Year in review: 2014

I started writing this end-of-year post in my head a few days ago, and I was thinking that there wouldn’t be much to post. However, when I flipped back through my social media feed for the year, I was reminded that it was quite a busy year, with lots of highs and some lows as well.

15858567556_d18d1c71fc_mFor better or worse, 2014 was the biggest travel year of my life. I spent time in 16 different states and traveled through four different countries, including an extended stay in Lisbon, Portugal for their SQL Saturday event. Though it was exciting to get to see new and exciting parts of the world (hello, New Jersey!), my travel schedule was taxing, especially on my wife and kids. I’m looking forward to a little more balance on my travel schedule in the upcoming year.

Professionally, 2014 was my most successful year yet. In my first full year as an independent consultant, I stayed fully booked thanks to a handful of awesome clients. Due to the amount of billable work I was doing (a good thing, of course), I didn’t make as much progress on some other career goals I had in mind – namely, a yet-to-be-named application that I’ve wanted to build for some time. I’m not going to wish for less work in 2015, but I am expecting to make better use of my free time to push forward on these other, non-client-related goals. Also, I received the Microsoft MVP award for SQL Server, the fifth consecutive year I’ve received this distinction.  And just this month, we released the second edition of our SSIS Design Patterns book.

papaPersonally, there were some sad times in 2014. In June, my paternal grandfather died unexpectedly. At 83 years old, he had lived a full life, but since he had not been acutely ill, none of us really had the opportunity to say goodbye. Though we did have our differences, I loved my grandfather and will miss him. Also, I lost a couple of high school friends this year. Early in 2014, my high school classmate Pam Smith passed away, lost too soon to cancer. More recently, my friend Janet Kohavi died just days before Christmas. She had battled health issues for most of her life, but handled these obstacles with bravery. Janet was one of the most genuine person I have ever known – she was happy to share her opinions, even if they were controversial, and had a way of disagreeing with folks while still remaining friendly with them. Janet and I stayed in close contact via social media, and I will miss chatting with her.

On the positive side, there were many enjoyable moments in 2014 as well. Early in the summer, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine to own a Corvette. I bought a gently used 1992 Corvette back in May, and have slowly made it my own. Also during the summer, Rachel and I took a road trip to Austin, Texas to see our favorite band, Rascal Flatts. We also bought season tickets for Six Flags, and made several trips with the kids. We found time to hit the road on several family road trips, including a camping excursion which we hope to repeat next year. We’ve also made new friends and reconnected with old ones. Oh, and I got my first tattoo as well.

I’ll remember 2014 as an eventful year. In spite of some sad times, on the whole it was an exceptional year. Now that we’re moving on, I’m very much looking forward to what 2015 will bring.

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Happy Holidays

This is usually about the same time each year when I ask myself, “How can Christmas already be here?”  With the perpetual business of life, it’s come on quickly again, and it’s hard to believe that tomorrow is Christmas Day.  Fortunately, I think we’re ready – the presents are bought and (mostly) wrapped, and we’re all set for our family celebrations.

Like any season, this one has had its happy moments as well as some sadness.  Sadly, this will be the first Christmas that we celebrate without my paternal grandfather.  Papa, as most of the family called him, died unexpectedly of natural causes last June.  It is at Nonny and Papa’s house that my dad’s side of the family gathers each year on the night of Christmas Eve.  Growing up, the Christmas Eve gathering at their house was the event that marked the Christmas holiday for me.  One year while I was still a preteen, I had to skip Christmas Eve at Nonny and Papa’s because I was very sick, and it truly felt like I missed out on Christmas that year for having missed the Christmas Eve gathering.  For this year, the party, as they say, will still go on: we are still doing Christmas Eve at their house this evening, but it won’t be the same without Papa.

I’m also grieving for an old friend this season.  Just last week, one of my high school classmates, Janet Kohavi, died after a brief stay in the hospital.  Janet had struggled with health issues since her teens, but she didn’t broadcast her suffering – in fact, if you were her friend on Facebook, you might not even have known she was sick.  I hadn’t seen Janet in person in a couple of years, but she and I communicated frequently via social media.  I felt a kindred spirit in Janet – she and I were both left-leaning in a state that is heavily right-leaning, though she was much more vocal about her stances than I.  I will miss engaging in lively debates on Facebook with her, and I grieve with and for her family and friends.

However, there is much that I am thankful for and happy about this year.  As I mentioned, tonight is our annual Christmas Eve gathering, and though we’ll missing Papa, I’m very much looking forward to getting together with the family and spending time catching up.  We’ve got relatives coming in from all over the state and as far away as Tennessee to swap gifts, share food, and laugh with each other.  We don’t get together nearly often enough, so I really enjoy the opportunity to visit when we do.

Closer to home, I’m excited for the Christmas celebration with my immediate family.  For me, the real magic of the Christmas season is the excitement for my kids.  As a child, I would look forward to Christmas for months in advance – and not just for the gift-giving, but for the overall excitement, the colder weather, the family gatherings, and the music.  As a father, I love seeing the same excitement in my own children, and I do my best to propagate that sentiment and keep it going for the next generation.

