Cube Farm Fever Part II: The Wild of the Call

Hi, folks! It’s great to be talking to you again (or typing to you…you know what I mean). It’s been a wild 12 months. I have faced the loss of several loved ones. I have endured the ordeal of fixing a fractured ankle. On top of all of that, I have also returned to the work force (as of about a month ago). That has been a very welcome change. It finally gave my wife the opportunity to try to reshape the large gluteal impression in our couch. Plus, if nothing else, it gets me out of the house for a few hours. To be honest, I think even the cats were getting sick of me. Apparently, those months I spent hobbling around the house with an orange cast and a walker was somehow upsetting their routine of sleeping, eating, and fighting one another.

The new job places me back into a familiar environment: the call center. This is an environment in which I have worked several times over the last 8 years or so. Once I worked as a “professional fundraiser” for a non-profit organization. It paid bills for a short while but I hated being that guy that called someone as they were having spaghetti with their kids. Fortunately, the bulk of my call center experience has been in customer support. I have supported a variety of customer types ranging from end users (your average Joe consumer) to corporate officers and system administrators. I have also have the privilege of getting to known who have done call center support for other product types than I have. I have come to discover that, no matter what the product is being supported and no matter what customer type is involved, you basically deal with the same thing – people.

Now, when you are dealing with customer support (especially in a call center), you have to develop somewhat of a thick skin. Why is that? Think about it for a moment. Remember that time you had to make a call to dispute a bill you got in the mail? What about the call you had to make to return an item you ordered over the Internet? You know what I am talking about, don’t you? That time when you made that call and you may have not been the biggest ray of sunshine to the support agent on the other end of the phone; how did you treat the agent (or his superior when you decided to take it up a notch)?

Now, imagine being on the other end of that conversation. When the customer is having a bad experience, you get labeled as anything from “YOU PEOPLE!” to things I won’t repeat here (after all, this is a family show). It’s the job of the support agent (such as myself) to turn that experience around for the caller. More often than not, my fellow call center agents and I are able to resolve the issue at hand. Still, you have to endure the beatdown to get to that point and, sometimes, even when you resolve the issue, the customer still hates you because you are the focal point of their stress. Getting a few of those over the course of a shift can be stressful especially when the calls come one right after the other (and they typically do).

The good news is that there IS another extreme. There is also a significant number of callers who think you are a hero. You have seemingly made their day. These customers not only thank you for your work. They praise you to the ceiling (and sometimes even to your superiors). Once I had a customer who called with an issue. After I helped to resolve the issue, he emphatically thanked me. He said that I made his life easier. He then explained this his girlfriend of 25 years passed away suddenly several months previously. The day he called me with his issue, he was having a harder than usual time dealing with the grief and my help made him feel better. That call made me feel like the king of the call support world. That’s an even higher position that what Leonardo Di-What’sHisName achieved in that movie where he overacted (I know. Which one?)

Now this range of experiences can induce a different strain of what I previous identified as Cube Farm Fever. I call this strain The Wild of The Call (WoTC). The different extremes tend to tug you in a variety of directions. When you clock out, you are exhausted and drained. How does one combat this malaise that sometimes comes on a nightly basis? Well, for me, my approach comes from several angles. One is the fact that I was unemployed for nearly 11 months. The most stressful job in the world is better than unemployment. Besides, it’s hardly my most stressful job in my adult life. Another part of it comes from the blessing of having raised children to adulthood. Just like customer support, sometimes you are “YOU PEOPLE”. Sometimes, you are the hero. Just like customer support, those extremes can happen in the same day. The other approach that I take comes from my friend (who is also my karate instructor). Many days, when he knows I am stressed about (insert subject here), he tells me: “STOP! BREATHE! ACCEPT! ADAPT AND MOVE FORWARD!” The other karate-related philosophy is that the goal of any given day is to improve upon the previous day.  That helps stave off the WoTC in most cases.

Having said all that, the next time you have to call customer support for something: try to go a bit easy on them. You are talking to a human being. You’ll feel better for it (trust me). Also, fill out those surveys. If your experience was good or bad, your input has great potential to make an impact in the future. Thanks for reading this today. My name is Shane. Have a great day. (Whoa! The effects of WoTC must still be hanging on after my day off).

