January 24, 2006

Chapter One - Yours Truly

Maybe it is just the egomaniac in me, but I thought much of this book might be lost without a certain amount of background on your humble author. I don’t mean the stuff that could potentially occupy the real estate on the back cover flap of a hardcopy. I mean a fundamental understanding of who I am and how my mind works. I alluded to this in the prologue and will elaborate more now.

This book should not leave the reader feeling as though I have this whole intercountry adoption thing figured out. To the contrary, they should have the desire to sit down with me in a smoky jazz joint, quaff a beer, and engage in spirited debate. As such, you best understand my frame of reference in order to know how to digest my perspective – you'll need it! Much goes into how we analyze information and form opinions. As will be explored later, we can't take our little world and assume the things we consider norms will hold true in places where the commonalities to our daily lives and struggles don’t go much beyond breathing air and drinking water.

While my experience-based thought process is most likely far more similar to the reader than, say, to Isabel’s birthmother, it also likely does vary significantly despite the fact that I come from a fairly typical upbringing. Nonetheless, I see the differences between how my wife and I digest and analyze information because of the vast differences in our experience. And if she didn’t have the opportunity to understand why I think the way I do…. Well let’s just say we’d be arguing much more than we do. In fact, come to think of it, this may be why we seem to argue less now then when we were still newlyweds learning about one another.

A not-so special beginning
On July 1, 1970, the city of New York legalized abortion. That also happens to be the day I was born in Brooklyn, one of the city’s five boroughs. It was as if I popped out and suddenly everyone realized that choice wasn’t such a bad idea. I was born into a family that is what America aspires to believe is near universal. Married, loving parents. Middle class income. Stay at home mom. A brother three years my elder.

Culturally, we are New York Jews. I don’t know that I need to say more. Not overly religious people, but practicing nonetheless. Not quite what Woody Allen depicts, but not too far off from his later pictures. From this culture came the foundation that things like family and education are a given. A Jewish son never worries that he might lose his mother’s love, no matter how hard he may try. We’ll get to how hard I tried later.

I spent my first four years as a New Yorker. I have very few memories of this time. I have one clear memory of playing with a child younger than me who had hit me and stolen my miniature Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate bar. His mother told me to hit him back. I could not hit a baby. I’m told of another occasion when I stood up for my cousin because my grandfather was teasing her. My grandmother tells me I was always a “do-gooder”.

Then my parents followed the California dream and we moved to Orange County. Growing up in Mission Viejo, a place that aspires to be a sister city to Stepford, undoubtedly had a huge impact on who I’d become. First of all, it is one of the most politically conservative places in the country. This was one way I was different, my parents accounted for 10% of the Democratic Party’s membership. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but take it in stride. Unlike New York, we were one of only a few Jewish families, the rest of who made up the other 90% of the Democratic Party. People in Mission Viejo have blonde hair, defined muscles and nice tans. I am a skinny, red headed dude who burns and peels; tanning is not an option. And the people in Mission Viejo don’t feel a great sense of community; they are very comfortable in securing their own prosperity. I’m not claiming that this is something evil, in fact it is the real lesson of the world we live in. But I have never been able to accept that, not even as a child.

All these things inherently impacted me because quite frankly, I never had a chance of being a cool kid. I was no social outcast, but definitely not on the top of the popularity food chain. If all the things mentioned above weren’t enough, there is one more worth mentioning, the kiss of death for coolness. I was a smart kid, a mentally gifted minor as they called us back then. Yes, I was branded. As such, I always got good grades as a young child. More so, I was able to get decent grades without doing much work in High School.

The net result of that is that I ended up primarily with one close-knit group of friends – a group of people who remain my best of friends to this day. My parents probably wish that this had never happened, as we were rebellious lads. I never got into any serious trouble, though this is due to great luck more than anything else. As I like to say, “they called it High School, I just played the part”. If you don’t understand what that means, it’s a nice way of saying I was a pothead.

The formidable years

High School was not really of interest to me. I disliked and did not respect nearly all of my teachers. But what should one expect when he sees his Physical Education teacher buying cocaine before the Air Guitar show we were both participating in. We had a teacher who had married a prior student just after she graduated. Mostly, it just wasn’t a challenge to me. It was all rules that had no logical basis to me. Why can’t I sit in my van during lunch hour? Why do I have to sit through a history class being taught by a near-senile man affectionately known as ‘The Colonel” who does little more than show us old propaganda films? And why do I have a math teacher grading me down for getting the right answers using good logic just because I did not “follow the recipe” for Math Analysis?

There is one notable exception to my high school academic experience. It was a government class. I’m convinced that my teacher must have been quite a hippie, though most people would never notice. His class was strict and difficult. In fact, it was known for being the hardest class in the school. He pushed you and challenged you. He asked you to think for yourself but in an intelligent way. Best of all, he was a screaming liberal. He introduced me to the McNeil/Lehrer Newshour and gave me my first sense of the realities of United States foreign policy. I will always remember a video he showed us about Iran-Contra. It showed Pres. Reagan giving a televised speech telling the public “there was no arms for hostages agreement” and then a strong voiceover came in and said “President Reagan is lying to the American public”. So say what you will, it was the only class my senior year that I never skipped and was the only class I can honestly say I seriously studied for. How I managed to graduate with a 3.25 grade point average is not a strong testament to the quality of public education.