This holiday season has both highs and lows, but I’m thankful for my family and friends and the opportunity to spend time with them all.  To you and yours, I wish a joyous and safe holiday season.  Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Boxing Day, the winter solstice, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or any combination of these (or perhaps none of them), I wish you all peace and happiness.

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Thirteen Years of Howe Memories

This blog post was first published on a Howe High alumni website on January 23, 2003.

I had the unique privilege of attending Howe schools for all 13 years of my primary education. I got to experience Mrs. Wormsbaker’s afternoon kindergarten class to Mrs. Cordell’s English classes, and everything in between.

Elementary school should be a blur… after all, that was more than 20 year ago! But it’s funny what the mind remembers. I can still remember my kindergarten class. Almost every kid in class got the chicken pox that year, and the class practically shut down for a month.

I can recall the silly games we used to play, and the cardboard ‘bricks’ that we’d use to build castles and then go crashing through them. We played Red Rover on the playground until the entire class was wheezing and bruised from the shoulder to the fingertips. The entire school would occasionally gather in the kindergarten room to watch a reel-to-reel movie; I saw Herby The Love Bug for the first and only time on that old projector.

I remember hanging out in the ‘bus room’ before and after school. I think I learned as much about life in that bus room as I did in any class (don’t push or shove, share your stuff, don’t jump from a desk onto a stack of books).

I remember playing softball on the high school band’s practice field. I still have a scar from the day I got too close to Casey Keene while she was batting and received a face full of baseball bat.

I remember that day in 1981 when President Reagan was shot. I recall watching Prince Charles and Diana Spencer get married on TV, but I didn’t understand why the media made such a big deal about it.

Middle school was great. Remember the merry-go-round they had in front of the building? They tore it down shortly after we left for high school, probably in part because of some of the stunts we pulled on it. I can remember standing between the support bars while others pushed the merry-go-round, and we’d have to run at top speed just to keep from being thrown down and dragged across the concrete. And who could forget running around the gym playing dodgeball with underinflated rubber balls, and returning to class with red marks all over our faces and arms.

I remember the day that lightning struck the big tree out in front of the building, and they had half of the playground roped off for months. What a bummer.

I remember the portable buildings we used for classrooms. In fact, our band hall had 3 different locations in just two years. I can still smell the smell of the new carpet, paint, and computers the day we first used the new computer lab, and the euphoric feeling of finally moving into the new band hall.

I remember the day Jennetta Jones was killed in that tragic car accident, and the long and silent bus ride to Dallas for the funeral. I remember the fears about the cold war with the USSR, though it took me years to realize its significance. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded two minutes after takeoff; I remember Mrs. Power interrupting our class to tell us of the death of the 6 astronauts and 1 teacher.

Hackey sack … walking to the pizza shop by Mitchell’s before basketball games and listening to Bon Jovi on the jukebox … Top Gun … Pac-Man and Space Invaders … Ferris Bueller’s Day Off … Rubik’s Cube … junior high football …

High School was, for me, a transformation. I had always been the geeky student in middle school; by my sophomore year, I had morphed into a carefree party seeker (but still geeky). I went from 8 consecutive years of perfect attendance (really!) to literally counting the number of absences I could accumulate and still pass. So many times I have wished I could go back and slap some sense into my younger self…

I remember Freshman year very well. I’m certain that I still have a scar on my head from Charlie Ham’s senior ring, where he buried it into my scalp on the first day of school. I remember getting up early for Coach Rich’s driver’s ed class (this is torture for a teenager), and thinking that my 16th birthday seemed so far away.

I got my car during the summer of 1988, and my license the following September. As one of the oldest people in our Sophomore class, I was the first one of my friends to have a license, so I spent 8 months as a pro-bono cab driver. My first car was a white 1979 Oldsmobile 98, a large but fast car that had the passenger capacity of a small school bus. It had an 8-track player and wire wheel covers, and I had a blanket laid across the front bench seat because the springs were protruding through the seat cushions. It was old and worn out, but it was mine. It was the crappiest car I ever had, but I’ve never had as much fun in any other vehicle.

We would get up early on school mornings just to hang out in Mitchell’s parking lot before school. There was always an effort to be the coolest by providing the loudest and deepest bass from the car stereo. We would play Sir-Mix-A-Lot, the Beastie Boys, and (ugh) Vanilla Ice as loud as possible.

Remember the water balloon fights every Halloween night? We’d ride around town in the backs of pickup trucks and throw water balloons at each other until we ran out of supplies or someone got arrested, whichever came first. During my Junior year, a small group of us got sneaky and staked out the viaduct under US75, and threw balloons at our ‘opponents’ as they drove by… that was, until we hit an innocent passerby’s vehicle and had to run for our lives down the median of US75. Thank God for dark-colored clothing and a moonless night.

I was hired for my first job on Valentine’s Day 1989 at Wal-Mart in Sherman. This was before it was a 24-hour supercenter, when it was in the building that is now Toys-R-Us/Staples/Tractor Supply. I can remember many nights of cleaning nasty restrooms and mopping floors and pushing shopping carts in the pouring rain. And there were many mornings at school that I had to struggle to stay awake in class, particularly during the long working hours of the Christmas season.

