Tuesday, March 29, 2011

From the Archives - Trouble with Tire Chains


Shortly after Christmas in 2004, which my family had spent with my mom in Phoenix, Oregon (a great mythical town rising up out of its own Ashland), we got caught in a bit of a blizzard driving home to the Bay Area, and had a terrible time with our tire chains. I wrote a story about it which ended up running in a local chain of newspapers under the headline “DRIVER KEEPS WARM BY SEETHING ABOUT CHAIN REQUIREMENTS.” (My wife had been a journalist at the chain and was close personal buds with the editor.) They cut out the second half of my story, but otherwise changed very little. I was impressed with that. Look, here it is now:

We’ve had a pretty exciting winter with gobs of rain, which means snow in the mountains. Check out this recent photo of I-80 near Donner Pass:

In honor of all that snow, I now offer you my original tire chain story, intact. In the words of a waiter at my favorite San Francisco Thai restaurant, “Enjoy please enjoy.”

The Trip Home – Dec 28, 2004

When we started our trip back from Oregon I had a feeling of dread—not about the dangerous road conditions, since the falling snow was melting instantly on contact with the ground—but about the probable insult of being required by the Department of Transportation to install chains in such conditions. And sure enough, as we approached the base of Siskiyou Pass, the traffic slowed way down and countless motorists pulled over and began their struggle. We tuned into the highway condition radio station, and learned that DOT was indeed requiring chains on Siskiyou Pass for all vehicles except four-wheel-drives.

Now before I launch into my tale, I must digress for a moment to share with you my feelings about Siskiyou Pass. The way locals talk about it, you’d think early mountaineers got stuck there and ate each other, but it’s really nothing. In Colorado it would be ashamed to call itself a pass. Riding over it on a bike would be a minor workout, not worth braving the traffic for. It climbs maybe 3,000 feet. About its only authentic feature is that it has runaway truck ramps.

I also need to vent for a minute about tire chains. The insult of installing chains is twofold. First, the tendency of DOT to require them in merely wet conditions should insult anybody’s intelligence. Using chains on a wet road makes about as much sense as wearing a condom in a public restroom to keep from getting AIDS from the toilet seat. The real risk is that I’ll have a heart attack from the rage I’m filled with when I consider how many people must get run over as they dink around on the shoulder, too distracted by the difficulties of their chain installation to remember that there are cars whizzing by. Then there are the stories you hear about chains coming off and wrapping around the axle. Those terrify me, because I’ve witnessed, many times, the horrific bicycle equivalent of such a thing. For example, my old buddy David Pinter’s long Dr. Who scarf got caught in his rear wheel once because he didn’t maintain the velocity necessary to keep it streaming gloriously behind him. Or take my college roommate, whose jersey, which he’d foolishly wrapped around his mountain bike’s bars to expose his strapping upper body, went right into the front wheel and flipped him over the bars. The potential consequences of a tire chain tangling in the axle of my car could be much, much worse. And yet it’s a very real possibility—you see dead chains all over the road, standing in stark relief on the black, yes, totally black, shiny black, not snow-white road surface.

The second part of the insult is that I’ve only once managed to install tire chains on my own. They’re not intuitive, at least not to me, and the instructions are about as helpful as instructions always are—that is, not. And yet you see people, regular people like you and me, dutifully working at it, out in the cold on the side of the road. As you roll by these guys, putting off the inevitable, hoping there’ll be a last-minute telegram from the governor pardoning everybody, you get about a ten-second glimpse into each individual’s struggle. I’ve never looked over to see a motorist who obviously has the task well in hand; each guy seems to be taking the tangled web back off his tire and staring at it. But I have to assume some, probably even a majority, of these people get them on there okay—which is amazing considering that as a society, America hasn’t even gotten a handle on its damn car alarms. But as long as those other guys are out there fighting the fight, I feel like a wuss paying one of the professionals in their overalls. So on top of insulting my intelligence, the chain requirement insults my very manhood, which is probably even worse.

I was kind of hoping Erin would have some very compelling and forceful argument why I should just pay one of the guys from the get-go, and in the spirit of not introducing marital discord I could sigh and say, “Yes, dear.” But this didn’t seem to occur to her. I pulled over and started to get out, and she said something like, “Wear your gloves, dear, you don’t want your hands to get cold.” Okay, this probably bears little resemblance to what she said, but it’s how my male ego translated it.

I screwed around with the chains for awhile. The instructions were gone. The chains seemed much, much too short. Insults one and two, like Thing 1 and Thing 2 in Dr. Seuss, pranced around and taunted me—these are unnecessary! you're not a real man!—until I was too angry to logically suss out the chain installation. I got back in the car and kept driving.

Traffic was getting slower and slower as more and more motorists began the process of wasting their time and energy in the abominably pointless project. Eventually we saw an old dude in coveralls standing by the road, apparently car-less, so we figured he was one of the tire chain professionals. I called out to him. Either he didn’t understand me or couldn’t hear me, because it took a long time before we understood that he was in fact a chain guy, and he understood that yes, we wanted his services. He spent a good 20-30 minutes fighting with my chains, during which time he had me pull forward and then roll back dozens of times. Each time I pulled forward I shut the engine off afterward, not wanting to gas the poor guy.

How many times would my car start? It’s not a great starter. The battery has been run down too many times, and there’s a relay problem somewhere, and in my black leather work bag I have a little burned-out fuse that I’ve been meaning for months to buy non-burned-out replicas of, to stash in the glove box. (Last time the car died, my mechanic recommended I lay in a supply.) Compounding my nervousness about all the pulling forward and backing up was the nagging fear that sooner or later I was bound to run over the guy. Whenever he yelled for me to stop, I was sure I’d rolled over and crushed him.

Once the chains were on, the car drove like hell. It felt like I’d removed the tires and was driving on the rims down a railroad track, across which somebody had thrown an I-beam every five feet. Rough the whole time, with an extra thump every revolution: WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! At certain speeds it would smooth out a bit, and then it would get even worse when I crossed some other invisible speed threshold. And of course in the traffic I didn’t get to choose my speed.

We made our way up the pass, very slowly. Everywhere you looked on the shoulder motorists were fiddling with chains. Even SUVs were pulled over, their drivers installing chains on their own recognizance, just to be safe. Over and over again the radio announced that chains were required on all vehicles except for four-wheel-drives. What were these SUV guys thinking? Were they just dying to try out the new chains that they’d bought from Kragen? Or was it that they love a natural disaster, and installing chains made this one official, the way a souvenir from Niagara Falls makes your trip there more real? Or were these the type of extraordinarily risk-averse people who wear a belt and suspenders at the same time, and buy extended warranties for every $20 boom box or electric carving knife they buy, and find somebody to sue every time reality catches up with them and sullies their safe little imaginary world?

