Monday, March 30, 2015

Residual Sparkle from the Proximity to Jewels

                This past weekend my college held Homecoming, as we do each spring.  Unfortunately, the timing just didn’t work out this year and I was very sad to miss this wonderful event.
                Whenever anyone meets me, they always ask where I’m from; usually because of my accent.  When presented with that question, I never know what to say.  As we have discussed before, my parents were nomadic Southern Baptists and we moved on the average of every two years until I graduated high school and I have moved about that often through college and my career.
                Since I am not from anywhere specific and people try their best to pinpoint the exact source of my finely muddled Southern accent, I usually say, “I was born in Louisiana and grew up in Mississippi and East Texas”.  I graduated high school in Tylertown, Mississippi, but I didn’t move there until the summer between my sophomore and junior years, so I don’t necessarily feel that hometown connection.  Don’t get me wrong, I have connections to very special people who I love and with whom I stay in touch but Tylertown itself doesn’t foster a sense of place for me.  In my life, home is a nebulous concept, but when I take a deep breath and I ask myself, what is the one place in the world I feel at home, I am transported to the lovely and historic campus of Mississippi University for Women.
                MUW or, The W, as we call it, is where I came into myself as a person; where I grew up (a little bit); where I found out it was okay to be me.  I won’t get into the details as there are far too many memories to disclose so I will talk about muscle memory.  The heart is a muscle and my heart is at The W.  Columbus proper may house the school, but The W’s campus is where I find my roots.
                I will be eternally grateful to Andi Simmons for suggesting I attend Scholar’s Day in 1990.  About to graduate from Southwest Mississippi Community College and unsure of where to go and afraid to admit I was lost, I ignored the questions of my father about going to a “woman college” and headed to Columbus.  I enjoyed the weekend and even volunteered at the concession stand at the dance getting to know Rosemary Hayslett in the process.  She convinced me to come to school there and introduced me to Dr. Clyda Rent, who graciously offered scholarships and grants that covered all my expenses except chili cheese fries.  And with that, I embarked on a life-changing adventure.
                The first public university for women in America, MUW has been referred to as a jewel in Mississippi for many, many years.  Their focus on educating and empowering women is intact and as one of the “smart men, too” who were fortunate enough to spend time there, I am grateful that The W’s mission, and name, remain unchanged.
                When men are empowered, they focus on conquering.  When women are empowered, they focus on empowering others.   And empower me they did.  I arrived at my new home a loud, dorky, brightly-colored mama’s boy with a false bravado that was misinterpreted by many as arrogance.  My need for acceptance was palpable; my use of Halston Z-14 was asthma-inducing. 
                I have an exceptional memory, which is both good and bad.  The good is that I distinctly remember friendships and crushes and outings to the trestle, quasi-illegal tunneling, midnight snack runs, dancing at The Club and Classix and paying for Taco Bell with coins we found in the ashtrays of our cars.  I cherish all those times I stayed up all night having the most amazing conversations about life and everything and nothing.  Conversely, I can close my eyes and picture with uncomfortable lucidity each time I betrayed a confidence, gossiped out of jealousy or hatefulness, held a grudge, kept secrets and told secrets, had my heart broken and broke someone else’s heart; all those things that make us blush with embarrassment when we allow ourselves to remember.      
               Throughout my three years, these jewels, my jewels, always forgave and afforded me acceptance on a scale never before imagined or experienced.   They taught me it was okay to be me and we could be broken together and be amazing together because at the end of the day we were together.  Twenty-two years later, that sense of togetherness lingers.
                Most of my influential teachers and mentors have been women and I don’t know if that was by happenstance or design but I have learned so much about looking at the world from a woman’s point of view, because, make no mistake, it is a different view; a needed view.
           In the last few years those in leadership positions in federal service, have been encouraged to embrace servant leadership as the right way to lead.  And I agree.  What I find humorous is servant leadership, at its very roots, is simply teaching men to think and act more like women.  To nurture, to not focus on who gets credit, to stop fighting for power and fight for what's right, to share leadership, to stop trying to be perfect and simply try to shine…like a jewel. 
             I will forever thank God for placing me in the exact spot at the precise moment that would change the course of my life.  If you know me, you know I’m a little on the sparkly side and while that didn’t start at MUW, the residual effects of my time amongst these wonderful jewels makes my sparkle so much deeper because MUW gave me clarity of self and of purpose.
            It’s a unique experience being an MUW alum and it’s not something that is easily explainable to those who aren’t.  There is an unpayable debt I owe these phenomenal women (and men) and it is something my heart won’t forget and even when I’m not with them in person, I am forever celebrating my connection to the long blue line. 
            And that’s all I’m saying for now.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Stool-Kicker" is the new "Awesome"