Remember the fights at Piss Hill? Not sure how it got that name (its politically correct name was Urination Incline), but this was the place where people would meet to duke it out… always with a large audience. We didn’t have a lot to see around Howe, so we found unusual things to see… the Chicken Tree … Beer Hill … the Glowing Tombstone … the Haunted Bridge on Dripping Springs Road … such an exciting life in a small town.

We would hang out at Midway Mall until closing, and then on to Main Street in Denison. It was socially acceptable … heck, it was expected … that one should simply ‘hang out’ on the weekends, with no particular destination or goal (as adults, we now refer to this as loitering). We would terrorize Mazzio’s Pizza on Friday nights after the football games – that is, until we were banned from there by the Sherman Police Department.

We had some great teachers in Howe, though they were completely unappreciated by their students. We gave Pat Stewart such a hard time in computer class, and Mrs. Cordell provided to be an endless source of entertainment. I don’t think I’ll ever find a cooler English teacher than Dan Welborn – somehow, we had an all-guys English class my Freshman year, and certainly took advantage of it. We had so much fun that year, Mr. Welborn quit teaching at the end of the year and became a long-haul truck driver, or so I heard. Bill Martin (aka Mr. Bill, but only for the upperclassmen) was great, I can remember the subtitled Spanish movies that he’d show us while he held up a piece of paper in front of the TV to try to cover up the bad words. The constant rivalry between Mr. Macon and Mrs. Mullins was always fun, especially when they were assigned to adjoining classrooms. But possibly the greatest of all was teacher/Hollywood actor Norman Bennett. Such a mild-mannered guy, but I saw him once lose his temper at a group of students who were cheering on a girl fight in the Freshman hallway. And only Mr. Bennett could get away with saying the ‘S word’ while speaking in front of an assembly of the entire student body, faculty, parents, and school board.

I recall the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the Berlin wall. The (first) Gulf War broke out during January of my senior year, and I remember wondering whether I would go.

I remember very well the night we graduated in May of 1991. It had rained torrentially all day (I heard there was some guy building a boat and gathering pairs of animals in the south parking lot). The graduation ceremony went well, and we all went outside to perform the traditional tossing of the hats. Everyone huddled under the awning for a few minutes until a few brave souls stepped out into the downpour. One of my greatest memories of high school (I wish I had a photo of this) was the entire 1991 graduating class standing in the pouring rain in front of the auditorium, tossing hats and hugging and shaking hands. That was a great moment.

Howe High School was probably not the most exciting place to go to high school. There may have been more educational opportunities at a larger or richer district. But as for me, I wouldn’t trade a single memory from my years at Howe. It was a great place to learn and grow up.

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Bucket List Item “Own A Corvette”: Completed

I’m not one to spend money frivolously.  Sure, I don’t mind dropping some coin on nice things occasionally, but when it comes to large purchases, I evaluate every aspect – value, practicality, depreciation, etc. – before committing.  Growing up poor helped me to learn the value of money and gave me an appreciation for spending frugally.  As a result, I often delay large purchases for days or even weeks, so I can research the value and practicality before committing.  However, this week, I did something way outside my normal comfort zone.

I bought a Corvette.

As a kid, I could only dream of fancy sports cars.  Even before I could drive, I dreamed of climbing in my own Vette, top down, radio up, flying down the open road.  It’s a juvenile desire, to be sure, but one that never left me.  If I’d had the money back then, I would have bought one, and it would have been practical.  Two seats? No kids yet – no problem.  Bad gas mileage?  At under a buck a gallon, no problem.  No storage space?  I didn’t own anything back then – no problem.  But now, with three kids, a mortgage, gasoline approaching four bucks per, a two-seat adrenalinemobile is the furthest thing from practicality for me.

And yet a sleek, shiny Corvette sits in my garage.

ImageIt’s not as if this was an impulse buy.  For a while, probably six weeks or so, I’ve been looking into buying a Vette.  After spending the last year or so saving up to build up my cash reserves for my consulting business, I decided that a reward was in order for surpassing my goal.  I figured out how much I was willing to spend, and then researched how much car could get for my money.  In the end, I settled on an older Corvette in exceptional shape.  I found a two-owner 1992 coupe, with 45,000 miles in immaculate condition.  I actually settled on the deal with the seller over a week ago, but I had two out-of-town trips and we were only able to meet up again yesterday to transfer the title and such.

The kids already love the car.  Kaylee rode from the midcities with me as I drove it home, and I’ve taken both of the boys (Evan twice!) for a ride.  It’s a bummer that I can only take one of them at a time, but again, practicality wasn’t the primary goal with this purchase.  

ImageDriving this beast will almost certainly be an occasional luxury.  I’m keeping my Explorer as my daily driver, and will reserve the Vette for weekends and such.  It’s taking some getting used to – I’m accustomed to the ride and luxury of newer cars, and getting acquainted with the feel, sounds, and smells of a 22 year old sports car is going to take some time.  But still, no buyer’s regret – I’m very glad I bought it, and I hope it’ll be fun for years to come.

And if nothing else, this allows me to cross off “Own a Corvette” from my bucket list.

