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Archive for August, 2010

Astronomy

“Do you know what stars really are?”

“No.”

“They’re actually big balls of fire in the sky.”

“Really?!”

“Yep.”

“You mean, like God took little pieces of the sun and… and… and… and…”

“…”

“…”

“Rolled ‘em up like boogers and flicked ‘em off into the sky”

“Nuh uh!”

“Seriously.”

“….”

“‘Night, Sugar.”

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First day as a Shining Star

First day of school today:
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First day of school last year:
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First day of school 2 years ago:
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Loyalty today

We’re sitting there on the coffee shop’s patio and I ask my friend why he thinks that I abhor and resent my former employer so much. I interrupt before he starts in and instead ask, “what did I do wrong?”

Without overanalyzing, sugar-coating or trying to appeal to any kind of emotion that he thought I might be having at the time, he hit the nail on the head. And it wasn’t as painful as I thought it was going to be. He said, “At some point, conscious of it or not at the time, you realized that there was a game being played. And this game’s rules far from aligned with your core values. And, again, conscious of it or not, you decided to play in that game for whatever reason or reasons. So, it sounds to me that you went wrong when you didn’t get out soon enough. You played in the game with the expectation that you were going to win, or that things would just wind up being okay for you.”

And after he said that, I knew, almost to the exact hour a year and a half ago when that game began. And that’s when I should have quit that job. That last sentence was painful and hard as hell to write because I’m the farthest thing from a quitter, but that’s the way “the game” is played these days.

I wish my dad were still here so we could talk for hours about integrity and loyalty. He raised me to be a hard worker, to be loyal, faithful and to provide for my family. Assuming I live to be 10 years older than my dad was when he died, I’ll probably still have never worked as hard as he did. In my mind, there’s still a part of me that thinks I would have to explain to my dad how the working world is “these days,” but then I have to remember that he was subjected to demotions laid out by self-entitled middle management, the concept of loyalty being squashed and eventually being downsized after 30+ years or undying faithfulness. It wasn’t a game to my dad – it was the only way he’d known how to live and to provide for his family for his entire adult life. The job world had become a game after my dad reached the age of 66 and, although it wasn’t his plan, he was able to retire and be comfortably done, albeit sick at heart after the game ended.

Last week Elise and I were in our lawyer’s very ornate conference room complete with a library, expensive paintings and dark, oak paneled walls. It’s a rich and intimidating room. Sitting in this conference room reminded me of the few occasions where I found myself sitting outside the principal’s office when I was in the 7th grade. Whatever was about to transpire in the next hour would be temporarily life changing.

I would have never yelled across the table, “This is fucking bullshit!” to my junior high principal. But I did to my lawyer. That’s when, in my mind, the game had changed. That’s when I resolved to the fact that I would be a free agent. I wasn’t mad at our lawyer. I was mad at the reason why my wife and I were sitting in a lawyer’s conference room in the first place. I was mad because I had decided to fight fire with fire in a game that was based exclusively on corporate lack of loyalty. I was mad because after having only worked for this employer for a little over 3 years, I was having to subject my wife and myself to so much angst and unneeded stress. You see, the first couple years at this job were great for the company and me, however those last 15 months tainted the entire job for me. With the help of Elise, I’ve maintained my faith and some semblance of a positive attitude, but I left the lawyer’s office saying, “this just makes me sick at heart. There is no loyalty.”

Over the past six months I’ve read a lot of books, more than I can remember having read in a over a decade. Last night I picked up an unread book that’s been sitting on the bookshelf since 1997. My parents bought this book for me when I was in college. A book titled “Die Broke” wasn’t going to do this college student much good when my job at the Olive Garden afforded me barely enough money for rent and booze.

I try to put more fiction and classics between any self-help, financial or any other kind of non-fiction books as I’ve grown accustomed to my reading in the evenings as an opportunity for my mind to interpret, wander and paint pretty pictures. Last night I hesitantly cracked open to page 1 of the never-opened book and quickly found myself excitedly turning each page until I’d devoured the first 3 chapters when I finally needed (not wanted) to put it down so I could go to sleep at 1 a.m.

I highlighted these paragraphs from Chapter 1:

When you were growing up you were always told that if you got a good education you’d get a good job; if you did what was asked of you in that job you’d be secure; and if you did your job well you’d get raises and promotions. Under such circumstances it became easy for your job to represent yourself; somehow what you did for a living reflected on your value as a human being and the values you held. “Job” became an old-fashioned, blue-collar kind of word, a term used by your grandmother, which you replaced with more abstract terms like “career” and “work.”

