A friend gets a job with Critical Mass

Critical Mass is growing. We’re preparing for a (hoped) massive expansion, but also have organic growth to contend with.
This is what led Critical Mass to have to hire a new Project Analyst. And luckily for me, it’s my friend Graham.
You might remember Graham from a couple train chases, specifically my last hunt of 6060 (see [[Chasing CN 6060 Stettler to Big Valley]]) and from the Inaugural Run of the CPR Empress (see [[The Inaugural Run of the Steam Locomotive CPR Empress, CP 2816]]). It’s because of Graham’s ex-girlfriend that I met Graham while chasing 2816, because I looked a little lost. Since them, Graham and I have forged an interesting friendship, based mostly around trains.
This means, of course, that I’m no longer the only train guy in the office. And some people here already know this. When Graham came for his first interview, Claude asked him about his hobbies, which included (of course) chasing trains. They asked if Graham knew me.
Now this is where I got screwed. You see, Graham didn’t apply for this job because of me. I didn’t even know about it. Graham applied knowing that I work for Critical Mass. Because he wanted to get in on his own merit, he feined ignorance of me. If I’d had the chance to recommend him (and I would have), I could have received a $1,000 referral bonus.
Either way, it’s all good. Hopefully, I’ll see Graham more than I have in the past (which isn’t that much), but with him on the fourth floor and me on the second, it’s hard to say how much our paths will cross.
And we have to be a little cautious. If both of us ever called in sick at once, the immediate assumption would be that we’re chasing trains.

Meeting the parents

Today, I did the one thing that most guys dread when they get into a relationship.
I met the parents.
This was something Erin and I had discussed several times over the last week or so. It sounds like a huge deal, I’m sure. It means I’m getting serious — why would I meet her parents otherwise, right?
Things aren’t quite *that* serious. In fact, the primary reason I’m meeting her parents isn’t because I need to start calling them “Mom and Dad”, but because they’re an important part of Erin’s life. She sees them almost every weekend, and talks to them almost every day. It’s the same as introducing Erin to Scott when he was in town.
So, with that in mind, we took off from Calgary late this morning for Nanton, a small town about 45 minutes south of the city. It’s an easy drive — Highway 2 runs right through the middle of town, and Erin and I rarely stop talking.
Erin was trying to psyche me out. Although this was important to her, she was trying to have as much fun with it as possible. But despite trying as hard as she could, Erin was more nervous about me meeting her parents than I was. (Of course, it helps to have gone through this before, but on a bigger scale — see [[Visiting Friends in Calgary, Deciding to Leave Vancouver]].)
Erin’s parents met us at the door. I presented Erin’s mom with a bouquet of flowers in thanks for hosting us for the day. (My mother drilled into me the need to make sure that I don’t show up empty-handed.) Erin’s dad was quick with a handshake. Within minutes, I had a “slush” in hand — basically, a home-made bellini. (If you don’t know what a bellini is, just think of it as an alcoholic Slurpee.)
Now this is when you’d expect 20 Questions. In fact, we ended up starting down a path quite humourous. It’s called “Make Fun of Erin”.
I know what you’re thinking — this is risky business. This is the sort of thing that gets me in big trouble with the significant other. For the record, I didn’t start this — Erin’s dad did. Erin and her father have an odd relationship of constantly badgering each other. I just jumped on the bandwagon when I had the opportunity to get a couple of jabs in. I caught a few “oooooh, you’ll get yours” glares from Erin, but haven’t (as of yet) received anything in return.
Erin’s an only child, so is close to her parents. But make no mistakes, Erin is not the spoiled brat one might expect. Erin’s upbringing was controlled (which led Erin’s mother at one point to declare “there’s only one thing we didn’t let you do”, which of course took on the wrong connotation and nearly left me in convulsions). Erin doesn’t get away with much, especially with her father on her case. (I just tagged along for the ride.)
We had loosely planned to visit for a while and then go look at all the antique stores in Nanton. But soon we were into the Las Vegas photo albums, and Erin’s dad hauled out their rather impressive collection of Canadian Mint coins. Before we knew it, it was dinner time.
Beef tenderloin, cabbage salad (from which the mushrooms were withheld because someone had told Erin’s parents that mushrooms and I don’t get along), cheese bread, baked potatoes, and beans. Far more than I’d ever expected, and all delicious. We talked almost the entire dinner.
And did I mention the bundt cake? Erin’s mom made a cake based on her aunt’s recipe. It comes with a white chocolate glaze that just about sent my blood sugar count through the ceiling. And worth every vibrated tooth.
But before long, it was just past 20:00, and we had to head back to the city. It’s a 45 minute drive to Erin’s, and it’s another 20-30 minutes to my house. I need to make sure I hit the gym tomorrow to try and work some of the dinner off.
We’ll be back. I’ve been invited for Thanksgiving. The question is who’ll be the bigger turkey: me, or the bird.

