Friday, March 11, 2005

Folded notes ... a lost art, a teenage hallmark, or a feather that tips the scales of fragility? aka "The Yellow Shoe Box"

Remember those cute folded notes we used to get in school? The ones with the little tab that said "Pull here" ... the ones that were covered with TLF, TLA, and lipstick .. the ones sprayed with half a bottle of perfume or cologne? The ones that the girls threw together in seconds with the perfection and attention to detail of a fine origami hummingbird ... the ones that guys gave up on folding once the note started to look like paper mache? The ones that included checkboxes to convey whether you liked someone a little, a lot, or not at all? The ones that carried messages of love, of jealousy, of rumors, of break-ups, of things that meant the world at any given moment in our childhood? Remember those notes?

If so, keep those memories floating just above your gaze while you take a stroll through this story ...

Last weekend, I took a trip down memory lane ... back to 1986, which for me was 8th grade. After my trip to Mexico City, I flew back to Atlanta via her not-so-close neighbor, Los Angeles. I put this layover together to drop by a good friend's 70th birthday party, and to make my cameo in Sean's mega road trip. I decided to look up a friend while I was in LA ... well, to be honest, an old girlfriend. Ok, ok ... I'm not in trouble. Becky knew about the visit -- she actually knew Kristin (oops, I used her name ... well, no harm done, I hope!). I had only seen the love of 14-year-old Jeff's life once in the past 15 years, but I knew that she lived in Los Angeles ... well, at least as a few years ago. A few days before the trip, I started my attempts to locate Kristin's number or email by searching Google. When that failed, I tried --- and finally, I tried ... you guessed it (well, maybe you didn't) her phone number from 1986. Sure enough -- I reached her mother, whom I hadn't spoken to since my voice sounded a good bit different and my pants looked quite a bit like leftover parachute material. I was surprised that her mom remembered me, shocked that she still had the same phone number that was scrolled in a bubbly font on notes I received in the mid-80s, and happy that she didn't hesitate to give me Kristin's phone number.

With Kristin's number in hand, I took a deep breath and made the first phone call of my adult life to a girl that I dated (I think we called it "went with", didn't we?) well before cell phones, voice mail, email, IM, Blackberries, Bluetooth, and myriad other communications gadgets that we have now were invented. I was still a little nervous when her voice mail picked up -- thinking that she'd find it too bizarre to hear from an old boyfriend asking to hang out with her for a day. Nervous? Yeah, kind of goofy, but thinking back to 8th grade brings pretty much nothing but goofiness, so I suppose it's not too surprising.

After a couple days of playing phone tag, we finally connected and set up plans to meet up with Sean in LA.

Following my short Mexico City trip, I landed in Los Angeles, where I was happy to see Sean and Kristin waiting at the airport for me. Twenty minutes later, I was hanging out with both my junior high best friend and junior high girlfriend -- trying to catch up on two decades of our lives. We chatted about the past, present, and future well into the night as she showed Sean and me a glimpse of her life in Venice Beach. We laughed, we celebrated, and we shared the high points and low points of our later teenage years, our 20s, and the present. Connecting with old friends is always such a treat, and more often than not, it feels that no time has passed. This was certainly the feeling as the three of us hopped around the pubs in Venice.

Kristin was a great host, showing us a great time in Venice Beach and introducing us to an outanding group of her closest friends. We crashed at 4 AM on Saturday, and somehow I found myself energized enough with a few hours of sleep to blog about my Mexico trip, eat breakfast graciously prepared by a surfer guy who was wearing only a sarong as a skirt, a t-shirt, a knit hat, and a scarf (of course, this only hints at a future blog of its own), and grab a beach run up to Santa Monica pier with Sean.

Mid-afternoon, I kicked up the reminiscing fun by surprising Kristin with the notes that she wrote me nearly 20 years ago. I can't say that I'm a pack rat, but I do value personal memorabilia, and Becky and I have a semi well-organized collection of artifacts and souvies set aside in trunks -- from images we colored as kids to bar coasters from last year's trip to Asia.

Before this trip, I dug through our collection of memorabilia, and pulled out a yellow shoe box full of notes that I had saved throughout junior high and high school. I can't remember why I started saving notes -- but for some reason, back in 7th grade, I started dropping any note I received into this yellow shoe box. Through my moves to college in Athens, to Atlanta, to Colorado, and back to Atlanta, that yellow shoe box managed to catch a ride. A few times, when old friends have visited, I've opened it and read through some of the notes. It had been quite some time though since I had read any, much less all of the notes in this box. The night before my Mexico/LA trip, I opened the box and pulled out all of my Kristin notes. I stuffed them in a folder and then laughed thinking of what a customs agent in the US or Mexico would think about my collection of teenage love notes if they searched my bags!