We passed the chain control checkpoint and there were a couple of bored looking kids sitting in a DOT pickup truck, eyes glazed. A giant sign with big orange lights said “Chains required when lights are flashing,” but the lights weren’t flashing. Had the kids simply forgotten to turn them on? Or was the radio announcement wrong? The thought that I could have gotten away with not using chains was almost too hideous to contemplate. Every so often we saw a car like ours, driving blissfully unprotected up the mild, wet grade, and my blood boiled. We passed over the top of the so-called pass and there was no sign of snow, slush, or ice. We descended the other side and still nothing. It was slow going. How fast can you drive with chains? I had no idea. I kept it around 35.

About five miles from Yreka, the first town you reach after leaving Ashland, the starboard chain burned up in the atmosphere. It had been making extra noise for some time, and I’d already pondered the fact that the port chain took at least 20 minutes to install and the starboard not more than 10. Maybe the chain guy took a shortcut. So when the chain came off I wasn’t really that surprised, and since it was a clean break, I wasn’t worried about it wrapping around the axle. In fact, I was mildly exhilarated. Free at last! The ride became 50% smoother and I knew I’d never have to look at the damn thing again. Now I began to wish for the port-side chain to go, to finish the apotheosis from crippled thumping to quiet rolling.

I got my wish, sort of. Just before Yreka the port chain did break, but instead of coming completely off, it hung around, jingling cheerily. I pulled over onto the shoulder and got out to look. Sure enough, it had wrapped itself completely around the axle. Oddly, I wasn’t particularly angry. Having feared this scenario so acutely, I’d come to think of it as inevitable. Also mitigating my anger was the delicious realization that once I’d removed this chain, probably by cutting it into little bits, the stinking pair of them would be gone from my life forever.

We drove into Yreka. We pulled into a gas station. Like I-5, the place was packed. I pulled into line for a pump. One driver was ahead of me, and he decided to install his chains right then and there. Maybe he was taking advantage of the shelter from the falling snow. Needless to say he took forever. He seemed oddly cheerful about the whole thing: Oh, boy, I get to put on my chains! After ten minutes of watching him, I finally reached the breaking point. In a moment of Zen perfection, I managed to remove the tangled tire chains from my axle and strangle him with them, all in a single fluid motion, and then I leapt to the gas station roof like the characters in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” From here I came back down to reality and asked the gas station clerk if she had any bolt cutters. She didn’t.

Finally I got my turn at the pump. Erin was still changing Lindsay’s diaper when I finished, and she recommended I check the oil. I went back in to buy a quart, asked the clerk if there was a mechanic in town who would be open on a Sunday. She didn’t know, but one of the men in line offered alternative advice, which is what I’d actually been hoping for. He gave me directions to a hardware store that would be open.

I found the place and they had one pair of bolt cutters. They were good ones: 36-inch dual purpose. Dual purpose? Yes. Of course they could cut bolts, but they would also function as my favorite bike shop tool, the one I liked to call The Persuader. The Persuader at the bike shop was a big hammer, but these bolt cutters were even better. They weighed a ton. If you could get a good swing into those babies, you could probably knock down a brick wall. Their potential as a bludgeon of inanimate objects was promising, in case the chain-cutting failed.

As soon as I paid for the bolt cutters I feared that they’d do me no good, that I just wasted my money. It was already starting to get dark, and I couldn’t see much under the car. My jack was in the back, buried under tons of gear, and my bike was obstructing the tailgate, lashed down with string, and anyway I seemed to remember that you shouldn’t crawl under a jacked-up car that has passengers in it, and I wasn’t about to ask my family to stand around in the cold and snow.

One thing I’ve learned through several automotive breakdowns is that there are always men around, even on a chilly Sunday evening, who materialize like fairy godmothers (though of course they never look anything like fairies or mothers) and dispense advice or at least (as in the case of a dead battery) a good push. Such a guy appeared and—apparently sizing up the situation entirely on his own, within about five seconds—said, “What you want to do is drive up on a curb with the left wheels. That’ll give you a bit more room under there.” I nodded, said that was a great idea. “I wish I could be more help,” he apologized. He looked sincerely bummed that that was the best he could do. Then suddenly he had another idea. “Down the road there’s a U-Haul guy who does chains,” he said. “You might look for him.”

We drove down the road, chain dragging behind us like the Ghost of Christmas Past. I found the U-Haul guy. He was either closed for the day or nobody knew about him. He had a trailer in front of a low building that looked to have once been a gas station. I told him what was going on, and my strategy with the bolt cutters. He didn’t say, “Aw, heck, I have a better idea. Stay in the car, I’ll take care of everything!” Not that I was really disappointed at this; my fantasy was somewhat more modest: he would have a car jack, maybe even a hydraulic lift so I could cut those chains into tiny bits from a comfortable standing position. “Sorry, all my jacks are broken,” he said, evidently reading my mind. “You can pull under the overhang, though.”

I pulled under there and rolled the port wheels up onto the curb of his porch. I got out. Not much light left at all. In fifteen minutes or so it’d be dark. Even beneath the overhang the ground was filthy and wet—probably no better than the road. The U-Haul chain guy strolled over to watch. I imagine that a chain guy doesn’t mind watching somebody else sprawl out on the ground for a change. His expression conveyed a mixture of amusement and curiosity. I imagined he was sizing me up: is this effete-looking white-collar boy really going to mix it up with the bolt cutters beneath his car? Of course he may not have been thinking this at all, but given the circumstances it sure seemed that way to me. I might as well have been preparing to sing karaoke in front of a famous rock group. Maybe he was going to wait until I’d totally given up, humiliating myself in the process, before stepping in and rescuing us. Or maybe he was going to watch me melt down and then get into his truck and drive off.

No way was I going to foul up my Gore-Tex parka, nor the wool sweater beneath it, so I stripped down to my t-shirt. I’m sufficiently claustrophobic that I shudder even remembering what I did next. I crawled under there, lying on my back and pushing myself along with my feet, which stuck out beyond the car. I could now reach with the bolt cutters and, using highly indirect tactile cues, find links of the chain to cut. Of course, to get the jaws open wide enough to span the chain links, I had to open the handles up all the way, which was more than my arms could handle given the confined space. So I had to use one arm on one handle and brace the other along my neck and torso. The car continuously drooled black water into my eyes and ears, and I was fighting off the panic of claustrophobia, and the handle was less than comfortable against my neck, and the links were hard to grasp and surprisingly strong, but from the first successful snap of a link I knew motivation was not going to be a problem. God that felt good, hurting the tire chain. I had to have that feeling again. I was instantly a tire-chain-cutting junkie. It’s a rare thing to commit vandalism and effect a repair at the same time. Again and again I opened the jaws, hunted around for a good bite, and crushed them shut, like a voracious beast. My favorite line from a James Bond book sounded in my head:

Die damn you die die damn you die damn you die damn you die

Meanwhile, above me, Erin chatted with the chain guy. He owns a landscape supply place, which basically means he sells rock and soil products that, by virtue of creating backyard paradises, command a non-trivial price. He also does the landscaping himself, and gets a lot of clients wanting him to build rock pools or some such thing. (I wasn’t getting all the details, because I was grunting like a pig caught in a trap, which I basically was.) The chain service was just a tertiary business. “I love doing the chains,” he said. I was dumbstruck by this proclamation until he went on to explain that he makes $1,000 a day doing it. I wondered how much of that he has to pay to the DOT for requiring chains, and suddenly the whole business made perfect sense—simple extortion. (Only the SUV drivers still defied explanation.)

