Sunday, April 19, 2015

Once Upon a Time

"Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be this hard. Oh, take me back to the start."

We were nearing the end of one history's most tumultuous decades. Although there was time left in the decade for fads and new crazes to be discovered and forgotten, the 80's were knocking at the door ready to put the decade to pasture. Saturday Night Fever and the disco phenomenon that it created would hang onto the decade with its entire might. Rock music bands like Kiss, Aerosmith, and Peter Frampton were rising to fame. Jimmy Carter's popularity had not drastically declined yet. Although there was only a year and a half left in the decade, the 70s were running a marathon with no finish line and iron lungs. There was no end in sight. The good times seemed like they would last forever.

Like the decade of change, the concept of time had been lost on my friends and me. Every day was a new adventure. Jason Rein, Stan Williams, and I looked forward to each new day. We didn't watch TV, and video games hadn't reached the home market yet. For entertainment, we rode bicycles and used our imaginations to create an imaginary escape a la The Bridge to Terabithia before anyone had even read the book. The ditch that ran underground from Stewart Street to across town was our fortress. Every day we met and played there until our parents got home from work. The days seemed to last forever. We didn't think those days in the summer of 1978 would ever end. We just enjoyed life in the moment without the realization of inevitable change.

As great as life seemed at that moment, the story of how I got there made it even more remarkable. The ditch that we transformed into our kingdom was actually a culvert that ran parallel to our one bedroom apartment. A one bedroom apartment might be nice for a single guy in his early 20's, but not for my 2 brothers, myself and my mother. Although it was small, we somehow made room for all of us. Larry had a bed in the kitchen/dining room next to the kitchen table, and Bruce somehow fit a cot into a compact utility room. I shared the bedroom with my mother.

I didn't know it at the time, but we were definitely poor. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not prejudice in any way, but I had legitimately never been around anyone other than someone of the Caucasian race until we moved to Tennessee. We lived in a very sheltered and pampered neighborhood. I remember the neighbors getting upset when a family of Mexican descent moved into the neighborhood. I heard the comments, but I didn’t know what they meant at the time. Like our Terrabithia getaway, our neighborhood was pretty much an imaginary shelter from the outside world. I had no idea how other cultures existed. I knew nothing of the prejudices and insecurities of the inhabitants of our up-scale neighborhood. I was just a kid.

I would like to say that I handled the transition smoothly, but I was 8 years old. I experienced quite the culture shock. I cried every day at school. Here I was a popular classmate from where I came from and now I was an outcast. Within a few months, however, I assimilated with the rest of my classmates and began making friends. It did take me more than a few years, though, to get used to all of y'alls and coke instead of you guys and pop.

Both Larry and Bruce were quite a few years older than me, so they were able to go to work to earn extra money. Larry went to work at Milan Dairy Queen. There, he worked for a guy named Larry Nicholson. Mr. Nicholson was infamously cheap. Larry one told us of how Mr. Nicholson made him count the pickle slice in a bucket to make sure that the total count was relevant to the amount of burgers sold. Bruce used liquid paper on his birth certificate to change his birth date so he could go to work as well. He used the date on his forged birth certificate for many years until he almost got into trouble when enlisting in the army. With my mother and both of my brothers working most of the time, this left me at home by myself more often than not. I wasn't alone though. I shared our mythical fortress with Stan and Jason. When they weren't around, I used my imagination and ruled the kingdom.

We had moved to Tennessee shortly after my sister's death. I was aware of her sickness throughout my younger years as she often spent weeks in the hospital, or doctors would come visit her at our house. She was sick as long as I knew her, so it just seemed normal for me. Her death didn't shock me at the time as it seemed like it was her next step like graduating from high school or something. I didn't truly understand what had happened. It wasn't until a few days later that it hit me that she was actually gone.

Larry didn't get sick the first year that we lived in Tennessee. He has the same affliction as my sister, but his symptoms were not as severe at the time. I knew that he was sick too, but once again I didn't fully understand the extent of his illness. He was a senior in high school, while I was beginning the third grade when we moved to Tennessee. There's not much fun an 18 year old can have with a 9 year old hanging around all the time, so I was left to my own resorts to keep myself busy. As mentioned earlier, he worked while attending his senior year to help support himself and help out my mother when she needed it. It was probably difficult trying to maintain a sense of belonging with other high school seniors while balancing his illness and working late nights during the school week. It didn't help that he had to acclimatize into an unfamiliar student body after attending school with the same people for 11 years. Nevertheless, he never let his illness top him from achieving his goals.

As the summer of 78 closed, we ended up moving from our little duplex on Stewart Street into a 3 bedroom house that I lived in until I graduated. At the time, I didn't mind leaving my friends and our fortress behind as I knew there would be opportunities to make new friends and find new adventures. Besides, I promised to visit often. There would be new adventures, but nothing would ever come close to the fun that we had at our fortress. It was the best fortress in the world.

Larry and Bruce didn't stay at the new house for long. After Bruce graduated, they rented a duplex together. I began new adventures with new friends. I'd visited Stan and Jason a few times, but never returned to Stewart Street again after the first year of living in our new house. After a few years, Larry moved back in the house with us as Bruce had married and had joined the military to support his family. Larry continued his education and began a career in electronic engineering. His illness had progressed, though, and was beginning to have the same symptoms as my sister.

Much like my sister, he began spending more and more time in the hospital. He probably spent an average of 16-20 weeks in the hospital from the ages of 22-26. Though he was able to stabilize his sickness to a degree afterwards, he still spent significant time in the hospital every year for the remaining years of his life. Even though he was sick, he still managed to maintain his career and build a respectable life for himself. He was ahead of his time in the field of electronics. If he were alive today, he'd probably have made millions developing apps for Apple.

Like my sister. Being sick was the only way that I knew my brother. He was much more fortunate than my sister in that he lived almost twice as long. Although his disease was basically a death sentence from birth, it was just normal for us. I was an adult by the time Larry succumbed to his disease. Unlike when my sister died, I fully understood what had happened. We all knew that it would happen eventually, but I had accepted the normalcy that wasn't normal at all. Although I knew it could happen, I never really accepted that it would happen.

Bruce and I were more fortunate than Debbie and Larry. Somehow, we weren’t born with the lung disease, Cystic Fibrosis, like they were. We lived healthy normal lives. Besides normal rounds of viruses and minor flu-like illnesses, we didn't know what it was like was to struggle to breathe every day. Although we were not as close as I would have liked to have been, we shared a bond as survivors. No matter the distance or differences between us, we shared memories of what our family used to be. We both moved on in our own way, but that bond was always there.

When Bruce got sick with lung cancer, it was a shock to everyone. Here was a guy who was in impeccable shape. He was well respected member of the community, teacher, and father. How in the world could he get sick? It still doesn't make sense to me. When he was given 6 months to live, I didn't accept it either. Much like I had grown accustomed to the normalcy of my other siblings' sickness, I expected everything to stay as it was. I would always have a brother. We would grow old and get together every now and then with each of us achieving success in our own manner. Ironically, the last time I had a good old fashion enjoyable talk with Bruce was after my uncle's funeral. We ate together at the Mexican restaurant and just talked about life in general. We joked and had a good time. Afterwards, we both went back to our separate lives. I envisioned many more of those lunches as we both would get a chance to take a break from everyday life.

