Saturday, July 7, 2018

Career Geography, Part 2

              I landed in Anchorage, Alaska, on November 2, 2002, to start my new job.  I remember the exact date as the very next afternoon, while I was enjoying a potluck lunch at my new church (Hillside Baptist, which was recommended by Ms. Natalie Atkins, from my church in Biloxi), the ground began to shake.  No one seemed concerned and I wondered for a minute if I was imagining it.  I turned to my new friend, Lori Rucksdashel and asked, “Is it just me or is the earth moving?”  She grinned and said, “Oh, it’s just an earthquake.  No big deal.”  Since no one was freaking out, I decided to remain calm as well and tucked back into my delicious meal.  I had always been taught, ‘when in doubt, eat’.  I don’t know if that’s biblical, but I can assure you, it’s spiritual, y’all.

                I had been selected as the Chief of Prosthetics for the Alaska VA Healthcare System, which was a giant clinic, not a hospital.  I had a grand total of two employees, but it was an awesome opportunity and I was excited.  I spent a few days acclimating to the facility and my employees and then got straight to work revamping the program, ensuring we met all our metrics, provided great customer service, all while being a collaborator with my staff.  I was determined to be universally loved in Alaska, or at least tolerated and/or respected by Tanya and Rocky, my staff.

                Alaska offered some interesting work scenarios I was not prepared for, like paying to barge a year’s worth of oxygen bottles to a veteran who lived in the Aleutians, a 1,200-mile chain of islands and home to the ironically named city of Unalaska.  I was also presented an invoice that I initially thought was a prank as it involved delivery by airplane and dog sled.  It was real; something I didn’t discover until after I shredded the bill.  Mea culpa, little Alaskan delivery company.

                Alaska was interesting, awesome and a little surreal.  Being in Anchorage, it felt like any other large city.  It had two malls, the downtown one included a Nordstrom, Hot Dog on a Stick and a JC Penney where I sold jewelry as a part-time job for about three months, just to see if I liked it.  I didn’t.  You only realized you were somewhere different if, when you were outside, you paid attention to the Chugach Mountains embracing the city on three sides, like an Inuit trying to hug you.  Do NOT call them Eskimos. 

                Anchorage had most every convenience, but once you left the city limits of Anchorage, you were in the wilderness, y’all.  And I mean wilderness, like caribou bounding across the road and once, on a weekend trip to Valdez to go camping, literally stopping our car on the highway, getting out and having a picnic on the roof and hood of the car without encountering any traffic for at least an hour.  You could start to feel that you’re the only people left in the world.  It’s like West Texas or the Utah Salt Flats, except pretty. 

                One of the things you experience being so far north is the really long days in the summer and long nights in the winter.  The Arctic Circle cuts the state in half, but Anchorage is far enough south that even on the day of the Summer Solstice (June 21), you don’t actually get 24 hours of sunshine; it’s more like 21.  The winters with the sun coming up around 10:30 am and going down around 2:00 pm, I could deal with.  The summers, with the sun coming up around 3:00 am and not going down until after midnight, wore me out.  Even though I had blackout shades on the windows in my basement apartment, your body knows when the sun is up, and it wants you to go outside.  By August, I knew I couldn’t remain in Alaska long term.  I needed sleep, y’all.  And God had a plan for me to leave a place of beautiful white snow to experience the exact opposite; ugly brown snow. 

                Drew Carey lied to us.  Cleveland does, in fact, NOT rock.  I wasn’t aware of this when Jackie Collins (again, not the author) called me to ask if I wanted to come help her fix another Prosthetic department.  After I had left Alaska, she had been promoted to a VISN (Veteran Integrated Service Network) Manager’s position, somewhat like a Regional Manager for VISN 10, which was the entire state of Ohio (including the tiny bits of Pennsylvania and West Virginia that bordered), except Toledo, for some strange reason.  She had been asked to find someone to be the Chief in Cleveland, a GS-12/13 position with about 24 employees and a $27 million budget.  The previous Chief had been removed from the position and the service was in a bad state.  I was called by the Associate Director, who said, “I’ve been told you can fix this.  Will you come help us?”  “Yes, ma’am!”  And so, I left Alaska, headed to Ohio on November 2, 2003, exactly one year after I had arrived. 

                  When I got to Cleveland, I found a lively city with great shopping, great food, irritated citizens and angry brown snow on the banks of Lake Erie.  It literally snowed every day from Halloween until Easter.  I had never heard the term ‘Lake Effect Snow’ until I moved to metropolitan Cleveland, finding an apartment downtown in the theatre district.  Yes, they have a theatre district, with nine different places showing all sorts of things.  It’s where I saw ‘Mama Mia’ for the first time. 

I ventured outside of Cleveland proper to the suburbs of Parma Heights to find my Baptist home church; the properly, if unimaginatively, named Parma Heights Baptist Church.  Southern Baptists are nothing if not pragmatic.

                During my time there, I was able to fix the service, helping it become a top performer and even traveled to other VA’s in Ohio and helped them improve, whether they wanted to or not.  I know for certain the Chiefs in Dayton and Cincinnati, who were much older than me and had been in Prosthetics longer than me, did not appreciate this young upstart telling them how to run their service.  In my mind, I was simply helping; however, as I came to discover, not everyone finds me as charming as I find myself.  But I was asked to fix things, and I did.  Being a collaborator wasn’t really high on my list and Emotional Intelligence was something I didn’t know existed, much less that mine wasn’t very high.

