Monday, April 07, 2014

Badminton

I signed up for a 7-week badminton meet-up through Minneapolis Community Ed, and tonight was the first session. Historically badminton is the only sport I've ever really been "good" at, and therefore was also one of my favorites in school. But I haven't played since college, meaning, at least 6 years. Going into the community ed group, I figured I wouldn't be the best, nor the worst, just somewhere in the middle.

Well... I don't believe I'm at the bottom, but... I might only be one or two people up from it. I dun got schooled by an upper-middle-aged man who was very friendly, but clearly in much better physical shape than I am. In fact, almost everyone in the class - mostly middle-aged men - seemed to be in much better shape than I am. Good for them. And in all seriousness that gives me a goal to work toward - I really hope I can be that fit in a few years.

But for tonight, I am sore. My feet, legs, arms, and neck all hate me. They are all crying "why did you do this to us?" and I'm pretty sure they will continue hating me for a couple days. I guess 10 minutes on the elliptical each morning isn't going to cut it anymore.

On the plus side, I will sleep well tonight. And, I had a fun time, which is the whole point anyway.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Get off my lawn! (or, what I really mean when I make an age-related joke)

I am blessed with amazing adult role-models and mentors in my life - honorable, stand-up men and women who make me a better person just by allowing me to spend time around them. I continue to glean so much wisdom from our conversations, and from watching how they live their lives.

Along with my admiration, though, I can't help but make jokes when one of my mentors says something that... well, "shows their age." Phrases like, "double clutch," or, "pencil whip," that are not part of my generational vernacular. To these I often respond jokingly, "get off my lawn!"

Or, if someone starts talking about, for example, phonographs (that's "record players" to you youngin's) or rotary telephones, or if they start the story with the words "you wouldn't know about this because you're too young," then I'll respond with a question: "that was right around the time fire was invented?" or, "was that before or after the wheel?" or, "you walked uphill both ways, side-by-side with the dinosaurs?" My co-worker John has another phrase he uses frequently: "Let's see, Lincoln was shot in '65..."

I say everything in a spirit of comedy, but it goes deeper than that. For anyone to/at whom I've made an "old joke," the reason I can make jokes like these is because you have welcomed me into your life and made me feel like an equal in our relationship. Every time I make an "old joke," it carries with it a deep respect, admiration, and love. It means I'm acknowledging that you have valuable wisdom from a life I consider well-lived, that you are a person I respect, and it's me saying that I desire to model my own life after the way you live yours.

Thank you for being you.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

New Car (or, how car shopping is not fun)

While visiting Los Angeles over Halloween, I drove a Ford Fusion rental car that I really, really loved. This got me thinking (for the second year in a row) : maybe it's time to go new-car shopping. My Pontiac Grand Prix was 10 years old (2003), and starting to show its age. While it hasn't had many expensive repairs recently, I'd rather buy a new car proactively, and on my own timeline, than be forced into a purchase because my old car goes up in smoke on the freeway entrance ramp, which for the record, actually is what happened last time.

In mid-November, I visited a Ford dealership to find out more about the Fusion. After researching on the Interwebs, I decided I should also check out the Hyundai Sonata, which had higher customer satisfaction and safety ratings than the Fusion. Facebook friends also encouraged me to audition the Kia Optima and Nissan Altima; the Kia was okay, but I didn't love it; and the Nissan dealer, I doubt he could possibly have been any less helpful (maybe my salesperson was just having an off day, but seriously, they made me feel like a terrible inconvenience).

Walking into Inver Grove Hyundai I was greeted by Lisa, who broke many of my stereotypes about car salespeople. She was friendly, helpful, respectful, not pushy. We chatted about what I was looking for in a car, she gave me her card and we emailed about different models and prices. Long story short, after reading online reviews and gathering input from friends/family (my Aunt even put together a spreadsheet comparing the different models I was eyeing), I decided to purchase a Sonata. Thanksgiving night, I left Dealer Lisa a voicemail and email, letting her know which two specific Sonatas I wanted to test drive from their online inventory (one was a decked out hybrid, the other a middle-of-the-line normal non-hybrid), and asked her to call me when she got in in the morning.

Lisa left me a voicemail at 7:15 a.m., right when she got into the office. I was still asleep, thinking I wouldn't hear from her until the dealership opened at 8:30. I woke up, called my parent, they picked me up, and we arrived at the dealer about 9:15. Lisa had parked both cars alongside the building, idling their engines so they were toasty warm for our test drives.