Although I want to believe that they are in a better place, the only thing I know for certain is that they are not here. They are not here to enjoy that song on the radio that they haven't heard in years. They'll never get to see their favorite movie again. As much as I want to believe in an afterlife, I can't get past the fact that they are not here. The word death is pretty final after all. It all just doesn't make sense to me. Sometimes, I still get an inclination to call Larry or Bruce for advice on a project before I quickly come to my senses and realize that I can't do that. I also realize that my mother, dad, or wife would think I'd lost my mind if I mentioned anything of the sort.

I still have goals and aspirations that I want to accomplish in this lifetime. Life has been good to me and I have many blessings that I am thankful for. When we drive through Milan by that little duplex apartment on Stewart Street, however, I sometimes am taken back to that time when it seemed like the good times would last forever. For the brief moment that we pass the old apartment, I envision what it was like to be a kid with no worries, a kid with nothing yet had everything, and a world with limitless bounds. I was still the little brother who when he wasn't tagging along, he was ruling an imaginary kingdom with his friends. Sometimes, I wish I could twist the magic Rubik's cube and go back to the start.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Real American Hero

"Did you ever know that you're my hero?" You're everything I wish I could be."

Big brothers are meant to be looked up to. As a kid growing up, you want to be just like them. It's natural order. You need look no further than to watch two young siblings interact. I see it with my grandchildren Jamison and his sister Addie, and Bryant and his sister Brookelynn. The looks in Addie and Brookelynn's eyes as they follow their older brothers around and mimic their every move are priceless. In their innocent age, their big brothers are their heroes. As they grow, they will continue to learn and look up to their brothers.

Time has a funny way of separating bonds. Sometimes it creates wedges that egos and pride won't let you restore. If they are lucky, there will be no wedge to drive them apart. However, there are bound to be some riffs that cause division along the way. Sibling rivalry, jealousy, etc. It's part of growing up. It happens to us all. One thing is certain, though. No matter how mad the sisters become at their brothers, they will always seek their brothers' approval in nearly everything they do. They'll never admit it, and may not even realize that they are seeking it, but they have sought it since day one.

I remember "tagging along" with my brother, Bruce. My mom would make him take me along with his friends when they went riding on their bicycles in the neighborhood. He would always try and convince me to find my friends and go play with them. There were times that he would tell me to wait for him downstairs or outside, while he disappeared from another window or door from the house. He "ditched" me quite often. Not that I blame him, a group of six grade friends probably didn't want or need a kindergarten kid hanging around. I never grew wise. Sometimes, he'd tell me that we would play a quick game of hide and seek before catching up with his friends. Of course, he'd be long gone by the time I opened my eyes after counting to ten.

Although he wouldn't let me "tag along" with his friends, he still took care of his little brother. Whether it was ice skating on a frozen Indiana pond, building bicycle ramps to emulate Evel Knievel, or catching crawdads, he included me in enough adventures that I didn't despair too long when he lost me in lieu of his friends. Instead, I went crawdad catching by myself. Once after falling in the pond, I quickly ran home and changed clothes before my mom could find out what happened. Instead of putting the wet clothes in the washing machine, I hung them up in the closet. Of course, my mom found the clothes and blamed Bruce for what happened since I was supposed to be with him.

He took care of his little brother in many ways. Once, there was a neighborhood kid a few years older than me who kept threatening and terrorizing me. Like typical bullies, he picked on younger kids because his behavior would never be tolerated among his own age group. When I told Bruce and my other brother, Larry, about it, they devised a plan. "Lure him into the yard," they told me. "When he steps in our yard, we'll take care of him." I didn't fully trust my brothers. I was the little brother, the baby of the bunch who always got his way. I thought they might be setting me up. I wasn't so sure that they'd "rescue" me.

After coaxing from both brothers, I set out to lure the bully to our house. He had threatened to beat me up the next time he saw me on the street, so I pedaled faster than Lance Armstrong back to the house when he spotted me. Like a hungry mouse who comes out in search of bits of cheese, he fell for the trap. I threw my bike down and ran in the door. Thinking I was home alone, the dumb bully beat at my door shouting threats. "He's outside!" I exclaimed to Bruce. "Is he in our yard?" Bruce asked. "He's at the door!" I screamed. "Go get Larry," Bruce instructed me as he headed to the door."

I ran upstairs to get my brother Larry. Evidently, he didn't think I would spring the trap as quickly as I did as he had started a shower. "He's here!" I shouted at the bathroom door. I heard the water shut off, and Larry stepped out of the bathroom shirtless with a towel around his shoulders. By the time we reached the yard, Bruce had the bully pinned to the grass and was throwing punches to his face. Soon, both of my brothers were beating the boy. In one of the funniest memories that I have, Bruce held the boy down while Larry snapped and popped the towel repeatedly to the boy's back. I'll never forget the cries of the bully as he promised to never bother me again. He never did, by the way. Not that I condone violence, but it was good to have a big brother or two that day.

After disposing of my bully, Bruce didn't have a problem with me "tagging along' any longer. In fact, he frequently invited me along for adventures with his friends. I probably got on his friends' nerves at times. As a matter of fact, I'm sure I did, but Bruce never acknowledged it.

Another of my fond memories are the trips to Opryland he invited me on with him and his friends during the summer of his junior and senior years of high school. Before my trips to Opryland with Bruce and the gang, my only previous trips had been with my parents. Not that I didn't appreciate the trips with my parents, but there was no comparison to the experience with Bruce. With my parents, we usually left the park before dark because they were tired and wanted to get home early. As sixth grade pre-teenage boy, I knew nothing about their concerns over the long trip from Nashville to Milan and wanting to get some rest before work the next day. I just thought they were old and didn't know how to have fun. On the contrary, we closed the park down with Bruce's friends. By 9 p.m., most families had gone home for the evening. This meant that there were no long lines like there were in the afternoon. We rode the Wabash Cannonball and Grizzly River Rampage over and over. We simply got off when the ride ended, and immediately got right back on. It was like an all you can eat buffet. We definitely got our money's worth that night.

As time passed, I spent less time with my brother. He began building a life, while I still had several years of childhood to finish. As a last resort to earn needed income for his family, he joined the United States Army. Although it was just a means to an end at the time, it became his passion and career. Like everything else he did in life, he engulfed himself 100% in his career. Not quite comprehending the magnitude of what he did at the time, I listened to stories of him eliminating terrorist attacks on American ships in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Praying Mantis. "They were speed boats equipped with machine guns. Little boats attacking giant ships," he explained. "They weren't going to stop." I didn't understand the magnitude at the time, but he did. This was in 1988, long before 9/11 exposed how relentless terrorists can be.

In 1993, he was deployed to Somalia to support Task Force Ranger in response to Somalian attacks against the U.S. military during their presence of the Somalian state of chaos. Most have heard of the movie Blackhawk Down. Those were Bruce's helicopters. Without him, they didn't fly. He was asked by the producer of the movie if he thought it was an accurate portrayal of the events. "No," he replied. When asked what he meant, he replied, "It shouldn't have ended that way. We didn't finish the mission." When explaining this to me as he explained the significance of the plaque the movie producers had given him, he asked me, "Who was that dimwit that was in office then?" Bruce was conservative to the core. He was proud of his service. He told me of how Michael Durant, the soldier held hostage during the Battle of Mogadishu, began reporting to him after their return to Fort Campbell. Once again, I had no idea. The plaque had been in his house for years, but I was just then realizing the significance and what it meant to him.

