Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Two stories from today...

Funny first, serious second:

Excuse Me?

At work today I was supposed to take the lead on a very sensitive conference call with an unhappy client. We had four of our employees on the phone on our end, one of our salespeople had called in remotely, and the client had three of their people on the phone, including the CEO.

After ten minutes or so things had gone fairly well, and I whispered to the other people in the room, asking if it was time to launch into the sensitive topics. They gave me the green light. I began to speak, and things got very quiet on the other end of the line. I finished the opening statement, and then three very surprising words were practically growled into the phone, and into our ears:

"You fu#(ing idiot!"

All of our eyes almost popped out of our heads. We caught our breath. Finally I said, "Excuse me? Was that you, Spence (the CEO)?"

"No," he said tersely. "That was somebody from your company."

We all looked at each other. What was going on here? We didn't say anything. A few seconds later our salesperson chimed in. "Everybody, I'm so, so sorry. I'm on the cell phone in my car, and somebody just pulled out right in front of me. I only missed them by inches, and I thought my phone was muted. Again, I apologize."

Oooookay. The timing couldn't have been weirder.

After we all recovered, we actually did get to discuss the sensitive issues, and even reach some resolution on them. But the poor sales guy was mortified. The irony of it all is that he takes great care to always be courteous and professional, even more than most of the other sales team members. So it was perfect that he was the guy to make a slip like that.

I bet you can guess how I'll address the next email I send the sales guy. "Hey, f#$%...."

Just say "noo-boo sheshaw" and hem the pickles

A lot of people have been talking about the Miss Teen USA pageant, and the contestant from South Carolina who majorly botched a question about U.S. education:

Most of the feedback has consisted of blonde jokes and bimbo-type snide remarks. I admit, it's possible that she's just extremely ignorant. However, I also read that later in the show she perfectly nailed a question about how lunar eclipses work, so it's possible that she's actually quite intelligent.

Here's my guess. I think she's smart. I think she had a total, public-speaking panic and freakout when the question was asked, and mindlessly rambled with a smorgasbord of words that she had learned through dozens of hours of pageant practice. And she did it all with a calm demeanor, again because she had been trained thoroughly.

If she had been less polished, she would've sounded a lot like a red-headed, skinny 18-year-old high school senior back in 1994. Back then I was asked to visit a few classrooms at my high school and tell them about a new feature that would be running in the school newspaper. No big deal.

I got into the first classroom (all lowly sophomores) and asked the teacher for permission to make a quick announcement. She agreed, and I froze. I couldn't remember why I was there, or what I was supposed to say. Eventually I mumbled something like this:

"You see.... the way it works is.... you come and tell us if you've got something, and then we'll get to work for you. And that's all you got to do. Thank you."

I left the room in a cold sweat and practially collapsed in the hallway. I wasn't stupid, but anyone who had seen that miserable experience would surely have thought otherwise. I know what it feels like to have such a complete mental breakdown in front of a crowd, that simple English becomes a complex task far beyond reach.

I think this happened to Miss South Carolina, and I hope she gets over it. It literally took me years before I could speak in front of a group again without flashing back to that moment in a sophomore classroom.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Stories of my father-in-law

Lowell is my father in law. It's pronounced like "pole", but with an L instead of a P. He and my mother-in law live three doors down from us, which has worked out amazingly well. It sorta messes up the whole stereotype about in-laws.

Here are three snapshots of the man who I'm grateful to have as a second father:

What Now?

In the spring of 1998, I was a senior in college, and Jamie was a junior. I knew I was headed to business school in Houston for my MBA after graduation, but Jamie would need at least one more semester to graduate (she started a year later than me, so she was actually ahead of the game). That meant that after three years of dating, I was coming up on college graduation, but I hadn't asked her to marry me yet. We had a mutually implicit understanding that we were engaged... it just wasn't official. For that to happen, I need to ask Lowell for permission to marry his daughter.

Fortunately he was scheduled to come to our college town that spring for some meetings. Also, you should remember that all four of my grandparents live in my college town, and were my best friends throughout school. That will come into play here.

So Lowell arrives in town, and my grandparents and Jamie start the scheming. Eventually they work it out so that on Saturday afternoon, all of them leave on some kind of shopping trip and leave me and Lowell at the house by ourselves for a couple of hours. Here's how it went down:

Me: "So, you can probably guess why they left us alone."
Lowell: "Yeah, it's kinda obvious."
Me: "I'm asking your permission to marry Jamie. She's the one for me, and I want her to be my wife."
Lowell: "Michael, we've been praying for 20 years about Jamie finding a great husband one day. And I think you're the guy."
Me: ".... that's it? No speech or life lessons?"
Lowell: "No. I don't think that's really necessary. How long is everybody going to be gone?"
Me: "An hour or two. I think they were worried that preacher Lowell would want to give a sermon or two at this big moment."
Lowell (laughing): "......"
Me: "What now?"