                Luckily, Linda Smith, the Associate Director in Cleveland, took an interest in me and said, “I love that you tell the truth no matter what.  I do think you need to learn how to do that more effectively.”  When I expressed that I wasn’t sure what she meant, she said something along the same lines I had heard before; a variation on Jackie’s original thesis statement, “You’re kind of an ass, Dustin Terryll”.  With these two Mamas looking out for my future, I really focused on being a more collaborative leader.  I tried partnering with those whom I was helping, so they could see I just wanted to make things better; that it wasn’t about my ego.  I didn’t have one, although you couldn’t have convinced them of that.  I feel fairly certain, they felt the ego was strong with me; like a Jedi and The Force.

                During my time in Cleveland, Jackie also urged me to apply for a position in Central Office; what VA staff call our headquarters in DC.  I had only been a Chief for two years at this point and did not feel I was ready to move into one of those high-level positions.  Jackie was adamant that I was what they needed.  She assured me I would be a breath of fresh air, someone who had great writing skills, a good understanding of Prosthetics and the ability to speak my mind.  I truly felt she was off the mark; that her fondness for me was making her see me through the rose-colored glasses that John Conlee sang about.  I finally agreed to apply for a position as a Program Analyst which was a GS-13/14 position, just to get her to stop bugging me.  I figured, at the worst, it would be good practice seeing how well they responded to my resume and, in the off-chance I got an interview, how well I did when competing with everyone among the 300,000 VA employees nationwide.  Yes, I felt literally everyone was competing for this position.  You can take the boy out of the boonies…

                To my surprise I got an interview.  To my even bigger surprise, they wanted me to come to DC for a face-to-face final interview.  Then to my utter shock and disbelief, the man who would become my new boss (Fred Downs, who at this point had been nationally known for at least 20 years) called and said, “Do you want to come work for me?”  Of course, I said yes.  I’m sure I shouted it.  Jackie just smiled and say, “See, I told you.  You’re perfect for the job.”  I had no idea if she was right, but I was determined to not disappoint her or Mr. Downs or my family or the troops or America.

                So, in March of 2004, less than two years after I left Alaska, I was being called home by the mothership.  I was headed to Washington, DC to help shape the Prosthetic and Sensory Aids program at the national level.  I felt a little like Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies, but without the rope belt or need to cipher out loud.  Little old country bumpkin me was about to be amongst the movers and shakers in the seat of power in America.  The VA’s headquarters is on the corner of Vermont and I (Eye) Street, directly across the park from The White House.  My office was about four blocks away on the corner of I (Eye) and 17th Streets, not quite the seat of power, but close enough to watch from our office window when the fighter jets confronted the guy who said he got confused and off-course and flew his private plane over The White House in 2005.

                The first day at work I was excited and nervous to meet my colleagues.  Neal Eckrich, a native Texan, who had also traveled to a desolate wintry landscape for his first promotion (Pittsburgh, PA), started the same day as me with the same facial hair (a modified Van Dyke, popular at the time, which most everyone mislabels as a goatee).  One Day Two we both came in clean-shaven.  At 34, I was used to being one of the youngest people in any office where I worked.  Mr. Downs was putting together a remarkably young team, with his vision for program continuity and I suddenly became the oldest of the three Analysts, the other gentleman (Robert) being 33. 

While our team was relatively young, most of the Chiefs and VISN Managers across the country were at least 20 years older.  We were tasked with reviewing their programs and advising them on what and how to improve.  It’s one thing to be able to establish a relationship that over time turns to trust; it’s quite another not have the opportunity to establish a relationship of any depth to make the interactions pleasant or at least devoid of angst or stress.  I was hoping my personality had become infused with all the advice and leadership lessons from My Mamas, like sugar infuses (properly) sweet tea.

I remember the first time I used Splenda to sweeten my tea.  It was unfamiliar and unusual, but I enjoyed it just the same and actually found it preferable to Sweet ‘n’ Low.  I simply wanted to repeat this scenario but with strangers over the phone.  That sounds like a pathway to success, right?

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Geography of My Career, Part One

Since sharing my twentieth anniversary working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, last week, a number of people have asked about my career; where I lived, what I’ve done, why I’m always seemingly on the move?  I will share my career which, as you will see, is a mix of hard work, gypsy blood, false bravado masking low self-esteem, an unending search for self-development, a smattering of delusion, and a heaping portion of God’s grace. 

When I applied for my first VA job (in Biloxi, Mississippi), I wasn’t entirely sure what the VA even was.  The Dad was a veteran, but he had never gone to the VA for anything.  We hadn’t owned a home until I was in college, and I know he didn’t use a VHA loan to buy it.  I just knew I needed a temporary job to earn enough money to go back and finish the final semester of my master’s degree at Ole Miss and head off into my intended career in Student Services at a university.  I was meant to be the best Dean of Students in history, in my opinion, so this was merely a pit stop in that particular race.

In June of 1999, I applied as a clerk in the Insurance Billing department, armed with my Business Minor from MUW.  Unsurprisingly I was not selected for that position, but the manager of that department, Rebecca (Becky) Gustin, saw something she liked in my resume and recommended me to the Chief of Human Resources for a vacancy he had.  I received a phone call asking if I would like to work in HR for the VA.  I accepted immediately and prepared for my interview that next week.  

