly. (Although he does drive a little faster than I do…)

As we bombed down Highway 22 towards Calgary, something floated into Greg’s head: Fubar. No, not that he was about to total my car, but the movie. (It’s an independant cult-level movie filmed in Alberta. It’s on Greg’s “Top 10 Movies That Changed My Life” list, next to “Scarface”.) Part of the movie takes place in a little town called High River. When I told Greg it was maybe 50 kms south of Calgary, he nearly lost control of the car:

Greg: (Excitedly) [Censored] it! We’re goin’! (More calmly) Uh, do you mind?
Me: (Not really caring, or fully understanding the desire.) Uh, okay…
Greg: (Excitedly) [Censored] it! We’re goin’!

Before long, we were in High River, searching for a building with a mural of buffalo being chased off a cliff. (Don’t ask. If you haven’t seen the movie, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I know because I haven’t seen the movie, either.) Greg was beside himself when we finally found it (didn’t take long — High River’s not that big). One day I will finally understand was the excitement was all about.

Buying what I can only constitute as a “ceremonial” cube of Pilsner (a “cube” is the Albertan equivalent of an Ontario 2-4), we returned to Calgary and a late dinner, with what I can only describe as the best roast beef I think I’ve ever had. My father would have loved it.

We parted ways later that night, not having run out of conversation topics or energy, but time. I had work the following day (I missed going to the gym due to lack of energy and sleep) and Greg had to drive to Edmonton the following day.

I went to bed that night with many things floating around in my mind, most of them about what I would do without old friends. Makes me wonder what the next few weeks are going to bring.

Banff National Park and Lake Minnewanka

Despite the plethora of forest fires plaguing the B.C. interior, my family decided it was a good weekend to dive into the (mostly) green forests of Banff National Park.

Now you’re probably wondering why on Earth I noted forest fires in B.C. when Banff National Park is clearly in Alberta. Simply put: smoke travels. Calgary has had many hazy days as a result of all the fires, and my eyes have itched a fair amount due to airborne particulates. As we left the city, you couldn’t see the Rockies in the distance. It will be like this until the forest fires end.

I started off my morning slapping another coat of paint around the windows. I came inside to prepare for the excursion only to find Miao-Yin had decided to lay waste to my couch with the former contents of her stomach. After vigourously repressing the urge to use her as a furry soccer ball (I banned her to the basement for the next 24 hours instead), I cleaned up the mess, then cleaned myself and gathered my photography equipment, finishing just as my family arrived to pick me up.

Uncle Mike drove with Nana riding shotgun. I sat behind Mike; Mom behind Nana. Aunt Brenda, Maggie, and Jen took up the rear of the minivan. With the A/C on full blast (or so it felt), we took off for the trip into the mountains.

Our first stop (not counting the raid of Robin’s Donuts to get a snack for the ride out) was at the Three Sisters Mountain Village. This is a new development project up the mountain slopes on the south-eastern edge of Canmore. This is a massive project — the Three Sisters bought up 1,800 acres of land, and portioned them out into lots for fairly expensive homes (condos starting at $250,000 and homes starting at around $400,000) to homes starting at 4,500 square feet (I don’t want to know the price). Naturally, the area is pockmarked with golf courses.

The development is mostly to cater to those who want to live the Banff lifestyle, but can’t move into Banff (which has a limitation on development). While Canmore doesn’t lie within the boundaries of Banff National Park, the city council seems to have kept the general ideas in place. Canmore has yet to acquire a real “mall” of any kind.

Sighing off the prices that none of us can (or will ever) afford, we proceeded to Banff. Or more specifically, to the line-up for Banff. Despite the haze brought on by forest fire smoke, a large number of Albertans and tourists alike were gathered at the park entrance to acquire their day passes. So naturally, we ended up in the slowest line.

Mike and Brenda decided to renew their annual pass, and made quick work of the purchase. About a half hour after entering the line, we were pulling off for the Minnewanka Loop. The Minnewanka Loop is a road on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway, across from Banff Townsite. The road is a several-kilometre loop up to Lake Minnewanka, across the retention dam, and eventually back around to the road you went up in the first place. It’s a nice ride, albeit curvy.

Our first stop was at Lake Minnewanka, where we took a few moments to make use of facilities and take a look around. It’s a gorgeous little area — you can even take power and sailboats up there for a cruise around the lake. It’s a fairly large lake, too, so there’s a lot to see on water that you would have some trouble getting to on land.

Some of the surrounding hills showed sign of forest fire. To keep Banff National Park (and other surrounding areas), conservationists started controlled fires to burn out some of the material most likely to burn. It’s a little unsightly, but helps with the forest life cycle and promotes new, healthy growth.