During this time, work was more important to me than school. While I did just enough to get by with decent grades in school, I tried very hard to excel at work. I did foodservice work like so many other kids. But because of my ambition and hard work, I was always quickly promoted into leadership positions. Whether it was as a Shift Leader, Department Captain, or Lead Server, I found immediate gratification for my efforts at work far more than academically.

Restaurants are not necessarily the best place for a rebellious, intelligent, and mature in some ways kid to be. There are many people older than you that you socialize with since everyone is a part of the team. But you are also susceptible to habits you may not be ready to manage.

My parents and I had some very difficult years during my teens, once again part of what is my “normal” background. It got ugly for a while. Our problem really stemmed almost entirely around one thing – drugs. I was never a hoodlum or what anyone would consider a druggie. The fact was that I was enrolled in college prep and honors classes and was doing well enough. As I once reminded my vice-principal when he was threatening to kick me out for excessive truants, “I’m bringing up your test scores, you can’t kick me out”. I was very responsible so far as work was concerned and I was by and large a happy kid. But as I mentioned before, I was a pothead. My parents just couldn’t handle that. Whether it was the dope that made me ditch class or the boredom of school that made me choose smoking a bowl over English class is something still up for debate. In my opinion it was the latter. My parents saw me much differently than I saw myself. Of course, they never got to see the smiling kid goofing around at work with the chick he’s got the hots for. They only got to see the kid who didn’t enjoy being at home because he was always in some kind of trouble. Love was never a question for us. But somehow we just failed to find a way to enjoy the times when it wasn’t their valid parental duty to be upset with me.

The net result was a few years where I really just wanted my own independence and I wasn’t going to be my happy self anywhere I didn’t feel it. I have some serious regrets for things I did during those times, primary of which is having run away over Mother’s Day weekend. I didn’t do it because it was Mother’s Day, but numerous other goings on that all fell into place made that the time for me to exert my independence. I am sorry for that. I think I didn’t let the Mother’s Day thing stop me because as I wrote earlier, a Jewish son knows his mom will always love him; I take family as a given and therefore, for granted. I’m not defending the behavior; it is an admitted personal shortfall and one that I try to work on to this day.

During this period, I gained my first exposure to the Latino immigrant community. One of my myriad of restaurant jobs was running the happy hour buffet at a very popular nightclub and restaurant. Part of the job was to do the prep work for the buffet – cutting the vegetables and fruits, creating the platters, things of that sort. My peers at the time were a group of Mexican immigrants - some with legal papers, some undocumented. They had a lot of fun goofing on the young gringo, but I really liked these guys and considered them friends.

Most of all, it was literally my first exposure to those less fortunate than myself. It brought to life all those things that comfortable white folks get to form opinions on but never feel the ramifications of. I learned about their lives, their families, and their hopes. I earned a deep respect. Many of these guys had families back in Mexico that they wished could come to the United States. They were forced to live away from their families in order to survive. That gives new meaning to Harry Chapin’s song “Cat in the Cradle”. It was hard to fathom their reality because it was so different than my own. It also became more difficult to keep a blind eye toward the needs of real people whose worst crime was being born in am impoverished nation. Needless to say, this is a theme I have brought with me through the years.

All in all, I survived the high school years in tact. I got into a decent college, my parents and I were still speaking to one another, and I didn’t have a criminal record. What more could you hope for?

Independence Found

College is supposed to be a time when a child becomes an adult. I’ve heard it said that college creates and tests responsibility. I’d argue that college creates and tests self-accountability.

My original college plan was to attend San Diego State University, a school known for its party atmosphere. When the time came for final decisions to be made and deposits to be mailed, my parents decided they weren’t exactly comfortable sending me away for school. That shouldn’t sound bad, it wasn’t a punishment. They couldn’t stop me from going nor would they try, but they also didn’t have to fund it.

While I was upset at the time, in hindsight I’m grateful because it said something to me. I knew how important education was to my parents. Growing up, it was never a question of “if college” but rather “which college”. I also knew that they would have been happy for me to go to any college I chose, unlike my poor Isabel who will be brainwashed into striving for Notre Dame. Even though I had gone years not really caring what my parents thought, this mattered to me because in their hearts they didn’t believe I was ready to be responsible for myself. Mentally, the challenge was on as I had to prove them wrong.

I attended the California State University at Fullerton. It’s not a bad school, it’s not a great school - it is a good school. It was a long forty miles from my home, which can take quite a while in Orange County traffic. Unlike high school, I never missed a class. In fact, I cared about my grades. I cared about the subjects. I studied, a lot! At the end of my first semester I got a grade card in the mail for my calculus class. I received an “A” with the note “highest grade in class”. That cards still hangs framed on a wall in my mother’s home. This was a new beginning.

My school did not have much of a college atmosphere. It is by and large a commuter school. Living so far away and having a mindset that socializing equates with beer is not a good combination. I worked hard in school, was still waiting tables, and had been basically free of trouble. I deserved a college experience. So I saved up what money I could and moved up to school. Alas I was free.

