Friday, November 30, 2007

Days to remember

This past Wednesday was November 28. That will always be a powerfully important date in my life. This year's 11/28 was the one year anniversary of the blog post "Gang violence, up close", which is linked at the top-right of this page. The original title was "Life and death in one day", because:

Life -- My daughter Samantha was born on November 28, 2002.
Death -- I came upon the fatal shooting of Julian Ruiz on November 28, 2006.

It's like having a birthday on 9/11 or getting married on a day that later becomes the date of some awful event. Brings mixed emotions.

I decided to give some time to Julian's memory in the morning, and went to the memorial that's setup near the site of the shooting. I had written a letter to Julian and wanted to drop it off. As I did that, I noticed that Julian's dad, brother and lot of Julian's friends were hanging out there, just talking and reminiscing. I went over to them and ended up spending almost 90 minutes with Julian's dad. That conversation may be recapped another time, but not now.

The rest of the day was Samantha's! We had a great time eating at her favorite restaurant (Escalante's), watching her open presents and just basically making a huge deal of the whole thing. That's my job and I love it.

Here are a few things you may or may not know about Samantha, and then I'll conclude with a string of pictures from the past two years.

--She almost didn't survive to be born. Jamie had an emergency appendectomy at 8 months of pregnancy, which is very rare, and the surgery was high-risk for both her and unborn Samantha. I'll post that story in full in the next couple of weeks.

--She just turned 5 but she's been reading for quite a while. She read every one of her birthday cards by herself.

--Our bedtime routine is totally insane and fun. I pick her up, spin her around and throw her into bed (it's called the "super bunny hop"). One night I'll read a book, and the next night I'll make up a story. She gets to pick whether I say a "sweet prayer" or "silly prayer". Then she picks which song I sing to her. It's one of our most cherished times, and she talks about it regularly during the daytime hours, anticipating what lies ahead.

--From the time she was 18 months old, we've had a regular daddy/daughter date to eat kolaches on Saturday mornings. At first it was just me and her, but now usually all four of us go. She could put away two whole kolaches when she was two years old. You don't know what a kolache is? You should. They're awesome. See info here. Samantha's favorite is ham & cheese, although she's starting to enjoy the Italian chicken variety as well.

--My pet name for her is "sugar booger", sometimes shortened to "sugar".

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Things making me laugh

-- The people at the "Festival of Lights" on Saturday night, taking pictures with the flash on. Those are gonna turn out great.

--The 5-pound tub of animal crackers, with the phrase "Low-Fat!" in big red letters on the front of the tub. As if low-fat means healthy. I'm pretty sure this is how you make animal crackers:

1. Start with white flour, made with wheat and corn stripped of all nutrients and fiber, then bleached and infused with chemical leavening mixes.
2. Add sugar, a little shortening, salt and a hint of lemon.
3. Cut into cute animal shapes and cook.
4. Insert into 5-pound tub. Voila! A healthy snack!

Besides shortening, there's not a single ingredient that would have any fat content. But that doesn't make it healthy. And it does make me laugh while I enjoy them in small doses.

--The way Jack stands on his tip-toes when he gets excited.

--The brand new turbo Porsche Cayenne fighting for a parking spot at Ikea on Saturday while we were buying Samantha's new bed. I guess if you save lots of money by purchasing $29 end tables for your house, you can then afford a $90,000 automobile?

--The videos that the kids have been asking for on "Daddy's computer". And the fact that three of them are commercials. See below for the videos:

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Person of the week -- you decide

I've been away a while, enjoying the holidays, but I'll make it up to ya. Check back for at least three more blog entries this week.

Here are three people in Houston who are up for my "person of the week award" based on my observations. You pick who's the best, but I can tell you that they're all winners in my book. The first two finalists will be introduced in a story...

On Sunday nights we go to a small group bible study at a friend's house. We left a few minutes early last week to pick up some Capri Sun at the grocery store for all the kids at the group meeting. Parked the van at the store, and I ran inside to get the drinks while Jamie and kids waited in the car. "Be right back", I said. Idiot. I jinxed myself from the very beginning.

