Tractor Beam Server or Member of the Team

Sun Microsystems Enterprise 5000 Server

In 2001, I went to work for the FAA in Oklahoma City.  It was my first permanent job as a programmer.  How I got the job is a little morbid.

I was working for an insurance company on a one year contract.  When I finished the project, one of my contract competitors pointed me to a job at the FAA.  She may have been trying to get rid of me, but I was ready to go so it didn’t matter.

It was for the position of junior developer.  With two years of experience, that was an appropriate position for me.  I remember nothing of the interview, but it must have gone well because they called me.  I fancied myself a good negotiator.  I’d negotiated some good deals for myself since I started my career.  So I was confident that I would be able to do well this time.  My future boss took my first offer, but it seemed like there was a tinge of reticence in his voice.  I thought I was awesome.

When I arrived on my first day, it was to a very somber group of men and a desk that had not been cleared off from the last guy.  I soon learned that the guy I had replaced had died right after my interview in an all terrain vehicle accident.  I was in the senior position now.    Much, much later, I learned that they had been through every resume that they had, and mine was the only one left, hence the easy negotiation.  I didn’t take it hard.  I laughed to myself.  I had gotten the job and I did well in it and that was all that mattered.

But I didn’t start off so hot.  In the first month, the database administrator, the change management system administrator, and the server administrator all resigned leaving just two programmers with no experience with any system administration.

They stepped us through their documentation a few times and then wished us luck.  After a few weeks we were feeling pretty good about it.  We hadn’t had a single real problem.  One of my jobs was to backup the server on tape, replace the tape, and take the old one to a safe.  One day, though, the server, which is the size and shape of a refrigerator, wouldn’t open.  It had a door which opened just like a refrigerator.  Fortunately, I thought, there was a key above the door so I turned it.  Here’s what it sounded like.

It turns out the server wasn’t locked, I had been trying to pull open the door from the side my refrigerator opens. The guys who were taking care of that server before had to come in on the weekend and rebuild it to make it run again.  They said it could have been worse.  Shutting a server down cold can be catastrophic, apparently.   They hid the key from me after that.  I never had to do the backup again.

This team was an all male team, as are most of the teams I’ve worked with, and there’s something that I know about joining a team, especially an all male team.  They need to know that you can handle a good ribbing.  The sooner the better.  So I took this as an opportunity.  I told the story with the server sound being the climactic ending.  I figured out how to make it by vocalizing while I whistle.  Here it is.

They tease me to this day.  I became a member of the team when I shared my story.  I paid my dues, and I laughed at myself.  It’s so important to be able to laugh at yourself when you deserve it.  It’s so much more attractive than being sullen and defensive,  and to this day, if I see any of those guys, the first thing they want is the tractor beam.  It always gets a laugh.



Y2K Boot Camp


In Negative One Dollar, I described the events which precipitated my move from teaching to software engineering.  I’d like to tell the story of the beginnings of my career.  It’s a success story, and it is not my intention to brag. I could easily write 10k on this time of my life.  With a little time I could write 20k words.  It was an important year.    Consider this the abridged version.  As I’ve written, my wife’s uncle, an IT manager at Citgo in Tulsa, described to me a company that would train me and hire me if I passed a test.  He told me about a huge software problem called Y2K in which an astounding amount of disruption would occur at midnight of 1999 if the code wasn’t fixed, and that there was something like a 400k short fall of workers available to do the work in the U.S.  That number seems high to me, but that’s the way I remember it.  He said that the consulting company, SPR, would train me to learn how to fix this problem.

(if you’re interested)

The problem was simple, by the way.  When mainframe computers were young, there was very little memory for all of the software and huge databases needed to run banks, oil companies, airline booking systems, and the like.  So they shortened dates by leaving off the “19” from the years.  So 05-06-1999 would be 05-06-99.  The problem was that when the year became 2000 the date would be 05-06-00 which all of the date calculations would read as being in the the year 1900.  Imagine the chaos.  Yes, folks.  This was a real problem solved with billions (trillions?) of dollars in consulting fees.


I knew nothing about any of this stuff.  In fact, I had lost the notion that I was smart in anyway other than music.  But the salary was so much better than what I was getting and I was eager to provide for my growing family.  We had our first baby that year.  I called the company and set up an interview.  I didn’t know what to say, not knowing anything about computers, but I figured I didn’t have anything to lose.

It was a phone interview, which I’d never done.  I made a plan.  When it came close to the time, I was sure to go to the bathroom first.  No pee breaks in the interview.  Also, I pulled out a notebook and pencil.  I poured a glass of water.  I told Jennifer not to disturb me.  Then I locked myself in the bedroom to take the call.  The interview was with a recruiter and I found that my lack of computer knowledge was actually expected.  She liked me enough to invite me to come to Tulsa to take the test.

I had no idea what to expect so I decided to make a good impression with my clothes.  I already had a suit, but I felt I needed something new to really add some polish so I went to Dillards in Sooner Mall to buy a new pair of shoes.  We didn’t have much money, but I figured I should go all out so I bought a pair of Johnston & Murphy’s at $129.  In truth, I couldn’t afford them, but in my mind I was going to pay for them by nailing the test and getting the job.

I decided to drive up to a Motel 6 outside of Tulsa the night before just as a precaution to make sure I arrived at the testing facility on time.  The motel had no soap or shampoo, but I just wanted to get a good night sleep so I didn’t complain.

cms_upload_bam_1480950640The testing would be held in the Mid-Continent Tower in downtown Tulsa.  It is a stately sky scraper with an ornate green copper top.  When I walked in, I was struck by the beauty and polish of the lobby.  I remember thinking that I could be coming here every day in my Johnston and Murphy’s instead of pushing my music teaching cart back at Moore Public Schools and how posh that would be; how fancy I would be.