Saturday afternoon, Kris and I read through the notes -- laughing at how serious we took our love at the time, how silly we communicated, how flirty we were, how often we criticized our parents, teachers, and classes, and more. Remembering the days when your girlfriend wouldn't sit by you at lunch because your best friends were throwing food brought huge laughs -- especially since my best friend from back then was in the room with us and had just visited the other best friend a few days earlier in Texas!

As we opened dozens of love notes with "pull here" tabs and SWAK seals, I started thinking that this little ole 8th grade relationship actually brought me quite a bit of happiness and a huge amount of confidence during a time when a newly minted teenager needs it the most. And that got me to thinking how fragile we were back then -- how a series of nice notes boosted my confidence and set me off in a direction that led to success in school and building the foundation to a wonderful relationship with my wife. That also got me to thinking how those little notes could have just as easily set someone down the opposite path -- to insecurity and sadness during those critical teenage years. How easily the scales can tip at that age.

I'll walk this story to the door before it gets too caught up in ponderances and reflections, and simply say that I'm pretty darn grateful that I lucked into a great little ole 8th grade relationship -- a cute teenage coupling that played a fairly important role in the path I charted for myself in the coming years. Of course, I left out a few things in this story, namely that for all these years I had remembered the break-up as something she instigated -- only to be proven wrong last weekend by Kristin's memory and by the notes themselves. Well, what can you say? Could I possibly spin this in such a way that it's her fault I remembered it wrong -- because she's the one who boosted my confidence so much back then? Nah. I'm just a guy with a yellow shoe box, a fuzzy memory, and the fortune to have sat by the right girl in 8th grade Civics class.
Thanks Kris! And Sean and Chris, if your food throwing ever again costs me a chance to sit by a pretty girl at lunch, I'm coming after you!

Saturday, March 5, 2005

Seis tequilas, tres cervesas, dos cafes con Baileys, y "Brass Tacks"

My time working in Mexico City this week was fairly uneventful ... well, until night fell (which is where this story will arrive after it takes a brief stroll). In short, the days were filled with meetings, appreciation of how good we have it in the States, more meetings, and more appreciation of how good we have it. I was watching presentations, asking questions, and taking notes non-stop from 9-2.

Finally, as my hunger reached its limit, we would brake for a long afternoon lunch (but no siesta!) and hit it again until 8. I have to admit, I enjoyed the business environment and found it much different than I expected. By the way, what's the deal with our "expectations" anyway? It's not like I expected mariachi bands strolling through the office while the bull-fighting oversight committee huddled together to tackle some urgent bull-fighting initiative. "Pedro, you must adjust your Cost-Benefit analysis to show a more attractive net present value for the matador's wardrobe. And don't forget to leverage synergies across the bull aggressiveness development program."

To interject -- when I digress, I digress ... to continue my digression ...

It's not like I expected twice-daily salsa dancing breaks kicked off by a short chubby guy wearing a sombrero, blowing a whistle while he passes out tequila shots. "Log off of email and hang up the phone mi amigos, it's time to salsa! Fiesta!"

Well, maybe I did expect all of that in some wacky way, but what I didn't expect was the level of professionalism and advancement that I found in the office. As what I hope to be an atypical American, I still have a hard time shedding the American assumption that not only is everyone else in the world behind in business and technology (which we know isn't the case), but also that *all* of Latin America is made up of shanty houses, dirt streets, overcrowded buses with chickens and hogs running up and down the aisles. Sure, unfortunately much of Latin America is very poor; however, there is also a vibrant business environment full of educated professionals working in much the same way as we do in the States, across the Pond, in Asia, etc. Well, I can see that my brief stroll with this story has turned into a sit-down session on one of those comfy coffee shop chairs, so I'll ask my story to stand up, stretch, and walk itself back to the office description.

So what's it like to work in corporate Mexico? Can't answer that, but what I observed in my short visit was a formal business atmosphere -- suit and tie for the gents. I'll avoid getting into trouble by not delving too much into describing the attire for the ladies, which was professional, but also very Latin American. I have to admit, after enjoying the business casual environment in the States for my entire career, I had great appreciation for the formal environment ... yeah, I know ... the grass is always greener. Large numbers of people hustling and bustling in business suits just made it seem like everyone was doing something important. This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George found that by walking the halls of his office looking busy, hurried, and stressed, everyone thought that he was being productive -- when in fact, he was doing nothing. Suits accomplish the same thing.

Aside from attire, another major difference was office space. The equivalent to our maze of spacious cubicles in the States was what amounted to a farm of tiny, tiny desks ... in the open with four co-workers within four feet of each other, separated by 3-foot high walls. Yes, life in the States is grand. Even manager types work in open offices -- without full walls and without a door.

When I first saw the office, I related it to a newsroom ... ala CNN or a newspaper: lots of activity, people coming and going, small meetings everywhere. There was a buzz in the air -- an energy and openness that I think is hard to find with the cells that we create for ourselves with tall-walled cubicles and closed-door offices.