I went inside the store, grabbed the box of Capri Sun and went to the checkout line. The "Express" line, to be exact. There was only one guy in front of me buying only three items -- deodorant, paper plates and a chocolate cake from the bakery section. Shouldn't take more than 60 seconds, right?

The cashier scans the first two items then tries to pick up the chocolate cake. Oops. The container's plastic top comes off as he picks it up, and the entire cake crashes down into the basket, icing-side-down. Crap.

So I figure the cashier has two options at this point. Option #1 -- void the whole transaction and scan my single item sitting on the conveyor belt until they get the other guy a new cake. Option #2 -- go ahead and scan the messy cake's price tag, let the guy pay, and then go get him a new cake from the bakery. Either way, I should still be less than 60 seconds away from leaving the store.

The cashier chooses... neither option. He picks up the intercom phone and asks for a manager to come help. We wait two minutes. Nobody comes. He calls again. Two more minutes. Nobody comes. Finally a manager comes out of a room not more than 30 feet away, and proceeds to walk right past us. The cashier immediately gets on the intercom, "DEBRA! Aisle TWO!". She comes over and hears the tragic cake story.

Debra proceeds to take the cake and its plastic casing back to the bakery, and see if there is a replacment cake. We wait some more. After about three minutes, the customer says, "Well, I can tell you the price of the cake. It was $5.99, if you want to go ahead and ring it up."

What?!? You've known the price during the past 10 minutes we've all been standing around?! As the cashier is working the register, Debra comes back with a new cake. And it has a price tag of $10.99. The cashier delivers the news to the customer, and says he must have remembered the wrong price. The customer responds...

"$10.99? For that price, I don't want it."

He didn't buy the cake. It took me 15 minutes to buy the box of Capri Sun.

The cashier and the customers are two finalists for "person of the week". The third finalist is the guy I saw using his phone to write text messages, while driving 70mph on the highway. Smart.

Note: These are sarcastic deliveries of true events. I am still thankful for the ability to go to the store and buy safe, packaged drinks for the kids. That's a privilege much of the world does not have.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Family profiles -- my dad

What a powerful relationship -- the one between father and son. It is always powerful, and that power can be channeled into something either incredibly beneficial or devastatingly destructive. I'm fortunate to have the former with my dad.

As a child, I seem to recall the physical, rough-house type stuff that he and I would do. It may have been weird for him at first, because his generation was often raised without a lot of physical affection from their own fathers (I'm not saying his was like that). Yet I remember playing keep-away football games with him on the den floor. Riding on his shoulders. Kissing him goodnight while he sat in his rocking chair before I went off to bed. That's what I remember about those years. I was blessed to never experience the "angry father" moments that have hurt so many children. I don't ever recall a childhood time when he yelled at me. Of course, I could have just repressed it. :)

As a teen, we had our awkward times. The physical affection inevitably changed and waned as we felt our way through the transitioning relationship. I am the firstborn, so I'd never seen a teen boy's dynamics with his parents, and my dad had never experienced it either. I don't think I was necessarily a problem teen, but I had my areas of rebellion. It's okay to be intelligent, and it's even okay to know you're intelligent, but it's not a good thing to KNOW you're intelligent. Unfortunately that was me sometimes as a teen. I'm sure it wasn't easy for dad. I remember one time I was cleaning my parents' bedroom (yes, I had chores and am grateful for it) and saw a book on his nightstand about "How to relate to your teen". I thought that was so cool, because he was really making an effort to do his best during that naturally tense time. That's all anybody could ask for.

As an adult, he is one of my most trusted advisers in almost every aspect of life. The physically awkward phase is long gone and we open every meeting with a warm hug. Like what I've written about my brother, my dad and I may not talk much but I feel a very strong bond with him. I think around my mid-20s, as my ego and naivety began to chip away, I realized how special a person he is. And how much I would miss out on by failing to stay close to him.

Here a few stories about my dad:


We moved from northeast Arkansas to Kansas City when I turned 11. We moved at the end of summer, just in time to start at new schools. A few months later the basketball season started, and I joined a local league just like I had always done in Arkansas. It was funny because my age group in Kansas played on goals only 8 and a half feet high, while I had been playing on 10-foot goals in Arkansas for at least two or three years. So that first season was kinda fun and easy in a surprising way.