I didn’t grow up in a fancy family.  We lived a modest life.  But there were pockets of our extended family who were wealthier and lived a fancier lifestyle.  I wanted it.  I wanted to look sharp, drive a nice car, live in a fancy house.  That was important to me when I was in my 20s, but I was too embarrassed to admit it to anyone.

The test was entitled something like “Software Engineering Aptitude Test”.  It makes my hands sweat a little bit to remember what it felt like sitting in my suit and fancy shoes in front of an exam that could change the course of my life and not have a single idea if I could answer even one question.  In spite of having no idea what was going to happen, I just knew that I would be working at this company.  I was certain.   And I could answer questions.  It was all about logic and workflows.  No computer programming concepts.  I would need a 50% to pass.  I did the best that I could.  When I finished, they told me that I would get the results on Friday.  I drove home to wait for the results.

I had most of the week to continue to teach.  When Friday came, I put movies on instead of teaching.  I did not have the focus to put together lesson plans.  I had given SPR the school office phone and I was waiting anxiously while the kids watched.

“Mr. Wilson-Burns?” came the secretary’s voice on my class intercom.  “You have a call.”

My heart raced.  I took the call in an empty break room.

“David?  This is Jessica from SPR.  I’m calling to tell you the results of your exam.”

“Ok.” I said, expectantly.

“Are you ready?  You scored a 51%.  Welcome to SPR!  Your boot camp starts next Monday.  Can you make it?”

It was Friday.  I would have to resign that day with no notice.  I wrote my resignation letter on the a Mac in the lounge and printed it out and signed it.  At the end of the day, I found my principal in her office.  I’d never actually been to her office.  It softened her a bit.  I handed the letter to her.

I don’t remember what she said, but she didn’t blink an eye.  She said they would miss me, and the she congratulated me.  I wonder now if she had already suspected that I would leave soon.

And that was that.  My teaching career was over.  I don’t remember feeling anything but relief and excitement.

We were renting a house and so we gave the land lord a month’s notice.  I went ahead to Tulsa and stayed at Jennifer’s aunt and uncle’s house.  I would come home on the weekends.  We would find an apartment in a month.

My experience to come was so intense that it is a blur in my memory.  We were all put into a training room at the SPR offices in the Mid-Continent Tower. There were rows of tables, chairs, and computers facing front.  On the first morning, nearly everyone was early, except for the instructor.  There were somewhere around 30 trainees.  Interestingly, it didn’t feel like I was returning to college.  For some reason, it felt more like high school.  Maybe because there were obvious former cool kids who began to connect with each other, establishing their place,  while the rest of us sat quietly and skimmed through our materials.  The material was like a foreign language to me; in fact, there were parts which were literally a foreign language to me.

I soon learned that the course would be taught by four retired computer science professors.  We were to be in this room for ten hours ever day Monday through Friday and sometimes Saturday for ten weeks.  Approximately 500 hours of instruction.  We were told that 50% of us would drop out before the ten weeks were up.  Boot Camp.

Our supervisor explained that we would receive a substantial raise and be hired permanently if we made it through the program.

Throughout the first day, I learned that many of the trainees had computer and programming experience.  I admit, that this intimidated me at first, but eventually I learned that I was as capable or more than anyone in the room.

I do have a few vivid memories.  Behind, me sat a former high school football star.  He must have been a few years younger than me.  Six foot four and still powerfully muscular.  He was the class clown.  At first I fell back into my old high role as the uncool geek, but as I got to know him I began to realize that that stuff was really a high school thing.  We became friends and he seemed to be having the same realization.  Here were two men who never would have spoken in high school, but were now free of the social structure that we had all quietly agreed to support.  This was a turning point in my life.  I realized that I can be who I wanted to be.  There was no one in the world telling me who I should or shouldn’t be.  This brought me a great sense of freedom and happiness.

After I wrote my first program, I decided to treat myself to Applebee’s.  I decided that I should get a drink.  I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it had milk in it.  Why not just a beer, David?  After I ate and I was nursing my drink, I pulled out a pen and scratched out some pseudo-code.  Secretly, I wanted someone to see me and think I was solving some difficult problem for a big company.

I generally ate lunch alone.  There were many choices downtown.  Coneys were a popular item in that area and I often went to the Coney Islander Hot Weiner Shop for four chili coneys dressed with minced onions and Louisiana Hot Sauce.  There was also a German restaurant that I liked.  I loved to sit up in the balcony and watch the customers and wait staff.  One day, after eating there, I started to write about a character named Daniel.  Daniel was a very honest version of me.  I was a private person at that time….um, not so much anymore.  I was afraid of what people would think of me if they saw my true self.  It was liberating to write.  I wrote a series of  Daniel vignettes.  This is where my love of writing began.  I would later write fifty thousand words on the Daniel character.  The work is unfinished.

One by one, the trainees left.  One guy left because he made the Tulsa paper in a very unfortunate way.  He had been busted by the FBI for downloading pictures of underage teen boys.  He claimed that it was unintentional.  He never returned.  The company didn’t want the bad press.  Sometimes the most likable people do things that you would never expect.

I excelled.  I was starting to believe that I could really do more than music.  In fact, I was starting to believe that I could do anything I wanted.  I had never felt so empowered.

One of the instructors was a crusty old man from Chicago.  He was my favorite instructor.  I found him to be kind and enjoyable to work with.  One day, I was returning to the classroom with a cup of coffee and I heard singing in the library.  The door was ajar so I peaked in.  It was the instructor.  He had what I now know was a prayer shawl and  he was raising his hands.  He was singing to God.  Living in Oklahoma, you don’t meet a lot of people practicing the Jewish faith.  This was my first encounter.  I only watched for a few seconds.  I didn’t want to intrude.  It was beautiful.

I and around 50% of the trainees completed the program.  We had a graduation of sorts and we were all given certificates.  I wish I still had it.  So what next?  Every class preceding us went straight to work in offices all over Tulsa, one of them underground.  But this class didn’t go anywhere.  The work had dried up, so they put us on the bench.  It’s expensive to put someone on the bench in the consulting industry.  Another company might have let us go after a few weeks.

