Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Reflections on a High School Reunion

On August 21, 1995, I left Melbourne, Florida for the Military Entry Processing (MEP) Center in Jacksonville, Florida. It was the first step in a military journey that led me to Basic Training in Missouri, Advanced Training in Arizona, and four years in the Army.

It was also the last day I called Melbourne "home".

From the brotherhood of the military, I then went to Tallahassee to join the Seminole family at Florida State University. Then it was off to Tampa and a city and region I've often considered the closest thing I have to my own home. My friends and professional network are in the Tampa Bay area and it is close enough to Melbourne that I can visit family, but far enough to have my own life.

Going back to Melbourne last weekend for my high school graduating class's 20th reunion caused me to reflect on my life's strange journey. And of course, to write about it.

20 years? Have I been gone that long?

I wasn't a very good student in high school. I graduated with a 2.5 GPA. That's half Bs and half Cs. I'm pretty sure I had a few Ds mixed in as well, balanced out by a few - a very few - As. For whatever reason, I didn't try academically in high school. I didn't give much thought to college or any future plan. I didn't have any ambition, nor any guidance. I was just there, existing my way through three years at Eau Gallie High.

To be honest, the only reason I joined the Army was because I talked baseball with the recruiter and didn't have any other plans. Looking back, it was probably the best thing I could have done.

But knowing all that I have become, the idea of going to my high school reunion intrigued me. I wondered what everyone else had done. Were there classmates who also joined the military? Were there any who also went to Florida State? Although I had met people at FSU who went to my high school, they graduated after I did. How many people went to Florida State when I could have gone in 1995 and graduated when I finally enrolled after leaving the Army in 1999?

And of course there were friends I hadn't seen in 20 years. What were they up to? Would they remember me? I was friends with some on Facebook, but Facebook is only a step above keeping a business card in a Rolodex.

In the weeks leading up to the reunion, I had mixed feelings, the biggest being my employment status. Or lack thereof. As frequent readers of this blog know, I haven't worked in a while. Truth be told, I haven't had a job in over two years. While there is some hope I might have a job soon, unemployment is not a good feeling. Even with interesting experiences in Afghanistan, in the Army, stand up comedy, and nearly two master's degrees, would people look down on me if I told them I wasn't working? Even in "today's economy", that's not normal.

I'm also single and have no kids. That's also not entirely normal for someone in the late 30s. Would I have to answer for that? And how does one actually answer that? Although I am not against the idea of marriage or kids one day, life has taken me on a very strange route.

Another problem hit me in the days leading up to the reunion. Try as a I could, I didn't remember much about high school. I didn't remember many of my classes, my teachers' names, what I learned, or any extraordinary experiences, in or out of school. As I mentioned, I was just kinda there.

Despite my difficulty, I did fill out a questionnaire sent out by the reunion committee. Here are their questions and my answers:
  1. Marital Status: single

  2. Children/ages: None.

  3. Occupation: Market Analyst, MBA Candidate

  4. Where have you traveled to? Bosnia, Qatar, Afghanistan, Dubai, Palm Bay

  5. Greatest Achievement: Realizing I was actually kinda smart

  6. Favorite Teacher/Class: Mr. Dibben, Electronics

  7. Most Embarrassing Moment - getting a bum phone number from a girl who will remain nameless

  8. Best High School Memory - graduating
Granted, they are not the best answers. As I mentioned, occupation was tough to answer. So was Question 5. What was my greatest achievement? Was it receiving a Master's Degree in International Affairs? Was it writing a thesis that has been quoted heavily all over the internet? Was it writing a yet-to-be published 200-page novel? Was it doing stand-up comedy at the Tampa Improv? Winning Writer of the Year at the FSU newspaper? Surviving Afghanistan? Being in the Army?

I settled on "Realizing I was actually kinda smart" because if I never developed confidence in my intelligence, I would never have had any of the jobs I had or followed through with any college endeavors.

