Paying it forward

Once upon a time, I wanted to be the rockstar in pretty much anything and everything I did, whether it was my job, my extracurricular activities, or my relationships.  I wanted the glory and the recognition.  More importantly, I wanted to be respected for whatever I did.  In my youth, I thought that demonstrating that I was good at whatever I did was the path to glory.

But now that I’m older, that perspective has changed.  I no longer need (or, sometimes, even want) to be the rockstar.  These days, I get a great deal of satisfaction out of helping someone else become the rockstar. While I still try to perform well in whatever I do, it’s more important to me to help everyone around me be better.

This has become a passion of mine. It’s why I’m so passionate about speaking at SQL Saturday. It’s why I take such an interest in technical communication, writing, training, and mentoring. It’s why I continually encourage people to be better. It’s even one of the major reasons why I maintain my ‘blog. While it’s important to make myself better in whatever I do, I think it’s also equally important to make people around you better as well.

I’ve had a number of opportunities to give something back. For the past couple of years, I’ve taken part in a program by my alma mater, Syracuse University, specifically the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS).  They sponsor a “job shadow” program in which current students are paired with alumni working in various industries. The program typically takes place during winter break, between the fall and spring semesters.

Unfortunately, I work in a data-secure office, so an office shadow tends to be out of the question. (I don’t think students would really be interested in seeing me sit at a desk all day, anyway.)  In lieu of a job shadow, the university suggests other ways to interact with students — over a cup of coffee, lunch, and so on. For the past couple of years, I’ve offered to take students out to dinner. It offers a nice, relaxed atmosphere to chat, not to mention that, since I usually don’t have any commitments after dinner, I’m not constrained by time; I don’t have to worry about being back in the office by a certain time.

I’ve found numerous other ways to pay it forward. During one unemployment stint, I found a part-time position as an instructor at a local business school to hold myself over. I discovered that I enjoyed teaching so much that, even after I found gainful full-time employment, I continued with the teaching job for a few more years. I am heavily involved with my local SQL user group. By giving back to my user group, I can help other people with the same interests. I also wrote a while back about some of my networking activities in which I was able to give back. When you network, you have multiple avenues in which you can pay it forward.

As an old saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Improvement doesn’t just mean making yourself better. It also means making everyone around you better as well. When you help other people succeed, then we all succeed.

Want to get ahead? Don’t get comfortable

“Moving me down the highway, rolling me down the highway, moving ahead so life won’t pass me by…”
— Jim Croce, “I Got A Name”

“It’s important to be able to make mistakes.  If you don’t make mistakes, it means you’re not trying.”
— Wynton Marsalis

“Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”
— Satchel Paige

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
— unknown

Late last Friday afternoon, our manager stopped by our workspace for a chat.  Some of it was just small talk, but he also wanted to give us a reminder of something, which is what I want to write about here.  I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of what he said went something like this.

“We want you to develop personally and professionally,” he said (or something to that effect).  “The way you do that is to take on tasks that you know nothing about.  Volunteer to do things you wouldn’t typically volunteer.  If you see a support ticket, don’t worry about looking to see whether or not you know what it is or if you know how to handle it.  Just take the responsibility.  That’s how you develop.  If you want to move ahead, you need to step out of your comfort zone.”

Indeed, these are words to live by, and it isn’t the first time I’ve heard this.  I have had countless experiences where I’ve been told that I need to step out of my comfort zone in order to improve.  In my music experiences, especially in my ensemble performance experience, I’ve often been told by good music directors that I need to attempt playing challenging passages to get better.  When I first started doing CrossFit, one question we were asked was, “would you rather be comfortable or uncomfortable?”  The point was that in order to get better, some discomfort would be involved.  I also remember one of the points of emphasis back when I took a Dale Carnegie course; each week would involve stepping a little more out of our comfort zone.  We would do this gradually each week until we reached a point where we had drastically improved from where we had started.

Falling into a rut is common, and while it happens in all different facets of life, it is especially easy to do in the workplace.  Sometimes, the work environment can slow down, and you have a tendency to fall into a routine.  I’ve had this happen more often than I want to admit, and more often than not, I’m not even aware that I’m doing it.  Every once in a while, a pep talk or some kind of a jolt (such as a kick in the butt — whether it’s from someone else or myself) reminds me that I need to branch out and try new things if I want to get (and stay) ahead.  I am well-aware that I need to step out of my comfort zone to get ahead, but I am also the first to admit that I will sometimes forget about this, myself.