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Inked

My first ink. Probably not my last.

tat

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Cheating: Get Serious

Even if you’re not a fan of baseball, you’ve probably been in the loop on the news story that developed over the last few months regarding players linked to a now-closed clinic in Florida.  The firm, Biogenesis, reportedly supplied at least a dozen Major League baseball players with performance enhancing drugs for several years.  This clinic and its activities were discovered by MLB officials, and they somehow convinced the owner of the defunct outfit to cooperate with their investigation.  The situation reached its climax today, with the MLB handing out suspensions to 13 players linked to the Biogenesis scandal.  Notable among the players suspended were Nelson Cruz , outfielder for my hometown Texas Rangers, and Alex Rodriguez, third baseman for the New York Yankees.

Of the 13 players, only Rodriguez received a suspension longer than 50 games: his suspension for the remainder of the season and all of next season amounts to 211 games, a stiff sentence based on not only his use of PEDs but the fact that he recruited other players into Biogenesis and later impeded the investigation of MLB officials.  Of all of those suspended, only Rodriguez is the only one who did not accept the suspension and has chosen to appeal (which allows him to continue playing while the appeal plays out).

I’ve had some interesting discussions with peers during the last few weeks as the Biogenesis story snowballed.  Among the talking points:

  • Steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), and other manner of PEDs should simply be allowed because they can’t catch everyone.
  • PEDs don’t help you hit a fastball, or catch a 95mph line drive coming at you.  You already have to be insanely talented to make it to that level.
  • Players who are caught using HGH should simply be banned.  One and done.
  • What is or is not considered a PED?  Maybe the issue is simply definition.

Opinions vary widely about the impact of PEDs on the sport.  I can sympathize with the arguments that PEDs should be allowed (although I’m still still strongly opposed to their legalized use, simply for the reason that kids should not look forward to the day when they can take PEDs).

That’s not really what I want to write about, however.   The issue is not about what should be or should not be illegal or the merits of legalization or further tightening of the rules.  Though we’re discussing the topic of baseball and the use of PEDs, the real issue I want to address is cheating.  What we’re really talking about is grown men going out of their way repeatedly and with extensive care and planning to cheat the system.  These players knew the rules and broke them, with the intent of illicitly gaining an edge on the competition.

Minimal penalties

What upsets me most about this situation is the slap on the wrist given to folks – and their associated organizations – who are found to have cheated.   The typical punishment for a first-time offense is a suspension of 50 games without pay.  On the second offense, the suspension is doubled to 100 games.  On the third offense, the player can be banned forever from the baseball.

Now I don’t want to sneeze at being out of work without pay for 50 games (a couple of months) – that would present a hardship for most working people.  However, there are two things to consider with that.  First of all, Major League Baseball players aren’t most working people.  With a minimum salary of $490,000 per year, even the lowest paid professional ballplayer makes about 10x what the average household brings in.  Second, let’s face it – if the average worker was caught in a cheating scandal at work, chances are good that he or she would be fired (and possibly sued or criminally prosecuted) for such behavior.  In the real world, cheating will often end your career for good.

Proposed change

While 50 games is a significant amount of time to sit out, I don’t believe the punishment fits the crime.  Again, we’re not talking about being late to some games or badmouthing a ref.  We’re talking about cheating.  I believe any punishment for cheating – even the first offense – should be swift and harsh.  It should be enough that the player will remember – painfully – for the duration of their career.  I believe the punishment for a first offense of confirmed or admitted cheating should result in a minimum without-pay suspension of one full year – 162 games (or more, if postseason play is involved).  A subsequent offense, which indicates a complete disregard for the rules, should result in an automatic lifetime ban, including the vacation of any records held by the player and elimination from consideration for any post-career awards.  Finally, the banned player’s team should have the option to nullify that player’s contract.

How about the owners?

Ultimately, the decision to cheat or not to cheat remains with the player.  However, the team and its ownership should have a stake in making sure their players are abiding by the rules.  As such, team owners should be held to account alongside the players, not unlike the way a financial institution would be held liable if one of their employees was stealing from customers.  I suggest that ownership should be fined an amount at least equal to the suspended player’s salary during the suspension.  Further – and this would be the real disincentive – is that the team should be ineligible for postseason play in any year in which a player began a suspension.  I don’t know a lot about the business side of baseball, but I do know one thing: team ownership speaks but one language, and that is the language of dead presidents.  By taking away from cheating teams the possibility of postseason play – a cash cow for professional sports – you’d make ownership take seriously the issue of cheating.  Further, with the threat of losing any postseason bid in the event of a suspension, the peer pressure from fellow players could help to keep honest any players on the verge of going astray.

Close to home

I realize the punishment I’m talking about is harsh.  And yes, if these punishments had been in place today, my own Texas Rangers would be losing one of their best offensive players for a full year, as well as losing the possibility of any playoff run.  But the fact remains that Nelson Cruz is a cheater, and because of his dishonesty, at least a portion of the success this team has had is unjustly earned.  Personally, I’d rather our team be mediocre and honest than successful and dirty.

Conclusion

Cheating is an ugly business.  The rest of the world sifts out cheaters, punishing them through social stigma, litigation, and even criminal prosecution.  In sports, and in particular in the MLB, cheating is handled with kid gloves.  There are lots of folks who are mad as hell about this now, and are tired of seeing this nonsense in what should be an honorable game.  I’m hopeful that Major League Baseball will do the right thing and get real about handling cheats.