Question 7 was also a bit of a challenge. I've written about my bum phone number adventure here before, so I cited that. I didn't want to go into too much depth with that story, however, as the follow up gets even weirder. But now, as I looked through my blog for inspiration, there was another great embarrassing moment I could have gone into much more detail about in the questionnaire - a time when I called my English teacher "voluptuous" instead of "verbose".

That might have been better.

Be it as it may, I answered what I could and drove to Melbourne to see my old classmates for the first time in 20 years. The event was divided between a happy hour on Friday evening and a gala on Saturday. My plan was go to both.

Friday night I went to the bar for the reunion happy hour. As I drove, a looming sense of nervousness crept over me. I felt like it was the first day of school all over again. Would anyone remember me?

Thankfully, one of my old friends saw me moments after I walked into the bar. We exchanged pleasantries and decided getting a drink would be a good idea. He introduced me to his wife and we all chatted for a while before we each recognized other people we wanted to say hello to. Although I had to (re)introduce myself to a few people, once we started chatting, it was like we never left.

On a positive note, my friend's wife said I looked skinny and other people said I looked good. That's definitely a win.

Saturday night I again hung out with my friend and his wife, talked to several other people, learned some of my former classmates did spend time in the military, some did go to Florida State, and some had other great adventures either in Melbourne or around the world. Some were parents, others were married, some didn't have kids, and some never tied the knot.

Although my individual story was unique, others traveled their own very interesting roads.

Perhaps the best part of the reunion experience, besides reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, was the lack of egos and judgement. There was no pretentiousness and no "I was this" or "I was that" or any present day "I am this" or "I am that". The awkward social strata of high school had been wiped clean by maturity. Whereas I might not have been the most popular kid back then, 20 years later, I was just another person in their late-30s from the Eau Gallie High Class of 1995 trying to make it through life. No matter what they did to get there, everyone at the reunion seemed to be in the same boat.

And speaking of boats, I still can't see the autostereogram image on the cover of my high school yearbook.

I've been told it's an anchor.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Jim Taylor and My Favorite Presidential Debate

Not many people have a favorite presidential debate. Political wonks might cite Nixon vs Kennedy in 1960 or maybe the appearance of Admiral James Stockdale in 1992. But for me, my favorite presidential debate has a good story.

In January 2000, I was living in Salley Hall on the Florida State University campus. It was my second semester at FSU and I had just transferred rooms from my first suite with roommates I didn't completely jive with, to a room with future apartment mate and current long-time friend, Zheke Snow.

January 2000 was also the run-up for the February 1 New Hampshire Republican primary, the first primary in the 2000 election and the first step candidates needed to take on their road to the White House.

At 2:30 am, Sunday, January 30, 2000, Zheke and I were flipping through the channels in our small college dorm room. It was late and we had probably gone out that night. I probably even had a few beers. Somewhere between late-night sports highlights and finding a movie to watch, we stumbled upon C-SPAN and the "Lesser-Known Presidential Candidates Debate".

I can almost guarantee watching the debate was my idea. I've always had an interest in politics and weirdness and the concept of "lesser-known" candidates definitely caught my attention. Of course, we knew George W. Bush and Al Gore and the other big name candidates, but who were these guys who were campaigning in a small dining room in the middle of New Hampshire? Why were they running for president?

So Zheke and I watched. We were probably the only people on the FSU campus watching at the time. Heck, we were probably the only people in Florida watching at the time. But for two highly cynical college students, this debate turned into an instant classic.

This debate has it all:
  • A gruff former governor as moderator who doesn't seem interested at all in the proceedings
  • A candidate who doesn't even show up
  • A candidate running for Vice-President
  • An absent-minded scientist who makes his speech in sneakers and advocates for space travel and world government
  • A white guy who ran the United Negro College Fund and wants to hold a new Constitutional Convention and rewrite the Constitution
  • A candidate who reads his speech from his paper
  • And Jim Taylor (43:42 mark)
Jim Taylor was the most unique candidate in the 2000 election. I will never be swayed otherwise. Taylor took the stage in New Hampshire with a guitar on his back, wearing a lei, and challenging the other candidates to a "toilet scrub-off". A self-described "idiot" whose campaign slogan was "Everything is Crappy", Taylor was also documenting his campaign as part of a documentary he called "Run Some Idiot".

