Saturday, March 28, 2015

Management Versus Leadership

"The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things.  He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things."  Ronald Reagan

When I was selected to become a manager in my organization, I knew that there was much more to the job than just managing.  I had to lead.  And I doubted myself, because I wasn't sure if I was up to the task.  The timing wasn't great.  It was about 7 months after my wife's death, I had a daughter who was about to turn one.  My home was a shared living space for a village ("...it takes a village to raise a child..."), with both my in-laws and my parents, as well as a part-time nanny, spending time there.  This was by design, of course.  I had to care for my little girl and provide for her, be a full-time Dad while maintaining a full-time career and battling through the grief of losing the closest person to me in my life, my partner, my wife, my love, my teammate, my soul mate.  The stress was immense, and would only grow.  Now I was a manager, too.

The year after taking that job was awful.  I fell into depression, and my health worsened, both mentally and physically.  I felt removed from my daughter because there were so many other hands involved in her care, which made me feel even worse because I didn't think I was being the father I knew I had to be, but was in some ways a relief because it allowed me to focus on the other responsibilities in my life.  The grief was overpowering, though, and it overtook my faith in God.  I was in full crisis mode.  

I finally reached out to the pastoral community that I had access to.  I've been so fortunate throughout my life to have close friends, mentors, and acquaintances who are pastors, and several came to my rescue in various ways.  Many began or continued to pray for me.  I needed that more than anything, since my own prayer life was reduced to going through the motions.  Pastor George, a long-time family friend, was quick to lend a hand and make recommendations on ways to help.  Pastor Mark, though, called me the following day and asked if we could get together later that week.  And we did.

Mark and I met at a local restaurant and we talked.  We talked for a long time.  He asked a lot of questions and got me focused on the important things in my life.  His advice was very simple.  He said that I was of no help to my daughter until I got help for myself.  Until my head was on straight, what could I do to help anyone else?  That was the turning point for me, and the start of my long journey back to a healthy state of being.

Fast-forward to the present.  I was able to get help for myself, and it righted me in a lot of ways.  My spiritual life was the first step, which has grown by leaps and bounds by placing God first in my life, ahead of everything else.  This led right into getting my mental state improved.  While my physical health has remained a concern, I am getting help for that, as well.  Stress is still very much a day-to-day issue for me, especially as it pertains to my job.  But I've learned a lot about myself in the years since entering the management arena.  The Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, which my organization provided to all of the managers, was a part of that learning process.

From the StrengthsFinder website:  "In 1998, the Father of Strengths Psychology, Dr. Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D., along with Tom Rath and a team of scientists at Gallup, created the online StrengthsFinder assessment...and is the culmination of more than 50 years of Dr. Clifton's lifelong work:  leading millions of people around the world to discover their strengths."  Strengths Based Leadership was the key in educating so many of us.  I realized, through discovering my Strengths, what type of manager I am, and this formed the basis for my transformation from manager to leader in my organization.

My top 5 strengths are:  Responsibility, Maximizer, Relater, Belief, and Developer.  My boss understands me now, too, and even made the comment, "Well, no wonder you're so stressed!"  Apparently, as a result of my Responsibility strength, I take on my employee's stress, as well as anyone who shares a problem with me.  This is a tremendous load, but it's also not mine to take.  I just wish I could make myself understand that.

But this combination of Strengths has also led me to discover tremendous leadership potential, something that is more innate than I may have thought, and knowing it allows me to use it, and/or recognize it.  As an introvert, I hate the spotlight.  My job requires me to be in the spotlight to some degree, but the challenge for me is to make sure that I'm able to get the spotlight where it belongs:  on my employees.  I'm well beyond being a subject-matter expert in my organization.  After over 10 years in management, the technology has zipped past me and left me breathing gas fumes and dust.  The focus should never be on me anyway.  It belongs on my employees for their accomplishments.  And I realized that not only is this the right thing to do, it's also something that brings me great satisfaction.

This satisfaction manifested itself when I was directing stage performances of plays and sketches in my role leading the drama ministry at my church.  I loved finding roles for actors to play that would maximize their performances given their abilities, and that's what would happen.  An individual actor would then get the accolades for an incredible performance.  That made me feel great.  And it kept me out of the spotlight, where I was most comfortable.

So transferring this Strength into my career as a manager was fairly simple to realize.  And it has proven to be dramatic in its dividends.  I truly believe that being a manager is more than just managing one's employees.  It's all about leadership.  And in order to lead well, one must put aside their ego, put aside their need to be on stage (except when necessary), and let the employees shine.  Give them the opportunity to feel the spotlight.  They are more apt to support your lead and follow you into battle knowing you're not in it for the glory.  You're in it to lead them to success.

This post went all over the place.  I had no agenda when I started, but I hope it makes some sense.  I feel like anything useful that comes out of my writing is inspired by God, so I'm leaving it here in raw form.  I really just wanted to talk about the differences between management and leadership.  I know I have a long way to go, just as I've come a long way, and I just want to share when I have my little epiphanies.

Have a great weekend, everyone!




Thursday, March 26, 2015

Memories of Pap

I was thinking a lot about my grandfather, Chester "Pap" Freed, today.  I loved that man.  He wore his heart and his faith on his sleeve, and I only wish he had lived longer than his 84 years.  As a father of 8 kids, he was the breadwinner and worked very hard.  He had a varied career as a coal miner, for the railroad, as a night watchman, as a barber, and as a circuit preacher.

Grandma and Pap, 197?

My dad has shared many stories about his father, and how influential he was on his four sons.  He wanted nothing but the best for them, and that meant, when they were old enough, he sent them out to find careers, not just jobs.  My dad was just a few months out of high school when Pap saw an ad in the local Uniontown, PA, newspaper advertising Federal Government jobs in Washington, DC, and he sent Dad and my Uncle Paul on a trip to DC to take the government entrance exam.  That was the start of my father's career in the government (Uncle Paul passed it, too, but he soon went in a different direction and because a Prince George's County Police officer).  Pap didn't want his sons to have to work in the coal mines.