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Eighteen

July 7, 1995 – eighteen years ago today – was the worst day of my life. The tragedy of that day is something that I have carried around silently for years. Many of my closest friends have never known this story before today. I don’t really know how long this will ramble on, or if it will even remain coherent. I’m not looking for anything by sharing this – it’s mostly for my own benefit, and on this milestone, it’s time that I told the story.

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The mid-1990s were a transitional time for me. Though I had technically been an adult for several years, it was during that time when I finally started to feel less like a kid and more like a grown-up. In late 1994, I left a job that I had held for almost 6 years to take a management position in the car rental business. I went from having a job with little room for creativity to a position where I was responsible for setting and meeting sales goals, personnel management, maintaining expense accounts, etc. There was much more responsibility, and it was a big move for me – I had moved from just having a job to focusing on a real career. I was making real money (at least in 1994 dollars) and finally felt like I was going somewhere as an adult.

At the same time, I was working as a reserve police officer in the town where I lived. Becoming a police officer had long been a goal of mine; my father was (and still is) in law enforcement, and as many boys do, I wanted to carry on the family tradition and wear the badge. I busted my tail throughout high school and college preparing to go into police work, and I did just that, albeit in a volunteer capacity. Although I wanted to work full time as a law enforcement officer, the job market was quite different in Texas in the 90s, and it seemed that everyone was trying for police jobs. I applied to several departments and even went through the testing for a few, but for the larger departments, they sometimes had 50 people or more testing for each opening. With no military experience and no college degree (I had dropped out before completing my degree), I was lost in the crowd of also-rans. But even though I never worked full time in law enforcement, being able to put on the badge and do the work was fulfillment of a dream in itself. As a reserve officer, I still felt a bit like a kid at first – it took me about a year or so to feel like I actually belonged.

With several positive things converging in my life – I’d fulfilled a dream in becoming a law enforcement officer, I was working in a career that had some real traction – I felt like I was really on track. I got bold – even cocky at times. I regularly bragged to my friends about how well things were going. I snubbed my nose at those lesser than me (the definition of which would vary depending on my mood). I was still a good guy, but maybe a little too proud of what I had accomplished at a young age.

Little did I know that my world was about to be rocked.

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As young and single guys will do, I dated. Up to that point, I hadn’t had any serious long term relationships – I suppose you could say that I was enjoying my freedom. I distinctly remember, though, meeting a young cashier who worked at the same store I did early in the summer of 1994. We saw each other frequently at work, and since we had a mutual friend that we both considered close, we ended up spending a lot of time together. We started dating sometime that summer, and though it was mostly a casual relationship, it stretched into the early fall. I don’t think either one of us was thinking about a long term thing.

That changed in late 1994. I still remember the conversation. Scratch that – all I remember is the phrase that has changed so many young lives: “I’m pregnant.” My emotions were all over the place. I was scared as hell. Remember what I wrote about feeling like an adult? That went out the window in that conversation, as I remember thinking that I’m too young for this. At the same time, I was excited. I’m going to be a dad! I’m going to give my dad his first grandchild! In the end, I remember regaining some of my confidence. I’m smart – I’ll figure this thing out. And I really believed that. We’re going to have a baby. I guess we’ll get married. We’ll raise this little one and live happily ever after.

Life doesn’t always hand out happily ever afters.

Through the spring and into summer, the pregnancy progressed along well. Though I didn’t get to go along to everything, I got a front row seat to ultrasounds, physician conferences, and many of the other periphery of having a baby. It really started to feel real toward the end – we’re really going to have a baby! Somewhere along the way, one of the ultrasounds revealed that the child was a boy. A boy. A son. I’m going to have a son. We decided to pick out a name ahead of time: Tyler.

After a great deal of deliberation, we chose not to get married before the baby arrived. Despite intense pressure from her parents, we didn’t want to force a relationship into a marriage if it didn’t fit. After all, we’d not even approached that conversation before news of the pregnancy, and even in our youth we were thinking to the future and what would be best for all of us in the long run.

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I remember getting the call: It’s time. I threw a couple of changes of my clothes in a duffel (why I hadn’t packed ahead of time, I’ll never know) and headed for the hospital, which was about 30 minutes away. When I arrived, the reality of what was happening really descended on me. Next time I walk out of this hospital, I’m going to have a son. When I arrived, they already had her hooked up and anesthetized, and it was just a waiting game. As it was my first experience in a delivery room (well, technically my second, but I don’t recall the first one), I was surprised at how calm everything was. The hospital staff fully worked up her and the baby, and with no abnormalities found, it simply became a waiting game.

I don’t remember how long we were there before the big event. I remember a lot waiting, followed by pushing, a lot of hand squeezing, some screaming, and after all that, just before 7:30pm on July 6, 1995, Tyler was born. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen – ten finger, ten toes, and all of the necessary parts. I loved him the moment I saw him.

The hospital staff in the room were great at maintaining calm through the whole process. However, within a minute of Tyler’s birth, it was obvious from their behavior that something was wrong. They did their best to calm and reassure us, but the rapid change in their collective demeanor was a clear signal that Tyler wasn’t well. They whisked him out of the room and off to the small NICU, as I chased close behind. We had discussed ahead of time that I would stay with the baby at all times while we were at the hospital, but this wasn’t exactly how we’d planned it.