I may have been free but my rent wasn’t. Things were getting tight and I knew that soon I would need to be groveling to my parents for help. Rather than do that, I concocted a genius plan. My grandparents were out visiting from Florida. They were a handful, very much like the people at the Florida retirement community in Seinfeld. So I invited them to come see my place at a time when I knew they’d be stuck in serious traffic and my parents would have them chattering in the back seat all the while. They’d see why the commute was unrealistic. About two weeks later, my parents started picking up the tab for me to live at school.

College was a huge success for me. I did phenomenally academically. I had perfect grades three semesters in a row and graduated with honors. I found that education can be invigorating and I learned to stand on my own. While I was a business major, I liked to take writing classes for my electives. I wrote some pretty bizarre things in a creative writing course that caught the eye of one of classmates. He also happened to be the editor of the school newspaper. He thought I’d do great writing an Opinion column so I gave it a shot thinking it was a one-time deal. Well they liked it and it soon turned into a weekly column. Giving a microphone to someone that has a beef with the status quo can be dangerous, especially in an election year.

So here was this screaming liberal living in an ultra-conservative area with a free reign opinion column as the man from Hope, Bill Clinton, campaigned to end the twelve years of tyranny under the Reagan and Bush administrations. When I asked about what I could and couldn’t write, my editor told me I could write anything so long as people read it and sent in letters. It appears as though letters to the editor are the key success factor in gauging the ability of an opinion writer. I could handle that easily and was up to the challenge.

One thing I had going for me in the quest for letters was that I didn’t get to choose the titles for the columns. That was my editor’s responsibility. She certainly helped by choosing the most inflammatory title she could that somehow reflected a point made in the column. One was written about the homeless problem. It started by saying that unfortunately “will work for food” had become the sign of the times. I went on to discuss how the government wasn’t doing much to combat it and how Reagan’s ending institutionalized care for many veterans had exacerbated the problem. The column went on to discuss some ideas for programs to combat the problem and ending with a comment that for the time being, maybe the best thing one can do is give the homeless person a bottle of whiskey because it will bring them comfort for the night. The title chosen for this column was “Give the Homeless a Bottle Gin Because Nothing Else Seems to Work”. I’m told my editor later went on to become a Press Secretary to former California Governor Pete Wilson.

One valuable lesson came to me as a result of writing this column. Admittedly, I relished the letters to the editor and found them empowering. I enjoyed the celebrity as my classmates eagerly awaited the next way I was going to piss off the student body. But one day I was working on my next column in the newspaper office and someone came in asking about where the letters to the editor went. It so happened that they went into a basket right next to the computer I was sitting at. I noticed it was a response to my last column that she held in her hand. This was a column shortly after the election about how a woman’s right to choose was safe and about how California’s electing Senators Boxer and Feinstein was a victory for women’s rights. As she placed the letter in the basket and started to walk away I introduced myself as the writer. She looked at me and tears literally began to fill her eyes as she said, “I don’t know if you realize it, but you hurt a lot of people”.

To this day, I don’t know what it was that she found so offensive. I learned that we do all see things very differently and that we must be cautious not to overstep in assuming these differences are not great. It’s beyond me to comprehend why that column could bring someone to tears. I believe I would have toned it down if I could see this - that was never my intent. Firing someone up to that extent is not effective; you lose your ability to communicate. That is far from spirited debate.

After four and a half years of college, about twenty Grateful Dead shows, and a mindful of memories, I had achieved the one thing that my parents considered their last real parental duty; their youngest child was a college graduate.

All Grown Up

The economy at the time was miserable and a degree in marketing basically qualified one for a variety of commission-only sales jobs. My degree was focused in advertising, yet no one in the industry was hiring anyone not out of the top universities. Since it looked like I’d be waiting tables for a while I decided to do it elsewhere. My last stage of full independence was to leave California.

I decided to move to North Carolina where a roommate of mine from college now lived. It was January and President Clinton was soon to be inaugurated. The new hope had come alive and he was having a big public party to celebrate it. So I decided to turn the move into more of an odyssey across the United States. In a rented minivan, Boingo, my pet bunny, and I set out on an adventure across America.

Really, it wasn’t all that exciting of an adventure. Though I did get interesting looks from people when I took Boingo out of the van to see various points of interest like the Grand Canyon for himself. I had one interesting experience in New Orleans while hanging out with some guys my age from Germany. We were at a bar and there was a big biker guy wearing a black tee shirt with nothing but a large white swastika on the front. These Germans were livid to the point of me having to stop them from confronting him. What was interesting was that they were more offended at it because of what the Nazis had done to their country and nationality than I was for what Hitler did to my own family and religion. It goes to show that national pride is powerful and can cause people to act in extremes – another theme that will be taken into adoption.

The Clinton Inauguration was a blast. The highlight for me was hijacking a spot on the official presidential caravan from Monticello to D.C. that began the festivities. This is no joke. The day before, much to my chagrin, I discovered it was not a public caravan. So I parked along the route to wave like the other half a million people. As the caravan began to pass there were a lot of sedans that looked like standard police cars without sirens. Then came the busses carrying the soon-to-be President and his entourage. Next I noticed a stream of minivans rounding out the caravan. They were the same make, model, and color as the one I had rented. So as the last minivan passed I bolted out onto the highway and joined the caravan.