After retiring from the Army, he expressed his interest in teaching. He told me about wanting to teach gym. It made perfect sense. He had worked with kids across the country coaching them hockey and soccer. Although he was unable to garner a job within the public school system, he was offered a job instructing electronics at Tennessee College of Applied Technology. He taught electronics there for a couple of years until cutbacks eliminated his position. Within a few months, he had been invited back to TCAT to instruct a new program, Green Technology. This was new to the area and Bruce. Nevertheless, he immersed himself in the subject. He learned as much about the technology as possible.

He had told me that it was an experimental program and that its continuation would depend on the amount of funds received for it. It was not just his job to instruct Green Technology, but to ensure that it was successful to receive continuing funds. Like everything else he did, he immersed himself 100% in the success of the class and its students. For a former motor and gearhead, his new passion and favorite color was green. He and his class installed solar panels at residences and businesses across West Tennessee and surrounding areas. He explained to me how this was a win-win. It gave the students experience and expanded community knowledge of the technology. He installed solar panels at his house, Temple Baptist Church, Milan Christian Academy, and several homes of friends and members of his church. He fully believed in the program and the success of his students.

Somewhere along the line, he became aware of the effects of electrolysis and its interaction with fuel mixture. I do not fully understand the process, so I cannot accurately describe it. He began building hydrogen generators from glass jars. At the time, gas was nearly $4 a gallon. As he explained the increase in gas mileage that a hydrogen generator could create, interest within the community grew. Before long, there was enough interest to begin a class on weekends at TCAT on Saturdays. He created an online forum where students and enthusiasts could interact and ask questions. The class was so successful that he asked me to sit in on one in case I wanted to teach the subject. I was amazed at the knowledge that he passed on in the class. I along with most people didn’t even know the concepts he presented were possible. I enjoyed the class and bagged about what he was doing to anyone that would listen, but the process was above my mechanical and electronic limitations. I appreciated his faith in me, but I had no business attempting to teach the class. Soon, gas prices receded slightly and interest in the class waned. His generator, though, is still on his truck today.

Bruce did many other things in the area that he poured 100% of his heart and energy into as well. While managing a local store, he brought it out of the dark ages and began marketing it via radio and television. Since he left the store, I have not seen nor heard of any advertisements for it. Someone could write several books pertaining to all of his accomplishments. Perhaps, they will one day be written.

Any memory of Bruce cannot be written or spoken without mentioning his dedication to God. Once again, he invested 100%. My dad and I used to speak of how Bruce was never home. If he wasn't working, he was busy with scouts, soccer, or busy with his bus ministry. Sometimes I wondered if he was the true inspiration for Michael Keaton's movie, Multiplicity. If anyone ever tells you that they don't have time for something, they are lying. If not to you intentionally, they are lying to themselves. Bruce was the embodiment of time management. He did all of the aforementioned, yet still woke up every day at 4 a.m. and ran 5 miles. With everything that he did, he did it to please God. It's hard not to be sad in his death, but I fully believe he fulfilled his purpose.

Like Addie and Brookelynn, I looked up to and sought approval from my big brother. Upon reflection, I unknowingly patterned everything I did after what my big brother did. Even when I bought my house, I compared it to his. However, Bruce is too big to be simply my hero alone. He touched countless lives and is a hero to many. I am but one of many in a long line of admirers, but he was everthing that I want to be.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Customer First

Customer first. The customer is always right. How often have we heard slogans like these or similar catchphrases? They sure sound good. They inspire our confidence in a company. They make us want to believe that a company cares for us and our needs. But, do they really care, or are they only concerned with the money that we provide that ultimately fuels their companies?

When we think of customer service, most of us think of the debacle of communicating our problems with a product to an outsourced agent across the ocean. This person is either reading from a manual or from a computer in their bedroom somewhere that provides answers to frequently asked questions. “Try unplugging it, waiting a minute, and then plugging it back in,” the customer service person frequently suggests for multiple product failure issues. “Really? Don’t you think I’ve tried that already?” is what I usually think to myself when I hear that suggestion. Nevertheless, I try it again anyway to no avail until I become frustrated and demand my money back. Of all the processes to outsource, was outsourcing customer service really a good idea?

In many situations, customer service is not outsourced, but it is simply lacking. This is typically the case with larger companies. Maybe there was a time when the company cared about you as an individual, but then they grew. You have lost your status as an individual and are now just a name in a database. No one knows who you are or that you exist except on that day of the month when the payment is due. Even then you are a faceless name.

Recently, I had two unique customer service experiences that serve as both the best and worst experiences I have ever had. Both, ironically, involve banks. Who would have guessed?

Last summer, I sold a car that I still owed about $3500 on. The woman who bought it was nice enough to meet me at Regions Bank where it was finance at. After giving me $4000, we walked into the bank to get the payoff information from the loan officer. I don’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Robert. Robert wrote the payoff amount down and directed me to the window. When I got to the window, the teller told me that the payoff amount was actually about $100 less than the amount Robert had given me. Great! That meant I had $100 more profit!

I paid the teller and inquired when the title would be sent to me. The teller informed me that it would be sent to me in 10 days. The woman had already insured the car and paid for it, so she drove it home. She had found the listing for my car on the web and had drove 3 hours to meet me at the bank. I told her that I would call her as soon as the title came in and we parted ways. Everything was great, right? Wrong!

After 10 days, I still hadn’t received the title. I called Regions to inquire where they connected me to their corporate office. A nice young operator informed me that she wasn’t sure why the title hadn’t been mailed to me, but she would make sure it got in the mail that day. Since I was the seller, I wanted to make sure that my customer didn’t think I was pulling any shenanigans, so I texted her and let her know of the current situation. She was very nice and we both were happy assuming that we would have the title in a few days.

A few weeks later while my wife and I were enjoying a nice vacation, the woman texted me inquiring about the title. I called my daughter at home to see if it had arrived, and started to worry when she told me it hadn’t. Even though we were on our way back home, I couldn’t wait to get home to call Regions, so I drove through the state of Alabama navigating through Regions’ automated line only to be placed on hold for 25 minutes when I finally got through.

After almost an hour on the phone, an operator informed me that there was a lien on the vehicle. “How can there be a lien on the vehicle? I paid it off!” I demanded to know. “There is a $94 early payoff fee,” the operator informed me. Suddenly, I had recollections of the two different figures that the teller and loan officer had given me. Now, I understood. Somebody messed up.

I paid the $94 over the phone and inquired about the title. The operator informed me that it was a mandatory standard that titles not be mailed out until 10 business days after a vehicle is paid off. Since I had just officially paid it off, it would be another 10-14 days until I received the title. There was no explaining to the corporate office that it wasn’t my fault. I paid what the teller told me to pay. We’ve already waited a month for the title. It didn’t matter. I was dealing with a corporate office. They had programmed answers. I was just a faceless name in a database.

Wanting to at least provide good service on my parts, I called the woman who bought the car and explained the scenario. She did not explode or become irate, but she did explain to me why she needed the title. She had bought the car for her daughter. School was staring back in less than two weeks, and her daughter really wanted to show it off to her friends. I can’t say that I blame her. It was a sharp car. As it was, she could only stare at. She couldn’t drive because she didn’t have any tags. She couldn’t get any tags because she didn’t have the title yet. “Isn’t there something you can do?” the woman asked. “I will sure try,” I promised.