Everyone was trying to get placed.  I befriended a man who eventually took me to Sunoco Oil with him.  There my job was to add lines of comments to the header of a bunch of Cobol programs.  Sitting in that office was the first time I watched a movie trailer on my computer.  It was Star Wars Episode 1.  My office mate and I geeked out of it.

I didn’t understand the code, but I did enjoy looking at the change logs written at the tops of the programs.  I found one program that was written in 1965.  I still marvel at that.  The project ended after a month when the whole force was sent away.  No more Y2k work needed.  That is how so many consulting companies collapsed.

Then one day I was sitting at my computer back in the office and the general manager of the company walked out of his office and shouted “Everybody learn Powerbuilder!”  Who needs email when you can scream from your office?  And so I began to teach myself this new language.  I found that I could learn it pretty quickly.  I liked it a lot.

Soon, the company brought in a couple of Powerbuilder trainers and our training resumed.  This time around I was cockier.  I had conquered Cobol and was ready to conquer Powerbuilder.

One instructor was tall and arrogant.  The other was short and stocky with a light, red beard.  He was not arrogant at all.  He was quite humble and I liked him a lot.

When the course was over, they announced that there were two placements available and that they would interview us to determine who would get them.  I decided that my best move would be super confidence.  I was going to out-arrogance the arrogant one and impress the humble one.

“Tell us why we should place you?” asked the arrogant one.

I worked up a computer analogy and looked him straight in the eye.

I said, “Jake, you see, those other guys are like hard drives.  They may have a lot of information, but I’m like a processor.  I can pick things up and make things happen.

Arrogant broke in and started to say, “I don’t get it. That’s not really how computers-”

But then humble held up his hand and said “No.  Do you see what he’s saying?  He is saying that he’s a fast learner and a fast worker.  He is saying that he’s the best.”

After everyone was done the two of them came out.  Humble pointed at me and asked me to come back into the office.

Arrogant said “I admit it, David, your confidence impressed me.  I think you can do this.”

That job is the first one on my resume.  I worked at Williams Communications for one year before I took a job back in Oklahoma City…coding Powerbuilder.  I went on to learn other languages and I’ve held many more jobs, but I’ve never felt as utterly energized as I did in that first year.  It was the year that I learned how to learn again and believe in myself, and I’ve never quit.

One conversation at a family reunion changed my life forever. Wow.  I am in awe over that.  It might have never happened.  If it weren’t for 4 digit years it would have never happened.  I never would have dreamed of doing what I do.  I never would have believed that I could even do it.  I do miss teaching sometimes, but when I look back over the last nineteen years I see a clear path to the happy place I am right now and I wouldn’t change that.  The Johnston and Murphy shoes?  They became my lucky interview shoes.  I just resoled them.

Kicked Out

I attended college for vocal music education in the early 90s.  In a voice degree, one of the most important figures, if not the most, is your voice teacher.  This is one of the few professors you will see every week for your entire college life.

Learning to sing often requires a rather close relationship between the teacher and the student.  It’s a mentor relationship.   The study of singing more than just singing.  It is the learning of a lifestyle.  It encompasses physical fitness, diet, sleeping habits, how much water to drink, and of course discipline.  Because you want to be the best singer you can be, you look to your voice teacher for everything they give you that might help your chances at success.

When I was a senior in high school my mentor at the time, the director of music at my church, told me that there was a certain voice studio at the college I was planning on attending that was for the more advanced students and she would help me get it.  I’d feel more comfortable not using his name, so I will call him Professor Nelson.  Being advanced was something I valued a lot.  In retrospect, I needed the exact opposite.  I needed a teacher who would teach me as if I knew absolutely nothing.  She managed to get me an informal audition with him in his office.  He expressed his interest in me and when I made my official audition to the school, he chose me.  I was elated.

Nelson was a man of great mystique.  He created a larger than life character.  He was the wise one.  He often intimated that he was connected to celebrity.  He was an accomplished cyclist.  He was an accomplished painter; painting in the wilds of Wyoming.  He fancied himself a bit of a cowboy type, but to my knowledge he never had anything to do with cattle.  And what impressed me the most is that he was a specialist in French music.  This was an interest of mine.  Anything French to me had it’s own mystique.  He studied abroad with a quite famous French singer and recorded an album that I wore out on cassette tape twice.  I idolized this man.  I felt proud to be in his studio, which was almost exclusively graduate students.

He trained me as a tenor, although I was never sure if he actually thought I was one.  He often called me a “baritenor”.  That was a blend between a tenor and a baritone.  It’s not a true voice type, but it’s how he dealt with the limitations of my voice.   I don’t think he really put a lot of importance on what I was because I was just an education major.  My success as a tenor was mixed.  I didn’t want mixed success.  I wanted to be the best.  So after a couple of years, I got it in my head that I might be a baritone (which I am).  I told him I wanted to give it a try.

The first thing he brought out was Valentin’s aria from Faust which has two high G’s, which only experienced baritones could reach.  It was as if he was trying to prove me wrong.  As if to say that singing this would be the only way to prove if I was a baritone.  I failed miserably.

I’d been singing a lot in my falsetto in college in early music performances.  I was well received.  A man who sings in falsetto exclusively is called a countertenor.  Countertenors were on the cusp of being big in the professional world, but otherwise they were was still obscure.  I started talking about it with Professor Nelson.

“Look, David.  I could sing like that all day.”  Nelson was practically a countertenor himself with his very light lyric baritone.  He demonstrated his falsetto. “See?  But there’s nothing to it.  It has no steel.  It has no value.”

A few weeks later, I came into my lesson and said, “Ok.  I think I want to be a tenor again.”

His face reddened and he exploded.  “You come in here, you want to be a tenor, you want to be a baritone, you want to sing like a girl.  What are you?  I don’t know.”