Ok, enough of the office talk -- here's where things get interesting. On the way to dinner, I received the obligatory lecture on the patheticitude (a term I just coined) of tequila in the States and prepared myself for an evening of buzz-laden business talk.

When our local host offered two choices of tequila -- strong or mild, you can guess which I chose. You can also guess the volume I selected (single or double). After a huge double-shot of tequila (which all members of our group indulged in), tongues began to loosen. And let me tell you, this was fine tequila -- top shelf sipping tequila, not the typical bar-slamming variety.

It took the next round of tequila to really get the conversation going though. Thankfully, our kind hosts spoke in English for most of the night. They also were kind to compliment me on my broken Spanish, as I would often throw out a phrase and hope that the reply would come in English.

At some point, we ate an appetizer. I don't remember what it was -- I honestly don't remember anyone ordering it. All I know is that between rounds of tequila, plates of tortillas and 'fixins' simply arrived on our table. We switched to cervesas ... I ordered one -- my last planned drink of the evening. Yep, I was full, tired, and quite buzzed. Time to pack it -- it was close to midnight. "Fuhgetta bout it." Before I knew it, I had ordered more tequila -- as the cervesas were too filling for me. I must interrupt here to say that despite by best efforts, I was not keeping up with my hosts. Mas cervesas .. then another tequila -- then cafe con baileys (yes, I was fading after a while, so I switched to caffeine). The conversation was lively -- mostly on business, with bizarre tales from around the world interrupting occasionally.

I was in my element -- thrilled to be immersed in a different culture -- experiencing an adventure -- on someone else's tab. The night wore on. Whenever I (or another member of the party) appeared ready to pack it in, someone would order another round.

Tequila and cervesas flowed -- I ordered mas cafe con Baileys y mas tequila. At some point, the conversation migrated to Spanish only. This lasted for nearly an hour. An argument of sorts ensued -- all in Spanish. I listened, not understanding a word, but happy to nod my head to flow with the conversation, raise my eyebrows at what I thought was the right time, and laugh when my hosts laughed. Sure, I probably looked the fool, but I don't think it mattered to anyone -- certainly not to me at the time!

I have to jump into my own story with another interruption here (yes, I'm throwing my story back onto that comfy coffee shop couch) and mention that my Mexican amigos talked at one point in the night about a major cultural difference between Mexico and the U.S. In Mexico, when friends get together, whether it is for dinner or a child's birthday party, there is no schedule. In the U.S., it's more typical to host a party from a set starting time to a set (or understood) ending time. We most often feel the need to leave a friend's house before midnight because we have tasks scheduled for the next morning ... we don't want to impose, etc. In Mexico, the social nights are long. A child's birthday party brings the adults together at 5 PM -- and likely keeps them together until the sun rises. Forget the tasks for the next day -- enjoy our time together -- that seems to be the mantra. So that's what it was all about for this meal. We all had loads of work scheduled in the morning -- we all knew that we wouldn't get much sleep -- but the camaraderie was more important than our never-ending lists of responsibilities. It was a good lesson for me, as I think we all need a reminder once and awhile on the value of relationships in our lives.

Back to the night (get off the couch story ... move along) ... the Spanish-only argument raged on -- and apparently hit on a list topics that I haven't been around the company long enough to know about. So, it didn't matter that I couldn't follow the conversation. In a nutshell (or more applicable ... in a shot glass), this conversation, which took four hours and gallons of tongue-loosening booze to arrive at, was the type of honesty we needed from this trip. Good grief -- what is sometimes required to get down to brass tacks!

We finally packed it in around 3:00 AM. I slept well for a few hours, although I frequently awoke to the sounds of the city (which our hotel's walls did little to dampen). I was up at 6 with only a slight hangover -- which a quick session on a treadmill resolved. Another day of excellent meetings, and before I knew it, I was in a car being driven back to the airport ... with new friends, an appreciation for a taste of Mexican culture, thankfully without the multi-day hangover that I was expecting, and with excellent fodder for my blog.

Coming up next month -- I hope -- will be stories influenced by Chilean wine.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Have job, will travel!

I kicked off the New Year by finally landing the job I had spent, oh quite some time, searching for -- yippee! Unfortuantely, I was not able to find an IT Project Management job in the Galapagos Islands or the South Pacific. Fortunately though, I found a great job in Atlanta. I think I'll keep my company name secret for now -- in case it becomes good fodder for blogging. It's a global company though, and my role is to lead project delivery improvement and IT procurement efforts across our offices in North and South America. Yes -- it's the exact blend of IT, project management, international cultures, and global travel that I was looking for. Whew --- finally ... but it comes at a price: huge responsibility, steep learning curve, and a string of dark-to-dark work days that doesn't seem to have an end in sight. On the bright side though, I'll be traveling to South America with this job. And it all starts with a trip to Mexico City -- TODAY!

This posting is just my way of setting the stage for future work-related travel stories -- which I hope will prove to be just as much of an adventure as personal travel has been!