New Tricks for the Old Dog

Lowell was a preacher and minister for 30 years, but when they moved to Houston five years ago, it was to escape yet another church job that had not worked out as promised. He was burned out, disillusioned and unmotivated to find another preaching position. It was time for a change.

I watched him struggle for months to even figure out the next step. Eventually he decided on insurance sales, and studied diligently for more months to pass all of the license exams. He did pass them, and became an insurance salesmen. It wasn't a fit. He was unhappy and unsuccessful, and knew that something else had to be out there for him.

He knew he wanted to have a personal, spiritual impact in his job, but he wasn't ready to work in a formal church role. At some point a friend mentioned that he should check into becoming a chaplain. Immediately this idea clicked for Lowell.

He would be able to help sick people in hospitals, and minister to the family and friends of those who are sick. So at more than 50 years of age, after almost three decades of doing the same job, he started on something completely new.

The training and certification program for chaplains was surprisingly intense -- I had no idea what it took to qualify for the job. I'm not sure he foresaw that either, but again he made it through. By the time his training was complete, he was a vastly improved communicator and empathizer:

  • He knew his natural response to stress, and why he responded that way
  • He knew how to adjust his natural response and make it appropriate for each situation
  • He knew how to walk into a hospital room and figure out which family member is alpha dog, who needs special counseling, and how they will deal with illness and even death.
  • He knew how to connect with people from all faiths, or no faith.

Today he is a chaplain in a hospice care center, which means that his job revolves around helping people who are near death. And helping their families too.

His trademark skill is singing old gospel songs. Dozens of times he has been told that a patient was unresponsive, vegetative and simply waiting for their life to end. And almost every time, if they were a church member, he would find out their favorite songs and then sit with them and start singing. And almost every time, they respond.

So far Lowell's been a minister and a chaplain. I'm hoping that at some point he adds "author" to his reportoire, because I'd love to read "The Singing Chaplain" and get a glimpse of the way that music reaches into the depths of a person's heart, and touches them when almost nothing else can.

This is potentially the start of a new series about my family members. Beware, parents, grandparents, brother, aunts and uncles. You may be next!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Looking back

I turned 31 on Friday, and had a great time over the weekend. As usual, I also got introspective and reflective about how my life continues to change. How my body and spirit change over time. Which lessons I learn, forget, learn again, forget again, etc...

Here's what I've come up with so far, comparing the 31-year-old Michael with the 26-year-old Michael. A five-year comparison:


  • My hair is finally beginning to recede a little bit on the front left side. Nothing major, but it's there. Yet my ears and nose are hairier than ever, and the hair keeps getting thicker and tougher. I know it's a stereotype, but it's still something when it's you that it's happening to.
  • I weigh the same as the 26yo Michael. But I have a few more pounds of muscle and a few less pounds of fat today, so my body composition has improved. Given my erratic workout history, I'll take it.
  • My joints are getting stiffer. Five years ago, a pre-workout warmup was a waste of time and a nuisance. Now it's almost essential.
  • My vision is infinitely better than five years ago. Either I've discovered a priceless secret formula, or that LASIK thing really does work.
  • My sleep schedule is much more regular. The variance of bedtimes and wake-up times has diminished a ton, so my overall energy levels are improved.
  • My libido doesn't dominate my mood as it used to. Literally, if I was cravin' some lovin' five years ago I was a miserable SOB around the clock. Now I can deal with it a lot better.


  • Related to the last point above, Jamie noted that my spirit is thicker than it used to be, in other words things don't affect me negatively as much as before. It remains to be seen if this is just a factor of age, if it's due to the experience of weathering more of life's storms, or if it's some combination of both. Basically my lows aren't as low as they used to be, and I don't go there as easily and often.
  • I have a better empathy of the world around me, and how other people really don't think the same way as me. Everybody's a true individual, a universe unto themselves, with something unique to contribute to the world. And I'm more interested in discovering those contributions.
  • I am much more content with my job than at age 26, yet I spend less time at the office. I am also less interested in promotions, and more interested in simply doing good work and making a difference in the people I work with. I'm more relationship-oriented, and less project-oriented, although my tendency is still to put the project first.
  • I have never been more unsure of religious doctrine and agnostic about some major faith foundations. Yet I've never been more at peace spiritually. Quite the paradox, as the 26yo Michael placed a high value on having solid doctrine and being assured of the right religious path. The 31yo Michael doesn't care much for that anymore, and just wants to do as much good as he can in his little corner of the world.
  • I get angry more often than I did at age 26. This is directly tied to being a father, where five years ago Jamie was 4 months pregnant with Samantha, our firstborn. So that's really not a fair comparison, as fatherhood has forced me to deal with some major selfishness issues. I'm sure I would've had even more anger issues if I was a father at age 22 or 25. Overall, though, I feel like I'm consistently improving in that area, although it's a startling challenge.