My ears were burning.  I felt like my chest and head were a gong and he had just taken a wack at me.

Then he looked away and began shaking his head and said, “I can’t keep going back and forth.  I don’t know how to teach you.  I’m done with you.”

I knew I was going to cry, so I left his office.  As soon as I was in the hall, the tears came hard.  I made my way down to the other end of the hall to see the head of the voice department.  She was a very maternal figure and I knew that she would be both a comfort and a problem solver.

I knocked on her door.  She was teaching a lesson to a friend of mine whom I didn’t mind seeing me upset.   After I explained what had happened, she first gave me a big hug and patted my back.  When I had pulled myself together she went into chairperson mode.

She explained that her goal was to get me through my senior year and she would get me a teacher.

She did get me a teacher.  None of the other teachers in the department would take me.  She never tried to explain why and I didn’t ask.  I had gained a reputation for being a difficult student by then, and I’m fairly certain that that was a factor.  She convinced a retired professor to take me.  It was a great fit.

Now, though, I no longer idolized Nelson.  I resented him.  I ridiculed his idiosyncrasies to my friends.  I toughened up by tearing him down.

So why do I keep returning to this story?  I loved Professor Nelson.  I wanted to please him.  The few times he expressed displeasure with me were upsetting.  I’m sure my family would say that I was all  “Professor Nelson this” and “Professor Nelson that” every day of my college career.  When he kicked me out of his studio, it hurt me very deeply.  I suppose I’ve told this at times to become the object of pity.  Pity’s not the best gift a person can receive, but it has some value.

When I was a kid, there was this other kid who broke his leg and had to use crutches.  He was the object of everyone’s pity and I wanted it so bad that I found some crutches and walked around with them at home for a little while.   I decided that it wasn’t worth the effort, but I wanted it.  I wanted the attention.  I wanted the girls to ask if it hurt really bad.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve outgrown this desire.  I find pity uncomfortable if anything.  Sometimes when I tell the story, it’s in the context of several stories which illustrate what a pain in the butt I was back then.  I was stubborn, a know-it-all, arrogant, sycophantic, and snobbish.

The last time I saw Professor Nelson before he died a few years ago, his words were, “So, are you still singing like a girl?”

And the last time I saw him, just weeks before he died of cancer, I pretended not to see him.

There have been very few tragedies in my life, but being kicked out of Professor Nelson’s studio is significant to me.  A couple of years ago, I got tired of holding onto my resentment and hurt over this man.  I found a cassette tape of his old album of French song and I had it digitally remastered.  I posted it on YouTube.  Then I found an online library of his paintings and convinced the owner to let me create a Facebook page for his music and paintings.  I was finally able to let go of the hurt and give myself permission to think fondly of him again.  It occurs to me now that he was no more at fault than I was.  He really did not know how to teach me, just as he had said.  It’s hard to find out an idol is just a regular human who can’t give you everything you need.  It’s hard to be rejected by them.  But it’s harder still to hold on to the pain and resentment.

You gotta let




The Clapping Problem

wpid-wp-1437180753431In the past, I have struggled with clapping for musicians in church.  First off, why should I even care? I imagine it’s the last thing on anyone’s mind today.  It comes down to my deeply held belief that music in church is not a show.  It is simply a form of worship.  When we go to a show, we clap.  When we got to church, we pray, and if we are truly, moved we say amen.  When I  see this in writing I can see my Presbyterian roots coming out; a particular Presbyterian church where intentionality is a core principal of worship.  What that means is that not a thing is done in worship without it being carefully considered and decided upon.  Clapping in church? Does it have a place in worship?  Let’s bring it to the worship committee.

My current church is a clapping church.  The main thing they clap for is wedding anniversaries, more theatrical than normal announcements, but mostly for music.  No clapping for any other piece of worship.  Why is this?  Well isn’t it courteous to clap at a concert?  So then shouldn’t we do this in church?  But there’s really more to it.

In My Thank You Problem, I expressed a discomfort with praise directed to me during worship.  Then my brother, John wrote:

If God enjoys praise so can we!

And I do believe that God loves our praises, not because he has an ego, but because it’s a celebration of a relationship with his children.  And maybe that’s what happens on Sunday morning.  We celebrate each other.

After he wrote this to me, I began shuffling through my old writing on the subject.  I was quite bitter about this at one point.  And I found a quote from a friend.

This is how we lift the music and the musicians up in gratitude.

How can I argue with that? That is such a beautiful way of expressing it.  It’s not perfect though.  Some churches still seem to have a problem with clapping.  I attended a church for many years where the congregation clapped, but only when they were truly moved to do it as a group under no obligation.  When the choir raised the roof, for example.  But when they sang a deeply moving, spiritual song, the congregation would respond with quiet reverence.  This never bothered me.

The problem arises with obligation.  What do you do if one Sunday the choir makes you want to get up and clap and say amen, but the next Sunday it doesn’t happen?  If there is an unspoken obligation to clap, then you clap in a quiet, courteous way…in a let down way?  I don’t really know.  That changes things to me, though.  Then, instead of coming out to worship, which is only measured by God’s pleasure (I believe it’s always his pleasure), we’re getting judged by the congregation’s pleasure.  I usually know when we didn’t accomplish our mission to compel people to worship in their hearts and now I have a clap-o-meter to confirm it.  I’m used to it.  There’s no way we can inspire everybody with every anthem.  Sometimes we fall short of that, but God makes it holy for us.  Our worshipful hearts make it holy.  But the ego in me does notice how loud and long they clap.

It’s really a small thing, this clapping thing.  It’s not something I walk away from on Sunday morning feeling bad about.  I confess there’s a Presbyterian in me who just wants to say “That’s it!  No more clapping! No response, is the only equal response.”  What an awful thing for a church leader to do.  It’s been done.

