The Amazing Freeze

I hereby lodge as much a formal complaint to the final outcome of last night’s team building event as one can without a process by which to handle it. So I’m throwing it out on the Internet for all to see.

But more on that in a minute … or five.

This week, Critical Mass’ first and still largest client, Mercedes-Benz USA, came up to the mind-numbingly cold Great White North of Calgary for Year 2004 planning meetings.

Client meetings can go one of two ways: good, and horrible. I have the fortune, thus far, of never having had the latter. All of the client meetings have been good: productive, educational, if perhaps a little dry from time to time. But at the end of the day, you can walk off knowing that you’ve done a good job.

I’ve been on the Mercedes account for over three years, now. Overall, it’s been a fairly good (albeit trying) experience. But in those three years, I hadn’t really met the client before. So walking onto the fourth floor, I ran into a lot of people I had never really met before.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. I had “met” most of them during a previous visit, about this time last year (before I was promoted into the lead team). They came by on a tour, shook hands, I did a 30-second unprepared song and dance, they walked off. Now I had to remember their names and interact with them. (Not that is a bad thing in any way.)

Wednesday was our first day of meetings. Eight o’clock in the morning until after five o’clock in the afternoon. Straight. Wednesday night was the first event, which was a kind of cooking class. Can’t tell you anything about it, though. Wasn’t invited. (Although I’m a lead, apparently I’m not important enough to be considered for some things … the rel reason was due to too many people on the team, and that I don’t have direct contact with the client on a regular basis).

The first activity of the day, though, was a team-building event. Basically, personality bingo. We had to go around the room and find things that people could do or have done (for example, who could drive stick shift or who had been to five countries).

The next thing was a review of management types. We had all done a survey that produced our management strengths. The result is one of four “colours”: red (direct and to-the-point), green (extroverted), blue (planning), and yellow (structured). The idea is to focus on the strengths, and know how you communicate with other colours.

I’m a blue, for the record. It’s characterized by taking time to get all the facts, understand the situation, and plan things out. Supposedly, one of the other characteristics is a long fuse (apparently, we can take a lot of crap); but when it burns out, run.

At the time I saw that characteristic, I actually took a bit of offence. I used to be like that. Won’t deny it — can’t deny it. But I’ve taken great strides in keeping my temper in check. I would even go so far as to say that I’m a lot more laid back than I used to be.

Thursday. Stories of the dinner the night before. More meetings. A little later of a start, but the same sort of results. The technology review got booted twice, and ultimately delayed until today (we’re just getting underway as I type this, and I wonder if we’ll be getting to it at all).

The thing we looked forward to most, though, was the team event. This typically happens on the last night of a meetings. It’s always different, but almost always fun. I don’t know what they did last time, but a couple years ago they did the O-Lame-Pics, which was some combination of winter “sports”. This year was something different.

At first, we were actually told we needed to bring snowpants. I have no idea why, but I can only guess there was something to do with, well, snow. (I know, took a real stretch of deduction.) That was changed when we were told that we would not be outdoors for more than seven minutes at a time. But we were not told what the event was. All we were told was to be in the Walker Room of the Hyatt hotel at 18:15.

At about 18:30, the game was finally announced: The Amazing Freeze. Based on the reality show “The Amazing Race”, the idea was that we would run around downtown Calgary, doing various events and getting clues to the next event.

Sounds pretty straight-forward, eh? Well, here’s something to really throw a wrench in your aspirations. We were “randomly” (I assume randomness, but have to really wonder) put into teams of 5-6 people. While most of the teams were a blend of Critical Mass and Mercedes-Benz USA employees. As was with mine. Except for one detail.

Everyone else was from New York. I was the only one who had any idea of where these places were.

The teams were named by model. We were Team SL500 (my favourite Benz, although I’ll never be able to afford one). There was Anne, our account manager in New York; Ed, who runs the Dealers program at Mercedes; Diane, who runs the Owners program at Mercedes; Lark, who is one of Mercedes IT’s representatives; and yours truly.

