dranthonysblog

March 30, 2013

My time in San Quentin Prison

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I just completed spring quarter at the University of California in Santa Barbara and was looking forward to spending the summer at home with my parents.  My father had recently accepted a position as Associate Warden of San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California.  One of the perks, which could be debated, was that staff had the option to live on grounds at the prison.  The facility consists of an outer gate with full security that houses the prison inside as well as a community includes streets and living quarters for hundreds of employees and their families.  At that time, it also had a community gym as well and a small post office and gift shop located just outside the main gate.  The cost, I was told, was much more reasonable than rent or a mortgage payment was in Marin County, which is one of the more affluent areas in California.  The real estate that the prison and the expansive grounds it occupies, due to its location and proximity to the bay, are worth millions of dollars should the state of California ever decide to sell it!

It was very early in the morning when I left my small off-campus apartment in Isla Vista and my mind was filled with a predictable mix of thoughts about school and anticipation of a summer spent at home.  I moved out a couple of years before when my parents had lived in Sacramento and, though I had visited them since the move, I was unsure what to expect spending a few months living at San Quentin.  This was before I entered the Army and so I had no experience living in any type of secured community.

I arrived in the late morning and the gate guard asked me who I was there to visit.  I informed him that I was moving “home” for the summer and would be around for a few months.  After verifying my identification, and calling to confirm I was authorized, he lifted the gate and I drove in and down the road towards my parent’s house.  They lived on a hill in a beautiful home that appeared to be built around the turn of the last century, plus or minus a decade.  The yard was filled with flowers and the living room had huge windows that had a fantastic view of the San Francisco bay as well as the prison itself.  I remember thinking what a contrast the two aspects of the view were.  On exceptionally clear days, which were rare due to the near ever-present bay area fog, you could also see Alcatraz prison, then a state park, which added to the spectacle.

In addition to the living room, the house had a family room, sun room, back yard (also filled with flowers) and three bedrooms.  I remember thinking that aside from the proximity to the prison this was a nice place to live.   Interestingly, the grounds were all maintained by inmates supervised by guards.  I realized this early on when I saw that the landscape workers wore the same blue shirt and denim pants that the inmates had on.  I also noticed that they were very observant, especially if you were with a female.

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In the morning scores of inmates would gather in the main yard and would chant in unison while exercising.  I later learned that some of the groups also did this for religious reasons as well as for a show of unity.  To a curious outsider, hearing this mixed with the chilling and dense morning fog was both fascinating and somewhat unnerving at the same time!  In thinking about it now, it was not unlike some of the more solemn cadences that resonated during early morning physical training sessions that army units do when in garrison.

I visited the inside of the actual prison several times that summer and was fascinated not so much by the denizens, as I had been raised around that (i.e., my father spent the majority of his career in corrections), but by the stark surroundings and the aging architecture of the walls and buildings.  I later learned that it was constructed in 1852 with little renovation or change since.  In many ways it was similar to ancient forts of the type you would see in far-flung outposts still standing from Spain’s hegemony in places like Manila Bay.  During my visits, I also was the recipient of catcalls and much staring as I was 18 then, and even though I am a native Californian, it left an impression on me.  One positive outcome from this was that it helped me to more fully understand just how some employees feel when they are victims of harassment, which was useful when I started working in human resources a few years later.  I also viewed death row and saw the gas chamber, which was still operational at that time, though that summer it was not put to use.

Visiting day was on Sunday and I remember that because it was one of three times that the main gate was often crowded with people and cars.  The other two were during protests, which were also fairly common and usually concerned the death penalty, and during daily shift changes.  Visitors would line up and they included a fairly representative sampling of individuals from all walks of life, ethnicities, and income levels and included; girlfriends, family members of assorted ages, attorneys, and friends.  The expressions were as varied as the people though many sported looks of sadness tinged with frustration, no doubt in part due to the wait in line, and some tried to look cheerful, though it was clear they did not want to be there.  It was not too different from the group that I would see visiting juveniles when I worked as a counselor in a probation department later on.  During these experiences, I always wondered what these many were really thinking as they journeyed through the rote security process and queuing just to share a few moments with family, or associates, who were incarcerated.

The prison was located just a few miles down highway 101 from the Golden Gate Bridge, which was next to San Francisco.  During that summer I often rode my bicycle around the area and occasionally over the bridge never-failing to marvel at the scenery and the pace of life in and around the city.  It is impossible to live in Marin County and not visit the City for shopping, entertainment, or just for escape.  When you live on grounds at the prison this is especially true because there is a ferry terminal outside of the back gate that goes directly to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.  The ride across the bay takes under an hour and is better than fighting traffic and searching for an overpriced place to park your car on the weekends.

The summer eventually passed and it was time for me to leave the prison by the bay and get back to college life.  As I left I told the somewhat bored looking gate guard that I was going back to college and he responded with an indifferent “I don’t care gaze” but, being the well-trained peace officer and public servant that he obviously was, he wished me well nonetheless.  Living on grounds at a prison and not being a convict or peace officer is an unusual experience and one that stays with you for life, especially when that prison is San Quentin.

October 28, 2012

Charcoal (my dog’s true tale)

During the summer that started with the end of third grade we moved to Morro Bay, a sleepy little fishing village located on California’s central coast.  It was quite a change for me as I had lived nearly all of my young life until that time in Rialto, a suburban community located in a large valley east of Los Angeles, that still had numerous orange groves.  We had also lived a couple of blocks from my paternal grandparents, who I frequently visited.  Our new home was several hundred miles north and far from family and childhood friends.