This was a whole new experience for me, so I really didn’t know what to expect. I assumed that maybe he needed some oxygen or fluids to help him along – after all, newborn babies are usually healthy, right? When I saw them hooking him up to an IV, an intubation tube, and a dozen other contraptions, I really began to worry. I really knew we were in trouble, though, when the nursing staff asked me to step out of the room for a bit. During that time, I overheard a conversation between a doctor and another caregiver who didn’t realize I was in earshot, and I’ll never forget those words he said: “He’s a very sick little boy.” Oh my god.

Things happened very quickly after that. The doctor gathered us all back in the delivery room and told us that Tyler was in distress. It wasn’t clear what was wrong, but he was having trouble getting enough oxygen, and the local hospital wasn’t equipped to deal with a situation this critical. We learned that a helicopter was already en route from Oklahoma City to take him to the children’s hospital there, where they had a fully equipped NICU. We agreed to send him, and quickly planned that Tyler’s mom would stay in the hospital to stabilize while I went to Oklahoma City to be with him. Since the helicopter was not configured for non-caregiver passengers, I was left to find my own way to Oklahoma City, which I did in record time.

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By the time I reached OKC, Tyler had been there for over an hour. He’d already been evaluated by the staff in the NICU, and the prognosis wasn’t good. During the conversation with the doctor, I heard a phrase I’d never heard before: polycystic kidney disease. I don’t recall how much of it they explained that day – I’ve done quite a bit of research on it on my own since then – but essentially, PKD is a condition in which the kidneys are full of large cysts, which results in massive enlargement of the kidneys. PKD is often fatal in itself, but a side effect is that other organs can be affected by the enlargement of the kidneys. In Tyler’s case, we learned that his kidneys had grown so large that they actually inhibited the growth of his heart and lungs, rendering them insufficient to sustain his little body.

At some point in that conversation with the doctor, I became lost in emotion and medical jargon. Through the haze, I remember him telling me that there was little they could do but make Tyler comfortable and allow us to spend as much time with him as possible. It was just a matter of hours, days at most.

I didn’t know how to process that. I looked around at this state of the art hospital, with millions of dollars in expensive equipment and highly trained professionals, in a country that had sent men to the moon and back, and couldn’t conceive that there was nothing that could be done to save Tyler. I offered to donate one of my kidneys. No, they said – even with functioning kidneys, his heart and lungs are too damaged. I prayed – at the time I was somewhat religious, and I sincerely prayed that if there was a god, that he would take my life instead of this one that had not even lived.

But in the end, I knew what was coming, so I did the only thing I could do – I held him. I knew it wouldn’t last, but for just a while I would get the opportunity to hold my son in my arms, to feel his warmth, to feel his little heart beat. So together we sat, father and son, for just a little while.

Late the next day, Tyler’s mom arrived from the hospital, having received an expedited release due to Tyler’s deteriorating condition. As we all gathered around him, the staff gently reminded us that his stats – pulse and oxygen saturation – would slowly decrease until both reached zero. We took turns holding him, the monitor constantly reminding us that he was slowly slipping away. At 7:35pm, just 24 hours and 7 minutes after he was born, Tyler died in our arms.

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The next days were a blur, though a few memories stand out. I remember walking into the funeral parlor to pick out a casket. If you’ve never seen a baby-sized casket, it can be a little saddening in itself, but knowing that you are buying one for your own child is almost paralyzing. I remember the funeral – they brought us in after everyone else was already seated, walking us down the main aisle as if we were on display. I remember that we had requested an open casket, but when we saw him, we were so unhappy with the postmortem prep work done by the funeral home that we simply closed the lid. I remember watching the top of that tiny little casket as it disappeared into the grave. Tragically, the sad memories far outweigh the happy ones.

But life goes on.  Eventually I was able to right my ship and set sail again.  Tyler’s mom and I supported each other through our grief but eventually went our separate ways, and haven’t seen each other in many years.  I’ve since married and had 3 great kids.  Sometimes the happily ever after comes later.

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Everything that happens to us shapes us in one way or another.  I believe that the terrible things we go through often have more of an impact than the rest of it.  I knew the moment Tyler was born that he would change me forever, but I didn’t realize just how.  I knew when we buried him that I’d always have a part of him with me.   His death certainly humbled me in a time when I probably needed a little humility.  And now, knowing that he would have turned 18 yesterday, that he would have graduated from high school a few months ago, that he’d officially be a man now, somehow makes me smile and cry at the same time.  But I try to use that for good – when I get frustrated with my 3 kids these days, I try to remind myself that I never got to know Tyler like I know them, and that we should enjoy each other for whatever time we have together.

I believe my memory of Tyler still contributes to my personality, including changes in my world view in the last few years.  He is the namesake of my consulting company.  And as corny as it may sound, I believe it would dishonor his memory for me to live anything but an honorable life.  I hope that I don’t let him down.

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It’s Not Fair

My six year old son has come up with a new favorite phrase: “It’s not fair!”  If he’s losing to his brother at a Wii game, he’ll make this claim.  He sees that the Rangers are losing by a couple of runs, and declares that the game is unfair.  If I call him in from playing outside to take a shower before he’s ready to be done?  You guessed it: “It’s not fair.”