Pap had a scary incident while working in the mines.  Everyone was paired up with a partner, and he and his buddy were working hard when there was a cave in.  They were cut off from their exit, and it was so dark that they couldn't see anything.  It was then that Pap realized that his partner had been killed.  It was some time before the other mine workers were able to dig them out.  Fortunately, Pap got out, but he quit that job on the spot.

Many years before that, he worked on the railroad.  One day, as the train he worked on cut through the city, they came up on a grade crossing at a busy road that came off a steep hill.  Cars would work their brakes hard as they came down the incline and have to stop at the foot of the hill in order to look for trains at the crossing.  It was not unusual for there to be many close calls as cars either just missed being hit by trains, or raced to miss them.  Well, this car was coming down the hill, had stopped at the crossing, then tried to hurry across the tracks to beat the on-coming train.  But the car stalled right on the tracks.  The young couple, a man and woman, were sitting in the open car when the train Pap was on crashed right into the car, throwing out both of the occupants of the car.  The woman fell right onto the tracks and her body was immediately cut in half by the train.  The train was going at a pretty good pace, and the engineer immediately hit the brakes.  My grandfather was the first one to reach the young woman.  She was still conscious.  Pap said there was a lot of blood.  He recalled that the woman kept reaching down to her abdomen, and, seeing that her lower body was missing, would scream and go into shock.  This occurred several times.  He tried to comfort her, but he knew she wouldn't live, and she died very soon after that.  It was a horrific incident and it scarred him for the rest of his life.

My grandparent's home in Hopwood, PA

Pap was the best kind of preacher.  He told life-lesson stories and anecdotes that people could relate to.  While he was not ordained, he was a lay preacher who worked a three-church circuit each Sunday, preaching at the local church located right behind their Hopwood, PA, home, and then two more located in the mountains just east of town.  I never really got to hear him preach.  He stopped when I was a kid, and I just don't remember his messages.  But after his death in 1994, I inherited many of his sermon notes.  They weren't filed in any order or anything, so I tried my best to put them together in a way that they made sense as standalone messages.  He sure loved the Lord.  I know of four men who can pray like no one else, who I feel are speaking directly to God and through Him:  Pastor Tom, who preached at a church I went to as a young adult and is now retired; Pastor Mark, at my current church, Grace Community; my father-in-law, Jim Shirlen, who is the pastor at First Baptist of Damascus; and my grandfather, Pap Freed.

I was honored to be asked to present Pap into the Hopwood Methodist Church's Hall of Fame, the church where he preached at for many years, about a year before he passed away.  He touched so many lives.  When he passed away, on his birthday in 1994, in his bed, in his home, after a long battle with cancer, he was surrounded by his family who loved him so much, I was holding his hand.  He had been comatose for much of the week prior, and as his breathing became very shallow and the nurse on hand told us he was nearing the end, all of a sudden his eyes opened wide, staring up into the ceiling.  Then he slowly closed his eyes and breathed his last breath.  I am convinced that he opened his eyes at that moment because Jesus had come to guide him into the gates of Heaven, where he now resides for eternity in God's arms.


He was a great man.  I miss him a lot, but I know I will see him again one day.

Have a great evening, everyone!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Spring Is For Lovin' and Serotonin

Spring is in the air, which means LOVE is in the air!  At least, that's what I heard on WTOP News radio 103.5 FM this morning on my way to work.  Apparently, our bodies produce more melatonin in the Winter months, which helps us sleep better when the days are shorter, but in the Spring, when the days begin getting longer and the weather is warmer, our bodies produce more serotonin, which helps motivate us to go out and meet new people.

From WTOP.com, Dr. Gregory Jones, a licensed clinical psychologist at Capital Center for Psychotherapy and Wellness in DC, says, "Serotonin is one of those 'feel good' neurotransmitters that really helps people feel alive, excited and more attracted to people."

This may actually be true.  Last night, my father joined my daughter, Melody, and me at Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland in College Park for the 2nd round NCAA Tournament game between the Maryland Terrapins and the undefeated Princeton Tigers.  It turned into a dominating win for the Terps, who won 85-70, sending them into the Sweet Sixteen of the tournament.  We arrived at the game shortly before tip-off (traffic!), so our seats weren't very good.  The place was filled with mostly Terps fans, and it was loud.  After the game started, two ladies sat down in the seats directly in front of us, and as the game went along, we struck up some conversation with them.  They appeared to be a mother and daughter, but that's just a guess.  We seemed to connect with them after commenting back and forth on the dancing drum major in the Princeton band who wildly gyrated his body during every song the band played.  He looked like a reject from a chorus line.  Take a look for yourself:

video

Anyway, we had a lot of fun joking with them.  After the game, Dad observed that I seemed to enjoy my bantering with the "daughter."  She seemed about my age, and she was not wearing a ring (the "mother" wasn't wearing one, either).  She was very tall, too, and my guess is she may have played basketball at some point in her life.  (If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know I like tall women.)  While there were no sparks that I was aware of, in hindsight, Dad thought maybe they were both "flirting" with us.  Dad is a bit more outgoing than me, so I'm sure he was more aware of this than me.  I'm pretty clueless about this kind of stuff.  I didn't give it anymore thought until I heard the WTOP story this morning, and it occurred to me that maybe it's true.  Maybe there was some flirting going back and forth, and I just didn't see it, and maybe it IS a result of the serotonin and the Spring weather.  Who knows?

I began to think back on previous dating relationships.  Spring has always signified either a beginning or an end to most of them.  I met Teresa, who I later married, in April.  In addition, I had four other dating relationships end in March or April.  Maybe there is something to this?

My Pastor and his wife, Mark & Lu, set me up on a date in March about seven or eight years ago.  I hadn't dated anyone since Teresa died in April 2004, and up to that point, I had no interest in dating.  But how could I resist an opportunity to go out on a planned blind date set up by Mark & Lu?  No one had ever done anything like that for me, and I was honored that they cared to do something so thoughtful.  What I didn't know was that Mark & Lu had done this many times over the years, and they had a zero success rate in their matchmaking abilities.  But they sure know how to plan a fun date!

