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Friday, November 1, 2013

Happy 30th Birthday, Dodge Caravan!

30 years ago tomorrow, the Dodge Caravan was let loose on America and the world. While it has been mocked over the years for various reasons, mostly for being "uncool", it was revolutionary in the auto industry at the time (and oddly, somehow cooler than a station wagon) and became so popular in its day that Chrysler couldn't keep up with demand.

I only mention this because in the spring of 1985 I was hired by Lear Siegler, a Chrysler contractor, to build seats for this new modern marvel in their St Charles, MO facility. And for the three years I was there, boy howdy, did we build seats.

The plant ran 6 days a week, 8 hours a day with 2 shifts. It was broken up into the "front row" module where six teams built the front seats, "2nd row" module where four teams built the short, mid row seats, and a "third row" module where four teams built the longer, third row seat.

The initial rollout from Lear Siegler was slow and poor at best. Trying to keep up with a massive demand while building a new infrastructure caused supply chain delays, which was nothing compared to the quality issues with the product that did finally get delivered.

Another problem we initially faced was that the specific Lear Siegler plant that I worked at was non-union when it opened. If you've never dealt with a union, especially the UAW when it was still strong, then you've never seen how a union "operates". We would work hard and find our groove only to have half of a shipment return with "quality" issues. Those quality issues included, but weren't limited to, various scratches and scuffs, outright knife cuts in the shape of an X across the back of a seat and, my personal favorite, forklift holes through the front of the seat. For the record, the seats were attached to a metal pallet with plenty of built in forklift holes on every side. I'm not sure how a driver could miss those holes by that much, but hey, we were taking their jobs and they had a point to make. Needless to say, said point was made and very soon after opening, we were a union shop.

Early on, I was chosen to be part of the efficiency evaluation for building the 3rd row seat. A company was brought in and they set up cameras on select individuals in each department to videotape how we went about building these seats. They used these videos to evaluate our movements to determine not only what changes we should make in our motion, like what items we should pick up first, what order we should build the seats and what direction we should walk in general, but also determined exactly how many seats we should be able to build per hour and per day, taking in various factors such as climate, noise and fatigue.

On the day of the evaluation, my supervisor, who had been a builder just weeks prior and was promoted to management ("white shirts" is what we used to call them), came over to me and, with a clap on the back and with a chummy but fatherly voice, told me that it was "...important that I give them something good to evaluate" and "...that I should do my best to ignore the cameras and people and act like they weren't there filming and to make sure I work extra hard to make everyone look good to corporate" and " important this was to everyone's career at Lear, if you get my drift" (read: his career at Lear). I nodded in all the right places and continued to prepare my work station as I did every morning. Shortly after the white shirt walked away, my union rep came over and, with a clap on the back and with a chummy but fatherly voice told me to "...make sure you don't overdo it. We all gotta stick together here and if you give them too much, they'll expect it all the time. I know you'll do us proud". I nodded in all the right places and continued to prepare my workstation as I did every morning.

Now mind you, none of these evaluators had ever built a seat before nor had any of them actually worked in an auto assembly plant, but they determined that based on environment and other factors we should be able to easily build 12 seats per hour at minimum and we eventually settled on 110 seats a day, per module, per shift. To put that into perspective, that's 110 seats per day, times six days, times four modules, times two shifts, for a total of 5280 third row seats per week. Per WEEK! And this plant didn't shut down for more than 4 or 5 weeks in a year for model changes or holidays. We were building Caravans so fast we would work through the Christmas holidays.

We cranked out seats at a record pace. We were a "Just In Time" company, meaning the Lear Siegler builders filled a huge "bank" made of pallet shelving with all of the seats that were on the production schedule over at the Chrysler building in advance of Chrysler needing it. On the other side of this bank were drive through bays where the semi-trucks would pull in with soft side panels on their side, meaning the side of the trailer would pull back like a shower curtain, and forklifts would load the trucks from the side in the order of the upcoming build. The trucks would pull away and, in less than 30 minutes, would be unloaded over at the Chrysler plant and begin to get installed in the vans immediately. Any delays in this process would shut the line down at Chrysler at great expense to Lear Siegler. And yes, it happened occasionally.

Near the end of my third year at Lear Siegler I suffered from injuries to both of my hands brought on by the constant pounding of the material on the seats to get the seams to line up properly. I would have worked through it but, due to union issues we were having with Lear, it looked as though the company would close the plant to break the union, so it was a good time to get my hands repaired via surgery. As expected, the plant was closed just as I was recovered and we were laid off. I understand the plant re-opened, hiring back many of the same employees it had when it shuttered but I moved on to my next stage in life in the entertainment lighting industry.