We were handed knapsacks. In these knapsacks were bottles of water, a pad of paper, two taxi chits, a couple of pens, and an emergency phone number to call in the event you somehow got lost.

As we had already been drinking when we were handed the bag, the logical thing to do was replace the bottles of water with bottles of beer and wine. (Hey, if you’re gonna run around downtown Calgary like maniacs, you might as well be loaded while doing it.)

We then got our first clue. The entire group of about 25 people rushed out of the hotel en masse (I can only imagine what the other guests were thinking), dashing off to their first destinations. Three groups (including ours) ended up at the James Joyce. First challenge: sidle up to the bar, and suck back a few shots. Jim Beam. Blech.

Next clue took us to the Calgary Tower. I started making the team run. I got caught up in the competition. This was a bit of a challenge, because Lark and Ed don’t run, Diane is a self-professed “lazy New Yorker”, and I had a little too much energy for my own good. We ran across red lights.

A list of 10 questions, including the name of the building with a yellow plane in its lobby (the Petro-Canada Tower), the date Calgary became a city (1884), or what building was built for the 1983 Summer Games (the Lindsay Park facility, now known as the Talisman Centre, which had been the velodrome, I believe). Assuming you didn’t know the answers, you could find them by using four kiosks around the tower’s observation level.

We ran a lot.

Questions filled in, we caught the elevator back down. As we caught our breath, we had an Australian couple (I think they were Australian) take our team photo. In the spirit of the game, and because the shots had kicked in by that time, Lark offered the couple one of our bottles of beer.

I’ve never seen such a confused and bewildered look before in my life.

Turning the question sheet over to the clerk at the desk (who had answered “I don’t remember” when asked if he would help us with the question sheet), we received our next clue. It took a moment for me to figure out what it said (remember, the shots had kicked in), and we ran off to Winner’s to get a team “uniform” that could be purchased for CDN$60.

The Winner’s staff were probably more confused than the couple in the elevator. All they knew was that there would be teams of people running through the store on some goofy quest. But first, we needed a team uniform. The team made a quick decision: socks. Really ugly ones. Ed was so enthusiastic, he ripped them from the racks, the little plastic clips flying everywhere. Ed ran back to the cashier, Diane apologising to the clerk for our haste.

Right about then, Lark started telling the clerk (who was holding our clue envelopes) that she was with another team. Somehow, she got the CLK500 envelope. At this point, Diane and I got on the fairness bandwagon and decried Lark’s underhandedness, and made her hand it back.

If we’d been thinking, we would have grabbed all the envelopes and scrambled the clues (they were all different). Oh well, lesson learned.

Atrocious socks in hand, we were off to the Glenbow Museum. (Yes, running. Well, I was. The rest of the team, not so much.) We had a choice: either run through the Bog People exhibit (which I saw about a week and a half ago), or take the detour. The detour won, hands-down.

The detour was simple, though: tie ourselves together with scarves, run out to Macleod Trail, and run back. The whole thing took about 30 seconds. We chanted like Marines as we jogged down the block and back. Next clue: Off to sushi.

If there was one key mistake that we made, it was following the instructions and taking the C-Train. If we’d been thinking, we’d have taken a taxi. So we had to wait 10 minutes for a train to show up.

But we sort of played the taxi angle. While the rest of us waited on the platform, Ed wandered out to the road to flag something down. He didn’t find a taxi, but managed to frighten some poor woman in a minivan (she locked her doors), tried to flag down one of Calgary Transit’s community busses, and almost stopped a police SUV.

The train finally showed up, and we headed off to the 7th St. stop, at the other end of downtown. We were the last team to get to Sushi Hiro (but not because we were slow; that was just our last stop). We had to wait for the previous team to finish and leave.

The game was a kind of fear factor: people had to eat sushi. Oh. My. Such fear. The longest part of the effort was laying claim to the sushi we wanted to eat. It disappeared in less time than we’d had to wait to eat it. (Lark pulled out the wine, and Ed cracked a beer … with his teeth, no less!) Back out the door, we started to flag down a cab, only to luck into having a cab be there, waiting. (It had been called by a previous team, and had been late arriving.) We were off to our final stop: Catch Restaurant.