While lacking many things I had grown accustomed to, it made up for it in other ways.  Also, since we had vacationed in the area before, it was not completely foreign to me.  I recall spending most of that first summer riding my bike, playing on the beach, and exploring my new home.  When fall came that year it brought with it many cold and foggy days and, of course, the start of fourth grade.

Soon I found myself thinking about turning 10.  Like many pre-teens, I remember feeling that I would be very grown up since my age would now include two numbers.  My birthday fell on a Saturday that year and my mom and middle sister had left early that morning to go shopping.  They returned later on and asked me to help bring in the groceries.  I ran to the car and instantly noticed a shopping bag moving by itself!  I reached for that one first, as my mother and sister must have known that I would, because they were behind me.  I was happily surprised to see a small, dark and furry lump that popped up and greeted me with a lick!  He was no bigger than a Guinea Pig and had soft but wiry black fur, with a matching black nose, dark brown eyes, and a wiggly, long for his size, tail.  From the minute that I spotted him I knew that he was one of kind.  The first thing my mother asked me was “what are you going to name him?”  Without hesitation, I responded that since he was black as “charcoal” that would be his name.

Initially, I made Charcoal a nice bed, I thought, on the floor next to me, but he would have none of that and carried on until I picked him up.  After that, he slept at the foot of my bed.  We went for walks nearly every day and he grew quickly.  Being mostly Terrier, he was a smallish, medium-sized dog, who probably never exceeded 30 pounds in weight.  As he grew, he turned out to be not the cutest dog, but he had qualities that made him endearing nonetheless.

I taught him how to walk on a leash, though he really never cared for that much.  We would hike through fields and down rutted roads usually on route to the bay, piers, or the beach.  When he got bigger, I would ride my bike and he would run behind where often, because he was mostly a Terrier, he would bark at cars or people while trailing me.

I would sometimes find interesting trees to explore which, being a boy, I would do often.  One day while doing just that, Charcoal became tired of waiting for me on the ground and he started to climb the tree too!  After a few attempts doing this, he became pretty good at it, for a dog, and could usually make it half way up most trees.  Of course, I almost always had to help him get back down because I did not want him to get hurt, though loose sand covered most of the ground that we explored and the trees were not very tall.

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Charcoal loved to play tug-o-war and he would find a toy, or rag, or once in a while even a stray piece of clothing, and drop it near me whenever he wanted to have a game.  He also loved chasing other animals and at night he would sometimes go out for a bathroom break and refuse to come back in the house.  This worried me, but in the morning he would always be at the door and wagging his tail, as if to say thank-you for not making me stay in all night.  It was during these “adventures” where he must have met the locals, because when I rode my bike around town neighbors would often talk to him as if they knew him.  I figured that he must have because his response to them was a wag and never a bark, which he did to strangers he did not trust!

When Charcoal was a year old we moved about 5 miles across the bay to another town called Los Osos.  The house we lived in was brand new and surrounded by fields with Oak trees and bushes, containing all manner of wild life from possums to lizards, the former Charcoal loved to chase!  This was made easier for him to do because the property, like most in the then semi-rural area at that time, had no fence.

The elementary was also brand new, and located down a sandy dirt road, two blocks from home.  One day, Charcoal showed up after lunch, and was distracting students who were looking at him through the windows.  The teacher was about to call maintenance to have him removed when I recognized him and let her know that he was my dog and that I would take care of it.  I went outside and walked him to the road and told him to “go home.”  He looked at me with pleading eyes and then turned and went back towards home.  At some point after that initial showing he appeared again, though this time it was near the end of the day, and he did not go close to the windows, but waited until I came out.  By spring of that year, he regularly met me at the end of each day and walked me back home!

The next year I started Junior High, 7th grade, and also attended a new school, but it being well over a mile away, I had no visits from Charcoal.  One day, in the fall, I road my bike up to a local market to get some comic books (we did not own any video games).  Charcoal followed me and waited outside the store.  I was not inside for more than a couple of minutes when I heard the sound of dogs barking, with one of them being mine.  When I got outside he was in the jaws of a large Pit-bull and it was swinging him around.  I quickly located the owner inside and he freed Charcoal, who was bleeding from a large wound on his neck.  I went to the payphone (cell phones were not widely available yet) and called home and asked my brother to come and pick us up.  Charcoal did not whimper or fuss when the Veterinarian was fixing him up.  If I remember correctly, he required around a dozen, or so, stitches and the Vet told us he was lucky to be alive.  He soon healed up and was back to doing the things that he loved in a short time!

When taking him on walks, or bike rides, to the bay, I noticed that he did not want to go near the water.  I thought about this, and one time brought a favorite rubber toy with me and tossed it in the bay very close to the shore.  He went in and grabbed it quickly, shaking himself off and looked at me as if asking that I not do that again.  Of course, being the child that I was I ignored his request, and in a few days I had him regularly fetching sticks in the bay, which he did often after that.