When I look at the day-to-day differences in my life over the past five years, it's a pretty big change, and mostly due to becoming a parent. Today I get less sleep, less sex and less discretionary income that I did at age 26. Yet I'm much happier today. Who would've thunk? If things keep on this track for another decade or two, I'll be a celibate, broke insomniac who's annoyingly joyful around the clock. Works for me!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Where work and play intertwine

It may seem like I haven't posted much lately. That's probably because I haven't.

But I've been writing a ton, believe it or not. For some reason, though, my writing just seems... off. I've got a couple of complete blog posts saved in my computer right now, but they're not ready yet. So here's some lighter fare for tonight:

I got my haircut today -- it had been six weeks so I was looking pretty shaggy. As the lady did her thing with a trimmer and some scissors, a 60-year-old man walked in, wearing a blue apron and holding some sort of bag/case that looked just like those doctor's kits back in the day when they would do home visits.

He walked in, greeted all the ladies working, and went to the empty station right next to me. He opened his kit to reveal a plethora of cleaning, sharpening and straightening tools. He then selected a few specific tools and laid them out carefully on the counter. Then he began.

He started by grabbing the scissors at that station, and using the sharpening tool on them. Next he held the scissors up to the light and examined them from every angle, making sure they were perfectly straight. They didn't meet his expectation, so he got out some sort of wrench and worked on the scissors for a minute or two. Then he was happy.

Finally he cleaned and polished the scissors until they looked brand new. In less than 10 minutes he had taken a dull, dingy, heavily-used pair of scissors and turned them into his own little masterpiece. You could feel the pride and thrill emanating from his body language.

The next part was the only sad part. He looked around and asked each haircutter, "How's your kit?" Each one sweetly said, "Fine." He smiled, wiped his hands on his apron, and said, "Aw, you're making Ralph's job easy today. See you soon." Then he walked out with his doctor's kit.

I'm pretty sure he gets paid to do what he does. I'm absolutely sure he would do it whether he was paid or not.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Come on in and enjoy the psychosis

Jamie tells me that my mind works in very weird ways. Most of my friends suspect the same, until their assumptions are proven true and then they're no longer my friends. I'm mostly joking here.

My brain is kinda like the zoo -- it's kinda fun to know it's there, and once in a while you might even take a peek inside, but you'd never want to live there.

Many times in conversation with Jamie, we'll have those pauses where the talk just peters out. A few seconds later I'll launch into a new topic, and she usually asks, "How you did you get to this, going from what we just talked about?" I'll walk her through my mental process, and then she'll do the high-eyebrow, "Ooooookay" look before she runs to tell the kids that daddy's gonna be just fine, and to pay no heed to the men in white coats when they arrive.

Yesterday I got stuck in traffic on the road. Here's what I thought about:

  • The Astros game was fun last night! Sure was hot, though. Funny how some of the players wore long sleeves, even in the heat. I heard Troy Smith did that in training camp with the Baltimore Ravens this week. Hmm... why did baseball uniforms become so big and bulky? And why does it seem like the bigger the body, the looser the uniform? Wouldn't those guys want to show off their guns?
  • Ha, I remember Danny Tartabull showing off his man-cannons. His entire batting stance was specifically built around flexing and raising his sleeves. Good times.
  • I was built more like Jim Eisenreich. No flexing there. Skinny and even wore glasses and plastic goggles sometimes, just like me. Or am I thinking of Chris Sabo with the goggles? I don't know. Rec specs, they were called. I hated those things. Didn't Eisenreich also have Tourette's? I never heard of any other athletes with that. Wonder how it was playing with that, and if he could get more leeway with the umpires if he threw out some f-bombs. Snarkleducky!
  • Why is there a billboard sign up here promoting the margaritas at the local restaurant, with a picture of what looks to be a transvestite drinking it? I mean, that's total man-face. Might as well put some mascara on Maury Povich and ask him to hock Fresca.
  • What's up with billboards in general? In Oklahoma and Missouri there were all these religions ones, many of them just saying "JESUS" in white letters on a black background, and nothing else. Is that a promotion for faith, or are they using God's name in vain at me?
  • Why did Missouri have so many billboards for vasectomy reversals? Do they really have middle-aged guys (post-snip) driving down the road and thinking, "Darn, I sure wish there was a doc who would open up my sac and untwist my tubes again so I could have more babies.... whoa! Looky there! Jackpot!"