I arrived bright and early and walked into HR.  There I met two women, Elaine Cooper and Nita Gross, who would be pivotal in my life for the next four years.  I called them my Mamas  They asked if I needed assistance.  I told them I thought I was there to interview for a position, but wasn’t completely sure.  Elaine said, “Well, we were told that a new young man was joining our office.  Have a seat.  If they come in to take you to your interview, then you’ll know.  If they come in and give you paperwork to fill out, just fill it out and hush.”  A few minutes later a woman came into the office, handed me a stack of papers and told me to fill them out.  I looked over to Ms. Elaine and she put her finger to her lips to shush me and gestured that I should start filling everything out.  Apparently, I wasn’t going to have to interview.  

I spent the next 90 days trying to do a great job but also trying to figure out how to stay at the VA.  I loved my co-workers and the mission of the VA.  I liked helping people who helped people, with the added bonus of working for a ‘company’ that wouldn’t go out of business.  It’s the government, I thought, if they run out of money, they can just print more, right?

When it was time to return to school, I wasn’t in position to move to Oxford.  I told them of my degree and that I was within a semester of finishing my masters and Diane Sicuro (another of my Mamas) offered me a spot in a program called the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP).  Cindy Jackson (another of my Mamas, noted I had a bachelor’s degree and when they placed me in the SCEP program, I got my first promotion from a GS-4 to a GS-5).  I contacted the school and was told that I could transfer up to two classes from another school and still earn my MA from Ole Miss.  I registered for one class at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast class and registered for my last class at Ole Miss, working virtually, under the direction of the head of my department. 

The only problem was I had no car to get to class.  God took care of that as we discovered Ms. Nita lived right behind the campus and drove me to class every Wednesday night.  After class I would eat dinner and do my homework, waiting for my brother and his wife to pick me up after church.  All of this while I was also working 30 hours a week as an Assistant Manager at the McDonald’s outside the west gate of Keesler Air Force Base, where my brother was stationed.  People who say they don’t have time for things, make me chuckle.  You find time for the things that are important to you, he said from atop his unsteady soapbox.

I worked very hard to become indispensable as I had decided I wanted to stay.  Once I finished my program, I had the opportunity to be converted to a regular employee, but they had to make their decision within 120 days of my graduation.  I was nervous as things seemed to be stalled with my new boss who hadn’t known me very long.  The gentleman who hired me had left for a job at Toyota and I had a new Chief (which is what we call a department head in the VA) who was a lady, which is my preference.  I’d rather work with women than men.  I don’t know if it’s the effect or graduating from a predominately female college, but I find that women usually make better collaborators.

I know it wasn’t, but it felt like they waited until the 119th day to make their decision.  In April of 1999, I became a permanent employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs, working as a Clerk in the Processing and Records section of Human Resources.  After about six months, I was moved to the Recruitment and Staffing section working with Diane Sicuro who I thought was just about the fanciest federal employee I had ever met.  To really date myself, one of my first tasks was to make flyers and assure applicants that the brand new USAJobs website was a legitimate recruiting platform and their resume wouldn’t just disappear into the ether.

I think God wanted me to really appreciate the opportunity I had been given because for the next year I had to tell people like me (non-veterans) every day and tell most of them that they weren’t eligible to even apply for a position.  SCEP is one of very few avenues for non-clinical non-veterans to get into the VA.

Not too long after this, I met a woman who would have the most profound impact of my career, outside of my own mother; Jackie Collins, not the author.  Jackie was the Chief of Prosthetics, a native of Arkansas and a veteran.  She was also loud and funny and generous.  She had requested someone to help her during a time when we were preparing for our triennial inspection from the Joint Commission.  My new supervisor, The Great Speckled Bird (GSB) didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t a veteran; at the time, the only male employee in HR who wasn’t.  He was clear that he didn’t think I should be allowed to work at the VA.  When I pointed out there were numerous women in HR who weren’t veterans, he countered that women were not important for him to form an opinion about their military service.  He was that guy.    

When Jackie asked HR for someone to help, GSB generously volunteered me, saying, “Take Dustin, we won’t miss him.”  GSB thought he was hurting me, but God was in control of the situation.  Jackie and I immediately bonded while we got the files for the Home Oxygen program in order. 

Prosthetic and Sensory Aids within the VA means something much broader than in the private sector.  Of course, Prosthetics means artificial limbs, but this department provides everything that a veteran would use in the home from shoes, eyeglasses and wheelchairs to artificial hips and knees, pacemakers and computers.  It includes items of daily living such as reachers, long-handled mirrors for diabetics to check their feet for cuts or sores, blood pressure monitors, shower chairs and back, knee and wrist braces.  For the wheelchairs (manual and power) we also provide lifts to carry them inside or outside of a vehicle and ramps to get you into your house.  We will also adapt a vehicle you own or helping you purchase an already adapted vehicle through the Veterans Benefits side of the VA, if you need it.  We provide oxygen for your home, CPAPs for sleep apnea and ventilators for other respiratory issues, and iPhones and iPads to those with visual or cognitive impairments who use them to communicate.  We provide wheelchairs that can be operated by hand, a finger, someone’s breath, even eye-movements, depending on the need.  These items are provided free of charge with no co-pays to any veteran.