This made a lot of sense at a time when government was subsidizing higher education through low-interest loans and when corporations were expanding the ranks of middle management. As a nation, our attitudes toward work had shifted from it being for God’s glory or our own individual comfort to it being a way to judge our status in society or to achieve personal growth. With such a work ethic in place, organizational loyalty and identification with our jobs made perfect sense.

But in a new world, a world in which there’s no such thing as corporate loyalty, a world where young people graduating from good colleges can land positions only as temps, a world where raises are rare and barely keep pace with the cost of living, viewing yourself and your job as one is dangerous psychologically and financially.

The answer is to quit today: mentally separate yourself from your employer and realize that you’re on your own. Abandon any remaining tinges of loyalty to your employer (who long ago abandoned any sense of obligation to you) and instead think of your job and yourself the same way free-agent athletes do: They retain their integrity by doing their best and being part of the team, but they’re also focused on getting the best financial deal they can. You should do the same. Once you’ve quit in your head, being fired is no longer a real threat: You’re already a free agent on the lookout for your next opportunity.

I also think most of us are making far too many demands on our jobs. It’s rare today for a job to be secure and rewarding both emotionally and financially. I suggest you instead adopt a mercantile approach: focus on what you’re doing as a job — that word your grandmother used — not necessarily a career, and view your job as primarily an income-generating device; any other benefits are purely secondary. Having a mercantile approach doesn’t mean obsessing over money. It simply means using your job to generate the money you need to pursue your personal goals, rather than looking to the job itself to fulfill those goals. A career is simply a series of such jobs viewed from above and placed in some kind of context. And life’s work need not be what is done on the job.

That, for me, is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true. I’ve always made it known to friends and family that it irks me anytime someone immediately asks, upon meeting me for the first time, “so, what do you do for a living?” Although they might be pretty close, my personal values and goals aren’t the exact same as those of a “job” or an employer, therefore I don’t allow a job to define who I am as a person, and that’s generally how I interpret the “what do you do for a living?” question, although the person asking may just be genuinely interested in how I exchange my time for money.

As far as loyalty goes, I’ve been burned. It’s like an emotionally brutal breakup or divorce where I’d swear that I’ll never love again. From what I’ve read in the book thus far, I’ve seen in words what had only been underdeveloped notions in the far reaches of my psyche, notions that I’d subconsciously hoped I’d never have to allow to surface and massage. But it makes sense — in 1997 and today.

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Summer series downhill Plasma cars

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How to grill a hamburger (so you can confidently say you know how to grill a hamburger)

I’ve finally been to enough backyard “barbecues” where burger patties the size of half dollars are served up and I have to take six bites of bun and condiments to ever get to the beefy goodness of the burger. If you’re going to press and grill your own hamburgers, there are some fundamentals you should have permanently engrained in your grill master repertoire. I’ve been guilty of assuming that most of these would be common knowledge, and I have been proven wrong time and time again.

The beef

Fatty ground beef makes the best burger. If you want a good burger, get ground beef (sirloin, chuck, what-have-you) with 15-20% fat content. Fat is the binder and provides all of that juicy, flavorful burger goodness. Fat is what allows you to form your burger patties so they don’t fall apart when you put them on the grill. If you find yourself with only the extra lean stuff in your fridge, you’ll need to add some kind of binder. In the past I’ve used bacon fat, butter or an egg.

I’ve found that the pre-wrapped, long shelf life “tubes” of ground beef just aren’t good for much beyond dehydrating for beef jerky or for tacos where the seasoning is going to mask most, if not all of the flavor anyhow. I buy the stuff that the grocer’s butcher grinds in the store. For you Austinites, Newflower Market has the most flavorful ground beef in my opinion. Even better: get to know the folks at your local meat market (I’m guilty of not doing this).

Preparation

You know those 1/4 lb. 100% Certified Black Angus (you could probably omit the “g”) burgers on the menus at TGIFridays, Chili’s, Applebee’s, etc? Look at the fine print: “Weight before cooking”. A burger is going to lose a lot of its weight in the cooking process in the form of water in the meat protein and the fat that drips off. You probably lose 10-25% of the weight and size of your burger patty by the time you pull it off the grill. Compensate for that when forming your raw patties. When I press burgers, I make a 1/2 lb. raw beef patty.

Pressing

When forming your burger patties, make them BIG. One of my culinary pet peeves is getting an itty bitty burger patty lost in a bunch of bun and lettuce. By the time I’m done chowing through hamburger buns to get to the patty, I don’t even want the meaty burger anymore. Form your patties 10-20% larger than your buns. I usually press them down to about 3/4″

Much like the gravitational pull of the earth, when a hamburger patty loses weight in the form of moisture, the patty gravitates toward its own center; meaning that the patty gets smaller in circumference. When you’re done cooking your burger patty, it should be the same size (if not slightly larger) than the circumference of the hamburger bun on which it’s going to sit.

