Too Close for Comfort

My head is spinning right now.

I’ve typically used this blog as a space to discuss the personal struggles and achievements of self-discovery and self-improvement, with an occasional commentary on an occurrence in my personal life that feels like a worthy or entertaining topic to write about. It has not been used as a vehicle for any sort of political dialogue or discussion on current events, but this is different.

The city of Las Vegas that I call home is dominating the national, and most likely international, headlines right now, as the result of a horrific shooting spree that happened last night at a country music concert on the Strip. Everybody with any ties to this city is doing their best to process what has happened, and in that regard, I am but one of many. For me, that means trying to organize my thoughts on paper. Hopefully, for anyone else that happens to read this, it will help to do the same in some small way.

As of this writing, the death toll from this awful event has reached 58, with over 500 more injured. Thus far, I don’t believe that the list of fatalities includes anyone that I know personally, but I do know at least two people who attended the concert and escaped the carnage. What little of their story that I know at this point is jarring and scary.

For my girlfriend Mia and I, yesterday began innocently enough. After a late night out on Saturday, I woke up around 9:30, at which point I happily discovered that my favorite football team, the New Orleans Saints, was wrapping up a 20-0 victory in a game held in London. I posted a couple comments about that game and my fantasy football team on Facebook, and we later headed to a sports bar to watch the afternoon games with some friends.

After an evening nap, we would eventually watch the second half of a movie that we had previously started, blissfully unaware of what was happening only a few miles away. When the movie was over, Mia grabbed her phone, only to be notified that a friend of ours had requested us to check in that we were safe. Were we safe? Yes, why?

A quick look at Mia’s Facebook feed would reveal the answer. Once we realized what was going on, we both quickly marked “yes” on a crisis check-in page that had been set up through Facebook. We turned on the news and continued scrolling through our respective feeds to find out more.

We soon found an entry from our friend Brandi that had been posted just 10 minutes earlier. In it, she described that she was hiding out in a dark room with 12 other people who were all frightened and praying for safety. She could still hear gunshots from her hiding place, and had heard rumors about a bomb in the area. The post ended with her questioning whether she’d make it out alive. As expected, such a post prompted dozens of concerned responses from friends hoping for a positive update. To make matters worse, she had been separated from her boyfriend James amid the chaos.

Mia and I stayed up until 1 in the morning watching news and checking our feeds. I finally went to bed, knowing I’d need to get up for work in a few hours. Mia said she wanted to watch a police press conference that was about to start, so I said goodnight and went to sleep after one last check on Facebook. There was no response yet from Brandi. By then, it seemed that the worst was over, but I went to bed without knowing for certain whether Brandi and James made it out alive.

One of the many differences between life in my twenties versus life in my thirties is that I don’t get out and go to concerts quite as often anymore. But as fate would have it, I actually did attend one this very same weekend. Mia, my longtime friend Joe, and I all went to the Fremont Street Experience on Saturday night to see Chevelle, a band that Joe and I would both rank among our all-time favorites. As one of the more successful hard rock bands of the last 15 years, Chevelle attracted a large crowd, which packed in pretty tightly in attempt to get a view of the show.  Tightly enough, in fact, that Mia even commented midway through the concert that we were all packed in a little too much.  A nearby girl heard the comment and agreed.

When the concert finished, exiting was a bit messy, with a large swarm of people all walking in seemingly eight different directions trying to leave.  Mind you, that was during the normal ending to a concert, which had already thinned out some just before the encore.  I’d rather not imagine what that scene would’ve looked like if we were all trying to disperse in an emergency evacuation.

Looking back on the entire weekend, and considering what happened last night at the Route 91 Harvest show, I can’t help but wonder if I’m alive and writing this today simply because of my personal taste in music.  Country music isn’t really my thing, nor is it the preferred form of music for Mia or Joe.  So for me, at least, there was never any real possibility that I would’ve found myself at last night’s show.  But if the gunman had just been looking to rack up a massive body count in a tightly-packed venue, he certainly could’ve chosen the show that we attended the night before.  Logistically speaking, the canopy above Fremont Street would’ve prevented a comparable vantage point to the one he enjoyed from his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel.  However, I’d suspect that he could’ve found someplace in the vicinity of our show to set up and take aim, had he chosen to go that route.

Joe, by the way, has been a very close friend since we met all the way back in eighth grade.  So close, in fact, that I was the best man at his wedding nearly a decade ago.  He is among the relatively rare fraternity of people who were born and raised in Las Vegas, but a career opportunity as an insurance agent resulted in him packing up and moving several years ago.  The small town he now calls home is still within driving distance of Las Vegas, but it’s far enough away that he doesn’t spend much time in the city anymore.  This past Saturday night marked the first time we’d hung out together in several months.  It was good to see him, if only for a few hours of one night.

He also seems to have developed an unfortunate, though entirely coincidental, association with what are now two of modern American history’s more tragic events.  I am exactly three weeks older than Joe, and once upon a time back in college, we’d planned to celebrate turning 21 together.  As a result, I didn’t really do a whole lot on my own 21st birthday, outside of putting ten dollars in a slot machine, now that I was finally old enough to do so.  The bigger celebration was to come three weeks later, when we were both of legal age.  That plan quickly turned sideways, though, as his big day fell on none other than September 11, 2001.

What, then, is his connection to this latest tragedy?  Well, that small town Joe moved to, and currently resides in, is Mesquite, Nevada.  If you’ve never lived in Las Vegas, there’s a great chance that you’ve also never heard of Mesquite.  You probably have heard of Laughlin, which is a small town along the Colorado River that is about a 90-minute drive from Las Vegas, and serves as a common weekend getaway destination for locals looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city.  Mesquite is nearly the same distance away from Las Vegas, only in a different direction.  One would pass through it if driving northeast from Las Vegas to Zion National Park in Utah.  It is also a common weekend getaway, known in particular for its golf courses.  And it is this same quiet town where the gunman called home.

But back to Saturday night.  After the Chevelle show ended, Mia and I decided to go out to a karaoke bar.  This particular bar has recently become one of our more common hangouts, despite the fact that it is on the opposite side of town from us.  Joe was staying in town at his in-laws’ house nearby for the night, so he drove us to the bar and stayed just long enough to grab a snack before heading out.  We had chosen to go there that evening after recently discovering that they carried a substantial number of new songs we wanted to try–songs that are extremely hard to find anywhere else.  This, by the way, is the same bar I mentioned in a previous post, in which Mia had gotten robbed of placing among the top three in a karaoke contest.  More importantly, though, it is the bar where the karaoke co-hosts are none other than Brandi and James.

So yes, we were enjoying a night of karaoke with Brandi and James on Saturday night.  Less than twenty-four hours later, the two of them were running for their lives at a country concert.  As it turned out, Brandi had been hidden away in that shelter for a good five hours, unable to safely head home until five in the morning.  Finally, at long last, she posted that long-awaited Facebook update declaring that she and James were OK.  Mia, who had actually stayed awake the entire time, finally felt relieved enough to go to bed.

Several hours later, presumably after Brandi had rested and composed herself, she then posted on Facebook once more, summing up her experience last night.  Bullets whizzed past her as she tried to make her escape, an entire line of them passing right by her head.  She witnessed others getting pelted by bullets in their necks, shoulders, and backs.  Before ultimately getting separated, Brandi and James both alternated between crawling over people as bullets flew, and running whenever they couldn’t hear any shots being fired, as the perpetrator was either reloading or switching guns.  It was a truly terrifying experience that most of us can only imagine.  In the end, though, they were among the fortunate ones who made it out alive, and as far as physical injuries go, they really only ended up with sore knees from the constant up and down motions and the crawling.  Mentally, they will be forever scarred by the experience, far beyond what the rest of us will ever know.