I was given a package with instructions not to open it or look at it before our date, planned for a Friday evening.  We were both instructed to meet at the Joanne Fabrics store in Columbia, and to carry a small stuffed animal with us.  This was how we would identify each other.  I borrowed a small stuffed bear from my daughter, and I reluctantly entered Joanne's.  I was a nervous wreck.  While I trust that God is with me during these moments, I can't help but feel completely stressed out when meeting someone new.  This was no different.  But I quickly found her.  We introduced ourselves to each other, and then we opened an envelope addressed to us in the package from Mark & Lu.  It said to head off to Arundel Mills Mall and go to the Bass Pro Shop before opening the next envelope.  So off we went.

We arrived at Bass Pro Shop and the next envelope instructed us to go to the shoe department and try on hip waders.  There was a disposable camera included in the package and we were to have someone take a picture of us wearing the waders.  Talk about embarrassing!  But we did it, and it was a fun icebreaker.

Picture courtesy of Aliexpress.com
We continued to be given different activities around the store, along with another envelope full of conversation questions, and it was quite a wonderful way to get to know someone.  We checked out boats at the Bass Pro Shop, looked for ugly couches at a furniture store, played games at Dave & Buster's, and we even had a great meal at one of the local restaurants at the mall, courtesy of Mark & Lu, all while discussing a variety of subjects designed to get us talking and finding out more about each other.  It was a perfectly enjoyable evening.  I can't say enough about how creative Mark & Lu were to come up with such a great date night for us.

While I wish I could say that the young lady and I went on to have a long, successful dating relationship, we only went out a few more times before I began struggling again with grief over my wife's death, and I ended the relationship with her.  But that early Spring night, we had a magical time together.  Whether it was a result of Mark & Lu's wonderful planning, the fantastic, meaningful conversation, God's obvious presence with us both, or the serotonin flowing through our bodies, we felt a connection.

So, with the Spring weather upon us, get out and do things and meet someone new.  You may find a new friend, or maybe even a possible love connection.  The serotonin is a-flowin'!

Have a great evening, everyone!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Terps and Tempesto

The "Heart-Attack Kids" at the University of Maryland did it again.  The Terrapins Men's Basketball Team took another game down to the wire in their first (second) round game in the 2015 NCAA Basketball Tournament, finally winning in their match against Valparaiso, 65-62, in Columbus, Ohio.  It was the 13th game this season that Maryland has played that was decided by 6 points or less, and the fact that they've won 12 of those 13 is impressive.  However, it doesn't allow the fans any chance to relax.  Whew!  These are the games that count the most, too, so the stress level is that much higher.  Maryland, the 4-seed in the Midwest Region, beat 13-seeded Valparaiso, and move on to face 5-seed West Virginia University tonight (Sunday) at approximately 8:40 p.m.  That's after my bedtime, but I'll be watching!

***


Meanwhile, the Maryland Women's Basketball Team had a big win in the first round of the NCAA -Tournament, hosting the New Mexico State Aggies.  Maryland, a 1-seed, defeated the 16-seeded Aggies, 78-57.  In the opening act, 8-seeded Princeton, undefeated this season, beat 9-seeded Wisconsin-Green Bay, 80-70, at Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD.  My daughter, Melody, and my father joined me at the games, and the atmosphere was electric.  In attendance for the Princeton win was President Obama.  Michelle Obama's niece plays for Princeton.  There was an immense security presence as a result.  But we had a great time!

Yes, that's the President

***

While the snow on Friday morning was great to see, I'm very happy there were no delays.  Schools around here have already missed a week's worth of days due to the weather, and students will have to make them up at the end of the year.  As it is right now, the last day of school for Howard County will likely be June 19th, which erases any possible time off for my daughter because camp begins the following Monday, June 22.  That's disappointing.  Melody typically has a week or two to spend with her grandparents, and that won't happen now until August.

***

So we're about a week away from a few days at our favorite theme park, Busch Gardens, in Williamsburg, VA.  We haven't had a getaway since Christmas, so this is a long time coming.  We are mulling over one of the VIP tours of the park, just to make it a little different.  This is a park we've been going to since I was about 9 years old, and I still get excited about going there.  We've watched many roller coasters come and go.  I rode my first coaster at this park, the Glissade.  The Loch Ness Monster is one of my favorite roller coasters of all time, and is a favorite of my daughter now, too.  We loved the Big Bad Wolf, though it is now gone, as is Drachen Fire, which was another of my all-time favorites.  Apollo's Chariot is one of the best coasters around, and it just got a new neighbor, a new coaster called Tempesto.  Word is that it will open officially around April 25, which means we won't get to ride it when we go at Spring Break.  Fortunately, we have season tickets, so we will definitely ride it on another day, but we'll miss it when it opens.  We are roller coaster fanatics!

Tempesto picture © WTVR.com
Have a great evening, everyone!  Go Terps!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Salesman Gambit

Twice in two years now I've received a knock on my front door well after dark.  I'm always cautious, but still very quick to answer it, and in both cases, whoever knocked had already moved on to the next house.  Upon seeing me open my front door, a young man came running back to my house.  He is very polite, and promptly pulls out a Baltimore Sun newspaper for me to inspect, and he goes into a story about how he plays for the Laurel High School football team, and he is out trying to raise money for the team to help him pay for his future college education.  The young man, who truthfully looked to me to be much older than high school age, said he had been accepted to Towson University.  I didn't want to purchase a subscription to the newspaper, but he was quick to suggest that I could just give him cash, of which he had plenty and showed me to prove that other people had given him money, or he would even take a check or credit card.

I live in Howard County, not Prince George's, so I do not support Laurel High School.  I hate to pick and choose, but I want to support the kids in my community, and I consider Reservoir High School my community's school (even if we are in the Hammond district), particularly since my wife was a teacher at Reservoir.  When I voiced to the young man that I support Reservoir, he quickly changed his story that he was not a student at Laurel any longer, that he was only trying to raise money for his college education.  Essentially, he was asking me for money, not a donation.  This sure sounded fishy to me.  This was the same ploy tried by the young man who came to my home last year.

My suspicions got the best of me, and, when I told the young man that I wasn't comfortable giving him money, he got angry, and walked away spewing insults at me.  Hmmmm....I guess that's a good strategy, which certainly makes him seem much more genuine.  Maybe I should change my mind and give him lot's of money!  That's sarcasm, in case you couldn't tell.