Grilling

If you can, grill on wood or coal. If you have a gas grill, get a little smoker box to infuse some smokey flavors. And don’t pay for wood if you don’t have to. Go out into your yard (or go for a walk) and snap off a couple twigs from an oak or hickory tree. You’re not wanting to smoke your burgers, just hit them with a little flavor. It makes a big difference if you only have a gas grill.

Throw your burgers on the grill, directly over high heat and remember the order on which you put them on the grill. I always use the left to right, top to bottom method (start at the far left of the grill and move to the right and then down a row repeating left to right — like reading a book). Let the burgers get kissed by the flames. Close the lid. Let them smoke up a bit, but keep close so you don’t start a grease fire or scorch your burgers. Let them sit on one side until you see the moisture pooling up on the top sides of the patties and you see that the undersides have a good sear. Flip your patties. This is when you should start getting some good flames licking up. The fat will now be healthily dripping off of your patties and onto the burners below. That white smoke that’s billowing up is what the American Dream smells like. It’s what makes your neighbors stop in their tracks, take a deep breath and say, “Awww man, that smells goooood! Somebody’s grillin’!”

If there’s not grease popping off your burgers and flames shooting up around the patties, firmly press down on the patties with your spatula. That will release lots of grease from the burgers and down onto the burners. Then you’ll see the flames and smoke and the smell that can only mean that you’re doing some serious burger grilling!

Doneness

I won’t turn down a pink burger, but in my book, the only burger is a done burger. If your patties have a 15-20% fat content, they’ll be plenty juicy if they’re grey in the middle after being cooked. The easiest way to tell if a burger’s done is to take your index finger and gently but firmly press it into the center of the patty. Use your face (and your clean finger) as a gauge:

Cheek: raw
Nose: medium rare
Chin: medium
Forehead: done

When the center of the burger has the same “give” as my chin does when I press on it, I start pulling burgers off the grill. Keep in mind that meat continues to cook after you take it off the grill. Meat should also rest for a few minutes after being cooked. Remember that gravitation pull thing? While the meat is being subjected to extremely high temperatures, a lot of the moisture is being pulled into the center of the patty. As the meat begins to cool, the proteins begin to relax and the moisture is released and distributed throughout the patty again.

Raw or undercooked ground beef is a breeding ground for bacteria. Ground beef is just that – ground up beef. That means that the surface areas of the beef (that have been exposed to bacteria) are mixed in with the rest of the meat, so bacteria lives in and among the center parts of the patties. A steak, on the otherhand, is a cut of beef where only the outsides of the steak have been exposed to surface areas and bacteria, hence it being okay to eat a rare cut of beef so long as the edges have been seared to kill off the bacteria.

Eating

I like my burgers on a toasted sesame seed bun with mayonnaise, mustard, onion, sliced dill pickles, lettuce and jalapenos. How you eat yours is up to you. And I’m always open for an invite for a good burger!

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Earning the business again

Elise has been with a certain insurance agency for as long as I’ve known her. When we were married, I switched my auto policy to her agency. When we bought our house, we decided to use this same agency (with discounts applied) for our homeowners’ policy. Over the years, and even though it’s an insurance agency, we’ve had no memorable complaints. And they’re just a great local agency that I’m confident I can reach by phone when and if I need to.

However, I received an email yesterday that just didn’t sit well with me:

Josh,

We were reviewing your auto renewal, and noticed the defensive driving certificate we have on file has expired. This discount will be removed upon renewal. If you have taken defensive driving, please send us an updated certificate and we can reapply the discount. Let me know if you have any questions. Have a great day!

Jane Doe
Customer Service Representative

So I let the above email subconsciously marinate, and I tended to it this morning with a response:

Hi, Jane.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I would have hoped that you might have written:

“Josh,

We noticed the defensive driving certificate we have on file has expired. Ordinarily this discount would be removed upon renewal; however, since you’ve been such a valued customer over the years and haven’t made any claims in the past 12 months, we’d like to continue offering you and your family this discount. Please don’t hesitate to call or let us know if there is anything we can do to be of any assistance with your vehicle or homeowner’s policies.”

The above would have given me more of a warm and fuzzy, and incline me to call [my agent] to perhaps discuss setting up a life insurance policy once I get a new job lined up. I’m sure you can understand that right now is a tough time to be unemployed while having a family to support. The receipt of the email below, letting me know that I’ll be paying more on my insurance policy only makes me want to call the competition. I’d rather look for jobs than have to shop insurance policies, and I’d rather keep [you fine folks] as my insurance agency because you guys have been nothing short of fantastic in the past.

