Tractor Beam Server or Member of the Team

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Sun Microsystems Enterprise 5000 Server

In 2001, I went to work for the FAA in Oklahoma City.  It was my first permanent job as a programmer.  How I got the job is a little morbid.

I was working for an insurance company on a one year contract.  When I finished the project, one of my contract competitors pointed me to a job at the FAA.  She may have been trying to get rid of me, but I was ready to go so it didn’t matter.

It was for the position of junior developer.  With two years of experience, that was an appropriate position for me.  I remember nothing of the interview, but it must have gone well because they called me.  I fancied myself a good negotiator.  I’d negotiated some good deals for myself since I started my career.  So I was confident that I would be able to do well this time.  My future boss took my first offer, but it seemed like there was a tinge of reticence in his voice.  I thought I was awesome.

When I arrived on my first day, it was to a very somber group of men and a desk that had not been cleared off from the last guy.  I soon learned that the guy I had replaced had died right after my interview in an all terrain vehicle accident.  I was in the senior position now.    Much, much later, I learned that they had been through every resume that they had, and mine was the only one left, hence the easy negotiation.  I didn’t take it hard.  I laughed to myself.  I had gotten the job and I did well in it and that was all that mattered.

But I didn’t start off so hot.  In the first month, the database administrator, the change management system administrator, and the server administrator all resigned leaving just two programmers with no experience with any system administration.

They stepped us through their documentation a few times and then wished us luck.  After a few weeks we were feeling pretty good about it.  We hadn’t had a single real problem.  One of my jobs was to backup the server on tape, replace the tape, and take the old one to a safe.  One day, though, the server, which is the size and shape of a refrigerator, wouldn’t open.  It had a door which opened just like a refrigerator.  Fortunately, I thought, there was a key above the door so I turned it.  Here’s what it sounded like.

It turns out the server wasn’t locked, I had been trying to pull open the door from the side my refrigerator opens. The guys who were taking care of that server before had to come in on the weekend and rebuild it to make it run again.  They said it could have been worse.  Shutting a server down cold can be catastrophic, apparently.   They hid the key from me after that.  I never had to do the backup again.

This team was an all male team, as are most of the teams I’ve worked with, and there’s something that I know about joining a team, especially an all male team.  They need to know that you can handle a good ribbing.  The sooner the better.  So I took this as an opportunity.  I told the story with the server sound being the climactic ending.  I figured out how to make it by vocalizing while I whistle.  Here it is.

They tease me to this day.  I became a member of the team when I shared my story.  I paid my dues, and I laughed at myself.  It’s so important to be able to laugh at yourself when you deserve it.  It’s so much more attractive than being sullen and defensive,  and to this day, if I see any of those guys, the first thing they want is the tractor beam.  It always gets a laugh.

 

 

Kicked Out

I attended college for vocal music education in the early 90s.  In a voice degree, one of the most important figures, if not the most, is your voice teacher.  This is one of the few professors you will see every week for your entire college life.

Learning to sing often requires a rather close relationship between the teacher and the student.  It’s a mentor relationship.   The study of singing more than just singing.  It is the learning of a lifestyle.  It encompasses physical fitness, diet, sleeping habits, how much water to drink, and of course discipline.  Because you want to be the best singer you can be, you look to your voice teacher for everything they give you that might help your chances at success.

When I was a senior in high school my mentor at the time, the director of music at my church, told me that there was a certain voice studio at the college I was planning on attending that was for the more advanced students and she would help me get it.  I’d feel more comfortable not using his name, so I will call him Professor Nelson.  Being advanced was something I valued a lot.  In retrospect, I needed the exact opposite.  I needed a teacher who would teach me as if I knew absolutely nothing.  She managed to get me an informal audition with him in his office.  He expressed his interest in me and when I made my official audition to the school, he chose me.  I was elated.

Nelson was a man of great mystique.  He created a larger than life character.  He was the wise one.  He often intimated that he was connected to celebrity.  He was an accomplished cyclist.  He was an accomplished painter; painting in the wilds of Wyoming.  He fancied himself a bit of a cowboy type, but to my knowledge he never had anything to do with cattle.  And what impressed me the most is that he was a specialist in French music.  This was an interest of mine.  Anything French to me had it’s own mystique.  He studied abroad with a quite famous French singer and recorded an album that I wore out on cassette tape twice.  I idolized this man.  I felt proud to be in his studio, which was almost exclusively graduate students.

He trained me as a tenor, although I was never sure if he actually thought I was one.  He often called me a “baritenor”.  That was a blend between a tenor and a baritone.  It’s not a true voice type, but it’s how he dealt with the limitations of my voice.   I don’t think he really put a lot of importance on what I was because I was just an education major.  My success as a tenor was mixed.  I didn’t want mixed success.  I wanted to be the best.  So after a couple of years, I got it in my head that I might be a baritone (which I am).  I told him I wanted to give it a try.

The first thing he brought out was Valentin’s aria from Faust which has two high G’s, which only experienced baritones could reach.  It was as if he was trying to prove me wrong.  As if to say that singing this would be the only way to prove if I was a baritone.  I failed miserably.

I’d been singing a lot in my falsetto in college in early music performances.  I was well received.  A man who sings in falsetto exclusively is called a countertenor.  Countertenors were on the cusp of being big in the professional world, but otherwise they were was still obscure.  I started talking about it with Professor Nelson.