I'm more than happy to help out legitimate fundraising for area schools, but my focus will always be on my daughter and her school, and the schools in my immediate community.  But this door-to-door stuff is a huge red flag, especially since it was well after dark.  I was concerned that he may try something violent, given how angry he acted.  I was legitimately worried about him returning at another time and vandalizing my home or car.

I'm glad schools have gotten away from going door-to-door for legitimate fundraising.  I remember having to do that very thing when I was a kid.  It was extremely uncomfortable to go up to a stranger's front door and ask them to purchase something to support our fundraising activity.  The possibility of them saying, "No," was a hard thing to hear.  I don't think I could allow my daughter to do something like that, and in fact it's probably too dangerous to even consider.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure this was a con, and I warned a few of my neighbors, one of which was quick to agree with me.  It's a shame that this kind of thing happens.

Stay safe out there!  Have a great evening, everyone!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Pi Day March Madness!

March Madness is upon us, and the Maryland Terrapins Men's AND Women's Basketball teams have given themselves the opportunity to sail into the postseason playing very well.  Unfortunately, for the Men's team, anyway, the NCAA Selection Committee didn't give them any favors.  The Terps ended up receiving a 4-seed, after most "experts" and fans assumed the Terps had played themselves into a 3-seed, and they are now in a position for a collision with the only professional team in the NCAA Tournament, the Kentucky Wildcats.  The UNDEFEATED Kentucky Wildcats.  Whew.

The Terps really did themselves a disservice by losing in the semi-finals of the Big Ten Conference Tournament to Michigan State, and that seems to have resulted in the Terps getting knocked down a few pegs, and the potential 3 turned into a 4-seed.  Many of the other schools in their region of the tourney are pretty good, too.  I wouldn't be surprised if the Terps have problems with West Virginia in the second (third) round.  I should have more faith in my Terps.  But reality is a little stronger than wishful thinking.

Like just about everyone else, I did fill out a bracket for the NCAA Tournament.  I always try to predict a few upsets, but it really is a crap shoot.  My Final Four includes Kentucky, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa State.  So two 1-seeds and two 7-seeds.

The Women's NCAA Tournament has Maryland as a 1-seed.  They're that good, having just come off a win in the Championship of the Big Ten Tournament.  I expect them to go far.  They play New Mexico State in the first round, and it's a home game for the Terps, on Saturday afternoon.  I think we're going to try to go to the game.

Let's go Terps!

***

Right after the Selection Show last night, a commercial aired featuring Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, and Spike Lee, riding in a car.  Barkley is driving, and as he passes a "Welcome to Annapolis" sign, he hollers to the sleeping Jackson and Lee that they have arrived "...in The Annapolis."  Jackson and Lee are confused, and they try to get clarification, reminding Barkley that the NCAA Final Four is held in INDIanapolis.  Barkley gets a panicked look on his face as he begins to get berated by the others for heading to the wrong location.  Jackson ends it by saying, "We're in The Maryland."

I thought the commercial was hilarious, and decided to post about it on Facebook.  I wrote, ' "In The Annapolis."  Love it!'  I figured the only people who might comment are those who actually saw the commercial.  Immediately, one of my friends "liked" my post.  He's a sports fan, so I wasn't surprised.  But then I saw several comments.  One said, "?"  Another said, "??"  Still another said, "What?"  I was a bit bewildered.  I see a lot of Facebook posts that don't make sense to me, and I just let them go.  If I don't understand it, it's not meant for me to know.  But these friends wanted to know what it meant.  None of the three are sports fans.  Even if I explained it, they wouldn't understand it.  So I commented, "If you're not following the NCAA Final Four commercials, you're not going to understand the reference."  That was followed by even more comments.  "Oh, we don't get commercials like that where I live."  "I still don't get it."  So I just deleted the entire thread.

***


Saturday was Pi Day, so my wonderful daughter and I made a pie.  Actually, we made two pies.  I had some sugar-free chocolate pudding, so I mixed some up, then poured it into a couple of pie shells, added some Redi-whip, and added some chocolate chips.  Voila!  Instant pie.  So we had pie for breakfast.  We waited until exactly 3/14/15 at 9:26:53 a.m. and enjoyed some delicious, if extremely soupy, chocolate cream pie!

Pie, Coffee, and Land of the Lost on MeTV, on Pi Day

Have a great evening, everyone!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

MicroSoft: My "Friend," My Enemy

I consider myself somewhat of a techie.  I used to rebuild and set up computers at work as a sort of side job to my cartography, and it was educational if not exactly fun.  That said, computers have come a long way since those simple days of Windows 3.1.

My daughter and I purchased a new laptop for her use at Best Buy several months ago.  We had the Geek Squad folks set it up for us with extra RAM and we excitedly headed for home.  Upon trying to start it up for the first time, we encountered a MicroSoft login screen.  Since I did not have a MicroSoft account, I wasn't sure how to proceed.  This was the first computer I had ever used with Windows 8.  I ended up using my old laptop to go to the MicroSoft website and I created an account.  We were still unable to login to the new laptop.  I tried a lot of different things, and ultimately gave up.  I tried unsuccessfully to login several more times in the following days, and I finally gave up, figuring I'd come across a solution at some point.  The laptop ended up just sitting around as a doorstop for the next few months.

On a free Saturday morning, I decided to try again.  This time, I tried going to MicroSoft for help.  While the young man (going by the tone of his voice and his choice of terminology, I'm guessing he was a young man), we tried a few different things, and he asked a lot of questions about our laptop.  He ultimately determined that there was nothing he or we could do except to go back to Best Buy and have them "logout" of MicroSoft, since they were the first ones to login when they set up our laptop.  I told him I thought that this was a ridiculous solution, but he didn't have anything else to suggest, and in fact, he became very condescending towards me, and he promptly ended our call.  My frustration was very high.  My conclusion being this was a MicroSoft issue, and MicroSoft couldn't fix it.  It was amazing to me that we couldn't use our "new" laptop because we couldn't login to it.  I've purchased more than a few computers in the last decade, and this was the only one that I had been unable to use right out of the box.  Because of Windows 8, we couldn't even use it.