I called Robert the next day. He didn’t remember at first, but then he pulled the transaction up on his database. He did explain that the reason for the different figure was because of a lack of communication between his computer and the teller’s computers. I was thinking that was a serious problem that they probably should get fixed, but I was only concerned about getting my problem fixed. Robert said that he would be in a conference all day, but he would look into it and get back to me the same day.

I had an intuition that I wouldn’t hear back from Robert. I decided to make a trip to Regions and talk to someone face to face. Robert was nowhere to be found. As it turned out, he didn’t even work at that branch, nor did the teller who gave me the payoff amount. Both worked in other Regions Bank offices and filled in on the weekend sporadically at this office. No one in the office had a clue about the transaction!

This is where the story becomes blurred as it takes a positive turn to one of the best customer service interactions I have had. After investigating briefly, the loan officer admitted that they had made a mistake. They also admitted that it would be hard to get the corporate office to change their mind and send the title. However, they promised to try. A few hours later, the branch was calling and emailing me. The title was sent via FedEx to me the next day. I will never forget the service I had from everyone in that branch that day. They went out of their way to fix the problem. I know it wasn’t easy convincing corporate to send the title, but the loan officer did. She put customer service first. I will forever remember the service that I received in that branch.

Ironically, Robert called me the next day. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do. The corporate office is sticking to their mandatory standard of 10 days,” he informed me. Imagine his surprise when I informed him that it had already been taken care of. “Oh” was all I remember him saying.

Robert represents everything that is wrong with customer service. He wasn’t one to buck the system. He wasn’t going to go out of his way to help a customer. Why should he? The only thing important to him was advancing his career. He wasn’t going to let one disgruntled customer get in his way. He thought he could rely on his salesman –like bluff and tell me anything to make me happy, or at least go away. The man blatantly lied to me. He is lower than fungus that grows underneath cattle feces. I hope he succeeds and climbs the corporate ladder. I hope he receives the just rewards that eventually befall those that lie and manipulate others to get ahead. Karma.

Another experience happened recently that also began as a lemon, but eventually turned into sweet lemonade. I have been a customer of BancorpSouth’s for over 15 years. I began using their online banking system over 10 years ago to manage and pay my bills. I’ve only had one bad experience previously, but I was partly to blame on that. I had bought a vacation online and hit the “pay now” button instead of the “pay later” button. I intended to pay later as I was due a nice bonus that was scheduled to be deposited in a few days. From that mistake, I was charged over $500 in overdraft fees. I was receiving a substantial bonus, so the $500 in fees wasn’t a problem to recover, but it was $500 less to spend or save. I was virtually giving that money away. I called BancorpSouth and got a similar corporate response like I got from Regions. I realized it was a stupid mistake and it was my fault, but thought that they could surely help me out to some degree. I bit the corporate bullet and didn’t think too much more about it.

I’ll admit that I am guilty of living paycheck to paycheck sometimes. I make decent money, but I spend, spend, and spend. Therefore, I am exceedingly cautious about setting up my budget and online bill pay. I will often set up a bill to be paid on the date I know that funds will be deposited into my account. I am very weary of my weekly budget and plan bills accordingly.

When an overdraft charge for $108 recently arrived in my mailbox, I was stunned. How could I be overdraft? I’m a meticulous planner. Then again, I’m airheaded and forgetful as well. Maybe there was something I forgot. Maybe I had calculated something wrong. I logged into my online banking and there it was. A check that I had scheduled for the 11th was paid on the 10th. How could this be?

I quickly got on the phone and called customer service. A young, female operator answered my call. Although friendly and courteous, I could sense that she was new on the job. Unable to answer my question, she put me on hold to confer with a manager. After coming back live, she informed me that checks are sent to billers a few days before the date. Unfortunately, this biller had received the check and cashed it when they received it. I understood that. It made sense, although I had been practicing the same method of scheduling bills to the same billers for over 10 years and had never had this happen.

I accepted her explanation, but I felt that I was unjustly charged the overdraft fees. Maybe I was playing it too close with my scheduling. Then again, maybe the clerk or whomever sends the checks out sent it out too early. All I knew was that I wanted my $108 refunded. Apparently, that wasn’t going to happen. I was once again dealing with a CSA that knew nothing about be. She was probably reading from a script or had been prepped on how to deal with dissatisfied customers. I can sense these things by asking them questions that they can’t answer from a script or from their training. I was peeved. I would not take my anger out on her, however. She was just a lowly CSA on the corporate totem pole. She had a job to do and was doing it to her best abilities. She couldn’t help me. She didn’t even know who I was. To me, that is where the problem lies.

I wanted to stick it to BancorpSouth. I was guilty of not managing my bills sufficiently. Assuming there wasn’t a clerk who sent out the check too early, I messed up. I messed up. I can admit that. I shouldn’t have scheduled my bills so carelessly. However, should I be treated like a chronic bad check writer? Did I blatantly write a bad check? Heck no! I was a loyal customer who simply made a mistake. I wanted to get them back, but didn’t know how to take on a corporation. Then, it hit me. I’d do what everyone else does when they want to bad mouth someone, but can’t say it to their face. I went to Facebook.

Knowing that anything I posted would be removed quickly, I decided to spam their Facebook page. Unfortunately, none of my comments would post because I didn’t “like” their page. The last thing I wanted to do was “like” their page. Since leaving negative comments wouldn’t work, I decided to send them a message via Facebook messenger. Not that it would do any good, but at least someone would at least see it. In the message, I expressed how I felt and threatened to move to a local bank. Once again, I really didn’t think it would do any good, but I felt better. I also began making plans on switching banks.

To my surprise, I had a voicemail from BancorpSouth the next day. By the time I had listened to the voicemail, they had called me again. I’m not exactly sure what the man’s title was, but he began by apologizing for my experience with customer service. He advised me that I might want to start scheduling my bills a few days out to ensure funds are in the bank and assured me that the $108 had been refunded. When I logged into Facebook, I had a message inquiring whether or not the matter had been resolved to my satisfaction. A few days later, I received a letter via snail mail also apologizing for the inconvenience. To me, this is what customer service is all about. They listened to me, although I did follow unconventional channels. I am 100% satisfied with their customer service and would recommend them to anyone.

As companies have grown global, they tend to focus on stockholders in lieu of stakeholders. They have good reason to worry about satisfying their stockholders. Maximizing stockholder value makes the company money. The young executive typically isn’t concerned with an individual’s minor problems. Individuals are just cogs in the wheel that keeps the money train rolling. They lose sense of the fact that the individual customers are the one providing the coal to produce the steam for the engine. Customer first should be more than a catchphrase or slogan; it should be a manner of business. Whether anyone realizes it or not, all products have a life cycle. The life cycle ends when there is no longer a demand for a product. Customers determine demand. It would be in any corporation’s best interest to embrace a customer first mentality.

Customers are a company’s lifeblood. Maybe that isn’t taught in the fast track to management class that many executives graduate from. Sam Walton probably understood it. To most, it seems like common sense. If you want my money, you’re going to have to earn it.