“Look, David.  I could sing like that all day.”  Nelson was practically a countertenor himself with his very light lyric baritone.  He demonstrated his falsetto. “See?  But there’s nothing to it.  It has no steel.  It has no value.”

A few weeks later, I came into my lesson and said, “Ok.  I think I want to be a tenor again.”

His face reddened and he exploded.  “You come in here, you want to be a tenor, you want to be a baritone, you want to sing like a girl.  What are you?  I don’t know.”

My ears were burning.  I felt like my chest and head were a gong and he had just taken a wack at me.

Then he looked away and began shaking his head and said, “I can’t keep going back and forth.  I don’t know how to teach you.  I’m done with you.”

I knew I was going to cry, so I left his office.  As soon as I was in the hall, the tears came hard.  I made my way down to the other end of the hall to see the head of the voice department.  She was a very maternal figure and I knew that she would be both a comfort and a problem solver.

I knocked on her door.  She was teaching a lesson to a friend of mine whom I didn’t mind seeing me upset.   After I explained what had happened, she first gave me a big hug and patted my back.  When I had pulled myself together she went into chairperson mode.

She explained that her goal was to get me through my senior year and she would get me a teacher.

She did get me a teacher.  None of the other teachers in the department would take me.  She never tried to explain why and I didn’t ask.  I had gained a reputation for being a difficult student by then, and I’m fairly certain that that was a factor.  She convinced a retired professor to take me.  It was a great fit.

Now, though, I no longer idolized Nelson.  I resented him.  I ridiculed his idiosyncrasies to my friends.  I toughened up by tearing him down.

So why do I keep returning to this story?  I loved Professor Nelson.  I wanted to please him.  The few times he expressed displeasure with me were upsetting.  I’m sure my family would say that I was all  “Professor Nelson this” and “Professor Nelson that” every day of my college career.  When he kicked me out of his studio, it hurt me very deeply.  I suppose I’ve told this at times to become the object of pity.  Pity’s not the best gift a person can receive, but it has some value.

When I was a kid, there was this other kid who broke his leg and had to use crutches.  He was the object of everyone’s pity and I wanted it so bad that I found some crutches and walked around with them at home for a little while.   I decided that it wasn’t worth the effort, but I wanted it.  I wanted the attention.  I wanted the girls to ask if it hurt really bad.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve outgrown this desire.  I find pity uncomfortable if anything.  Sometimes when I tell the story, it’s in the context of several stories which illustrate what a pain in the butt I was back then.  I was stubborn, a know-it-all, arrogant, sycophantic, and snobbish.

The last time I saw Professor Nelson before he died a few years ago, his words were, “So, are you still singing like a girl?”

And the last time I saw him, just weeks before he died of cancer, I pretended not to see him.

There have been very few tragedies in my life, but being kicked out of Professor Nelson’s studio is significant to me.  A couple of years ago, I got tired of holding onto my resentment and hurt over this man.  I found a cassette tape of his old album of French song and I had it digitally remastered.  I posted it on YouTube.  Then I found an online library of his paintings and convinced the owner to let me create a Facebook page for his music and paintings.  I was finally able to let go of the hurt and give myself permission to think fondly of him again.  It occurs to me now that he was no more at fault than I was.  He really did not know how to teach me, just as he had said.  It’s hard to find out an idol is just a regular human who can’t give you everything you need.  It’s hard to be rejected by them.  But it’s harder still to hold on to the pain and resentment.

You gotta let

that

shit

go

Mouthful

saffron-rice-04I have a group of friends from Bangladesh, and they love to party pretty hard.  I don’t see them much anymore.  I used to attend all of their crazy parties.  And I always wanted to leave earlier than they wanted me to.  At Bengali parties, the food isn’t served until after 10 and with this particular group, they drink and dance most of the night.  That’s just not my style.  I would eat then leave ,which is not cool.  You eat.  Then you stay.  And so I don’t go anymore. They know that they’re not going to get all of me that they want.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

And so when I was invited to a wedding reception party, I came late, but this time I really was late.  I was the last person to arrive.  It was in a friend’s apartment.  If you’ve never seen a southeast Asian wedding reception, you’re missing out.  It’s beautiful.  The bride and groom are dressed like royalty up on a platform covered with flowers, sweets, and rice dishes.

I walked in and my friend jumped up to say hi and introduce me.  There were many people there I did not know.

“Hey everybody, this-a David!  He speak Bangla!  Go ahead,” and he pounded me on the back.

My face burned.  I’d learned a few Bangla phrases to show that I cared about my friends’ culture. Most of them appreciated my feeble attempts, but at one party, a very drunk fellow heard me say to one of the women how delicious the food was in Bangla.  He mimicked me by saying it back with exaggerated slowness.   After that, I didn’t much care to do it again.  But my friend had put me on the spot so I shouted “Assalamu alaikum!”  and everyone gave their usual cheer.

My friend said, “Ok, here’s what you do.  You go up to the them, offer them a blessing, and they’ll give you some food.”