It was not as if my van couldn’t be deciphered from the rest. First of all was the American flag attached to the rear wiper flapping back and forth. Then there were the signs on the sides about taking back America. But the most interesting thing that I would love to know if any media noticed were two bumper stickers on the back. The more notorious of the two read “Will Be President For Food”.

There was really no way for the authorities to keep me off the caravan - it was speeding down a mountain highway with all police officers assigned to keeping the road clear at future intersections. So as we passed the cheering crowds along the way the police waved me through the traffic lights as part of the caravan. I honked and waved as people cheered – they noticed this different minivan. When the caravan stopped I made sure I quickly got out and talked to the driver of the minivan I had been tailgating for many miles. I didn’t want to be arrested – who knows if I had committed some federal offense. The minivans were for the Secret Service and the driver had no issue with me tagging along. He seemed to feel the excitement as well.

When I finally got around to settling down in Greensboro, NC I quickly had a job waiting tables. It was okay. I made friends and could pay the bills. The Grateful Dead’s Spring Tour was just around the corner so that was something to look forward to. After being in Greensboro for about two months, something strange happened and I had a position as the Assistant to the President of small advertising agency. Oddly enough, I went to North Carolina from Southern California in order to begin my planned career in advertising.

This was a fun position and I was soon running the business office and in charge of producing the television and radio commercials. It was creative and challenging. The only problem was that my boss was broke and had milked the business dry. He was hugely in debt and more and more of my time was wasted dealing with creditors. These people were quite frustrated with me. They weren’t accustomed to a deadbeat company being honest with them. They didn’t know how to handle it when I told them we didn’t have any money and that when we did, I was going to pay salaries and the utilities first and that only then could I consider paying off the long list of creditors. Some of these bozos actually made me lie to them and tell them some amount they’d receive on some date. They couldn’t log it as a completed call without some payment promise.

The financial situation also impacted the business because among the creditors was virtually every talent agency in Nashville, where we had to film because that’s where the only film company willing to work us was located. What ended up happening was that the only way I got my job done was by giving people my personal assurances that they would be paid on time. I told them that either they’d be paid or I’d no longer be working for the company. Eventually, I had to proactively live up to that promise. I was placed in an ethical dilemma and my good sense won. I left the job.

After spending some time waiting tables and doing freelance film work, I realized that things were not going well and I needed something more of a career. Because of some family issues, my brother had asked me to come back to California. A friend of my father who owned a number of restaurants had also offered me a management position. So back to the nest I went to start on a new career.

El Rojo Loco

It was humbling to be reduced to managing a low-end family style restaurant. At least that was how it felt. It really wasn’t so much because of being a Restaurant Manager, but more because I had worked in many more interesting, higher-end restaurants over the years. I had served former President Reagan, many country music stars, and the like. This was a step down for this bona fide foodie.

The experience proved to have a large impact on me and my sense of humanity. While in the past I had been the peer of the low wage immigrant workforce, now I was the jefe. I was the pinchi manager who seemed obliged by his position to exploit their poor fortune. At least this was how it seemed to be, especially to my employees.

In Robert Heinlein’s novel JOB: A Comedy of Justice, the main character finds himself being tested like in the Bible story, at one point washing dishes at a restaurant in Mexico. He looks at the huge stacks of dishes and takes great pride and effort in completing his task. For me as a Manager, I judged the person not by the fact that they are a dishwasher, but rather on how well they contribute that necessary service to the team. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the norm. Despite everything we aspire to, there is a de facto segregation and prejudice against immigrant workers. They are certainly treated like second-class citizens or people from a lower caste.

It is true that America has been made great by its diversity and assimilation. It is also true that all immigrants have had to do their time at the bottom of the economic totem pole. Nonetheless, I did not feel as though the totality of the challenges facing immigrants were justified for people only trying to earn a living to support their families. The system where restaurant labor costs and food costs are treasured naturally causes management to act in a manner that makes these challenges greater and less bearable. Low wages, virtually no benefits, and difficult schedules are the net result. The employees have little recourse as they can’t afford to leave the job and often times have no rights since they are not documented. Instead they feel disdain and the segregation becomes even greater.

Managers and owners are faced with a difficult dilemma. I’m not trying to imply that they are bad people or racists. It is not easy to reconcile connecting with the plight of the employees with a focus on maximizing profits unless one has serious long-term vision. So in order to justify what is viewed as the demands of the competitive business environment, I believe it is a natural psychological response to separate oneself from the fact that these are human beings. I believe this is the same psychology that allowed normal soldiers to engage in the Iraqi prison abuse scandal and it is something that experts have concluded is a natural human response.

Always trying to prove myself as different, it was not easy to win the trust of my employees. I tried very hard to show respect, joked around a lot, and over time the crazy red head stated to break through. It was actually amazing how much staying human can accomplish. Miraculously, despite not having the authority to raise wages and benefits, I found I was able to help in various ways.