I won’t try to pretend that this event is far worse than previous tragedies such as the Orlando nightclub shooting last year.  But this one undeniably hits much closer to home, and I wanted to tell the story of how much things have changed in the last 48 hours.  I certainly count myself among the fortunate locals who have not had to receive the terrible news that someone I know has passed away.  Not so far, anyway.  Unfortunately, there are countless friends and family members of those 58 (or more) victims who will not receive that same reassurance.  It is, indeed, a very dark day in Sin City, one that shall never be forgotten.

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Demons of the Past

I’ve always had an awkward relationship with athletics.

For as long as I can remember, sports have been a big part of my life.  I took a liking to both baseball and football somewhere around the age of six, though the latter was usually more from a viewing standpoint.  The extent of my success playing football is mostly limited to a couple of plays made during physical education class in my youth.  Baseball just suited my skill set and capabilities far better.  I spent three years in Little League, and while I didn’t exactly compete among the caliber of players that you eventually watch on ESPN, I was at least one of the stronger members of my own team every year.  I had no power whatsoever, but I was a solid contact hitter who ran fast, which made me a pretty ideal leadoff man in those days.

With that said, I never really looked the part.  Before eventually switching to contact lenses midway through high school, I wore stereotypical Coke-bottle glasses as a result of being incredibly nearsighted.  I was almost always the shortest boy in my class and on my Little League team.  I was rail-thin, and extremely pale-skinned.  Based solely on appearance, you’d have pegged me as the nerdy kid who has his lunch money frequently taken from him.  Compared to many of my teammates, I probably looked like the kid who was only there because his parents were trying to get him to play sports despite a general lack of interest.

For the vast majority of those three years, my teammates seemed to view me as that kid too, rarely ever talking to me in the dugout, and either reluctantly acknowledging or completely ignoring most of the positive contributions I made to the team.  This was best summed up in one particular play that occurred during my third and final season of Little League baseball.  While manning center field, I charged a ground ball hit up the middle, picked it up and fired it home, where the catcher tagged a baserunner out at the plate for the third out of the inning.  Fielding was not normally my strength, but this was easily one of the best defensive plays I’d ever made.  Upon returning to the dugout, my teammates celebrated the play by high-fiving…the catcher.

With that said, what complicated matters was the fact that I actually was a pretty nerdy kid.  During my three years of Little League, I even jotted down my own statistics, in an effort to create my own personal baseball card.  Mind you, this started while I was still in elementary school, and long before the obsessive stat-tracking that is fantasy sports became the commonplace institution it is now.  Kids just didn’t do that sort of thing, but I did.

 

It’s not fun being the kid who always seems to get picked last in any kind of sport.  It’s even worse when you actually like sports, but just don’t look like someone who would be good at anything.  To be fair, I certainly had my weaknesses–I’ve always been terrible at basketball and volleyball, for instance–but I was secretly more competitive than I appeared to be.  There were occasions in P.E. class when I had that chip-on-my-shoulder mentality of wanting to prove doubters wrong, and severely outplay the little bit that was expected of me.  In particular, I took extreme satisfaction in one play I made during a flag football game in my sophomore year.  Our team was on defense, and I somehow wound up as the only man lining up across from two receivers.  I picked one to cover, knowing that the other would be left wide open, and I fully expected the quarterback to throw toward the open man.  When he did, I broke away from my receiver to jump in front of the pass, and returned an interception for a touchdown.  As it so happened, that wound up being the last play of the game before class was over, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to finish it.

But such moments were few and far between, and the frequent ridicule and expectation of failure left scars behind.  When I was in seventh grade, I wound up on the “skins” side of a shirts-and-skins game, which forced me to expose my extremely pale chest to the world.  It earned me the unflattering nickname “Casper,” after the animated friendly ghost, and the name even stuck with me into the following year of P.E. class.  In the years that have passed since then, I’ve learned to laugh at myself and take things in stride, so I’d have no problems with a derisive nickname like Casper nowadays.  Heck, I might even suggest something like that for myself.  Back then, though, I hadn’t yet learned how to laugh off such things.

I dreaded using the showers in P.E. class, and never did reach the point where I ever comfortable being naked around other boys.  By the time I was in high school, I avoided most any situation that involved being around the “jocks,” which became very complicated and challenging when I eventually went on to serve as an occasional sports writer for the school newspaper.  There was a point in time when I had considered my dream job to be a play-by-play sports broadcaster, until it occurred to me that such a career would involve regularly interviewing athletes.  The fear is real.

 

Which brings me to the present.  In our ongoing effort to find different ways to get active, my girlfriend Mia had recently researched nearby gyms, ultimately finding one in the area that offered a membership for her and “a guest,” effectively meaning that we could go together as often as we wanted for a total of $25 per month.  It sounded like a pretty solid deal, and as I thought back to the past, I realized that the price tag was a big reason why I had never joined a gym before.  This seemed much more affordable.

But we still needed to see whether joining seemed like a good fit for us.  Mia, for instance, has done competitive powerlifting before, and was interested in picking it back up again.  Normally though, such training is done in smaller gyms geared more specifically toward lifting and bodybuilding, mainly because the large chain gyms lack the proper equipment and tend to frown upon the use of chalk for gripping bars.  The sales representative at this gym insisted that chalk could be used there, but Mia had her doubts.  Still, she was willing to concede not having the ideal environment for her powerlifting if it meant that I would actually go to the gym.

And thus, the final decision was ultimately mine to make.  Money was not the issue; I knew that it was surprisingly affordable.  The question to be answered was whether I would actually feel comfortable enough to work out in the presence of strangers, as I’ve typically kept my exercising within the privacy of my own home.  Nobody really wants to be that person who hops onto a machine without any idea how to use it properly, and considering how mechanically un-inclined I’ve always been, I’d probably be that guy.  But by going with Mia, who actually knows how to use the equipment, I could learn how to use it myself without having to feel like the village idiot.  Also, with shedding weight as my bigger priority over building strength and muscle, I’d likely spend most of my time on cardio machines anyway.

 

So I decided to give it a shot.  To be honest, the ability to cancel membership at any time factored into the decision as well, just in case either of us feel like it’s not really working out.  But I’m cautiously optimistic that this will ultimately prove to be a good way to incorporate different forms of exercise into the weekly routines.  We’ve already used the gym three times within our first week, and I’ve even attempted bench presses for the first time in my life.  As a beginner, I don’t bench very much weight yet, which is to be expected.  What was encouraging, though, was the simple fact that I was willing to do so even with several bigger, stronger guys doing their own thing nearby.  So far, so good.  Perhaps a long-time fear has been conquered at last.

The Numbers Game

Good goals should always be specific and measurable.

You’ve probably already heard that before.  “I want to lose weight” is something people say all the time, for example, but it fails to answer questions that need to be asked.  How much weight do you want to lose?  How long do you expect it to take?  What do you plan to do to make it happen?  Most of us are guilty of making these undefined declarations from time to time, and such vague goals are incredibly difficult to achieve because they lack both a means and an end.

One month ago today, my girlfriend Mia and I headed to a phone carrier store that was running a half-off special on Fitbits.  She’d had one before, and I had expressed interest in getting one myself, so she bought one for both of us in what she considered an early birthday present.  That first day, I eclipsed 10,000 recorded steps despite not putting the Fitbit on until sometime in the afternoon.  Not a bad start.  But more importantly, the related app allows one to input goals and track progress toward them.  After entering both my current weight and my goal weight, for instance, I received a diagram that separates the two points and plots my current position along the way.