I was glad to hear this because I was really hungry and was looking forward to some good Bengali cooking.  I came up to the platform and tried to think of something to say.  I thought of all of the corny blessings in American films featuring foreign characters. Something like, “Many blessings be upon your head and upon the heads of your children.”  But that just didn’t seem right, and I’m not sure I could have said it without a phony accent.  I don’t remember what I said, though, but whatever it was, I was going for as normal as possible.

I started looking around for which food I might eat, but I couldn’t see any plates.  Then the next thing I knew there was a plastic spoon in my mouth.  The groom, with a wide grin, had shoved a spoonful of cold rice into my mouth.  He began to nod and grin at me.  I nodded and grinned back, but something was happening.  My body was rejecting this rice.  Something about him putting it into my mouth and it being cold made me start to gag.

Rather than swallow the rice, I ran to the bathroom and spit it out.  I don’t think anybody saw, but I was worried about it nonetheless.  Who knows how old this tradition even was?  Who knows what superstition might come with it?  Maybe by spitting out the rice, I was making the bride barren.  Maybe I was bringing down some sort of curse on their heads and the heads of their children.

I realize now that if I hadn’t have been so late, the rice might not have been cold and I might not have spit it out.

I miss my Bengali friends.  It would probably only take a phone call to be invited to another party or reception.  But I also know what that would mean.   I’d have to be out late on a Saturday night.  And while those guys would be sleeping in the next day, I would be getting up at 7:30 to direct music at church.  And I’d rather have a plastic spoon of rice shoved into my mouth than miss that.

A Bipolar Balancing Act

I’ve written about my struggles with Bipolar Affective Disorder on this blog before, but I know some of you are new readers.  It showed up in the two years before 2011 in rather dramatic ways that I don’t care to relive with you.  Needless to say, it disrupted my life.  It disrupted my family’s life.  I began treatment in 2011.  Treatment consisted of psychotherapy, nutrition, and medicine.  I was taught that my brain chemistry was in constant need of balance through meds, supplements, nutrition, exercise, and what chemicals I put in my body.  Until I achieved balance I was restricted from drinking alcohol, using tobacco products, and drinking caffeine.  I followed to a T.

It took me over a year before I could feel balanced.  It’s funny, it’s hard to tell when you’re balanced until you are.  You look back and see the daily struggle with mania and depression and realize that you were imbalanced all along.  I can tell by reading my blog sometimes if I was imbalanced.  There’s an acceleration, a frequency, a chaos.

Part of the balancing act is in adjusting medications.  My meds might work great for a year, but then stop working, or a side effect becomes unbearable.  I hope to never have a full manic episode again like I did in 2011, but I still have little ones and that’s probably never going to change.

It’s an illness like any other in many ways, but a mental illness is different in other ways.  If I get sick, I don’t have pain or a fever or nausea.  It’s not exactly physical.  Bipolar is listed as a neurological disease as well as a mental illness.  So when I get sick, my brain doesn’t work properly.  And when that happens my behavior changes.  My feelings change.  My personality changes.  My perception of the world changes.  There are social lines that I would never cross while I’m well that I might cross when I’m sick.  This leads to disruption and embarrassment and sometimes hurt, none of which I see until I level out.  But these days I’m so well treated that only the people who are the closest to me would likely notice when I’m off.  I’m glad for this.

This week, I got up to go to work and my wife noticed that my speech was slurred and I had a very flat affect; more so than normal for just having gotten up. This was to the point where I might have gotten a DUI.  She’s noticed that I’m forgetting entire recent conversations.  We went to see a movie, and the next day I couldn’t tell you what we saw.  I didn’t remember that my mom just had knee surgery.  I pretended that I did so that I wouldn’t upset anyone. (Mom! If you are reading, I love you and I hope you’re knee is better!)  I’ve been working on the same problem at work for days in a row.  When my coworkers talk to me about the technical aspects of their work, I don’t always understand what they are saying.  And so it’s time to see the doctor.

My wife came with me this time, as she does once in awhile, because I wasn’t seeing everything that was happening and she was.  And so now I have to stop a  medicine that has saved me from suffering for months because it’s affecting my cognition.  That is frustrating.  I started taking that medicine because a medicine I’d been taking for years just wasn’t cutting it enough.  And the cycle continues.  Fortunately, there are new drugs coming out every year for me to try.

I’ll be starting a new drug tonight, and it’s a gamble.  Will it keep me balanced?  Will it have side effects?  I’m very anxious about it.  I want to be well.  I want to be balanced.

P.S. – Many of you have expressed concern for me after reading this post.  Med changes and side effects can put me in an anxious state, but I’ve been through this many times.  I’m not in a crisis at the moment.  Thanks, though, for your prayers and encouragement.  Perhaps I’ll follow up with the results of the change.

Finding a Place

In Journey to Norman, I described my family’s big move to Norman, Oklahoma.  As I was writing it, it occurred to me that that transition from Lonoke to Norman, from small town to big town, was especially formative for me.  Before I tell you about this transition I’d like to say why I even write this blog.  My Wife Says I’m Complicated is a sharing of the inevitable complications of life, but it’s a little more.  My wife has said for years that I’m a complicated person with complicated problems.  My wife is rarely wrong about things and especially about matters of my character and nature.  She’s come to accept this about me, and I’ve come to accept this about myself.  I say that I’m complicated with no pride or shame.  I am what I am.  Perhaps it’s genetics.  I share because it helps me understand why I am the way I am.  I couldn’t say why you read it, but I’m glad you do.