I had one employee who was a single woman with two beautiful kids. She was a hard worker and overall a very sweet person. I could see the stress she was under in her eyes, it never went away. We had a tree for Operation Santa Claus in the restaurant and I called the organization to see how this employee might be able to participate the program. She clearly deserved the help. Unfortunately, she didn’t qualify because she was employed. Ain’t that a kick in the butt? So I organized a group of the gringo employees and we all chipped in to get presents for her kids. A couple of the waitresses went overboard, buying a bike for her son. When I delivered the gifts to her it was the only time I didn’t see that stress in he eyes. She was overjoyed and for once at ease. One major challenge for her, providing un feliz Navidad to her kids, was taken off of her shoulders. I went and visited the restaurant a few years later, she came to tears when she saw me and we remembered back to that Christmas.

At one point I was promoted and moved to another store. The prior General Manager was someone who was justifiably quite hated by the employees. He did things like buy himself cigarettes out of the tip pool set aside for the cooks, dishwashers, and other back-of-house staff. The employees automatically resented me as the new gringo when I began, despite the fact that the employees from the other store had told them I was a good guy. They used to call me “Sepellin” and it was obvious this was somehow making fun of me. Having no idea what it meant, I asked a friend of mine who was from Mexico.

It turns out that Sepellin was the star of a popular children’s show, the Mexican Captain Kangaroo I was told. He looked a little like me because of his red hair and beard. I decided to take a gutsy move and have my friend teach me the theme song. So the next time that a group of employees mockingly called me the name, I belted out the theme song along with a jovial dance. I had taken away their power over me, that name was their way of being able to protest safely and feel some sort of power over their environment. But they also saw that I wasn’t offended and was playing along with them. Suddenly, the entire atmosphere of the restaurant changed and we had a real team.

There were still times when it was clear that the employees could not fully trust management. I remember one time when a great, long-time employee wanted a raise. He wanted $.25 per hour or an extra ten dollars per week before taxes. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to give him one. Because every day he would spend about five dollars on his lunch – a hamburger and salad bar – I told him that instead of a raise, I could let him eat for free. When you take taxes into consideration, this would put about thirty to thirty-five more dollars a week into his wallet. He wasn’t buying my story - he wanted a pay raise.

This employee was an intelligent guy but he had no education and was thus illiterate and unable to do much math. I had him bring a friend over and used a calculator to explain it to him. After talking with his friend, he thanked me and apologized for not trusting me.

Ultimately, the frustration that the bigotry toward Latinos brought me caused me to move back to North Carolina. I could manage restaurants anywhere, I wanted to go somewhere I’d feel more comfortable. People on the west coast tend to believe that bigotry and prejudice are most rampant in the south; I did not find this to be the case.

After spending a few more years in North Carolina I was feeling restless. One day, my boss and I had lunch and he told me I was next in line for promotion. A strange sensation came over me, like the moment of clarity many alcoholics describe bringing them to sobriety. Somehow I knew that I needed to get out of this business. Deep down I knew I wanted a family some day and the restaurant business is not one conducive to that. Evenings, weekends, and holidays are when you are busiest, leaving little time for family. So I thanked my boss and gave him two months notice that I was quitting, I had decided to go back to school.

Karma Strikes

I knew I wanted to come out of school with a good, stable, well paying career. I was ready to join the corporate machine. Since my bachelor’s degree was in business, an MBA seemed the logical choice. There was a decent school right in Greensboro that offered a program designed for people with jobs: most classes were at night. I figured I could get a simple job and tackle the coursework as I could. Eventually I’d graduate.

Because of my high grade point average in my undergrad studies, I needed only a low to average score on the GMAT exam in order to be assured I’d be accepted. So I didn’t bother to do much preparation for the exam, it wasn’t really important that I kick butt on it. I was amazed to get the results and see that I did in fact kick some serious butt, scoring in the ninety-seventh percentile.

I had started classes at this school and everything was going according to plan when something amazing happened one day. It was late at night when I came home from work. I was once again waiting tables. My roommate, a great friend of mine from California who never got involved in advanced education, was passed out on the couch and woke up when I came in. He told me that some school had called. He couldn’t remember which one but “it’s a good one, like one of those Ivy League schools”. He had an 800 number written down that they had given him. Knowing that I’d get nothing more than answering machine at that hour, I called the number.

“You have reached the MBA office of the University of Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame?

Why were they calling me up out of the blue?

The next day I called back and found out that they were inviting me to their first ever “MBA Scholars Preview Weekend”. I politely declined, as flying out to South Bend, Indiana was not something I could afford to do to learn about a school. Besides, I was already enrolled in an MBA program. The person informed me that they were picking up the tab for the entire trip – airfare, hotel, food – and they only wanted me to learn about and consider their program. Apparently, they were trying to raise their academic rankings by recruiting students with high GMAT scores and undergraduate GPAs. They had gotten my name because I had filled in some box on the GMAT exam allowing my results to be made public. Boy am I ever thankful I filled in that box!

It was an amazing weekend at an amazing place. Anyone who has ever been on campus at Notre Dame feels that there is something magical encompassing the place. The university wined and dined about twenty of us and basically told us that we were accepted if we chose to apply and that the real question was going to be the size of the scholarship we’d be offered.