To Beard Or Not To Beard

A few months back, my wife Renee, younger daughter Brianna, and I decided to venture together in support of a worthy cause. We formed a team to participate in a charity walk to support the Arthritis Foundation. We did this largely to support Brianna who battles rheumatoid arthritis. We designed t-shirts. We networked via Facebook, Twitter, and Google+  to help raise funds for the walk.

I also performed another gesture as the walk got closer. I grew a beard. I was growing a “playoff beard”. About two months prior to the walk, I decided that I would grow a full beard and not shave it until I came home from the walk. I had done playoff beards before. I used to work on a technical support team that would grow beard during a two month season of peak support. Part of me would like the look. The other part would hate the itch. As much as I hate the task of shaving, I REALLY hate the itch. Some guys grow really nice beards. They occasionally stroke their beard while caught up in thought or conversation. It’s a very relaxed look and gesture. I, on the other hand, do not stroke my beard. I do not twiddle my whiskers as i get lost in thought. I scratch my beard. I scratch it frequently and furiously. The only thought that enraptures me in that moment is: DADGUM! THIS BEARD REALLY ITCHES!

The other thing that I noticed about growing my beard is that you suddenly get a lot of interaction from other men who are long time beardsmen. Women with beards are conversely much less engaging. It was like I suddenly became a new member of a secret organization. I got quite a few recommendations and endorsements of assorted combs and oils.  These bearded brothers in arms love their oils and swore to me that it would reduce my itching (and my swearing). When I would tell my hirsute heroes that I was planning to shave off my beard after the charity walk was done, you could sense that some of them were holding back tears.

The other trouble with the beard was that it had really become much greyer than in previous years. Yes, I understand that the rest of my head has become greyer as well. Still, there were many days that I would look in the mirror and say: OK! I know I am 49 years old but I am ONLY 49 years old. I was getting a few comparisons to Kenny Rogers, Red Green, and Santa Claus. It was hardly a ringing endorsement to keep the beard.

True to my word, the walk came. I did two laps around the trail (a total distance of 5 kilometers). We all gathered together after the walk, exchanged hugs, and headed home. Once I got home, I headed upstairs and reached for the clippers. I took a pre-shave picture and a post shave picture and posted them up on Facebook.

This was when I REALLY started to get some responses. A couple of my former teachers told me that my beard made me look handsome and distinguished. Others chimed in and complimented the beard. My older son, Tom, was disappointed that I shaved but he sports a much nicer beard than mine. One friend compared me to the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I’m still not sure how to take that one.

The best feedback came from my old friend Brian. Brian is an ordained pastor for a church in Savannah, GA. I have known Brian since 9th grade. Brian told me that I should grow my beard back. He even backed it up with scripture: “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.” (Proverbs 16:31). I told Brian that I took issue with how old it made me look. Brian reminded me that it is a blessing to live for half a century. THAT was tough to argue. I then told Brian that my other concern was also found in the Bible: “But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.” (I Cor 7:33) It was at this point that Brian began to backpedal. Brian’s basic response is: “Happy wife. Happy life.” Brian is apparently a much wiser man than I thought.

A Curl For A Curl

Howdy Folks! It’s good to be back in the writer’s chair. Before I get into today’s topic, let me just quickly state that I truly appreciate all the support that quite a few of you have given me over my installments of “What A Wonderful Word”. More installments will be coming and I am considering compiling the volumes toward a book but more on that later.

To bring you up to date on another aspect of my life, my wife and I joined a gym at the beginning of this year. My wife and I have weight loss goals which include preparation for our son’s wedding this coming October. The gym membership has had numerous benefits. It provides me with an opportunity to bond with my wife on another level. Of course, the chance to improve my health is a benefit in and of itself. One of the things that motivates me to go to the gym (aside from the number on the scale) is the fact that the gym is less than a five minute drive from my house. I have to drive, walk, or ride my bike past it almost daily. In other worse, I get to associate a building with the absence of the monthly fee money.

Of course, some of you know that I have been on the fitness wagon before. It’s definitely better to be on this wagon than off of it. The reason is that when I go off the wagon, I tend to weigh more than the wagon itself. Of course, this also means that I must (at least three times a week) face two words that make me cringe: fitness circuit.