What is my response?  Always: “Son, life is not fair. Deal with it.”

On June 2, 2010 in Detroit, Tigers starting pitcher Armando Galarraga was having a career night. He was pitching deep into the 8th inning, having retired the first 26 batters he faced, and was just one out away from pitching the 21st perfect game in Major League Baseball history. The next batter, the 27th man he faced, rolled over and hit a ground ball to the right side of the infield. Miguel Cabrera, playing first base, ran over to field the ball while Galarraga raced to cover first. The first baseman pitched the ball to Galarraga, who caught the ball cleanly a half step ahead of the arrival of the runner. The entire defense was on the cusp of bursting into celebration when first base umpire Jim Joyce bellowed “Safe!” with his arms stretched outward in that familiar sign. Galarraga looked at him with a smirk on his face, like one might look at a friend who was pulling a practical joke. But Joyce was dead serious. He was apparently the only person in Comerica Park who didn’t see that the throw had easily beaten the runner to the base.

Despite immediate protests by Tigers players and coaching staff, the call on the field was upheld (remember, baseball does not have instant replay for safe/out calls). Galarraga maintained his composure and retired the next batter, just missing a perfect game by one batter – or more accurately, one bad call.

Immediately after the game, Joyce realized his error.  He was inconsolable.  He readily and repeatedly admitted that he had screwed up, and didn’t try to shirk responsibility.  But even though he realized this in the clubhouse just minutes after the game, there was nothing that could have been done.  His bad call cost a young pitcher a piece of history.

Even though Joyce did not intend any harm, Galarraga got screwed that night.  He did everything right, earning what should have been his rightful place in history, but was denied through no fault of his own.  Life’s not fair.

In 1974, 19-year-old James Bain was convicted of kidnapping and rape. The case against him was based almost completely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, the 9-year-old victim of this crime. Although there was genetic material gathered, in 1974 there was little knowledge of DNA and certainly no way to test it for identification purposes. Despite his having an alibi and a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the crime, Bain was sentenced to life in prison.

Bain stuck with his claim of innocence, and when DNA testing finally matured, he petitioned the court to request testing of the genetic material collected from the crime scene. For years, his requests were denied. Finally, his petition for DNA testing was granted, and the results confirmed what he had been claiming all along: James Bain was not guilty of this crime. After having served 35 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Bain was released in 2009.

James Bain claimed that he was not angry over being wrongly convicted of this crime. Under Florida law, he was entitled to $50,000 per year of imprisonment – for a total of $1.75 million. Bain is now a free man, with enough money to live reasonably well for the rest of his life. But in return, he was cheated out of 35 years of freedom, despite the fact that he was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. No amount of money could ever pay him back for the years he wasted in prison. He left prison a rich man, but it was still a very lopsided transaction. Again, life’s not fair.

Earlier this evening, just a few hours’ drive north of here, a community was devastated by a tornado that is being described as one of the most destructive in history. As of this writing, there are 51 people who are known to be dead as a result of the tragic tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma. Twenty of those dead are children, who died in an elementary school that was directly in the path of the tornado.  The school is absolutely destroyed, and is barely recognizable as a building.  Even the most ardent optimist would have to assume that the casualty count will continue to rise, given the level of destruction and number of souls who are yet unaccounted for.

There’s something about the death of a child that seems to be more unfair than the passing of an adult.  When we hear about the death of an adult, even when the death occurs well before the decedent reaches “old age”, we don’t allow ourselves the same reaction that that which occurs when a child dies an untimely death. So much unfulfilled potential, with the child often unable to understand what’s happening to them, and the difficulty of explaining a child’s death to his/her siblings, classmates, and friends – it just all seems so unfair. As someone who has lost a child (a long story, saved for another day), I can speak firsthand to the feeling of helplessness that often accompanies such a loss.

We all have different ways of dealing with these feelings of grief, helplessness, and unfairness. Some will retreat into their grief, holding in the feelings to try to be strong for their other family members. Others deal with it by allowing their grief to flow through, with the emotion of their grief often consuming their lives. Some lean on belief in god(s) to get them through, expecting that all of life’s events – even the horrible stuff – is part of some master plan.  Still others take on the grief of terrible loss as simply part of the randomness of life.

There was a time when I was in the camp where I believed that everything happened for a reason.  As I’ve matured, I’ve retreated from that belief, and more often than not I find myself reconciling awful events such as these by repeating that life’s not fair.  Why did those children die?  Because, through a lengthy series of events big and small, they ended up attending that particular school on that particular day.  Why did 26 people, including 20 young children, die in the shooting in Newtown?  I believe it’s a result of the fantastic and tragic randomness of life.  They were in a classroom that happened to have a particular attachment to the shooter, and a series of events led this young man to flip out on that particular day.

Why is one person born completely healthy while another struggles through pain or chronic illness on a daily basis?  Why are some people born with a genetic edge – a winning personality, an awesome talent, an athletic aptitude – while others often have to struggle to maintain even menial jobs and relationships?  The fantastic and tragic randomness of life.  Life’s not fair.  Sometimes we benefit from this unfairness (and truth be told, despite my occasional complaints otherwise, I’d say the unfairness scale has more often tipped in my favor than against me), and other times it works against us.  Fantastic and tragic randomness.