We didn’t use the taxi chits, Ed paid for the cab with cash. In the door, and up the stairs, we were the first team to arrive. We even had to find Eryn, who was more-or-less the ringleader of the whole event. The elation of being first, despite the odds that were against us, was outstanding.

The rest of the teams started arriving. By the time we got back downstairs (we weren’t allowed upstairs yet, so had to wait in the Oyster Bar), the second team had arrived. It wasn’t long before most of the teams had finished, and we were allowed back upstairs.

Tales from the teams’ exploits were traded around. No-one had gotten lost, but we weren’t the only ones to make mistakes. One team actually walked to Sushi Hiro and back, which added a significant portion of time to their race.

We sat down to dinner, which consisted of salad or clam and oyster chowder, haibut or beef, and a chocolate mousse cake. Very tasty.

Awards for the teams were handed out, from last to first. Eryn added colour commentary, which was definitely playful. Everyone was having fun. At least until they announced the winner.

A different team supposedly won. They weren’t even the second team to come through the door! I was dumbfounded! And it was because, of all things, because they’d had to wait for sushi, so they got a time bonus.

Remember that long fuse? It burned out.

Considering the difficulties our team faced, we should have been granted a lot more leniency. But no, somewhere a serious breech of the rules occured and the winning team didn’t actually win. To put it succinctly, we were robbed.

Yes, I’m still steamed. We got a coffee mug. Much better than the little keychain light, teddy bear, or box of Smarties of the other teams (the “winning” team made off like kings), but it’s not the prize that’s at issue here! It’s the principle of the thing. We’d won, pure and simple. We followed the rules (despite Lark’s attempt at sabotage), and finished first. Why should we get penalized because another team had to wait for something out of their control?

“It’s just a game, Geoff, don’t take it so personally!”

Yeah, yeah, I know. Considering all the things we had to, the excellent team building we had done, the “process” we’re supposed to be following (as a part of our jobs), and arriving first, all I wanted was to cheer our vistory. I couldn’t care less about winning anything. The fact that four Americans had to put their faith in a lone Canuck not to get them lost, come together as a team, and still complete the course before everyone else should garner the recognition. What else can I say? I got caught up in the competitivenes.

Yeah, so this is my formal complaint. We won, darn it, and you can’t take that away from us. Take your fancy backpacks, I don’t care! (I have one, anyway.) I have the satisfaction that we are #1.

Now before everyone thinks I’m too negative about all this, make no mistake: I had fun. A lot of fun. I would do it again in a second. It was planned wonderfully, executed brilliantly, and (outcome notwithstanding) an excellent idea for the event. I have to keep it in mind should I ever have to do this sort of thing again.

But next time, I’m switching the envelopes.

David Bowie Plays the Calgary Saddledome

Tonight, David Bowie reminded us all how a concert should be done.

Well, technically *last* night, but since it’s just after midnight as I write this, it’s still the same night. Anyway, you get the point.

Tamara and I had planned this from several months ago (sometime in September or October), when we’d heard about an IMAX presentation of David Bowie’s new album, “Reality”. The two of us hussled down to the Paramount Chinook to score some tickets to watch the show. As it turned out, it was the best move we could make. As a result of that show, we’d found out that members of Bowie’s fan club had access to an Internet presale of tickets to his concert in Calgary.

Within moments of getting home, Tamara had joined the club, and we had ordered tickets for us, Tamara’s parents, and a few of Tamara’s friends. But the choice tickets went to us.

On the floor. In the eighth row. We’d be able to see Bowie’s *sweat*.

Well, you can imagine the wait. It was long. Both of us wanted to see this show. For both Tamara and I, seeing David Bowie play is one of those (potentially) once-in-a-lifetime things. And unlike other acts who come and go, Bowie is a monolith in the industry — the one other acts look to. Elvis might have been the King, but it is the Thin White Duke who rules.

