Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Late Bloomer

In the late 1980s, I was a high school kid living in the upper middle-class suburbs of northern Houston.  Average is an appropriate word to describe me at that time.  I wasn't an athlete, nor was I an outstanding student.  While I had enough sense to stay clear of trouble makers, I wasn't a member of the National Honor Society either.  I was somewhere in my school's vast middle.  To most people, I was a standard American teenage boy.  I wore blue jeans and Nike sneakers and drove a beautiful 1968 Chevelle that I tinkered with in an endless effort to make faster.  I had a steady girlfriend, and a part-time job paid for gas, fast food and issues of Hot Rod magazine.  But I had a problem.  I had a character flaw that caused me grief.  When it came to schoolwork, I was lazy.
Scolding after scolding didn't improve my lack of effort in the classroom.  My father, a dedicated businessman with a fierce work ethic, sat me down one night in the living room and told me that my grades would have lasting effects on my path in life.  “You have the ability to do anything you want, but you have to work for it, son,” he told me.
One October evening during my senior year, my high school hosted an event called College Night.  Recruiters from institutions all over the country lined the cafeteria in booths decorated in colleges' colors and livery.  Many of my friends' parents, with their sons or daughters in tow, shook hands with recruiters and earnestly talked about grade point averages and tuition.  People smiled and carried pamphlets and folders of literature.  Many gravitated toward booths of well-known state universities, while several expensive private schools were also popular.  But amidst the excitement, my mood quickly darkened.  As I suspected, my grades were far too low to be accepted to any of the schools I found attractive.  I returned home that night dripping with self-doubt.
After College Night, nearly all of my friends began laying plans to attend college, while I carried on with no motivation to improve my situation.  Although there were times when I proved that studying yielded favorable results, I normally exerted just enough effort to earn a passing grade, and sometimes not even that.  In May of 1990, I graduated from high school in the bottom half of my class with an equally anemic SAT score.  One night I drove to a secluded place in the woods and sat alone on the hood of my car, staring into the sky through pine trees, begging for some sort of inspiration.  The only thing that came were tears.
In the fall, my friends moved away into dorms to be full-time university students, and I stayed in Houston to attend classes at a community college that had no acceptance requirements.  Still without a plan, I reasoned that I would simply transfer into a university.
If my grades in high school were weak, then my first three semesters of college were atrocious.  I accomplished nothing and decided to stop taking classes until I figured out what I wanted to do.  I found a job at an upscale deli and spent nearly a year slicing meats, baking potatoes, making soups and serving sandwiches to long lines of customers.  At closing time, I scrubbed the floors and cleaned the walk-in cooler, then drove home stinking of cold cuts and dill relish.  My friends came home from college during holiday breaks, telling me of their experiences.  I pined at their stories.  The feeling of failure weighed heavily on me, and I wondered how people perceived me.
The rumble of a personal revolution stirred within me.  Not all at once, but slowly, my parents' wisdom took root, as I finally understood the urgency of having only one chance to navigate through life.  I felt I was squandering my one chance and living well short of my potential.  I was finally ready to work for a something better.
In the spring of 1993, with limited money, I enrolled in two classes at the community college.  I attended classes in the morning, worked at the deli until it closed, then came home at night and pored over my homework before eventually collapsing into bed, exhausted.  I was driven to push myself in school for the first time in years.  The results were exhilarating.  At the end of that semester I earned my first A in college.  I enrolled in classes every term, including summer sessions.  One by one, I retook the classes I had previously failed, replacing poor grades with good grades.  My GPA ticked upward, and by the end of the fall semester in 1993, it finally made sense to ponder what college I wanted to attend.  Wanting desperately to redeem myself, I remembered some of the private universities from College Night and imagined myself as a graduate.  Baylor University made a positive impression on me, maybe because many of my high school classmates who went there after graduation were the “Most-Likely-To-Succeed” types.  It was a quiet idea that I kept to myself, but maybe I could still go to Baylor, I thought.
I made a phone call to inquire about transferring into Baylor as a full-time student.  When the school literature arrived in my mailbox, I ripped the package open like a child on Christmas morning and read every word of  the brochures and booklets.  So, this is the way my classmates felt on college night, I thought.  I quickly scheduled a campus visit and a meeting with the admission's office.  My dad, who was understandably skeptical of my new lofty pursuit, went with me.  I knew Baylor was within reach, and my parents' doubtfulness only intensified my resolve to follow through.
A smiling admissions counselor greeted me with a handshake before I handed her my transcripts.  A twinge of anxiety tickled my stomach, knowing she would see the dismal grades of my first few semesters.  I explained that I was taking two classes not yet on my transcripts.  After taking a few uncomfortable minutes to review my academic past, the lady began typing my grades into her computer.  My dad sat calmly next to me, allowing me to handle my own affairs.
The lady finally turned to me, smiling, and said, “Let's project the grades you anticipate making this semester.”
“I'll make an A in both classes, Geology and English Literature,” I answered, a bit too confidently.
“Great,” she replied, then typed them into her computer.  A moment later, she looked at me and smiled again.  “Well, if you get an A in both classes,” she said, pausing, “you will meet the credit and GPA requirements to transfer in the fall.”  I struggled to contain the surge of joy that shot through me.  My campaign to rebuild myself was working.
I was gripped by elation the rest of the day.  Sharing a comfortable glass-sided tram with other prospective students and their parents, my dad and I viewed the campus, learning the impressive history of the school's stately brick buildings.  We saw students with backpacks crisscrossing the campus on sidewalks adorned with decorative black lamp posts.  Benches were situated in the soothing shade of century-old oak trees that canopied over manicured green grass.  Later, we ate lunch in one of the student dining halls and attended a party where prospective students enjoyed root beer floats and mingled with faculty members in an opulent ballroom.  Baylor University was extending an invitation, and I planned to accept.
I returned home to earn an A in both of my classes and complete the admissions application and lengthy financial aid forms.  My acceptance letter arrived a few weeks later.  On August 18, 1994, with a fully packed car, I left the community college, the deli and my laziness far behind.  I drove north – to Baylor.
There are occasions when I still have to explain why I graduated from college seven years after high school.  When I look at my Baylor diploma hanging proudly on the wall of my study, I hold the years of reinventing myself very dear, knowing I did everything I could to restore my teenage shortcomings.  I've achieved other notable successes since college, but none without focused effort.  I quietly promise to make sure my two little boys understand that the arduous road I took could have been much smoother if I had started with a clear objective and let determination drive my steps along the way.  I often imagine the conversations I will surely have with my sons, and as I watch them grow up, I find myself hoping that they listen to their dad better than I did.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Art of Focusing