You first must understand the difference between where I lived and where I moved.  Lonoke had a population of around 3500.  It was a farm town with very few amenities. If you wanted to go out and see a movie or eat you went to  Little Rock just 20 minutes up the road.  For a kid, though, you really didn’t have to go anywhere.  Lonoke was a perfect place for a kid to grow up.  We could ride our bikes anywhere.  We could shoot bee bee guns in the park.  There were lots of trees to climb.  There were high school football games to hang around at.

There was poverty in Lonoke, but most of my friends fit squarely in the middle class.  There was almost nothing above middle class and that seemed to keep society pretty flat, at least in elementary school.  There were only four schools:  a primary school, an elementary school, a junior high, and a high school.

Norman is vastly different.  It has a thriving commerce that is not agriculture based.  I can do almost anything I want without leaving Norman.  Although Norman was not yet a city when I moved there in 1984, it was a large town.  Norman has a lot of wealth which really affects it’s social strata.  Playing in Norman for a kid is more structured.  The sports were organized.  I don’t recall ever playing a pickup game as a kid in Norman like we used to do in Lonoke.  No, our parents had to be involved.  Norman had so many schools.  I really couldn’t count how many schools there are in Norman.  In Lonoke, I could no every kid in my grade for the entire town.  In Norman, I couldn’t even know every kid in my grade for my one school.  Lastly, no more black friends.  I don’t recall more than 3 black students at Whittier at that time.  It was a white school.

When I moved, I was so optimistic about my new life.  I’d never had problems making friends or being successful in school.  I thought I understood the world and how it worked…how it worked for me, but Norman changed that.  Norman was a much wider world.

On the first day, Paul and I arrived with identical jackets and identical home done haircuts.  The only difference between us was that I was wearing a plaster cast on my right leg.  We were given a quick tour of the school which was so perplexing.  It was an open classroom configuration.  After our tour, the math teacher, Mrs. Pierce, took us to her area and tested us.  This test would determine our mathematics path through our entire public school career.  And for the first time, Paul and I took different academic paths.  Paul got into the advanced math class and I didn’t.  I have this vague memory that there must have been a mistake.  I had always been on the enrichment path with Paul, but that had ended.  I was now unsure of myself.  If that had ended, then what else might end?

I’d never been the object of teasing and bullying before.  I’m not saying it didn’t exist in Lonoke, but I’d never encountered it.  On my first day, I was weaving through the crowd to get to my locker and a big 8th grader grabbed me by the neck with both hands and screamed in my face.  In my math class, a girl teased me about my name, Burns.  Kids had tried to tease me about that before, but the best they could ever come up with was “David burns it,” but it never stuck because what does it even mean?  But this girl must have watched M.A.S.H and known about the Burns in that and his relationship with Hot Lips Houlihan.  She called me Hot Lips for a year.  But you know what?  At first, I just thought she was flirting with me.  But then I saw the way she treated other kids and realized that she wasn’t.  I was an innocent kid who assumed the best of people…still am.

But the worst incident in that first year happened in English class.  I’d given up on math, but English was one of my top subjects.  I loved the teacher and she seemed to love me back.  I was the kid who raised his hand with every question.  I didn’t really realize I was making an ass of myself, I just wanted to please the teacher and do well in the class.  I got tagged with a nickname, Mr. Computer, but it wasn’t from friends.  I didn’t have any friends, yet.  After class one day, the biggest kid in the grade came up to me with what I can only describe as cronies. The kid had actual cronies.  He addressed me as Mr. Computer and then grabbed what little meat I had on my chest hard (purple nurple) and said that if I wanted him to let me go I had to whistle.  The problems was, I didn’t know how to whistle.  But this was really hurting and people were staring.  “Whistle!” He shouted again.   In my panic, I did the only thing I could think of to do. I made a wolf whistle with my little 6th grade falsetto voice.  They laughed at me and he let me go.  In retrospect, it was kind of funny, but I wasn’t laughing at the time.  I went home reliving that sense of helplessness and humiliation.

 

Friends did come eventually. I shared a lab table in science with two boys, let’s call them Robert and Josh.  I’d been at Whittier long enough to know what these kids were.  They were losers.  They were at the bottom, and I believed I was as well.  I had come from a school where everyone liked me.  Perhaps I wasn’t cool, but I was socially fluid.  If there was a social strata, I felt comfortable with all groups.  And now I was at a school where kids called me Hot Lips and Mr. Computer and wouldn’t have anything to do with me except for Robert and Josh.  And why were they losers?  I found out when I went to visit them each in their homes.  They were poor.  At Whittier, to be poor was to be a loser.  These were the kind of friends that always tried to make friends with the new kids like me; the kids who might not realize the nature of their social status.