               Yesterday I was honored to welcome the participants of the Leadership Development Institute to the Long Beach VA.  This is a program designed to create the next generation of leaders from VA facilities in California and Nevada.  When I get these opportunities I always strive to inspire others to get excited about learning and growing.  And you know I took more than my allotted minutes.
                Whenever I have the opportunity to speak to an audience of one or many, I want to challenge them to be bold, creative and passionate.  I tell them to look around and see what’s missing and then fill that slot; whatever it may be.  Be the change you want to see.  Be the passion you can’t find.  Be the creativity that you think is sorely lacking.  And never be afraid to display your talents.  Own your awesomeness, I always say.  And The Dad would agree.  His most famous saying, not related to flatulence or food, is, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s a fact.”
                I have some musical talent.  I sing, play the trumpet and can dance like no Baptist ever should, y’all.  And it’s a family thing; music, not dancing, although in the spirit of full disclosure, my mother did teach me how to do The Stroll, The Twist and The Mashed Potato to the tunes of the American Graffiti soundtrack.    I guess we were Methodists on Saturdays?
               I have always loved music; singing, dancing, listening, you name it.  My tastes run the gamut from Christian and country to folk and dance music, both hits of the 80s and club music from the 90s. I also love four-part harmony.  Prior to 6th grade I thought the only music that existed was the Beach Boys and the Statler Brothers.  My mother stated it was her car; her music.  I love to sing tenor in a mixed quartet or alto when it’s an all-male quartet.  The point is I love me some music, y’all.  Can I get an Amen?  
                Whenever I think of music I can’t help but remember Ms. Neva Jean Oates, music teacher extraordinaire at Bogata Junior High.  You want to talk about passion?  How about a woman who would pound out the melody to any song you could name, while yelling chord changes to the beginner guitarists and keyboardists, who were sharing the stage with vocalists, both lead and back-up?  I can picture her now, just going to town playing and yelling, “C! B flat! G!” and the musicians would strum or finger the note until the next one was yelled.  It was fun and riotously entertaining.
                I have mentioned Bogata, TX many times and I mention it again as this was a tiny, tiny, tiny town chock full of talent; not to mention our tiny, tiny, tiny sister city, Talco.  There were so many student bands at our schools that the year-end Variety Show was a musical extravaganza. 
               As a member of the briefly existing Pine Branch Boys, I feel my musical roots are here.  If memory serves our group was formed for the sole purpose of a barnstorming tour of not just Bogata Elementary/Jr. High but also Deport.  That’s right, y’all.   I was on tour for exactly one day.  Try not to be jealous.  My rendition of Alabama’s “Roll On” brought cheers and applause unheard of until, at the very least, the Rodeo.
                There were other bands that were more legitimate, meaning they had a name and t-shirts and sometimes even backdrops.  My memory is sometimes cloudy, from the Aqua Net haze of the 80s, but I remember an all-girl group called Midnight Lace, a country/pop band named Stardust, a hard rock group with the interesting moniker Plexus and a country/crossover group called The Derricks; there are others I’m sure I am forgetting.  And I won’t bother to try and recite all the members, but I’ll throw out a few names like Allen Dale Huddleston, Marty Burns, Kendra Moore, Ray Lou Damron, Matt Case, Jody Thornton, Donita Lewis.
                I remember one unforgettable performance at the Variety Show in 1980-something.  The Rebel Flag Corps had finished their routine to “Addicted to Love” for which the previously mentioned Wood Sisters and I were costume designers and assistant choreographers.  The performers were resplendent in white shorts and white ripped sweatshirts as an homage to Jennifer Beals, with matching neon tank tops and socks.   My bangs are starting to feather just thinking about it.
              Tricia Duffer was normally the lead singer for The Derricks, but for this particular song, Tim J. Wood, pianist and the Wood Sister’s brother, was in the spotlight.  It was a cover of Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and Mr. Wood displayed about eleventy-seven kinds of passion when during his piano solo, he stood, kicked back his stool and finished that song standing up, y’all.  I remember thinking, “I have never been so passionate that I kicked a stool on stage in front of people.  I need to get more out of life.”
                Now I’m not saying that was a turning point in my life, but I will say that for some reason I still remember it, so draw your own conclusions.  They always say to dance like no one is watching and I agree. But don’t forget someone is always watching, so make it good, y’all.  Show out a little bit.  You never know what could happen.
                And that’s all I’m saying for now.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What's bucket list in French?