I had to come out a couple times for air. Not for actual air, of course, but for the sensation of breathing freely, which is the only cure for claustrophobia. My t-shirt was soaked, my arms and hands filthy, my numb fingers cut up from dragging on the undercarriage of the car. I spat filth from my mouth and wiped it from my eyes. It was terribly difficult to raise the gumption necessary to slide back under. I was a guy rescued from a collapsed mine who had to go back in to retrieve his car keys. But each time I was won over by the burning desire to vandalize that damn chain some more.

I’d just finished the bulk of the cutting when Erin called down to see if I was making any progress. I grabbed the largest mass of chains and hurled them out from under the car, triumphantly and yet disgustedly, like when you extricate a mouse-sized wad of hair from the sink drain and fling it toward the trash. No, it was even better: I was a physician in South America who’d just dragged, from a small child’s throat, a three-foot tapeworm and then hurled it, still wriggling, onto the dirt floor of his jerry-rigged clinic. But there was still one piece of chain in there I couldn’t get at. Only a few inches of it hung down: enough to cause problems? I slid out from beneath the car to ponder the matter and consult with the chain guy.

Coming at the problem from the other direction, ahead of the wheel, he fished his arm expertly within the wheel well and in a jiffy had the last foot of chain out of there. Whew. I picked up some handfuls of snow and started scrubbing my arms with them. The guy invited me to head inside his shop to wash up. Erin brought my sweater and coat, and five minutes later we were back on the road, gliding wonderfully and quietly along. It was dark when we got back on I-5. Almost immediately we saw a big electric sign: “WARNING – CHAINS REQUIRED 20 MILES AHEAD – CARRY CHAINS.” Unbelievable. The road was still just wet. Erin and I, once recovered from our disbelief, agreed that we hadn’t seen the sign. [Note: this is where the newspaper version of this story ended.]

Traffic was still terribly heavy and slow. The shoulder was littered with stopped motorists tinkering with their chains. Installing them? Removing them? Tightening them? Just going through the motions for no reason, like a kid who’s mastered the Rubik’s Cube and yet solves it endlessly? Impossible to tell. After an hour we’d made it about ten miles: halfway between Yreka and Weed. Then traffic stopped entirely. A minute passed, five more after it, then another ten. I shut off the engine and killed the lights. Erin asked a trucker if he’d heard anything on the CB. “Yeah, they keep changing their mind. First they’re going to close the road, then they’re going to open it, then they’re going to require chains.” It was snowing pretty hard, as it had been all day, but the ground was still just wet. What is going on here? I thought. The center cannot hold. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Cats and dogs living together. French nuclear-powered submarines.

We brought Lindsay and Alexa up to our laps and spread out a sleeping bag. The guy ahead of us climbed out of his big strapping SUV (engine still running) and stood in the road. He paced around a bit, without a coat on, and stared out at the day. Sure, he wasn’t doing anything useful per se, but perhaps in that moment he felt like Jason Bourne: acutely aware of every possibility, every contingency, instinctively tuned in to all the angles. Like a crouching cat, he could spring into action at any moment. Eventually he decided to put on his tire chains. Now, I don’t know whether he was just having a hard time with them, or was deliberately savoring the activity, but he proceeded to work those chains for at least the next forty minutes. I watched, torn between bemusement and relief: at least he didn’t shame me by snapping those babies on in five minutes flat. He must have pulled forward and backed up a hundred times.

Make no mistake about it: this was no natural disaster. Rather, it was a completely unnecessary annoyance, visited upon us not by an angry god but by an incompetent human, or worse, an incompetent committee. I pictured a dingy office with a few civil servants in it, drinking stinking vending machine coffee and arguing over what to do. Maybe they were gridlocked, or maybe they had an even number of people and no majority vote, or maybe they didn’t have the authority to open the road and were trying to hunt down the guy who did, who was out bowling or whose cell phone was in his other pants. Or perhaps the committee was on a power trip, playing God, and had decided it would be fun to strand everybody for however long it took for the roads to actually become dangerous, and then open the roads and take bets on how many cars went into the ditch.

In some ways, a natural disaster would have been easier to stomach. If our life had been in danger, we could have switched into some survival mode that was beyond anger and frustration. But as long as my car’s battery held up, we could survive for days, starting the engine and running the heater for five minutes every hour or so. An endless supply of water was falling from the sky, organized into snow for our gathering convenience. Sure, Alexa had run out of diapers, but only when she sleeps for eight hours or so does she need them, and anyway nobody ever died from a bad smell. Granted, we weren’t particularly comfortable. To fit all our gear in the car I’d set my seat farther forward than I’d have liked, and of course our children could lose patience and start bawling at any moment. But our little family wasn’t exactly the Donner party.

A young guy with a crewcut wearing nothing but sneakers, jeans, and an LAPD t-shirt stalked sullenly up and down the road. He didn’t appear to be looking for anybody, and I couldn’t fathom what he was doing out there. Just a jumpy guy who can’t sit still? Or was he forestalling panic by proving to himself that it wasn’t that cold out? Or was he performing a public service by inspiring the rest of us, especially the women? After all, he did embody a high plane of human resilience and stoicism. I wished I’d brought my hip flask. With that prop, I’d have had the nerve to join him out there. We’d silently pass the flask back and forth as we brooded over big manly thoughts. Instead, I sat in the car and beeped my kids’ noses.

We passed about two and a half hours like this. It had been seven or eight hours since we’d last eaten, so we started in on our provisions. Having planned to eat at a great Mexican restaurant in Redding, we hadn’t packed a picnic, but we had leftover plum pudding from Mom and a foil bag of organic chocolate truffles from Dad. Whoa. Culinary nirvana. Alexa and I wolfed pudding while Erin frantically prepared unchokeable bites for Lindsay, who howled her impatience. I’ve never had better truffles. Next to us, a man who looked to be in his late sixties stepped out of his car. I opened my door and asked if he’d heard anything. He eagerly approached and we chatted. Moments later he and his wife had presented us with a half a deli sandwich, untouched, and several mandarin oranges. We passed around the truffles. “I’m from Colorado,” he said, and I know exactly what he would say next. I wasn’t wrong: as he pawed at the wet asphalt with his foot he said, “There, we wouldn’t worry about this. We’d just drive.” I felt vindicated. At last, another motorist who knows the difference between truly treacherous conditions and silly make-believe crises.