Time passed and before I knew it, I was starting the 8th grade.  I had Charcoal for 3 and half years by then.  Unfortunately, he still liked to go out at night and many times continued to refuse to come back inside.  One morning after going out (I think it was in October) he did not show up and was nowhere to be found all day long.  I was really worried about him when late that afternoon a friend from school called.  I knew from the sound of the ring that I did not want to answer the phone, but I did, and my friend asked if I was missing my dog.  I said that I was and he told me that his brother accidentally hit one while driving home late the night before.  He asked me to come over and see if the dead dog was mine.  I hung up and was at his house in half the time it would have ordinarily have taken me to travel the 4 blocks.  I slowed down when I saw my friend in his driveway and the unmoving, small mound of black matted fur next to him.  He asked me if that was my dog, to which I just nodded, turned and quietly walked back home.

In his passing he taught the 13-year-old me a great deal about the essence of life and, in time, there were other terrific dogs, but none were quite like him.  I have not been back to that town in many years, but when I visit, I am instantly reminded about those halcyon childhood days and my loyal pal and fellow adventurer who was so much more than simply a pet…

April 17, 2012

Uncle Joe

Uncle Joe is the name of a common relation that a lot of us know and love.  My particular Uncle Joe is actually my father’s Uncle Joe and his birth name was Jose.  I did not know my Uncle Joe well at all, but he nonetheless had an impact on me and many others during his life, and after.

What I know about his background is that he was born in 1908 in the middle of Mexico, in a state called Zacatecas, in the capital by the same name, in a sleepy village called Jerez.  The region was well settled by the Spaniards less than 100 years after Columbus opened up the new world to the west.  Uncle Joe was the fourth born child and though he was the third born son, he was named after his father.  When Uncle Joe was little, his family owned a ranch in a country that would soon be in the midst of yet another revolution.   The house where he was born was made from adobe and looked to be ancient when I saw it some eight decades after he was born (my grandfather, his brother, was born in the same house).

Uncle Joe spent his early years helping out with the ranch and going to school.  When the revolution, which started in 1910 and lasted until 1920, began to intensify the family decided to move to the United States.  By the time Uncle Joe was 12 he was living in Chandler, Arizona and later in Colorado with his father and older brothers working in fields, mines, and as labor to support themselves and the family.  Eventually, they relocated to southern California and made it their new home.

As far as I can tell, during the 1930’s, when he was in his 20’s, uncle Joe worked in sales.  He was single and had no children.  However, he did have many brothers and sisters, in-laws, and nieces and nephews, some of whom he was close to like my father and grandparents.  In 1936 he applied to become a naturalized US citizen, which was eventually granted.  To me, the really interesting part of his story begins when he joined the Merchant Marines sometime during the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, when Uncle Joe was in his 30’s.

Before I go on, the United States Merchant Marines, for those who are unfamiliar, consists of a fleet of privately owned ocean vessels that are operated by the government or private sector.  The fleet transports goods and services in and out of U.S. waters.  During times of peace, they transport passengers as well as cargo, but in wartime they function as an auxiliary to the Navy.  In the latter capacity, they transport service members, supplies, and cargo directly for the military.  I knew little about this until Uncle Joe passed away, at which time I checked to see if he was eligible for any Veteran’s benefits, since he worked in the Merchant Marines during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War.

When Uncle Joe was in the Merchant Marines he traveled all over the world (literally).  Based upon his letters, he loved seeing new places.  There are pictures of him in Egypt next to the pyramids, strolling down Canal Street in New Orleans, enjoying dinner in Paris, and exploring the Alamo in Texas.  He traveled to Europe and researched the family’s genealogy in Spain and visited the beaches in South Africa.  He enjoyed dancing in Tokyo and went down under to hike the outback in Australia.  He visited the Azores and Tahiti and even enjoyed the night life in Rio.  In short, this man who was born in rural Mexico shortly after the turn of the century found a career a little later in life than his contemporaries that enabled him to explore the world!

I know this mainly from his stories which were retold to me by my father and grandparents.  I know this also from the circulated coins, bills, and stamps that he brought back and gave to my father from all of his many ports of call.  When I was a child, I would look at the foreign bills and change with their exotic writing and pictures and imagine what these places were really like.  Uncle Joe wrote post cards to my father and grandparents, many of which survived multiple moves and clearly showed how much he enjoyed his life.

When I was little, Uncle Joe was to me an intense man who always seemed to be far away, even when he was in the same room.  He was pleasant but did not say much to the little boy that I was then.  My father and grandparents always loved to see him and they would talk for hours about times long past.   He was different from my grandfather in that he never did marry nor have any children.  The rumor in the family was that early investments in property enabled him to have a comfortable retirement, though I never saw any evidence of that.  After I came back from a tour overseas in the Army, I asked my father to have Uncle Joe write down any information that he had about the family, so I could share it with mine someday.  Uncle Joe did that, though he confused me with my brother, and I have since shared that letter with extended members of the family who found the contents to be priceless in filling in gaps of family history that appeared after his generation had passed.

I have been fortunate to travel to many faraway places in my life, but I have not yet seen a fraction of what Uncle Joe has seen.  Whenever, I visit a new area, I invariably wonder to myself if Uncle Joe has been there before me.  When my father and I were in Macau, we ducked in to a little piano bar to take a break from sight-seeing one day.  Near our table was a small plaque that indicated that this was the place where the Pan Am Clipper planes landed.  I asked my father if he thought Uncle Joe might have stopped there, to which he replied that knowing him he probably did!