I didn’t know then that Prosthetic and Sensory Aids, would be where I would spend the next fourteen years.  I stepped into my role as Administrative Officer (AO), which was a GS-7/9 position and it was supervisory.  I hadn’t been a supervisor in the government, so I used my supervisory experience at McDonald’s to meet that requirement.  Part-time supervision for two years is equivalent to one year of fulltime supervision.  God knew I needed that experience when I had no clue.  He provided the opportunity and the nudge, which gave me a chance to develop my skills.  I wasn’t thinking this job was anything other than a way to earn extra money and be able to customize my Big Mac using fried chicken or quarter pounder patties, if I was so inclined.  Full disclosure:  I was inclined, fairly regularly. 

The interview panel referred me to Jackie as one of the finalists and she chose me as her AO, which is something like an office manager.   She trained me on everything she knew, holding back nothing in the way of program specifics as well as mentoring on how to be a great leader and collaborator.  My low self-esteem caused me to be harsh with my staff as I felt meeting our metrics was more important than their happiness.  I was desperate to be successful in a job that, at my core, I wasn’t sure I deserved, so I had to be the best, to prove that I deserved it.  Jackie was the one who told me to “stop being a jerk” when I started using my father as a role model for dealing with staff.  He had always been a supervisor and told me that you’re not supposed to care if your staff like you, but ‘running a crew’ building oil derricks and supervising federal employees in an office setting are just the tiniest bit different.  Jackie got right to the point.  She told me, over cherry root beers from the Sonic, “You don’t need to focus on whether or not your staff like you, but you should be concerned that they respect you enough to listen to you.  You’re kind of an ass, Dustin Terryll.”  Message received. 

Around that same time, I applied for a local leadership program and was told by a member of the interview panel, they felt I didn’t have leadership potential.  I was hurt by that but decided I did, in fact, have potential and I just needed to work harder to prove them wrong.  At the same time, I resigned from McDonald’s as Prosthetics began taking over my spare time.  The department in Biloxi was in terrible shape and Jackie had been brought in to fix it.  We started working 10-12 hours a day, sometimes six days a week to get it where it needed to be, hiring the right people, training them and making sure they had the support and tools they needed to succeed. 

Jackie demonstrated servant leadership every day.  She inspired loyalty in her staff and the veterans loved her.  She was kind but firm; she expected a lot but would work right along side you, cheering you on and feeding you just like a Southern Mama does.  From Jackie I learned the value of having fun while working hard and showing appreciation to staff in small ways; something as simple as bringing in donuts or organizing a potluck lunch for team building. 

After two years working together and learning everything I could (including how to be less obnoxious), Jackie felt I was ready to run my own service and pushed me to apply as a Chief of Prosthetics, but somewhere small, so I could dip my toe into the water before taking a big plunge.  When I thought about where I wanted to live, it just so happened to be at a cook-out on Labor Day weekend in Biloxi which feels like you are roughly six inches from the equator.  “I would love to live some place where I wouldn’t sweat,” I said to myself and my cook-out companions.  Someone laughed and said, “Alaska is about the only place you wouldn’t sweat Dusty.”  I logged onto and found most of the Chief jobs were GS-12s; as a GS-9, I wasn’t eligible to apply.  I needed a GS-11, but those are few and far between.  I kept checking, however, and one day, lo and behold there was a vacancy for a GS-9/11 Chief of Prosthetics in Anchorage, Alaska.  Sometimes when God shuts a door, he turns on an air conditioner, y’all.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Casual Dining Restaurants and Tractor Tire Innertubes

I recently read that the phrase dining al fresco (Italian for “in the cool air”) is no longer used in Italy.  Instead they use either fuori or all’aperto.  Al fresco is used to refer to someone dining in jail, if you can believe that.  While I have never broken the law when it comes to food or eating, I have been known to break commandments (thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s cinnamon roll) or commit a deadly sin (gluttony, but just barely).   However, if lying about your knowledge of food or pretending you know what something is when you don’t is illegal, then I, dear readers, am a straight up criminal.  Full Disclosure:  I only know the definition of al fresco because back in the early 2000’s there was a restaurant in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, named after the phrase and they had outdoor seating and I had to pretend I knew that already when I went there with some very fancy friends.

Besides the occasional picnic related to fishing, dining outside of my home during my formative years meant we ate at church, Piccadilly, or a steakhouse.  The Dad still has very specific criteria for food consumption.  In high school eating out meant Sonic, Danny’s Fried Chicken (in Tylertown, MS) and the occasional visit to the Pizza Inn buffet on Sundays when my mother didn’t feel like cooking and answered the siren call of her usual order of one slice of supreme and one slice of peach cobbler dessert pizza.   I say all that to say this, casual dining establishments like TGI Friday’s, Chili’s, etc. were not part of my world, he said trying his best not to sing those last few words.  My limited experiences weren't something of which I was aware, as my mother was an extremely talented cook and nothing beats a good ribeye steak or the mac and cheese from Piccadilly. 

The summer before my sophomore year in college, I attended a yearbook camp on USM’s Gulf Coast campus.  I had recently been selected to serve as Co-Editor of the Whispering Pines yearbook with a very talented and similarly well-dressed classmate (Garland Tullos) at Southwest Mississippi Community College (Go Bears!).  Even though neither of us had edited before, the school felt we could do it.  Or at least, it appeared they did as they  were footing the bill for the trip.  This included paying for our food, therefore, I was in possession of a monetary largesse previously unequalled in my day-to-day life; if I remember correctly it was around $20 per day!  Keep in mind, this was 1989 and I was someone who never ate a Mexican pizza at Taco Bell because it was prohibitively priced at $1.09.