Please let me know if the above is an amenable agreement.

Thanks,

Josh

Half an hour later, I received the warm and fuzzy I was hoping for:

Josh,

First of all, let me apologize for my previous email. It was not my intention to upset you and not make you feel warm and fuzzy. After rereading it, I realized it was not the proper way to approach the situation. We do value you as a client and truly appreciate your business. I understand times are tough and sorry to hear that you are unemployed. I do understand how it feels to have a family to feed, and less income…my husband also lost his job last year. Luckily I have a great job here with [your agent]. I did reapply the discount for you, and your renewal premium will remain the same. I feel totally awful for making you feel bad. Again, I apologize. Please feel free to give us a call if you have any questions regarding your policies.

Jane

And Jane called me shortly after hitting send on her last email. She apologized profusely and reiterated that I was an important client. We even chatted for a few minutes about what her husband is doing now — he started his own business, and I told her that that was very admirable, and that I genuinely appreciated the phone call and the personal touch.

Even though I had to ask for it, our local insurance agency earned our business again, and now I’ll be more than happy to give them more of our business when the need arises.

When it’s all said and done, we’re only talking about roughly $20 per month either way. It turned out to be $20 in my favor, and in the end, everyone’s better for it. We saved money in the short-term, and the insurance agency will earn more of our money when we need to update our policy.

The simple moral: Take care of each other (clients, friends, colleagues, subordinates, strangers, superiors, whomever)

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My workspace

I happened upon this Lifehacker article on a minimal workspace and it struck a chord with me. I don’t know if it’s come about with maturity or just a general change in perspective and/or personality, but I seem to have started adopting a concept of minimalism. I’ll admit that I’m not the cleanest person, but I’d consider myself tidy and comfortable knowing that everything has its place. Within the past year, I’ve been diligent about removing tangible “clutter.” I’ll sell my things that I not longer use or need on craigslist. If whatever it is won’t sell, I’ll either give it to someone I know who wants it, donate it, or just simply throw it out.

As I type this, I have no mental inventory of anything that needs to be “dealt with.” For me, it’s comforting to be able to walk through the house, garage or yard without seeing something and thinking to myself, “oh, I need to do something with that.” This is not true for the attic – given that it’s August in Texas, I’m not about to go into the attic to see if there’s any of my stuff that needs to be purged.

For the past 4 months, I’ve been spending normal “work hours” at the desk in our home office; and I like to have my workspace tidy. And since I have too much time on my hands, I took a picture of my desk:

  1. Jade pup plant – because I’ve taken a need for slow explosions of beauty
  2. The Canon HV20 high definition camcorder that I’m selling on craigslist for $500
  3. A stack of legal paperwork, the homeowner’s association newsletter, notebook, receipt with notes on it
  4. The best computer I’ve ever had – 15″ MacBook Pro
  5. iCurve laptop stand
  6. iPhone 3GS (I use it exclusively for my phone — Elise insists that we have a landline for the house, so we have Ooma, which is free VoIP after purchasing the Ooma Hub)
  7. iPhone earbuds and USB cable
  8. Apple wireless keyboard
  9. Coffee before 9:30. Water the rest of the day
  10. I am a mouse snob. I think the Logitech MX Revolution is the most precise and comfortable wireless mouse ever made.
  11. Notice no cords on the floor? I ran a flat extension cord under the carpet (required a 2″ cut in the carpet) and below the baseboards. There is a surge protector mounted under the desk.

I like my workspace. I like the absence of clutter even better.

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Workout video

Maly and I were just kind of hanging out late this afternoon. First we played in her little pool and with water balloons out on the deck. After we were done, she wanted to go inside the house. While I tidied up the back yard, she sat on the couch and announced that she wanted to watch a movie.

“Daddy, I want to watch a movie!”

“pppbbbththth”

“PLEASE?!?!”

“Only if you do some jumping jacks.”

“No.”

“Okay.”

“…”

“…”

“Okay, how many jumping jacks do I have to do?”

“How ’bout 50″

“How ’bout ONE HUNDRED?!”

“Okay!”

They weren’t pretty, but she jumped up and down and clapped her hands above her head well over 100 times. She was ready to stop at my 30 count, but she persisted and did her jumping jacks. Then I talked her into doing some push ups.

It wasn’t intentional, but from now on, whenever she wants to watch a movie on my clock, she has to work for it.

And next time, I’ll be right there with her doing push ups, jumping jacks, sprints, or whatever we come up with.

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