Heat Waves

I just spent a few days back home.  I think I’ll always consider Wisconsin home, even though I’ve lived away longer than I ever lived there.  It’s been almost twenty years since I officially left home, almost 17 here in the Bay Area, and although I love the way the Northern California climate spoils me, there’s something reassuring about the cold of a Wisconsin winter.  It reminds me who I am, though my ability to capture what that means is rather like watching my breath freeze and disappear every time I exhale in the frozen air.

As I was leaving California, I couldn’t believe how bad my timing was – we were about to have a heat wave here, and the temperatures were going to be in the 70s, while I boarded a flight to the frozen tundra, bracing myself for the deep cold.  Turns out, though, there was a bit of a heat wave in Wisconsin, too.  It was in the 40s almost the entire time I was there.  The first day, though, the temperature hovered around 20.

While I’ve lived through many days significantly colder than that, 20 degrees is just cold enough to make you stiffen, to feel sharp pinpricks on exposed skin when the wind blows, and to curse the fact that you don’t have gloves or a hat to help fight back the advance of  invisible frozen fingers that grip you and hold you stiff as a board until you find some relief in the heat of a car or a warm living room.  Living through that kind of cold, day in and day out, breeds a sort of toughness, and comes with a warped sense of pride – it has something to do with survival, I think.  Or maybe I only see it that way because of the distance I now have.

I called my dad to wish him a Happy Birthday after I got home today, and I mentioned our Northern California heat wave.  He lives in Northern Illinois, and I wasn’t home long enough to visit him.  He said, “Well, we’re having a heat wave here, too, really.  It’s been in the 40s and we haven’t even had two inches of snow this year.”  “That’s nuts,” I replied.  “Well, it doesn’t hurt my feelings any,” he said, to which I began to laugh.  He joined me, both of us chuckling at the words he had chosen.  “I”m getting too old for snowmobiles, I sure as hell don’t want to shovel it, and I damn well hate to drive in it,” he continued.  “So it can stay this way as far as I’m concerned,” he finished.  And he’s lived in it all of his 59 years.

I often wonder why people stay in the harsher parts of the world when there are places more temperate, where Mother Nature is more accommodating, less of an adversary.  Then I go back to the cold.  I breathe it in deeply, very deliberately feeling the way it freezes the passageways it follows into my lungs, and a sense of familiarity settles in.  It’s that very cold comfort that reminds me of my roots, my family, my heritage, and I realize again that it’s home, and though I wasn’t meant to stay there, not everyone likes to leave home.

Dish washing rules from a gay man in a Mexican restaurant

In the summer of 1994, I got a job at a Mexican restaurant in the mall in Sheboygan.  It was interesting, in that every employee had to learn each of the three primary jobs – cook, bartender, and waiting tables.  That way, when someone called in sick, there was a larger pool of qualified people to convince to come in on their day off.  The first day I went in to work, I was a mess because the night before was the last night I’d see my girlfriend for the rest of the summer – she was going to Europe for a couple of months.  It wasn’t something I could talk about, because I was still petrified of people knowing I was gay back then.  I wasn’t out to many people – just my closest friends, my sister, and my uncle. Then, when I walked in for that first day of training, I recognized one of the guys that worked there from the local gay bar.  I could tell he recognized me, too, but we acted as though we had never met.  We didn’t speak a word of where we’d seen each other before, not even between the two of us when no one else was around.  That moment solidified for me the feeling of leading a double life in a way I’d never experienced before.

It was one thing not to be out to everyone around me, but generally that just meant I didn’t talk about certain things, or I stayed vague about the nature of a relationship.  It was another thing to look someone in the eye that under any other circumstances I’d have said, “Hey, how are you?” and gone on to have a normal friendly conversation with, and instead pretend I had no idea he existed before that moment.  In the end, I didn’t dwell on it for long, but the first few days were awkward.  I didn’t know the guy well – don’t even remember his name, even after working with him.  He was someone we saw at the bar, but didn’t talk to, for some reason.