I look back fondly on those days. My father had worked for a time in the industrial machine as a UAW employee building carburetors in the 1970's when manufacturing was waning. That machine ebbs and flows as it has throughout automotive history. And when it ebbs, times are tough for the everyone involved in the supply chain.

But during the heyday of the Dodge Caravan, the American machine was humming a sweet song. One that kept soccer moms moving 10 years before the term was even coined.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mayo The Force Be With You

I really like sandwiches. There's something to be said for a food that can be as simple as a piece of bread with a slice of cheese when you're in a hurry or as complex as, let's say, The Bomb Sandwich made in good old New York, NY, which consists of ham, turkey, salami, pepperoni, mortadella, American, Swiss and provolone cheeses, shredded lettuce, tomato, onion, black olives, marinated hot peppers, dressing, mustard, mayo…. and a free trip to the medical center of your choice.

One of my favorite condiments for a sandwich is mayonnaise. Specifically Miracle Whip. Now, before you start ranting at me like I've lost all of my taste buds in a freak frosting laced mixer licking accident, I do know there is a difference between mayonnaise and Miracle Whip. Mostly that one tastes good and the other is more like, well, salty paste.

I've struggled for years with what should be a simple task; the even distribution of Whip across a slice of bread. Again, I know what you're thinking, and it’s probably something along the lines of “If this is your first world problem then I'm pretty sure you need to get therapy and then evaluate your priorities”, but stay with me for a moment. When you stick your knife or other utensiled spreading device into the opening, you're left gauging how much you can realistically put onto a slice of bread, then you spread the product onto the bread and, voila, you're ready to move on to the next step.

Here’s where things begin to go south for me pretty quick. I tend to misjudge the proper amount of Whip needed to get this perfect. For the record, I tend to miscalculate how much mustard should go on my sandwich too, but I digress. In the ultimate show of geek bravado I've even gone as far as to use measuring spoons to get just the right amount of goodness on each slice. But, alas, I continue to struggle with this very simple process causing either a dryness that ruins a good sandwich or forcing the edges to become gooped with so much condiment that it drips on the plate, or in my case my shirt, wasting what is really the essence of a good sandwich.

And now I'm pretty sure you're thinking that the essence of a really good sandwich is what you put between the bread, not the condiments. But really, what good is any sandwich without the right condiment? Is a hot dog really a hot dog without mustard and ketchup? Some would say without relish you're just wasting your time but I say that if you add relish but left off the mighty mustard and ketchup combination, you'd be ruining a perfectly good lunch.

We could argue all day about the proper way to make a sandwich and there really wouldn't be a right answer (other than mayo or Miracle Whip which isn't even a contest), but the fact of the matter is when I want to enjoy a simple bologna sandwich I want it to have the perfect amount of condiment goodness. Because too little just makes it a dull, effort filled chore and too much, well, makes me have to change my shirt.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I Coulda Been Writer, But I Wound Up Here...

Don Henley famously sang "Well, I coulda been an actor, but I wound up here". Yesterday I found myself floating in a pool in a pseudo-meditative state wondering about the many changes in my life, as well as the things that could have been different. It's not the first time this has happened. I choose to take the stance that more people do this than are willing to admit it. You know who you are. You're the one at a red light so focused in thought that someone behind you has to tap the horn to get you on your way. Or you're the one in the queue at the bank or in line at Panera's and the person behind the counter says "Next in line, please" for the 3rd irritated time. You tell people you're thinking about a grocery list or if you left the coffee machine on, but let's get real. You're wondering to yourself "How in the heck did I get here?"

It's in that instant my mind is transported into some Capra-esque world where I find myself wondering, "What if I had done...?". Commercials tend to make me think this way too. Especially commercials extolling the virtues of getting your degree in some fantastical field like Crime Scene Investigation or Court Reporter. I find myself thinking "I coulda done that" while I put another scoop of Breyers Ice Cream in my mouth.

What got me thinking this yesterday was reading about a couple from Winter Park, FL who have recently opened their second high-end restaurant in Orlando. Having one successful restaurant in the Orlando market is hard enough, but to have two of them is like winning the lottery. Twice.

