Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Ugly Shoe Diaries

                I’ve always been told that you can’t miss what you never knew existed but I don’t necessarily think that is true.  If I had lived in the days before air conditioning I feel pretty sure that I would have longed for someone to invent some system for, I don’t know… cooling my home?  And I would have been vocal in that longing.  Case in point, my sister and I invented bottled water in 1975 on a trip to my grandparent’s farm.  We discussed a length our desire for “water in a Coke bottle” on that trip because as delicious as it is, sometimes Mr. Pibb does not quench a 4 year-old’s thirst quite the way water can.

                And I was thinking about this as I remembered shopping for school shoes back in the day when we had school shoes and church shoes and that was it.  That day was in 1981 when I was about to begin sixth grade at Will Rogers Elementary School in Burns Flat, Oklahoma.  And all the Hee Haw fans said, “Salute!” 

                I had never been given much control over my wardrobe at that point and to be honest I had never given it much thought.  Trying to be as much like my Dad as possible, I voluntarily wore vests, football jerseys and motorcycle t-shirts without much introspection.  My mother usually directed my choices once I grew out of Garanimals and as she was one of the four most elegant women I’ve ever known, I trusted her implicitly.  As an aside, the other three on that list were Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and my Aunt Charlotte Rushing.  My mother was resplendent in her wool plaid skirts, high-necked blouses with ribbon ties and velvet blazers that were the height of fashion in those days.  Over all those outfits she wore her suede coat with fox collar and I thought she was just about the grandest thing in the world.  We had a little more money than was normal back then although I was only aware of this in retrospect. 

                As Burns Flat was a tiny town containing only a Tom’s Thriftway and a Dairy Queen, we had sojourned to Elk City, home of that’s year’s Miss America Susan Perkins, to buy our shoes with my brother, sister and neighbor Angie.  Leather Nikes were “the thing” but something drew me to the golf section of the sporting goods store.  Maybe I was blinded by the purple swan on the Gloria Vanderbilt jeans my sister wore.  Or maybe she just shoved me in that direction.  She wasn’t particularly nice during that time as she had been forced, as a punishment, to stop listening to her 45 of Blondie’s “The Tide is High” and since it was the only 45 she owned, she was UNHAPPY, folks. 

                I didn’t have a frame of reference for preppy or really anything other than country as the men in my family only wore boots.  Work boots, cowboy boots, dress boots for church, hunting boots.  The only other pair of shoes I owned was, in fact, a pair of boots.  That was what we wore to church.  I never questioned it; I just wore them.  But I knew, somehow, that I wanted a dressier shoe.  I didn’t know what or why but I had to have not a boot.  After some serious questioning from my mother and a reminder that these would be the only pair of shoes I would have to wear to school, I ended up with a tan Saucony that I can only describe as a cross between a saddle oxford and a bowling shoe.  I thought they were amazing.  My shopping companions were not as taken with my fashion choices. 

                They looked like something you would wear to church if you lived in town and didn’t own overalls.  Like something a lawyer would wear or an architect, as if I had a frame of reference for professional men’s footwear.  The only professionals I had any contact with were teachers and preachers and even most of them wore those boot/shoe hybrids we called “preacher boots”.  All the males in my family wore their dress boots to church.  My Dad, on the rare occasion that he actually went to church, wore boots.  It may have been to ground him should he be struck by lightning upon entering but these are thoughts I wisely kept to myself.

                My Dad’s reaction of complete confusion, when he came home from work, was my first inkling that he and I were not cut from the same cloth; that cloth being a khaki Carhartt work shirt starched by my mother until it literally stood on its own in the corner.  The extreme starch was to keep the fire from his welding rods from burning through as he worked building oil rigs on the barren wind-swept plains of the OK state.