Garland and I, being friendly and delightful, had met several other college editors and decided to go out to dinner one night, to an exciting culinary destination called O’Charley’s.  Long before I became the gastronomic Sacajawea my friends know and love, I was very Southern Baptist in my tastes; everything was fried or covered in cream of mushroom soup, or both.  I had an internal rule that I would follow the lead of the fanciest person I was with, should I ever find myself in an unfamiliar situation.    I don’t remember who I was watching that night, Garland or one of the ladies from East Central Community College, but someone ordered a fried chicken salad with something called ‘honey mustard dressing’.  I wasn't sure how I felt about the name, but I knew I wasn’t a fan of honey or mustard individually.  Unsure of the combination, I was definitely intrigued, and I didn’t want to seem pedestrian, so I took a ‘taste and see’ attitude.  I was feeling very cosmopolitan, y’all. 

When the food arrived, there was cheese toast on the side, and I always enjoy something unexpected and covered in cheese.  I gave the honey mustard the once-over and decided it looked safe enough to taste.  It was delicious as most of you know.  Where had this condiment been all my life?  It’s the same reaction I had when I first discovered salted caramel.  I was ecstatic to have finally experienced it but equally angry that my taste buds had been denied until that moment.

I’d like to believe that I hid my excitement and ate as nonchalantly as someone who had eaten this exact dish the week before.  Full disclosure:  I might have squealed or at the very least ‘mmm-mmm-mmm’ed’.  Garland knows, but will never tell.  

When I returned home I tried to recreate the flavors as I had been unable to find a jar of it at the Piggly Wiggly, much less at B&B Grocery, the discount store where we  often shopped.  My mother kept no honey at home and I couldn’t justify spending money on an experiment, so I made do with what I had.  I mixed yellow mustard with TJ Blackburn Pure Cane Syrup.  It was not great; so sweet it made me shiver.  I thought about just adding sugar to mustard but that was another shivery failure.  As my family’s recipe for Thousand Island salad dressing was simply mixing mayonnaise and ketchup, I tried mixing mayonnaise and mustard together to get the right color.  It wasn’t the same, but it was delicious.  I kept an eye out whenever I went anywhere to eat, but I typically only found it accompanying the ‘rich people meal’ at Sonic.  You may know it as the chicken strip dinner. 

That yearbook camp changed my life in two ways.  Garland and I actually learned how to edit a yearbook and we won the state competition which helped me get a scholarship to MUW, where I edited the Meh Lady yearbook and won national competition twice, which, in turn, helped me (finally) choose Journalism as my major.  It also started me on my journey toward culture and refinement, which has led me to becoming one of the four fanciest people to have ever floated down the Bogue Chitto River in a tractor tire innertube.  Am I right, y'all?  

Monday, May 14, 2018

It's Not Cussing if it's a Direct Quote

              I recently returned to Texas for several speaking engagements and book signings, both impromptu and planned.  Speaking to executives from rural and community hospitals on leadership and team building, I was in Dallas, where I pulled off the previously unheard of hat trick of entertaining and teaching conference attendees at 8:30 in the AM, y’all.  Uncle Dusty can bring the funny regardless of the time of day.  The Dad says, “It ain’t braggin’, if it’s a fact.”  I had several hours to kill before my friend, the esteemed Master Richard Waller, was available to dine, so I sat in the lobby and, in an extremely choreographed nonchalant manner, managed to sell a dozen copies of ‘Almost Odis’.  I did not curse a single time, during my presentation, lunch, book sales or dinner.  This is important to note.

                As you know, dear readers, my blog is G-rated.  I do not curse, as a rule, and I never talk about things that could even loosely be construed as nasty or dirty.  I am a man of high moral standards and my language, while colorful, is not often coarse.  Full disclosure, I do occasionally cuss, but usually only in traffic and, even then, only in response to the actions of someone who is ridiculous.

                The next morning, my tour guide for the trip to Red River County and memory lane was my former girlfriend and one-half of the twins who were my besties starting from 30 seconds after we met in 1982.   The hilarious, sarcastic force of nature known as Juliann (Juli) Wood, apparently enjoys a reputation for using the F-word as a noun, verb, adverb and adjective.  This is also important to note.

                I had a speaking engagement at Rivercrest High School on Friday, April 13, 2018.  While I don’t normally buy into these sorts of superstitious nonsense, there might be something to it.  I forgot to tell you my room at the Hyatt Downtown Dallas was on the 14th floor.  However, seeing as they didn’t number a 13th floor, my room was actually on the 13th floor.  Weird, I know, but what can you do; hoteliers are an odd bunch. 

                I hadn’t been to Bogata, or Rivercrest High, since we abandoned Texas for Mississippi, with literally a moment’s notice in 1986, the summer between grades 10 and 11.  I was asked to speak to the senior class and wanted to make sure I connected with an audience which, admittedly, I barely connected with when I lived there.  Uncle Dusty is an odd bird out in the boonies, y’all.  True Story.  I always refer to myself as Uncle Dusty when speaking to high school and college students, as I started giving advice to my nieces and nephews and this is the moniker they created for me.

                My presentation made a number of points, some of them confirming my bonifides as a former resident of the boonies, showing pictures of me with my sheep and in my football and band uniforms.  I then proceeded to give a little advice.  I won’t put you through my complete presentation, but I will say that Ronny Allsup’s (Brother Ron Ron to the other half of the twins, Denise) only request was, “Don’t get me fired.”  I assured him I wouldn’t do anything to get him in trouble.  He, and several other people, said they didn’t have any concerns about me, but they were worried about Miss Juli and her salty tongue, as she was to introduce me.  Juli was adamant they had nothing to worry about and her intro was delightful and set to the tune of Billy Idol’s ‘Rebel Yell’.