In the same year I got catfished hard by a girl over the phone.  She pretended to be someone who wanted to be my girlfriend, and for all of a day I thought things were looking up.  I thought this could significantly raise my social status which was something that was becoming very important to me.  Read the whole story if you like! Girlfriend Bamboozle

Then I met Trent, and everything changed.  He sat in front of me in English.  The first thing I noticed about him was that his hair was clearly cut by a professional.  No home cuts.  This kid was living the life.  And he was smart, but kids didn’t hate him for it.  He mostly kept to himself in class.  I struck up a conversation with him after class.  God only knows what was said, but we hit it off.  He soon invited me over to his house.  He wasn’t poor.  He had a nice house, even nicer toys, and an endless supply of Fruit Rollups.  He was not a loser.  After meeting him, I stopped hanging our with Robert and Josh.  I made up excuses not to go to their houses or have them over.  I did not understand at the time that I was contributing to the same social rules that had made the first part of my time at Whittier so miserable, and even if I did, I might not have cared.  I needed to find a place in the world, and making this new friend was the first step.

He was in band, and so was I, and soon I would begin identifying as a band person, a musician.  I wasn’t the most popular kid in band, but I was one of the best musicians.  This was my group until I graduated high school.  I’d found my place in the large world of Norman and I quickly made new friends.  There were other humiliations, damaging rumors, bullying, but I felt secure in my place.  There were people who didn’t care about the rumors.  Even some of the girls liked me.  Especially Jennifer Wilson.

 

 

Journey to Norman

We lived in Lonoke, Arkansas from the time I was four-years-old to the time I was eleven.  Our journey to Norman, Oklahoma in 1984 began many days before our move;  the day when my father gathered us into the front living room of our house on Center Street.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he broke the news that we would be moving to Oklahoma for him to preach at another church.  There were no tears or complaints.  It was if in spite of our love for Lonoke, we were ready to go.  If my mom wasn’t ready, she did not show it.  Paul and I were up for an adventure and John may have been too young to really comprehend.

Paul and I knew that going away parties were a thing and we decided to throw ourselves one.  I didn’t think this was weird or inappropriate until many years later when Paul pointed out that it was customary for friends to throw the party.  I do also recall that we invited people to bring presents.  I don’t remember who all was in attendance, but I did remember that Todd, the African-American kid who kindly pointed out that my first day of class clothes were for girl, was there.  I point out that he was African-American because I was starting to become more aware of race, and when his mother came to get him, I watched as my mother and his mother had a friendly chat and I realized that my mother was not like other white members of the community who would never have socialized with black neighbors.

I’d become obsessed with kissing a girl ever since my long time crush had a boy-girl birthday party with a dance.  I saw her slow dance with the coolest kid in school and he kissed her on the lips.  I was very much in a devil-may-care mood about it, but I didn’t know how to do anything about it.  I imagined holding a dance myself, but all I got was the party we threw for ourselves and it wasn’t much of a kissing party.  I didn’t get my first kiss until church camp the summer before my freshmen year of high school.

My father had brought a chamber of commerce map back from Norman, and Paul and I studied it hard.  We couldn’t believe we were moving to someplace so cool.  There were restaurants, bowling alleys, a mall, a roller rink, three or four movie theaters, and an enormous public pool.  We bragged to our friends in Lonoke about Norman, and I remember bragging particularly about our new house having wall-to-wall carpeting.  I’d gotten the impression from flooring commercials that this was a luxury.

I remember very little about leaving Lonoke other than taking note as we passed the rice towers (grain elevators) on I-40 that it might be the last time in awhile that I would see them.  They were significant to me because they were always the first and last signs of Lonoke you would see from the interstate.

It was Halloween, but Halloween was the last thing on my mind.  I was eager to see our new house and our new town.  When we reached the border of Oklahoma, there was a welcome sign and we all got out of the yellow Ford Fairmont station wagon to take a picture.  There was trash everywhere.

When we arrived, it was dusk and we were soon greeted by members of our new church with the oddest casserole I had ever seen or smelled.  It was beef and rice baked in a whole pumpkin.  I’ll always associate that house on Leslie Lane with that smell.  I thought we must be lucky to have friends waiting for us.

The woman who brought the casserole also brought her daughter and grandchildren.  They were dressed for trick-or-treating.  The boy was dressed as Satan and after a few stops I thought the costume was appropriate.  Again, I appreciated the welcome.  We would have missed trick-or-treating altogether if it weren’t for them.

School would start very soon for us, perhaps the next day.  We came from a town where school was a very positive thing for us.  We had friends and made good grades.  There were no truly rich kids in Lonoke and social strata had not fully formed in our grade, and so Whittier Middle School was a culture shock to me with it’s cliques and wealth.  I’d like to write more about that transition because it set some things in motion for me that formed my notions about myself for years to come.  Read Finding a Place

I visit Lonoke once in awhile and wonder what my life would have been like if I’d stayed or if I returned to live there, but I ultimately reject that line of thinking because I have been so greatly blessed to live in Norman, Oklahoma.  As I matured here, I developed this sense that God had brought us to Norman and that it was the best possible outcome for me and my family.

 

Negative One Dollar

It’s important to know your audience.  This is a story that I have told to teachers several times and it never comes off well.  I’ve finally learned over the years not to tell it at all at my wife’s teacher parties.  I think the reason why is because it is a discouraging story and relevant commentary on public education.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve never written about it.  It also does not reflect well on me.  It’s the story of how I went from being a public school music teacher to being a software engineer.