With the power of social media, a single Facebook post or Twitter feed can ruin a company’s reputation overnight. It’s time for managers and executives to stop acting like Robert, the feces covered fungus, and begin channeling their inner Jerry Maguire. Otherwise, the customer can opt to channeling their inner Dolph Lundgren and break you.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Looking for a hero? Oh Yeahhhh!

It was about an hour and half drive to my brother’s house. He had recently relocated to Memphis after accepting a promotion from his workplace. I enjoyed the trips to my brother’s house, of course, but the poor timing that my parents chose to travel had me frustrated. Since this was the first time their eldest son had been away from home, this had become a weekly Saturday trip. For 2 weeks in a row, I had missed wrestling on WMC-TV5.

I had become a wrestling fan around 1978 when flipping through the channels, I stopped to listen to Handsome Jimmy Valiant boast about what he was going to do to Jerry Lawler the following Monday night. From there, I was hooked. I tuned in every week to see Lawler battle Valiant, Bill Dundee, and Austin Idol. The storylines were suspenseful. It was all me and my friends talked about. We could hardly wait until the next Saturday to see what our heroes would do next to gain revenge on each other. If we missed a week of action, we had to imagine it as our friends excitedly explained what had happened. It always seemed like there was a major turn of events on those rare occasions that I missed it. I had missed it 2 weeks in a row. That was like watching the whole season of Dallas, but never finding out who shot J.R.

After hearing me express my frustrations, my step-father came up with a solution. He allowed me to take his TV that he kept in his camper with us on our road trip. The TV also doubled as an AM/FM radio and was powered by 4 D batteries. Although the screen was only about 4 inches and in black&white, I didn’t care. I wouldn’t miss any of the action.

It was shortly after 10:00 and wrestling didn’t come on until 11:00 on channel 5, so I decided to see what I could pick up as we traveled down I-40. Adjusting the rabbit ear antennas, I scrolled the knob until I could get some kind of picture to appear. We couldn’t pick up any of the Memphis channels without cable in Milan where we lived, but I figured I could probably start getting some of the Memphis channels as we traveled closer to the city.

I had seen in the TV Guide that wrestling came on WPTY channel 24 of Memphis at 10:00, but our cable company didn’t offer channel 24. I had always wondered what kind of wrestling was on the channel, but figured that it was just an abbreviated version of the previous week’s Memphis wrestling. An abbreviated version of past shows was shown on some of the other local channels, but I rarely watched them. The TV 5 version was live! I was hoping I could pick up channel 24 on the portable TV to see what was going on. The channel came in a little snowy at first, but cleared up as we traveled down the highway. I had found the wrestling program. However, this wasn’t any version of Memphis wrestling that I had ever seen.

I considered myself a wrestling expert at the age of 12 as I bought all of the Pro Wrestling Illustrated publications and knew wrestlers by name even though I had never seen them. I got excited once when a Goody’s headache commercial aired that starred Dusty Rhodes as he was always on the covers, but I had never actually seen him on a wrestling program. That changed when our cable company added WTBS to our lineup. With TBS, I could now see Tommy Rich, Ole Anderson, Mr. Wrestling II, and an occasional Memphis wrestling favorite who would suddenly turn bad on TBS for some reason. I remember waiting until the next Saturday morning for Memphis wrestling to hear an explanation as to why the favorite turned bad, but it would never happen. The wrestler would be back on Memphis wrestling a favorite again and never mention anything about it. Bewildered, I would tune into WTBS, which came on much later in the afternoon, to see him bad again. I quit trying to figure it out. This had become more common anyway as I read in the magazines of some of my favorite wrestler’s exploits into different states and wrestling territories. As much as I had read and learned about other wrestlers outside of Memphis and what I had seen on TBS, I didn’t recognize any of the wrestlers on the show.

The commentating and action was unlike anything I had ever seen. What really captivated me, though, was the main bad guy that the show seemed to center around. Muscular and tan, yet wild-eyed and bearded with stringy, brown hair. The guy’s voice was like nothing I had ever heard as he made threats to Ronnie Garvin, the only guy that I had heard of as I had read about him in quite a few magazines. This guy was going 90 miles an hour. All of a sudden, this guy grabbed a framed plaque from the announcer’s desk, and breaks it across his forehead. Who was this guy? I wondered as I watched captivated. “I’m the Macho Man, Dig it!” the mad man screamed. The mad man was Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

The next week at school, I tried explaining to my buddies about this new wrestler I had discovered. Unfortunately, one cannot accurately describe someone like Randy Savage to the unknown and do him justice. See is believing. My friends would have to see this guy to appreciate him.

The opportunity for my friends to see the Macho Man would come when WPTY was added to our cable line up. Unfortunately, the talent pool for ICW, the promotion for which Savage wrestled and promoted, had been drastically drained by the time the show was made available to us. The show was terrible to stay the least. It was hard to stay tuned long enough to wait for the Macho Man. Even if you did get to see him, there wasn’t enough competition for him to showcase his talents. There were only a few of us diehards that watched ICW long enough to see it rejuvenated somewhat when savage feuded with the evil Ratamyus. Savage was awesome. He deserved better than this to me.

Eventually, Savage turned up in Memphis wrestling. Most of my friends had no idea who this guy was. As for myself, I was ecstatic. Now all of my friends would get a chance to see him. I was glued to my TV as he battled Jerry Lawler, Austin Idol, Rick Rude, and the Rock & Roll Express. I was disappointed when Jerry Lawler defeated him almost as soon as he entered the territory. I was afraid that the Memphis fans wouldn’t see the same thing that I saw in him when he smashed the plaque across his forehead on channel 24. Ironically, Savage smashed a framed photo of Jerry Lawler during his first appearance on Memphis wrestling. This wasn’t the first time I had a strange sense of Deja vu from the different wrestling programs.

My worries about Savage succeeding were unnecessary. Savage was destined to succeed. He was soon teaming with Lawler, Idol, and Valiant. Eventually, he turned on Lawler. This time around, however, things were different. Savage was more popular than ever. Lawler couldn’t dispose of him that easily. Savage brutalized Lawler in their matches. He showed him who the Macho man was! In the end, Lawler survived and forced Savage to leave town. I knew that there was no way Jerry Lawler was going to lose a loser-leave-town match in Memphis, but I had hopes as I didn’t want to see Savage leave.

Soon the Macho man arrived in the WWF and was a household name. When I heard that he won the tournament to crown a new WWF champion, I asked all my friends if they had heard the news. They didn’t seem as excited as I was. We were approaching our twenties now, and their importance shifted to Super Bowls and NBA playoffs. My passion was still wrestling. Forget about Joe Montana or Michael Jordan, my guy, Randy Savage, had won the big one.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


I am thankful for another day. Yes, it sounds like just another positive quote. However, the quote takes on a new meaning as I grow older. For instance, I heard a song played on the radio that I hadn’t heard in ages. Even though I hadn’t heard the song in ages, the lyrics came to me naturally as I sang and danced in my car to the tune. Yes, I said dance in my car. I do those crazy things. If I had died the day before, I would have never heard that song again and remembered how much I liked it. It really is the simple things in life that we take for granted.