Yesterday we went to Best Buy and visited with the Geek Squad folks.  I explained the problem, and they said there was an easy solution.  The young lady said that we could do it two ways:  1. She could "fix" it herself, which would result in us paying for their service, or 2. She could explain what to do and I could do it myself, resulting in no charge.  I chose number 2.  It was a simple fix.  All we had to do was reset the computer.  Since this would revert it to the default settings, but since we had never used it, there was nothing to worry about.  Fifteen minutes later, we were good to go.  I expressed to the young lady how ridiculous this whole thing was, especially since it was such a simple fix, and my frustration with MicroSoft requiring an account in order to just use our laptop, and all she could say was she was sorry we were having problems.

So now we're using our new laptop.  We also discovered just how all-encompassing the MicroSoft umbrella is, with Office software needing a MicroSoft account, as well as Skype.  I'm scared to death to replace my old laptop for fear of losing my independence completely.  It is no surprise to me why so many are changing their loyalty to Apple.  However, on the plus side, my daughter has no problem navigating through the new software and Windows 8 environment.  I continue to be impressed by her generation's ease in using electronics of all kinds.  As I mentioned, I consider myself to be a techie type of guy, but I'm finding more and more that I'm going to her for help.  I guess I'm just getting old.  That's reality, as much as I hate to admit it.  But I'd much rather deal with her than some condescending guy at MicroSoft.

Have a great Sunday, everyone!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Catching Up On Normal

I spent much of the past few weeks mentally collecting blog topics, but my memory is so poor that I can't really remember what it was I wanted to write about.  I was completely overwhelmed by all things chili for two solid weeks, with the two chili cook-offs I participated in. I finished off the last few spoonfuls last night to put it completely out of its misery, by the way.  Speaking of chili, today is National Chili Day, according to Hard Times Cafe, who were giving out free bowls of chili today to celebrate.  Not sure how late their open tonight, but maybe, if you're hungry and you're still up and reading this (lots of "ifs" here), you can still get a fee bowl.  I like Hard Times, and certainly recommend it.  If I hadn't eaten so much chili over the past few weeks, I might've gone there tonight.

I didn't really eat that much chili.  Aside from taste-testing, and a few samples at both cook-offs, I didn't eat much.  I finally ate a bowl for lunch on Tuesday, and I have to say I wasn't crazy about the taste.  I think it was overcooked.  That might be the reason why it didn't score as well.  I will definitely work harder for the next one.

Faithful Pup Scout has been getting sick lately.  I believe it is partly due to changing her food, though I was very careful to slowly introduce her to it.  Nonetheless, her vomiting isn't unusual.  She has a very "sensitive" stomach, something that has plagued her since she was a pup.  Our vet prescribed a special diet after we noticed that treats seemed to cause her to vomit.  We cut them out completely, and the prescribed (expensive) food was intentionally bland so as not to upset her.  She seemed much better after that, and really didn't seem to miss the treats.  However, she goes through spells of vomiting, followed by diarrhea, several times a year.  Eventually, we settled on a brand food that she seemed to like, Rachael Ray's Nutrish.  Unfortunately, I recently read a fairly poor review of the food that scared me enough to transition Scout to a new food.  We settled on the Blue Buffalo brand, and while Scout seems to really like it, her body doesn't like it quite as much.  So we're starting over with a cleansing diet of boiled rice and chicken to reset her system and see if it's just the food, or if there is something more serious going on.  Scout is an elderly dog and has her issues, so we're treading carefully.  Her demeanor is very good, and she's very playful, so that's encouraging.

Speaking of health, I'm having a nuclear stress test tomorrow morning, and I haven't studied.  Seriously, I'm concerned that my cardiologist is concerned about my latest EKG.  I haven't had any problems, and actually have felt pretty good, even if I'm gaining more weight than I'm losing.  My stress level is pretty high lately, too, mostly due to work issues.  Frankly, a high-stress job is probably not the best thing for me.  I can't imagine doing anything else.  I'm invested in my government career, and I'm much closer to retirement each day, though that's hardly an incentive.  The bottom line is I just need to take better care of myself, from diet and exercise to how I deal with stress.

One thing that keeps me from being stressed is sports.  No, seriously!  It's true!  Other than my Pittsburgh Steelers, I actually find the Terrapins to be quite exciting, both the Men's and Women's basketball teams, and we're entering March Madness, the ultimate in college basketball craziness.  Also, it's baseball Spring Training started, and with the Pittsburgh Pirates having some success the past few seasons (after 20 years of losing), and higher expectations this season, the Bucs are fun to watch again.

Speaking of Spring, I'm one of those guys who actually prefers the Winter weather.  I love snow.  I'm actually kind of depressed that we're likely done with the white stuff for this year.  On top of that, we have the dreaded Daylight Savings Time.  I start each day at 5:00 a.m., and the time change, moving the clocks forward, is exhausting..  I'm just not adjusting well, and the "lack" of sleep is making me very tired this week.  Given the stress test tomorrow, I'm pleased that my weekend is actually here, since I'm not working tomorrow, and I'll get a few more hours to sleep in the morning before my appointment.

Despite the stress, and the lack of sleep, and the sick dog, life is pretty good.  Thank the Lord.

Have a great evening, everyone!



Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Spring Break 2003 Trip Report

Just like my daughter and me, my wife, Teresa (T2), and I took a great many trips during our short marriage.  I went through our Trip Journals and counted up 21 documented trips.  This does not include some of the many quick overnighters and weekend getaways, which, due to how short they were, we didn't always think to write about.  But we did write about our many big trips, from our honeymoon to the great Northwest and down the coast from Seattle to San Francisco, to our wonderful New England adventure, from our Christmas-cousin's wedding-New Year's at Disney-Terps in the Orange Bowl Florida trip, to our cross-country twenty-one state loop around America, we covered a LOT of ground, and I'm thankful to have those travel journals to read through and experience those incredible memories for all time.