One thing that’s been discovered in recent years is that, despite the obvious damage, forest fires are a necessary part of life in the forest. New growth can’t start in old growth forests. Although environmentalists cry out at the thought of burning an old forest (can’t say I blame ’em, either), the canopies are often too dense to let light in to spur new trees. When the forests burn, the canopies are destroyed and nutrients (in the form of ash) are returned to the soil. Though it takes a few years, the resulting forest is just as strong and healthy as the previous one.

As an additional note: logging does not appear to have the same benefits as burning.

Anyway, we didn’t stick around too long at Minnewanka, as there was a severe lack of picnic tables. So we decided to head on down to Johnson Lake, in hopes of something there. The road was mostly empty, save for the odd car. Normally, the area would be full of campers. An influx of grizzly bears has put a stop to that for now.

Johnson Lake was slowly beginning to fill up. We arrived early enough, however, to acquire a picnic table in the shade. Considering that it was quite warm outside, this was a definite benefit … the breeze that blew in off the lake also helped.

The portable propane barbecue was set up (open fires are pretty much verboten throughout Western Canada at the moment) and lunch started while Jen and I went for a little wander around the area. The next time I go back, I’ll have to make sure to wear shoes (I was wearing sandals) and return when all the trails are reopened (closed either for safety reasons, specifically bears, or for environmental protection).

The six of us sat under the trees, fending off the odd bee and trying to keep Maggie from barking at everyone or eating out of our hands. Aside from the nigh-indestructable table, the experience was pretty much prototypical picnic.

Following our lunch (the table was open for all of 10 seconds before another family swooped in on it), we headed out for Banff Townsite. Like the picnic area we had just left, Banff (Bamf!) was full of people and cars. (Although we managed to get a parking spot on Banff Ave.) Such was to begin our afternoon of shopping.

There’s only one thing that will truly keep me from shopping: other people. And I’m not referring to too many other people — shopping in crowded malls (especially during Christmas) has always been a fun thing to do. The problem wasn’t mine, so much as it was Nana’s and Mom’s. They’re not exactly the Andretti brothers when it comes to walking down crowded sidewalks. And with the heat, Mom’s mobility wasn’t exactly stellar.

Much to Jen’s dismay, we made it only down one side of the street before calling off the shopping spree. Nana was the only purchaser. We had debated on going to the Banff Springs for a drink on the patio. Then it was the Rose and Crown in Canmore, as there would be far less tourists there. But as we approached Canmore, we decided it was better to have drinks in Calgary.

I fell asleep on the way home. I guess I’d had too much mountain air for one day. (And I had woken early to tackle some house painting.) I snapped out of my slumber at the Calgary city limits.

That night, my family feasted on Thai from the King and I. What amazed me, at first anyway, was that Mom was keen on trying it. But somehow, it hadn’t registered with her that “Thai” was Asian. And Mom’s not a big fan of Asian foods. She did eat some of it, though.

That was my Saturday. I can sum up Sunday in one word: Painting.

Aunt Brenda’s birthday and my hatred of Microsoft Word

The weekend past was the August long weekend. Well, it was the long weekend for most people. For me, it was one of three things: painting the house, spending time with family, or being at work.

Four things, if you count sleeping.

Mom arrived in town Wednesday afternoon. Her arrival was what had fuelled my desire to paint the house. The idea was to have the whole thing painted in time for her arrival. Yeah, my ambition’s pretty sizeable. I figure: Go big, or go home. I might have made it, had it not been for a couple of work-related things that came up and threw me off-target for time.

Wednesday night I spent with Mom, Aunt Brenda, and my cousin Jen. Thursday night was here at the office, dealing with project work. For the first time since I started doing overtime at Critical Mass (on my second day on the job — see [[My First Entry from Critical Mass]]), I wasn’t programming. I was doing the things I used to do before I came to Critical Mass: document editing and formatting (and a little writing and editing).

What was I working on? We’re doing the single largest pitch in the history of Critical Mass. And I can’t tell you who it’s for, so don’t ask. All I can tell you is that if we do win it, the contract will fundamentally change Critical Mass. It’s that big.

I know what you’re thinking: Aren’t I Mercedes-Benz Boy? I’m still working on our single largest account, no worries about that. But it’s been a slow year for us, and I had the opportunity to contribute. I also offered to assist with the document construction.

Why did I do that? Well, for those of you who know what I used to do, it’s probably a bit of a surprise. For those of you who don’t, allow me to tell you why I’m a web developer. After graduating university, I became a Technical Writer (something I’d started doing on co-op work terms). I did technical writing for six years in total. Towards the end, I hated it so much I sometimes felt like a coyote caught in a trap, and wanted to gnaw my own hands off.