I am thankful for my mother’s toasted cheese sandwich made with Velveeta. Everyone else calls this a grilled cheese sandwich, but it’s always been a toasted cheese to me. Once, I went to Waffle House and ordered a toasted cheese. They brought me two slices of toast with a cold piece of cheese in between them. Naturally I took it back. Apparently, I was the only person in the world that called the sandwich a toasted cheese. The waitress pointed out to me that they have a grilled cheese sandwich on their menu, but I had ordered toast and cheese. Apparently, I mumbled as well as I soon understood that she had misunderstood me. Nevertheless, there’s not much that beats a good toasted cheese sandwich made with Velveeta. The kind where the melted cheese flows out the sides. Once the cheese flows out the sides of the toast, a pretzel or chip is used to scoop up the melted cheese. You have to scoop it up before it cools, though. Otherwise, it loses its pizazz somewhat. Add a few pickles on the side and you have a delicacy that can’t be found in any fancy restaurant. I could probably live off of these sandwiches. As a matter of fact, I think I did for a period of time.

I am thankful for bratty, spoiled kids. The kind that you see at Wal Mart screaming and acting like heathens. The kids whose parents can’t control them. Why would I be thankful for these nerve racking brats? Because it makes me realize that I did a pretty decent job with my kids. I never had the embarrassing moments in Wal Mart or anywhere else. My daughters were always respectful when we were over someone else’s house. I never had to use any drastic discipline or lame time out tactics. I wish I could take all of the credit, but I realize that I am not perfect by any means. I was fortunate enough to have help from people with good morals and overall principles. Whatever the reason or reasons, I was and still am blessed to have great children.

I am thankful for my dog, Lucy. No matter what kind of day I have had, Lucy meets me the same every day. Her nub of a tail wags so fast that her entire body shakes. Unable to stand in one spot, she circles me in between leaps and licks. She also does her best to tell me how happy she is to see me. Although you have probably heard of people tell of their pets talking to them, they are usually hallucinating or just telling you what they think they see and hear. Although it makes no sense to anyone else, it makes sense to them. Lucy, on the other hand, actually talks. I can’t understand what she’s saying, but she talks. In actuality, she gets so excited and full of nervous energy that her lips and jaws chatter. She makes a funny noise when this occurs that mimics talking as her jaws move. Her most enduring characteristic, however, is the nightly ritual of giving me a good night kiss. As soon as I get in bed, the tiny, 12lb Yorkie pins me down to shower my face with a tongue bath. Sometimes she doesn’t even wait for me to get under the cover. With Lucy, it’s never a quick, simple lick of the tongue. It’s an entire facial cleansing. She would lick all night if I’d let her. Reluctantly, she leaves and finds her spot for the night at the foot of the bed. As for myself, I turn over and go to sleep feeling loved with all of my problems washed away for the night.

I am thankful for the knowledge and abilities that God has given me. There are times when I get disgusted. I don’t think I’m where I should be in life or in my career. I think that I am the smartest person in the world and deserve more. Then I realize that there are a few people actually smarter than me. I also realize that I have had more opportunities than most people. I have probably overlooked more opportunities than I have I have recognized. I’ve actually accomplished almost everything that I’ve aspired to. I wanted to have a little girl…..I had three! I wanted to get my college degree…..I got two. I wanted to write a book…..I wrote two. When I look at things from that perspective, I realize I am successful and can accomplish anything I want. I am thankful that God has given me the ability to keep learning new things and to keep aspiring higher.

I am thankful that God has a purpose for me. I’ve always reminded myself that I was put here for a reason. I tell myself that often. I’ve always believed that I would change the world somehow. Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out the “how’ part yet and struggle to understand my exact purpose. Nevertheless, I truly believe that I have a purpose and will somehow change the world in a positive way. I am thankful that God has not grown tired of me failing him. My life quest has probably been in front of me my entire life, but I have always moved in the opposite direction. If I were God, I would have lost patience a long time ago. Thankfully, God’s plans never fail.

I am thankful for my wife, Crystal. On my numerous endeavors to find my purpose, she has supported me at every step. These endeavors have resulted in many different incarnations. I have changed my thinking and habits several times in what probably appears as out of the blue to her. Most of the time, these changes probably don’t make any sense to her. However, she always follows me blindly despite the lack of logic my path seems to go. I would have quit following in fear of the quick sand ahead, but she put on her wading boots and follows me on the safari of the unknown.

I am thankful for my English teacher at Bethel University, Cindy Fuchs. What started out as just another class turned into self-discovery for me. When I first enrolled in Bethel’s Success program, I looked at each class as nothing more than something I had to do to earn the credit needed to complete my degree. Through creative writing assignments, I re-discovered my passion for writing, storytelling, and literature. Impressed with my essays and writing, she commented that I should major in English. After the success in her classes, the remaining courses became more than just credit fillers to me. I became entrenched in my studies in History, Art, and Religion. Every class was a new learning experience. I was actually sad when the journey to my Bachelor degree was over. I loved learning. Mrs. Fuchs’s comments had ignited my love for learning in general, and fueled my lost love for creative writing. Without her, I wouldn’t be writing this blog now. I wouldn’t be listening to obscure podcasts. I wouldn’t be setting a goal of performing on stage at Spillit, a storytelling company in Memphis. Without her inspiration, I probably wouldn’t be exploring new ideas. I would probably be self-growth stagnant.

I am thankful for my four grandchildren. I say grandchildren as the Fonz says the word “wrong” when admitting he was wrong about something. In other words, I stretch it out because it is difficult to say at times. It’s hard to say because I sometimes feel that I am not ready to be a grandparent. It seems like only a few years ago when I was taking my daughters to school, attending school plays, and selling candy for them for school fundraisers. I was more than just a dad; I was Superman in their eyes. I enjoyed being Superman. It was all that I planned to do. I never planned for them growing up and having lives of their own. To me, they were always my young children. “Time marches on,” said Tracy Lawrence. Suddenly, all of my children were gone. Superman was now just plain Clark Kent. What was Clark to do now? No more death defying rescues. No more soaring through the sky. Those days were gone. Superman was just an ordinary person now trying to fit in in the real world. Then I thought of how beautiful those grandchildren were. I thought of how I could make memories with them that they will remember forever like I have of my short time with my grandfather. I can still be Superman to them. I also realized that I was still alive. I realized that there were plenty of opportunities and adventures that awaited me. New avenues that I haven’t been down before, new technologies to learn, new places to go. After all, there were how many Superman movies? After contemplating my outlook, I began preparing for Superman II.

I am thankful for the holiday season. One of my fondest memories as a child was singing “To Grandmother’s House” in my 2nd grade music class. All I can remember of the lyrics are “over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.” I’m not sure why I remember that moment. We had never had a music class before that day. The class was a small room that looked like it had been used for storage for some time. Against the wall was an old piano covered in dust. The librarian handed out the lyrics to the song along with a storybook to color that followed the song. I’m sure that I probably knew all of the lyrics by the end of the song, but forgot them shortly after. I was too excited to have the next four days out of school. I wasn’t really sure what all the fuss about Thanksgiving was, but I knew that Christmas would soon follow. That meant presents! After eating Thanksgiving dinner, we dug the artificial tree from the attic and began transforming it into a Christmas tree worthy of Santa. The next 4 weeks of school flew by. If Santa was a subject, I would have made an “A” because Christmas and how many days were left were the only subjects I studied. When Christmas morning finally arrived, Santa had been generous. At the time, it was the greatest day of my life. As I grew older, I have tried to replicate that day every year on Christmas morning. Even though I am older, I still have the spirit of Christmas. Materialism aside, I want to make it bigger and better every year. As an adult, I still remember the anticipation of the holidays when we sang “To Grandmother’s House” in what turned out to be our first and only music class. I want to still be that little kid that still believes in Santa. In many ways, I still am. It’s a blessing and a curse.