And then, suddenly, activity! The line was starting to move! The old couple got back in their car, and Erin and I frantically worked to get the kids back in their car seats. About thirty seconds into this process the guy behind me ran up to my window. “We’re moving!” he said anxiously, as though we suddenly had just five minutes to rush through the terminal and catch our connecting flight. I shrugged him off (which was a very polite response compared to the vast supply of smart-assed responses I hold in store for such occasions) and once the kids were set, I started the engine and rolled forward to fill the 50-foot gap that had opened up ahead of us. Then we sat for another fifteen minutes or so. Erin and I decided that the movement was probably the result of a few cars up ahead, perhaps miles ahead, whose drivers lost patience and took off across the median to the northbound lane to head back to Yreka.

Over the next hour we made it ten more miles. Perhaps a mile before the first exit for Weed we saw another chain inspection station. Countless cars squatted in the shoulder as their drivers futzed around them. Erin and I worked on our no-chains story. We had two strategies.

One strategy called for full disclosure: we used to have chains, but they broke, and we had to cut one of them off, and now we have no chains but I’m a competent snow driver from Colorado, a place with real winters. Exhibit A was the bolt cutters, Exhibit B the empty chain box. But this strategy had problems. First of all, the Highway Patrol may have a zero tolerance policy and thus may not accept explanations. Second, depending on the actual cop, mention of my Coloradan heritage—and its implicit suggestion that California drivers suck at driving in snow—might affront him. Third, the guy might be just an all-around jerk with a bias against Volvo drivers, blonds, cyclists (my bike was on the car, remember), or motorists in general. Lots of moving parts to this strategy.

So our second strategy was to lie about our car. This had worked once before, during a ski trip in Erin’s old company car, a Chevrolet Lumina. With casual confidence and breezy authority, I’d told the inspector it was four-wheel drive, and he’d nodded and waved us right on through. It was worth a shot, I figured. But that guy hadn’t been a cop. Are all cops experts on car makes and models? Are they required to know when Volvo started doing All-Wheel-Drive wagons? Or maybe the cop wouldn’t care. Maybe it’s a hassle turning motorists around. Erin postulated that the bike on the back might make the car look more sporty, and thus more 4WD-ish. We pondered the matter silently for a few minutes. Then I decided to practice my lie on Erin. With complete conviction, I looked her right in the eye and said, “Are you aware that this car is full-time four-wheel drive?” She looked legitimately surprised. “Really?” she said. “Then there’s no problem!” Erin is no fool—I simply have the ability to lie very convincingly. But would it be enough?

In the event, we determined on the fly to say nothing and act natural. I withheld the temptation to lower my window or look at the inspector. He waved us through, or at least seemed to, in my peripheral vision. For the next few minutes (that is, the next 100 yards) I half expected a cop car to pull up and bust me, but it never happened. We were okay, at least for the time being.

We took the first exit into Weed, and once off the main drag I noted that the road was, finally, completely covered in snow. I did some very subtle steering experiments and decided the conditions were perfect for doing tricks. Had I still been a teenager, without a family in the car, I’d have spent the next couple of hours sliding all over the streets of Weed, fishtailing around corners, doing doughnuts in parking lots, and celebrating the dual gift of a rear-wheel drive car and a beautiful snowstorm. Instead I drove carefully under the highway to Taco Bell and parked.

Twenty minutes, seventeen dollars, some 3,000 calories, and a couple dozen packets of “Fire” sauce later, we headed back out there. It was still snowing hard, a strong wind was blowing, and the roads had become legitimately treacherous. It’s likely that people’s tire chains were finally doing them some good. The driving wasn’t all that hard without chains, though. The highway continued to descend, and wound through some gentle curves and over some bridges, and sure, I could have lost traction at any point by accelerating abruptly, hitting the brakes, steering too quickly, or responding poorly to having done any of these things, but I was fine as long as I moved around gradually, limited my speed to about 30, and didn’t touch the brakes for the next forty miles. My only real fear was the number of SUVs that cruised by at relatively high speed, their drivers convinced that a big masculine heavy vehicle cannot lose traction. We did see perhaps a dozen vehicles that had slid off the road, but in general everyone was okay. Oddly, the Highway Patrol was nowhere to be seen, until we came across the chain inspection point, across the highway, for northbound traffic. Eventually the snow turned to rain, and the rest of the drive was uneventful. The kids even slept, and Alexa amazed us by not urinating in her car seat. We reached home at about 4:00 AM. The six-hour drive had taken more than fourteen hours.

As Erin put the kids in their beds, I unloaded the car. When the bike was back in the garage and the rear cargo area finally emptied, I lifted the lid that covers the tools, jumper cables, etc. and confirmed what I’d long suspected: we had a second set of car chains in there, the more modern kind, in their original box with instructions. I thought about hurling them in the garbage, and replacing them with Exhibits A & B (bolt cutters and empty box) for future trips. Then I sighed and put them back in the car. I might actually need them some day.
dana albert blog

Monday, March 21, 2011

Winter Storm


We’ve had some real weather in the Berkeley area lately, including a crazy thunderstorm last Friday. This post concerns weather, weather forecasts, and that amazing winter storm. Guest commentary is provided by my daughter Alexa.


If I were marketing The Weather, I’d tout it as “America’s favorite conversational topic!” It’s hard to go wrong with it—who doesn’t care about the weather?—unless it strays into political territory (e.g., climate change). There’s little risk, when discussing weather, that you’ll broach the other forbidden topics, sex and religion. But it has often occurred to me that discussing the weather can be a little awkward because it’s such an obviously safe topic for light conversation. Bringing it up can suggest you’re deliberately tiptoeing around some taboo subject.

I was very glad about this last storm, because the narrow range of weather in this area has become my latest source of parental guilt. Where my family lives we almost never get a proper thunderstorm, and certainly never the thrill of waking up to see the whole neighborhood buried in fresh snow. If the American Dream is to give your kids more than you had, I’m letting my daughters down, because growing up in Colorado I enjoyed a great many summer thunderstorms and overnight snowfall.

Weather forecasting

Forecasting the weather must be a really easy job. Not that it isn’t complicated, of course, but the customer has no recourse when the forecast is wrong—which it so frequently is. Weather.com forecasts the temperature hour by hour, but every single morning when I check the temperature (on their website) it’s a few degrees cooler than they said it would be. If all they did for a forecast was to measure the temperature once per hour and use these values as their predictions for the next several weeks, they’d do a better job.

Do weather forecasters use a Ouija board? I suspect not. They probably just steal their weather information from somebody else. After all, who could possibly catch them in the act? Meteorology seems pretty precise, especially with the satellite images we all nod at on TV or online, but of course we’re not really capable of extracting meaning from the images. They’re just something for the weatherman to gesture at.

Twice this year my family has made bold outings in defiance of the forecasts. A few weeks ago we took a two-day trip to hang out on the beaches south of here, despite an emphatic prediction of nothing but rain for both days. Here’s what we got:

The other trip was to ski up near Lake Tahoe. The forecast for Sunday was rain all day, which of course would have made for lousy skiing. Instead, it only snowed a bit, and we enjoyed sparsely populated slopes and no lift lines.