Twenty years ago, Uncle Joe, who was then 84 years old, had a stroke and was hospitalized.  I took my grandparents to see him one afternoon.  He was in bed and could barely speak and was pale and drawn, but the minute he noticed my grandparents, he became more alert and even managed to smile, just a little.  They visited for a while with my grandparents doing the talking but aside from the obvious, Uncle Joe was different this time.  That distant look that he had always had whenever I saw him before was gone.  It was replaced with a tired, weak, but warm and satisfied expression of a man who realized his time was nearly up and who was somehow grateful nonetheless to be where he was at that moment.

Uncle Joe (Jose C. Campos) is gone now and since he has departed, I have thought a lot about him and the legacy that he left.  He did not, to my knowledge, leave a large estate, or a forlorn widow or fatherless children behind.  He did not write books, compose music, cure a disease, or discover a new planet.  His legacy was much simpler in that he lived his life the way he wanted to, in an era when many would not or could not do it.  In the process he showed those around him that they could do the same!

February 24, 2012

Lisa

Painters work with liquids on open surfaces.  Sculptors free representations from unremarkable lumps.  Writers use words to do the same.  Their work is not displayed in galleries, but comes to life for each reader.

Their art appears different to all, but is no less precise, deliberate, and thought-provoking, at least, and impactful, in intent.  These words are a brief portrait of Lisa in simple prose, with some verse, who is anything but simple in reality!

In form, her hair is dark, thick, and wavy and her eyes are large and brown

With complexion smooth, frame slender, and height slightly taller than most

She is pleasant to see and enjoys creating her very own bling

Lisa loves flattering designs though she does not flaunt nor boast

 

I met her through the alchemy of modern electronics and communications

A lady in the tradition of belles past and not unlike the one who loved Rhett

She was far from home, younger, searching, and wondering then…

Her close companion was a gray feline far more familiar than pet

 

Not surprisingly, she was raised in the land of the Iris and Tulip poplars

Her mother was a true southern beauty and her father was smart and lived near

It was said before her birth, by a forgotten carny, that she had a larger destiny

Her early childhood was somewhat challenged and difficult, but her intent was clear

 

Her years of youth and early adulthood were marked with change and growth

Hurts were shared with tears and lessons learned in ways hardest of all…

Still, like that fiery mythic avian she arose from her times and learned much

As an adult, she is focused and her poise self-assured;   She knows her call!

 

When she speaks it is true and well of things both near and far removed

Her thoughts are filled with wisdom and depth from life lived and just half-started

She has a temper and is independent, but still has room to need and be needed

The sum of her to present is demure and direct with future paths yet uncharted!

 

November 13, 2011

What is fair?

Many of us have said, or heard, that something is “not fair” at one time or another.  In childhood, it could have taken the form of telling our mother this when she wanted us to go to bed.  When we were older, it could have been uttered when we realized that we had a flat tire while headed to an important meeting.  Or, we could have agreed with a close friend that their supervisor had not treated them fair in passing them over for promotion.  Regardless of when we heard, or spoke it, we were probably certain about what we believed to be true.  Fair is deeply personal to most of us.

What is fair?  Is it simply treating everyone the same?  Or, is it defined by faith, understood through philosophy, or learned by comparing it to past experience, or by watching it on a screen?  Economists will tell you that fair is but one of several means to justify the allocation of, always finite, resources.  HR professionals might say it involves applying policies without regard to anything but employee performance and/or perhaps longevity.  When I was little, I thought fair was what Stan Lee wrote about and his characters, superheroes of course, staunchly defended every month.  Growing up in the United States students are taught in school that the country was founded, at least in part, because the colonists felt they were not taxed in a fair way.  Fair is many things.

Is what I consider fair about something the same as what you believe?  Do your friends, family, or even frenemies, if you have any, use the same standards to measure what they believe to be fair as you do?  Is fair the same in other regions or foreign countries?  If intelligent life exists outside of the earth, what is fair to them?  If you stop and think about it, really think about it, fair is complicated!

Another interesting thing about fair, is that when we focus on it the discourse is mostly about a lack of it rather than an overabundance of it.  I mean how many times have you heard someone, anyone, opine that something was really very fair!  Granted it does happen, but those conversations, or comments, are more the exception than the rule. Why is that?  If fair is so important, as it appears to be, why do we not pay more attention to it when it is present?  Is what we believe to be fair so fundamental to us that, like air or water, it is simply taken for granted generally, but felt deeply the instant we perceive it to be lost?

Funny thing is, for a word that most of us are very familiar with, many of us would be hard pressed to define fair in a way that others would readily agree with, though we can spot it in an instant when we see it!  Also, regardless of your definition, many people would probably agree that the world is not filled with nearly as many examples of fair as most of us would like.  Friendships have been soured, fortunes lost, needless lives taken, and countries throughout history have, and continue, to go to war over disagreements concerning what is considered fair.  All of this, over a deceptively simple word that really has no universally agreed upon definition…

When we talk about what is fair, the conversations are sometimes loud, can be emotionally charged, and, as mentioned above, may result in disagreements with negative outcomes for one or more parties.  The disagreements can involve anything from how observations of details are perceived to questions about how others would feel if they were on the receiving end of a situation, or decision, that is not fair.  Regardless, conversations about what is fair are often not pleasant to have, though certainly necessary, at times, if we are to be true to ourselves and what we each understand to be right!

Given the importance of what we believe to be fair, and the obvious impact that it has on our lives, both positive and negative, I find it truly odd that these aspects of it have not received more widespread attention.  Granted conversations about it do happen, mostly in college ethics courses, and I have no doubt that it is written about in low circulation scholarly journals, but those are limited in scope and appear to do little to add to the greater conversation and understanding.  I wonder;  is that truly fair?