As we approach Spring Break season, I was reminded of our big week-long California Coast road trip, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, when Teresa was just a few months pregnant with our daughter, Melody.  I pulled out our trip report and relished the excitement of that trip, which we called our Honeymoon, Part 2.  Part 1 was our actual honeymoon, which was a trip down the coast from Seattle, over to Mount Ranier and Mount St. Helen's, over to the coast to Arcadia, then down the Oregon Coast and into Northern California, through the Redwoods, and into San Francisco.  It was such a great trip, and created so many memories, so we decided, not too long after we found out we were expecting, to return to San Francisco and continue the trip down the coast, all the way to Los Angeles.  Here is our story written by ME and Teresa...

This is Trip #20.  Eric & Teresa flew to California on 4/12/2003 and plan to fly home on 4/19/2003.
Day 1 - 4/11  Left home at about 5:30 p.m.on Friday.  We took Faithful Pup Scout to Teresa's parent's house and said goodbye. We went to Chick-Fil-A for dinner, then checked into our "wedding night" hotel, the Ramada at Rt. 100-BW Parkway.  We put in a 3:30 a.m. wake up call.  Watched some TV (our favorite show "Ed"), then went to bed at 10.  Lord, thanks!  Please be with my T2 and me on our journey, and keep us safe, happy, and healthy.  Amen
Day 2 - 4/12  (BWI-DFW-San Jose-San Francisco - Rain/Clear/Rain/Clear - 50s)  Up at 3:30 a.m.(!) and we got ready.  The Ramada shuttled us over to BWI where we flew to Dallas/Ft.Worth, then on to San Jose.  Went to pick up our rental car at Budget and they upgraded us to a convertible Mustang!  It was identical to our honeymoon car (make, model, AND color!).  Too bad it was raining and cold.  We met up with our friend Cherish and had lunch at Maggiano's.  The three of us then went to the Winchester Mystery House for a tour.  It was very cool!  We said goodbye to Cherish and went to the home of our friends from church, who moved to San Bruno.  It was great to see them (Phil, Louise, Matthew, and Luke).We had a very nice dinner, then Phil and the Boys took us to Pacifica.  We flew a kite on the beach, but then the rain hit us again, so we went to the nearby pier and watched the sunset (and saw a beautiful rainbow!).  Back to their place and we soon went to bed.
Day 3 - 4/13  (San Bruno-San Francisco-Muir Woods-Tiburon - Clear/Rain/Clear/Rain - 50s)  Up at 8:30 or so.  Feiler's went to church (we slept in).  Feels great to rest!  Feiler's home.  We went for a hike with them, then T2 & I packed up, said goodbye to Louise, then we (T2 & I and Phil & the Boys) went to In-N-Out Burger for the first time and Krispy Kreme for a delicious meal.  Rain hit us again, so we ate our meal in a nearby parking garage.  We said our goodbyes, then T2 and I went on into San Francisco.  We found our friend's (Irene & Stephen) apartment at Lincoln and 9th.  Very nice location across from Golden Gate Park.  Great to see Irene!  We three went to Muir Woods (where it rained on us again!).  Good time despite the rain.  Then we went to Tiburon and we ate at a very good Mexican place, Guayama's.  Back to San Francisco and we crashed for the night (Stephen home late).  To bed at 11:30 p.m. or so.
Day 4 - 4/14  (Golden Gate Park-Half Moon Bay-Japantown-Ghirardelli Square - Mostly clear and cool - 60s)  Up at around 8.  T2 & I got ready and had a leisurely morning.  I went to Radio Shack for a camera battery.  T2 & I walked to Golden Gate Park, thru the Botanical Gardens, had tea and cookies at the Japanese Tea Garden, and walked up to Strawberry Hill (T2 stopped at the waterfall almost at the top.  She was feeling a bit sick, so Eric walked back to the car and came back to pick her up.  Back to lunch with Irene at her apartment.  Very nice.  We 3 took a very nice drive to Half Moon Bay and strolled the windy beach.  Back "home."  Irene and Stephen went to a basketball game.  E & T2 went to Japantown for dinner, then drove down Lombard St. and to Fisherman's Wharf.  Shopped and walked to Ghirardelli Square and got ice cream!  We drove around San Fran, then came "home."  On to bed late.  Lord, thanks!
Day 5 - 4/15  (Alcatraz-Fisherman's Wharf-Chinatown - Mostly Sunny AM/Mostly Cloudy PM)  Up at 8.  T2 and I got ready and hopped on the 71 Bus to Downtown, then the "F" Trolley to Fisherman's Wharf.  We saw the sea lions, then boarded a Blue & Gold Ferry to Alcatraz.  Very cool tour with a Park Ranger, then the audio tour inside the prison.  Headed back to the mainland.  Had lunch/appetizer at Boudin's (clam chowder in a sour dough bread bowl), then had our lunch at an Italian place on Pier 39.  We shopped, then hopped on a cable car to Chinatown.  Found a few souvenirs, then took the Muni "N" back to Irene & Stephen's.  Phoned our parents to check in, then the four of us went to dinner at the Crepevine.  Good food and conversation.  Had gelato for dessert, then headed back to the apartment and crashed for the night.  Chatted until late.  Lord, Thanks!  Bless us as we journey on our vacation and those we meet along the way!
Day 6 - 4/16  (San Fran-Route 1-Hearst Castle-Santa Maria - Partly cloudy - 60s)  Up around 8, dressed and shared breakfast with Irene  Then we packed up the car, and we drove Irene to her sister, Lena's, house for their Passover celebration.  Visited for a few moments and then back to 92 West to Half Moon Bay and south on Route 1.  Amazing vistas!  Saw a car commercial (print ad?) being shot along the way.  Stopped for many pictures (T2 felt a bit sick by lunch at a Jack-in-the-Box).  Pressed on from Monterey to Hearst Castle.  Saw elephant seals on the way.  Hearst Castle was breath-taking - amazing views, Roman pools and ancient art.  On the tour, we were followed by a guard - the collection is that phenomenal.  We'll have to return for another tour (there are four types).  Followed the tour with the IMAX Hearst Castle movie.  Excellent.  Left the castle, put the top down, and cruised to San Luis Obispo for dinner at Mo's BarBQue (homemade potato chips!).  Drove a short distance to Santa Maria and checked into a very nice Holiday Inn Suite.  Whoo Hoo!  Lord, Thank you for your watch-care over us and for blessing us with this trip.
Day 7 - 4/17  (Santa Maria-Santa Monica - Mostly sunny, cool 60s)  Up at 8 or so.  Got ready and hit the road with the top down on our convertible.  On down US 101.  Stopped in Malibu for a short break, then on down Route 1 to Santa Monica!  Had lunch at the Montana Grill on Montana Ave.  Also stopped at the end of Route 66 at Santa Monica Blvd., with a plaque for Will Rogers.  Checked into the Best Western Gateway.  Headed right back out to Universal (through some of the worst traffic I'd ever seen!).  Went through security and over to one of the Stages to see a live Pilot Show ("The Ripples") be taped.  Starred Adam Arkin and Diane Farr.  Pretty cool being in the studio audience!  Poor T2 had a migraine and got sick back at the hotel in the parking garage.  On to bed late.
Day 8 - 4/18  (Hollywood - Clear 60s - Nice!)  Up at 6:30.  Got ready and to Warner Brothers Studios for their VIP Tour.  Very Cool!  Saw a LOT of neat stuff!  T2 was happy to see some of the ER outdoor set, the FRIENDS set, Gilmore Girls, and many more.  Had lunch nearby, then walked along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Grauman's Chinese Theater, etc.  Took a Starline Tour of the Hollywood Star's Homes.  Very informative.  Did a little shopping, then went to Universal Studios Citywalk and had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe.  Drove through the Hollywood Hills and over to Sunset Blvd., on through Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and back to Santa Monica.  Back to our hotel.  Packed up and to bed.
Day 9 - 4/19  (Los Angeles-LAX-BWI-Home - Mostly clear)  Up very early and checked out of our Best Western, drove to LAX, dropped off our Mustang convertible, and flew home.  Stopover at Chicago O'Hare and bumped into our church's Mission Team (on the way home from Arizona).  On to BWI.  We caught the shuttle back to our hotel to get our car, then went to Arundel Mills to eat dinner and get our pictures developed.  Home!  Dropped off our luggage, then rushed back out to T2's parent's to pick up Faithful Pup Scout!  So nice to see her (and T2's parents!).  On home!  Lord, thank you for a wonderful, memorable trip!