              This past week a friend was requesting bucket lists and I decided to develop mine and send it her way.  Coincidentally, I was preparing a presentation/training for the administrative leadership at my hospital because we are kicking off a new era of process improvement and I am the guru of all things processed and improved.  My presentation focuses on VA-TAMMCS, a process improvement framework used in the Department of Veterans Affairs.  I won’t bore you with details, but it is a great way to help you identify a problem, develop a solution and, once you arrive at that solution, a way to sustain and continually improve it. 
               Still in the throes of my creative high, I put much thought into what I truly want to achieve in approximately 5½ years.  This length of time will find me standing as close to age 50 as I can be without 50 asking pointed questions about romantic intentions.
              In the next 67 months I want to:

1.      Complete my visitation to all 50 states which would require me to travel, voluntarily, to North and South Dakota.  South Dakota at least has Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse carving thing, which begs the questions, is there anything else to do there besides carving things into mountains and is that a requirement before you can leave?  North Dakota’s claim to fame seems to be “we’re not Canada” so you see how excited I am sur cet emplacement (it’s French…because it’s Canada).

2.      Publish my blog as a book. I would like to think is funny enough to make me peripherally wealthy, or at least help me pay off my car.  I have no desire for fame.  I don’t need the microscopic view of my life bandied about in the press.  Most authors are not recognizable in person except maybe Stephen King and all it got him was run over by a car in Maine.

3.      Visit Western Europe but only the countries where I have friends or relatives because I don’t want to pay for a hotel.  A childhood of vacations spent sleeping on blankets (we called them pallets) piled on the floors of friends/relative’s homes is something I just don’t want to stop.  It’s so much more fun, n’est-ce pas?

4.      Obtain my PhD in Organizational Psychology and Leadership.  I love to learn and love to teach and the more you learn about people and the hows and whys of their thoughts and behaviors, the better you can be at showing them how to be as awesome as possible.  And isn’t that what we all want: to be awesome?

5.      Have mastered my current position and have come to a decision about becoming Director of a VA hospital.  In this climate, I’m not sure I want the horrendous stress that job entails.  I simply want to improve the work the VA does and make life better for our Veterans, in whatever role I am most effective.

6.      Have performed stand-up comedy at least once, just to see if I could do it and if it would be fun.  And if it gets me a book deal, so be it.

7.      Have a closer, deeper relationship with God.  I know He wants me to do something with my life story (as a tale both cautionary and redemptive), I’m just not sure what and, to be honest, I am a bit nervous.  I think He gave me the gift of communication for a reason; I just need to find the right platform and decide on the appropriate angle.  I already have a title: If Jesus has a Last Nerve...

8.      Own a piece of real estate.  As a single man with no dependents, no real estate and a six figure income, I am in the worst tax bracket possible; it's like 94.6% or something.  I have thought of declaring myself a corporation but that was vetoed by that very smart young lady at H&R Block who offered me, as a consolation, a free fish taco coupon from Rubio's Fresh Mex.  I also thought of proposing to someone for this very reason (tax purposes, not free tacos).  I feel pretty sure I would be better off with a piece of property.
9.   Stop inserting random phrases in foreign languages into conversations or blog posts.  This was recommened by different members of my family who are tired of having to google things I say.  Quelle pain, they  would most certainly not say.  I'm not going to be successful at this one.
      The first step in achieving any goal is to take an idea and actually write it down; then it's no longer an idea, it's an action plan.  Now that my plan is published, I am going to hold myself accountable for the achievements.  And I hope you’ll hold me accountable as well.  I relish your thoughts and prayers and encouragement and suggestions.
          And before I stop talking, can I ask what’s on your bucket list?  Because if you’re not dead; you’re not done.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Banquet Behavior for Baptists