After that weekend, I realized I was kind of stupid for not researching schools earlier as I obviously had good credentials. So I set out looking into schools while I waited to hear back from Notre Dame on the scholarship. I discovered that Notre Dame was a Top 50 program, but toward the low end of that designation. But it was number one in the area of Business Ethics. This seemed like something I could find interesting. In the end, the scholarship offer was impressive and off to South Bend I went with my little girl, a border collie mix named Cassidy.

Anyone who has a connection to Notre Dame is amazed and at times angered by the manner in which I ended up there. There just are not many people who get an unsolicited phone call from the university asking them to please attend their school, and don’t worry about the tuition, they can take care of that.

Maybe it was just plain old luck. I believe strongly it was karma. The funny thing about good karma is that you kind of deposit it in a karma bank account as you venture through life. The only thing is that you don’t get to decide when to withdraw and utilize that karma. That part is done for you and out of your control. For some reason my karma account was dried up the day that I took the GMAT exam and filled in that little box.

The Golden Dome

For one glorious year I got to enjoy the real college experience. For the first time in my life since I was fourteen years old, I was unemployed. While I feel badly that I don’t keep in touch with nearly all of the friends I made at Notre Dame, they created times I will always remember and cherish.

The integration of ethics into much of the curriculum at the school was impressive, as I don’t believe that to be the norm. This is not to say I felt like it went far enough, especially in the MBA program that would likely yield future CEOs, CFOs, and successful entrepreneurs. But it was there and it did at a minimum teach people that ethics are something to consider. I enjoyed all of the courses I was able to take that were actual ethics courses.

I found that many students really couldn’t grasp that there are real limits to what businesses should do in the quest for profitability, limitations that go beyond mere compliance with the law. I also saw that many students seemed to lack the backbone of personal confidence, they seemed unable to behave proactively with future career superiors. Teaching those two things seemed to be the gap in the courses.

In an international business ethics class I wrote a term paper called Life in the fields: an exploration of migrant labor in America’s agricultural industries. I was able to utilize the base knowledge I had on the issue from my experiences in the foodservice industry. I even interviewed one former employee to create a single human tie-in throughout the academic research. I learned many things in the process of researching the paper. This was a much more complex issue than I had believed, one that stretched into the arenas of food safety, children’s rights, and the complacency of the American consumer. By the time the paper was completed, my respect for the drive and determination of the Latino migrant community and for the conditions that brought them to the United States had become more entrenched than ever. The paper ended up being chosen for publication in a book of MBA ethics papers.

One cannot describe time spent at Notre Dame as a student without mentioning football! My one season there was not a good one for the team, but that did not hamper on the experience. All the parties, tailgates, “kegs and eggs” celebrations, and the like were of course a blast. Yet there was something more to it. The tradition of the whole thing and the sense of community felt by generations of people who share a common love and respect of the university was amazing. I was and am proud to be a part of that community. To this day my eyes tear up when I stand on campus looking at the Golden Dome.

One notable thing I did was to organize a group of fellow MBA students to participate in the Big Brother/Big Sister program. While I never managed to bond well with my little brother, it was a rewarding experience because many others who participated did make an impact on their kids. My little brother had a rough life with a drug addicted mother, but he also lived with a wonderful grandmother and had a network of older people to serve as rolemodels for him through his involvement with his church and other community activities. And the fact remained that this poor African-American kid and I just didn’t find good ways to connect. It was sad for me to see how he and his peers felt very little connection to the university. They would play in the street in front of their homes rather than take a ten-minute walk to the campus with all its grassy fields and open space. They never got to attend the football games that brought in all the wealthy white people a few weekends a year. It’s interesting to look at and experience something as all-American as Notre Dame football from two contradictory perspectives.

Unlike with my undergraduate degree, my timing was impeccable this time around. The economy was booming and companies were snatching up MBAs like there was no tomorrow. Also, this time I was coming out of a very reputable university. I ended up with numerous job offers in a variety of fields. The most promising one was for a database consulting firm in Chicago. It was a very reputable firm, paid well, and was in an industry just beginning to flourish. Another interesting one was to do marketing for a manufacturer of meat products for the foodservice industry. That position was in Wichita, Kansas. In the end the decision was simple.

I was unable to rent a house in South Bend with a fenced yard. As such, my dog, who had been accustomed to a large yard, was forced to spend a year on a chain or leash while outdoors. When this happened I had promised her that when we got done with grad school, she’d have a large yard again. Well I had very little money in the bank and real estate in Chicago is not cheap. My odds of being able to offer her a good yard in Chicago were not good. Wichita was another story. There, she could have the largest yard ever, almost three-quarters of an acre to be exact. No one could ever claim I wasn’t a good daddy to her who kept his promises. I took the job in Kansas.

The Sunflower State to Today

So now I had my independence. I had no criminal record. I had the good marketing career I had been striving for. I had managed to keep my integrity in place. And I had a large backyard for my dog.

What else could I need?

Wait a minute. I had left that Restaurant Management career because I wanted to have a family someday.

Someday was now.

I needed to find me a wife.

This was not a simple task. The bar scene was not my cup of tea. I knew no one in the entire state with the exception of my good friend I convinced to make the move with me. He also knew no one. I wasn’t a religious person so meeting someone through church activities was not going to happen. My office was fifty miles away, I wasn’t going to meet anyone through work.