I do not know what lifestyle they came from as their brief bio doesn't allude to them growing up in a good home or being well-off. It does state that both of them grew up in the same community but not meeting until they were both at a culinary institute where they received their degrees, then went about working at some of the finer establishments in New York and Florida where they honed their skills until they opened their own successful businesses here in Central Florida. I guarantee that they worked hard, made mistakes, learned from them and found success. But this isn't about them.

By the time I moved in with my father and step-mom as a freshman in high school, I had grown up in a fairly well-to-do environment. My mother had been an executive in a travel agency and, by the time I was 14, had moved me to Florida and opened her own agency. We lived in a very nice house in an upper-class neighborhood. I had been raised traveling the world surrounded by very successful people all while getting to learn from other cultures first hand. I was what you might call "privileged".

My father, conversely, struggled to make ends meet and lived a step above abject poverty while growing up and into his early adult life. We were always loved, warm, had clean clothes and there was always food on the table. But the house was tiny, lacked any form of insulating capability and we had field mice, which will have to be another post altogether.

One thing that my parents did consistently well was tell me and my siblings "You can be whatever you set your mind to." And my dad was also fond of saying "I don't care if you grow up to be a sh**-bum, just be the best sh**-bum you can be." In an age where the internet didn't exist and cable TV was in its infancy, much less available to those of us who lived in the backwoods of Missouri, this was great advice. Our minds could wander around dreaming of being in the NFL or an astronaut or even a writer.

But the thing neither of them could help with was how to get there. Or anywhere for that matter. The idea that there was a path to anything just never materialized in my youth. This is not a fault of theirs. There's no ill will. It's just that in that time, in that place, the idea of doing something other than getting a union job and providing for your family was not a driving force.

An early mentor of mine, Steve Helliker, used to bring underprivileged kids from a local high school to our lighting shop in Orlando to show them that there was something other than flipping burgers for a living. He'd parade them to each department to show them the many different facets of the business from sales down to loading the truck. I can't say that we ever reached any of these kids. My hope is that we did and maybe some of them went on to do something fulfilling in their lives. The point was we gave them options and opened a new world to them.

I've had the fortune of mentoring someone as well who not only discovered they had a talent but actually stayed in the entertainment industry and is currently working full-time at a theatre in Birmingham. So the importance of having direction is evident and it can make a difference.

I've had many opportunities to make a right turn or a left turn in my life. Some of those turns were wonderful decisions while others will linger as learning moments. And the last year has shown me that drastic change is still possible even as I near the midway point in my existence on this planet. What I haven't quite figured out is what I want to do with myself when I grow up. I know I want to write, which I've stated before. More importantly, I want to make a living writing, which leads me back to the crux of this article. Had I started writing in earnest when I was a teen, and had I had the direction on how to make that desire a reality, I may have had the job of my dreams.

There are countless stories of people who didn't start to paint or sing or follow their dreams until very late in their lives. But I wonder if they left it all behind to try their hand at happiness or were they finally comfortable and able to follow their dreams?

Take this opportunity to talk to your kids or even young people who work for you. Tell them they can do what they want to do in this life. This is their time and there is nothing limiting about their desires or abilities other than them. But then give them tools to learn how get there. That second step is actually more important than telling them they can be whomever they want to be.

So, as I float around the pool dreaming of a future that wasn't, I have to wonder is it still possible to be what you want this late in life? The what-if's are endless and I choose not to dwell on them. Yet here I am thinking over and over, I coulda been a writer, but I wound up here...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summers and Ice Picks

The temperature hit 99° as the oscillating fan made another lap past me and my sister. We had just finished our chores for the day and the only thing on our minds was getting in the river for a cool dip. That is, if you consider water temperatures in the 80's a cool dip. It was more like getting into bath water at this time of day.

The sun had cleared the trees on the east side of the river and was basically baking the water that rolled slowly downstream. The river was always very low at that time of year. Low enough that you could walk from one side to the other without going completely under.

The current positioning of the sun put us in a bit of a "tweener" time as far as going swimming. We would have to wait a couple of hours before the sun crossed the great divide and cast the appropriate amount of shadows on the water so we could swim without fear of sunstroke.

We did not have air conditioning, a comfort that, as and adult, I'm not sure I could live without. But back then air conditioning would have been an extravagant luxury. Luxury for us was having fans. We lived with the windows open and roughly 10 of those luxury fans spread throughout the small two story house, moving what little air they could. My sister and I would spend this time downstairs where it was moderately cooler or, if there was even a modicum of a breeze, outside under a tree.