But maybe that’s not a Presbyterian thing so much.  My brother Paul is a Presbyterian minister, and here’s what he said (paraphrased)

David,  it’s my job to do one of two things.  Get them to tone it up or get them to tone it down.  And you know what, I’ve never had to get them to tone it down.  And so when they clap, I’m excited because they’re toning it up and getting involved.  If you have a church that needs toning down, then I call that a blessing.

I attend two services, a toned down early service, and a very enthusiastic late service.  It’s all we can do to get them to sit down and be quiet.  They love to be with each other.  They love to clap for each other.  They love to be in dialog with our new pastor as she preaches her sermon.  This is GOOD no matter how loud or soft people clap.  Clapping is something that only the living do.  It’s a sign of life.  We have a living congregation in a wonderful and spiritual sense.

Yes, that quiet Presbyterian boy with all the rules sometimes just wants a little peace and quiet.  I’ve never been a good fit for the party crowd, but I certainly don’t want to be the one who spoils it.

When Sunday morning comes, and my choir sings “Triune Blessing” with their beautiful harmonies, the congregation will clap.  And I will say this to myself:

Lord, thank you for friends that care enough about us and our offering to show it.

My Thank You Problem


This is one of those posts where I want to have understood a problem I’m having by the time I’m done writing it.

Part One:  What I THINK the Problem Is

When I was a kid, I was taught to say thank you if someone said something nice to me.  To my recollection, I did so as often as you could expect a child to do.  But somewhere along the way, thank you’s became tricky for me.

I got to thinking about this because a friend gave me a compliment ment recently and I added all of this baggage to the backside of the thank you.

So much of this problem stems from the fact that I have a very public-facing job on Sunday morning.  I’m a musician.  I do things in front of people that normally warrant an encouraging response…clapping, compliments.  I’d just as soon avoid all that.  Worship is my goal, not accolades.  (EDIT:  I’m reminded of a friends words, “It is good to lift up the music and the musicians in gratitude.) But there’s something about music that is different than other expressions of worship.  It moves people to want to respond in that way.  I’ll accept that one day.  That’s a whole other post.  Also, let me say that although because of my job I might receive more complements than the average, I’m not showered with compliments everywhere I go so much that I just can’t deal with everyone loving me SO MUCH.  I’ve received two compliments this week, and I screwed one of them up.

I first became aware that I had a thank you problem when I was in college.  I was a soloist in my college choir concert.  I sang  the solo clearly and beautifully and in a manner that only a young voice can .  I was a very inconsistent singer in those days (still am) and it didn’t always come out right, but this time it felt like no one in the world could have sung it better.   After the concert, I was weaving through the crowd to find my parents and I ran into one of the doctoral choral conducting students.  His usually somber face lit up when he saw me.

He said, “David.  Wow!  Your solo!  That was a real golden moment for me.”

To which I responded, “Yeah, it was a real golden moment for me, too.”

That solo was one of the great moments of my life. I felt that I was awesome for once and had no sense of humility in expressing it.  His response was to make an expression like “Geez. THIS kid.”  And then without saying anything turned around and left.  I say I was sincere because I was, but I wasn’t really raised to be humble, or if I was, I never learned to do it.  I had instead developed some serious praise-seeking habits, and when I finally got some praise, I feasted.

I didn’t think anything of it at the time.  But at some point, maybe a year or two later after I gained a little maturity, I remembered that moment and realized that although I was sincere and that’s a good thing, I might have come off like an arrogant prat.  And this is when it occurred to me.  All I needed to have said was “Thank you so much.”

So simple, and it’s really all anyone wants to hear.  If they want more information they will ask.  Some mistakes I’ve made when given a compliment:

them: “Great singing!”
me: “Thanks, but I didn’t feel good about it.”
This insults their opinion.

them: “Hey, I really liked your song.”
me: “Thank you so much.  That was the best I have ever sung it.”
This lacks humility.

them: “Wow.  That was such a wonder recital.”
me: “Thank you so much. I started practicing in June.”
This detracts from the accomplishment.  It’s showing the man behind the curtain, so to speak.  If they want to know, they will ask.

them: “The project was a success.  Everyone says so.”
“Thank you.  You see, I had this vision…”
It’s egotistical to think they want your grand vision in response to a complement.

them: “Good job on the feature update”
me: “Thanks.  At first, I coded it this way, then tried this factory pattern but then I figured out that this was the solution.”
My boss could care less.

them: “You work so well with kids”
me: “Thank you so much.  I used to be a music teacher, but then I started getting physical threats and then I got a negative one dollar raise.  So I quit.”
This story is just sad.  It in no way belongs in a thank you.

This is what I mean by adding baggage to the back side of a thank you.  It’s kind of like saying “I’m sorry, but…” as an apology.  It negates the apology altogether.

What someone really wants to do is shake my hand, tell me how much they loved whatever it was that I did, and go on their merry way.  They don’t want the baggage.

I’ve improved light years on this.  Nine times out of ten, I smile, shake a hand, take a hug, and say “Thank you so much.”  I rarely have a problem.  But it still happens.  I still add baggage on to my thank you’s.

So what’s my problem?  Why do I still struggle with this sometimes?  I have a nearly constant running stream of dialog in my head.  The thank you baggage is just a part of that stream.  So I guess I’m saying that it’s a filter issue.  That’s it!  I have a filter issue, so I just need to learn how to solve it.

When my wife and I are hanging out with friends, and my filter breaks, she kicks me in the leg under the table.  Then I shut up.  If I could only have her with me all of the time!

Part Two:  What the Bigger Picture Problem Is

At the core of this whole thank you thing is me and my rigid social rules. Social anxiety.  I can’t remember who, but I had a mentor somewhere along the way who taught me the thank you rule, and it stuck.  And remember that friend that got me thinking about this in the beginning?  I tried to apologize later in the day for not accepting their compliment properly.  Did they care?  Not one little bit.  It never occurred to them that I had broken any rules or showed any ingratitude.  I’ve developed this anxiety where I want to try to fix history.  I wanted to go back in a time machine using a text and try to set it right.  The truth is that things are well enough left alone nine times out of ten.  But I ignore that instinct.  I fret and I fiddle.