Even the basic weather forecasting terminology is a bit of a farce. The weatherman loves to talk about “high pressure systems,” which we all studied and halfway grasped in junior high, but it’s basically a throwaway phrase. Even the difference between “rain” and “showers” is a bit of a mystery. My wife asked me about this this morning I replied, “A shower is when water falls from the sky—in fact, when water actually rains down on you from the sky—but it isn’t actually rain.”

The weather forecast in the UC Santa Barbara student paper, the Daily Nexus, was never wrong. This wasn’t because the weather down there was totally predictable (though it was), but because the person who did the weather section never so much as mentioned the weather. The “forecast” was more like a snapshot of whatever was on the person’s mind. I see that the format hasn’t changed:

Back in the day, these “forecasts” were much wittier than this, and I don’t remember seeing typos. Or am I just becoming bitter as I age?

Movie night

The big storm I mentioned earlier happened when my family was at Movie Night at the elementary school. Though there had been rain on and off during the day, the sky had cleared up by evening and we didn’t expect much more rain. We’d have walked to the school but we were running late. We wore light jackets and normal shoes.

At a fundraising auction I’d won the VIP Movie Night Extravaganza Package, meaning my kids got to bring a friend “for free,” and we got special seating, and got to come in through an exclusive side door, were given a big bucket of candy, and got a whole pizza instead of just buying slices √† la carte. We even got wine masquerading as juice boxes. No, none of this has anything to do with the storm. I’m just bragging.

So I sat there with an entire pizze box on my lap, feeling like royalty, the kids distracted by candy, watching "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," a movie that had terrified me as a kid. Occasionally a younger child would start bawling or try to flee the place, which gave me a strange satisfaction that the world hasn’t really changed. Soon I became drowsy as the starchy pizza crust worked its magic. During the scene where a chocolate bar, and then Mike Teavee, are turned into TV signals, all the characters are dressed in white suits from head to toe (like in Intel ads), and my foggy brain began making incongruous connections with the scene in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid To Ask” where a bunch of spermatozoa, also dressed in white from head to toe, prepare for their kamikaze one-way journey. The mental pairing must have been too much for my brain because the next thing I knew, I awoke with a sore neck to the sound of thunder outside. The movie was winding down but a storm was gathering momentum.

The storm

As soon as the movie ended, lots of kids ran to the doorway to watch. The thunder had been getting progressively louder during the film and we had been catching flashes of lightning through the windows. As my daughter Alexa recounted, “All of the kids started screaming when there was thunder and it was shocking how loud it was. I [once] went to a drum performance and they had an eight-hundred pound drum but the thunder was louder. The lightning lit up the sky and the scary part was the fact that it could have hit us.” (The day after the storm I asked Alexa to write down her recollections so I could quote from them, which is why I have this verbatim.)

Right as we came out the door and were standing under the overhang of the roof, it started pounding down hail. This hail persisted and began to accumulate in vast amounts like shag carpet over the playground. Alexa recalls, “The hail was almost the size of marbles and the ground was completely covered with a sheet of it. There was so much hail on the ground that it looked like snow.” Dozens of kids just stood there staring.

Then came a thunderclap of Colorado proportions. Instead of just a rumble, it was a boom you could almost feel, coupled with a distinct CRACK! sound. My younger daughter, Lindsay, shrieked and jumped up into my arms. I carried her back into the school auditorium where she began wriggling in my arms, trying to break free. Was I too close to the door? Did she want to crawl under something? No, she ran right back outside to watch some more!

I figured it was only a matter of time before the first kid ran out into the playground and started dancing around in the ankle-deep hail. No more hail was falling but frigid rain was still hammering down, and for at least a couple minutes nobody moved. But then, sure enough, some kid ran out there, and then everybody followed, shrieking and dancing around and making snowballs out of the hail to hurl at each other. “The hail was like quicksand,” Alexa recounted, “a layer of ice floating on top of water.” Lindsay ran back to me and gave me her popcorn, to free up her hands, so I had a snack for the second show.

Eventually the adults got tired of being beaten by giant icy raindrops and we started for home. We’d had to park several blocks from the school and the sidewalks were completely flooded. In Alexa’s words, “As the hail melted, rivers of water ran across the ice.” The water gushed along, running over the tops of our shoes. The rain reactivated my hair gel. Our thin jackets were soaked through. We got to the car. The hail had turned to a soggy mush of snow, like if Kix cereal were left in milk too long, so my wife had me drive. (As a teenager, most of the driving I did was in the snow, just for fun. My brother Bryan and our friends and I practiced power-slides, parking-brake slides, and doughnuts in a parking lot until we were skilled enough to take our chances in Boulder’s nicer neighborhoods, fishtailing with great aplomb, doing 180-degree skid turns around medians and such. Now, having become a responsible adult while maintaining my slippery-driving skills and relative sang-froid, I’m the family’s designated snow driver.)

It took several minutes for the windshield defogger to clear things up enough to even see. The windshield wipers were working overtime, pushing piles of sleety snow, or snowy sleet, out of the way. I gave the car a little extra gas pulling away from the curb to test the slipperiness of the roads. The car squirmed around a bit before straightening out: the roads were perfect for snow tricks (and skeetching, if the kids here knew anything about that). But, I restrained myself and drove carefully. The kids were delighted to watch giant congealed raindrops hitting the moonroof. The white road had sections of brilliant color: the hail had driven thousands of non-dead (undead? living?) leaves from the trees and they carpeted the snowslush.

We got to our house and the low point of the property down at the street intersection was completely flooded. It was a lake. Alexa begged me to find her a ruler, and while I raked masses of leaves from the drain grate, she measured the depth. (“The water was 5 inches deep in the shallow end,” she wrote later.) When I finished clearing the leaves from the street drain, water whooshed into it like a fire hydrant.


I wish I had some. It was dark. It was wet. I don’t bring a camera to the movies, and after the flood measurements and abatement we were pretty busy with hot baths, pajamas, and the debriefing and calming down operations. Oh well. If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps this post is worth 1.8 pictures.

dana albert blog

Monday, March 14, 2011

Daylight Saving Time


I believe that the switch this past weekend to Daylight Saving Time makes an intrinsically interesting blog topic. My wife disagrees and (after hearing a number of interesting comments about DST) asked me to please never bring up the subject again. At first this caused me to second-guess my original idea, but then I remembered that many women will happily spend hours discussing shoes or makeup or equal rights or whatever, and that interests will vary wildly from one person to the next. Maybe somebody out there is interested in how man measures time.

This post will examine the difficulty of the switch to DST; how to make the switch fun; whether or not we should even have DST; when we should have it; and (for the ladies) what lipstick shade is best for that brief period between the end of civil twilight and the beginning of night. (For loads of good background info on DST, check out this web site.)

Making the switch

The first day of Pacific Daylight Time, Sunday, wasn’t too bad. It was a rainy day and my family followed the example of our oven’s “Sabbath Mode” and didn’t engage in any real activity all day. The exception was me running around changing all the clocks, watches, and time settings on various electronic devices. It’s crucial to update every single one, because during the transition, every timekeeping device is already suspect. If two timekeeping devices differ, more trust is lost.