Dad and I both had read reviews claiming hybrids experience awkward delays after pressing the brake pedal, and likewise that the acceleration is a bit dodgy while the car switches from electric to engine. Though the hybrid was my preferred choice between the two cars I'd picked out, I wanted to make sure I could live with these braking and accelerating issues (if they existed), so I took the hybrid out first. We got out onto the road, hopped on a highway, and I didn't notice any issues with the acceleration / deceleration. Cruise control worked as expected (I use cruise all the time, so that was an important test). Overall, it was a beautiful car. When we got back to the dealership, we hopped out of one car right into the other. My parents and I pretty much knew right away that I'd be picking the first car over this second one. Had I driven the second one first, maybe I would have loved it, but simply put: it just wasn't as nice a car as the hybrid (mostly owing to it not being as spec'd out). I drove it anyway, just to see if it handled any differently. Same model, the only difference was no hybrid assist.


That is where the fun ended.

Back at Lisa's desk, we looked through all the numbers. And by "looked through," I mean I completely mis-read the deceptively phrased numbers. Yes, shocking as it is, the dealer lied about how much the car would actually cost. The real tragedy, though, is that I didn't catch her deception until much, much later. For that moment, right after the test drive, all I saw was "good deal."

I realized I'd left some important paperwork at home, like my proof of insurance (it's in my car... which I didn't drive because Mom and Dad picked me up). Fortunately, my insurance agent's office was open, so they faxed over new insurance papers, already valid for the new car. Shortly thereafter, Lisa deposited my parents and I in the waiting area and took her leave, while we waited, and waited, and waited some more, for the financing guy. During this time, I came to the awful realization that, despite all my research about how to haggle car deals, I'd completely forgotten to negotiate. I was pissed at myself (still am). The whole point of going at the end of the month was to put myself in a good negotiating position, and I utterly failed.

After a long wait, Mr Financing (Mike) made his appearance, brought us into his office, and I began signing paper after paper after paper. Granted, the house I live in I bought from my parents, but seriously, buying this car took several-fold more papers than buying my house.

Much time was spent haggling over warranties and extra options. In this at least, I remembered what I'd read online, and politely declined their deals-that-aren't-really-deals.

Then, we got down to the final paper. And as I was just about to sign, I said, "wait a second, that price is wrong. It's $3,000 more than it should be." I asked Mike for another 5 minutes alone with my parents, and I was about ready to walk out. The issue: Lisa was outright deceptive when she talked about the pricing. The "$1,000 off here, $1,000 off there", turns out that was already included in the online price she showed me, even though she made it sound as though it would come off after that price. The killer is, even reading the fine print online, it's not written in understandable english, they use car-dealer-legalese, abbreviations, and words that have no meaning unless you already know what they mean (that sounds self-evident, but what I'm trying to say is: unless you know what to look for, you can read the fine print all day long and it won't raise any red flags, even though it should; and as a first-time car buyer, I didn't know what to look for).

It broke my heart, but I signed the final paper anyway, deciding that $3,000 over the course of the 10 years I own the car was going to be okay, not that big a deal. I should have walked out, but after wasting half a day there already my stubborn ego couldn't bear the thought of it all being for nought.

I have yet to stop regretting that decision. Every time I get in my car, nice as the vehicle is, my regrets re-surface.

The rest of the day was supposed to be a fun game day with my parents, but instead was marred by my obvious malcontentedness with what had gone down at the dealer. Though I shouldn't have let it happen, my day was ruined as I ran through the memory over and over. I did not sleep well that night.

The next morning, I knew Lisa would call to ask how I liked the new car. One of my goals for personal improvement recently has been to be more courageous in my interactions with people. Therefore I decided I would go in, in person, to talk with Lisa, rather than over the phone. I explained to her how I felt deceived by the pricing, and how I would not be able to give her or the dealership a high score on the customer survey. I knew this would get her attention, because she had made a very big point about how important it is for her to get perfect marks on the survey (I don't know if I believe this or not, but she claimed that receiving anything less than a perfect 10, meant she wouldn't get paid any commissions for 3 months).

Instead of hearing me, Lisa guilted me into feeling that my car-buying naiveté was my own fault - she claimed no one had ever misunderstood or felt deceived by their prices in the past. I explained how I thought she should have gone through the prices more thoroughly, because this clearly was my first rodeo. It is my fault for not asking enough questions, but at the same time the numbers she showed me were deliberately misleading, and it is my opinion that when you have a brand new client, you ought to take extra care to make sure they understand.

She insisted instead that she had done no wrong, got very emotional, and teared up, which means she's either a phenomenal actress, or it was actually true that not getting a perfect survey score would cost her financially. My intent never was to hurt her, and I felt truly terrible for putting her through the grief. At the same time, I needed her to hear me (which, again, she chose not to). When I went through a similar exercise with the Sears home delivery people last August, they took the time to listen, and did what they could to make it right. That never happened with Lisa. However, in the moment, because I felt badly for putting her through that emotional ordeal, I went back home, and then back to the dealership to drop off a thank you card.