What makes the Fitbit considerably better, though, is that it also allows one to keep track of several other facets that all work together to help reach an ultimate fitness goal.  It’s probably best known as a pedometer, tallying the number of steps taken over the course of a day, but a Fitbit can measure several other things too, such as floors climbed, calories burned, minutes spent being active, and current heart rate.  Should you really choose to maximize its potential, you can even log an approximation of how many calories you’ve taken in or how many glasses of water you’ve consumed on a daily basis.

 

Most of these measurements are pretty new to me, so I was excited to start using this new toy and unlocking its potential.  Last year, over the course of about six months, I was jogging up and down several flights of stairs on a near-daily basis at my previous job, taking full advantage of working in a five-story building.  At my peak, I had even worked my way up to three separate sessions of stair-jogging, scaling 20 floors at a time, for a total of 60 floors in a day.  So I’d at least had prior experience keeping track of floors climbed, but I had never really measured statistics such as miles walked or calories burned.

Within the first week of wearing my new Fitbit, I actually exceeded 10,000 steps for six straight days, before finally taking it easier on Friday.  The default goal set by the Fitbit is 8,000 steps, which equates to approximately four miles.  Ten thousand steps a day, or roughly five miles, is generally considered to be the recommended goal to maintain a healthy level of activity.  For someone looking to lose weight, a good way to start would be to reach this milestone on a regular basis.  It’s a relatively easy goal to achieve for people who have active jobs, but for those of us that spend our workdays sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen, it takes a conscious and concerted effort to reach that kind of number.

Back when I was jogging stairs and gradually shedding pounds, I decided that I’d weigh in once a week, on Monday morning, right after stepping out of the shower.  I felt that it would be good to return to that schedule once I got going with the Fitbit, so after nearly two full weeks of tracking, I grabbed the scale to see what I’d accomplished.  After two pretty solid weeks of averaging about 10,000 steps a day, I lost…two-tenths of a pound.  Not quite what I had in mind.

The following week wasn’t any better either.  Knowing that we tend to eat out more on the weekends, Mia suggested I try weighing in a couple days later in the week after clearing out more of the salt in my system.  The results were indeed better on Thursday, which led me to think that perhaps this would become a better day of the week to weigh in going forward.  Sure enough, this past Thursday’s weigh-in revealed solid results, knocking a pound and a half off the previous reading.  Notable progress, at last.

 

Last year, a couple months after I had already incorporated the stair-jogging into my daily work routine, the bank I was working for issued a company-wide fitness challenge to anyone interested, with prizes offered for the best results in terms of pounds or percentage of body weight lost.  I entered, figuring that I was already working on my own personal challenge anyway, and such a contest could motivate me to step my game up to the next level.  By the time the challenge ended in late May, I had dropped a total of 21 pounds from where I’d started six months earlier, with just over half of them coming during the contest period.

As it so happens, Mia and I both work for companies that are currently running step challenges which will last throughout most of this month.  Compared to the prior contest at the bank, the prizes this time are not terribly exciting (nor are they for Mia), but the sheer competition with peers and potential bragging rights that come with it do serve as solid motivation to takes things up a couple notches.  Or in Mia’s case, more than a couple.  During her challenge, she has averaged well over 20,000 steps per day, even racking up a rather ridiculous 50,000-step day late last week.  In terms of distance covered, that’s just shy of a marathon.  My initial goal is much more modest, aiming to improve my average from about 10,000 steps per day to 12,000.  You might say that I’m trying to literally go the extra mile.

As for weight loss, things have gotten off to an admittedly slow start for me.  Overall, I’ve remained at about the same place I was when I started a month ago, while Mia has made much more substantial progress.  But for me, the first month is probably more about working myself back into better shape so that I can get more out of my exercise.  I reached a personal best of 15,000 steps one day last week, and matched it again a couple days ago.  That may soon become my average, and I intend to push for a 20,000-step day very soon.  Numbers such as those will likely bring real results in the effort to shed pounds, as long as my diet is reasonable.  I’ve got my goals, and the means to track them.  True success should be just around the corner.

Customer Disservice

I don’t post much on Facebook these days.

For several years, it was routine for me to comment on karaoke nights, sports news, interesting life occurrences, and other humorous or random thoughts I felt like sharing.  Outside of vacations, I’ve never really been one to put up a bunch of photos–most other pictures found on my page are those that were taken by somebody else with me tagged in them.  But even my normal posts are far less frequent than they used to be.

Not that I’ve stopped paying attention or using the service.  In fact, I scroll through my feed almost on a daily basis, often doing so more than once in a day.  Occasionally I’ll “like” someone’s else post, or use the newer “love,” “laughing,” or “crying” icons, and I may even post a short reply comment now and then, but for one reason or another, I just don’t post a whole lot myself anymore.

Every once in a while, though, I still find things that need to be mentioned.  Sometimes I’ll throw my two cents in on a major sports story–or at least something relevant to one of my teams, anyway–or perhaps I’ll weigh in on a current event of some sort.  On rare occasions, I may even participate in something trendy going on if it piques my interest, such as that challenge a few months ago where you list 10 musical artists you claim to have seen live and your friends try to guess which one is the lie.

Oddly enough, two such posts of mine are closely related, albeit months apart.  I assembled a pretty diverse list of musical artists that I’d seen, most of which are musicians that would certainly qualify as unexpected.  For instance, one was the Pointer Sisters, who were actually hired to perform at a company holiday party held by one of my former employers.  The “lie,” which was an artist that not one single person guessed correctly, was Linkin Park.  Sure enough, they have ranked among my favorite bands for a long time, and anyone guessing would’ve been quite defensible for assuming that I had seen them at some point.  But over a decade ago, I missed a show that featured them along with Hoobastank, and never did rectify that by seeing them on another occasion.

Now, sadly, that opportunity has passed for good, in light of last week’s tragic news about singer Chester Bennington’s suicide.  Perhaps the rest of the band will opt to carry on and seek a replacement, but even if they succeed, it will never feel quite right without Chester’s trademark golden pipes.  Upon hearing the shocking revelation, I was moved enough to post a miniature eulogy, lamenting the loss of yet another rock icon who proudly represented my generation.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we’d been informed of similar tragedies befalling both Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland and the incomparable Chris Cornell, whose legendary voice guided two separate bands to massive success.

 

But that wasn’t the only thing worth posting about.  Last Saturday, my girlfriend Mia and I went to a few different places around town, and managed to encounter a customer service breakdown at every stop.  It is, of course, quite common to run into the occasional issue within the service industry.  This particular day, though, things got a bit out of hand.

Our first stop was a relatively new French bistro on our side of town for brunch.  Its namesake is something of a Las Vegas legend, a chef with Michelin star credentials on his resumé.  Even though the management company in charge was looking to create a cozier off-the-Strip neighborhood venue, expectations would still be understandably high.  And if the consensus of Yelp reviews is to be believed, the restaurant delivers.  For dinner, anyway.  Brunch seems to be much more of a work in progress.  The available menu has a rather limited number of breakfast options, although the one I chose was quite tasty, and I ordered a yummy Creamsicle-inspired beverage to go with it.  In fact, my individual experience with the place was quite strong.  If I were to review it on Yelp, I’d have given the place 4 or 5 stars.