July 16, 2011

Our last family vacation!

“We are going to take a vacation to Mexico” my mother told the five of us kids as we listened, most only half interested.  She said that it was going to be our last family trip together because my sister was starting college in the fall.  I do not recall the rest of that conversation as I was very young, but the outcome is permanently imprinted in my mind.

The next thing I do remember is all 7 of us piling into our brand new Chevy Impala and driving from our home in southern California towards the Mexican border, which was a couple of hours away (this was before the current problems made trips like this less desirable to take).  We crossed the border and drove to Guaymas de Zaragoza, a port city on the eastern side of the Gulf of California notable to tourists for its warm weather and many undeveloped beaches.  From there, we boarded a ferry, the Benito Juarez (I am not sure why I remember the name, but I do), headed across the gulf to Mulaje in Baja, Mexico.  However, after a few of days of fun, somehow, we missed the return ferry to Guaymas, but learned that we could take the newly completed Baja highway and be back home in a day.  This is where the trip took a really memorable turn!

We followed the directions and drove a couple of hours to the place where we were to connect with the highway. When we arrived all we could see was more dirt road.  My father checked with some locals and found out that the highway was not yet completed, but that the asphalt was only around 30 miles away.  My father had to be back to work soon and so we decided to go for it!

Unfortunately, that information turned out to also be incorrect – this was long before the days of cellphones and the Web, and no maps were available that showed the progress of the road construction in Mexico.  We continued on and, at one point midway in our journey, we ran over a large cactus that was half buried in the sand and had transmission problems.  Some ranchers were nearby and helped my father make the car drivable again (I never heard exactly how they did that with few tools and no parts).  Another time my mother was answering nature’s call when a bull started heading in her direction.  When have super-8 film of her running back towards us with the animal clearly visible in the distance!

At times we had to move large rocks to enable the car to pass the very rough dirt road.  At night, my father and brother slept on the hood of the car, while my sisters, mom, and I slept inside as we had no camping gear.  Along the way we passed a small village where my father was able to get enough gas and food to keep us going.  We also met some Americans in a dune buggy going the opposite direction who updated us on how far we were from pavement (still over 100 miles) and gave us some foul-tasting water to drink.  I am sure they thought my parents were crazy and, being a parent today around their age then, I can totally understand why!

By noon on the third day we finally connected again with the asphalt.  My mother literally kissed the pavement, which was not very clean but mom did not care (we have that on film as well)!  We ended up driving well over 200 miles on unpaved roads in the Baja desert, during the middle of summer, with 5 children, and few supplies.  Later, we learned that there were 7 species of venomous snakes in the region and the car forever after had a layer of red clay that permeated the interior no matter how well it was detailed.  This was no doubt deposited during the numerous times my brother was slow to roll up the window when wind gusts or passing dune buggies kicked up dirt and dust!

Mom and dad are gone now and that trip is just a memory from many summers past.  As mom predicted it turned out to be our last trip together as a family and it was very memorable, though not for the reasons that she had hoped.  Still, we persevered, worked together despite the occasional bickering, learned some important lessons, and have great stories to tell about it that never fail to entertain!

July 9, 2011

The last Space Shuttle launch; before, during, and after!

I had seen it live before, but this was the last one, and so we had to see it again – one more time!

Then we waited…

And took in a few sites…


And this…

And, unfortunately, also this.

We had a brief scare that was caused, or so I was told, by someone’s lunch left unattended!

We also entertained ourselves…

Then we watched as it started!

And we were rewarded with this!

Then this…

And this too!

Then fairly quickly it was out of sight!

But definitely not out of mind…

Then or ever!

We soon left as we came, people from all over.

Leaving all at once!

It was quite a morning and quite a crowd too!

It took a while, and we were a little sad, but still excited, though a lot tired, much in awe, but happy to be back home!

July 6, 2011

Stephan Hawking really?

A few weeks ago Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most brilliant scientists of our time, said in an interview there is “no heaven or afterlife” and that such a belief was a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”  I believe that all individuals are absolutely entitled to their own beliefs and ideas.  However, I take issue with the fact that this exceptional thinker, and public personality, felt the need to essentially insult many of his fellow human beings while expressing his personal opinions on creation and the afterlife.

By doing that, he showed a disregard and almost a disdain for others and their own, often deeply held, personal beliefs and thoughts.  After hearing of his remarks, I have wondered when this was going to be publicly discussed, though aside from a few relatively brief articles that mainly reiterated quotes from the original interview, his comments went essentially unchallenged.  I am not sure when western society changed and it became acceptable to insult people rather than discuss issues, but I have noticed the trend for a while now.  When this is done by famous and very educated people, in a public forum, it takes away from the content of the discourse and needlessly makes others feel bad, while not adding any value whatsoever to the discussion.  This is unfortunate because this same type of behavior is what has led to some of the worst social outcomes in history.  Freedom of thought and speech are the cornerstones of modern western civilization but belittling people while doing it definitely is not!

Science is simply a method to assist us in trying to discover how nature works—nothing more.  We apply it through observation using our senses, measure and record data with our tools, and analyze our findings using our reasoning.  The conclusions are crafted into theories, or revisions, that seek to make sense of it all.  These are then discussed and debated with the whole process continually building upon the work of predecessors.  Unless I missed something while in my chemistry, physics, biology or psychology classes, science does not offer us a means to ultimately explain “why” we or anything in the universe exists.