Maybe that choral student didn’t really think poorly about anything I said after all.  Maybe he just needed to go to the bathroom.  But even if I did make a poor impression, it’s likely that he didn’t think about it much if at all.  And so I have the thank you paranoia now.  There is an art to accepting a compliment that everyone should learn, but really, people are awfully forgiving when it comes to this if they even notice at all.    The truth is, if I gave you a compliment and you expressed that you didn’t deserve it, I would probably touch you on the shoulder and say, “Nope.  I know what I’m talking about.  You. Were. Superb.”




saffron-rice-04I have a group of friends from Bangladesh, and they love to party pretty hard.  I don’t see them much anymore.  I used to attend all of their crazy parties.  And I always wanted to leave earlier than they wanted me to.  At Bengali parties, the food isn’t served until after 10 and with this particular group, they drink and dance most of the night.  That’s just not my style.  I would eat then leave ,which is not cool.  You eat.  Then you stay.  And so I don’t go anymore. They know that they’re not going to get all of me that they want.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

And so when I was invited to a wedding reception party, I came late, but this time I really was late.  I was the last person to arrive.  It was in a friend’s apartment.  If you’ve never seen a southeast Asian wedding reception, you’re missing out.  It’s beautiful.  The bride and groom are dressed like royalty up on a platform covered with flowers, sweets, and rice dishes.

I walked in and my friend jumped up to say hi and introduce me.  There were many people there I did not know.

“Hey everybody, this-a David!  He speak Bangla!  Go ahead,” and he pounded me on the back.

My face burned.  I’d learned a few Bangla phrases to show that I cared about my friends’ culture. Most of them appreciated my feeble attempts, but at one party, a very drunk fellow heard me say to one of the women how delicious the food was in Bangla.  He mimicked me by saying it back with exaggerated slowness.   After that, I didn’t much care to do it again.  But my friend had put me on the spot so I shouted “Assalamu alaikum!”  and everyone gave their usual cheer.

My friend said, “Ok, here’s what you do.  You go up to the them, offer them a blessing, and they’ll give you some food.”

I was glad to hear this because I was really hungry and was looking forward to some good Bengali cooking.  I came up to the platform and tried to think of something to say.  I thought of all of the corny blessings in American films featuring foreign characters. Something like, “Many blessings be upon your head and upon the heads of your children.”  But that just didn’t seem right, and I’m not sure I could have said it without a phony accent.  I don’t remember what I said, though, but whatever it was, I was going for as normal as possible.

I started looking around for which food I might eat, but I couldn’t see any plates.  Then the next thing I knew there was a plastic spoon in my mouth.  The groom, with a wide grin, had shoved a spoonful of cold rice into my mouth.  He began to nod and grin at me.  I nodded and grinned back, but something was happening.  My body was rejecting this rice.  Something about him putting it into my mouth and it being cold made me start to gag.

Rather than swallow the rice, I ran to the bathroom and spit it out.  I don’t think anybody saw, but I was worried about it nonetheless.  Who knows how old this tradition even was?  Who knows what superstition might come with it?  Maybe by spitting out the rice, I was making the bride barren.  Maybe I was bringing down some sort of curse on their heads and the heads of their children.

I realize now that if I hadn’t have been so late, the rice might not have been cold and I might not have spit it out.

I miss my Bengali friends.  It would probably only take a phone call to be invited to another party or reception.  But I also know what that would mean.   I’d have to be out late on a Saturday night.  And while those guys would be sleeping in the next day, I would be getting up at 7:30 to direct music at church.  And I’d rather have a plastic spoon of rice shoved into my mouth than miss that.

A Bipolar Balancing Act

I’ve written about my struggles with Bipolar Affective Disorder on this blog before, but I know some of you are new readers.  It showed up in the two years before 2011 in rather dramatic ways that I don’t care to relive with you.  Needless to say, it disrupted my life.  It disrupted my family’s life.  I began treatment in 2011.  Treatment consisted of psychotherapy, nutrition, and medicine.  I was taught that my brain chemistry was in constant need of balance through meds, supplements, nutrition, exercise, and what chemicals I put in my body.  Until I achieved balance I was restricted from drinking alcohol, using tobacco products, and drinking caffeine.  I followed to a T.

It took me over a year before I could feel balanced.  It’s funny, it’s hard to tell when you’re balanced until you are.  You look back and see the daily struggle with mania and depression and realize that you were imbalanced all along.  I can tell by reading my blog sometimes if I was imbalanced.  There’s an acceleration, a frequency, a chaos.

Part of the balancing act is in adjusting medications.  My meds might work great for a year, but then stop working, or a side effect becomes unbearable.  I hope to never have a full manic episode again like I did in 2011, but I still have little ones and that’s probably never going to change.

It’s an illness like any other in many ways, but a mental illness is different in other ways.  If I get sick, I don’t have pain or a fever or nausea.  It’s not exactly physical.  Bipolar is listed as a neurological disease as well as a mental illness.  So when I get sick, my brain doesn’t work properly.  And when that happens my behavior changes.  My feelings change.  My personality changes.  My perception of the world changes.  There are social lines that I would never cross while I’m well that I might cross when I’m sick.  This leads to disruption and embarrassment and sometimes hurt, none of which I see until I level out.  But these days I’m so well treated that only the people who are the closest to me would likely notice when I’m off.  I’m glad for this.