The first time I’d heard David Bowie was in the early 80s. It was one song: “Modern Love”, from his “Let’s Dance” album. I don’t know what it was. Hook, line, and sinker. Since then, I’ve kept track of David’s career — not only his musical one, but also his acting (Bowie’s done several movies, including Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” and “The Linguine Incident”). Ever since that first song, I’ve been a fan.

We started the evening at Catch. I had given Tamara a gift certificate for Christmas, as she had regularly expressed her desire to eat there. I endulged (perhaps a little too much, but hey, it’s been a rough week). Unfortunately, we ended up running a little late, so we left without noticing that Tamara’s $50 certificate hadn’t, in fact, come off the bill. Something I’ll have to address in the morning.

We grabbed a taxi to the Saddledome, arriving partway into Macy Gray’s opening act. (Bowie, if nothing else, knows that while the opening act should never be better than the headliner, it still needs to be solid.) My only regret of the evening (the gift certificate fiasco notwithstanding) was missing part of Macy Gray’s act.

Arriving on the floor, we had to have someone guide us to our seats, not having a clue where they were. We figured we were off to the sides, which would have been fine for us. We just wanted to see the show. But the guide led us to the middle of the rows, eight away from the stage. Our seats were nearly dead-centre. We could see the individual hair fibres in Macy Gray’s afro.

Tamara and I were damn near giddy with delight.

Macy Gray is a solid performer. A bit of a freak, perhaps, but a total class act. And her band takes a great deal of pride in the work that they do. The result is an amazing show. I would gladly see Macy Gray again, should she swing around this area. (And a note to all of you who have yet to see David Bowie’s Reality show — don’t show up late! You won’t be disappointed.)

The house lights soon came up, and the roadies began to set up for Bowie. Tamara disappeared for a while with her father (he and Tamara’s mother were a row behind us, about six seats to the right), returning about 10 minutes before the show with a tour book, and two drinks (I was the recipient of a free beer). And we waited.

But we didn’t have to wait long. About 20:45, the music on the PA system changed, and suddenly you could hear David’s voice, and the band started playing. But no-one was on stage, and the lights hadn’t yet dimmed. The pixelboard behind the performer’s area came to life, showing an animated version of the band practicing. The lights started going out. The crowd was getting loud.

It was time.

One by one, David Bowie’s band started entering the stage. People whose names are usually forgotten were cheered loudly as they took their positions. There was a long pause from when the last one picked up their instrument until David walked out on stage, to deafening cheers and whistles. Without missing a single beat, they jumped right into what appears to be the opening song on the tour, “Rebel Rebel”.

It was amazing. For the next two hours, David and his band flipped around over 35 years of music, switching from songs from his new album, to songs from his first, and almost every album in between. Ones you never heard of, ones that you heard yesterday, and ones that were great almost a generation ago. All but two or three, I knew or at least had heard once before.

David Bowie isn’t just a singer-songwriter. He’s a performer. When he’s just singing, he’s acting. He’s making love to the audience because he wants to draw them into his world. For two hours, that’s precisely what happened. You were absorbed by his energy (I can only hope to look like him when I’m 57 years old), his passion, and his presence. He commanded without even having to really try.

“Reality”, “New Killer Star”, “Fame”, “Under Pressure” (David’s bassist sings Freddie Mercury’s part amazingly well), “Life on Mars?”, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Heroes”, “I’m Afraid of Americans” (which got a huge boost from the audience), “Ziggy Stardust”, and many others were all readily cheered. It was, without a doubt, one of the loudest concerts I’d been to — and not because of the band. (My ears are ringing, but I’ve been to louder, and much worse, concerts.)

Early in the show, David decided that we’d done such a good job singing “All The Young Dudes”, that we could sing “China Girl” without him. The band started playing, but when the singing should have started, there wasn’t a peep from the audience (at least that you could hear). Bowie looked quite disgusted. He stopped the band, walked up to the mike, and announced:

“That was fucking tragic.”