Even if you believe there is no heaven or afterlife that does not give any person, no matter how intelligent or famous, the right to belittle anyone for believing otherwise!  Regardless as to why we are here, we are social animals that are interconnected and dependent upon each other for life and, as such, we must be open to honest debate always, but should do so in constructive not destructive ways.  To do anything less, in my opinion, seriously detracts from even the grandest of contributions to society and leaves a legacy devoid of true appreciation of the many mysteries in life!

June 30, 2011

Job Interviewing Tales

Unless you were born into lots of money, you have likely had to interview for a job at some time in your life.  Many of us can recall without too much effort how we felt about the experience with nervousness being a common theme along with nausea in some extreme cases.  Whatever your experience has been few of us would probably say that it was fun or enjoyable; even those who consider themselves good at it!

My father, having started his professional career in personnel, would help his friends and members of the family by setting up mock job interviews.  We would later hear afterwards how these really helped the person to overcome some of their anxiety about the process and do well on it.  Many people prepare in this way or study the organization and review questions that they believe may be asked with varying degrees of success.  Numerous articles and books have been written about it as most of us recognize the importance of doing well in what amounts to an oral examination to get offered a job.

Some people, however, do little preparation and essentially leave everything to chance.  These individuals either have lots of experience, great confidence, or both.  The outcomes in these situations depend very much upon having significant amounts of both present to be offered a job.

Interestingly, there are also those who probably do none of these things and actually, for whatever reason, show up for an interview and do crazy, or irrational, things.  The outcomes for this group are as varied as their approach and are the subject of this bit of writing.  The below tales are from personal experience, though the names and some of the details were changed to ensure they remain completely anonymous which is important for reasons that are probably apparent once you read them.

Inseparable?  – It was an overcast fall day when I received a call from Mrs. Jones.  She said that she was calling for her husband who was scheduled to be interviewed for a senior management position next week.  Spouses sometimes call in my experience, so I was not too concerned when she started asking questions about benefits.  When asked what she should wear to the interview is the precise instant I knew something was not right.  After recovering from my shock at her question, I explained that interviews were done with just the job candidate present and members of the interview team.  She would hear absolutely nothing of that and insisted that she be allowed to sit in on his interview.  I told her I would have to get back to her as to whether we could allow it, but that I was sure that she could not.

My second shock came when I consulted with the hiring manager, a very senior person in the organization, and he said he would allow it.  When I explained my many concerns about allowing a spouse sit in on any interview, he patiently listened and then said that the candidate could significantly help the organization (in English – he had an extensive industry specific Rolodex that the organization wanted) and for that reason he would allow it.  At this point you can probably guess the outcome and so yes he was eventually offered the job.  He helped the organization as predicted but he also caused, in my opinion, far more problems than he fixed!  His wife continued to be as involved as she could, much to the employee’s detriment, though I am sure he does not know that to this day!

Pass the mustard – It was late-morning when a professionally dressed candidate showed up a little early for his interview.  The position he was interviewing for was a mid-career professional job and over the last few days the organization had interviewed several good candidates for the position.  He was in his mid-30’s and well-mannered.

I invited him in to the room and we began the interview.  He detailed his background as it related to the job in effective manner as I listened intently thinking at this point that he may be a good fit for the organization. Everything was going well when he casually pulled out a sandwich from his briefcase, un-wrapped it, and took a bite before I could say anything!  While he was chewing I explained that we could have a better discussion if he would hold off eating until after the interview.  He offered no explanation and did not get the message and so we continued the interview and he continued to eat!

After we were done he went to the hiring manager and her staff to be interviewed by them.  Afterwards, I was told that they would like to bring him back for a final round of interviews until I explained the behavior he exhibited during interview.  Once they heard that, they decided that the lack of judgment could be a liability and so he was not brought back in for another interview and he did not get the job.  I must admit the sandwich looked good but probably not worth losing the opportunity that he did over it!

Party time! – I knew something was wrong with this one when I saw the candidate run for the restroom, covering her mouth the whole way.  She emerged a few minutes later looking slightly green.  I invited her in and when she shook my hand it felt clammy.  When I sat down I made a mental note to wash my hands after the interview as I thought she might be ill.  I asked her if she was feeling OK and added that if she was not we could always reschedule.  She said that she did not sleep well last night but that she would be fine for the interview.

Midway through the conversation, which was going well except that it was obvious that she was not feeling well, she asked if she could take a short break.  No sooner had I agreed when she got up and walked very quickly (almost ran) for the restroom.  When she was gone I was feeling bad for her as I thought she was ill and was thinking of another way to ask her if she would like to reschedule, when I caught a strong whiff of alcohol coming from the area where she was seated.  Shortly after she returned we completed the interview.  On her way out, I noticed that she tossed a bottle in the trash.

The bottle turned out to be exactly what you would think it was (Vodka actually).  In this case, the interview panel did not select the employee, without even hearing about the above details.

The Auctioneer – John (not his real name) was a well dress man in his late forties was interviewing for a job in sales.  He showed up on time and had a pleasant demeanor.  After I asked him a question, however, he responded with a detailed answer but the rate of his speech would have impressed the most seasoned of auctioneers.  After a couple of more such responses, I gently reminded him that we had plenty of time and to feel free to use it when answering the questions.  He did not get the message and, due to his rapid fire responses, the interview was finished in less than half the time they usually took!