The surprising thing is that most of the media panel seem to recognize Taylor and treat him seriously, unlike some of the other candidates. Taylor also comes off as the most credible candidate, despite the frizzy hair and song and dance routine. After re-watching 15 years later, I think I would consider voting for the guy.

Because like in 2000, everything is still crappy.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Constructive Facebook Discussion on Raising Minimum Wage

A little while back, a few Facebook friends were debating the merits of raising the national minimum wage. One posted a link to an article entitled "Fast Food Workers: You Don’t Deserve $15 an Hour to Flip Burgers, and That’s OK" and commented about its viability.

The article is a letter to those in the fast-food industry and claims the jobs they hold are not "worth" the pay these workers are requesting via protests and social media efforts.
I want to talk to those of you who actually consider yourselves entitled to close to a $29,000 a year full-time salary for doing a job that requires no skill, no expertise and no education; those who think a fry cook ought to earn an entry-level income similar to a dental assistant; those who insist the guy putting the lettuce on my Big Mac ought to make more than the emergency medical technician who saves lives for a living; those who believe you should automatically be able to “live comfortably,” as if “comfort” is a human right.

So, real talk: Your job isn’t worth 15 bucks an hour. Sure, as a human being, you’re priceless. As a child of God, you’re precious, a work of art, a freaking miracle. But your job wrapping hamburgers in foil and putting them in paper bags — that has a price tag, and the price tag ain’t anywhere close to the one our economy and society puts on teachers and mechanics.

Don’t like it? Well, you shouldn’t. It’s fast food. It’s menial. It’s mindless. It’s not supposed to be a career. It’s not supposed to be a living. An entry-level position making roast beef sandwiches at Arby’s isn’t meant to be something you do for 26 years.

It isn’t paying enough? OK, get another job. Get a second job. Get a third job. Get a different job.

When my friend posted this on Facebook, I immediately saw the flaw in the article. The article, like most people in the minimum wage debate, isn't attacking the right target. Those for a minimum wage increase are looking towards politicians for support and those against a minimum wage increase are attacking the laborers saying they don't "deserve" it.

No one is attacking the companies and their profit margins. The truth, like most issues, lay in the middle.

Here is what I posted on my friend's Facebook wall:

None of the arguments are approaching this right. They should be looking at the total amount of profit generated by the corporations, looking at the dividends paid to shareholders, the cash holdings of corporations, dividing that by the amount of lowest level employees, and negotiating that companies reduce their profits by a rational amount. Sure minimum wage is low, and we can argue semantics of the word "minimum" and what it means to work hard, but those are all semantics. If you want your boss to share the profits, you have to calculate your labor to your generated profits.

Friend's reply: Lots of companies pay a living wage without it affecting prices. Costco is a great example. Low turnover, excellent service, excellent job satisfaction, and hugely profitable.

My response: Costco is a good example - increasing shareholders and employee income - but are they the norm when it comes to profits? Or are they an outlier?

Friend's reply: They are an outlier, but why? Their model is a successful one. They are only an outlier because so few are willing to follow the (successful) model, which makes no sense.

My response: Because we don't teach our corporate leaders morality. Why are bank tellers making only $13 an hour while bank CEOs and Wall St fat cats making millions in bonuses? It's not fair, and perhaps like the labor advancements of the early 20th century (child labor laws, unions, etc), we are entering a new era of corporate idealism. But you can't mandate business models from government. It has to be done by labor force movements or by management.

Friend's reply: It is the value of money / value of people debate. I will always stand on the side of treating humans with dignity and Respect.

My final response:
And we do need that. And we need business schools etc to teach business students to care about more than money. We need them to take social sciences classes so they understand the cultures in which their businesses operate. We need to discourage investment in companies that don't treat their people right. (This is turning into my own blog post. Sorry!)


I don't normally get into long conversations on Facebook. They usually get out of control very quickly. Or people get offended. But this was a good conversation.