This isn’t really fair. Logic dictates you should simply believe the clock that shows the later time. But then, logic isn’t always available in my household, especially when people are groggy. I get a lot of “What time is it really?” I also get a lot of “What time should it feel like?” I can relate: it should feel an hour earlier than it (officially) is, but instead time just feels off. Last night, 10 p.m. should have felt like 9, but instead felt like 11. This morning, 7 a.m. should have felt like 6, but actually felt like 5.

All told, I changed the time on some two dozen devices in my home. I adjusted ten or so clocks (including the ones in appliances); two cameras; three phones; two cell phones; two bike computers; four watches; the thermostat. I thought I was done but now realize I didn’t get my wife’s MP3 player; the car clock; the answering machine; the drip irrigation system; the outdoor lighting system. Other exceptions will surface.

Today, Monday, was rough. Everybody at home was dazed this morning, our routine a shambles. At work, an 11:00 a.m. conference call threw people into a tailspin because the recurring appointment had been set up in the e-mail/calendar program by somebody in the Arizona time zone, where DST is not observed. For those outside Arizona, the call automatically jumped forward by an hour on our electronic calendars. For example, in San Francisco, Pacific Standard Time switched to Pacific Daylight Time so the call was bumped to noon; even past iterations of the call show up in our calendar software as having been at noon. To the person who set up the call, everything seemed normal, but we had to decide whether to move the call or not. After a dozen instant messages among colleagues across three time zones, we compromised on rescheduling today’s call for 11:30 a.m. PDT. We do this little dance twice a year.

The guy in the taco truck was also a bit off his game (whether for DST reasons or not). The gal ahead of me in line ordered a burrito and he said, “Hot or spicy?” She paused. “Excuse me?” she asked. “Sauce: hot or spicy?” he repeated. She must have had her coffee because she deftly slipped between the horns of the dilemma by saying, “Mild.” Only then did he grasp his goof.

Making the change fun

Before I go around changing clocks I like to be reassured that the time change actually happened. I could look at a PC for that, but would rather not. My brother, a software developer, once got burned by a commercial calendar program he wrote, because Windows 95 (which had just come out) adjusted to DST automatically, whereas previous Windows versions had not. This meant that my brother’s software, which adjusted automatically to DST, messed up all the Windows 95 users through an unforeseen “dueling automated DST adjustment” scenario.

My first biannual DST operation is to update all three of our cordless phones to the authoritatively correct time, all at once, with the touch of a button. In the video below, watch the time on the phone very closely:

Did you catch that? The time on the phone at the beginning of the movie is 7:47 a.m. Three seconds in, you hear the phone ring because I dialed my home number from my cell phone. A few seconds later, the Caller ID digits are received from the phone company switch and you see “Dana cell” appear on the screen. At the same moment, the time changes from 7:47 to 8:48 a.m. Voil√†! All three phones are now on PDT, because a timestamp is sent along with the Caller ID digits. As a quasi-techno-nerd obsessed with efficiency, I get a real kick out of this. (Alas, Motorola didn’t get it exactly right; the handsets don’t sync up the base station answering machine clock like they should, which is why I always forget to adjust it.)

Even if your phone doesn’t have the Caller ID feature, you can have fun with the time change by using it as an excuse to synch up your wristwatch with the atomic clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technologies in Boulder, Colorado. Just put your watch about a minute ahead, stop it with the second hand pointing straight up at 12, and then dial (303) 499-7111 from a speaker phone. Wait for the narrator to say, “At the tone, [x] hours, [y] minutes, coordinated universal time,” and then—just after the tock sound skips second 59—push the crown in so your second hand starts up in perfect time with the tock sound. Observe:

Now, whenever you get into an argument about whose watch is more accurate, you can say, “Hey, my watch is synched up—to the second—with the atomic clock!” (Note that this can have much the same effect as an American tourist in France telling the locals, “You’d all be speaking German if it wasn’t for America and our kickass military!” In other words, you shouldn’t give the atomic clock spiel to anybody who doesn’t already hate you.)

If that’s not fun, I don’t know what fun is (and really, maybe I don’t, despite posing as an authority on the subject). But take heart, there is another benefit to this adjustment period: if you wish you had the stamina to stay up later, or that you had an easier time sleeping in on the weekends, this time change should help for awhile.

Should we have DST?

There are plenty of opponents of DST, such as End Daylight Saving Time and Mothers Against Daylight Savings Time, but you have my permission to ignore them because they’re all silly. Anybody who questions the need for DST should explain to us why we should desire a 4:46 a.m. sunrise, which is when it would happen in mid-June were it not for DST. (That holds for the Bay Area. The farther north you go, the more absurdly early this sunrise would be; my brother in Bellingham, Washington would have a 4:06 a.m. sunrise without DST. You can create a handy sunrise/sunset chart for your own area by visiting this cool website).

I’m a lifelong morning person but even I have no use for such an early sunrise. Other than a few certifiable whackos, and people with really weird schedules (e.g., the West Coast financial industry folks who have to be to work before the markets open on the East Coast), nobody gets up this early. And yet the latest sunset that DST gives us—8:35 p.m. in the Bay Area—seems completely reasonable. On the longest day of the year the sun still sets before my younger daughter’s bedtime.

Somebody will want to speak up about the farmers. But why? How big a subset of the workforce are they, really? And if they were to hold out in silent revolt and stick to standard time year-round, I doubt anybody would care. Perhaps they already are ignoring DST.

When should DST begin and end each year?

This is a much more complicated question. Today, the sun rose at 7:22 a.m. in Berkeley. That’s pretty dang late when you’re trying to get your kids up at 7:15. It also means there’s no chance of a morning workout unless you want to drive to the gym in the dark or ride the indoor trainer (which most of us here are pretty sick of by now, this having been a cold and wet winter). On the other hand, the sun didn’t set until 7:15 p.m. this evening, and I’m sure people like that. Though I will miss the morning light, this change does make a short evening bike ride more feasible.

Those Americans who do international business will probably be really confused for the next couple of weeks because the time shift between us and the rest of the Western world just changed by an hour, and will change back to normal on March 28. (For example, on Saturday London was eight hours ahead of San Francisco; today, it’s only seven hours ahead.) I suppose the U.S. should feel embarrassed that when we switched to the longer DST period, no other country followed suit: one more example of our fall from grace as a world power. (England was particularly wise to ignore our precedent. Their term for DST is “Summer Time,” and if they’d adopted our new schedule they’d be on Summer Time during the winter.)

The reason the American government gave for extending DST was energy savings. It’s not obvious to me that anybody has studied this closely enough; it’s also not obvious to me that this is the most important rationale. I’ve read that DST curbs violent crime, since violent criminals aren’t morning persons. (I’m paraphrasing here.) That makes sense and seems pretty important. Naturally, I wish government policy was aimed squarely at what would most benefit me and my bike riding schedule, but that’s not going to happen until one of my kids takes power. In the meantime I guess I’ll accept whatever the government gives me. What else can I do?