Sewer repairs due to root damage

Just when you think it’s safe not to worry about having to put out any additional funds for home improvement, the proverbial crap hits the fan.
Or in this case, the sewer line.
For the record, it wasn’t *my* sewer line. It’s my neighbours’. As you might recall from a previous note about my house (see [[Strange Things that Happen while Buying a House]]), the house next door to mine is a mirror image. They were built at the same time, using the same (but reversed) floor plan, and similar construction. In fact, when built, the houses were so similar they even put in the sewer lines at the same time, a scant six inches from each other as they go out to the road.
Yes, you are correct: “Uh oh”.
Now to really get things into perspective, you need to understand two things: 1) The sewer lines are original, meaning they were put in place 91 years ago, using materials common to construction 91 years ago. 2) There were a number of trees planted and removed over the last 91 years.
What’s this mean? Allow me to explain…
About three weeks ago, I sat on my couch (okay, I was sprawled all over it…) watching either TV or a movie (can’t remember which). I noticed a City of Calgary Waterworks Emergency truck pull up in front on my home. The passenger shone his flashlight at the street numbers, hard to see in the late evening light. I became worried when they stopped in front of my home. I suddenly was worried that there was something up with my sewer that I didn’t know about.
They went to my neighbours’ place. They came back the next day, followed soon after by Roto-Rooter. Finally talking to Neil, I got the scoop: a section of their sewer line, outside of City property (hence, responsibility) was so blocked that Roto-Rooter couldn’t get through it with their gizmos. Near as the technicians could figure, the pipe had collapsed.
What had caused the pipe to collapse? Well, we’re not entirely sure about that, but we’re pretty certain it was the aforementioned trees. Whether it was that blasted poplar that’s been wreaking havoc, or it was the tree that (until recently) sat above the pipes is anyone’s guess. But age combined with root taps had done in the wonder of the modern age, and it was time for it to be replaced.
This meant digging. This is when I find out that our two sewer lines are a scant six inches apart, right in the same area as our water lines.
Oh yeah, I was just *loving* this.
I’m not about to be the kind of assoholic neighbour that’ll stand up and say: “Sure, you want to replace the sewer? Go nuts. You can pay for mine while you’re at it.” Why? Well, aside knowing that I was likely in the same boat, there’s a neat little book floating around that has a good piece of advice in it: Love thy neighbour. (I might not be a religious person, but books of faith often have some good common-sense thoughts in them.)
So last Wednesday, bolted home to get started on the dirty work. The lines ran underneath a section of grass shared by the two properties, divided by a fence and a tree. Because this section would be completely dug out, the fence had to go, and the tree had to come down. By the time I got home, Neil and Daryl were already at work.
The front fence at Neil and Daryl’s place had to come down completely. The section of fence from the property line to my front gate had to come out (thankfully, not the rest). And, of course, the fence down the property line. Above the ground, the fence looked pretty good. But as we dug it out, we realized that the people who’d put it there had not used treated wood. A few more years, and it would have had to have been replaced, anyway.
The tree was the fun part. None of us had power tools suited to the job. All we did have were handsaws and a length of rope. (The rope was tied off to branches to keep the houses from being hit.) At first, the job was pretty easy. But as we started getting to the larger branches, it became a much harder problem. We sawed and hacked (with a hatchet) through thick branches, and then would all get on the end of the rope to try and pull the branch down.
Across the road, the superintendant of one of the apartment buildings had been watching our progress. He sauntered (slowly) across the road to see how we were doing.
Him: So. (Pause) Looks like you’re cutting down a tree.
Us: Really? We thought we were putting up a monument to Che Guevara…
Him: You’re going about it the wrong way.
Us: Actually, we felt we needed to get back to our Amish roots.
Him: Let me go get you my chainsaw.
Us: You kind, generous, thoughtful man! We are forever in your debt!
So the superintendant sauntered (slowly) back across the road, returning (slowly) with his electric chainsaw. After giving Neil a demonstration of how to use it, we set down to the task of cutting down (and chopping up) the remainder of the tree. Neil and Daryl hauled off the remains to … well, somewhere, but I never did find out.
Yesterday, the digging started. Roto-Rooter brought in a backhoe, and began the task of uncovering the pipes. Neil was there at the beginning to oversee the work (though he ended up staying the entire day), and called me with updates as things happened.
Teak and I had planned to get together for lunch, but I ended up having to ask him to drive me home so I could see what was going on. The trench was unreal — roots sprouted out everywhere. It was amazing the sewer pipes were intact at all.
They’d dug all the way back between the houses. (We’ll have to replace the concrete pathways next spring.) Neil and Daryl’s cast-iron house pipe was exposed, but my pipe was still clay. The houses might be identical, but things were definitely not equal under the surface. (An additional five feet of digging still didn’t find the pipe, but they did find an excellent quality clay pipe to use for a connection.)
While my sewer line hadn’t yet collapsed, it was just a matter of time. Roots had grown in a tight mass inside my line, and had actually started to grow up the pipes into the house. Before connecting the new sewer pipe (something called “Schedule 40” PVC), Roto-Rooter cleaned out all the roots they could. (We did a flush test when Tamara got home, to make sure water was flowing freely.)
By the time I got home, just after 20:40, the work was done. The pipes were in place, the dirt filled back in. It was far from perfect — the torn-up ground was nothing to look at, and the walkways were a disaster. I’m actually hoping it snows soon so I don’t have to look at it. Looks like I’ve already got some home improvement projects set up for next year…
It’s another cost I hadn’t planned (or expected). It’s another one of those joys of owning a home. (The next owner is gonna have it soooo easy.) On the bright side, it’s something else I won’t have to worry about.
As the saying goes, shit happens. But now, it’ll flow a lot more freely.