He ended up training me on exactly how to wash the dishes when I worked in the kitchen.  There was a real science to it.  Three huge compartments in a metal sink came into play.  The first was filled with water so hot it almost burned your hands, but not quite.  It left them a screaming red, and I had to pull my hands out after every couple of dishes to tolerate the heat.  The second was filled with warm water that had some rinsing agent in it.  After scrubbing in the scalding water, I’d dunk the dishes in the chemically treated rinsing water, then dunk them into the third sink, which was full of plain old cold water.  It was the final rinse station.  As this guy trained me, he stressed just how important it was to dunk in the cold sink.  He explained with the utmost seriousness that the cold water broke down any last soap bubbles left on the dishes faster than warmer water would.  I thought that was crazy, but did as I was told.  I mean, come on, I was washing dishes either way – who really cared what steps I had to take?  Well, my secret gay acquaintance really cared.  He went on and on about it.  His relentless lecturing about cold water breaking down soap bubbles seemed so weird to me – why would anyone talk about it soooo much?

After I’d worked there a couple weeks, I finally felt comfortable enough with another employee to ask about the water thing, and found out that the secret gay guy felt so strongly about it because he thought he discovered this little known scientific fact on his own.  His endless praise of cold water for rinsing was actually his pride in his attention to detail being verbalized – his intellectual ability to look at a common situation that would seem as though it had no room for improvement, and find some way to make it better.  I was never convinced that it made any difference, but I had to give the guy credit for finding some warped sense of meaning in such a crummy job.

As I was finishing this post, I thought I better check to see if cold water does in fact rinse dishes better than hot water – I went to Google and began to type, “does cold water…” and auto-complete suggested that I might be searching for the answer to this question instead – “does cold water boil faster than hot water?”  Seriously?  That’s the most commonly searched for question about cold water?  I give up.

Copycat communication

I grew up in Wisconsin, where accents are thick and colloquialisms abound.  Where else do you drink from a bubbler?  For years, I went “down by” places, not “to” places.  Grilling was “frying out,” and I didn’t even hear it when people ended their sentences with, ” and so?”  It’s not quite as severe as Fargo, but it’s not far off, either.  I called a boat something more like “bow-ut” and shoes “shoo-uhs.”  Native Wisconsinites speak these words a bit faster than you probably just read them, but there is a slight hint of an extra syllable thrown in there, and it happens all the time.  I’m not sure exactly how I shed my accent, but I did, some years ago.  Most people can’t detect it, unless I’m really, really tired, or have had a lot too much to drink, and even then I only slip now and then.

I am, however, easily influenced by the speech of others.  I went to visit a friend in Oklahoma when I was around 12 or 13.  I stayed for a week and came home with a drawl.  I pick up terms other people use, most of the time oblivious to it until it’s too late and I sound like I’m copying them all the time.  What has surprised me lately, though, is how I’m being influenced by the people I work with.  And not in the way I might have suspected, adopting such words my boss uses, like “cycles” and “prosecute” which I’ve written about already.

First, let me say very clearly, I am not being critical or judgmental of the way anyone I work with speaks or doesn’t speak.  It simply is what it is, and it rubs off on me.  I work with more foreign people than native English speakers, especially if you count the hundred employees we have in China.  What’s crazy is that broken English is rubbing off on me.  It’s really hard to comprehend that I would just toss out all the grammar and vocabulary I’ve built in years of speaking and reading and writing, but I’m finding myself slipping into broken English in both speech and email.  It’s kind of nuts!

I catch myself writing things like, “Can you have team work on this today night?” or “Please have a look on this.”  So far, I’m catching and correcting these crazy sentences that are only crazy because English is my first language.  One guy whose English is fine still uses odd phrases now and then.  Instead of saying something happened a long time ago, he says “Remember long back when we talked about that?”  I have used the words “long back” in a conversation with him.  It could be worse.  An email I was copied on tonight had this sentence in it:  “Sorry about my misunderstand cause this idea so delay.”

In all seriousness, though, it is a real challenge to communicate effectively in my organization.  It’s not a challenge I am upset about – it’s a challenge I sincerely think is a good one for me.  I’ve studied diversity and the issues faced in global business – the communication challenges that not only have to do with language barriers, but significant cultural difference, and I am absolutely getting the biggest dose of both of those issues that I’ve ever gotten.  I’m determined to succeed in communicating with everyone, though, and I’m sincerely interested in understanding the cultural differences we all face.  Maybe that’s why I’m so easily influenced by the speech and writing – maybe I’m subconsciously trying to meet them on the terms I hear from them.  Whatever the cause, I will keep you posted on how my language continues to evolve, or devolve, as the case may be.

Jobs from my youth – The Downtown Club, 1993

A few weeks ago, I posted about a writing exercise in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories.  It had to do with creating a timeline for some period of your life, to help jar your memory about details and spawn some story ideas.  One of the things I did when I started my timeline was go through old tax records, which reminded me of various jobs I had when I was much younger.  There was a period between 1993 and 1995 where I reported income in two states for each of those tax years.  I moved a lot back then.  I was trying to find a way out of Wisconsin, and it took me a while to make that work.