I started this blog by giving thanks for another day. There was time, however, when I didn’t think I had anything to be thankful for. A coworker had wished me a good morning and exclaimed that it was going to be a great day many years ago. “What’s so great about it?” I asked. “You woke up this morning,” he replied. I smirked and rolled my eyes. Years later, I would appreciate the meaning of his words. We are all blessed to have another day. Can you imagine not waking up? I can’t. I reallize that I am far from it, but I want to excel in a Christian life. I want to please God. I want to be a better follower of Christ. I can’t lie, however, and tell you that I’m going to be happy to die. There are things I haven’t done, things I need to do, things I need to say. I don’t want to go to bed and never have those chances again. Life is short. The end could happen at any moment. I might never have those chances. That’s why I’m thankful for one more day. One more day to summon up the courage to take those chances. Whenever I think about my problems, I think about the alternative. Sorry, but I’m not ready for a casket. I want to live. In the next year, I will be jumping out of an airplane, telling a story onstage, and possibly taking even more college classes. I am thankful that I have had the experiences of life to learn the meaning of the comment from my former coworker. I am thankful for my life and everything in it. I am thankful for one more day to live it.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Go Gadget, Go

Technological advances have made our lives incredibly easier over the last 20 years. I remember my parents planning out their trips on a Rand McNally Road Atlas each year on vacation. Never patient enough to learn how to use an Atlas, I thought Google Maps was the greatest invention since sliced bread.

I printed out many driving directions on Google maps that took me and my family on many vacations across the Bible Belt. After a while, I figured out that the return trip was the exact opposite route as the departing route. Since ink for my printer cost more than the printer itself, I decided to save money by only printing the directions from our departure. This worked fairly well until we went to an event in Memphis where I ended up in Arkansas as I tried to return home by following the opposite of the departure directions. How was I supposed to know that downtown Memphis is comprised almost entirely of one way streets? Why couldn’t Memphis be like California where almost everything goes both ways?

It’s hard to imagine our lives without our smart phones and electronic gadgets now. Even though my kids can’t remember life without the internet, I try to explain to them that it really hasn’t been around that long. Although Al Gore invented it in the early 90s, wide-spread use didn’t really begin until 1995-96. I remember vividly when the internet became mainstream as I had subscribed to America Online shortly after completing Windows 3.1 for Dummies. I’ll never forget the $500 phone bill from the long distance connection required to sign on. I also remember the $150 charge from AOL for usage in excess of my 10 free monthly hours.

Over time, I became an avid user of the internet and the many technologies that evolved from it. I began banking online, used Napster to steal music and burn CDs, searched for jobs, and completed my MBA online. Although I might be considered a geek by some, I’m not quite qualified to join the elite squad at Best Buy. I do consider it quite the compliment, however, when people approach me for help with their software and gadgets. You wouldn’t believe how smart some people think you are simply because you can make a chart in Excel.

I enjoy helping people whether it’s much effort or not. Older individuals, however, are a different story. I’ll help an old lady cross the street, but teaching her how to log on to a computer is a different story. Everyone has heard someone say that senior citizens shouldn’t be allowed a driver’s license. I have no problem with the elderly driving. I am often mistaken for a senior citizen myself as my car creeps along the roadway (gas is expensive; can’t afford to waste it!). In my opinion, they can drive as long as they want to as long as the car doesn’t have satellite radio, gps navigation, electric windows, or anything else that resembles technology.

My objections with the elderly’s use of technology are based on several years of experiences helping my parents and others perform functions ranging from setting an atomic clock to formatting a hard drive. I joke about the clocks, but formatting the hard drive was no laughing matter.

I had formatted a friend’s dad’s hard drive and re-installed Windows on because he had complained that his desktop had become too slow. It had become slow because it was consumed with temporary internet files and hidden spyware. After the lengthy process of formatting and re-loading windows, I verified that that his computer was in like-new condition. He called me back two days later complaining that I didn’t get all of the files off of his computer. Since he had paid me $50 to fix his computer, I felt that I owed it to him to investigate. He claimed that the same files that were on there before were still on there. He was right.

After he had gotten his computer back, he went to the same sites that had infected his computer to begin with. Nevertheless, I burned another 2 ½ hours formatting and reloading Windows on his computer again. Afterwards, I showed him that the file locations that contained the garbage infecting his computer were vanquished. I had earned that $50. What started as an easy pay day had turned into legitimate work. I never wanted to format a computer again. As it turned out, I wouldn’t have to. He informed me a week later that he would get someone else to fix his computer this time as I didn’t get rid of the files that were causing his computer to slow down. Yes, he had been back to the same sites that originally caused his problems and the issued had returned.

As much as I try to avoid the elderly and technology, I have no choice but to help my parents when they ask. It’s my duty, after all. My mom is not a problem. She intentionally avoids anything that appears overly complicated for her. She still owns a VCR for crying out loud. She still calls me to set the clock on it, though.

My dad, on the other hand is a different story. My first encounter assisting him with his internet went unhinged. Well, it went unhinged for the most part. He eventually forgot his password for his router on his wireless internet connection. “It doesn’t have a password,” he insisted. Luckily, I was able to find the sticker containing the password on the bottom of his router.

I had set him up with wireless internet so he could stream Netflix and other channels on the Roku I had gotten him. He had overheard my brother and me talking about Netflix and some of the other free channels on the Roku, and he wanted to get in on this “free TV”. Within a month, however, he had cancelled his Netflix subscription and quit using the Roku. “There’s nothing on it,” he complained. I tried to explain to him how to use the search function to find what he wanted, but it was a losing battle.

After talking to him about my aunts whom he hadn’t talked to in almost a year because of the long distance charges associated with calling them, I explained to him the concept of video calling. He looked at me like I had claimed to have returned from an alien abduction or something, so I demonstrated a video call to my wife from my phone to her computer. I could tell that he was thoroughly impressed with the space age technology, so I bought him a web cam and set him up with a Skype account.

He made contact with his sisters and was enamored that he could see them on his computer monitor while he talked to them several miles away. Soon, he was calling me on Skype. Not once or twice, but all the time! After a few ignored Skype calls, he finally called me via his landline. “Why don’t you ever answer when I call you on the computer?’ He asked. I explained that Skype should be used for special occasions like long distance relationships. If he wanted to see me, he could just come over my house. I’m not sure if he liked my rationalization or not, but he soon gave up using Skype when even his sisters were ignoring his frequent video calls.

After he grew tired of Skype, he found another outlet for making long distance calls. Always one to leap at the “As seen on TV” offers, he had ordered a Magic Jack phone system. I had discovered this in a pile of magazines in his living room floor. “I couldn’t get it to work,” he replied when I asked him about it. He was delighted when I hooked it up for him. He even cancelled his local phone service. All was well until his yearly subscription ran out and he forgot his password to log on to his account and renew.