Winning Critical Mass Valuable Person award

Once in a while, someone notices you. Sometimes it’s just a pretty woman walking down the street. Sometimes it’s a friend you haven’t seen in a long time. And once in a while, it’s your entire company.
This year, starting in our Town Hall meeting in June, Critical Mass decided to implement a kind of “employee of the month” award. It’s formally called the “Critical Mass Valuable Person”, or cMVP for short. The criteria for nomination are pretty straight-forward:
(Taken from the nomination form)

  • Exemplifies our values:
    • Commitment to Excellence & Results
    • Teamwork & Respect
    • Creativity & Innovation
    • Leadership & Accountability
    • Integrity & Honesty
  • Is technically superior in their job
  • Has a consistent, positive attitude towards clients, fellow project team members, fellow colleagues, their job and Critical Mass
  • Is reliable and conscientious in everyday tasks and job expectations
  • Strives to learn continuously on a personal level or by facilitating learning for others
  • Displays initiative by taking on projects outside of their job description
  • Shares ideas and contributes to best practices at a project, department or company level

Pretty high standards, if you ask me. And considering that the timeframe is (ideally) a month, that’s an awful lot of work to have to pull off for someone to take notice. I also cannot really see myself completely fulfilling some of these criteria. Take “technically superior”. It’s a little subjective. As a Web Developer, I’ll rate myself as, say, better than average. But technically superior? I can’t honestly agree to that — there’s a lot of people here who can code circles around me.
No-one who receives the cMVP knows about it going into the presentation. They’re just a face in the crowd, like everyone else. Where I was standing, I couldn’t hear much, aside from snippets of what this person was like. When I heard “takes pictures of all our events”, my heart stopped for a moment. I do that. It could be me. But then I dismissed it — Jude takes lots of pictures, and with everything he does, I’d expect him long before me.
“This month’s cMVP is Geoff Sowrey.”
I froze. Blood ran cold. Eyes bugged out.
Stunned. Pure stunned. Nothing more eloquent will ever fully describe the feeling of total shock I felt when I heard my name. I stood in place, people around me staring (and clapping, I think), for what seemed an eternity before I got myself to move. Thelton, our President and COO, the person giving out the award, couldn’t even see me from where I was standing.
Ever since the cMVP was first announced, I had wished I could qualify for it. But there are a lot of people in this company deserving of such an award. They put in a lot of effort, sometimes for little more than a “thank you”. While my wildest dreams had me winning cMVP, my reality was quite content to nominate others and not worry about it.
Winning the cMVP is like an Emmy or an Oscar. You’re nominated by your peers, although it’s the Executive who selects you. It’s the second-highest award you can win here. (The highest is the cMVP of the Year, which has yet to be given out.) That’s just fine with me — I’ll be flying quite high on this for a while, I think.
So I find myself here, on a Monday that’s not going nearly as well as I’d have liked, typing away about something I won (I very much hesitate using the word “deserved”) with still-shaking hands. It’s an honour that I’ll have to live up to even more than I apparently already do.
I don’t toot my own horn (at least too often). But I certainly won’t object to others tooting it for me.

Giving online dating a try

Way back in early August, I learned the awful truth that Therese and Stuart were moving to Montreal, ne’er to return. (Okay, that’s an assumption. They might, but I ain’t holding my breath.)