I always try to be involved with some sort of non-profit, charitable or society-saving organization. This time I chose the Make A Wish Foundation. Admittedly, I was also hoping that maybe I could meet someone likeminded that also was involved with them. Why couldn’t charity work be a win-win? I became a Wish Granter and while I never found me a wife though it, I did meet some incredible children. These kids, despite their ailments, were upbeat and optimistic. They all knew and understood what they were facing, and yet they were the ones that had the strength to help me deal with it in my attempts to make their wishes come true. Unfortunately I also saw the dark side of parent’s exploiting their child’s illness and not getting beyond personal relationship issues in order to truly grant their child’s wish. Adversity should bring out the best in us. This was not the case of the kids’ parents.

Back to the quest for a wife…

I was at a loss as to what to do except for one thing… the internet.

Internet dating seems crazy but it actually can be a wonderful thing. It is just something to remove the stroke of luck and offer the good ice-breaker some of us need. The site I went to, American Singles, was one where you can look up the profiles of people in your local area and e-mail them if you like. It is really designed to meet a compatible person, not like a chat room to espouse your nasty habits to a stranger. The idea is that you exchange e-mails in order to decide if you’d like to meet in person. It was here that I met Sheila.

Sheila’s profile was fine and she seemed to meet all the basic things I was looking for. It wasn’t until I got about two-thirds of the way through her listing that anything great stood out. It said that the person who can identify where her e-mail address came from was likely to win her heart. Her e-mail name was “Miss Friday”. Very few people would make the connection unless they were fans of the author Robert Heinlein. This was a reference to one of his characters. I got so excited that I immediately e-mailed her to see if I had called it right and to introduce myself. It would be great if we both shared the same favorite author.

Next I decided to continue looking through her profile which was a smart idea but also a potential deal breaker. It read, “must be Christian and have Christian values” or “must be Christian or have Christian values”. We still debate over which it was. In either case, I wasn’t Christian and while I believe I have “Christian values”, I’m sure avidly religious people would disagree. Plus, someone who was very religious just wouldn’t be a good match for me. So I immediately e-mailed Sheila again explaining that while I don’t lie, cheat, or steal, I was raised Jewish and personally felt more agnostic than anything.

Needless to say, she replied to my e-mail.

The Impossible Dream

Sheila and I immediately got into a multiple times a day e-mail relationship. It clearly felt like the first dates when compatible people never struggle for conversation. They learn all about one another and find it interesting. It was a little hard trying to move it on to the next step with her did but I did. I was actually out of town on a business trip and Sheila missed me, even though we had still not met in person. Given that, she realized it was time for the first real date so she armed her brother with my name, phone number, and address in case I was an axe murderer and took the gutsy step of meeting some dude from the internet in person.

Our first date went wonderfully and after a nice dinner out we stayed up until the wee hours at my house snuggling and talking. Isn’t that sweet? It sure was and that date led to a second date the next night and that led to third date the following morning and in no time at all it was clear this was a serious relationship.

It’s really kind of surprising Sheila and I connected like we did. We have entirely different backgrounds and not much in common. Her family comes from small towns in the Midwest. They are very religious Christians. She grew up in a strict environment. We also have very different personalities. Sheila is pretty introverted and keeps very even keel. When my friends first met her they hard time believing she doesn’t smoke pot because she’s so mellow.

I think the thing that really brought us together was not who we were but more who we wanted to be and what we saw for the future. We had both been through some tough relationships and just wanted someone honest and faithful we could trust. We were both able to laugh at our past mistakes and ready for something better. After a couple of months, I think we both realized that while we may not have been the whimsical, cutesy, in la la land couple discovering new love, we were perfect together and meant for one another. We found that our vast differences, things that can separate people, actually provided the things the other needed to improve upon.

As some examples, I needed to release myself from some obligation I felt to try to be super-successful economically. Sheila came from a somewhat humble upbringing where this type of thing wasn’t stressed. She is the first member of her immediate family to graduate college. Instead of this building a wall in our goals and outlooks, it served as a balance. A ying to my yang, so to speak. Sheila, on other hand, can be overly focused on the negative side of things and dwell on them. I have a pretty care free spirit that accepts what I can’t change, changes it if I can, and does not have a hard time saying “screw them” and realizing that the world is not a perfect place. This is an energy and outlook that Sheila needs in order to find her happiness.

Six months later we were engaged. We had one little problem. I did not believe in marrying someone without first having lived together. Living in sin was not kosher with Sheila’s family. This was not how they believed and I respected that and Sheila’s desire not to upset them. With an engagement ring on her finger, they handled it wonderfully and off to the races it was planning a wedding.

Wedding celebrations are something far different for New York Jews and Kansas folk. Needless to say, punch, cake, mints, and nuts at the church following the ceremony is not synonymous with a hora playing band and a gala event. My parents, bless them, helped out a lot and Sheila got to have her first real taste of Jewish culture dealing with my mom as the plans developed. Please don’t take that to sound sarcastic or negative because it wasn’t that way. It truly was a cultural initiation.