In 1996, I graduated college with a bachelor’s of vocal music education and immediately began looking for jobs as a middle school or high school choir director.  Apparently, those are tough positions to find so I settled for a job as an elementary school music teacher at two schools in Moore, Oklahoma.  I was to split my time between two schools both of which had music teachers and needed someone else to take a few grades.

Although I had strengths in putting together fine choral programs, I wasn’t really good at nor was I interested in the music education curriculum.  I also struggled with classroom discipline.  Overall, I was a pretty mediocre teacher, but it was a job with benefits and our expenses were very low.  It was just Jenny and me and this was the most money I’d ever made.

There were things I liked about the job.  I grew to love my students very much, even ones that raised hell in my classroom.  I say classroom very loosely because most of the time, I only had a cart to wheel from classroom to classroom.  Eventually, one of the schools gave me a prefab classroom which was a great improvement on my life.  I liked teaching songs and playing games with them, and they liked my class as long as that’s what I did.  You may think that that is all there is to a music class, but I was also expected to teach my kids how to read and understand music and maybe even play some instruments.  But remember, all I really cared about in the beginning was directing choir, and so that’s what I often did.  No one complained that I know of.

In my second year, Jenn and I had our first child and things changed.  Suddenly, my salary wasn’t enough for us to live as comfortably as we had been living.  This created a strain for us.  Then I began what became my final year of public school teaching.  It started with a letter from Moore Public Schools.  This letter is the reason I think it’s a good story and part of the reason why it’s not popular with teachers.

Around the time the new school year starts, teachers receive a letter informing them of their annual raise and any changes to their benefits.  My first raise had been modest, but we were getting by; however, this letter was different.  I remember only two things from that letter.  It began with

Dear Mr. Wilson-Burns,

Congratulations!  We are pleased to offer you $-1 raise in your pay.

It was clearly a form letter.  If a person had actually looked at this, they might have changed “congratulations” to “unfortunately”.  I was stunned.  I read and reread the letter until I realized what had happened.  The second thing I noticed is that my healthcare premium had raised enough to eclipse my raise in pay.  I entered my third year feeling the strain of having a new baby and the resentment for not having received a raise.

There was a change of location for me that year that was convenient.  They moved me from one school building a couple of miles away to an annexed building across from the other school.  I got the idea that I could march my kids over to my prefab and teach in my own space.  So one nice early fall day, I took a third grade class across the street to the prefab.  Everything went smoothly until we left the class.  In front of the building, and I’ll never know why, there was a post with a rope mounted on the top of it.  I turned around to get the kids in order and one of them had wrapped the rope around another’s neck and was intentionally choking him.  I shouted at him to let go.  For an uncomfortable two seconds he stared me down before he finally let the kid go.  I don’t remember what I said or did next, but the kid picked up a large rock and aimed it at my head from about six feet.  I tried to keep my cool, but I was really disturbed and seriously afraid he was going to knock me in the head with that rock.   I must have said something to convince him to put the rock down because he did.  And that’s the first time I thought it, “I don’t get paid enough to put up with this shit.” And that was the last time I took them to the prefab.

Soon after, I was in the other third grade class and there was this one problem child.  He had a sweet disposition, but he was prone to bullying.  One day, I was teaching the song John Henry, and the kid got up from his desk and so did the kid in the desk in front of him.  It’s important to note that my little bully was about fifty pounds heavier than any other kid in the class.  A chase ensued. Desks were knocked over.  I managed to catch the big kid from behind, but he was big enough that when he collapsed, he took me down with him.  I would have been in big trouble for doing that today, but things weren’t so tense then.

I took the kid to the principle’s office with one of my collaborative discipline cards.  Collaborative discipline or cooperative discipline, not sure, is when I ask the kid what he thinks the consequence of his behavior in my class should be.  He was very cooperative.  He decided that he should sit out of my class for a couple of days and copy out of a music book.  I consented and we both signed the card.  I asked him to send it home to his parents.

The kid was true to his word.  He never complained about his consequence (let’s get real, it was a punishment).  I was so proud and pleased with myself.  But at the end of the day, the principal called me into her office and this I remember in detail.

She said, “Mr. Wilson-Burns, please have a seat.”  She spoke in very calm and measured words,  “I’ve just received a call from a mother.  She didn’t like the way you disciplined her child.  She thought it was sadistic of you to make him come up with his own punishment.  She’s on her way to school to, and I quote, ‘kick your lily, white ass.”

I was stunned.  I’d met this woman.  She was a big lady that carried a cane.  She had a mean streak and it was easy to see where her son got his violent tendencies.

“She’s probably in the parking lot by now, so there’s no escaping her.  Here’s what I suggest.  The staff bathroom has a lock on it.  Go in there and lock the door and let me take care of her.”

I did not feel good about this, but I was a skinny, lily white kid who did not want to get caned by someone’s scary mama.  By lily white, I don’t think she was referring to my race because she was white herself.  She was referring to the fact that I was an educated, highfalutin music teacher who would probably hide in a bathroom if she came up to see me.

Nowadays, I would have stayed and worked this out with her.  I would have showed her the respect of listening to her concerns, but the principal had scared me.  And then for the second time I thought, “I don’t get paid enough to put up with this shit.”