He laughed with the rest of us, and then restarted the song, this time taking lead of the vocals. He seemed to like the audience participation. During his 5-6 song encore (I’m not sure exactly how many songs he did), he played a personal favourite: “Suffragette City”. There’s just nothing quite like hearing 13-odd thousand people all screaming: “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!” at the top of their lungs.

There were two songs that I’d wanted to hear: “Space Oddity” and my personal favourite, “Modern Love”. According to his website, however, those songs haven’t appeared on any of his play lists. *Sigh* Well, if nothing else, it just gives me an excuse to see him the next time he’s anywhere in the area … which means most of this section of North America, of course.

When the house lights came back on, it was hard to believe it was over. The energy had been amazing — we could have easily listened for another two hours. But it was almost 23:00, and time for most people to go home. (Some of us have to work tomorrow.)

Tonight, David Bowie rocked Calgary. I can’t wait for the return of the Thin White Duke.

The 2004 Critical Mass New Year Party

Every year, Critical Mass holds its annual holiday party. For the first two years of my employ, they were Christmas parties (see [[The 2001 Critical Mass Christmas Party]]); the two since then have both been New Year parties (see [[Critical Mass New Year Party 2003]] photos). I assume this is because scheduling things before Christmas is far more difficult. And really, it’s nice to have party that’s not heavily influenced by a holiday.

Last year, we hung out at the Destination: Africa pavillion at the Zoo. A neat place, to be sure, but you can’t go to the same place twice in a row (if at all). So this year (and last night, to be specific), we opted for something different. It was a little more downplayed than last year — the Palomino Room at the Roundup Centre. Not exactly the Fairmont Palliser, but the venue wasn’t going to be the central point.

Kristen and I arrived just as the event was beginning. We could have gone for the slightly more fashionably-late, but considering there was a hockey game and the motorcycle show both on that evening (not to mention other parties), I wanted to take advantage of the nearby parking at the office. Thankfully, we were not the first to show.

It’s hard to say exactly what the theme of the evening was, but the focal point was money. As each person arrived, they were given an envelope that contained the ubiquitous drink tickets, and $20,000 in funny money for each person. (Kristen and I had a total of $40,000 between the two of us.) The funny money was for use at the gaming tables.

The Lions Club provided the entertainment — several blackjack tables, a roulette table, and two other games that I really don’t know the name of, but generally don’t see outside of carnival midways. The idea of these tables was to turn your $20,000 into much more. This money would be used after the tables closed to bid on a wide range of prizes, including a carpet steamer, camera, kid’s play easel, coffee maker, power saw, and a monstrous George Foreman grill.

We mingled near the door, getting a feel for the near-empty room. James bounded up from out of nowhere, already quite giddy. He, Scott, and Tyler were providing the music that evening, taking turns DJing. (I would believe their task to be wholly successful, but in discussing the aftermath with James earlier today, found that there were those who were less than impressed. To them, I can only feel pity, for not appreciating that these gentlemen volunteered their time. They sacrified their party time so that the rest would not suffer the consequences of the DJ we had last year.)

James proceeded to note my demure behaviour, which while I did not take offense in, could not understand how he noticed so quickly, having only just arrived. We were then taken for a quick tour to the stage to view the setup for the evening. Most of what James said registered somewhere in the recesses of my mind, but only superficially — he was talking so fast I could barely understand him.

Amy and Jen arrived soon thereafter, so the four of us (James remained on stage) took Table 15. We would be accompanied by Angie and Tyler, and Luke and Allison. With our things “stashed”, we proceeded to find out if we were lucky in cards.

Neither Kristen or I had played blackjack before. And we were at a table with a dealer whose accent, unfortunately, was difficult to hear at times (over the music and other people). But we began to get the basics down. The principle is easy enough (closest to 21 without going over, and it’s the dealer vs. everyone else). For a while, we were up and down like yo-yos, before Kristen hit a big winning streak, which recovered all our lost funds, plus $1,000 … which was the smallest bill, by the way, so don’t think we were *that* successful.