While at Radical Entertainment, I started pushing myself more towards web development. I’d already been doing it for a number of years, so it wasn’t that big a stretch. Owing to a need to leave Vancouver, I came here. Based on a recommendation from my friend Scott, I applied at Critical Mass and the rest is history. But what isn’t commonly known is that while I was waiting for word from Critical Mass about my position, I was actively avoiding several technical writing positions.

That’s how much this pitch means to Critical Mass. That’s how much I was driven to go back to doing what I used to do. That’s how I ended up in the office on Thursday night, most of Saturday, and all of Monday (8:00 to well after 22:00).

That’s how I remembered how much I hate Microsoft Word.

Friday night was the first of what will likely be many family dinners while Mom is out visiting. (Not that I’m complaining in any way.) But it was Saturday that was the big event — the birthday party for my Aunt Brenda. I won’t tell you how old she is, but it’s the one that causes people to put 50 pink flamingos on your front lawn.

It was supposed to be a surprise party. It was supposed to be a grand little affair where we get her to scream in delight, etc. But I seem the only living person in my family able to organize these things without the guests of honour finding out. Aunt Brenda almost planned her entire party. Were it not for me being a royal pain-the-ass, she would have spent a good portion of it in the kitchen preparing food. I started banning her from the kitchen.

It wasn’t easy, either. Aunt Brenda’s kitchen is a magnet for her. Every time I turned my back, she was back in there. I actually uttered: “Don’t make me come in there!”

She did.

I ended up finally kicking her out and handling the things she would have done, like making the best darn corn bread on the planet. It’s a heart attack in a pan, but it’s worth the potential coronary. I have *got* to get that recipe one of these days.

The next day, I woke up a little early (for a weekend) to resume painting. It’s finally cooled off a bit, and it allowed me to tackle painting the front of the house — the only side I wanted to do before Mom saw the house. (I still have to do the west wall, but you can’t see it unless you’re in my neighbour’s yard.) I even got several of the windows finished up.

Painting a house can be a bit of a Zen thing. (“Zen and the Art of Decorative Trim”?) I’ve had several people tell me that it might be great to have tunes blaring while slapping down a coat of paint. I have yet to have a radio turned on. And when I’m using the paint sprayer, I can’t hear anything else.

House painting, in some ways, returns you to your youth. Especially when you use latex paints. It doesn’t stick to glass, plastic, or skin. It makes you feel like that creepy kid in second grade who put Elmer’s Glue all over their hands so they could peel it off like a layer of skin. It’s especially fun in the shower. Doesn’t matter how dried the paint is — a little warm water and soap, and *poof* there’s a clump of sloughed-off paint skin on the shower floor.

Mom, Aunt Brenda, and Jen appeared around 14:00. Mom was being dropped off while the other two checked out “Johnny English”. Mom, Tamara and I chatted in the backyard for a while, listening to some jerk across the alley scream his head off at another tenant about unpaid bills and broken windows. It was an argument I wasn’t particularly interested in listening to, but had little choice.

Mom half-guilted me into cleaning up the yard a bit while we sat out back. Mostly cutting back all the suckers growing from two trees and the lilac bush. Admittedly, though, it did look better. Then it was back to painting.

As Sunday was Aunt Brenda’s actual birthday, we all went out for dinner at a nice homey Italian restaurant along 17th Ave., Buon Giorno. Definitely not the swankiest restaurant in Calgary, but they make a good meal. Try the scallops — their chef cooks them to absolute perfection.

My cell phone rang at 7:33 Monday morning. It was Chicago. Although I’d been on call all weekend, this was *the* call I’d been expecting. I was in the office 10 minutes later and editing. I had hoped to paint that morning. No matter. The worst that would happen was I’d be editing until 16:00, at which time the documents were off to Kinko’s for copying.

Or at least that’s what I thought.

The morning was sheer chaos and panic, especially when I saw the state of the appendix. It would take a phone call with Heather to put my mind at ease, especially when I realized that not everything in the appendix was supposed to be formatted.

More problems with Word trying to do things I didn’t want it to do. These are problems that Microsoft has never removed. And before you go saying: “Must be a problem with the user”, when I first detected them with Word 97, I stumped the tech support guys in Redmond, WA who were unable to solve the problem. You’d think after six years, they’d fix the damn thing.

Final call came sometime after 22:00 last night. I was tired. I hadn’t felt that tired as a result of office work in a very long time. But the pitch is off to the hopeful client-to-be. Now we just have to wait a half a month to find out if they want to take us to the second round or not. I hope there’s not as much pressure as the first round.

My idea of pressure on the second round is the kind sealed by bottle cap.