The fitness circuit is a serious of exercise machines that help you to work muscle groups over the entire body. I have already learned that that are certain machines for which I absolutely have grown a strong dislike (and that is putting it mildly). These machines include the use of verbs such as press, curl, and crunch. It sounds more like a place where a contortionist would audition for a gig.

I can easily declare that if the machine has the word “curl” in it, I am NOT going to like the experience. I sit there doing these very unpleasant exercises and think about all of the times in my life the word “curl” has brought me to this place of penance known as the fitness circuit. Those cheesy snacks that I love so much have a very appealing curl. More than one fast food place serves those delectable fries that curl. Cinnamon rolls? Yup! Another mountain of curly frosted sin. All of those wonderful curly items have brought me to a machine that makes me pay for every consumed curl. It is like I have a Levitical relationship with the fitness circuit. Since I have enjoyed those wonderful curls so much, I must now be subject to them. I must repay a curl for a curl.

Of course, I will yield rewards for every curl, press, lunge, fly, row, and pull-down. I might even get a six pack (since I’ve consumed quite a few sodas over the years).

Finding the AweWow Gland

It started out as a typical Saturday morning. My wife and daughter had some errands to run. As tempting as it was to tag along and surf the waves of estrogen, I decided instead to roam the mall. I like roaming the mall alone. I walk with nothing more than my writing pad. I have found that observing the people, stores, and surroundings of the mall can provide a great source for writing material. I always find something different each time. It can be someone I met, something on display or people who (intentionally or not) make a display of themselves. This Saturday was no exception.

I started off in the bookstore (as I typically do). This helps me to enjoy my exploration with a clear mind. Somehow it helps to cleanse the mental palate. As I worked out of the bookstore, I turned to my left so that I could cover the greatest mall distance. I easily walked not more than 20 feet before my eyes and mind were treated to wonderful visions of beauty. I am talking about sights so beautiful that most men would swoon and drop to their knees. Was it a fashion show? No siree, buddy. It was a car show.

Now, I am not a car aficionado by any stretch of the imagination. I wouldn’t be able to tell you that a 1965 Mustang K series engine came in at 289 cubic inches with 271 horsepower and 10.5:1 compression and a four barrel carburetor unless I went out of my way to look it up (I did). As a matter of fact, I will probably have auto-philes and Mustang fanatics tell me that I just said that entirely wrong. I’m OK with that. Such spewing of facts is usually done around auto-philes to show that you are an authority on the subject (or at least give the illusion) while your friends go “Yup!” and smile with a knowing nod. This allows to to either pass along the same illusion of authority or act in kindness to not expose that you lack it (auto-philes are cool that way).

Still, there’s nothing like a really cool car that has an effect upon any guy who gazes upon it. It stimulates part of the male endocrine system know as the Awewow gland. The gland is located somewhere between the salivary glands and the brain. Doctors have been unable to pinpoint the location of the gland but have been able to verify its presence at every car show. It is called an Awewow gland because whenever a man sees a sweet car, he stops dead in his tracks and says: “AWWWWW! WOWWWWWWWWWWWWW!” It is also shown to be highly active during Super Bowl Sunday and any time that Eddie Van Halen plays Eruption. If they are around other guys, it provokes arm grabbing and elbow poking to draw the other guy’s focus toward the object of desire. It can also be followed by exclamations of: “DUDE! “DUDE! “DUDE! “DUDE!  Soon, two or more guys are going: “AWWWWW! WOWWWWWWWWWWWWW!” in multi-part harmony. Legend has it that a prison riot in 1976 at Poundrock State prison was brought to a grinding halt when a quick thinking prison guard displayed a picture of his 1967 fire engine red Corvette. Suddenly, more than 100 inmates in jumpsuits dropped their handmade weaponry and began saying: “AWWWWW! WOWWWWWWWWWWWWW! DUDE! DUDE! DUDE! DUDE!”  Some say that the the harmonious chanting could be heard as far as 10 miles away.