Mia’s experience was not nearly as pleasant.  She did, admittedly, enjoy the lobster roll that she ordered, and liked the rather quirky ambiance of the place.  But as a longtime Yelp reviewer and a true foodie, she grades restaurants much more critically than I do.  Case in point, despite the positives, she only gave the entire experience a two-star grade.  It struck her as odd that the hostess greeted us with a “good evening,” despite the fact that we were there for brunch, and that she apparently never noticed and corrected herself.  She then proceeded to drop a menu on the table as though she was in a hurry, even though the place wasn’t terribly busy.

But the venue was still performing pretty well overall anyway…that is, until Mia ordered a drink from the bar.  She ordered an “old-fashioned,” a classic whiskey or bourbon-based cocktail that isn’t exactly the easiest drink to make.  As such, it is a cocktail that she won’t even try to order at, say, a sports bar.  A place like this, though, would seem to be a fine location to order one.  It wasn’t.  The daytime bartender, who clearly isn’t on the staff’s A-team, had to print out a drink recipe.  Mia immediately took that to be a bad sign, which was confirmed when she eventually took a sip and found the drink to be gaggingly sweet.  It’s not supposed to be a sweet drink.  She couldn’t finish half the glass, and declared it the worst old-fashioned she’d ever had.  Unacceptable, given the venue’s pedigree.  And thus, two stars out of five.

 

Later that evening, we chose a decidedly simpler, quicker option for dinner–the El Pollo Loco drive-thru.  Obviously, the expectations are much different here than the French bistro, but it’s more than fair to think that the place will be able to take and make an order correctly.  When all was said and done, the food wound up being well above the norm for this particular location, which is easily the nearest to home but has long had a tendency to overcook and char its chicken.  Not this time–once again, the food was quite enjoyable.

Ordering it was not.  Neither was the excessively long phone survey that we chose to participate in after our meal.  Anyone who’s seen the movie Wayne’s World may recall a scene in the drive-thru which parodies how badly the speakers would often cut in and out.  Wayne, in response to the drive-thru’s sign stating that an incorrect order is free, cuts his voice in and out, mimicking the speakers, only to find that the drive-thru employee has somehow managed to get his order exactly right.  Meanwhile, at our El Pollo Loco, trying to complete an order was like going back in time to the 1980s.  The drive-thru operator, who I would like to think was at least a new employee struggling to learn his position, at one point apparently heard “fruit punch” when we were ordering iced tea.  I’m not even sure how that’s possible.  We did eventually, and somewhat miraculously, get the order right by the time we left, but it certainly wasn’t easy.

 

It gets better.  That night, we headed to a nearby karaoke bar where a friend of ours usually hosts, but he was celebrating his birthday there that night, so one of the other employees of the company subbed in for the evening.  It didn’t go well.  There were a number of delays in between songs throughout the night, mostly because the hostess was too busy arguing with people to run the queue.  At some point, she had gotten into it with the manager of the bar, even going so far as to call the manager a very nasty word that I won’t repeat here.  She then proceeded to spend the rest of night trying to absolve herself of any blame, insisting of course that everything was all the manager’s fault.  Meanwhile, the owner of the karaoke company, who was there that night, tried desperately to smooth things over so as to avoid losing the bar as a client.

During the commotion, Mia and I tried to patiently wait for our turns to sing.  We were able to get up and perform a duet within a reasonable amount of time after our arrival, but we each had individual songs requested as well, submitting three slips of paper in total.  Normally, such requests will be separated, so as to avoid drawing the ire of fellow singers by performing back-to-back songs.  But the wait in between was uncharacteristically long before Mia finally got called up to sing her individual song.  I should’ve been next, or at least within another song or two, but that didn’t happen either.  Mia asked the hostess when (or if) my turn was coming up on more than one occasion, and even called on the birthday boy to intervene, but still my name was not to be heard.  As it turned out, my slip had somehow been thrown away, and the song never actually made it to the queue.  I did eventually get to sing, but not before the night was just about over and the bar was nearly cleared out.

 

For the record, I began writing this post a few days ago, but have been slow to finish.  And in the meantime, we’ve added a fourth item to this list.  At another restaurant the other night, Mia and were somehow referred to as “you boys” on more than occasion, by what we can assume was either the hostess or manager.  Mia was not pleased.  The offender may have noticed her mistake, as she then avoided making eye contact with us the rest of the time we were there, but that only made it worse.  A better solution would have been to acknowledge the mistake, apologize for it, and maybe try to crack a joke about it.  Had she done that, we all would’ve likely laughed it off and moved on with our night.  But that didn’t happen.  And thus a potentially perfect Yelp review lost a star.

 

I don’t work in the service industry anymore, but I certainly have in the past, as both a bank teller and a call center agent.  It’s not an easy thing to do on a daily basis.  Irate customers, unreasonable requests, and communication barriers, among other issues, are all part of the job.  And through it all, one must try to keep a smile going and at least act like everything is going just fine.  But sometimes those who work in the industry just make things harder than they need to be.  What should be simple suddenly becomes complicated, and the stories must be told on Facebook.  Or Yelp.  Or blog posts.

Into the Fire

Being “the new guy” can mean many different things.

In any case, you’ve been selected to come in and fill a major hole, replace someone else that’s been lost, and, most likely, to solve problems.  Think of a typical NFL offseason, for instance.  All 32 teams in the league–even the good ones–have at least one substantial weakness somewhere, and the offseason presents a couple of opportunities to address such deficiencies.

First, there is free agency, the annual frenzy beginning in late March that offers teams the chance to fill holes with established veterans who happen to be between contracts.  Inevitably, the first several days of the free agency period will be marked by desperate teams overpaying players to be the cure for whatever is ailing them.  Need a better pass rush?  Sign Defensive End X, and move on to the next problem!  The results of free agency are always mixed, and that’s probably being generous.  Few things set franchises back further than committing large chunks of their salary cap to players who prove to be far less effective with their new employers.  One of the most notorious examples occurred nearly a decade ago, when defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth parlayed a few solid seasons with the Tennessee Titans into an astronomical 7-year, $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins.  He lasted there for two forgettable seasons before eventually getting traded for a late-round draft pick.

Next comes the NFL Draft about a month later.  To the league’s credit, it has done a wonderful job building up and promoting this process into a highly-anticipated event, one that has many of its fans salivating over a handful of prospects who are also perceived as the potential solutions to their team’s problems.  Even drafting the least glamorous positions on a team–think offensive linemen–can get fans wildly excited and overly optimistic about the season their team is about to have in a few months.  Sometimes it only takes a year’s worth of faithfully watching one’s beloved team struggle mightily with either run blocking or pass protection for even the average fan to realize that a severe upgrade along the offensive line is needed.

But much like free agency, the draft has always proven to be nothing more than a crapshoot, even despite the countless hours of willful player analysis that the Mel Kipers of the world devote to projecting success at the next level.  Each player selected is a lottery ticket, and much like the actual lottery, there are tons of losing tickets just waiting to be bought.  Thirty-two prospects are selected in the first round, each one generally representing what some team considers to be the best available player for them that’s still on the board.  Yet every year, at least half of even those top selections will fail to carve out a professional career anywhere near the level their teams and hopeful fans envision for them.

With free agency, there are always questions about new acquisitions that can never be fully answered until after a player has signed with his new employer.  How will his new team use him?  Will he fit in with whatever scheme his new team’s coordinator operates?  Is he sufficiently recovered from a recent injury?  How much does he have left in the tank?  But for all of these questions and others, one known quantity about a prospective free agent to be signed is that he has already proven capable of playing the sport at a professional level.  Some are stars, others are backups and role players, but all have at least shown themselves to be competent at whatever role they’re expected to fill.  Rookies come with no such guarantees–all that is known about them for sure is that they performed at a high level in college, mostly with and against inferior players who will never become professionals.  Whether such performance will translate to success at the highest level is always the million-dollar question (or really, multi-million dollar question) that is always asked but rarely answered with any degree of confidence.