This week, I got up to go to work and my wife noticed that my speech was slurred and I had a very flat affect; more so than normal for just having gotten up. This was to the point where I might have gotten a DUI.  She’s noticed that I’m forgetting entire recent conversations.  We went to see a movie, and the next day I couldn’t tell you what we saw.  I didn’t remember that my mom just had knee surgery.  I pretended that I did so that I wouldn’t upset anyone. (Mom! If you are reading, I love you and I hope you’re knee is better!)  I’ve been working on the same problem at work for days in a row.  When my coworkers talk to me about the technical aspects of their work, I don’t always understand what they are saying.  And so it’s time to see the doctor.

My wife came with me this time, as she does once in awhile, because I wasn’t seeing everything that was happening and she was.  And so now I have to stop a  medicine that has saved me from suffering for months because it’s affecting my cognition.  That is frustrating.  I started taking that medicine because a medicine I’d been taking for years just wasn’t cutting it enough.  And the cycle continues.  Fortunately, there are new drugs coming out every year for me to try.

I’ll be starting a new drug tonight, and it’s a gamble.  Will it keep me balanced?  Will it have side effects?  I’m very anxious about it.  I want to be well.  I want to be balanced.

P.S. – Many of you have expressed concern for me after reading this post.  Med changes and side effects can put me in an anxious state, but I’ve been through this many times.  I’m not in a crisis at the moment.  Thanks, though, for your prayers and encouragement.  Perhaps I’ll follow up with the results of the change.

Finding a Place

In Journey to Norman, I described my family’s big move to Norman, Oklahoma.  As I was writing it, it occurred to me that that transition from Lonoke to Norman, from small town to big town, was especially formative for me.  Before I tell you about this transition I’d like to say why I even write this blog.  My Wife Says I’m Complicated is a sharing of the inevitable complications of life, but it’s a little more.  My wife has said for years that I’m a complicated person with complicated problems.  My wife is rarely wrong about things and especially about matters of my character and nature.  She’s come to accept this about me, and I’ve come to accept this about myself.  I say that I’m complicated with no pride or shame.  I am what I am.  Perhaps it’s genetics.  I share because it helps me understand why I am the way I am.  I couldn’t say why you read it, but I’m glad you do.

You first must understand the difference between where I lived and where I moved.  Lonoke had a population of around 3500.  It was a farm town with very few amenities. If you wanted to go out and see a movie or eat you went to  Little Rock just 20 minutes up the road.  For a kid, though, you really didn’t have to go anywhere.  Lonoke was a perfect place for a kid to grow up.  We could ride our bikes anywhere.  We could shoot bee bee guns in the park.  There were lots of trees to climb.  There were high school football games to hang around at.

There was poverty in Lonoke, but most of my friends fit squarely in the middle class.  There was almost nothing above middle class and that seemed to keep society pretty flat, at least in elementary school.  There were only four schools:  a primary school, an elementary school, a junior high, and a high school.

Norman is vastly different.  It has a thriving commerce that is not agriculture based.  I can do almost anything I want without leaving Norman.  Although Norman was not yet a city when I moved there in 1984, it was a large town.  Norman has a lot of wealth which really affects it’s social strata.  Playing in Norman for a kid is more structured.  The sports were organized.  I don’t recall ever playing a pickup game as a kid in Norman like we used to do in Lonoke.  No, our parents had to be involved.  Norman had so many schools.  I really couldn’t count how many schools there are in Norman.  In Lonoke, I could no every kid in my grade for the entire town.  In Norman, I couldn’t even know every kid in my grade for my one school.  Lastly, no more black friends.  I don’t recall more than 3 black students at Whittier at that time.  It was a white school.

When I moved, I was so optimistic about my new life.  I’d never had problems making friends or being successful in school.  I thought I understood the world and how it worked…how it worked for me, but Norman changed that.  Norman was a much wider world.

On the first day, Paul and I arrived with identical jackets and identical home done haircuts.  The only difference between us was that I was wearing a plaster cast on my right leg.  We were given a quick tour of the school which was so perplexing.  It was an open classroom configuration.  After our tour, the math teacher, Mrs. Pierce, took us to her area and tested us.  This test would determine our mathematics path through our entire public school career.  And for the first time, Paul and I took different academic paths.  Paul got into the advanced math class and I didn’t.  I have this vague memory that there must have been a mistake.  I had always been on the enrichment path with Paul, but that had ended.  I was now unsure of myself.  If that had ended, then what else might end?

I’d never been the object of teasing and bullying before.  I’m not saying it didn’t exist in Lonoke, but I’d never encountered it.  On my first day, I was weaving through the crowd to get to my locker and a big 8th grader grabbed me by the neck with both hands and screamed in my face.  In my math class, a girl teased me about my name, Burns.  Kids had tried to tease me about that before, but the best they could ever come up with was “David burns it,” but it never stuck because what does it even mean?  But this girl must have watched M.A.S.H and known about the Burns in that and his relationship with Hot Lips Houlihan.  She called me Hot Lips for a year.  But you know what?  At first, I just thought she was flirting with me.  But then I saw the way she treated other kids and realized that she wasn’t.  I was an innocent kid who assumed the best of people…still am.

But the worst incident in that first year happened in English class.  I’d given up on math, but English was one of my top subjects.  I loved the teacher and she seemed to love me back.  I was the kid who raised his hand with every question.  I didn’t really realize I was making an ass of myself, I just wanted to please the teacher and do well in the class.  I got tagged with a nickname, Mr. Computer, but it wasn’t from friends.  I didn’t have any friends, yet.  After class one day, the biggest kid in the grade came up to me with what I can only describe as cronies. The kid had actual cronies.  He addressed me as Mr. Computer and then grabbed what little meat I had on my chest hard (purple nurple) and said that if I wanted him to let me go I had to whistle.  The problems was, I didn’t know how to whistle.  But this was really hurting and people were staring.  “Whistle!” He shouted again.   In my panic, I did the only thing I could think of to do. I made a wolf whistle with my little 6th grade falsetto voice.  They laughed at me and he let me go.  In retrospect, it was kind of funny, but I wasn’t laughing at the time.  I went home reliving that sense of helplessness and humiliation.