Needless to say, I suddenly ran into the problem of living in the big city of Calgary without any close friends. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I do have a fabulous roommate — say “hi”, Tamara!) Faced with a prolonged period of time (mostly) alone, I felt I needed something a little more.
Now, my experience in this city has been one of dichotomy. While it appears to be full of young, single people, none of them appear to be women and even fewer seem to be interested in me. Given, I wasn’t trolling bars or clubs. That’s because the pickings in those places is … well, let’s just say that when you’re looking for Dom Perignon, y’ain’t about to settle for Baby Duck.
This is what led me to (drum roll, please) the Internet.
You: And here I thought you were going to say “train station”.
Me: Ha ha…
You: Though I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised about the Internet, either.
Me: Remember who you’re talking to.
As was once quoted in the movie “American Pie”, God bless the Internet. You can find *anything* there. I mean it — look long enough, and you’ll eventually come across something that pretty much fits exactly what you need.
This is how I found Erin.
A couple years ago, I’d heard of a site called “Lavalife”. It’s a pseudo-dating site. I say “pseudo” because the site itself does nothing to set you up with anyone else. It’s solely for providing a place for people find each other. It’s up to the individual to contact someone else. What happens from there is up to you and your ability not to come across as a schmuck.
And yes, somehow, I managed to do just that. (Or Erin is kind enough to overlook and not mention it.)
We met online, under aliases, and exchanged email. (It shouldn’t be too surprising as a result that email constitutes the majority of our communication.) That led to online chatting (through MSN) and eventually to the (*gasp*) phone number exchange. It was still a while after that before we actually met for the first time.
This is the great thing about using the Internet for dating, particularly on dating sites such as Lavalife: quality. (Okay, not entirely true. Erin’s told me a few horror stories of some of the guys she met online.) Generally-speaking, people who come to Lavalife have a similar goal: to meet someone else. You’re not dealing with pounding music, a smoky room, or people so fake that it’s actually painful. There’s no commitment, and there’s no requirement. It’s just you, a keyboard, and a digital photo of yourself (technically optional, but you’ll want one anyway).
Somehow, all that managed to get me introduced to Erin, though I honestly can’t remember who made first contact. (Not that it really matters now.)
So, what do you want to know about Erin? Well, she’s a little younger than I (if you think I’m giving out age, you’re definitely mistaken), a little shorter than me (which is not a big deal), but is big on conversation, movies, having a good time, and above all, getting to know people. We clicked on the first date, which either says a lot for me, or for Erin’s ability to see past all that freakishness that seems to scare everyone else away.
One of the weirdest things, which we learned very early on in one of our phone calls, is that we work barely over a block from each other. Were it not for the Ribtor building, we’d probably be able to see each other’s workplace. Unfortunately, despite proximity, having mutual lunches is exceedingly difficult due to Erin’s schedule. Perhaps one day…
So you could say that I have a new girlfriend. Well, sorta, anyway. For now, we’re sticking to just “seeing each other”. It’s not for a want of using something more definite, but just because we don’t want to rush things too much (we’re still firmly in “Discovery” mode). But I see no reason why I wouldn’t be calling Erin my girlfriend before too long.
And this time, she’s not a 637,540 pound steam locomotive. (See [[Steam Train with CN 6060, Stettler to Big Valley]] for an explanation of that little joke.)