                My talk bounced from telling them that my plans for after high school were the slightly vague, “I want to be indoors” and the more specific, “Not hauling hay.”  I talked about being proud of who you are, unless you’re mean and then you need to “Stop it!  There’s enough jerks in the world.”  I told them I was proud to be from Bogata, but I couldn’t wait to leave.  I told them if they left that was great, but if they stayed, that was great, too, as long as they traveled because that’s how you broaden your world view and makes you more aware. 

                I told them to appreciate their family and friends and to choose relationships wisely.  I encouraged them to debate, not argue.  I reminded them that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.  I challenged them to be the thing they don’t see in the world, whether its kindness, passion, authenticity or honesty.  I specifically said they should never lie; be as kind a possible, but don’t lie just to spare someone’s feelings.  I asked them to focus on doing something they love and not worry about making money and I even quoted Abraham Lincoln, “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

                I know you have to make people laugh to get them to listen and remember advice, especially from some random older guy, wearing Kelly green chinos and navy wingtips.  You also have to use stories to connect with people and I was telling them tales of rodeos, involuntary horseback riding and other 4-H-related things.   We had segued into the last part of my talk where I give them ‘Tips on How to be A Decent Human’, like (1) your mama lied to you; you’re not special, rules apply to you, just like everyone else, (2) put the buggy back in the corral at The Wal-Mart or the grocery store, (3) don’t dislike someone you’ve never met, (4) if you get defensive when someone questions your opinion, you might need a new opinion and (5) if you have to exaggerate to make a point, you just proved your point isn’t worth making.

                I was on a roll and they were laughing and loving it and I started telling the story about my cow from 4-H.  You remember the one I told y’all where it was the only one in the competition and still came in third place.  I have told that story many times, especially when talking to groups about making emotional decisions, and I always quote The Dad as having said, “Son, that is a pitiful cow.”  The actual quote is, “Son, that is a shitty cow.”  I have never once used the S-word when telling that story, until that very moment.  I said “SHIT-TAY” right into the microphone, as loud as if I was announcing a boxing match in Vegas, y’all.  I didn’t even realize it at first until the teenage audience absolutely howled with laughter and it dawned on me.  I said, “Oh, no!  Did I just cuss, Brother Ron?”  “Yep,” he said, smiling and shaking his head.

                What could I do, y’all, but try to do damage control?  I said to the group, “Okay, y’all.  I heard that Stanley Jesse is the Superintendent.  If he asks you, ‘Did Mr. Thompson say anything inappropriate, y’all should say ‘No!’.  As soon as I said it, the ring leader, you can always tell who it is, raised his hand and said, “Didn’t you just tell us not to lie?”  Ouch.  Out of the mouths of cowboy babes.  I was excited he had been listening, but shamed I had cussed.  What could I do but say, “Yep.  You called me out.  Disregard what I just said.  However, if anyone asks if I cussed, just say, ‘He did, but it was a direct quote’.”  They laughed and agreed, I exhaled and sat down and looked over at Juli, who was smiling that smile, you know the one.  I asked her, “How do you think it went?”  She smirked and said, “It was shitty” while Denise laughed in the background.
                I’m pretty sure I’ll not be asked to speak at commencement any time soon. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

They Have Those Everywhere, Don't They?