He was otherwise a solid candidate and would have been a good fit for the organization.  Unfortunately, he continued with the same rapid fire responses with the other people who interviewed him and he did not initially get the job.  I say initially, because shortly after the position was filled it became vacant again.  After recruiting a second time, the pool of qualified candidates was such that the decision was made to bring him back for another interview.  He must have received some feedback in between because the second time around, I was told that he spoke at a more natural rate and was offered the job where he stayed for many years and did great work!

Less is more right? – Monique was a 30-something, stay-at-home mom who was seeking to reenter the workforce after a 10 year hiatus.  She had a bachelor’s degree in English and had 7 years of experience working in operations.  When she was brought in to the office she was very professional and had a terrific smile.  When asked questions, her responses, however, were brief and with precious little detail.  When asked if she had anything to add (to try and draw her out) she flashed her smile but declined saying that she felt comfortable with her response.

Regardless of the question asked her responses were always concise and devoid of much detail.  She did not display any nervousness and her answers actually addressed the question but did so in such a way as to leave the interviewer wondering.  An example of this is when she was asked to describe her experience in Managing people.  She replied that she managed 3 staff members in her last job, two manufacturing coordinators and one specialist.  She continued that she enjoyed the work and would not mind being a supervisor again.  On the surface it sounds like a reasonable response but she missed an opportunity to provide information about her challenges and accomplishments.

She did not get a job offer, however, I saw her 3 or 4 weeks later as she was entering the building.  She had signed up for a temporary employment agency and was hired to handle customer service for the organization.  Several months later she was hired into a regular position, though not in the field that she interviewed for.

The early bird catches the worm? – It was just after 9:00 am one morning and I had settled in to work on a project for a few minutes before attending an important meeting.  As soon as I started to work my phone rang and it was the receptionist informing me that Ms. Wong (not her real name) was here for her interview.  I checked my schedule and confirmed what I already knew, that Ms. Wong was not scheduled to be interviewed until 1:00 pm that afternoon!  Showing up a few minutes early was one thing, but showing up 4 hours early was something else.  I asked the receptionist to send her in and that I would talk with her and find out why she was so early.

Moments later Ms. Wong was in my office and we were shaking hands.  I asked her why she showed up so early when her interview was not until the afternoon.  I was honestly expecting her to say that she wrote down the wrong time, when what she said was simply that she always liked to be early for appointments.  I explained that being a few minutes early was always a good idea but that most organizations scheduled interviews as they had other responsibilities to take care of that often could not be changed with no notice.

I informed her that she could not be interviewed until her scheduled time and that she would have to come back then.  She told me that she had no place to go, so I explained that there was a coffee shop and a library nearby as well where she could go.  She left reluctantly and actually showed up a few minutes late that afternoon.  Her interview was unremarkable otherwise and she did not get the job, though not because of her early arrival, but rather due to the fact that there was another more qualified person who was offered the position.

Job interviews are stressful events that sometimes cause people to do crazy things.  If you are ever in a position to interview candidates for a job remember these tales and be prepared to encounter all manner of behavior.  Equally important to note is, if you have a job interview scheduled, relax, prepare as you see fit, and try to behave rationally!

June 5, 2011

A summer trip to New York City…

We had an informal tradition in my family, or at least that is how I understood it, that when you were around 16, you would get to go on a trip.  The trip was usually taken alone and to someplace far away with the duration being at least two weeks.  One of my older sisters visited Mexico where she stayed with relatives one summer and perfected her Spanish that she had studied in school for years.  Two other sisters went to Hawaii for a couple of weeks where they soaked up the sunshine and my brother went to Washington, D.C. where he visited the historic sites of our nation.

Being the youngest, when I turned 16, I naturally reminded my parents about these journeys that the others took and asked where I could go.  My parents were in a situation at that time where their resources were temporarily stretched, so they tried to dissuade me from any thoughts of a trip by saying that I could go next year or perhaps the year after.  However, I was ready to go somewhere and, as my father had observed long ago, when I get something in my head I usually find a way to make it happen!  A trait that has (mostly) served me well in life and this time was no different.

The “where” was a bit more challenging to figure out as I received the message clearly that it had to be relatively inexpensive and so Hawaii was definitely out of the question.  I spent a few days thinking about it when I remembered that my brother-in-law of 5 years was attending the University of Southern California’s film school and was a graduate intern working for Paramount Pictures in New York City.  I had only seen the western United States and Mexico up to that time and had never been on an airplane, so the thought of spending a few weeks in Manhattan was interesting to say the least.  My parents probably did not think I could come up with an acceptable trip, but when I did and discussed it with them they reluctantly had to agree.

It was the early summer of 1981 and soon I was going on a plane and bound for the Big Apple!  My sister drove me to the airport, LAX, and made it a point to remind me to be nice to my brother-in-law, her husband!  Another message received.  She helped me to check in to my flight and before long I was listening to my Walkman, playing “California Dreamin'” among other tracks that I remember, while flying east alone in what turned out to be the first of many such trips in my life, though I had no clue about that yet.