 

It’s been a little over a month now since the first day on the job with my current employer.  I was reminded of this fact a couple times this week, as I only became eligible to sign up for health benefits a week ago, and I just received my first direct-deposited paycheck yesterday after two paper checks that actually required a brief stop at the bank.  I’m still another two months away from completing the probationary period and being able to request vacation time.  Suffice to say, whether you might consider me to be an incoming rookie or a veteran free agent, I’m still a pretty new acquisition for this company.  My past reputation–formed with both a resume and an interview–was enough to get me in the door and convince this employer that I could indeed be the solution to one of its problems, and now it’s on me to prove them right.

The problem, in this case, was caused by the promotion of an employee into a supervisory role in another department.  As a result, a “team” of accounts payable specialists that processes sales and marketing invoices consisted of just two overworked women who had been putting in substantial overtime in effort to cover the work of three people.  Each person on the team is assigned a roughly equal share of hotel vendors to work with, so the departed employee’s vendors had to be divided up among the two ladies that remained.  They needed help, badly, and I was chosen to provide it.  Of course, as an outside hire, it would be unreasonable to expect me to come in and immediately replace my predecessor’s production–there would need to be some training involved on exactly how they operate.

Fortunately, I’ve accumulated a wealth of accounts payable experience in my past, even if it’s been nearly four years since working in that role.  But having spent eight previous years working for a leading online travel agency, I also bring with me a strong knowledge of the hotel industry, particularly as it relates to third-party billing.  My previous job, documenting commercial loans for a regional bank, came with a much steeper learning curve that was really still in progress right up until my departure a year and a half after I started.  Here, I already feel very much like a regular part of the team, which is not to suggest that this job is easier, but is does reflect the depth of my prior knowledge in the field and how it applies to my current position.

 

The vendors that were handled by my predecessor have already been reassigned to me, and I’m receiving minimal assistance from my two teammates who trained me.  I think the company expected to ease me into the position more than what has proven to be necessary, and they’ve all been extremely impressed by how quickly I’ve been able to assimilate and truly take over the work.  But in this department, the workload continues to grow as more hotel vendors sign on as partners, and it’s looking more and more as though even the current three-person team may no longer be large enough.  I, too, expect to be working a fair amount of overtime for at least the next week, maybe more, to help catch things back up again.  In the short term, I have no problem with this, as a little extra income is always welcome.  Should overtime become the norm, I will eventually become less receptive to it.  For now, though, it’s proving to a great fit for both sides, just as everybody hopes once the deal is made.

The Blessing and the Curse

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Few things in life are more frustrating than unmet expectations.  We see it all the time in the sports world–a team comes into a season as one of the frontrunners to win a title, only to come up woefully short for one reason or another.  This season, for instance, the Chicago Cubs are coming off their first championship in over a century, returning a team largely intact and about as strong on paper as last year’s club.  Yet, halfway through the season, the team sits merely one game above .500 and trails the Reds 3-0 as I type this.  And they’ve remained within four games of an even record all year long, pretty much marking them as the epitome of an average team.

The silver lining to this cloud is that the rest of the Cubs’ division hasn’t really been any better.  Entering play today, the Cubs are somehow just one measly game out of first place, and the assumption by most is that they will eventually catch fire and run away with the division.  But if the Cubs are indeed the sleeping giant that many of us figure them to be, they sure are taking an awfully long nap.  Despite their impressive collection of young talent that first launched the Cubs into title contention two years ago, practically everyone on the team has had a sub-par first half.  It’s fair to wonder whether enough team members will rebound in the second half to actually take advantage of their eminently winnable division and resemble a legitimate contender come playoff time.

Frustration over the mediocrity recently spilled out into the open, as backup catcher Miguel Montero committed the cardinal sin of airing his grievances publicly, largely blaming his team’s pitching staff for their relative inability to prevent stolen bases by opposing baserunners.  His claim is not without merit, but it does conveniently ignore the blatantly obvious fact that Montero no longer has the capability of throwing out would-be base stealers that he once had.  The complaint occurred in the aftermath of a game in which the Washington Nationals had stolen a whopping seven bases within the first four innings, taking full advantage of both pitcher Jake Arrieta’s slow delivery to home plate and Montero’s weakened throwing arm.  Montero, who had also infamously complained about a lack of playing time just after the Cubs won the World Series, was immediately released from the team.

As a Cubs fan, it’s hard to be too disappointed in this season, considering that the team did, in fact, win the whole thing just last year, an achievement that countless Cubs fans went an entire lifetime without ever being able to experience.  Right now, we simply need to remind ourselves that the team is still incredibly young and is likely to compete for several more titles over the next decade.  Not to mention the fact that it’s also incredibly difficult to win back-to-back titles at the professional level in any sport, for a multitude of reasons.  In all likelihood, the first half of the 2017 season will just turn out to be a surprisingly bumpy stretch of an otherwise longer and smoother road.

What was much more disappointing for me personally was the 2014 season of my favorite football team, the New Orleans Saints.  The team had finished the previous season with an 11-5 record and its first-ever road playoff win, and presumably made a few solid moves in the offseason to improve an already strong roster.  Needless to say, they were a trendy pick by many to win the next Super Bowl.  Instead, their defense put up one of the worst statistical seasons in the history of the NFL, and the team limped to a 7-9 finish overall.  At one point late in the season, I complained to a friend of mine that this was the most disappointing season I’d ever watched as a Saints fan.  She insisted that the Saints weren’t that bad–which was true, but it also missed the point.  Sure, I’ve witnessed some truly terrible seasons from both the Saints and the Cubs, but those didn’t seem as bad to me, since I came into those years with lowered expectations anyway.

 

While this particular topic has centered largely around the current Cubs season, it has also recently revealed itself on a more personal level.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post or two, my girlfriend Mia and I are both karaoke singers that most would consider to be well above-average.  We’ve each competed in numerous karaoke contests and taken home prize money on several occasions.  A typical contest will usually offer prizes for the top three singers, and anytime we’re involved in the competition, there’s an excellent chance that at least one of us will place somewhere in the winner’s circle.  You might even say that it is a real surprise, and a letdown, when we don’t.

It’s worth noting that judging a karaoke contest is a highly subjective, and oftentimes very difficult, thing to do.  There are a number of different criteria used to determine a contestant’s overall grade–singing ability, stage presence, song difficulty, and crowd response should all factor into the decision–but all kinds of variables exist that can prevent someone from grading such things accurately.  Being the first singer up is an unenviable position, for instance, as one’s performance can be largely forgotten by the end of the contest.  And from that position, even a strong showing may merely serve to establish a higher bar for the remaining competitors to clear, causing some to raise their games accordingly once that standard has been established.

But there are other factors that can unfairly affect a contestant’s grade–ones that call a judge’s credibility into question.  Granted, it’s unreasonable to think that someone grading your local karaoke bar’s low-stakes contest is going to pick apart a performance with Simon Cowell-esque precision.  In fact, judges can often be desperately chosen from among a very small pool of people whose only real qualification is a willingness to do it.  Unfortunately, this inevitably leads to problems such as not paying close attention at all times, showing favoritism to friends in the competition, or allowing one’s opinion of a chosen song to matter more than how well it is (or isn’t) being performed.