Soon after, I recalled a conversation I’d had with Jennifer’s uncle at a family reunion that summer.  He told me about a company who would train and hire anyone to be a computer programmer on the Y2K switch if they could pass a test.   They’d start me at 10k higher than I was making as a teacher and would give me a 5k raise once I finished the training.

I didn’t know anything about computer programming, but I figured “What do I have to lose?”

I passed the test, got the job, and resigned my position without notice.

I’ve wondered over the years what would have happened if I’d remained a public school teacher. I supposed I would have toughened up. I figure I’d probably eventually gotten into a high school job.  I dream sometimes of being a high school choir director, but it’s no use.  We couldn’t afford for me to take a public school salary.  I’m contented with being a church choir director.

When I’ve told this story to teachers, they start off enjoying the story, but at some point they see a man who traded the chance to change a child’s life for the big bucks of software engineering.  They see a man who cowered when a mom came to school to see him. Perhaps they see someone who crumbled under the kinds of pressures they endure every.  I hope not.  I hope my teacher friends don’t have to deal with threats of violence on their person from parents and kids.  I don’t know why I think a teacher would think this was a good story.  My intentions are good, though.  I want to show teachers that I used to be one of them even if only for a couple of years, but instead I remind them that they are underpaid and that the good ones often leave.  But I don’t think anyone of them walked away thinking I was one of the good ones.  I know I had potential, but it would have taken a few more years for it to become anything.  I suppose I’ll never know.

But I believe things happen for a reason sometimes.  I believe I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.  There’s no point in regretting anything I did or didn’t do twenty years ago.  I share this story, not as an expression of regret, but to share a pivotal part of my life for whomever will read it.

 

Third Grade Bully

scut-farkusIn third grade, I developed a little bit of a violent streak.  I popped two people in the eye at recess:  my best friend and the school bully.  Larry, my friend, could be a little annoying and I blew up at him on the playground one day.  I knock him to the ground and I had hoped to give him a solid uppercut like on tv, but instead I popped him in the eye.  And for that moment, we were no longer friends.  I still remember the look of hurt and betrayal on his face.  He went to the office to tell on me, but nothing really happened, and we resumed our friendship by the end of the day.

The school bully looked like a bully.  He was thickly made, had lots of gaps in his teeth, and wore a buzzcut.  He looked mean.  He had been held back a year so he was bigger than average for a third-grader.  We met on the playground one day and he wanted to play.  We played a game called salt and pepper in which we clasped each others hands criss-cross, leaned back, and spun around.  The loser is the first person to fall.   After a few good spins he let go of me and I fell.  As is the case with many children’s games, you just make up the rules as you went along and to me this was foul play.  I climbed up, shoved him to the  ground, got on top of him and, once again, socked somebody in the eye.  But I had no sense of my violence.  I was too busy being disappointed that I didn’t do a perfect upper cut to the jawbone.

I’ve thought over these two incidences in recent years.  I wondered what was so special about that year that I committed the only two acts of violence toward a human being in my entire life.  Today, I was talking about it to my twin brother, Paul, and something occurred to me that had never occurred to me before.  Why did I think that kid was a bully?  He had never bullied me before.  I don’t recall ever seeing him bully someone.  Of course, my memory is a little fuzzy.  The truth is I didn’t know the kid at all.  The truth is that he may have just looked like a bully from tv.   He may not have been a bully at all.

I’m rethinking this fight.  What if it happened this way?   This kid approached me on the playground to play.  He didn’t come over to harass me in any way.  He didn’t have any friends because all of his friends went on to the fourth grade which was five blocks away, and finally he meets somebody who will play with him.   I lost the game and blamed it on him.  He may have let go, he may not have, but if you think about it, it’s not necessarily cheating, it’s just really good strategy and kind of a funny, harmless joke.   Then I shove him to the ground and sock him in the eye.

And then I wonder, has this 45-year-old person been telling the story about how he was bullied by the preacher’s kid in third grade?  Was he the one who slugged his best friend and an innocent playmate?  Had he been a sore loser and thrown a violent fit?  No.   Which raises the question, who was the bully?

Next stop Halloweentown

p21485_d_v8_aaOn the way home from work yesterday, I decided to make beef stroganoff out of some sirloin steak I bought a week previous.  The closer I got to home, the more worried I became about whether the meat was still good.  I nearly called Jennifer to check for me as I drove, but I decided I didn’t want her to worry about it, too.   I thought about the other dishes I could make, but I really wanted the stroganoff.

When I got home I went immediately to the refrigerator.  Sure enough, it was two days after the freeze date.  But what does that mean?  Does that mean it is expired?  I tore open the package and gave it a good sniff.  Not bad.  No rotten egg smell like you get from bacteria consuming meat.  So I rinsed it off and cut it up.  As I did it, I noticed it was too much meat for the three of us:  Chris, Jenny, and myself.  That’s the new reality.  My daughter lives on her own and cooks her own meals.  But I decided to use it all anyway.  I fretted about it as it cooked, tasting ever 10 minutes or so to make sure nothing was funky.

When the beef, onions, and mushrooms where browned and simmering, I went into the living room to watch tv, and as soon as I sat down, I got a text from my daughter Alli.  She was feeling out of sorts so I invited her over for a meal.  I was making plenty.  This made me so happy.  I don’t see her enough these days.