My father had taken to collecting empty plastic tubs of varying size, especially if they had lids. This was a time when Tupperware ruled the universe, and that was definitely a luxury we could not afford, so we used the poor man's Tupperware. Empty Country Crock margarine bowls, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter bowls, Cool Whip bowls. You get the point. He would use these for any and all purposes, but his favorite use for them was to fill them with water and put them inside our small downstairs freezer where we kept our meat and vegetables frozen.

My father was also an early riser, a trait that he somehow handed down to me, and one that I wish he wouldn't have. Every morning he would wake up and, with great skill and little care for volume, remove these lumps of ice from their plastic containers into the kitchen sink. If you've never been scared out of a deep sleep by the loud KER-THUMP of several large chunks of ice being dropped into a metal sink, then brother, you've never lived. And if the first noise didn't wake you from dreaming of the prom queen, what happened next would curl your hair.

Dad had an ice pick. There was nothing special about this ice pick other than it was HIS ice pick. This wasn't handed down though generations. It wasn't a present from some dignitary nor was it made from some special alloy. Frankly, if my memory holds true, and it does, it was kind of rusted and had a round wooden handle. That's all. An ice pick.

Every morning, and mind you, this was EVERY morning, including weekends, he would take his ice pick and stab at these ice blocks repeatedly until he had every piece of ice exactly the size he wanted. To further the prolonged ritual, and the noise, he would then grab handfuls of these chunks of ice and drop them, from what had to be head height, into his Igloo cooler full of his beer and topped off with his lunch.

A rite of passage in our house was being old enough to use the ice pick to chop the ice for him. These special occasions were punctuated with the a barrage of  "That's not small enough" or "You're making them too small, they'll melt faster" or the even more enjoyable "Don't punch a hole in my sink or I'll kick your ass".

On these especially hot days when we were waiting for the sun to get low enough to enjoy swimming, my sister and I would go down to the freezer and grab a couple of these plastic bowls and, like the children of tribesmen, having had the history of our culture handed down through the generations, drop these chunks into the sink, from the appropriate height of course, and grab the ice pick, reminding each other not to punch a hole in the sink or we'd have to kick our own ass.

We would take these small pieces, some in a glass with sweet tea, the rest in the now empty containers, and go outside under the tree and eat them or let them melt on us as we fought off the heat of a mid-western summers day.

The U. S. is going through a heat wave as I write this and, as I'm sitting here in my office, air conditioning blowing its sensational coolness around me, I can't help but long for a time when my only deadline was the sun passing a climb of trees and the ice pick standing at the ready to bring me a cool treat.

Where's an ice pick and an empty tub of Country Crock when you need it? It's been a while and I need to try my hand at not getting my ass kicked.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Learning Patience

I have had my current work in progress in my mind since I was seventeen. After all of these years, and one actual incarnation on the page, the plot has changed and the characters have changed. Hell, I'VE changed, so it should come as no surprise that the sum of the whole would change as well.

You would think that after 20+ years of working a story in my mind, patience would be the last thing I was struggling with. But that's exactly where I find myself today. I'm impatient with finding time to write. I'm impatient with my characters. I'm impatient with my story development (could we please just get to that pivotal scene?).

This has been an interesting thing for me to witness about myself and my story. I am, by nature, a very patient person. I'm seldom in a rush to do anything and am very methodical in most aspects of my life.

So when my story started rushing me, I became a bit disconcerted. I had to pull back on the reins and throw the hand brake to slow the steeds down. But they didn't want to slow down. I tossed an anchor and still the story continued to try my patience, digging a rut into the dirt behind the wagon running out of control.

In times of anxiety I have learned how to stop, breathe, re-evaluate and proceed. But the story seems to have taken on a life of its own. I mentioned in a previous post that when the story finally found the exit, the light caused it to pause and lumber for a bit as it gained its footing. Now the beast has not only gained its footing, it has been rested, watered, fed and been let loose to run. And man is it running.

I want a good story. I want a story that is timeless and beloved by everyone that reads it. I would think we all want that or the idea of writing would mean nothing to any of us. There is a strong urge deep down that almost wants to get out of the way of the story and let it run unfettered to go where it wants to go. But there is no discipline in that and the story, in my opinion, would lose its way. My job as the author is to give it discipline and structure and a sense of direction. Not unlike a child, the story requires me to raise it from infancy to maturity and, most importantly, to hold it accountable to the reader.

The greatest test for me will not be finishing this story. It will get done and it will either be published or be put away as I write something new. The greatest test will be how well I ride herd on it. I must manage my story's expectations but more importantly I need to manage mine.