In 1993, I reported income from five employers in Wisconsin, and one in Illinois.  All those jobs, and my income only came to $5436.18.  I wasn’t great at holding jobs back then.  Nothing made me happy, and I hadn’t developed the will power it takes to stick with something you don’t like.  In one job, I waited tables at what was a new restaurant/dance club in Sheboygan.  During the day, we opened for lunch, then closed for a couple hours to get ready for dinner.  At 9 0’clock, the dinner tables went away and the place turned into a night club.  I learned some interesting lessons at that job.  The Downtown Club billed itself as a fine dining restaurant, and back then, there weren’t many to be found in the area.  However, that also meant that those of us that worked there didn’t really know what fine dining was – not the food, not the service, certainly not different wines.

I did my best, but I remember a wealthy couple in for lunch one day.  I served their sandwiches or salads, or whatever it was the ordered, and they were drinking coffee.  As I made my rounds to see if anyone wanted refills, the wealthy woman nodded that she did.  I picked up her coffee cup, and topped it off.  She told me condescendingly this was not the way to refill someone’s coffee cup.  I should lift the cup on the saucer, so as not to touch the cup itself.  I clenched my teeth and bit my tongue instead of apologizing and walked away quickly, hoping they would soon leave and I would still get a half-way decent tip.  I felt a certain shame that I didn’t know those fine details about how things are done for wealthy people.  All my coffee-pouring skills were learned from the overworked waitresses at IHOP who poured my coffee only occasionally after they left the “Bottomless pot” on my table.  Even then, I was lucky if they didn’t pour the coffee in my lap as they leaned across the table to reach my mug.  I’ve never completely gotten over the bitterness I felt at people who had money, coming from a mostly lower-middle class background myself.  I still carry a chip on my shoulder, even when I choose to go to fancy restaurants now, and money is no longer a big issue in my life.

Another lesson from my job at the Downtown Club was how to tend bar, Wisconsin-style.  I’ve learned since then that the way people make drinks in Wisconsin doesn’t really match the way they make them anywhere else.  For instance, the Old Fashioned is a very popular Wisconsin drink.  Age doesn’t matter – everyone drinks them.  You can order an Old Fashioned with either whiskey or brandy, and order it either sweet or sour.  This is a departure from the traditional Old Fashioned, which calls for no soda whatsoever.  In Wisconsin, though, sweet means put 7-up in the drink, and top it off with a cherry wrapped in half an orange slice, impaled on a plastic sword.  Sour means put sour soda in the drink.  I have yet to find any other place where “sour” means sour soda.  When I first came to California, I’d order a sour drink – Amaretto Sour, Whiskey sour, whatever – and the bartenders put that horrible sweet and sour mix in the drink – the kind you’d find in a margarita.  The first time I took a sip, I almost sprayed it all over the people standing in front of me.  

50/50 was a popular sour soda used as a drink mixer.  It was a grapefruit & lime soda, and all bars had it.  It’s soda, but not as sweet as 7-up.  I have no idea why this soda seemed to be such a regional drink.  The closest thing I’ve been able to find in California is called Collins Mix, and it’s not available in bars.  I eventually switched to ginger ale when I wanted whiskey with something less sweet in it here.  Bourbon and ginger ale was my standard drink for a few years.  Lately, I drink fruity drinks, which I get a lot of crap for from all my friends, because I am not supposed to like girly, fruity drinks.  Maybe I’d drink Old Fashioned’s again if “sour” meant what it does in Wisconsin.

Losses

I know this is all over the Internet and every news channel by now, but I heard that Steve Jobs died today on my way home from work, and it saddened me.  That it saddened me somehow surprised me, too.  It’s not like I knew him, and despite his reputation as a genius in product design, his perfectionism was known to make him brutal to work with.  I probably couldn’t have worked for him, but I certainly did respect him.  As someone who has been into electronic gadgets for years, is a student of business and leadership, living in the Bay Area, where Jobs was more of a legend than anywhere else, and working in technology for so long, perhaps he was a bigger figure in my unconscious than I realized.  I don’t know.  I’m puzzling over it.  As I read the news tonight, I followed a link to the Commencement address that Jobs gave to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford.  In it, he discusses death, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before.  I have some issues around death – it’s a rather long story, so I won’t get into it right now, but suffice it to say the topic is generally on my mind more than I’d like it to be.  I’ve included some excerpts from that Stanford speech below.  At the moment – for me, at least – these words from Steve Jobs seem as big a tribute to humanity as any.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

Thank you, Steve Jobs.