It's counter-cultural that I chose to spend time talking to Lisa in person rather than just filling out the survey and avoiding a face-to-face confrontation. It's just plain weird that I'd spend time driving back and forth to drop off a thank you card that same day, rather than mailing it, or doing nothing. But that's who I am. I genuinely care about people.

Sadly, the only real satisfaction I got from the experience was knowing I'd "manned up" and talked to her face-to-face, rather than via email or over the phone. When I did get the survey a few weeks later, I gave Lisa her 10s, having been guilted into it. I also answered honestly when the survey asked "did anyone at the dealership try to influence your answers on this survey?" Yes:
My salesperson (Lisa) was adamant that any score less than 10 would result in her not getting paid for 3 months. If this is true, then please consider all of her scores to be 10s - she was phenomenal, treated me with respect, worked with me to find the right vehicle, and was just overall wonderful to work with. I visited 3 other dealerships while car-shopping in the past month, and Lisa was, hands-down, the best salesperson I worked with.

With that said, if the "no pay unless I get 10s" is *not* true, then my response about salesperson honesty needs to be adjusted from 10 to 0, and I request that you contact me for further comments."

I did not receive a follow-up call or email or anything, so... presumably I guess she was telling me the truth?

My co-worker Glen told me about some of his car-buying experiences and the games the dealers play, so next time I have to buy a vehicle I might bring him along to help me avoid making the mistakes I made this time. I also know next time to bring a physical paper checklist with everything I need to remember at every step of the deal.

Dad insists I got a good price for the car, but whether that's objective reality or not doesn't even matter, because the emotions overshadow any facts: I feel awful (still) about the experience, and at the end of the day that's what will influence where I buy a car next time, as well as what I tell people about the dealership. There's a systemic issue in the way car prices are advertised, and I don't expect that to get fixed overnight, but Lisa could have A) chosen to be up front with me and honest about the pricing, and B at least listened to me when I raised the issues, instead of focusing on herself and her survey score. She could have said, "I/we are so sorry, let's make this right." But she chose not to. Buying this car was one of the most stressful and awful experiences I've had in my life. (first world problem: acknowledged) Maybe what I'm most bitter about is how much the car-buying affected my time spent with my parents the rest of that day.


Some closing thoughts:

At the end of the ordeal, my Sonata Hybrid is a very nice car. The buying experience was terrible, but the car itself is wonderful. It has built-in GPS and maps, a back-up camera, streams bluetooth music from my phone, and I can use my phone handsfree with the car's speaker system. It's missing a sunroof, which I'll long for in summer, but I guess in winter that's not so practical anyway.

My old car, my Grand Prix, served me very well for 7 years, and I miss it. My parents bought it used in October 2006, after my first car threw a rod and went up in smoke. I remember the first night I drove it: I accidentally left the sunroof open (never having had one before, I wasn't used to closing it) and it rained. Oops. It dried out eventually. That car and I have driven hundreds of round trips to Northfield, and many dozens to Des Moines / Ames. Rather than trade it in at the dealer, I chose to donate it to Cars for Courage. The physical part of donating was very easy: a one-page form when you drop off the car. Emotionally, though, it was very hard saying goodbye.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Goals for 2014

Since 2010, every summer I have set out a list of goals / areas for self-improvement for myself for the coming year. It made sense to do this in summer, because I worked at a school and my life revolved around the school-year. Now that I'm working in Corporate America, keeping track of this mid-year goals cycle is confusing even myself, so I think it's time to switch to calendar-year-based goals.

Time now to review my mid-year 2013 goals:

Set reasonable, achievable goals
Also, Stop stressing about how much I can't accomplish
Continues to be a roller-coaster of success. Honestly, I think I'm regressing. If you consider yourself a close friend, or even distant acquaintance, and are reading this: please, text or email or Facebook or call me every now and then, and remind me to stop stressing about my todo list. Seriously. Please do.

Sub-goal: Punctuality
Regressing here as well. My follow-on goal remains to take this beyond being on time, but instead aim to be early. Aka, plan for bad traffic and other unexpected hold-ups.


Avoid procrastination
I continue to do well. I also continue to struggle classifying my "todos" into "important and urgent", "important and not urgent", "not important but urgent", and "not important and not urgent". See Randy Pauch's lecture on time management for further explanation.


Focus on tasks that matter
I'm slowly getting better. Still not there.


Focus on people that matter
Continue to succeed here. Mostly.