                And the shoes were just the beginning.  That year for my birthday was the first time I asked for non-sports related clothing, specifically a striped velour sweater and brushed corduroy pants.  I was a vision in fake velvet, do you hear me?   Of course, this caused me to feel the need to double down on the Dad-pleasing to make sure he still liked me.  I feigned amusement for my nickname, JD (for JD Hogg from the “Dukes of Hazzard”) and writing an essay about my hope of a career similar to my father’s when that was the last thing I wanted to do.  After a very short lifetime spent on farms doing all manner of unenjoyable things I simply wanted a career indoors.  I didn’t care what I had to do; I was doing it inside with the bought air, people.  And I was determined it would be something that would be so amazing that no matter what they ever found out about me, it would be okay.  If I were rich enough I could just buy everyone presents, because giving gifts is how you show affection.  At least that’s what my Dad taught me, intentional or not.  Since I had no money to buy presents, I had to gift him with what was available to me:  acquiescence to whatever it was he wanted me to do.  From playing football and voluntarily wearing turquoise belt buckles and bolo ties to pretending it didn’t bother me when he called me names or that I really was excited to receive a Bowie knife with an 8-inch blade and snakeskin handle for Christmas when I was in 5th grade.

                I may have been without a frame of reference for preppy, but I was starting to realize what I didn’t want to be and that was him.  Pretty heady stuff for an 11 year-old whose largest life lesson to that point was "how to fake like you like that knife you just got for Christmas".  For an excellent use of said knife, I refer you to previous blog post dated November 26, 2012 "The Perks of Knowing a Good Ol' Boy".  And that is all I'm saying for now.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Here he is, Miss America...scholar

                As there is a lot of buzz around our newly crowned Miss America, I feel that I need to throw my crown in the ring, so to speak.  I am a supporter, fan and volunteer for the Miss America system and I know a few things and I wanted to make sure my loyal readers are privy to all the information rolling around this ample noggin of mine.

                First things first, the Miss America system has a talent component, which is one of the main differences betwixt us and the Miss USA system.  That came about in 1950 when Yolanda Betbeze, an opera singer from Alabama refused to go on a swimsuit tour for major sponsor Catalina Swimwear, declaring that she was a serious musician, not a swimsuit model.  When Lenora Slaughter, Miss America Director, supported Ms. Betbeze, Catalina Swimwear threatened to pull their sponsorship.  Miss Slaughter stood her ground and Miss America 1949, Jacque Mercer from Arizona, supposedly quipped at the press conference, “Why don’t you go start your own pageant.”  Whatever the case, they did start their own pageant and that is Miss USA, which has no talent category.

                As to our newest Miss America, Kira Kazantsev, and her questionable talent, I have a few things to say.  Mind you when I use questionable, it is only in reference to the questioning that it has received, not any opinion of her performance.  One thing about Miss America scoring that you need to know is the Interview category, which accounts for 25% of the final score, is the first interaction each contestant has with the judging panel.  This is where pageants are won because a favorable performance in interview inevitably colors the remaining scores from the judges.  As someone who has served as a judge at the state level and interview coach at the local and state level, I can assure you this is a reality.  And the interviews can be brutal.  Judges are allowed to ask any question of the contestants, from controversial topics in the news to their opinions about any number of provocative issues.   Because despite what you may think, the Miss America system is hiring a spokesperson; not simply crowning a beauty queen.  Your talent, while important, isn’t the deciding factor.  If you are a singer, you may sing at 30% of your appearances.  If your talent is any of the long list of unusual talents that have won the crown, not so much.  There have been trampoline acrobatics, dramatic monologues, poetry recitations, directing the Miss America Orchestra, and playing marimba, flute or violin and the infamous hula dance that many have mentioned.

                What you may not know about that “hula dancing” Miss America, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko of Michigan, was that she spent her year traveling the country bringing focus to hospice care, specifically patients with AIDS, as she was an Oncology Nurse.  Did you get that?  She talked about AIDS.  In 1988.  Well before most of the country was comfortable acknowledging it much less doing something about it.  And this was before the requirement for public service.  It was due to Miss Rafko’s work that the pageant implemented the Platform portion of the system where each contestant at the local, state and national level is required to log hundreds of volunteer hours simply to meet competition criteria.

                Since we didn’t see Ms. Kazantsev’s interview I can only believe that it was a crucial factor in her winning the pageant.  Her talent wasn’t overly impressive but it was different and it was current and it showed many young women that you don’t have to sing opera to compete. 