I couldn't help but notice that the last day of this trip was April 19.  Exactly one year later, on April 19, 2004, Teresa would pass away from a sudden heart attack, changing our lives forever.  I'm so happy to have these wonderful memories, though!

Have a great evening, everyone!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Great Chili, Great Cause

Today was the Bridges To Housing Stability's 5th Annual "Hotter Than Thou" Chili Cook-off, the details of which can be found in my last two blog posts HERE and HERE.  It was a nice event, and I was honored to be a participant.  I was representing my church, Grace Community, after winning our "in-house" chili cook-off last week.  This was the first year that Grace was a participant.

Rick and me (and Melody peeking between us)

I made over 15 quarts of chili, with fifteen pounds of a blend of lean ground beef and hot Italian sausage.  The result was a good tasting chili with a nice bite.  It was nicely thick and chunky.  However, there were a lot of good chilis at the cook-off, and many had experience on their side, having participated in previous editions of this cook-off.  The participants are lined around the large room at the host church, the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, MD, where each church's team has a decorated table with their crockpot(s) of chili.  Each team also has a "tip jar" which is used to collect money (donations), with the "Golden Ladle" and "Silver Ladle" award winners being the teams raising the most money.  There were also prizes for Most Spirited Team and Best Decorated Table.  In addition, the chili was judged by a trio of local celebrity judges, including Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.

While Team Grace didn't win any of the awards, we were humbled and honored by the kind words from many of the folks who tasted our chili.  We collected a lot of money (totals to be determined soon), much of which was from word of mouth from those who liked our chili and told others.  Even Mr. Kittleman stopped by and said how much he liked it, tipping generously.

I have to give a shout-out to our cook-off "neighbors," Grace Episcopal Church, fine competitors, who won the Silver Ladle award, for their kind words and delicious chili.  Ironically, their team captain and chef was named Bill, and his son, Eric.  My father, who joined our team today as our "official" photographer and videographer, is named Bill, and my name is Eric.  The fact that we were representing churches named "Grace" was not lost on us.

Much thanks to my very helpful and supportive team, all wonderful ambassadors of Grace Community Church:  Rick Sykes and Steve Girard, who joined us for the cook-off; Rick Garner, my friend and counselor leading up to the event; the kind words from and support of our pastoral staff, particularly Pastors Rich, Tim, and Mark; and a big thank you to my dad, Bill Freed, and my helper and biggest fan, daughter Melody, both of whom put in a lot of hard work and encouragement throughout.  Also, a shout-out to my mom, Gwen, home recovering from surgery for a torn meniscus in her knee, who is my taste-tester and 2nd biggest fan.

Me and my girl...and a LOT of chili!

The "Hotter Than Thou" Chili Cook-off is a fantastic event, and I was so honored to be a participant in the battle against homelessness.  Bridges To Housing Stability is a wonderful organization, and today's event brought in over $25,000 in donations.  If you attended today, thank you for your support.

Have a great evening, everyone!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Fifth Annual "Hotter Than Thou" Chili Cook-off


Come on out this Sunday, March 8, at 12:30 p.m. for the 5th Annual "Hotter Than Thou" Chili Cook-off, sponsored by Bridges to Housing Stability.  Eighteen churches in Howard County will be competing for the cherished "Golden Ladle" by trying to earn as many "tips" ($$) from donations for having the best chili. In addition, there will be celebrity judging by:

  • Richard Ackman, Maitre'd, King's Contrivance Restaurant
  • Allan Kittleman, Howard County Executive
  • Ryan Wiest, Chef and Caterer, Clarksville
Additionally, there will be a silent auction for seven great baskets, each with a different theme:

  • Pet Basket
  • Garden Theme Basket
  • Mexican Theme Basket
  • Italian Basket
  • Horse Themed
  • Fitness Together
  • Roasting Pan Basket


I am honored to represent my church, Grace Community, at the Cook-off.  I won the Qualifier by winning the First Annual Men Alive! Chili Cook-off at Grace, which was extremely competitive with a dozen great chilis, and catapulted me into the "Hotter Than Thou..."  I promise to bring the heat.  Come on out and support a wonderful cause, sample some fantastic chili, and bring Grace Community Church the championship!