When Alli arrived, I gave her a tour of our fall decorations which included some Halloween stuff.  Halloween is her favorite and I hoped it would cheer her up.  And as we ate, she asked if we could spare some decorations.  I said that we could and so I climbed into the attic and brought down a few boxes.  These were special boxes because they were filled with a collection of Lemax Spooky Town miniatures.  I hadn’t put them out in years because that all had broken pieces.  Each miniature is a building that when you plug it in has moving pieces and makes spooky sounds.  I was really excited by the idea of her having them.  She didn’t seem to care that some of it was broken.  It’s exciting to me, because my family picked them out together several years in a row.  It had become a Wilson-Burns family tradition and now it was being carried on.

After dinner, Chris went to his room and Alli and I sat in the living room to visit.  Somehow, we got to talking about a childhood Halloween favorite, Disney’s Halloweentown.  I found it on Amazon, but I didn’t dare suggest that we watch it.  I had just that evening said that I don’t watch Halloween movies until October.  But Alli persuaded me.

“Please? For nostalia’s sake?”  she said.

I thought about how fewer our moments together had become.  She was an adult now.  How often would I get to do this with her?  Halloween was is in some ways our father-daughter holiday.  We both loved spooky movies more so than Jenn and Chris.  We used to watch them all through the month.  I confess some of them were way too mature for her, but she loved them anyway and endured the nightmares without complaint.

And it was nostalgic.  We had loved those Halloweentown movies.  I love stories which involve magic and monsters.  Chris joined us part way through so we watched it all together.  This first one was made in 1998 before the Harry Potter movie craze which means that it’s witches and warlocks weren’t riding on the coat tails of Harry, Ron, and Hermione like so many did.

We watched the whole film and then she leftp21485_d_v8_aa.  I decided that it was ok that I broke my rule about Halloween movies.  I make these rules because I don’t want to be burned out before Halloween arrives which must have happened at some point, but I can’t remember when.

My heart aches a little to think that those early days are gone and can never return.  I’ll never take my kids treak-or-treating again.  Hopefully, there’ll be grand kids for that.

The strogranoff was perfect, by the way.  No one got sick at all!  And for a rare moment, we were all together for a meal.  We even sat at the table.

Hyphenated

On July 30th, 1994 I married Jennifer Wilson and we became the Wilson-Burnses.  When we were engaged I asked her if she wanted to take my name but I knew even before she answered that that just wasn’t us, so we decided to take each other’s names instead.  We wanted to communicate to the world that we saw our marriage as an equal partnership.  We wanted to say that although we remained ourselves, Wilson and Burns, God created something new with us.  Also, I’ll just say right now that this was never meant to be a criticism of women who take their husband’s names.  We respect people’s choices for their names.

Hyphenated names were becoming common, so I didn’t think it peculiar at all until I went to get a new driver’s license.  A woman with a brusque manner at the tag agency said, “You can’t change your name without a judge.”

I said, “Are you married?  Did you need a judge to change your name?”

She scrutinized my face for a moment and then called to the back, “Can this man change his last name without a judge?  He says he just got married and wants to change his name.”

A younger woman stepped to the counter and assured her that is was no different than a woman changing her name.

The brusque woman sighed as if to say “what is this world coming to?”

Then I legally became David Hill Wilson-Burns.  And Jennifer became Jennifer Nicole Wilson-Burns.

There’s actually another guy in Oklahoma that hyphenated with his wife and he and his wife are both United Methodist ministers.  There are lots of men around the world who have a hyphenated name.  It seems more common especially in Hispanic cultures, but I don’t think it’s the same deal.

One day a coworker and I were driving back from lunch in Oklahoma City and I got pulled over for speeding.  The officer asked for my driver’s license.  He muttered my name to himself and then said, “Hyphenated.  What are you?  Mexican?”  And then he laughed.  I knew what he meant.

It’s so hard to communicate my name to people especially over the phone.  “Williamsburg?  Burns?  Wilson?  Can you spell it?”

I used to really take this personally.  Exasperated I would say, “Listen, it’s two names.  Wilson and Burns.  W-I-L-S-O—”

I’m in databases as Wilson or Burns all of the time.  I’m just used to saying “Can you look me up as Burns? Try Wilson.  Try my birthdate.”

“I’m sorry, we don’t seem to have you Mr. Burns.  Have you filled a prescription with us before?”

Only for eight years.

At some point I stopped taking it so personally.  I started answering to any combination of those two names.  After all, I chose this.  No one is obligated to accommodate my lifestyle choice.  It’s just my legal name.  Who cares?

In 2011 I had a bit of a breakdown and started going by Burns again.  I felt like I wanted my name back.  It confused the hell out of everyone.  So now at church, for example, many know me as David Burns.  I don’t correct any one anymore.  It’s all good.

But I bear this name with pride now.  I’ve been a Wilson-Burns for 23 years.  My kids are proud to be Wilson-Burnses, too.  I honestly don’t know what they will do with their names if they ever get married and have kids.  But our attitude has always been, “Well that’s THERE problem!”

When we stood up before God and our family and friends we made the following vows,

I take you to be my wife/husband, to love and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until death do us part. This is my solemn vow.

And for us, sharing our names has become a symbol of those vows.   It means that we are flesh of each other’s flesh and bone of each other’s bone…and name of each other’s name.