                Additionally, once the Top 5 is chosen, all the previous scores are erased and the young ladies are ranked by the judges according to who they think should be Miss America, First Alternate and so on.  The young lady with the most points after that ranking, regardless if she squeaked or streaked into the Top 5, will win the crown.  Public speaking and the ability to think on your feet are incredibly important.  And before you start saying, “Remember that girl that sounded so dumb…” I ask you to go to YouTube and look for those videos and realize those were Miss USA and Miss Teen USA contestants.  Miss America contestants are poised, well-spoken and intelligent.  And whatever you feel about her victory, I am withholding judgment until I see how well I feel she will do, based on my impression of her answer to a very tough on-stage question.  Couple that with the fact her platform focuses on domestic violence, I can’t think of a more appropriate and timely spokesperson for our nation.

                And that is all I am saying.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

If you can get lean from reading, I'm headed toward skinny

                One of my favorite books is Cheaper by the Dozen by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank Gilbreth, Jr.  I also like the movie but only the one from the 1950s, not the re-make with Steve Martin.  The only two things that these movies have in common are the title and the fact that there are 12 children present.

                Anyone who has ever read this book, and the sequel Belles on their Toes, knows of their parents (Frank and Lillian Gilbreth) had an interest and careers in motion study and efficiency.  I never gave it much thought other than being impressed they had devised ways to teach their children everything from the most efficient way to take a bath, memorize the planets or committ to memory complex math formulas. 

The Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, where your humble narrator works, is on a lean journey.  And I’m not talking about those horrible boot camp competitions about who lost more weight or ran more miles or other such nonsense.  I like to be competitive in areas where I can excel like Miss America or Music trivia or even single-handedly raising the level of fashion at a facility with 4,000 employees.  Every.  Day.  That is a skill, people.  Anybody can cut out carbs for a length of time before they become angry and start attacking people.  I think maybe these ISIS folks just need a Snickers or a some Doritos.  No?  Then you explain that whole mess to me.

The VA’s lean journey is one of looking for efficiency, for the best way to do anything, from taking blood samples to cleaning patient rooms to buying items for home use to training staff.  And lean isn’t an acronym.  It means just what you think; cutting fat or waste.  And that may mean time, paperwork, meetings, steps, whatever is unnecessary or repetitive.  Like me having to tell you to buy my book (A Gone Pecan).  My last royalty check was for $6.39 so thank you to the 6 people who bought an e-book.  I don’t know where that 39 cents came from, but the Starbucks on California Avenue thanks you, too.

I’ve been reading a biography of Cheaper’s mother, Dr. Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and have learned so much that is germane to my journey as a lean learner and leader.  Yes, your fearless Dustin is the leanest leader in Palo Alto, by the Toyota definition, not those hateful people that created the body mass index chart. This is the thinnest I’ve been since I was wearing my Winnie the Pooh mock turtleneck in kindergarten in 1975 and they have the nerve to call me overweight.  Rude, I tell you.  Rude!

Dr. Gilbreth was originally from the Bay Area, back in the early 1900s when Oakland was still fairly agrarian and not the bullet-riddled bedroom community it has become.  And, yes William Cassidy, I know that Lake Merritt is a “safe” area in Oakland but I’m not dodging gunfire to eat at that restaurant again.  Those chilaquiles weren’t THAT great.  She was among the first to combine the use of psychology within engineering and was awarded her PhD in Industrial Psychology (from Brown University) in 1915, which was the first degree awarded in that field.  Additionally, her fatigue and motion studies helped develop the field that is now called ergonomics.  And not to get all nerdy on you, but HOW COOL IS THAT?!?

This is why I love reading non-fiction.  I can read and learn things to actually implement in my life to make myself and those around me even better.  And these are things that aren’t theoretical, this is reportage on people who actually did things and taught and impacted lives.  Fiction is great for when I want to withdraw into a make believe world, but I don’t have enough time to do that and impact those around me in a way that I feel is significant in the limited amount of time I have on the planet.  I turn two score and four years old on October 2 which is at best middle-aged for someone whose most recent ancestors considered gravy a beverage.  It would be helpful if I died at 88 because, according to my 401K, I will have a significant nest egg when I retire if I wait until the 35th of Never-uary.  True story.

And I guess that is all I’m saying for now, other than go read some non-fiction.  I’ve got lots of suggestions, if you are so inclined to ask.