One way it wasn't easy was our coach. He had a little bit of temper. That was nothing new -- in fact, one of my earlier basketball coaches in Arkansas had been suspended for charging into the stands to confront a parent. Sports sometimes get intense, if you've never noticed.

In this 8.5-foot goal league in Kansas, my coach was the coach for three typical but less-than-optimal reasons: 1) He liked to be in charge 2) His own self-worth was seemingly tied to our wins and losses 3) His son was on the team.

During one game we weren't playing so well. And perhaps his son was playing particularly badly, although I don't remember. What I do remember is the coach using a rolled up magazine to hit his son in our huddle during a timeout. It wasn't a light tap either. It was a hit. There may have been more than one hit, and lots of angry words as well... I don't really remember.

What I do remember is that my dad came over and relieved the coach of duty. In case I forgot to mention it, my dad is a very big, strong guy with a bass voice. He can be quite persuasive, and in this case the coach was persuaded that it was in his best interest to leave the gym. My dad coached the rest of the game, and nobody else got hit or yelled at.

He protected me, he protected my friends, and he gave a powerful example to everybody of what it looks like to stand up against the wrong in life.


Some of you may know that I played college baseball, and even got some attention from pro scouts as a freshman. What you may not know is that I didn't play high school baseball. The coach had something against me that I never discovered, and every summer I would dominate the baseball league, then every spring I would fail to make the high school team against those same players.

Four years in a row I was the last player cut. That meant that I had been practicing with the team for about two weeks, though all the long rounds of tryouts for a 6A school. Every year for four years. And every year I eventually had to leave the team after two weeks, and watch them play without me. They won the state tournament my senior year, with batters who couldn't hit my pitching and pitchers who couldn't get me out. I wasn't popular in high school -- a sport like baseball was really my only ticket to finding a group of friends. And I never got it.

Being cut my senior year was the most painful by far. After three years of not making the team, I was pretty sure I didn't even want to attend tryouts again. But I had grown physically and my play had gone to a new level. After leading the local All-Star team (of which I was the only guy who wasn't on the school team) in the state tournament, another high school coach told me I may be able to get some pro scouting interest already. Surely, I thought, I'm a lock to make the high school team for my senior year. But I didn't.

My dad knew very well how crushed I was. We didn't really talk about it, but one night I went to bed and found an envelope on my pillow, addressed to "Son". It was from dad.

He wrote that in five years nobody would know or care if I had made the high school baseball team. Heck, next year I'd probably be playing college ball. But in five years my character would still be my most important asset, and it would be shaped by my response to the unfair things in life. He assured me that he is proud of me and loves me, and that he was sorry for the pain I was feeling.

It's one of the best letters I've ever received. I've never told anyone about it until now.


Around my 20th birthday my dad decided to upgrade my golf clubs. I was using some super-cheap set of starter clubs and he felt like it was time for the real thing. He'd played with me enough to know my swing and my tendencies, so he took me to a store to get custom measurements and a custom set of brand new clubs. It was a great gift.

My first time on the driving range with them, I broke two of the clubheads clean off the shaft. They literally launched out into the driving range, and I was left holding a metal stick. I fetched the clubheads and went home immediately to show dad. He got on the phone right away with the golf store and they told him all sales were final, and that I must've "abused" the clubs in some way to break them. He simply said, "We'll see. I'm coming there right now" and hung up the phone.

We took the clubs to the store and showed the damage. The store owner initially refused any responsibility for the shabby product. Then he said he would replace the broken clubs. Then he said he'd give us store credit. My dad walked out with a full refund and a promise to never go in that store again.

He took me to another store that had lots of high-quality, slightly used clubs. My left-handed status means that finding used clubs can be difficult, but the prices are low because demand is low. He searched until he found an excellent set of used left-handed clubs that were strong and reliable. I'm still using them 10 years later.

And every time I play golf and see those clubs, I remember how I got them, and who got them for me.

That's my dad.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Family profiles -- my brother

My brother Matt is 2 years, 9 months and 2 days younger than me. He is my only sibling.