Recently, my dad asked me what I thought of e-readers. I told him that I liked them because I could adjust my fonts and make the text easier to read. “What’s a font?” he asked. “I won’t need my reading glasses now,” he said after I demonstrated how easy it was magically turn a regular e-book into a large print e-book for the old and nearly blind. Within a few days, he purchased a Nook similar to mine.

“How are you liking your e-reader?” I asked him a few days later. “I can’t get it to work,” he complained. It seemed like I had heard this before. I was beginning to understand why the Unabomber despised technology. “It only downloaded half the book,” he grumbled. As it turned out, he had only downloaded the free preview of James Patterson’s latest novel. Nevertheless, I showed him how to search for and download books, and then promised to show him where to find free books after he gets used to using his Nook.

I joke, but I am more than happy to help my dad with his technological problems. It’s my duty to help him just as it everyone’s duty to help their parents with whatever their needs are without complaining when doing it. For that matter, it’s my duty to help anyone when they are in need. If nothing else, it makes me feel better about myself. If I can help someone else accomplish something, there’s a slight chance they might even feel better about themselves.

Interestingly enough, while my dad takes a step forward, I relax on my drive home while streaming radio programs from the 1930s-50s on the Old Time Radio app on my phone. While he reads the newest bestseller, I’m listening to classic radio mysteries from the golden age of radio. I love the stories from the era when a night’s entertainment was driven by your imagination. Who would have though when these stories were told that you could see and talk to people miles away through your computer, or there would be books with no paper?

Technology has taken our world to new heights. It would definitely be hard to imagine our lives without our iPhones. Then again, we were making it alright before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs came along. While technologic changes move at warp speed, sometimes I think we should just slow down, put the gears on cruise, and enjoy the ride. Truthfully, sometimes I feel like channeling my inner George Jetson and shouting at the top of my lungs, “Jane, stop this crazy thing!” Then again, I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere if the technologies of the last 20 years had not happened. I would have to call my dad and have him show me how to read the Rand McNally Road Atlas.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Rebel Without a Cause

It was unearthly hot. I couldn’t go wrong with my nifty app, I thought. I had downloaded the app to navigate us around D.C. before we had left for vacation. The app sounded great in its description and reviews. All I had to do was select which historical place that I wanted to go and it would provide me with metro and walking directions. Truthfully, it was a great app. It didn’t prepare me, however, for the terrain and encompassing environment.

We had previously walked a mile from our last metro stop to the National Zoo. Within the National Zoo, we probably walked another 2 miles. I’m not complaining about the walking within the zoo as that is to be expected in any zoo if you want to see all of the amazing creatures and exhibits. Unfortunately, we had gotten there an hour before most of the exhibits were open. This meant that we would have to walk longer to pass the time while waiting for the major exhibits to open. Did I mention the scorching heat? I should have learned from my trip to Japan to carry an umbrella. I had noticed in Japan that many pedestrians and sightseers carry an umbrella when walking the streets to block the sun’s rays from baking their skin. I was not that smart.

The navigation app suggested a mile walk from the zoo to the White House, our next stop. Although I’ve never been in the military, I admire those that routinely embark on several mile hikes in combat boots. The mile-long walk on a continuous incline from the zoo to the White House in the scorching heat was one of the most strenuous work outs I have ever had. Besides the baking sun, the incline did not bother me much that day. As I tried to get out of bed the next day, however, I felt like the lady from the Emergency Alert ID Bracelet commercial when she said, “Help! I’ve fallen and can’t get up.”

After finally making it to the White House, my wife and I took the normal pictures posing in front of the gates of the White House. For whatever reason, there wasn’t a huge crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue that day. In fact, it was relatively quiet. After taking a few pictures of each other posing and basking in the elegance of the historical surroundings, we trekked across the street to a bench directly across from the White House. It was then that we noticed the little old lady camped across the street from the White House. Besides a brief encounter with a Nation of Islam activist throwing Travon Martin’s name around, this was my first encounter with a genuine protestor.

Out of curiosity, we approached her sidewalk campsite. With frayed, grayish hair and her skeletal frame, she spoke softly as she handed us literature concerning her cause. I couldn’t decipher what she was saying repetitively to other sightseers that gathered near her campground. “Stop helping Israel!” was the only rhetoric that I was able to interpret.

We quickly left her campsite to allow other sightseers to listen to her message and to land on the empty park bench set in the inviting shade. It wasn’t long before a loud commotion arose. An Egyptian and anti-American protestor began shouting propaganda in front of the White House. Before he got to a good rant, another sightseer began contesting him in a pro-American debate in which he easily won to an ovation of cheers from other tourists. As I relaxed and listened with my back turned to the event, the ovation continued as the defensive American walked past me. I was surprised to see that the man the crowd was cheering was garbed in a flowered dress and Minnie Pearl hat. Along with the many attractions that were free, apparently tickets to the circus were free as well.

After we had ventured back to our hotel, I laid on the bed wondering what to do with the rest of the night and the next day. There wasn’t much that I could do that night. The stiffness in my joints and muscles from the hike from the zoo was beginning to take effect. I decided to take a look at the literature from the elderly lady protesting across from the White House. I had thrown my copy away, but my wife had kept her copy for a souvenir. I glanced through the material thinking that it would become circular file material if it wasn’t for my wife’s scrapbook hoarding habit. It wasn’t long, however, before I became enthralled in the old lady’s story.

The pamphlets provided very little information. There were some dated illustrations of nuclear missiles, but what captured my attention was the fact that she had been calling her campsite on Pennsylvania Avenue home since 1981. The idea that anyone would go to such extremes for such a long period of time to support their cause amazed me. I found it admirable to say the least. I wanted to learn more about her and her cause.

The woman’s name is Connie Picciotto. Since the early 1980s, she has battled freezing conditions, sweltering heat, hecklers, beatings, and various other conditions to support her cause. I enjoyed her story as I read further. The only problem was that I could not determine exactly what her cause was or what she was fighting for. She rambled about issues that reminded me more of a Cold war history lesson than anything current. In my unexplainable desire to psychoanalyze everyone I meet, I began to realize that she was probably using her “cause” was probably an escape from reality.

She had lost the one true love of her life, her daughter, in a custody battle that was fought in Spain and the U.S. Her husband had an affair with a woman she had thought was her aunt. She was battered by her husband and deemed crazy by the authorities. She had a difficult life to say the least. Although her story is filled with sadness, it is also filled with paranoia. Maybe she really was crazy.

It became apparent to me that when she embarked on a new life on the Washington streets that she was seeking an escape from her real life. From her story, I am reminded that we should never judge a book by its cover. Everyone has their own demons that they deal with in their own way. This is the part where I should say that the woman should turn to God. However, this is much harder to do for some than others. I couldn’t solve Mrs. Picciotto’s problems if I tried. At this point, I think it wouldn’t do any good as her alternate reality has become her actual reality.

As a society, we are our brother’s keeper. We should take an interest in one another. We can’t solve everyone’s problems. What we can do, however, is try not to judge. Mrs. Picciotto is not the only one who has put on a veil to mask who she really is inside. Most of us have done it at some point to hide our innermost feelings and insecurities. Some go to more extremes than others.

I threw Mrs. Picciotto’s literature away with no intention of reading it until I realized I was unable to move from the effects of our trek from the National Zoo that day. I am glad I got a chance to read her story. In my mind, she went from a sideshow to a real person with an amazing history.

For more information about Connie Picciotto, visit