I was a kid who drew pictures. I was good at it. I had an ability to see something on paper before I even picked up the pencil. Oh, there were kids who were better at it than I was, but I was pretty good.  I recall getting a sketch pad and charcoal drawing pencils for Christmas eve when I was about twelve.  While the grown-ups talked and laughed and drank wine, I could be found sketching a cat with my new pad and pencils.  Then, when I finished the cat, I drew a horse.  And I'm not even an animal lover.

I took an art class in seventh grade.  The teacher's name was Mr. Shaber.  He was a miserable, grumpy man who didn't seem to know how to smile, which I found odd for an art teacher.  He wore pointy-toed cowboy boots and cheap Sansabelt slacks that flared at the bottom.  The class was a general introduction to various art mediums.  One week we made pottery.  Then we tooled leather.  The next week we were taught about perspective drawings.  I learned a lot in that class.  But I got the underlying impression that he wished he would have done something else with his life.  I was old enough to know that he didn't make a very good living.  I suppose I drew the conclusion that all artists are poor and don't have any marketable skills. So, they they struggle to sell their artwork to pay their bills, or they become underpaid art teachers.  Either way didn't seem like a great life plan to me.

Fast forward to my college years.  I continued to believe that artists were people who went through life without any real drive to be successful, which was in sharp contrast to what I wanted for myself.  I openly admit that I wanted to make money.  So, I did what many people do when they aren't exactly sure what they want to do:  I became a business major.  Most of the required business curriculum -- accounting, finance, management, statistics -- was awful.  Throughout all of it, I heard a nagging little voice:  You don't like this stuff.  Do something you genuinely enjoy.  Although I don't remember how or when, I began to develop an interest in photography.  One day my grandmother was nice enough to buy me a Canon EOS Rebel camera, which I began teaching myself how to use when I wasn't at the library doing accounting homework or studying business law.  Taking pictures became a way of satisfying the part of me that was starved for something creative.  On a few occasions, I visited the communications school on campus and spoke with photojournalism or photography professors.  They were so much different than Mr. Shaber.  They were actually happy, and they openly discussed any questions I had about my camera or about photography.  I contemplated changing my major to photojournalism.  But again, I let the practical side win, and I remained a student of business.

