Monthly Archives: December 2014

Out with the old

Replacing the calendar on the wall used to be one way to symbolized the start of a new year. Now nearly every electronic gadget can display the time and date with several button presses and a few profane utterances. Since my birth year stars with a 1 rather than a 2, I will hang a new calendar in the kitchen and break out a new Dilbert Day-to-Day calendar for the office desk. Regardless of the tracking method, 2014 becomes 2015 in less than six hours in this time zone. It has been very windy all day, as if to sweep the current year’s detritus into Iowa and other points south. Every new year should begin with hope and a clean start.

Have a safe New Year’s Eve!

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Into the wild gray yonder

The holiday travel season is in full swing even with the light rain and heavy overcast here in the Twin Cities on the winter solstice. Terminal 1 at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport seemed to do brisk business today, and I am sure Terminal 2 was also busy. I dropped off a friend at the airport this evening for a flight into the wild gray yonder to visit family and friends.

Holiday travel has occasionally been fraught with peril. All the airline consolidations and the constantly changing TSA regulations create many opportunities for screw ups. Overbooking and bumping complaints are quite common. For example, my consulting collaborator had the booking airline change the flight time AND date a mere few days after purchasing the ticket in late October. The date change went unnoticed until Friday night because of a heavy work schedule. Fortunately, it was a “no harm, no foul” change, but it was still somewhat unnerving. It also stole one day away the family visit. Weather surprises cause delays and cancellations, but this seemed to be a case of overbooking a flight, and then bumping the passenger before check in to avoid offering Denied Boarding Compensation.

One of my favorite movies during this time of the year is “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”. I spent over fifteen years traveling extensively on business and occasionally fell victim to the foibles of missing a connection, getting bumped, or once (and only once) having my employer change my return ticket to ship me to another customer site rather than back home. I’m quite proud of the fact I have not been on a flight since April 2000, and I am in no hurry to end my streak. Another thing I am proud of is I never had a business trip spoil holiday plans. I would have endured a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” trip to be home for the holidays, and came close to doing so a couple of times. Since most of my traveling was in the days before smartphones and when travel sites on the Internet were in a nascent state, I could not easily change my plans at the airport or car rental agency. It occasionally necessitated renting a car and driving an hour or two to a different airport in order to get a flight that got me home eight hours sooner.

Christmas is Thursday and many companies close early on Christmas Eve. Unsettled weather is here until Wednesday. Our current rain event might change over to snow now that all the snow has melted again. By Wednesday morning, the Twin Cities could have between 1″ – 4″ of new snow. Holiday traffic is usually slow and go, and the snow could snarl it badly. Other areas of the United States are forecasting heavy rain or heavy snow. Our forecast is a minor annoyance in comparison. Cancelled flights mean people will try booking travel on buses or renting cars to finish their trips. In some cases, the trip means spending the night in an airport terminal.

For those of you traveling into the wild gray yonder, I hope you safely arrive at your destination without any extra adventures or weather delays. Time with family and loved ones is precious, so take time to enjoy that gift. Be generous with the hugs and smiles. If you are flying, try being nice to the shower curtain ring salesman, because even well-meaning dolts need compassion, too. Just don’t let him handle your credit card.

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Drips to slips

There is a saying around here “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”. The weather in the Twin Cities can go from a violent storm to almost perfect weather in a few short hours. It can go the other way just as quickly. Despite the notion that Minnesota is a frozen wasteland nine months (or more) of the year, it does rain in December. This year’s rain came as the Twin Cities cooled down from a record high temperature resulting it going from drips to slips in a few short hours. The storm was fairly weak with snarled thoroughfares and slick sidewalks as the only lingering side effects. The old Irish blessing starting with “May the road rise up to meet you” takes on a literal meaning when one’s feet skid outward and upward.

Some of the December rains in years past produced ice-coated landscapes resembling a glassblower’s sparkling masterpiece. One particularly ill-timed storm nearly thirty years ago stuck just before Christmas Eve. Power lines coated with a thick glazing of ice buzzed, vibrated, and sometimes snapped. Utility poles snapped from the extra weight and some roofs collapsed. Jagged chunks of ice fell from tree limbs and sometimes the tree would split. Cars that were stuck in ditches or were damaged in collisions lined the roadway. What was normally a four-hour drive became a seventeen-hour drive with stops every five miles to break the ice off the windshield and the wiper blades. It was difficult seeing the beauty outside because the side windows had a thick coating of ice on them. Perhaps the reason this area is called a “winter wonderland” because people wonder if the weather will stay nice or turn nasty.