Take one thing at a time
I constantly remind myself, "just do this one thing, focus on this one thing", because otherwise I thrash. I continue working on how to reduce the "clutter" that induces thrashing, like having too many separate todo lists, or physical todo piles, etc.


Accept that I cannot solve every problem
I'm getting better at this, particularly when it comes to listening to other people's stories and wanting to help, but knowing my own limits.


Strive toward better anger management
I continue to ace this. My friend John, who has served as my unofficial anger management counselor, has on a few occasions read some email drafts I wrote, and said there was nothing he would change. Rock on.


Move on from Minnehaha
As complete as it's going to be.


Eat more healthfully
Yeah... I should do that. Regression.


Take responsibility for my own actions
Doing well.

Sub-goal: be discerning about whose opinions I let matter
Still succeeding. And still work to be done (always :)

Second sub-goal: find my value in the Lord; aka, be myself, and do so unashamedly
Success. My value as a human being is not found by the measure of my job / career, income, number of friends, relationship status, number of blood donations, the movie projects I've worked on, and so on. My value as a human being comes from being a beloved son of the Most High God. And not only do I just say that, but I've witnessed myself actually live it out, which was pretty cool.

Regarding the "be myself": I still only know how to be myself, and I have been somewhat successful in worrying less about what other people think. Particularly when it comes to expressing my faith, and the eternal optimism that grows out of that faith, I'm successfully living out what I wrote about in my last goals post: "This is me. Deal with it."


Spend time with God
Mixed success. I have committed myself to attending both of my churches every week (I'm part of both Jacob's Well and Upper Room), and I volunteer frequently at both.

I sometimes ask God, "what do You want me to do?" and when I get answers, I have tried to follow through. After a conversation in early December, I felt God challenging me simply to read for 5 minutes a day in my Bible, which I have been doing since then. If you've known me for any length of time, you know the Bible and I have a love-hate relationship, and for many years I refused to even pick one up, because of the pain and hurt I saw from The Church using the Bible as a weapon. The fact that I'm now choosing to read anything at all in it, every day when I wake up, is quite monumental. There have been a few other "what do You want me to do?" experiences, too, that's just the most tangible.


Continue maintaining a healthful life/work balance
I'm getting decently good at booking "me time" in my calendar, and defending it.


Take more risks
Yes. Particularly with being bold in my faith (at work, in my prayers, with friends, even at church), I've seen a lot of growth in myself here.


Take a vacation
I need to do this.


Always speak my heart, and always speak what God is asking me to say
I continue to grow and do relatively well here.


Let go of some grudges
I still have a ways to go here. However, thanks to some EMDR therapy, I'm happy to say I'm now pretty much ambivalent toward my 9th grade year at North High School. If you know me, this is dramatic progress.


Gossip less
Trying.


Being where I should be
Mostly succeeding.


Know thyself
It boils down to: why am I feeling what I'm feeling? I'm getting pretty good at this.


Recognize when there is no one "right" choice
Continuing to improve.



For 2014, I continue to hold all the above goals, and I'm adding one more:

Chase after my own dreams, rather than getting distracted by other people’s dreams
Too often I have found myself longing (dare I say envying?) for the careers and lives of my friends. I'd like to be very deliberate this next year about discerning my own dreams.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Signed up for ASL classes

As a young lad, my elementary school (Anne Sullivan Communication Center) required students to take sign language classes for ... four years, I think - second through fifth grade. Of course, ask me how much I remember from those years and the answer is sadly, "not much." Frankly I don't remember being all that interested at that age.

A couple years ago, though, I had a housemate named Ellen, who was studying to become an ASL interpreter. Between learning a lot of signs from her, and also from some AWAKEN friends around the same time, my interest in the subject was piqued. (Typical me: tell me that I have to learn/do something, and I'll resist, but let me come to that same conclusion on my own, and I'll embrace it wholeheartedly). And so, for the past year or three, every time a Minneapolis Community Education catalog shows up in my snail-mailbox, I've thought about signing up for an ASL class. Thought about but never executed. The classes are dirt cheap, but my concern has been the time commitment, and the fear of adding "one more thing" into an already over-busy schedule. Yet, for the past two class seasons, I've felt very specifically "called," or at the very least, "affirmed" in my desire to sign up for this class, so tonight I finally took the plunge and enrolled in a 7-Monday course starting later this month.

You might ask why. I'm already busy enough. Why add this "one more thing"?

Emotionally, I continue to feel a deep yearning toward wanting to learn more in ASL. The few signs I know have become part of my worship experience; or, rather, most of the few signs I know, I know because I wanted them as part of my worship experience. The physicality of signing during worship is reminiscent of AWAKEN, and seems to help me feel connected to God.

The answer might be as simple as that. Maybe this is simply an experience for my own spiritual growth.