Putting down my beloved Siamese cat

There is nothing harder in life than saying goodbye to a loved one. This evening, I had to make the hardest choice of my life. This evening, I had to put my beloved Siamese cat to sleep. A year and a half and one day ago, my father passed away. Tonight, Spaz goes to join him, together again. They were inseparable while Dad was alive. It seems only fitting that they are now reunited.
It is particularly hard to accept this, especially coming after yesterday’s high, remembering the first anniversary of the CBC 50th Anniversary Train. To come from a high to a low in such a period certainly does not help one’s happiness quotia. That’s probably why I’ve had too much to drink for one night, in a vain attempt to kill the pain.
Spaz was born in either 1989 or 1991, depending on who you ask. I believe it is the former, but her medical records suggest the latter. She was a gift from my Aunt Ruth to my grandmother, who named her Yum-Yum, after one of the characters in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Mikado”. My grandmother wasn’t one for names, though, and soon was calling her “Puss”, as she had every other cat. I was the only one who called her “Spaz”, referring to her spastic behaviour as a kitten.
Over the years, Spaz became an absolutely personable cat. She would immediately warm up to whomever was in the room, usually beelining for the person most allergic to her. She rarely bit anyone, and if she did it was because they weren’t giving her enough seafood. After Grandma moved into a retirement apartment, Dad took in Spaz, where they became fast friends. Spaz saw much of North America travelling with my parents. When Dad died last year, I took Spaz into my home, as Mom has never really been a huge fan of pets. Spaz and I enjoyed over a year together, sleeping in the same bed, often under the same covers.
(I should note that when I spoke with Mom earlier this evening, she was almost as upset as I was. Mom might have not been a big fan of pets, but Spaz was such a great cat that she grew on everyone around her.)
Over the last two months, I saw a change in Spaz, though I wasn’t fully willing to accept it. Mom was the one to finally bring it to light when she was out visiting. Spaz was underweight. She was not as responsive as in her glory. I think I refused to believe that perhaps the end was in sight.
Yesterday, as Tamara and I returned from a matinee, I found Spaz coughing in a way I’d never seen her before, and spitting up material I’d never seen. Fearing the worst, I immediately took her to the Calgary North Animal Hospital (on a recommendation from Scott and Tara, whose cats have visited probably more times than they care to wish). Spaz was immediately admitted and almost immediately transferred to an oxygen tent. Blue at admitting, she was soon able to breathe.
I waited in Exam Room 1 for the doctor, reading the poster for anatomy on ferrets. Outside, I could hear a boy, no more than five years old, crying desperately to his mother about never seeing his pet again. Inside, I felt like that five year old. Somehow, I knew that Spaz would never be coming home again.
Over the next 18 hours, Spaz was checked, prodded, poked, and tested. At about 16:45, I received a call from Dr. Henderson, who began to explain to me the seriousness of Spaz’s condition. Although she didn’t say it outright, I knew what she was telling me. Spaz’s life was at an end, and there was likely little veterinary science could do to save her. I had known Spaz for almost half my life, and while I wasn’t willing to let her go, I wasn’t willing to let her suffer for my own selfish needs.
I don’t know what exactly Spaz was suffering from, neither did Dr. Henderson. But suffering, she was. Blood tests were inconclusive, but Dr. Henderson was confident that the problems weren’t from asthma, which Spaz had dealt with for many years. This was far more serious. My conversation with the vet only seemed to conclude that tests would only show what would ultimately kill Spaz, not what could cure her.
It was raining when Tamara and I drove up to the hospital. Spaz was in an incubator — the kind used for premature babies. She was warm, as I’d always hoped she’d be at the end. But she was unresponsive. She seemed to only vaguely know that we were there. There was no purring. Although she was lying upright (not on her side), she didn’t really respond the way she had less than two days before.
We left the hospital, passing by the front clerk. She asked if we were sure that we didn’t want to be there with her. I barely choked out a “no, thanks” as we passed by. I nearly lost control twice on my way out the door. I couldn’t be there, although it broke my heart not to be with her at the end.
It helped having Tamara with me as we drove home. Without her, I would not have been able to focus on the road. I was numb. When Dad passed away, I was saddened, but knew that his end was coming. Spaz’s death I was not prepared for, though I knew that by bringing her to Alberta, I might have only extended her life by a year. I just wasn’t ready for it.
The best part about driving in the rain is that no-one can see you crying.
Farewell, dear Spaz. May you, Dad, and Grandma be reunited again.

CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train: Anniversary!

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since the day the CBC Television 50th Anniversary VIA Rail Train departed Vancouver on its epic 33-day trip across Canada. It seems like it’s been a lot longer.
I suppose part of that is because I live in Calgary, isolated from nearly everyone else on the trip. (Enza’s very close to me, living in Banff, but I don’t have the luxury of working in the same building, as most of the Toronto folk do.) I’ve been lucky enough to see a couple of people — Angela and Tracy when they stopped through on a documentary tour (see [[CBC documentaries at the Glenbow Museum]]), and Julie and Enza when Julie came out on a conference (we met in Banff). Beyond that, the only contact I’ve had is through email.
Continue reading “CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train: Anniversary!”

Friends move away to Montreal

I hate saying goodbye to close friends. Early this morning, Therese and Stuart boarded their WestJet flight with a trunkful of luggage and two cats. They’re moving to Montreal. By about this time, they’re over Ontario, about an hour from landing in Ottawa.
For the last three and a half years, I’ve had the luxury of living in a city with three of my closest friends. Chris lived with me for two of those years. But Chris moved to Japan, and while we do keep regular communication through email and ICQ, it’s just not the same as having him here. I didn’t see Stuart and Therese nearly as much as I would have liked, but having them in the same city was just somehow comforting.
Now I feel almost alone. I have friends here, yes, but none like them. None with whom I have a great history. None where even just a simple hug can convey more words than a 100-page treatise on friendship. They’re more family than friend. I’ll see them again, of that there is no doubt, but it won’t be for at least a couple of weeks. (Both need to come back over the next two months, Stuart to get their belongings moved, and Therese for her dissertation.) After that, it’s anyone’s guess.
On Saturday, I went to a small get-together for Stuart and Therese at Stephanie’s home. (Stephanie is Therese’s classmate and friend.) There were only about 10 people in attendance. I know them all, but hadn’t seen some in well over a year. We talked, ate, and played with Pepper, Stephanie and Ian’s Westhighland Terrier. Yet despite all the laughter and good humour, there was an underlying tension. Two people were leaving.
I spent most of Sunday cleaning up around the house. I haven’t cleaned much this summer, owing to a busy schedule. Things are almost back to normal. It was a way for me to kill time until Therese and Stuart called. I had offered to take them out to dinner, but as with every major move I’ve ever seen, packing was still going on right until they called me at about 18:30, to help clean out Therese’s office.
I felt strangely in the way as I helped move boxes of papers and books into the Jetta and the Mini. (If you think a Mini is small, just see what you can pack in one!) It took a couple of hours, but we made off with everything inside. Stuart and I would return later, having accidentally forgotten a poster in the computer lab (which led to a fairly tense time trying to remember the door code) and needing to drop off a guitar and a glass vase.
Dropping Stuart off, I drove off into the night, with a single thought in my mind:
Movement is life. Be it physical or existential, it is nonetheless important and necessary. It doesn’t matter if you are moving from one city to the next, or from one state of mind to the next, just so long as you move. You will only feel true pain if you stop moving.
Good luck, and best hopes and wishes, my friends! Never stop moving.