Three months earlier, I was sitting in 10th grade waiting for English class to start when I looked down and found a piece of paper that set me on another related, but much larger, journey.  That paper described a test that I could take and if I passed would enable me to drop out of high school and go directly to college.  My father’s promotions had come at the cost of the family being moved several times during my childhood and most recently to California’s capital where I attended high school.  The school I attended, Del Campo High, was the same one where Candy Lightner’s daughters went the year before and one was tragically struck and killed by a drunk driver causing the grieving mother to found Mothers’ Against Drunk Driving (MADD).  It was also the same school that former baseball major leaguer and current Cincinnati Red’s Manager Dusty Baker graduated from years earlier.  To me it was a nondescript suburban holding facility for teens where I knew few people, due to the moves, and was not at all challenged by the curriculum.  So when I found the paper under my desk, I read it and happily realized I had stumbled upon, by chance, a solution to my problem.  A literal treasure map for me!  My parents saw things differently and it took some work (well, a lot to be honest!) to convince them but they came around (I probably should have gone into sales!).  I took and easily passed the test a few weeks later.  Sitting on the plane, I had time to contemplate the fact that in the fall I would be in college, at a time that should have been my junior year of high school.

In a few hours the plane landed and I was off to retrieve my suitcase.  I then called my brother-in-law who was not able to pick me up because of work, but told me how to find the train to the plane and where to catch the subway and that he would meet me at one of the stations.  I navigated the crowds and remember feeling very grown-up as I followed his instructions and eventually got off at the correct stop.  My brother-in-law was, at that time, a big burly fellow who greeted me warmly, though in looking back, I am sure that he had to be convinced to put up with me for several weeks.  We quickly hopped into a taxi for a short trip to a large brownstone building on West 67th Street, located next to a restaurant that I am sure is long gone now called “The Three Monks” or something like that.

The apartment was a studio layout that my brother-in-law was leasing from a doctor who decided to give up his practice in favor of pursuing a career in acting (I am curious to learn how that turned out!).  Not being used to apartment life at all, I remember being struck by its small size as well as the fact that it only had one bed and a small sofa, where I was to sleep.

That evening we went out to eat and walked around.  I remember thinking how alive the city was and how things were very lit up and noisy.  Everyone appeared to be in a hurry and I recall being especially struck by the sheer number of people everywhere!  Being from southern California where you drive to go places, it also surprised me that the only car I needed was a taxi and that only rarely.  This felt far more foreign to me than being in Mexico, where I spent many earlier summer days enjoying the beaches with my family.

The next morning my brother-in-law went to work and told me to enjoy the city and left. Being a teenager, I went back to sleep but soon got up and ventured out into Manhattan.  I walked around the streets and saw girls younger than me selling themselves, other people in suits or dresses headed to meetings, students rushing to classes, and tourists like me taking it all in.  Once I walked by and twice passed Flip Wilson with a fancy invitation in his hand, apparently trying to find an address.  I saw street hustlers at work and was told by a stern-faced man that I was not “dark enough” to continue farther on from where I was, so I took the advice and turned around.  I spent a lovely morning in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, with a pleasant girlfriend of my oldest sister’s, who told me that I looked at least 18, which I know was said to make me feel grown-up and it did!  I explored central park daily and took a ride to the observation deck of the World Trade Towers, which I will never forget!

Most of the time, I had lunch on the street at one of the many vendors and never tired of people watching, foreshadowing what I would do on many future trips to faraway places.  At the end of the day I would meet my brother-in-law at the building where he worked, which was the headquarters for Paramount Pictures.  I got to know the elevator attendant fairly well and enjoyed seeing the well-appointed suites, where the executives worked.  Once, I was standing next to Warren Beatty when he was talking to an executive while I waited patiently for my brother-in-law and I remember thinking how many people would love to be standing in my place!  I, of course, just wanted them to finish up so we could have dinner and explore the city some more.

At night, we would eat in different restaurants and soak up the city.  We explored the village, listened to music at various clubs, and took in the movie, “New York, New York” one evening.  I remember the movie because I thought it was very cool to be seeing that while sitting in a New York City theater!  We went to Broadway, and saw “A day in Hollywood, a night in the Ukraine” and another time caught a pre-release viewing of “Gallipoli” in an executive screening room at Paramount.

On the weekends, when my brother-in-law was not working, we watched Shakespeare in the Park, Henry the VIII, if memory serves.  We also took a train trip to Connecticut for a few days and visited a good friend of my brother-in-law, who had recently written a script that was made into a movie starring Burt Reynolds.  I remember the writer had a girlfriend that was not a lot older than me who asked if I was going to miss attending 11th and 12th grades, to which I responded, without hesitation, that I would not and meant it.  Still, that served to remind me that things were changing for me and they would never be the same again.

Several weeks passed and it was time to head back home.  As I said good-bye to my brother-in-law, I sensed that he would actually miss having me around even though I am sure I was a burden that he had not wanted.  I thanked him and hopped into a taxi and went to the subway station, caught the train to the plane, and checked myself in for the trip back to Los Angeles.  On the flight home, I spoke to a much older lady who was an executive for a perfume company and she gave me her business card.  I also listened to my Walkman again, which at one point was playing “Arthur’s Theme” that includes the refrain “When you are caught between the moon and New York City” and I smiled to myself as I realized that it had been a good trip for me.

As for my brother-in-law, John Wells, he completed his master’s degree at USC, under the tutelage of instructors like Spielberg and Lucas, and eventually became one of the producers of China Beach, ER, West Wing and others. He was also elected President of the Writers Guild of America West, started his own successful production company, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  He and my sister eventually parted ways…

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