Dinner was called around 6:30 or so, which was an excuse to hit the lines. Of our table, we were the last to arrive. But at least the food was good. (Terri had warned me that Stampede Catering was not the best, so we apparently had tried to get another caterer. But only Stampede Catering will cater an event on the Stampede grounds.) Roast vegetables, potatoes, chicken, and a wonderful roast beef (with a wild mushroom gravy that I thought was wonderful). Hard to eat everything, though. Especially since we needed to save room for dessert.

And were we glad we did. Now the chocolate wasn’t Bernard Callebaut (at least, I don’t believe it was), but it was still very tasty. The shocker for the night, however, was the baklava. Until last night, I wasn’t really a baklava fan. I’d had it before, but it hadn’t done anything for me. Kristen, however, could not get over how good it was. So I had to try. I was beside myself.

I love chocolate. I mean, I *really* love chocolate. It’s one of my weaknesses. But this simple Greek pastry was like having someone open the door into a new world of taste experiences. I think the main ingredient was pure crack cocaine, because it was enough for Kristen and I to go back for seconds, thus eliminating the remainder of baklava from the table. (Yes, we were greedy. So sue me.)

Following dinner, the gaming tables resumed with frenzy. Kristen and I tried our hands again at 21, only to find that our luck wasn’t as good as we’d thought. Finally, Kristen convinced me to try roulette — something Tamara would have loved, had she been able to come. I’d never played it before, though I knew the rules from having watched Tamara and Adrian on a couple of occassions.

Like blackjack, roulette does involve some strategy, and you can do quite well, depending on how you place bets. Placing directly on the numbers the most risky, but has the highest payoff. Playing on the variations (colours, odd/even, number ranges) tends to reduce the risk. It took me a while to listen to my instinct and hope that we did well.

I don’t know how much we were down when we started (we’d both had our clocks cleaned at the last blackjack table), but in the last spin of the roulette table before it closed, earned back enough money to have the original $40,000 restored. I couldn’t stop laughing. Several others did much better, going into the hundreds of thousands. But even that would not be enough for the bidding wars that were about to break out.

With the gaming complete, the silent auction went into overdrive. The first table closed 30 minutes after gaming ended, so the bidding was fierce. The top price was $325,000 for the carpet cleaner. I was impressed — I didn’t think anyone could win so much. It was then that it dawned on us … not all the winnings were from one person.

Pooling had begun. Deals were struck, begging was in full force. Eyes were locked on certain items, and the bids were rising fast. It was like watching an episode of “Survivor”. Soon, it was just the second table. Minimum bid? Somewhere around $200,000. Rumours of someone walking around with $5 million began to spread. False values were thrown around like rice at a wedding. Our paltry $40,000 was donated to the cause, so Luke could acquire the coffee maker of his dreams.

Oddly enough, it would be the coffee maker that acquired the most attention, though for reasons I may never fully understand. In the waning seconds of the bidding, the war went to extremes, with people turning over huge sums of cash to a select few still engaged in the fight. When the ball dropped and the bidding closed, the final values were unbelievable. The coffee maker drew the biggest bid of the night, almost doubling that of the professional-looking George Foreman grill.

Final bid: $1 million.

All I can say is, that had better be one damn fine cup of coffee.

The wars over and the dust settled, there were a few announcements, and James began his run at the turntables. Some people stayed at danced, some headed out. We stuck around for about 45 minutes or so, before we, too, headed out. Normally, I would shut the party down. For once, I wasn’t really upset about leaving early.

It’ll be interesting to see what they can plan for next year.

2003, A Year in Review

First off, Happy New Year everyone!

2003 was quite a year — quite a few good things, and a number of bad ones. In fact, not a lot of good ones, worldly-speaking, that is. Although not all the “Year in Review” lists are out yet, the ones that are on the Internet are (not surprisingly) mostly negative. Lots of death and tragedy, with the odd curling win to make things brighter. Let’s just hope this year comes with a little less strife than the year past.

Continue reading “2003, A Year in Review”