Jamie interrupts with a phone call to my cell:


Jamie: "Where are you on the road?"

Me: "Just past I-10. I'm about 15 minutes away."

Jamie: "I've gotta get out of here. The kids are insane. We're heading to PetSmart to play with the animals."

Me: "At 5 o'clock on a weekday? And you're going north up 610? The traffic will be terrible."

Jamie: "I don't care. At least they'll be strapped down and I'll have my own seat."


That's when it struck me why it's so hard for many couples to adjust to all the ways their relationship changes when kids arrive on the scene. When we were a DINK couple (Dual Income, No Kids), we both left the office around 5pm, dying to get off the road and into the house. Now at 5pm, Jamie wants nothing more than to get on the road and out of the house.

I'll have to think about that some more.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Vacation recap, part 2

Alrighty then, it's time for the real recap. To explain the delay, we've had some technical difficulties here in Houston. Our phone/internet line has been experiencing frequent outages for more than a month with all the rainstorms here, and a lightning strike the day after we returned from vacation finally knocked out our phone line for good. It took a while to get it fixed but now we're up and running again. And while catching up on a week's worth of office work, it wasn't really possible to post this update from the office. Not that I would ever do that or anything.

First I'll write some of my flash memories from the trip, then I'll show off the pictures. We're loving our new digital camera.

  • The only bad note -- my temper. I was angry and overreacting to a lot of my kids' stuff throughout the week. As my dad and I talked about at one point, the band Nickel Creek has a great song that says, "Other people have excuses; I have my reasons why...". So of course I have a list of "reasons why" I was off-balance and quick to get angry. But they're just excuses. Jamie noted that I wasn't really myself during the week. I hope I can do better next year.

  • Enough of that; on to the good stuff!

  • Seeing my brother and his family was a great pleasure. We don't get to see each other often, and it's something I hope we can improve on over time. This was the most time I've ever spent with his wife and son, and I really loved it. And them.

  • My grandparents were my best friends from my college days (I went to school in the town where they live), so it's always great to be with them. They're still healthy and continue to shower everyone they meet with love and grace.

  • My parents were here in Houston just a couple of months ago, but it was striking to think of how much my kids had changed in those two months. We got to show off these changes and watch the reactions.

  • My aunt and uncle are kinda the same story as my brother -- we don't get to see them often, but we sure do love it when we get the chance. My uncle took us out on the boat three times during the week, which was probably Jack's favorite part of the whole vacation.

  • I got to play golf with my dad and brother. Twice! My dad and I played terribly but still had fun, and my brother played the best I've ever seen from him. He shot an 85 on Thursday and probably hit 28 chip shots. His driving and putting were both excellent, and that was fun to watch. Every once in a while, my dad would also hit a shot that reminded us he can still shoot in the 70s. I would love for us to be able to find a best-ball tournament we could play in sometime. Don't know how that would work since we live in three different states, but it sure would be fun!

  • At the indoor waterpark, Samantha overcame her massive fear and went down the "blue slide" with me. It's a four-story tube tunnel -- dark, fast and fun. As soon as we hit the pool at the bottom, she started screaming, "Yes, Yes!" and pumping her fist. One of the highlights of the week for me.

  • Watching my kids learn to fish.

  • Driving with a sleeping wife and two sleepings kids in the van, all with identical facial features and head angles as they sleep. Freaky but funny.

  • Getting through the week with no trips to the ER. Jamie did go to the urgent care center with a really bad cough and fever, but they somehow missed the fact she had bronchitis. It was diagnosed later back at home.

  • Samantha jumping off the dock into the lake, repeatedly. She learned to trust her life jacket and loved getting a big running start before leaping into the water.

  • Going to the movies for the first time with my kids. We saw Ratatouille. Since I'm such a movie buff, it was very special to sit as a family and see the opening credits roll.

  • Spending a week with family, experiencing all different stages of life and a community of unconditional love.

Picture time! No captions or anything, and no thumbnails that link to bigger versions (I don't like the ads that popup for you on the site I've been using). And I didn't mean to leave out any family members, but naturally most of these focus on my own little crew:

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