This year, Russia is doing something new: in the fall, they won’t switch back to Standard Time. That is, they’ll stay on DST forever (or until their next major political upheaval). In a televised announcement of the change, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared, “I believe this will be interesting.” In describing the past difficulty of switching the clocks forward and back every spring and fall, Medvedev (or at least his translator) said, “I won’t even mention cows and other animals who don’t understand why milkers come at a different time because of the time change.” How true that is. Good luck with that, Russia!

One thing is for certain: here in the U.S., we can say goodbye to that handy “spring forward, fall back” mnemonic, since the time has already changed and its not even spring yet. “Winter forward, fall back” isn’t nearly as memorable and doesn’t even make sense.

Lipstick shade

During the day the most flattering lip tone will be one shade darker than your natural lip color. Between civil twilight but before dark you can get away with two shades darker. After dark you can pull off a more saturated hue. To test shades, apply lipstick or gloss to one lip. If that color is just a shade or deeper than your bare lip, then you’ve found your daytime shade; go one darker right at sunset. But even though DST has begun, it’s not yet spring, so err on the conservative side, especially if your suntan is gone.

Many women wrongly believe they can’t wear red lipstick before dark. The secret to choosing the right red lip color is breaking the day into temporal zones as described above. Deep plum, chocolate or red is fabulous in the wan winter gloaming, and then you can shift to a wine shade after dark.

dana albert blog

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fiction - Guide to Managing Millennials

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for crude humor and mature themes.


I am happy to announce that this is my 100th blog post since I started albertnet! My first post was in February of 2009. Funny … it doesn’t seem like that long ago.


I got a solicitation in my work e-mail that was either spam or a reasonable business proposition, depending on your point of view. (As the aptly named Senator Packwood pointed out, “How can you know until you try?”) The solicitation was from whitepapersforbiz.com and was for a $99, 18-page guide on “Managing Generation Y.” The ad started out: “Generation Y. The Internet Generation. Millennials. Whatever you call them, this new generation of workers is the largest to hit the workforce since the Boomers, and they bring with them unique expectations.”

Right away this caught my attention. First of all, I was thrown by this term “Millennials.” Millennials? As in, born around the turn of the century? These people are eleven now. Please tell me they aren’t invading the workforce. Meanwhile, if the workforce is being flooded with these Gen-Y types, during a terrible recession with the worst unemployment in decades, who are they to be expecting anything? How about “being happy just to have a job”? Why should we coddle and cater to these people?

Naturally, I’m just being a bitter old man here. Obviously we need these youngsters very badly, because they “get it,” they can conceive of the next great “killer app,” they can solve our office computer problems, and many of them are still good-looking enough to be the public face of our companies as the rest of us, skin wrinkling and backs aching, run out the clock on our miserable lives. It has always been thus. So, the management guide makes perfect sense.

This is where I come in. I’m guessing that most corporate wage slaves—especially “individual contributors” (i.e., non-managers) like myself—are going to find $99 a bit steep for an 18-page electronic document, especially when the advertisement has embarrassing typos like “3 way to develop productive relationships with Millennials.” (Whether they meant “3 ways” or “3-way”—which would be kind of shocking—that’s pretty sloppy). So I figured, why don’t I write my own guide, which would be shorter (and thus better), and much, much cheaper? I might not have done as much research as these guys, but a little advice is better than nothing. Best yet, I let my PayPal account lapse, so I’m not even going to charge you. You can just buy me a beer next time I see you.

[Please note that what follows is fiction. I do not allude to any actual company in this piece, nor am I a human resources type, nor do I actually have real advice for anybody in this realm. It’s just for fun. Okay? Good.]


Seven core traits of Generation Y

Naturally there are vast differences among the members of any generation, but certain generalizations can be made (and are essential to handy pocket guides like this). This guide will concern only Americans born in 1990 or later, and who are entering the corporate world of offices rather than service-sector jobs, self-employment, or itinerant farm labor. Also, this guide only discusses males. Research for the equivalent guide for female employees is still underway as it is a much more complicated matter. (The section about boots and other footwear, by itself, is likely to eclipse this entire guide.) Stay tuned for how to order this second guide as soon as it is available!

Here are the seven core traits of Generation Y:

Informal – They consider not only words like “sir” and “please” to be old-fashioned, but also formerly widespread ideas like politeness, hierarchies, and decorum.

Connected – They are continuously in touch with a very wide, though seldom deep, electronic network of other Millennials (along with older sickos masquerading as them).

Casual – Old-fashioned business attire like suits, ties, socks, and clean shaves have been virtually abandoned by Gen-Y.

Entitled – This generation was raised by parents who were kids in the seventies—that is, whose parents were only into themselves. The backlash of the seventies selfish parents has manifested in overindulgent nineties/aughts parents who showered their kids with love, attention, praise, and expensive toys, making Gen-Y hugely imbued with a sense of entitlement.

Scattered – Millennials don’t have time for MTV, full magazine articles, lectures, books, or this guide. Their intellectual activity is the equivalent of waiting tables. They’re able to keep a dozen different text/Tweet/phone conversations going while seeming to be paying attention to you, but their mental worlds are too frantic for deep thoughts or discussions.

Public – Generation Y has become so inured to self-disclosure, due primarily to Facebook and other social networks, that the line between public and private has been essentially erased.

Smart – As far as we can tell, these kids are really, really smart. (We kind of have to say this, in case one of them happens to read this guide and becomes really, really offended.)

Deep down, Millennials are not only aware of these traits, but are very proud of them. This means if any member of an older generation, especially somebody in management, demonstrates these traits, the Gen Y employee is likely to feel patronized. You will do well to be as polite, isolated, well-attired, timid, organized, private, and, well, clueless as possible in the presence of Gen Y. This shouldn’t be that hard. Just be yourself.

Getting off on the right foot

A big part of your success in managing a Millennial is hiring the right one to begin with. Careful recruiting has never been more important—or more difficult—than it is now. Here are some pointers.

One of the most common mistakes managers make when recruiting Gen Y is to be visibly startled by the candidate’s appearance. This can cause the candidate to clam up completely, or else to lash out. If you know what to expect, you can keep your cool and have a positive recruiting experience. Things to be ready for:

  • The candidate may not wear a necktie to the interview. Many Gen Yers literally cannot believe that this would be expected, even in an interview.
  • Clip-on tie? Hide your astonishment. The candidate may sincerely want to please but knows he could never actually tie a tie; or, he is wearing the clip-on ironically.
  • Giant fist-sized perfectly symmetrical Windsor knot? You’ve got a great candidate: somebody who actually trusts the sartorial advice of his (albeit misguided) father or grandfather enough to get help tying his tie. This guy is more likely to be emotionally stable, and might also be more docile in accepting quaint workplace traditions like working hard.
  • Corporate logo, penis graphic, or animal art on a necktie? Roll with it—unless it’s a donkey or elephant. That could mean a politically active person, who could seriously damage workplace productivity during election season.
  • Totally oversized suit? Could be a loaner from Dad. Or maybe the candidate got a bad clothier recommendation from a pal and went to Big & Tall. So many Millennials are seriously overweight, Big & Tall has become almost the de facto clothier for interview suits. (In fact, the parent corporation, LivingXL, is considering rebranding the clothing chain “Big & Normal.”)