How does one console a parent who has lost a child?  I don’t have any answers. Everybody will require something different, depending on their emotional state and philosophical slant.  But for me, I’d hope that I would be reminded that I couldn’t have consciously done anything to prevent such a tragedy.  I would try to remind myself that part of the beauty of life is the fact that it’s unpredictable, unscripted, and unguided.

Life is unfair.  As it must be.

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Uncle Evert

On Friday, my family said goodbye to my uncle Evert.  He had been in ill health for some time, having battled cancer and the side effects from his treatments for years.

I have fond memories of uncle Evert from my younger days.  When I was a child, Evert and my aunt Frankie lived in the Texas panhandle city of Wheeler, a six hour drive from where we lived.  On several occasions, my family made the long drive to Wheeler to drop me off and let me spend a week or two with Frankie and Evert.  I remember that it was always fun at their house – their boys were grown and out of the house, but they had left behind a couple of metal ammo cases full of plastic army men, and I would spend hours creating elaborate battle scenes in the middle of the floor.

But for me the real excitement came when we went to Evert’s work site.  He worked in the oil fields at the time, which means that he was usually living on-site at a drilling well.  On my first trip there, I was given my own kid-sided hard hat just like the other “roughnecks”, and had seemingly unrestricted access to the oil rig.  Most of these rigs would have an open-topped elevator device that could ferry passengers from the ground upward at a 45 degree angle to the raised deck of the oil rig.  Even better, there was an emergency slide that one could ride from this deck back to the ground.  I must have put hundreds of miles on those poor elevators, riding up and then sliding down.  Uncle Evert was always watching, making sure I didn’t get into any real trouble.  Most other parents (me included) would probably not allow a kid to do this, but Evert was very calm, patient, and laid back, and believed in letting a kid be a kid.

I remember the old 4-door Chevy – I think it was a ’56 – that Evert had.  It wasn’t his daily driver, so riding in this beast was a rare treat.  I remember riding around the streets (both of them) in Wheeler, Texas with the windows down (the “air conditioner”) with Evert at the wheel.  I knew that a trip in the Chevy would often end in a stop for ice cream, which would usually get dripped on the seat on the way home.

At the time of his passing, I had not seen Evert in several years.  I’m saddened to admit that I let life get in the way of visiting him in spite of the fond memories I have with him.  He was a good man who helped to shape me in my younger years, and I’ll always remember with fondness and appreciation the time we spent together.

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Random thoughts about Christmas past

Christmas Day + 1.  The snow is starting to show signs of melting, all of the toys have been opened (and many since ignored), and it’s almost time to yank down the decorations.

It barely seemed like Christmas at all this year.  Normally I’m wrapped up in Christmas music, getting into the buying spirit, and generally feeling Christmasy by the first part of December.  This year, chaos seemed to suck away much of my holiday spirit.  Work has been crazy (in a good way – lots of people want me on their projects) so my free time has been pretty scarce.

familyBut I think the kids really enjoyed it.  We started off last Friday by having some friends over for dinner, after which Ryan’s friend Luke spent the night.  Early in the evening, Evan decided to jump on Ryan’s top bunk mattress, bouncing so hard that he actually split the wood frame of the mattress (which led me to a mattress shopping trip two days before Christmas… ugh.)  On Saturday, we went to my Dad’s where we did family pictures for everyone, after which everyone was treated to a visit from St. Nick and Mrs. Claus.

family2After replacing Ryan’s mattress on Sunday morning, we went to my uncle’s house that evening for Christmas with my mom’s family.  Note to self that we need to spend more time with my uncle and aunt – they are a short 30 minute drive from us, and it’s always fun when we hang out with them.

My cousin Somer and her family came in on Sunday night to spend the night with us.  They arrived late, having spent the evening at Six Flags, but we did get to hang out and catch up for a while on Sunday night and Monday before heading off to Denison.  Our kids were really excited to have Hannah spend the night – they come to stay with us a couple of times a year, and they’re always elated to have her.

family3Monday night was Christmas Eve, which means spending the evening at the home of my paternal grandparents.  This has a lot of great memories for me – Christmas Eve at Nonny’s was always the event that represented Christmas for me.  We’d always get together about 5pm, have homemade stew with Club crackers and Mountain Dew, and then exchange gifts.  Of course, growing up I cared about little else but the gifts, but as an adult I appreciate the opportunity to see family members I rarely see.

family4At our house, we’ve established Christmas morning as our family time.  We did the kids’ Santa gifts followed by our own gifts to each other.  This year I got Rachel a new 50mm f/1.8 lens for her Nikon (since I can’t convince her to make the move to Canon cameras – I already have this glass for my Canon).  The kids got a plethora of gifts, including toys (of course), new superhero wall decals for their rooms, and new bathrobes (which they insist that everyone wears each morning).  We family5spent Christmas afternoon at Glenna’s where we watched the snow (yes, snow!) fall throughout the afternoon.  We wrapped up the day by playing in the snow at Glenna’s and then driving back home through the mess and traffic.

So it’s officially over, here one day past Christmas.  As in many recent holiday seasons, it seems that it’s just flown by.  And just think – only 364 more days ’til the next one!

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