 

Our most recent competition occurred at a dive bar this past Saturday night.  Somewhere around 20 people battled for three prizes, none of which were terribly enticing, but still would’ve been nice to win.  During a contest, I tend to size up the competition and measure it against my own performance, and then estimate which three individuals should be walking away victorious.  Sometimes I believe myself to be among the winners, and sometimes not.  In this particular instance, I felt that two people had clearly outshined the rest of the pack, and that there were about 6 or 7 of us who were pretty comparable and should be in the running for third.  I considered myself to be one of those 6 or 7, having given a solid, though not quite outstanding, performance of Third Eye Blind’s mega-hit “Semi-Charmed Life.”

But one of the two clear winners–in my book, at least–was Mia.  She chose one of her go-to songs–Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet”–and performed it very well.  It’s a strange and lesser-known song that alternates between slow, quiet verses and louder, upbeat choruses, and it sounds like it came straight out of a musical.  There are a number of shushes throughout the song, which both encourage crowd participation and add a real sense of uniqueness.  The typical crowd reaction to her rendition of the song is some initial confusion, which is eventually followed by widespread captivation.  Of course, one of the things that really makes the song work is that, like most songs from musicals, it offers up plenty of opportunity to demonstrate legitimate singing ability.

Half the bar agreed with my assessment that Mia was a clear winner, coming up to her to say so–if not first place, then surely second or third.  And, as we would later find out, four of the five judges thought so too.  Unfortunately, like the man who gets bitten by a squirrel in that Trident commercial to exclaim, “NOOOOOO,” thus explaining why 4 out of 5 dentists recommend the chewing gum, this particular panel contained one ridiculous outlier that somehow wielded the power to single-handedly alter the entire outcome.  According to one of the judges we spoke with, he frequently voted contestants way down based solely on his personal opinion of either the song chosen or the person singing it, with virtually no regard to whether the performance was any good.  The rest of the panel even tried to get his scores completely thrown out, but no luck.  And thus Mia, who was clearly one of the three best performers that night, walked away with nothing but anger and tears.

 

Elevated expectations should still be seen as a positive thing overall–it’s a lot more exciting to watch or enter a competition when either you or your rooting interest has a serious chance of winning.  And ultimately, it most likely took a good deal of work to reach a position where victory has become the expectation, which is a credit to any competitor who has gotten that far.  But no matter the venue, you just can’t win ’em all, and the defeats get harder to swallow when winning becomes the norm.  Sometimes you have no choice but to travel the bumpy stretch of road until it smooths out again.

An Uphill Battle

“Father Time is undefeated.”

You often hear this expression in the sports world, typically in reference to an aging athlete who is clearly past his or her prime and no longer able to perform at the same level.  Those who rely heavily on speed as part of their game, for instance, will inevitably lose a step at some point.  Injuries sustained throughout an athlete’s career have a cumulative effect, with each ensuing malady usually proving more difficult to overcome than the previous one.  As a result, athletes don’t always get to decide when to retire from their sport–oftentimes their bodies make the decision for them.

But we need not have an athletic background to feel the ravages of time–it will affect all of us sooner or later.  Most of us regular folks will invariably battle against a constantly expanding waistline as we age, and that war only gets more difficult the older we get.  Metabolism slows down, forcing us to work that much harder to get the results we want from diet and exercise.  Priorities change as well–in our twenties, some of us will find motivation to work out simply in trying to attract the opposite sex.  But by the time we’ve reached our thirties and beyond, we often focus on things like advancing our careers or raising families.  It’s easy for regular exercise to get lost in the shuffle.

 

In one of my last posts, I mentioned that my girlfriend Mia and I had been developing a plan to get in shape.  Thanks to my aversion to joining a gym and working out in front of the general public, I was looking into something that can be done at home, like following a workout video program.  I combed through the various series offered by Beachbody, the leading producer of home workout videos, who is responsible for well-known titles like Insanity and P90X.  Such programs are known for being brutal, but can be wildly effective for those who have what it takes to survive them.  Of particular interest to me was a newer offshoot of P90X that was designed to pack its same overall intensity level into a shorter, 30-minute daily workout.

This idea was shot down fairly quickly.  Mia considered it, but was unsure whether this was really a good idea.  She consulted one of her co-workers–a personal trainer who had once been a P90X instructor–and was advised that such a workout was really meant more for people who are already in pretty good physical condition that want to crank things up a notch or two.  For someone just starting out–or starting over, as the case may be–it would be asking an awful lot.  And thus the P90X idea is out.  Well, for now, anyway.

Not that I was expecting to immediately dive into something as intense as that and succeed.  I still felt that we should ramp things up a bit with some easier exercises at first to get our bodies more prepared for the torture that was to come.  What I may not have realized is just how much longer the “ramp-up” period would really need to be.  After all, I may not have exercised much in a while, but it’s not like I never have before.  There is enough visible muscle tone in my appearance to at least suggest that I’ve done some working out in the past.  I’ve even occasionally had people ask me whether I’m former military, though I personally believe that has more to do with my typically shorter hair than anything else.

 

Mia works as a health coach who teaches classes online and works with individuals who are in major need of losing weight.  The company she works for offers a series of cardio, strength, and flexibility workout videos to be used by members of the program, as well as a calendar outlining which half-hour workout to execute on any given day as one progresses through the program.  There are five levels of cardio and strength workouts overall, with each successive video getting more difficult than the previous one.  As this series is designed to be used by people in need of weight loss, it can be assumed that someone popping in the initial video has probably not worked out much in a while, if at all.  A P90X-lite, if you will.

The first three weeks on the program calendar involve three or four workouts per week, mostly focusing on the first cardio workout during that time.  Since we figured we should be in a bit better shape than a typical beginner, we skipped ahead to week four, which is really the first full week of the program, consisting of two cardio workouts, two strength workouts, and a flexibility / abdominal day, for a total of five exercises and two rest days.

This was where I found out very quickly that I’ve got a much longer, tougher road ahead of me than I had realized.  After sweating profusely and scuffling to get through the very first cardio workout, it became painfully obvious just how out of shape I had allowed myself to become.  The first strength workout on the following night wasn’t quite as bad, but I wasn’t exactly using heavy weight resistance either.  A short but intense abdominal workout proved difficult the next night, but the ensuing flexibility regimen felt like a welcome respite designed largely to help recover from the previous exercises and prepare for the next ones.  Thankfully, the second cardio workout a few days later didn’t feel nearly as rough as the first one, so progress had certainly been made by the end of the week.

 

We’re now in the middle of week two.  Once again, it will be five workouts over the course of the week, in the same format: cardio, strength, abs/flexibility, strength again, and another cardio routine to finish the week.  But now we’re onto “Cardio 2” and “Strength 2,” and the increased difficulty is noticeable.  I scuffled my way through the first cardio workout on Monday, sweating more than Mia has ever seen.  Once again, the strength workout the next day was somehow easier, although I did challenge myself with more weight and resistance during a couple exercises, and barely got through some of them.  Tonight will be the relative break that is the abdominal / flexibility routine, before returning to the same workouts from the previous two nights.

I can say that I’m feeling a little better overall after a week and a half of exercising, which is to be expected.  But it’s also clear that I’ve got a very long way to go before I’m anywhere near where I ultimately want to be.  That was also expected, but the sheer gap between where I am now and even where I was a few years ago is startling.  The good news is that this time I’ve got a great workout partner to help power me through and keep me going, and we’re both determined to make it happen.  Mia has, only half-jokingly, suggested climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in five years, which I’m at least keeping in the back of my mind for now.  In the meantime, we’ve got a pretty steep metaphorical hill to climb.  Maybe someday we’ll also be scaling a very real one too.

First Impressions

You never get a second chance to make one.