Here is the list of churches participating in the event this year (* - denotes first year competing):

1.    Abiding Savior Lutheran Church*
2.    Bet Aviv
3.    Bet Chaverim*
4.    Bethany Church*
5.    Catonsville Presbyterian
6.    Christ Memorial Presbyterian Church*
7.    Church of the Resurrection
8.    Columbia Jewish Congregation
9.    First Presbyterian Church of Howard County
10.  Glen Mar United Methodist Church
11.  Grace Community Church*
12.  Grace Episcopal Church*
13.  Lisbon United Methodist Church
14.  Mt. Zion United Methodist church
15.  New Hope Lutheran Church*
16.  St. Andrews Episcopal Church
17.  St. John’s United Methodist Presbyterian Church
18.  Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia

Many thanks to my pal Rick Garner for helping me pull together my Grace support team.  If you attend Grace, please come out for the party.  It's much appreciated!

See you Sunday!
#HoCoBlogs
And a BIG thank you to all of the sponsors...

Habanero Peppers:

http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/wegmans-logo_150x52.png


 
Tabasco Peppers:

http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/JE%20SCHENK(1).JPG                  http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/zielinski%20newsletter(1)_300x80.jpg  

http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/vanguard_rgb_300x62.jpg

Jalapeno Peppers:

                    
http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/Adeptus%20Complete%20Logo%20VectorCompoundCS4-1%20(2)_jpg_dj_100x126.jpg                            http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/Allegra_Marketing_Print_Design.png                 http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/Shariff%20logo_200x42.jpg        http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/Columbia%20100%20dental%20newsletter_150x70.png   http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/dependable%20auto%20logo_300x40.jpghttp://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/Jensen_115x156.png

 
http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/ESABallclr2.gif                     http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/fusion%20logo_150x60.JPG                      http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/Garbart%20Construction_175x60.jpghttp://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/greypony_137x175.jpg                   http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/mcfarlin%20logo%20(3)_100x63.JPG                 http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/Pearl%20Logo%20newsletter%202_300x128.jpg
http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/slack%20logo_150x85.jpg                          http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/VERTICAL%20CONNECTION_150x97.jpg                            http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/TINO%20LOG.jpg        http://www.akubocrm.com/storage/images/1038/walterheofer%20logo_300x55.jpg

Monday, March 2, 2015

Hotter Than Thou Chili Cook-off

Grace Community Church's Men Alive men's ministry hosted a chili cook-off this evening, and it was a hot time!  Over a dozen men and women entered the contest, with winners in four categories, Traditional, Vegetarian, Spicy, and "Unique," competing in a "best in show" with judges determining an overall winner who would represent Grace at on Sunday, March 8, at the fifth annual Hotter Than Thou Chili Cook-off!  Seventeen churches in Howard County will compete in the chili cook-off to raise money for the homeless, each vying for the coveted "Golden Ladle Award."  The Hotter Than Thou Chili Cook-off is sponsored by Bridges to Housing Stability, whose mission is, "To prevent homelessness by providing effective services and compelling advocacy that result in housing stability for Howard County households."

Courtesy of Bridges to Housing Stability
The contest was hotly contested.  I decided to enter my "award-winning" chili recipe.  I have entered my chili in the annual chili cook-off at my office for the past five years, and it has won first prize three times.  I've never made the same chili twice.  Since I no longer keep it written down, I approximate the ingredients as best as I can remember each time I make it, so it truly is unique.  For the Grace chili cook-off, I originally entered my recipe in the "Spicy" category, but after buying all of my ingredients, it became apparent that it would be better suited for the "Unique" category, since I was using a blend of lean ground beef and hot Italian sausage, along with my secret ingredients.  I prepared the chili on Sunday during the ice storm, and after letting it simmer for the evening, I placed it in the refrigerator overnight.  Monday, after returning home from work, I quickly got my crockpot going to reheat the chili.  I then headed up to Grace for the cook-off.

Hey, that "U1" is mine!  Courtesy of Bridges to Housing Stability
It was a nice time.  I hadn't been coming to the Men's ministry meetings on Monday evenings in a while.  I'm in a bit of a bind when it comes to child-care, particularly in the evenings, so I typically stay home with my daughter.  Mondays are also a regular night to have dinner with my in-laws.  Tonight was a little different.  Due to the ice storm last evening, schools in Howard County were closed today, so my darling daughter spent the day with my parents, with plans to spend the night with them on Monday evening.  Though I had planned to take her to the church for the chili cook-off, now that she was not going, I could focus my attention on the chili.

The cook-off rules were simple.  Everyone had five tickets that they could use to "vote" for any chili they wished, placing one or up to five tickets in the chilis they liked best.  My chili got off to a slow start, partly due, in my opinion, to it being in the "unique" category.  However, once word got out, and some folks were very vocal about it, more and more were trying it.  I actually ran out towards the end of the contest, but I had fortunately saved one bowl just in case it made it to the judges round.  When the tickets were tallied, my chili had beaten another chili in the "unique" category by one vote, 57-56!  The judges then tried the chilis a final time to pick out the top chili, and to my surprise, I won!  I really could hardly believe it.  Not only did I win, I would be representing Grace Community Church at the Hotter Than Thou Chili Cook-off!  I was really honored and humbled to win, especially given how many great chilis that were entered.  I tried a lot of great-tasting ones!

So the cook-off is next Sunday, March 8, and will be held at the Church of the Resurrection at 3175 Paulskirk Drive in Ellicott City, MD.  While there is no admission charge, you can vote for your favorite chili (or congregation) by "tipping" money towards your favorites.  All proceeds from the chili cook-off directly benefit Bridges to Housing Stability, so you're encouraged to be generous with your tips.  The "winner" gets the Golden Ladle.  Please come out and support this wonderful charity.  Bridges works to empower local families to maintain stability in their homes and through community partnerships to prevent homelessness in Howard County.

I'm looking forward to this wonderful event.  Thanks for your support.

Have a great evening, everyone!