We had one real struggle in that we wanted a rabbi and a pastor to do the service. Believe it or not, the only local rabbi in Wichita not only refused to participate in a mixed marriage, which was his right, but he basically said that he would try to prevent it. Apparently, common practice would be for a rabbi to contact the local rabbi for an invitation before coming into his hood to perform a wedding. And the local rabbi would not make such an invitation. I was absolutely livid and ashamed. I imagined how that would come across to Sheila’s parents, who had been wonderful in accepting that I was not Christian (as my parents were about Sheila not being Jewish). If I was them, it would seem that the religion was saying that their goyish daughter wasn’t good enough to marry a member of the tribe. That was not the religion that I was raised in! We ended up just hiring a pastor who integrated Jewish wedding traditions into the ceremony and kept all the religious stuff to the Old Testament.

Our wedding was wonderful. I had a ton of family and friends come to Kansas for it and in many ways it was more of four-day festival than anything else. Nearly everything went according to plan (keep in mind that this is the male’s perspective, Sheila could tell you twenty things that went wrong) and everyone had a great time. We had been seriously worried about how the two sides would come together. In the end, we were reminded that at the right times and under the right circumstances, differences become irrelevant and we’re just people.

Our song for our first dance is perfect to describe our love and I leave this chapter of the book with its lyrics. I’ve written far more than I intended to about myself and feel self-conscious about it. I’m sure I’ve succeeded and now you’ve got my mindset down pat if you managed to make it to this point. The song is from Alphaville and is called The Impossible Dream.

Sometimes it seems so strange
The way I feel for you
It makes my life so quiet and free
And when you smile at me
It’s just that special love
A kind of liberty I never felt before

I keep my fingers crossed
I never want to lose
This new found world that’s so alive angel
I’m so in love with you
My heart has circled in the past
The demons of deceit but now aside I’ve cast

I don’t need to be a poet
I don’t need to be a hero
When all I need to do is keep on loving you
I just have to be me
And I don’t need to be
The stranger anymore I used to be
In my impossible dream

Posted by Kevin at January 24, 2006 07:52 AM

Wonderful. I cant wait for next week's chapter.

Posted by: Malynn at January 24, 2006 02:15 PM

I am enjoying your book, but my comments are based on the fact that I am reading this as a public school educator. I am very sorry that some students do not receive the education they should in the public schools, but that is not true for the entire system. As a teacher who challenges her students, I can say that in many areas of the country, public education is on track. However, I do see a lot of lazy students with a lot of talent who throw away their chances to learn with both hands and then blame the system. We can say that the teachers are not motivating them, but for many students the idea of hard work does not exist. This concept is very difficult to instill by the time students are in high school. Students learn the value of education at home, which is probably why the author (Kevin) found his way to college. I know that this is not the focus of the book or even the chapter, but I just wanted to put in a slightly different perspective on the subject.

Posted by: Amber at January 24, 2006 05:25 PM

Points well taken Amber. And I am actually a huge believer in the public school system. In my situation, I did have some teachers who were horrible. I also had some who were not bad teachers, but who could not energize me. I was set on college, and so if I had not been able to succeed by doing nothing, I would definitely have put more work into my studies. Incidentally, before being a mom Sheila was a high school English teacher...


Posted by: Kevin at January 24, 2006 06:04 PM

Loving it. Although the small print on my laptop is killing my eyes. I am going to need glasses by the time you finish this Kevin!!

Posted by: Becky at January 25, 2006 10:51 AM

You're a terrific writer! I absolutely love everything so far!

Posted by: Shannon Hunt at January 25, 2006 10:45 PM

Also a public school teacher who has spent 20 years giving my life and blood to students and their families, many of whom choose to blame others for their own lack of motivation, I question why Kevin expected to be "energized" by his teachers and yet somehow found a way to motivate HIMSELF when it came to a food service job. Though I will continue to read these chapters because international adoption and how it is portrayed to the public is of personal interest to me, I am also very interested in the vast generalizations made in much of the media about education. My theory: two main institutions raise children in this country, the family and the schools. It is human nature not to want to take responsibility for our own mistakes/weaknesses so the schools are the easiest scapegoats. Sure, it's easy to argue that there are bad teachers but, then again, there are exceptions in every profession yet most professions are not painted according to those exceptions. I also know that this book is not about public education but, as someone who has sacrificed much including my financial ability to adopt a sibling for my daughter in order to teach in a public school, I take VERY seriously generalized negativity toward education. I know that it is politically correct to hold education responsible for all evil, including the lack of motivation felt by so many young people, but I would challenge those young people to search deeper. If one can be motivated in a food service position, one should be able to find internal motivation for putting one's all into education and, possibly, take more from it than one might receive from "bad" teachers.

Posted by: lisa Hayes at January 27, 2006 12:17 AM

Love the site, loved what I have read so far. Looking forward to reading more and learning more.
Thank you.

Posted by: Diane at January 27, 2006 12:30 PM

Kev in -

I was somewhat amazed as I read your story. Amazingly, we were in the Business School at Cal State Fullerton at the same time. I went to a private high school in Anaheim. Another odd coincidence, I husband and I met thru lastly, of course, we are in the process of adoption from Guatemala. VERY Small World!

Posted by: Jacki at January 29, 2006 08:12 PM

Are you sure 71244 of this?!?

Posted by: Gezer Gamadi at October 2, 2006 09:44 PM
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