Today I will stop, breathe, re-evaluate and proceed. If that doesn't work maybe we'll have to discuss a timeout.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Committing to Writing. Where Are You in Your Journey?

I've always wanted to be a writer. Other than being a professional football player, I can't think of anything else I've really ever wanted to be in my life.

For what it's worth, I became neither. Not many of us actually become what the younger versions of ourselves desire to be, and for those of you who did become the adult our child selves dreamed, I salute you. You are truly the lucky ones.

For the rest of us, life intervened. For whatever reason we moved on from our dreams and ended up here. I was building seats at an automotive plant when the lure of being in rock and roll grabbed me and, well, here I am.

That sounds a lot more exciting than it really was. It was a lot of hard work and travelling in the least of best conditions. The stars are the one's with the jets and private buses. The rest of us did what we could to make the best of cramped quarters, surly drivers, angry managers and an incredibly diverse makeup of personalities. Imagine Carnies that are cleaner with more tattoos and even worse language.

I'm not complaining. I was able to enjoy a unique life that few get to see and, let's face it, made for good bar stool conversation. "What do you do?" is asked. "I'm in the entertainment lighting industry." is responded. "What's that?" is asked with a genuine curiosity this time. "If you've ever gone to a concert and noticed all of the lights flashing around? That's what I do." is replied. "Wow, have you ever met anyone famous?"

I think you know where it goes from there.

But the lure of bright lights faded and I became a desk jockey in the same industry. Now I deal with surly clients and angry salesman and a lunatic manager.

Again, I'm not complaining. I have definitely taken better care of this industry than it did me but it has paid the bills. Yet all through the past 20 years there was something that kept trying to claw its way out of me. The story that I wrote as a teen was always lingering around and knocking on the inner walls of my brain looking for a door marked exit. Every so often I would get a jolt. It would be a new line. A new hook. A new chapter. Characters would develop on the long drives to work and splendid prose would just spill out of my mind while in the shower. I'd find myself saying "Wow, that was cool!"

But nothing would come of it. And the older I got the more it continued to push open door after door inside of my mind. The urgency of the story that started as a walk down many halls had become a full on sprint as it frantically ran around each turn and twist looking for a way to get itself ON TO THE PAGE!

I started talking about writing. The now-ex said I should do it but she was supposed to say that. I would mention it to friends, but I don't actually have a lot of those and, like my ex, they want to be supportive in spite of something being a bad idea.

I hesitated some more but the need to get the words out was still pounding those walls.

I started Googling things about writing. I wanted to learn about what it would take to do what a writer does and that led me to start seeking out writers on Twitter and following them. As an aside, you are an amazing bunch with way more talent than I believe I will ever be able to live up to. But that fear is in all writers, no?

I enjoy photography and was already following a good deal of photographers, and one of them, who is also a life coach, kept tweeting things about just doing it. Take the leap. Nothing finishes without starting. All kinds of inspirational drivel that my old self would read, chuckle and nod approvingly at. But then these things started to speak to me. These weren't directed at me mind you. They were for anyone listening. But this time I heard.

I added "aspiring writer" one day to my profile on Twitter. I thought the word aspiring was appropriate seeing how I had never written anything more than an email or Facebook post. Who was I to call myself a writer? And far be it from me to offend actual writers. But, crazy as this sounds, that VERY same day, an angry tweet popped up in my feed from a writer I was following, again to anyone who was listening, that read, and I quote:

"Good morning, Friday. My PSA (again) for the day is DON'T be an "ASPIRING WRITER" F****** OWN IT. Be a WRITER. Write!!"

I promptly changed my profile to read "writer".

I took out my iPad in my car the next day and downloaded Pages. I opened the program and typed "Chapter 1". Fear gripped me in a way I had not experienced in a very long time. What the heck was this? I'm typing words on a screen. No one was looking. Why was I afraid? Was it fear of failure? Failure from what? This is never going to see the light of day so no one will ever judge me, so why was I afraid?

The door marked exit had been penetrated and the sunshine hit it square in the eyes. It squinted and pulled back from the bright light, holding a hand up to block the suns rays, but it forged forward, breathing heavy and lumbering as if it was tired and unsure.

The words poured out and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before in my entire life.

I'm very early in this journey. I hope to take you with me as I travel and maybe, with a lot of work and a bit of luck, the destination will be every bit as gratifying as the first step was.

Join me, won't you?

I've always wanted to be a writer.