I do wonder though if my future holds some other purpose for this present-day desire. I highly doubt I'm called to be an interpreter (although I think it might be fun to interpret worship services; that would be quite a different career path from working with supercomputers!), but on the other hand, maybe I'm destined to meet a [blonde] deaf girl and fall in love with her. Or maybe someone in her family will be deaf. Or one of my future children (natural born or adopted). Or maybe I myself will lose my voice or hearing (re-reading the Christmas story last week, I made particular note about Zechariah, and how he was made mute during Elizabeth's pregnancy and had to use ... HSL? [Hebrew Sign Language?]). Or maybe none of these. I don't know. And I don't need to. It'll just be something fun for right now, and like ComedySportz classes did last year, something to push me out of my comfort zone.

Also, now I'll finally be able to keep up when Ellen and her boyfriend visit and start signing at each other right in front of me.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Luke's Angels

Anticipation is abundant, and everyone's a little on edge. Especially Gabriel. I would be, too, if I were in his wings. Don't get me wrong, he's memorized his lines, "do not fear" and all that, but, I mean, he's got the most important message that any of us has ever delivered! History-shattering kind of stuff. Pressure's on, don't want to mess up.

I don't know how much time has been spent - no, invested - getting ready, preparing the stage, but we've been busy. This is a masterpiece of a production. So many details. And so many players! (I hear most of them don't even know their parts yet!) I'm honored the Director is letting me play even a small role. I might "just" be in the backup chorus, but for me, it's a big deal. I don't think anyone is unhappy with their assignment. Well. Lou, I guess. Lou always wanted to be the star before he ran away. We try not to remember. It's a sad story.

No sadness today. Today's story is a new beginning. In fact it's the beginning of what, I'm told, will be the ultimate story ever. Words are incapable of capturing this excitement, this feeling of aliveness that permeates everyone and everything here! People woke up this morning thinking it would be just another day in the life, but they are so wrong! Today their lives are changed, forever.

Gotta fly. The Director's calling places.

Everyone's ready. Shake out the nerves. Breathe.

Cue Gabriel.

Go.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

What I'm looking for

This is post #19 (the final post) in Where's Jeremy (2013), and is a follow-on to my concluding comments in post #18

My friend Hannah asked me a few months ago what, specifically, I was looking for in a woman. Below is the email I wrote her:


What I'm looking for can be summed up in two words: Taylor Swift :)
What's that? Reality called? Oh. Okay.

Well... how about all this, then:


My demographics:

Caucasian male, 28, I live in Minneapolis and work at a computer company in St Paul. I drink socially, smoke never, have no fashion sense, usually run late (working on it), and lean left politically. Most importantly, I'm a child of God.


My profile, as it [used to] appears on christianmingle.com:
I'm Jeremy, a Minneapolis native, filmmaker, musician, computer geek, and aspiring pastor. My friends described me as loyal, good-hearted, "weirdly awesome", and genuine (though of course it's impossible to sum up an entire person in only one word).

My Dad has always "worked with computers," and I've followed those footsteps, first as a web developer at my high school, and more recently as a software tester and systems admin at Cray, the Supercomputer Company.

One of my passions is working on productions, usually movie sets. Ironically, though, I rarely make it out to see movies in the theatres, so if you ever ask "have you seen such-and-such?", the answer's probably no. Netflix is helping culture me with some classics; I wouldn't object to having your help, too!

Pinocchio and Abraham Lincoln I am not, but I can't tell a lie to save my life. My psych eval while journeying toward seminary said I'm abnormally honest and forthcoming - I choose to believe this is a good thing.

I love asking deep questions, and talking about life and God and stuff.

I love worship. Music is how I connect with the Spirit: playing my guitar, singing in church, or taking a road trip and letting my mind get lost in the lyrics.

I love Taylor Swift. Don't judge me.

I am terrified of worms. I love falling asleep to a thunderstorm, but when the worms slither all over the sidewalk and I have to walk near them, I shriek like a 5-year-old. It's embarrassing.

Feel free to ask me anything - I don't have many (any?) secrets.


Who are you? Let's talk about what doesn't matter: it doesn't matter if you're divorced, a single parent, always been single, whatever. It doesn't matter if you're rock solid on your faith or struggling through a lot of questions. It doesn't matter if you're shy or outgoing. And it doesn't matter if you do or don't know where God's calling you. We can walk that journey together, if you're willing.

Ideally, you and I share one or more passions in common (in addition to God, that is): music, movie-making, drama, caring for others.

If I'm afraid my answer might be boring, I have a tendency of giving short answers to deep questions. Ideally, you're someone who won't let me get away with that.