We don't get to talk much or see each other much these days, but I feel that our bond is still strong. People call each other "brother" in church, on sports teams, and even in online communities. Those are reflections of the types of bonds that exist between true blood brothers. I'm glad to have one.

When we were growing up, he couldn't ever sneak up on me no matter how many times he tried. I always felt when he was close. It may seem hokey or like something from The Twilight Zone, but it was there.

As the younger brother, he inevitably, and unfairly, got compared to me. I figured why break the tendency? Here's some insight into my brother, as compared to myself:

He's stronger than me, physically

Just because I'm the older brother doesn't mean I'm the bigger one. He could pretty much beat me up during several of our childhood years -- it took puberty (mine) to give me an edge in hand-to-hand combat.

This brought an interesting dynamic into our relationship, because physically we didn't seem to be three years apart. I was always skinny (ok... frail), and he was thick and strong like our dad.

Now that the growth plates are all settled, I've topped out a couple of inches taller than him. But he's still got me in the weight department, and could probably destroy me in a wrestling match.

At least he can't sneak up on me.

He's more sensitive than me, spiritually

When I was 12 and he was almost 10, we came home after church and Matt had a talk with dad. Matt said that "it felt like the preacher was talking directly to him" during the sermon, and he wanted to be baptized.

I think that's really cool, and I admit I'm jealous. I don't think I've ever had that feeling about a sermon in more than 30 years of church attendance. But my brother did. At age 10.

To this day, his heart is very sincere and pure in places where mine is cerebral and cynical. I know he teaches some classes at church and am sure he connects with the people there in a great way.

He's more comfortable than me, socially

He had lots more friends than me in high school. It was pretty cool because they would all come over to house and hang out. I know that's pretty much what high school kids do, but we didn't experience that with my friends because I didn't really have any who were close enough to come over.

Thankfully he shared his friends with me.

So that's a peek at my brother -- I hope that this time he doesn't mind the comparison. :)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Verbal Do-Overs

My mom was a big fan of do-overs. For a short while during my childhood we played tennis together as a family -- it was usually me and Mom against Dad and my brother. Whenever Dad or Matt would hit a laser close to Mom, she's shout "Too hard! Do-over!" The point didn't count. It was like it never happened.

We've all had the experience of waking up at 2am and finally coming up with the perfect comeback to someone's snarky comment earlier in the day. If only we had a verbal do-over.

If I could go back in time, here are a few of my verbal do-overs from the past week. Feel free to share yours in the comments section or in your own blogs (doesn't everybody have one now?).

#1 -- YMCA locker room (bet you'd never have guessed)

Setting: I'm getting undressed to take a shower, and a very naked man, in absolutely no rush to find or don clothing, asks me what I do for a living. My answer ended up starting a long, uncomfortable discussion that seemed full of inuendo (on his end).
What he said: "What do you do for a living?"
What I said: "I'm in Sales."
My verbal do-over: "I work for the CIA, running sting operations to capture sex perverts."

#2 -- Trunk-or-Treat at our church

Setting: Our van was one of the 70 vehicles that was decorated and setup to pass out candy to kids in our parking lot. Over 4,000 people attended. Have you ever passed out candy to 4,000 people? It's exhausting. After two hours of candy and costumes, my sense of humor started getting weird, and it completely turned off an asian mother. Apparently what they perceive as funny is very different. And very not me.
What she said: "You Shaggy from Scooby Doo! You look just like him!"
What I said: "Thank you; it took hours of make-up. I'm actually a short blonde man." (She proceeded to scowl and walk away angrily)
My verbal do-over: "Thank you! Happy Halloween!"

#3 -- Ice cream surprise

Setting: Me, Jamie and the kids were at our regular Friday night ice cream date (Marble Slab in Houston). Samantha got out an imaginary yardstick and began measuring things. Then she decided to measure me, starting from my toes and ending at my head:
What she said: "One, two three, four... ten inches. Are you ten inches, Daddy?"
What I said: "Not now, but maybe later. It depends on Mommy."
My verbal do-over: "Not in my wildest dreams, sweetheart."