While this may be true of first impressions, it does admittedly overstate their importance.  Plenty of conclusions are drawn right away, and many will ultimately prove to be accurate.  Some will not be.  Others will change over time.  Nevertheless, we’re constantly finding ourselves on both the giving and receiving ends of snap judgments, for better or worse.  But as much as we tend to think of first impressions in relation to other people, there are countless other ways in which we are making instantaneous decisions about whatever we encounter.

 

Having just completed two full weeks’ worth of shifts at my latest occupation, it seems like a fair time to assess both my specific position and the company for whom I now work.  It would be unfair to make too many definitive declarations before I’ve even received my first full paycheck or become eligible for benefits, but there’s enough data to go on to at least get a general sense of what I can expect going forward.  Of course, the very first impression was made during the application process, when both the company and I were each trying to determine whether we might make a good match as employer and employee.

The process of seeking new employment is often prolonged and frustrating, as I’ve experienced on multiple occasions over the last few years.  What I would consider my “best” job up to this point was my time spent working in the accounts payable department for a major online travel company, which I did for eight years before falling victim to a department-wide relocation.  The pay was modest, albeit sufficient, but I viewed at as a very favorable work environment, carrying such perks as a relaxed dress code and the ability to listen to an iPod on headphones, all thanks to its complete lack of in-person customer interaction, which itself was also a major plus in my book.

It would be fair to say that I’ve been seeking an adequate replacement for that job ever since, which included a relatively brief return to that same company in a totally different capacity.  Truthfully, the second go-round always felt like a temporary fix until something better came along, as I reluctantly accepted a call center position with them out of sheer desperation, and only remained with the company for another half year before leaving for good.

Afterwards, I returned to the banking industry, in which I had previously been a teller for about five years mainly during my college years, only now I was working in the so-called “note department,” drawing up commercial loan documents.  The salary was comparable to what I had been making during my first tour with the travel company, and the work was challenging enough to learn and keep me mentally engaged, but it still never felt quite as enjoyable overall.  I considered it to be fine at the time, particularly after spending nearly two full years adrift in the wake of that layoff, but if asked the question of where I would want to be in five years, that position didn’t seem like the correct answer.  Frankly, neither did anything else within banking.

 

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, my long-term method of earning an income could wind up being substantially different, possibly in the form of writing this or another blog, or perhaps taking on a significant role within the lingerie company that my girlfriend is trying to build.  But in the meantime, the hope is to simply find a relatively stable full-time job that pays a livable wage and fosters an enjoyable work environment.  So it is fitting that, nearly four years after being laid off from what was my best and longest-tenured occupation, I have returned to the travel / hospitality industry, this time working in the accounts payable department for a timeshare company.  Certainly there is a familiar feel to it, as it seems to be similar work to what I had once done.  In fact, the office is just down the road from the prior travel company, which offers a much better commute than I had at the bank.

The first floor of the building houses a marketing department call center, which is apparently prone to having loud weekly rallies honoring top performers.  I, on the other hand, work on the much quieter second floor, as an accounting department tends not to make a great deal of noise.  Unless, of course, you supply your own in the form of listening to an iPod while you work, which is now an option again.  The dress code isn’t quite as lax as the prior travel company, where employees like myself would frequently show up wearing a T-shirt and shorts, but I need not wear the dress shirt and slacks required at the bank.  And I’m continuing to work standard business hours, which works very well for me.  Overall, I’m not sure the environment figures to be quite as fun as the original travel company was, but having already had an opportunity to do a good bit of work on my own, I can say that the workflow seems to be steady, and the day does not usually feel like it’s dragging along.

My very first day on the job was a bit rocky, as I was receiving desk-level training from a very quiet woman who speaks broken English in a very thick accent.  And this particular team consists only of another woman and myself, so options would be limited.  I was a bit concerned about receiving proper training as I headed home from day one.  As luck would have it though, I ended up sitting with the other woman the next day, who may have been a less experienced worker, but proved to be a far better trainer, and I left worked that day feeling far more comfortable that this would end up alright for me.

 

The job is not without its drawbacks, however, which is true about pretty much every job in existence.  For one, there is a rather strict policy within the department that requires us to keep cell phones off the floor, and thus lockers are provided to store items during one’s shift.  Not a major issue for me, really, but I won’t be able to see and respond to a text message until I’m on a break, which could be problematic if I need to be contacted more urgently about something.  Secondly, internet usage seems to be completely restricted to business purposes only.  While I’m generally pretty good about staying on task and keeping slack-off time to a minimum, I’ve found that, say, reading an article on ESPN.com for a few minutes is a great way to give myself a mini-break and get refocused.  I’ll surely miss having that ability at some point down the road.

But the most disappointing, and frankly surprising, discovery came during a new hire orientation, during which we were provided a brief company history and philosophy.  Again, it is a timeshare company, and one of its basic principles is encouraging its customers to take, and use, their allotted vacation time, citing the mental health benefits of being able to recharge and enjoy a getaway with friends or family.  All of this seems perfectly fine and legit, until it is later revealed that the standard company policy is to offer but one solitary week of vacation to employees within their first year of service.  As my mom would tell it, such a policy was pretty standard operating procedure years ago, but it feels archaic and shockingly restrictive nowadays.  Get out and go on vacation!  Well, unless you work here, that is.

 

So with all that said, it’s mostly off to a good start.  It is interesting, though, how perception has already evolved from the initial training on day one, to the new hire orientation a few days later, to today, where I’m officially two weeks in and already working predominantly on my own.  Will I love this job?  Probably not.  But it does feel like a legitimate improvement over the prior stop, and it may just be able to provide however much staying power I really need until, well, whatever comes next.  For the foreseeable future, at least, the long and grinding search appears to be over.

Life Marches On

Setting goals is a good thing.  Reaching them, however, can often prove to be quite difficult.

In my previous post, “The Collaborators,” I mentioned that I had set a personal goal of writing two entries per week.  My last post was nearly three weeks ago.  Oops.

A few days after my previous post, when the next one likely would’ve been written, I suffered through a bout of presumed food poisoning that proceeded to make my life miserable for at least a day and a half.  I had intended to take my car in for its next scheduled maintenance on that Tuesday (two weeks ago today), but the illness delayed that plan for a couple days.

I brought my car in for service two days later, figuring to spend maybe two hours waiting for an oil change, inspection, and any further maintenance that might be necessary.  The day before, I had experienced an issue with my car starting to overheat on the way home from some errands, but after discovering that there was virtually no coolant left in it, I Uber-ed my way over to a Wal-Mart to buy some, and figured that the problem was thus solved once I filled up the tank.

Not so much.  Within a couple miles of driving away from the shop, I observed my car overheating again, just after the car had received its recommended maintenance.  Apparently the routine inspection of the vehicle had not been enough to discover a leaky radiator in need of replacement.  Once they found this problem, the station offered to fix it that afternoon before closing up for the day, but would do so at a stiff price.  On the advice of my girlfriend Mia, who knows significantly more about cars than I do, I decided to take the car elsewhere.  After all, I could still drive it for a short distance before the overheating would become a problem.

I was able to take the car over to another auto mechanic just before their shop closed, where I left it overnight to be worked on in the morning.  The shop, recommended by a friend who has gone there several times, charged half the price that I would’ve paid at the original place.  Clearly, it was well worth the mild annoyance of leaving the car overnight and picking it up the next day.

By this time it was Friday afternoon, and after driving the car around town a bit to ensure that the problem was actually fixed this time, I headed home and queued up yet another session of Final Fantasy XII, a video game I’ve been diligently playing for months.  Meanwhile, after spending about three months surfing the web to find new employment, I had finally received a job offer with a scheduled start date of June 1st, a Thursday.  Mia and I had also planned on taking a road trip from that Saturday through the Wednesday right before my job started, so that Friday would be my final day spent at home before starting a new job.  I wanted to relax and enjoy it, so writing a blog post was probably not going to happen that day.