Maybe most critically important, when my parents and I have game nights, we always take red, green, and blue, so… here's hoping you like yellow :)



My website, which says a lot more about me:

www.jeremygustafson.net


And a list of fun, random facts about me:

www.jeremygustafson.net/bio/randomthings.php


Specifics of who I'm looking for:

A woman who:
  • has a strong desire for faith (important distinction here: doesn't necessarily mean they're an über-Christian, but rather that they are actively *seeking* God and have that desire to know God better)
  • is intellectual (someone who gets my awful, punny jokes; also, someone who I can explain my geeky job to)
  • is considerate of other people (the specific examples I have in mind: you don’t cut in front of other people in line, and if you notice there are people trying to pass you when you’re walking, you move to the side and let them)
  • listens, asks good questions, and will not let me get away with easy answers (and won't let me try to divert questions back to her when she's asking about me)
  • will call me out when I say something stupid or unsubstantiated
  • will challenge me to be a better me (example: "let's go buy a sandwich for that homeless person")
  • can forgive mistakes, because I'm not perfect (and I'm pretty forgiving, too)
  • does not smoke


And *ideally* also, someone who:
  • overlaps in at least one major area of interest: music, production, movie-making, drama, ministering to friends in need
  • has had some life experience, and has a life of their own (aka, we do not become each other's entire lives)
  • as my friend John puts it, "has their shit together" (doesn't mean she has her entire life figured out, but she knows who she is)
  • doesn't need to be rich to be happy


Lastly, be advised I've really got a thing for blonde hair, but that is not a requirement.

Ready? Go! :)

Where's Jeremy (2013) - Part 4: Emotional reflections, lessons learned, and "what's next?"

This is post #18 in Where's Jeremy (2013)

Creating the casting database took a tremendous toll on my physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I worked myself to exhaustion - one Saturday I had to lie down for bed at 4 in the afternoon (and then rest/sleep until the next morning), because I'd pushed myself so hard the previous week. Emotionally, I lived constantly on the verge of a breakdown, overwhelmed at the enormity of my workload and all I hoped to accomplish. Spiritually I wasn't focused at all on prayer, or worship, and made my database my idol.

In AWAKEN I frequently heard the phrase "look at your life, look at your choices." The context is basically: if you make a mistake and you really should have known better (or say something that right away you know was completely wrong or stupid), then inevitably someone would chime in with this phrase as a joking retort. I'd like to pull a deeper meaning here, though; when I look at my life and my choices, I'm left with this realization: pursuit of the "American Dream" is not worth the sacrifice of self, of fun, of friendships, of well-being, etc. Yes, hard work has a place, but it cannot be my end-all, be-all. My lifestyle choice of working all the time is fundamentally incompatible with my most precious dream of being in a relationship and having a family.

While I remain ashamed of the choices I made to prioritize work over friends, family, and God, it seems everyone understood; everyone's had those projects, big or small, that you just need to get done (I'm thinking like writing a thesis, caregiving for a loved one, filling out your work timecard, tasks large or small that are both urgent and important). So when I explained my situation, how I was dead-in-the-water for casting projects until I finished the database, everyone "got it," no one was mad. Because everyone's been there, to some degree. The lesson: allow myself grace and forgiveness.

In all aspects of life, I'm much better now. Immediately after I finished programming on June 30, a huge weight was lifted. I re-connected with friends, re-committed to attending both my morning and evening churches each week, and relaxed without feeling guilty. The pathway to spending time with God is more open with the database project behind me. When I do pursue additional features on the database (and yes I'm already planning "version 2"), I can do so at my own pace, without allowing it to consume my life. And perhaps most importantly, witnessing Matthew's entire life collapse around him in a single day continues to serve me as a humbling reminder to find my value in who Jesus sees me to be, rather than who [I perceive] the world would have me be.

Now I'll admit, parts of the casting business have been fun, and I've learned so incredibly much about running a small business, about accounting, about managing people, about managing expectations, and so on. At the end of the day, though, the reality remains that the company got dumped on me because I was the most logical choice to take it over, and not because I truly wanted it.

My parents have helped me see my time investment hasn't been [entirely] a no-op - as they pointed out, I've shepherded the company and kept it viable for a future, not-me, owner. I've also continued providing a needed service to the community. The alternative would have been closing the doors on this amazing thing Matthew had built over the past decade. Maybe I could have built the company up to be more than it is, if I'd done any advertising, or spent time and energy meeting people and reaching out to producers. But now I get to pass the company into John's hands, and feel relief. As Anne put it to me, "Jeremy, you've done what you needed to do, and now it's time for someone else to take the reigns."