Now I'm 40 years old.  I haven't pursued photography at all.  Instead, I've pursued other things with all my force.  But that little voice still nags at me:  When are you going to get on with it?  I gave in a bit when I finally replaced my old Canon EOS Rebel 35 mm camera, which was covered with a layer of dust, with a new Nikon D3000 digital SLR.  I've made the quiet, personal commitment to become a really good photographer.  Unlike my other endeavors in life, learning to take great photos doesn't require expensive training or licenses or exams.  I just take the lens cover off, click on the camera and shoot.  If I don't like the shot, I push the delete button.

I still hear the practical voice asking Why are you wasting your time and energy on that?  You know you can't make a living that way.  But this time, I tell that voice to cram it.

Visit my Flickr photostream at

Friday, March 2, 2012

Is There a Cure for Test Anxiety?

I should be asleep right now.  The house is quiet and dark.  The computer tells me it's 1:11 a.m.  The monitor is shedding a soft glow onto my face and arms.  I spent the last two hours trying to coerce my mind to calm down.  It told me to cram it and continued blaring away and worrying.  So, I starred at the ceiling, then the walls, then a book.  And here I am writing.  This happens to me every year around the time my proficiency check approaches.

Every 12 months, airline pilots endure an exam whereby our knowledge and skills are tested in a simulator to ensure our proficiency.  Non-pilots who fly as passengers on airliners almost always say the same thing.  "Well, I'm glad they do that," They comment.  And I can certainly understand why they feel that way.  But for the pilots, it can be quite a nerve-wracking event.  Our career paths hang in the balance.

I begin studying for these things two months out.  Many of my days off are largely spent pacing the room as I review and re-memorize data about the SAAB 340 and our company's operating rules.  Then I sit in a chair, staring at the wall and pretending to fly the maneuvers in an imaginary flight deck.  Pilots call that "chair flying", by the way.  And although this method of preparation has always proven to yield successful results, I cannot shake the thought of how easy it is to make one small mistake that could ding my training record.  This would only intensify the difficulty of securing a job with a major airline.

Because I hold the title of check airman, I am subject to even tighter standards by the simulator instructor.  Wonderful.  And this is what churns my worry.  What if he is in a bad mood that day?  What if he, for any reason, just doesn't like me?  Or what if I have a tough time on a certain maneuver?  What if...?

Ugh.  I can feel my jitters getting worse.  Oh, enough.  No more.  That sort of talk only escalates my anxiety and makes me want to run away to an island.

Here's what I'm going to do.  I will continue to study.  I will continue to prepare.  And I will walk into the exam as sharp as I can make myself.  After all, I was sharp enough to become a captain.  And I was sharp enough to pass proficiency checks in the past.  And afterwards, when I pass the exam, I will get in my car and go have a great meal.  Or go buy something nice.  And that's my plan.

Now, if I could just get some sleep...

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Plan (I suppose)

In my teenage years and in my early twenties, I confidently scoffed at those who told me I needed to find Jesus.  They would tell me that he is the only way to successfully navigate through this life.  I, on the other hand, believed that we are in charge of our own lives with the choices we make.  After all, I had built my own outcomes with hard work and focus on things I wanted to achieve.  I recall explaining to a classmate at Baylor that God is created by man to replace what is not understood, which is why the ancient Greeks had a god for so many things - love, war, seas, thunder, light.  These were things of which they had no academic knowledge.  So, they invented a god or goddess to fill in the holes.

I don't have those same beliefs anymore.  I actually keep my personal beliefs to myself these days, so I won't submit those into this discussion.  But I've very recently begun to fancy the concept of a pre-arranged plan.  I'm not sure if I genuinely believe it, but it's no less plausible than anything else.  When my wife and I watched The Adjustment Bureau recently, I found myself deeply engaged in the concept in the film.  Throughout the movie, I asked myself the obvious question: What if we are not actually captains of our own destiny, but living a pre-arranged plan instead?  If nothing else, it's an entertaining idea to contemplate.

I began to feel a distant calm when I considered this idea on a personal level.  Lately, I have been experiencing a bit of frustration with regard to my career.  Despite my most sincere efforts, none of my applications have resulted in interview offers.  But if you consider that some plan for me may exist and any deviations from that plan are quickly adjusted back, it removes the idea that there is something wrong or unappealing about my résumé.