A Friday birthday

Finally, Friday is here!  It was a long week, but a quiet day at work today, which is good, because I had to rush home to get birthday stuff together for my partner’s sixseven-year old.  He was thrilled to get a sleeping bag and a Donald Driver jersey, among plenty of other things, like Harry Potter Legos and books.  When he and his mom discussed what he wanted to have for dinner for his birthday, he said turkey.  This is particularly interesting because until almost a year ago, he was vegetarian.  For some reason, at his uncle’s house on Thanksgiving, he decided he wanted to eat turkey, and fell in love with it. If you asked him two months ago whether he’d also like to eat chicken, he would crinkle up his nose and say in a defeated voice, “No, I don’t like chicken.”  This summer, though, he spent two weeks with his grandparents, and he asked to eat turkey with them, too.  Unwilling to cook a big bird for just the three of them, his grandma bought chicken and called it Small Turkey.  He loved it.  So, we eat Small Turkey around here every now and then, and had it for dinner tonight.  Well, his mom still had fake chicken, but having more than one meat eater in the house is kind of nice.

When his mother asked him what kind of cake he wanted, he decided he wanted a double-decker chocolate cake with strawberries and vanilla frosting in the center, but chocolate frosting around the outside.  I am no baker.  I am a pretty decent cook, but I can’t bake to save my life.  Well, I can manage a cake from a box, but then decorating is not my strong suit, either.  My sister, on the other hand, has missed her calling in life.  She make the most unbelievable cakes ever.  Like Ace of Cakes quality, given that she doesn’t use power tools and wood to build the framework for them.  For the purposes of example, I include images.  Guess which one my partner and I made tonight…  Yes, you’re seeing right – the top layer is sliding its way off the bottom, riding a sticky, goopy, kind-of-like-an-oil-spill slick of vanilla frosting slime – with some strawberries floating in there for good measure.

I admit, it is my fault that this young California native is a Green Bay Packers fan.  If only we were actually in Wisconsin, he could get some brilliant version of a football cake, probably a perfectly sculpted life-size helmet or something.  Instead, he gets this drippy mess.  Warning to other baking challenged people – if you want to put strawberries between the layers of a cake, you probably should avoid putting frosting in there with them.  That, or hire my sister for some lessons.  Note:  Images blatantly stolen from my sister’s Facebook page and re-posted here without any permission, whatsoever.

        

Interference

I knew it was coming.  This new job is draining me of most of my energy, not to mention my time.  I shouldn’t complain – there are still way too many people in the world that can’t get a job these days.  But, I’m sitting here yawning endlessly, determined to get at least a quick post out, and realizing how much harder this is going to be to keep up with.  It’s not that I dislike the job – at least not yet.  It’s only been a week.  It’s that there aren’t enough hours in the day.

So, lacking anything of substance to share tonight, I chose to surf a few weird news websites.  I’ve mentioned before how odd some of the news stories can be from the corner of the country I hail from – Wisconsin.  I used to get my fix for these improbable stories at Odd News, but they don’t have a search feature, and that annoys me because I want to be able to search on Wisconsin, or Sheboygan – which currently has a mayor that refuses to leave office although he recently went on a drinking binge, got in a fight, and passed out in a bar in a nearby town.  Tonight, I stumbled on NEWS of the WEIRD, which looks very, very promising.  One search on Wisconsin, and I found so many brilliant stories it was hard to choose which one to share here.  Here’s one that ties in nicely with Sheboygan’s drunken mayor, though.

“Prevailing medical authority 20 years ago warned that few humans could survive blood-alcohol readings above .40 (percent), but in recent years, drivers have rather easily survived higher numbers (curiously, many from Wisconsin, such as the man in February in Madison, Wis., with a .559). (In 2007, an Oregon driver was found unconscious, but survived, with a .72 reading.) The plethora of high numbers might indicate mistaken medical teaching, or nonstandard machine measurements — or an evolutionary hardiness in American drinkers. [Star Tribune (Minneapolis), 2-15-2011]” (copied from http://www.newsoftheweird.com/archive/nw110508.html)

In Wisconsin, I’d have to say I vote for “evolutionary hardiness” – how else do you expect people to keep warm in the winter?

Any great stories from your neck of the woods?