About fifteen years ago, I remember helping a coworker with car problems in mid-December, getting soaked while hooking up jumper cables in the pouring rain. Now I keep an umbrella and rain poncho in the car year around, although the snow shovel and the ice scraper get removed when the weather warms sufficiently. “Be prepared” is a way of life here, not just a motto.

Fortunately for the Twin Cities, the forecasts are biasing towards slightly above normal temperatures and dry conditions for Christmas. It may or may not be a white Christmas this year, but people appreciate safe travels and not needing to keep an eye on the weather or needing to leave early when enjoying time with family and friends. The drips to slips weather can wait until after the holidays.

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Scrambling towards the holidays

Here in the United States, we have three major holidays between the end of November and the beginning of January: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Christmas and New Year’s have fixed calendar dates and are exactly one week apart. The trickier holiday is Thanksgiving which Americans celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November, a date range of between the 22nd to the 28th. Obviously, the later in the month Thanksgiving falls, the fewer shopping and preparation days there are before Christmas. This year, Thanksgiving was November 27th, allowing for the second fewest number of days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Retailers are keenly aware of that fact as people are scrambling towards the holidays. Thanksgiving does not fall on November 22th again until 2018.

The weather has mostly cooperated to this point. No blizzards, no ice storms, no extended period of sub-zero Arctic air settling in, so traveling to retail establishments is mostly unimpeded. Parking lots are staying filled with shoppers racing to complete their lists, checking them twice, and trying to stuff over-sized SUVs into parking spots that are too small for mopeds. Never mind that the driver spent twenty minutes trying to park because that closer spot saved him or her a minute or two of walking. College chemistry and physics courses should show videos of quickly moving shoppers in crowded stores to visualize kinetic theory and optimal packing theory. Many retailers hope that sales meet or exceed expectations despite fewer shopping days. Increasing revenue from online shopping is apparently cannibalizing Black Friday sales, and my hope is it ends Thanksgiving day sales.

In addition to the scrambling to get shopping, decorating, baking, and housecleaning tasks completed in a shorter time, there is the end-of-year scramble beginning in mid-November. Most businesses in the United States align their fiscal years to the calendar year. There are some businesses that start their fiscal year in February, March or June to avoid completing their year-end accounting while in the throes of a peak time for business. Strategy meetings, budget requests, accounts receivables collections, sales and earnings forecasts, staffing requisitions and other business centric critical tasks require large amounts of time, caffeine, analgesics, and antacids for completion. Even those best laid plans go awry when a C-level or D-level executive asks “Can’t we just…?” while pondering a project timeline. My consulting collaborator would say those executives have a befuddled facial expression much “like a dog looking at a phonograph“. Those three little words, “can’t we just”, take about a second to say but they will add days to project completion even though the deadline is immovable. No wonder people celebrate New Year’s with particular fervor (and sometimes with copious quantities of adult libations).

My Facebook and Twitter feeds are filling with tales and pictures of this year’s baking and decorating accomplishments. I consider baking successful if the smoke detector did not go off, I did not use a fire extinguisher or first aid kit, nothing dented or broke, I only swore in English, and the result was edible. Nearly everyone posting is working full-time, and many have kids still at home, yet they found time to make lefse, krumkake, pirakkas and other delicious but time-consuming seasonal delicacies. Christmas trees lovingly decorated with heirloom ornaments and some recent additions from Hallmark adorn living rooms despite a pet’s best attempts at turning the tree into an oversize chew toy. Scrumptious cakes, pies, pastries and treats with all the calories magically removed (or so we wish) pose seductively on counter tops and tables. It is all inspiring and wonderful, so thank you for sharing!

As you are scrambling towards the holidays, take a couple of moments to breathe and to collect your thoughts. You deserve the break because you earned it. If you are lucky enough to have a special someone, give that person a long and meaningful hug, and for that precious interval, leave the scrambling to quarterbacks and eggs.

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