Talking with my friend Mikaila in June, she said to me "sometimes you do something and it just sucks. You don't get to say 'well it was worth it because this happened later.' Sometimes nothing good comes from it, and that's just the way it is, there is no redemption." For a very long time, that's how I felt about the company. I think now that the end is finally in sight, I can reflect and say I learned a lot of important lessons, including that nothing ever works out the way I think it will. Now at long last, I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and I don't think it's a train.

So what's next? I mentioned before that I've already been planning database "version 2." Though I'm selling the casting company to John, I'm retaining ownership of the software I developed, and will be expanding it to add more features useful for primary casting (auditions), extras casting, and agencies. The hope is to market it to all the casting directors and agents in Minnesota, keeping it free to use for the actors. It will be a massive project, but I will take it in small chunks, and not allow it to consume my life (friends, hold me to this!). A lot of time, thought, discussion, and prayer went into this decision - it was not made lightly.

In my personal life, I'll continue being deliberate about spending time with friends and family. I'm becoming more involved in my evening church (joined one of the take-down teams, and also just joined the rotation for pre-service greeters). I'd like to start taking guitar lessons (I already play, but I want to get better), and spend more time writing music. I also will continue working on accepting when I have to say "no," because I'd much rather say no earlier than have to back out later.

And then of course, there's the whole looking-for-a-relationship thing. Please review this list of the 9 most annoying things to say to a single person (and pay particular attention to #3 and 7). Good, now that we're on the same page, I invite you to read over some thoughts I wrote for a friend when she asked, "what are you looking for?"

That'll be plenty to keep my life busy.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Where's Jeremy (2013) - Part 3: Samaritan Casting - Selling the company

This is post #17 in Where's Jeremy (2013)

After finishing the database, I made myself a promise: if the casting company ever again brought me to the verge of an emotional or mental breakdown, that would be three strikes and it is out (the first strike came early on in 2012, when I first started Samaritan Casting. The second strike was the database project as a whole). Barring a "strike three," I resolved I would keep the company through calendar year's end, then re-evaluate whether the database was actually accomplishing the stress-relief I'd intended it for. If not, I'd wash my hands and be done with the company.

Barely two months later, strike three came in the form of the feature film extras casting. Movie-making is a moving target, I completely understand that! But these ADs were so disorganized that they made our jobs practically impossible, adding immeasurable amounts of unnecessary and completely avoidable stress. Strike three.

Labor Day. Chit-chatting with John on my mobile telephone. I whined for the umpteenth time how frustrated I was with running the company, and that I'd hit strike three and I was done, when John asked "would you ever consider selling it?" I said, yes, but explained how there was no one who was interested, had the necessary skill set, and that I trusted (as discussed in post #15). Then I jumped out onto a limb and asked, "do you want to buy it?"

To my utter shock and amazement, John replied "yes, actually I would." Alrighty then. The conversation went something like this (not exact quotes):
Me: You mean you actually enjoy doing this [booking people and dealing with the last-minute craziness]?
John: Yep.
Me: You're crazy!
John: Yep.
John's a stay-at-home-Dad, and I know he's been wanting a side-job for a while, something he can do from home with flexible hours, that would generate a little extra income (this is why it worked out so well for me to hire him to book extras). So I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised at his interest in buying me out.

John has also become someone I consider a life mentor. Not only has he served as an "anger management coach" for me when I'm tempted to write mean emails, he has listened to all my many complaints and lamentations about the casting company, and he's been one of my greatest cheerleaders when it came to developing the database. He and Anne both have been a tremendous blessing by taking over the majority of the actual booking work for me.

We tabled further discussion until after the feature wrapped. A few weeks later, he was still interested in buying, and I DEFINITELY still was interested in selling. John's been helping book extras for me for at least 6 months now, so he knows what he's doing, he's got the technical and organizational skills, and most importantly, I trust him 101%.

This got me excited, not only because I finally had a way out, but because I know that John can accomplish much more with the company than I have or could. In no way do I mean to downplay the workload of a stay-at-home parent, I'm simply acknowledging the reality that John's schedule is significantly more flexible than mine ever could be. Even setting aside my personal desire to escape, for the sake of the company itself turning the reigns over to John is the best possible decision. Add to that the fact John is actively choosing to take this on, even after and despite hearing all my complaints, even after and despite knowing all the work it takes, and I believe he's in a much better position for success than I was when this all got dumped on me. I'm excited to see what he does with it!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Where's Jeremy (2013) - Part 3: Samaritan Casting - The Database, continued

This is post #16 in Where's Jeremy (2013)

This is a continuation from post #15

Frequently I was asked, "why the urgency? Why can't you just decide to take some time for yourself, to set some limits?" Very few people understood. The reason I needed to push so hard to get this database programming done is that I was dead in the water with casting projects until I got something up and running. If a project came in (and a half-dozen did), I had to accept email submissions and format those photos and data to present to the client. That's a huge, huge pain. Hours of work. I ended up paying my friend John to deal with collecting all the submissions, so I could continue focusing on the database development.