                This weekend I was reminded of a simpler time, during my formative years, when a brief, fleeting romance was the most color-coordinated of my life and I thought I should use that as a gentle foray into schooling the tacky masses on proper attire for a date.
                When I was in 8th grade, we were living in the bustling metropolis of Bogata, TX, home of the alliterative food-related businesses, Tip Top and Kwik Korner.  We had moved into Bogata proper from the village of Fulbright and I was feeling rather fancy as our neighbors were more posh than those previous.  In Fulbright, our neighbors were cows, hay bales and the occasional wolf.  In Bogata we lived across the street from a judge and a church converted into a home and next door to the Wood family homes, both residential and funeral.  Two of the three Wood offspring were my besties; the twin sisters Denise and Juliann (Hey, y’all!).
                During my two years in Red River County, I had acquired, and somehow lost, a fair number of girlfriends; otherwise known as “girls who I was going with”, to use ‘80s Texas Teen vernacular.  Christy Northcutt, Eyvette Hannah, Cindy Davis, Leslie Johnson were all lovely girls who had responded positively to my hand written note asking them to check ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but then wandered away to other activities, I suppose.  George Strait didn’t invent it, y’all, he just recorded it.
                In an attempt to provide G-rated activities for youth,  a Valentine Banquet had been planned at Bogata Baptist and I was to acquire a date and the young lady I chose to send the note to was none other than Becky White, ginger pianist, flautist and wearer of “Annie” eyeglass frames.  It was a match made in the hallway of the church, literally, because that’s mostly where I saw her other than at school.  They lived near the nursing home which was not far as the crow flies, but since I was walking, it was too far.
                One day, a week or so in advance of the event, Becky called and asked if I had selected my outfit for the occasion.  I informed her that I would be wearing my newest favorite outfit; a Christmas gift from my grandmother, the sainted Mama Dot.  On top, a burgundy and slate grey Ocean Pacific (OP) sweater with a thin rainbow stripe across the chest.  Bear in mind that OP was a very popular brand in 1983 and this had been purchased in Dallas, people.  Dallas!  I paired this with grey brushed-corduroy trousers and felt that I was just about the fanciest boy in all of Red River County, which truth be told wouldn’t have been difficult a feat to accomplish.  Not wearing boots would have immediately placed me in the Top Five.
                When I arrived at the White residence on the night of the event, Ms. Becky walked out wearing a grey dress with a burgundy jacket that matched my outfit exactly!  I couldn’t believe it.  Her mother, the talented Alice Ann, had made her outfit especially for the occasion.  These were my people, people.  I felt sure that we would summarily be crowned king and queen of the banquet, because Baptists love a crown, y’all.  By the way, we did not win the crowns, but it may have been the last time they did that because several girls who also did not win, left the room in a flurry of tears and emotion, which is frowned upon unless you are “feeling the Spirit” and even then there are limits.  Baptists are very British when it comes to public displays.
                However, Ms. White and I did make a dashing pair and I remember having a thoroughly grand time for what couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours because (1) we were 12 and (2) we were Baptist.  Only Methodists and other heathens were out too far past dark.
              My point is if 8th graders in the wilds of East Texas can get our act together, you millennials can surely dress appropriately for a date.  I wouldn’t wear some of the outfits I saw last night (on my Fit Bit-inspired loop down 2nd street) to take out the garbage.  I am more color-coordinated while sleeping.  Yoga pants are only allowed in yoga class and I’m betting dollars to donuts that you weren’t at yoga.  And even if you were, that is past tense so change your outfit already.  And booty-shorts should only be worn if you’ve already given up on life because your mother named you Tanqueray.  And gentlemen, on the off-chance your date is dressed to the nines, you should at least strive for sixes.  For a frame of reference, t-shirts with jeans and flip-flops is a minus four.  See how I’m using math as an grown-up?
               Suffice it to say the relationship between Ms. Becky and myself lasted for a little while or maybe it ended after the next pep rally, I can’t be sure.  But I remember she was kind, bright, and talented and a red-head.  That’s a pretty complete package, y’all.  Oh, and she also had an in-ground pool.  I probably should have proposed.
              And that’s all I’m saying for now.