I have wondered about the uncanny timing of my wife dogsitting her parents' dog.  If she had not been right there, right then, walking that dog, then I would not have seen her when I parked my car after class.  And that means I wouldn't have asked her out on a date.  I also think about a couple of near misses I've had while driving.  I have often wondered how it was possible that I came out uninjured or without impacting anything at all. And the elimination of my position at the bank -- just a month after passing my CFI practical exam.  It's as if the plan for me was to stop the office job and begin my path as a pilot.  And let's not forget about how badly I wanted to fly for ExpressJet.  If that had come true, I would have ended up a furloughed first officer.  So, if I can stop myself long enough to sit down and really think about things, I find it all so fascinating.

I suppose I shouldn't be so impatient with how things unfold.  I should take the appropriate opportunities as they present themselves and continue working hard.  But I'll say this:  If there is actually a pre-arranged plan for me, I sincerely hope it doesn't leave me flying a SAAB 340 for a financially challenged regional airline, because I think that would be a bad plan.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Memories of Green and Gold

The old bells from atop Pat Neff Hall resonated across the stately campus.  Evenly spaced lamp posts casting soft light into the night shed a glow onto the red brick pathways.  A student or two sauntered by, but most were elsewhere, leaving me and my thoughts alone to ponder my new situation.  For me, it all seemed too good to be true.  I wondered how many others sat on that very bench.  How many others may have felt the very way I felt?  I took the walk to that bench after moving all of my things into my new room just two blocks away.  Classes for the fall 1994 semester would begin in a couple days, and I had time to explore this wonderful, albeit somewhat intimidating, new place.

Being at Baylor was my chance to be the version of myself that I wanted to be -- me, reinvented.  Even in those days, I drew parallels between life and automobiles.  So, I felt like I had been unveiled after two years of intense redesigning.  I was a version of myself that only slightly reflected what I was before.  If I were advertising myself in a television ad, the voiceover would have been something like, Introducing the all-new 1994 Jerome Cone.  Excellence through evolution.

So, it was wonderful to walk on those same brick pathways again just two days ago.  So much was exactly as it was in 1994.  Yet there were several new buildings and additions that added to the campus' romance.  Even the new buildings had been designed to appear as if they had been there all along, complete with red brick exteriors and tall steeples pointing toward the heavens.  Things were in full vigor as students made their way from one class to the next, riding bikes and walking beneath the 150 year-old oak trees.  Many listened to iPods, while others laughed with fellow students as they strolled.

I felt a tinge of envy.  There was a slight urge to return to a time when my only responsibilities were to study and learn.  Stepping into marble-lined walls of the Hankamer School of Business, I was thrown back to a time when I studied the disciplines of accounting and finance and marketing.  My mouth watered a bit when I saw that a financial markets lab had been added.  It was a state-of-the-art room with flat panel computer monitors showing real-time market data scrolling across.   CNN Money played on two large flat panel TVs mounted on the wall.  I think I would have enjoyed a class in there.

After a bit more strolling around, I eventually had to make my way back to the Marriot Courtyard where I would ready myself for a day of work.  Later, as the airplane climbed out over the Waco, I looked down at the campus and felt a lasting surge of positivity.  I mentioned none of my campus visit to my first officer, as he would almost certainly not understand my sentiments.  So, I kept things to myself and enjoyed the glow I felt from within.

Thank you, Baylor, for all the memories.  I'll visit again soon.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Weight of Practicality

It was a bit of a cliche really.  We climbed out of our Camry and assembled all of our gear for the simple task of strolling around the Toyota new car lot.  Most of the gear - the stroller and huge diaper bag - was on account of Elliot.  Once everything was assembled and properly stowed, the four of us set out to determine which model would eventually replace our domestic and, thus, poorly designed Chrysler 300.  We started out looking at the smaller Rav4.  Then we looked at the larger and more expensive Highlander.  Very nice.  Next we perused briefly the Tacoma pick-ups.  No.  Then, we happened upon something unexpected.  I saw a model to which I had never given any attention.  Yet, today, it caught my eye.

It's called the Toyota Sienna.  And it is a mini van.