My friends John and Anne both helped tremendously while I worked on development - I hired them to deal with booking all the projects that came in, and they also helped beta-test each new feature as I completed work. Peter tested new features, wrote much of the text that's on the site, and drafted a preliminary terms-of-service (so I wouldn't have to hire the lawyer for quite as many hours). To my relief, my friends and family were incredibly understanding of my absence.

Part of the reason the project took so long, was I wanted it to be perfect. I approached it with a Steve Jobs mentality, agonizing over every detail: should it say "sign in" or "log in"? "Sign up" or "create an account" or "create a profile" or "create your profile"? what colors should it use? should talent profiles pop up in a separate window for accounts that have multiple profiles, or should they stay in the main window? etc. Underlying this was the principle "never settle," the most influential phrase I remember from the Steve Jobs biography. Anyone can make a mediocre user interface (and, frankly, looking at a majority of websites, I'd say most webmasters do make only a mediocre interface), but I wanted to stand out from that; making a good UI takes time and effort. For example, I spent 12 hours crafting the login page - not even the login functions, not even what happens after you click the log in button, I mean just the appearance of the page and the way the fields transition in, down to figuring out why a particular field was 2 pixels out of alignment, and fixing it. I spent all that time on details no one will ever notice, because I care about the user experience, and I wanted everything, from first impressions to users coming back for the dozenth time, to look good and work smoothly. Virtual world craftsmanship.

I took a three-week hiatus from programming in May in order to recoup, and reconnect with friends. Then it was the final push. On June 30th, I reached "code complete" status. I turned my attention to finishing the terms of service with the lawyer (I've never in my life been so excited to read a TOS), and testing all the features with Anne and John and Peter's help. In mid-July, I invited a couple dozen actors I'd worked with before to help beta test. Anne and John ran some fake extras casting projects, "booked" our beta-testers for the fake roles, and we found a lot of bugs for me to fix :) But that's good: better to find the bugs during beta-testing than when we're running a real job!

At long last, after almost five months of developing and testing, after twice or thrice making myself physically ill from exhaustion, after all the lawyering and tweaking and bug-fixing, we launched the database for public use on July 27. At the end of that first day, 170 talent profiles had been created. Within 3 weeks that number was over 500. And, in large part because of a feature movie we were running extras casting for in August/September, we hit 1000 talent profiles on September 12th (less than 7 weeks after launch). This blew away my expectations. Granted, the Samaritan Casting mailing lists have over 2500 email addresses subscribed, but I hadn't anticipated so many people would jump on the bandwagon so quickly. I felt incredible personal affirmation seeing so many people successfully using the software I'd developed.


I got to test the database's real-world functionality immediately, because the day before launching we were hired to book 6 extras for a corporate video. This meant I was able to have real roles open for submissions on Day 1 of the launch! I chose to book that project myself, rather than hiring John or Anne, "just in case" something went wrong. I did find a couple new bugs, but overall the database did exactly what I designed it to do: make it ridiculously easy to collect talent submissions, send a link to the client so they could view headshots and make selections, and then allow me to send out booking info via both email and text message, with the click of a button! (okay, two buttons: the second being an "are you sure?" confirmation) It also let me put as many people as I wanted on standby (backups in case some of the primary choices decline/cancel), again with the click of just a few buttons.

The database continues to work well to this day. I've received numerous compliments from actors and producers, and it has made the entire booking process much easier.

However. We discovered some limits. Specifically: due to its lack of a flux capacitor, the database can't predict the future. We were hired to book 300 (later increased to 400) extras for a feature film shooting mid-August to mid-September. There is NO way whatsoever we could have booked that many people without the database. Also, to be frank, there's no way we could have done it with the previous software I'd used before March. So the database was instrumental. But. When production frequently put off telling us their needs until less than 48-24 hours before call time, there's a limited amount of stress-relief the database can possibly accomplish; you're still going to spend hours calling people on the phone, because who knows how often they check their email where they'd find out they're booked. I wised up to this pretty early and created generic roles for each day, then asked people to submit for ALL the days they were available, rather than waiting until we had specific role breakdowns. This mitigated some stress as much as a digital solution possibly could, but the work was still stressful. I hired Anne and John to book all the roles, so by far they bared the brunt of the stress. As I believe any good manager should, though, I hopped into the trenches with them to help with phone calls and pushing production. Anyway, we survived. And, point being: the database did what we needed it to, and did it well.