Traditionally, an interview consists of an employer asking questions of the candidate to find out if he is qualified for the job. Today, the candidate’s ability should be assumed. Technology is changing so fast, your candidate will probably have an innovative, super-efficient way of carrying out his work tasks—something you never would have dreamed of. Or, the Gen Y new-hire may think of totally different job activities, or even a totally new business for your company to get into. Thus, the main purpose of the job interview is to convince the candidate that your company is a cool place to work—even while you take care to avoid coming off as a poseur.

Three ways to Motivate Millennials

There are of course countless ways to motivate your Gen Y employees, most of which work only some of the time. But we have identified three surefire ways to get the most out of your Millennials:

Interns. Always have some interns around to do most of the work. Not only do interns not require motivation (after all, trying to turn their internship into a paying job is all the motivation they will ever need), having them to kick around will build and sustain the self-esteem of your Gen Y employees.

Rejiggered ratings. In the traditional ratings scale used for older employees, change “underachieving” to “achieving”; change “achieving” to “exceeding expectations”; and change “exceeding expectations” to “needs improvement.” The name changes to the lower ratings are to protect an employee’s morale, since Millennials in these rungs obviously came through the “praise everybody” system where every player on the soccer team gets a trophy, even the ones who never kicked the ball. The name of the top tier is designed for offspring of Tiger Mothers, who respond only to verbal abuse.

Free soda. Fountain beverages are extremely inexpensive but really make your Gen Y employees feel valued. Put the beverage company’s marketing machine to work for you! (Note: do not offer Shasta or other off-brand beverages—this will backfire!)

Public vs. private

Self-disclosure is a habit for Millennials, so you should be braced for offhanded disclosures, ranging from the candid to the downright maudlin, that would have been unheard of a generation ago. The danger here is that your reaction could catch your employee completely off-guard and cause him terrible embarrassment. It is natural to assume that anybody of this generation would have pretty thick skin, but actually they do not. There is no non-verbal communication on Facebook, and face-to-face workplace interactions are not something the typical Gen-Y person is accustomed to. A poker face and a ready comment (e.g., “How did that make you feel?”) are advised.

For example, in his first or second week on the job a Millennial might make reference to something his therapist said to him. Generation Y, unlike the proud and/or shame-filled ones before it, is very relaxed about getting a little help sometimes. To show surprise at this disclosure—to say nothing of gasping—would be a very damaging, and alienating, faux pas. Instead you should respond (practice this in the mirror if necessary), “Wow, that’s very perceptive. Say, is your therapist accepting new patients?”

Of course, playing off your Gen Y employee’s disclosure is totally different from disclosing anything of an even remotely personal nature yourself. Why? Because you’re like the Millennial’s mom or dad, so for you to open up is embarrassing (in the “eww!” way). If, say, you mention that you have an appointment with a dermatologist, don’t be surprised if your Gen Y employee says, “Dude—TMI!”

To the great consternation of human resources departments nationwide, Gen Y employees cannot be prevented from Tweeting about just about everything that happens in the workplace. The only way to keep your company’s private business private is to require employees to create a Twitter alter-ego. You can put a positive spin on this requirement when explaining it to your Millennials. One benefit: with this alter ego they can be even more brash, insulting not just their enemies but their friends.

Of course, everybody mentioned in these Tweets must have a pseudonym as well. To assure this, have your employees refer to their colleagues (and yourself) by whatever secret nicknames they’re already using. Tell your employee, “If you think of me as ‘Balding Douchelord,’ just use that nickname in your Tweets.” If the employee resists, get him excited by saying, “As of yet nobody has created an iPad app that turns a name into an alias, like ‘Joseba Bloviatronica’ for ‘Joe Blow,’ then checks its availability. Somebody is going to make a killing on that app!”

Internet use

Telling a Millennial not to use Facebook while at work would be a real morale-crusher, so you have to allow it. But with other types of Internet abuse, you need to be more firm. Specifically, you can’t have employees using the corporate network to steal media content. Gen Y-ers cannot grasp that sharing MP3 files or downloaded movies is theft; this is literally beyond their comprehension. Explain that there are some upper-level managers who just don’t “get it,” and that these managers unfortunately have the authority to fire people. This will no doubt elicit a knowing smirk—Millennials are expert at covering their tracks—so you must follow up by saying, in a low voice, “Look, there are sysadmin people in this company very jealous of your success. They might just have nothing better to do than set up network traps to get you busted.”

Of course, even bringing up Internet acceptable use policy will get you labeled as one of “them,” so to build back the rapport with your Millennial, you need to get up, close your door, draw your blinds, and let him in on a little “secret”: that there’s a conference room with an extra PC that isn’t on the corporate network but instead steals Internet connectivity from the Starbucks in the lobby. He can use this PC to browse untoward websites, just like he did at the public library as a junior high kid.

Sensitivity training

Gen Y-ers are known for being sensitive. But this doesn’t mean they’re sensitive to others’ feelings—just to their own. We’d all like to think these kids have evolved into something kinder and gentler than we are, but honestly, what can we expect from a generation whose credo is “Sucks to be you!”?

It is widely accepted among Millennials that you can insult somebody as bluntly as you want, as long as you say, “Ha ha, you’ve just been punked!” afterward. It is very uncommon, however, for them to consider their audience for such gibes; that is, they’re just as likely to insult a grey-haired senior colleague as one of their pals. Naturally you cannot assume the senior colleague will understand, so you need to alter the Gen Y employee’s behavior.

The best angle to work here is the purely pragmatic. Don’t say, “Now Tyler, you shouldn’t give Donald a hard time just because he prints out so many documents. He’s kind of sensitive about his work habits and feels like you’re making fun of his age.” That’s just not going to work. What you should say is, “Tyler, don’t make fun of Donald. He’s a gun nut and kind of unstable.”

This sensitivity washes both ways. For example, if Donald, who is putting his daughter through Columbia, sees fit to pack a sack lunch every day, he certainly may. But just because he’s always eaten peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches doesn’t mean he can continue to do so. Millennials are likely to be allergic to peanuts, and even if they’re not, would be scandalized to see a peanut product right out there in the open. After all, peanut products are practically a controlled substance in modern schools. In deference to Gen Y, have your older employees switch to another type of nut butter.


This guide is really just the beginning. Behaviors among Generation Y are always changing and shifting, even as older employees become ever more rigid, even brittle, in their ways. Perhaps the best way to motivate Millennials, and make them feel good, is to ask their opinion about how you should behave. (It’s tempting to have them critique this guide, but of course they’re much too busy.)

dana albert blog