               I have a cousin, I won’t say which one, who inadvertently changed the way my family pronounces the word ‘underwear’.  When he was two or three, he was on stage on a Sunday night at the front of Melbourne Baptist Church, singing with his fellow preschoolers because that’s the one time Baptist children are seen and/or heard in church.  At one point, during the performance, he had to participate in a private act and so he turned around facing the back of the stage, believing if he couldn’t see us, we couldn’t see him.   Once he was turned around he began to pick at his butt crack.  The building fairly shook with the suppressed laughter of the entire audience. 
                Afterwards, when his mother asked him why, he said, “My wunnerwear was in my frack.”  Ever since then when I think of or say ‘underwear’, in my head I’m saying ‘wunnerwear’.   And I’ve been thinking about ‘wunnerwear’ a lot lately, because I have been on the hunt for new undergarments.  As you know, you cannot try these items on in the store, so I have been do a somewhat expensive trial and error process looking for something that should be, and once were, ubiquitous – white boxer briefs. 
                You may be thinking, “They have those everywhere, Dustin” and previously I would have believed you, but I have found this to be untrue.  When you want white boxer briefs, you are left to the ridiculous caprices of designers who are trying to out shine Victoria and all her secrets.  I promise you when you go onto Amazon and type in ‘white boxer briefs’, the first thing that pops up is a pair of red boxer briefs.  That makes no sense.  It’s like in ‘Gone with the Wind’; at the beginning of the book, Margaret Mitchell spends three pages going on and on about Scarlett’s green and white dress and green shoes and in the first scene in the movie, she’s wearing red.  Why?
                And I know you’re wondering why someone with an Imelda Marcos-like love of colored chinos would want mundane under garments.  Well, I’ll tell you.  On a band trip to Opryland in 1987, I wore blue underwear with white shorts.  This should have been private information that was pointed out by everyone.  And by everyone, I mean, that one random girl stranger who said, "Nice underwear!" while pointing and laughing.  I ran and hid by the corndog stand because, well, I was shamed and really wanted a corndog. I can assure you that public humiliation was enough to steer me toward a lifelong attachment to under clothes of the purest white.  This is especially important at this time of the year, as I have unleashed the array of pastels and other muted colors from the confines of my Spring/Summer wardrobe storage and I don’t them upstaged by visible drawers, as it were.
                My preferred brand, after several years of trial and error and a significant amount of money, is Tommy John, typically found at Nordstrom Rack.  As I had been unable to find white ones with the right amount of inseam (I like them almost the same as a bike short, at least reaching to mid-thigh), I gave in and went to Flagship Nordstrom begrudgingly willing to pay full price, only to find my color selections limited to black, gray, navy and bright blue.      After trying to find suitable ones in a variety of brands (Calvin, Ralph, Tommy (both Bahama and Hilfiger) and whoever designs Jockey), I was at my wit’s end.  I was driven to mingle amongst the ‘regular people’ and visited the Target feeling assured that those tried and true icons of under garments (Fruit of the Loom and/or Hanes) would be there, reliably boring as always. 
                To my surprise, they were not accommodating either.  They have a wide array or colors and stripes, but the only white offerings were those of the legless tightie whitie variety.  So, I went back to Amazon, and went down a rabbit hole of names and brands with which I had no familiarity.  I bought many pairs and trialed them, spending a month and over $100 trying them out and discarding the ones I didn’t like into the trash bin as you can't offer them to your friends and apparently no one lets you donate underwear at the Goodwill, even if they are new.  I felt wasteful but I am not about to wear underwear where the legs roll up while I’m standing still and/or where my shirttail comes untucked each time I moved so much as arching an eyebrow at some ridiculous person.  Like you do. 
                But fear not, dear readers.  I have found them, the magic wunnerwear!  I haven’t been this excited about undergarments since my mom bought me Incredible Hulk underoos for Christmas in 1970 something.  They are a brand called Victrix and they are (well done me) 70% bamboo and 30% cotton.  They are so soft, the inseam perfect and you couldn’t coax my shirttail out if you had a fruity drink and a sexy wink.  They are luxurious, seriously.  And, I realize they’re made in China and I should be buying American, but since those MAGA hats are made in China, I seem to be ‘on message’ with America, y’all and isn’t that what’s important?

Friday, April 20, 2018

Through the Drinking Glass: My Trip to Heather Land-land

               Last weekend I had to the unique opportunity to attend a comedy show with literally every woman in Red River and Lamar Counties (in Texas) along with four or five of their inebriated spouses.  I say inebriated as they were selling beer along with sangria, margaritas and hurricanes.  I wasn’t surprised, I guess, people love a good drink at a concert.  The crowd was, in a word, lively.  And seeing as how Heather Land herself was wearing a head band, Def Leppard t-shirt and ripped jeans (an interesting look for a 42-year-old mother of two, said my inner old lady), it seemed to fit. 

                I am somewhat familiar with Ms. Land’s comedy.  I say somewhat when what I mean is I have seen one of her videos; you know the ones where her eyes and mouth are disturbingly large, and she complains about stuff and it’s funny.  And she always says her catchphrase, which was splashed across black t-shirts she was selling, “I Ain’t Doin’ It!”

                The doors opened at six and the show was supposed to start at 7:00 so by 6:53 the audience had started to get “tow up” and I had the time to take my eyes away from the magnificent hairdos all around me and noticed a keyboard on stage.  Does Ms. Land sing, I wondered aloud?  No one seemed to know.  Everyone was wearing flowy blouses, tight jeans, chunky jewelry and buying a disturbing amount of Ms. Land’s unimaginative “I Ain’t Doin’ It!” t-shirts.

                As the clock neared 7:15 I was hungry as we hadn’t eaten in at least two hours during this marathon weekend visit/book tour (buy my book ‘Almost Odis’ on Amazon right now, y’all) but the only option for food was the ubiquitous nachos often found in these venues.  I wasn’t in the mood, so I ate the contraband Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg I had stowed in the inside pocket of my sport coat.  I am prepared like a Boy Scout, people.  Well, more like Chunk from "The Goonies", but whatever.

                Finally, at 7:20, Ms. Land came out and she was truly funny.  I didn’t really know what to expect but I laughed a lot. She didn’t say her catchphrase, but she had great material, excellent timing and I was enjoying the show. One of the more elderly and intoxicated in the audience started talking out loud and disrupting the show and Ms. Land tried to intervene and stop her.  At one point this woman got down on the floor (to crawl? to faint?) and when some guy came to remove her, her friend (clothed in a nautical striped blouse with bell sleeves) abandoned her friend and decided to stay. 

At one point she mentioned her unsuccessful music career and I realized she was about to share with us a song or twelve.  I felt a little apprehensive, like when you go to see a one-hit wonder from the 80s and you expect them to play their one good song and they start with, “How about something from the new album”.  No, members of Yes, I don’t want to hear a 22-minute progressive rock song, I want to hear, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”.  

She begins to play piano and sing, and I was pleasantly surprised that she had a beautiful voice.  As she had been high energy in her routine, I was expecting something vaguely happy and/or bouncy.  What we got was a post-Lilith Fair Sarah McLachlan with songs so plaintive and haunting it made me want to go out and adopt a shelter puppy.  I mean, even with her obvious talent, this music was melancholy, y’all.  Then she played what she said was another song, but I couldn’t tell the difference.  Then she had an intermission.  At a comedy show.  Maybe she was overwhelmed from her own songs.  Who knows. 