I couldn’t JUST stand in awe of these cars.  I took out my mobile phone and started snapping pictures of these wonderful machines (Yup! It’s another bulleted list):

  • 1973 lime green Pontiac Firebird
  • 1968 turquoise Olds Cutlass
  • 1965 sky blue Mustang. My dad used to have this same model but his was royal blue.
  • 1956 burgundy/white Chevy Bel-Air. This one was really cool because it had a rose etched into the quarter glass.
  • 1971 black/white Chevy Chevelle. This color theme was accentuated throughout the car with plush skunks.

As sweet as all of these cars were to see, I got the biggest AweWow stimulation when I gazed upon a 1939 lemon yellow Lincoln Zephyr. This car wasn’t just a display. It was a SHOW! The car had suicide doors. The engine was decorated with blinking Christmas lights. On display inside the trunk was a replica of the Zephyr right down to the lemon yellow finish. To top it all off, there was a mannequin wearing a yellow baseball hat, a yellow scarf,  crème pumps, and fishnet stockings. 

It was shortly after this that my wife called to pick me up. I put away my handwritten observations and my mobile phone and met them outside. Of course, I couldn’t resist the photos with my son in law (an auto-phile). When he saw the photo of the 1956 Bel-Air he couldn’t stop himself: “AWWWWW! WOWWWWWWWWWWWWW! DUDE! DUDE! DUDE! DUDE!”

Blessings Are Intense (Past, Present and Future)

I have spent the last four and a half years working on a Tier I technical support team. I applied and interviewed for this job after being laid off from a contract job as a software tester. This work has a daily exercise of communicating with colleagues (who are often seated less than a foot away from me) as we work together to resolve issues reported by our clients (who are located all over the world).

When I first took the job, I felt very nervous about the learning curve. Technical support was a noticeably different role than software tester. I leaned a lot on my more experienced peers in the beginning. Over the months that follow, I was able to retain more and more of the knowledge I was picking up and work somewhat more independently. About a year and a half later, I earned a promotion. The new position involved more leadership and coaching. It also came with its series of adjustments and learning curves. I would like to tell you I gracefully accepted each learning challenge easily but honesty forbids me to do so. I would come to learn more than once that is is sometimes just as challenging (if not more so) to be the one DOING the coaching than to be the one receiving the coaching.

Fast forward to today. Three years have past since that promotion. After a series of interviews with my boss and the the folks in human relations, I have been offered (and accepted) a promotion to a new position within the same company. This new position continues the evolution of my leadership and coaching roles. One of the rubs in this new position is that I will be leading a team for a completely different client than the work for which I have served for the last 4 and a half years. I will no longer be sitting and working alongside the same group of people whom I have had the privilege of call my peers. I get to learn a new client, a new product, a new set of processes and a new team. Like the previous positions, it will involve challenges and learning curves. But I have come to learn over my adult years that a job that shows no learning opportunities indicates one of two things: a) I am not a good fit for that job (or vice versa) or b) I am not looking in the right places to find such opportunities.

Although I am very excited and humbled about this promotion, I found myself being forced to reflect on the state of my life ten years ago at this time. Ten years ago at this time, I was unemployed. The unemployment came as the result of a layoff from a contract job as a software tester (Yes, I see the pattern too). The layoff came in November of 2002. As of January 2004, I was not only STILL unemployed but my unemployment benefits had exhausted. I was without a steady source of income and was unable to retain employment anywhere. The job market was THAT bad. The streak of unemployment would last another 4 months. It was a ROUGH ride but my family and I got through it.

So, these changes in circumstances provoke some questions. I ask myself these questions as a means to keep my ego in check. My wife and kids might argue that I ask these question simply because I like to hear myself talk. Still the questions (and my responses) are as follows (YUP! You guessed it. It’s a bulleted list:

  • Did you get your second promotion in 3 years because of your enormous talents? Yes and no. While there was SOME talent involved. I wouldn’t have some of those skill sets without the influence of my colleagues an my superiors who have invested in my development. My boss wasn’t won over by me doing a Jedi mind trick. I know this because my new job does not include a company car nor a Lear jet (and my boss kept asking why I constantly wore a brown hoodie and stared intently during the interview).
  • So, if it wasn’t talent alone, did you get the promotion because you simply got lucky? That is a simple and emphatic NO! First of all, I am not a proponent of luck. Lottery winners aren’t lucky. The laws of probability played in their favor. Furthermore, calling it luck implies that I did nothing to earn the position and that my boss doesn’t have the gumption to make a decision. You will never convince me that either of those premises are true.
  • OK, so if it isn’t luck and it isn’t talent alone (as you pompously previously asserted), then what IS it? That answer is also simple. I have been BLESSED. I was blessed ten years ago during that stretch of unemployment. During that time, my family never was without clothing, food or a home. It was not an ideal situation and it was a hug toll emotionally. Still, I was blessed. If I can see that I was blessed during an ordeal such as that, you can rest assured that I KNOW I am blessed now.

The job that I have held over the last four years has been very rewarding. I am very grateful to have worked alongside such great people. Still, I look forward to the new memories that will be created alongside a new team. Jim Croce wrote a beautiful love song about saving time in a bottle. I love Croce’s music and songwriting but I don’t intend just to bottle away good memories. I intend to take the bottle and christen the ship of my future. OK, that was WAY too pompous for even me. Let me put it in a way like my Dad would say it. In short, I intend to take my blessing and pray for lockjaw.


The Doctrine of Drama Part II: Does Daylight Make The Difference?

About 5 years ago, I wrote a piece about soap operas call “The Doctrine of Drama”. Like most other pieces, I wrote about my general observations on the subject. Like most Southern young men, I was reluctantly exposed to soap operas at the hand of my mother.

As a result, over the years, I began to notice some cardinal rules about soap operas. I will list them here for reference but will not elaborate as much as I did in the original (hoping that you will also read the original piece, of course).

1. Silence is golden while viewing the soap opera. Otherwise, you’ll hear a SHUSH that sounds like a school bus just lost its air brakes.

2. Viewers tend to have an allegiance to a particular network for their soap operas.

3. A Digital Video Recorder (or DVR) will have its hard drive dominated by soap operas due so that viewers miss NOTHING (except commercials).

4. Abandon all sense of reality all ye who view the soap opera. One character actually had a hysterectomy and then turned up pregnant several years later. Such turns of events are normal in the soap opera world and viewers DO NOT CARE.

5. Lastly, the soap opera is not a passing fancy. The soap opera has its origins in radio. Sponsors wanted to create a series that would cater to the consumers of their soap products (dish soap, laundry detergent, etc.). These shows and their sponsors and their viewers are not going away.

Now, 5 years later, I found that there was a potential addendum to this list. My wife found it odd that an evening drama show was referred to as a soap opera. My wife feels that a show can only be called a soap opera if it is aired during the daytime. My previous piece on this subject gives some weight to this line of thinking. Still, my wife’s point of view intrigued me. Therefore, I pose the following questions: Does the time slot truly dictate what can be called a soap. Is Grey’s Anatomy not a soap opera as opposed to General Hospital? After all, both are centered around hospitals and have a ton of inter-weaving relationships and storylines in their respective words. Is Victor Newman (The Young & The Restless) more of a soap opera patriarch than Robert Crawley (Downton Abbey)? Frankly, the only major distinction I see is that the night time shows of this genre tend to take place in real cities while the daytime locales are often fictional. Still, that may be due to a throwback to the radio days from which many soap operas derived. The primary audience of a daytime drama also tends to be a significant part of the night time counterpart audience. Also, they compete for awards on a (slightly) different platform. Think about this: how long would Susan Lucci have gone without an Emmy even there were more actresses competing for the coveted prize?

Since I wanted to get a more diverse viewpoint on the issue (and I truly have no stance in this debate), I decide to use social networking to get a poll amongst my friends. This did not help as it only revealed that there is an evenly divided camp on the issue. While everyone who responded was very respectful of those with differing viewpoints, they were pretty firm in their stance on the issue. Some simply stated that drama itself occurs at any time (day or night). One even stipulated that the term “soap opera” has been watered down over the years and therefore night time shows would fall under that watered down umbrella (You see what I did there?). Others, like my wife, simply state that a night time show is not a soap opera. The  time slot makes all the difference in the world. Either way, no matter what you call the shows, they are here to stay. I will allow you, the viewer, to decide. I will let my wife and the rest of the world watch these shows and categorize them as they see fit. I, on the other hand, will watch something more grounded in reality (like Batman or James Bond).