 

I was also certain that I would not be writing any posts during the trip.  While it’s true that one of the draws to blogging is that I can theoretically do so anywhere I’ve got a computer and an internet connection, this particular trip was not going to be the time to prove it.  We spent the weekend celebrating Mia’s mom’s birthday in Walnut, California before driving down to San Diego to watch three Cubs games.  It was also our one-year anniversary as a couple, which would have made it especially disappointing if any lingering car troubles had prevented us from going.

It was at least conceivable that I could’ve written my next post on Thursday evening, after returning home from my first day of work.  But that, too, was pretty unlikely.  Mia was still on vacation and did not return to work until today, and I’ve found it easiest to write while she’s busy teaching her online classes.  So with this being my best opportunity to write in some time, I knew I needed to take advantage, and here I am.  Hey, better late than never, I suppose.

 

I guess it’s fair to say that it has been a very eventful few weeks, and it’s also easy to see how writing has temporarily taken a backseat to other things both good and bad.  While life figures to return to a more normal routine going forward, it will still be a challenge to determine how the blog fits into the big picture.  On the one hand, I don’t expect to get sick, deal with car troubles, or take any more major trips in the near future.  And I swear that I’m finally nearing the end of that ridiculously long Final Fantasy XII adventure that has consumed so much of my free time during the last four months or so.

On the other hand, I’ve just rejoined the full-time working world, which now limits my writing mostly to weekday evenings.  On top of that, Mia and I are also planning to start working out on a daily basis, ramping up with relatively easy stuff for a couple weeks before taking on the infamously difficult P90X program to get back in shape.  It figures to be a daunting task, and will further limit the window of time in which to write.  But if I still believe that it is an important and worthy pursuit to commit my thoughts to paper–or, well, computer screen–then I’ll find the time to keep it going as regularly as I had intended.  No matter how busy you may think you are, there will always be time for the things that really matter in life.  It’s just not always easy to determine what those things might be.

Coming to Terms

“Today is the oldest you’ve ever been and the youngest you’ll ever be again.”

This quote, attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, is a very matter-of-fact, no-nonsense response to everyone’s never-ending battle with Father Time.  Regardless of what point along the timeline you’re currently on, you will always be moving in the same direction–getting older.  Sometimes this is viewed as a good thing, like when you’re 19 or 20 and anxiously awaiting the world of opportunities that opens up to you once you’ve reached the magic number of 21.  But there can eventually come a time when the numbers feel intimidating, such as the completion of one decade and the start of another.

There are several reasons why this happens.  For starters, there is an adjustment period to having your age start with a new digit, and to the stereotypes that may come along with it.  Not everyone lives life according to the pigeonholed timeline of expectation; many twenty-somethings have had the kinds of life experiences that mature them well beyond their expected years, while a good number of forty-somethings have yet to truly outgrow the college frat boy or sorority girl mentality expected of someone half their age.

Similarly, age can be intimidating because of its stereotypes, in the form of expectations that might not yet be met.  In my initial post on this blog, I noted that many of us struggle to ever truly answer the infamous question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  And while only some of us will successfully answer this question by the time we are old enough to actually get out into the “real world,” there is a general assumption that we’ll at least have this answer by the time we’re in our thirties.

 

There are other aspects of life, though, that also tend to correlate strongly with one’s chronological age.  Recently, my girlfriend Mia and I have noticed several in particular, both within our own common activities and in the lives of those around us.  Those of us in our thirties often like to deny their age, saying things like, “I still feel like I’m in my twenties!”  But, as I half-jokingly told Mia the other day, one of the fastest ways to return to the reality that we truly are in our thirties is to actually hang around with twenty-somethings, or to simply hear the stories they tell from their daily lives.

To wit, one’s twenties are the first true decade of adulthood, which lends itself to a relatively carefree pursuit of life’s guilty pleasures that may have been denied in youth.  Drinking, driving, gambling, staying out late, and engaging in sexual relations are all among the vices of adulthood that have only just been made available without the constant shadow of parental supervision.  For most of us, the temptations of such things are nearly impossible to completely deny, and we often ignore the warnings and teachings of our elders as we pursue them.  The end result is that there are a number of life lessons destined to be learned the hard way.

In contrast, a typical hallmark of one’s thirties is a greatly diminished desire to go hard and live in constant party mode.  Maybe we’ve heard too many stories from others about drinking too much, sleeping around and getting caught, or experimenting with drugs.  Maybe we’ve witnessed such destructive things firsthand.  Or maybe we’re the ones telling the stories from personal experience.  At any rate, our thirties tend to be an age at which we begin to crave more stability in the next phase of life.  There is no longer the pressure to get married and start a family by the age of 25, as would have been the case in the 1950’s, but for most of us, life has its own way of eventually guiding us in that general direction, which tends to happen in our late twenties or early thirties.

 

As you might expect, a few recent events I’ve witnessed have inspired this topic.  A couple months ago, Mia and I went out one night with a few of her co-workers.  As the gathering prepared to move on from its original meeting place, there was naturally some debate as to where we would go next.  We had been talking with one of the guys in the group about karaoke spots in town, as he had recently moved to Las Vegas but had also hosted karaoke in his previous home.  Mia and I would’ve jumped at the idea of heading to a karaoke bar, especially considering that a friend of mine had recently begun hosting it at a place very close to home.

But that wasn’t where we ended up.  Rather, one of the driving forces behind leaving the original spot was its admittedly higher alcohol prices, and a few members of that night’s group wanted to find a place with cheap drinks.  Mia and I were a bit less thrilled by this suggestion.  While we’re not exactly OK with paying $15 for a Captain and Coke at some trendy club, we’re also well past the point where two dollar beer night can be seen as a major draw.  At some point, you get what you pay for, and if you can’t afford $5 for a decent beer or cocktail, perhaps you should reconsider whether it’s a good idea to even go out at all.

We reluctantly agreed to head to Dive Bar X, but still opted for cocktails over cheap beer.  Our tab for a couple drinks apiece was still quite reasonable, and very much on the lower end of a typical night out, and yet a couple of the others still found it surprising that we hadn’t joined them in drinking discount beer.  But it really just confirms a common difference between twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings; they wanted to drink as much as possible for as little as possible, while Mia and I were happy with a couple decent cocktails instead.  Some (if not all) of them were looking to get drunk; we were not.

 

Within the past month or so, we’ve seen twenty-something colleagues drink way too much and fail to remain faithful to significant others.  Mia and I, on the other hand, have found ourselves frequently walking around art galleries and furniture stores, imagining how a future condo together might be designed.  We also walked around The Container Store for the first time, only to find ourselves way too excited by all of the merchandise there that could be used to better organize our lives.  If ever there was a moment that loudly proclaimed, “YOU’RE IN YOUR THIRTIES,” that was it.

But honestly, we don’t mind.  Neither of us was ever a particularly wild party-goer even in our twenties, and we certainly aren’t now.  We do still go out quite often, frequenting karaoke bars and a host of different restaurants, but it’s never with the intention of drinking heavily or gambling substantial amounts of money.  We certainly don’t claim to have anywhere near all of the answers in life, but we can at least feel that we’ve learned plenty from the past and have started putting together a definitive plan for the future.  Sometimes it would be nice to relive younger days, but ultimately, the thirties aren’t too shabby.  And there’s still more than enough time to get to where we ultimately want to be.