                As this intermission was unexpected most people just stayed in their seats which gave me a clear path to the concession stand.  By this time, I was actually hungry, so I had resigned myself to eating nachos.  When I got to the stand, I discovered I could get a combo plate of nachos and meatballs and gravy.  On a paper plate.  Not in a nacho boat or a bowl.  Because that’s what you feed people at an event where there are no tables and they have to eat in their lap.  Do they think they are Ikea?
                After the intermission she returned for more comedy, this time it had a bit more bite as it was about her divorce and life afterwards, but it was also about church and Jesus.  I guess those things pair well in Heather Land-land.  Then there were more songs so heartrending it sounded like the soundtrack to a Nicholas Sparks movie, except, if possible, more sad.  Then she played a Christian song which I’m okay with but bookending Jesus with sangria didn’t seem very Evangelical, which this audience most definitely was.  But they were really into it.  

                At the first note, after Heather said the song was about God, Miss Nautical Bell Sleeves (friend of the removed drunk) immediately stood and raised her right hand in praise, having gotten The Spirit mixed in with the spirits.  It was a bit much to take but I was too weighed down by the meatballs to protest.  At the beginning of the second verse, a foursome of friends drunkenly stood, arms linked in an awkward cheerleader/sorority Jenga fashion and it apparently inspired Sister Bell Sleeves to go full on touchdown for Jesus with both hands in the air, in praise or for balance, I wasn't sure.

                At this, one of our companions (I won’t say his name but it rhymes with Tim Wood) abruptly stated, “I’m outta here” and left.  I concurred and followed as the show came to a close.  My first foray into Heather Land-land will be my last.  I have no issue with alcohol, sad music or a little bit of Jesus, but I’d rather have them individually, not grouped together.  I mean, what am I, The Grand Ol' Opry?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dead Men Don't Dust

          Have you ever looked around at your home and in your closets and wondered if an investigatory team like CSI or NCIS could parse out your life based on your furnishings and clothes?  What do you mean, no?  Having recently binge-watched X-Files, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and NCIS, I've been hyper-aware of how my life might look to others.  
          Before Ben and I started dating, he was hesitant to respond to my initial message as he thought I was too fancy, or high maintenance.  When we started dating, and he saw my closets for the first time, he even jokingly began to call me Imelda, as in Imelda Marcos (of the three thousand pairs of shoes).  He wasn't referring to my shoe collection, as the possessor of 'old man feet' I only have 14 pairs of shoes.  I do, however, have 37 pairs of colored chinos, in a variety of colors for all seasons.
Of course, over the past 15 months of our dating, he has witnessed and half-heartedly participated in my shopping sprees, so he has seen evidence that I am a lover of all things clearance-priced, a patron of high-end outlet malls and a skilled thrift store shopper.
          You could look at my new favorite cashmere sweater, which retails for $300, and think I either have lots of cash or lots of debt.  You wouldn't know, unless I spilled the beans, that I got it for $30 at an upscale thrift store in my little neighborhood in Long Beach.  And that's what I'm talking about.  Misinformation such as this might lead those who have been assigned to investigate my disappearance or murder down the wrong path and I couldn't share the truth as I would be dead or missing or both.  And you know I love to inadvertently solve crimes, if you've read my first book, A Gone Pecan.  
          Beyond the clearance sale luxury goods, other appearances can be deceiving.  My home appears unlived in most of the time, because I straighten as I go.  My landlord uses my apartment as the model she shows to prospective tenants as my décor is stylish and my home always tidy.  Everything is in its place and decorated to the Nth degree.  Sister Parish (famed interior designer) once said, "Behind every attractive room has to be a very good reason."  My reason is an unending need to be surrounded by bold, tasteful, erudite awesomeness.  
          However, as Ben (now my fiancé) will tell you, as he does each and every weekend, "BooBoo (my nom de amor), your house is so fancy, why is it that you do not dust?"
          Yes, it's true  I don't dust as much as I should.  If you were to glance about you might notice layers of me, covered in layers of me as everyone knows dust is but the remnants of your own dead skin.  It's science, y'all, it's supposed to be gross.
          I will share with you a mélange of house-cleaning conversations 'twixt my Benjy and me:
          Ben: BooBoo, why is it dusty in your living room?
          Me:  I stopped the cleaning lady from coming over.
          B:  Why?
          M:  I should be able to clean my own apartment.
          B:  Yes, you should.
          M:  But I don't want to.
          B:  But you can afford it.
          M:  I'm trying not to waste money.  We have a wedding to plan.
          B:  It's not a waste of money, it's a service.
          M: I just wish I could save money and have my apartment cleaned by someone else.
          B:  You could drink less Starbucks Iced Tea, to save money.
          M:  That's crazy talk!
          B:  So, clean your apartment.
          M:  You make it sound so simple.
          B:  It is, really.
          M:  I know.  That's what so annoying.
          B:  When I move in, I will help clean.
          M:  You'll dust?
          B:  No, I will mop the kitchen and clean the bathroom.  They need attention as well.
          M:  In my defense, my bed is made every morning, like clockwork.
          B:  It should be.
          M:  Don't I get credit for that?
          B:  You want me to praise you for doing something you're supposed to do?
          M:  Yes.  Yes, I do.
          B:  I will not.
          M: I guess I'll get to dusting.