Honest, It Really WAS Funny

I am quite sure that I have mentioned more than once previously that I have spent the majority of the last 12+ years working in the Information Technology (IT) field in one capacity or another. I have spent 4 of those years working in technical support but much of my experience prior to that was in software and hardware testing. Such work involves testing a current (or prototype) product to be sure that it functions as it was designed. If you do this and it works, you report said outcome. If you do that and it stops working, you have a potential defect in the product. This is what is known in the industry as a bug. According to legend, it is called a bug because, back in the days when a computer took up the space of a small gymnasium and ran on a bunch of vacuum tubes and whatnot (also an IT term), a moth flew into the back of one such computer. The moth gave his life in the process but also brought the computer to a halt. I can’t help but wonder if this legendary event also led to the ultimate invention of the bug zapper.
Anyway, I digress (I know, what else is new). The reason why I started off sharing that piece of my job history, as well as IT history, is that there are certain habits that have come up as a result of my work experience. For example, when I document things, I tend to give a lot of step by step details. This is a very important habit when you work in IT and well as in healthcare (which I did prior to my IT work). It is, so I am told, rather annoying when I am having a conversation with my family. Another habit I have acquired is frequent saving when I am writing something. Even as I type this, I will frequently hit a keyboard shortcut to save what I have typed so far (Ctrl + S for PC users). I have also come to rely heavily on a feature called AutoSave. This basically means that, at certain intervals, the software I am using will automatically save my work. This is apparently because IT developers thought hitting Ctrl + S or clicking on that little floppy disc icon was just too hard.
Recently, I was typing up a new essay. I was REALLY getting into a groove with it. I was listening to some music and the words were flowing from my fingers to the virtual page like a Vegas fountain. I could even see a light show in my head. I love it when moments like this happen in my writing. When everything just flows and weaves almost like the song I am listening to when I type. It is truly a blissful moment when I get really lost in my writing process. I had even come up with what I thought was a funny ending line to my piece. All I had left to write was the title and the piece would be ready for my Lovely Young Editor (LYE) to review.
I sat back for a moment lost in my moment of bliss as I pondered on a title and even giggled at my ending line. This moment of bliss would be short lived as suddenly and inexplicably, my computer froze. Moving my finger furious on the glide pad did nothing. Hitting random keystrokes was equally fruitless. Even deliberate keystrokes (such as Ctrl + Alt + Delete) did nothing.
As I sat and pondered, the computer remained in its frozen state. It almost seemed to mock me and my years of experience. Finally, I relented to the only choice I had at the time. I did a hard shutdown of my computer. I sat and waited a moment or two before started it back up so that I could retain some composure over this very inconvenient event. I even pondered for a moment about the title for the piece that I wrote while my system was coming back up.
I opened up my blog writing software. I was eager to look over the piece once more and give it a title. It was at this moment that I found out a harsh reality about this writing software. The software has an AutoSave feature BUT it is not turned on by default. That’s right, people. All that wonderful, flowing, blissful writing was GONE. There was not one iota of indication that I had typed even a single character…ZILCH…ZIP..NADA..GOOSE EGG. I sat there with a completely deflated ego. I couldn’t believe that I had not once done a single keystroke or mouse click to save my work at any point. All that work and I had no results; just excuses. What made is worse is that the deflation of my ego also apparently let out my recall of what I had type. I tried to remember what I had typed…ZILCH…ZIP..NADA..GOOSE EGG. All I could remember was that ending line that made me giggled before my computer froze: “This is my quest…to follow my matter how hopeless…no matter how far (then again maybe I am just being a bit quixotic)”. I promise you that in the context of what I was writing before my computer froze, that line was a real knee slapper. So lesson learned: change the settings to AutoSave my work, hit Ctrl + S anyway and click the floppy mouse icon just to be sure. Otherwise, you wind up like an umpire at a Braves Wild Card playoff game trying to explain the infield fly rule that costs the Braves a run (or two). You wind up with years of experience, inexcusable results, and a pocketful of excuses (I know it was last season but I am still not happy about it).