For those of you who know me, I expect at least a few well-crafted quips about the idea of me owning a mini van.  Still, I forced myself to set aside my ego and give the Sienna a fair shake.  I opened the door and sat in its comfortable, roomy interior.  It was equipped with the standard stuff you would expect a soccer mom mini van to have: automatic transmission, power locks, windows, mirrors, seats, dual controlled air conditioning, power side doors... you know... mini van stuff.  I started the engine and eased it onto the I-35 feeder road.  The ride was quiet and smooth.  Hardly any road noise at all.  A small green light on the instrument panel read ECO.  "What does this mean?"  I asked the salesman, pointing at the light.
     "That means your fuel consumption is within an economical range,"  He explained.  I also noticed the console between the front two seats could be removed and replaced with a cooler.  I thought of vacations we took as kids.  We had coolers packed with Capri Suns and fruit.  The entire vehicle is designed for the sensible, practical, often vacationing, family.

The entire experience sparked childhood memories.  I pondered what my dad must have felt when he bought the vans he and my mom owned.  You see, my dad is a performance car lover from way back.  He's been launched down quarter-mile tracks in rumbling hot rods, and he's tasted the craftsmanship of his turbocharged Porsche.  And yet, when the time came for him to succumb to the weight of sensibility, he purchased the family multiple luxury vans and station wagons throughout my childhood years.  When I was in elementary school, it never occurred to me how eager he must have been to drive something for himself.  Yet, I don't recall him ever complaining about driving the vans.  He just drove them.

When I pulled the Sienna back into the Toyota lot.  I couldn't find anything critical to say about it.  Quite simply, it was more comfortable than anything we've owned.  It was quieter.  It was smoother.  And with the rear seats removed, there was enough room to fit a full-size refrigerator and a ten-speed bicycle.  Unlike the Chrysler, the build quality was good, as well.  This as evidenced by my trusty door-closing test.  Everything just made way too much sense.

We climbed back into our Camry and drove away, pretty sure that we would be mini van owners before long.

I suppose there are worse things.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Hero

The other night, the familiar tune of I've Got a Crush on You drifted from my pocket.  It was Blythe calling.  In the midst of wrestling my flight case into a dark cockpit, I wasn't able to answer it.  Once in my seat, I returned her call.  The conversation began as it usually does.  'Hey there.'  'How's it going?'  'Everything good?'  That is, until she told me that she had been in an accident.  I knew from her calmness that everyone must be okay.  I asked anyway.  "Who was in the car?  Is everyone okay?"  My stomach sank.

"Everyone is fine."  She assured me.  "But the Corolla is, well, dead I'm afraid.  We hit a deer, baby.  It was a ten-point buck, actually."

My imagination snapped to what sort of damage a buck can inflict upon a small commuter car.  Images of the animal smashing through the windshield and into the cabin filled my thoughts.  The mere idea of anything bad happening to the three people who were in the car made me nauseous.    Jakob, Elliot and Blythe were driving home from my mother's house when the deer darted through the darkness and across the highway.  My entire world was in the car.

Even after her phone call ended and Blythe had assured me that all was okay.  My imagination continued to generate scenarios that could have happened with only the slightest difference in her reactions or in how the deer impacted the car.  Hitting one of the many huge oak trees that line the highway or a telephone pole is all too plausible.  It would only take a flick of the steering wheel in the wrong direction, and things could have been infinitely worse.

Today, I went to the lot where the wrecker driver deposited our car.  It was my first viewing of the car since the accident.  It was a bit like seeing a friend in the last of days of life.  The damage from the deer was far worse than I had imagined.  I stood and looked at the car who treated our family with such compassion and sense of duty.  It was not unlike a dear old friend who had always been there to help.  Even after we recently bought a newer and much nicer Camry, and the Corolla had long since been entirely paid off, we simply could not bring ourselves to sell the Corolla.  It was, after all, a family member.  We intended to drive it until it simply would no longer run, until the engine seized or the transmission disintegrated.  But with more than 296,000 hassle-free miles on it, we weren't sure that day would ever come.

I removed our belongings from the car and thought about the day in 2003 when Blythe and I bought it new.  But today I sat in the driver's seat and looked at the shifter knob.  The once-textured rubber of the knob is now smooth and shiny from eight years of shifting through its five gears.  I unscrewed the worn knob from the gear shifter and slid it into my pocket.  Although we signed the car's title to the salvage yard so its parts could be used as scrap, the shifter knob will stay with me.  And when I look at it, I will always remember the best car I have ever owned.

Thank you, little Corolla.  For everything.