Friends did come eventually. I shared a lab table in science with two boys, let’s call them Robert and Josh.  I’d been at Whittier long enough to know what these kids were.  They were losers.  They were at the bottom, and I believed I was as well.  I had come from a school where everyone liked me.  Perhaps I wasn’t cool, but I was socially fluid.  If there was a social strata, I felt comfortable with all groups.  And now I was at a school where kids called me Hot Lips and Mr. Computer and wouldn’t have anything to do with me except for Robert and Josh.  And why were they losers?  I found out when I went to visit them each in their homes.  They were poor.  At Whittier, to be poor was to be a loser.  These were the kind of friends that always tried to make friends with the new kids like me; the kids who might not realize the nature of their social status.

In the same year I got catfished hard by a girl over the phone.  She pretended to be someone who wanted to be my girlfriend, and for all of a day I thought things were looking up.  I thought this could significantly raise my social status which was something that was becoming very important to me.  Read the whole story if you like! Girlfriend Bamboozle

Then I met Trent, and everything changed.  He sat in front of me in English.  The first thing I noticed about him was that his hair was clearly cut by a professional.  No home cuts.  This kid was living the life.  And he was smart, but kids didn’t hate him for it.  He mostly kept to himself in class.  I struck up a conversation with him after class.  God only knows what was said, but we hit it off.  He soon invited me over to his house.  He wasn’t poor.  He had a nice house, even nicer toys, and an endless supply of Fruit Rollups.  He was not a loser.  After meeting him, I stopped hanging our with Robert and Josh.  I made up excuses not to go to their houses or have them over.  I did not understand at the time that I was contributing to the same social rules that had made the first part of my time at Whittier so miserable, and even if I did, I might not have cared.  I needed to find a place in the world, and making this new friend was the first step.

He was in band, and so was I, and soon I would begin identifying as a band person, a musician.  I wasn’t the most popular kid in band, but I was one of the best musicians.  This was my group until I graduated high school.  I’d found my place in the large world of Norman and I quickly made new friends.  There were other humiliations, damaging rumors, bullying, but I felt secure in my place.  There were people who didn’t care about the rumors.  Even some of the girls liked me.  Especially Jennifer Wilson.



Journey to Norman

We lived in Lonoke, Arkansas from the time I was four-years-old to the time I was eleven.  Our journey to Norman, Oklahoma in 1984 began many days before our move;  the day when my father gathered us into the front living room of our house on Center Street.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he broke the news that we would be moving to Oklahoma for him to preach at another church.  There were no tears or complaints.  It was if in spite of our love for Lonoke, we were ready to go.  If my mom wasn’t ready, she did not show it.  Paul and I were up for an adventure and John may have been too young to really comprehend.

Paul and I knew that going away parties were a thing and we decided to throw ourselves one.  I didn’t think this was weird or inappropriate until many years later when Paul pointed out that it was customary for friends to throw the party.  I do also recall that we invited people to bring presents.  I don’t remember who all was in attendance, but I did remember that Todd, the African-American kid who kindly pointed out that my first day of class clothes were for girl, was there.  I point out that he was African-American because I was starting to become more aware of race, and when his mother came to get him, I watched as my mother and his mother had a friendly chat and I realized that my mother was not like other white members of the community who would never have socialized with black neighbors.

I’d become obsessed with kissing a girl ever since my long time crush had a boy-girl birthday party with a dance.  I saw her slow dance with the coolest kid in school and he kissed her on the lips.  I was very much in a devil-may-care mood about it, but I didn’t know how to do anything about it.  I imagined holding a dance myself, but all I got was the party we threw for ourselves and it wasn’t much of a kissing party.  I didn’t get my first kiss until church camp the summer before my freshmen year of high school.

My father had brought a chamber of commerce map back from Norman, and Paul and I studied it hard.  We couldn’t believe we were moving to someplace so cool.  There were restaurants, bowling alleys, a mall, a roller rink, three or four movie theaters, and an enormous public pool.  We bragged to our friends in Lonoke about Norman, and I remember bragging particularly about our new house having wall-to-wall carpeting.  I’d gotten the impression from flooring commercials that this was a luxury.

I remember very little about leaving Lonoke other than taking note as we passed the rice towers (grain elevators) on I-40 that it might be the last time in awhile that I would see them.  They were significant to me because they were always the first and last signs of Lonoke you would see from the interstate.

It was Halloween, but Halloween was the last thing on my mind.  I was eager to see our new house and our new town.  When we reached the border of Oklahoma, there was a welcome sign and we all got out of the yellow Ford Fairmont station wagon to take a picture.  There was trash everywhere.

When we arrived, it was dusk and we were soon greeted by members of our new church with the oddest casserole I had ever seen or smelled.  It was beef and rice baked in a whole pumpkin.  I’ll always associate that house on Leslie Lane with that smell.  I thought we must be lucky to have friends waiting for us.

The woman who brought the casserole also brought her daughter and grandchildren.  They were dressed for trick-or-treating.  The boy was dressed as Satan and after a few stops I thought the costume was appropriate.  Again, I appreciated the welcome.  We would have missed trick-or-treating altogether if it weren’t for them.

School would start very soon for us, perhaps the next day.  We came from a town where school was a very positive thing for us.  We had friends and made good grades.  There were no truly rich kids in Lonoke and social strata had not fully formed in our grade, and so Whittier Middle School was a culture shock to me with it’s cliques and wealth.  I’d like to write more about that transition because it set some things in motion for me that formed my notions about myself for years to come.  Read Finding a Place

I visit Lonoke once in awhile and wonder what my life would have been like if I’d stayed or if I returned to live there, but I ultimately reject that line of thinking because I have been so greatly blessed to live in Norman, Oklahoma.  As I matured here, I developed this sense that God had brought us to Norman and that it was the best possible outcome for me and my family.


Blog at

Up ↑