Too often, I see people who fall into ruts themselves, and who have no desire to step out of their comfort zones.  As much as I try to tell these people to at least try to do something about it, they insist on remaining where they are.  These people strive for mediocrity, which is a major pet peeve of mine, and something for which I have no tolerance or respect.  People want to remain in their “happy place,” but what I don’t understand is how these same expect to get ahead, yet refuse to leave their comfort zones to do it.  These people will be stuck in a rut forever, and they have no right to complain about it.

Everyone has a dream, or at least some kind of goal they want to achieve.  The fact is, if you want to reach that goal, or at least take steps toward it (whether you reach it or not), you need to get uncomfortable to do it.

The CrossFit family

The other day, a thought popped into my head for no reason (that happens occasionally — doesn’t it happen to you?): “I feel like hanging out with my CrossFit family.”  I don’t know why I started thinking about it, but I was thinking about the great times I’ve had hanging out with my CrossFit friends outside of the gym — bowling night, playing poker to raise money for charity, going out to dinner, and so on.  I’ve been a member of my CrossFit gym for over three years (and counting) now, and I’ve made a lot of great friends in the process.  Who would’ve thought that I, a longtime self-admitted couch potato, would happily be spending his free time hanging with a bunch of athletes at a gym?

Ever since I started doing CrossFit, I’ve heard a lot of people refer to “their CrossFit family.”  This term, much less, concept, is nothing new.  Among all my activities, I’ve heard references to “my music family,” “band family,” “SQL family,” and so on.  As it’s been often said, “family” is more than flesh and blood; it’s about people to whom you’ve gotten close and learned to trust.  We as social animals thrive on these relationships.

The fact that I’ve managed to stick to a fitness program for more than three years is a huge deal, and I believe that the support system — all these friends I’ve made — is a big part of that.  A support system of friends can make almost anything pleasurable.  I’ve met a lot of great people in CrossFit, and one of the big things is that these people make me want to go to the gym.  When you have great friends and a solid support system around you, anything is possible.

Reflections, setbacks, and accomplishments

“Here’s to the new year.  May she be a damn sight better than the old one, and may we all be home before she’s over.”
— Col. Sherman T. Potter

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
— Walt Disney

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis, depending on which version you prefer…)

It is the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  I have the week off from work as I write this, which gives me plenty of time to think.  Okay, granted, I haven’t been doing a lot of thinking — or very much else, for that matter — during this past week.  Everyone, after all, needs to take some time to rest and relax.  So, I’ll be the first to confess that, while I should probably take advantage of the week to take care of tasks I can’t normally do because of work, a good chunk of it has been spent watching TV, especially old movies, college football, and college basketball.

Nevertheless, now that 2017 is coming to a close, I did take a few moments — well, at least long enough to write this article, anyway — to look upon this past year, and to think about what’s ahead.  Among other things: I celebrated a milestone birthday back in January (hey, I made it to another one!), I lost one job and picked up another (better one!) in a short amount of time, I’m being recognized for accomplishments in my new job, I spoke at four more SQL Saturdays (including a couple of new presentations), I’ve made new friends, I’ve gotten better at CrossFit (among my CrossFit accomplishments, I successfully completed this year’s Holiday Rowing Challenge), and (if you count this article), I’ve written thirty-five ‘blog articles this year.  (That’s almost three a month, for those of you who are keeping count.)

Of course, life is about yin and yang; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  I’d be lying if I said this year was all wine and roses; I’ve had my share of setbacks as well.  Nobody enjoys setbacks; they can be painful and embarrassing.  But they’re important as well.  You can’t have good without bad, happiness without sadness, joy without pain.  But setbacks also serve a purpose: they remind us that we are not perfect (hey, nobody’s perfect, and since I’m nobody…!) and that no matter how well we perform, there is always room for improvement.

So now that 2018 is around the corner, keep moving ahead.  Make it better than 2017!

Happy (insert name of your favorite holiday)

There’s a meme that goes around Facebook, usually around the holiday season.  I’ve commented on this on Facebook before, but I thought it was worthwhile to put this into a ‘blog article.

The meme appears in many different ways, but the gist of it goes something like this: “If you’re Christian, feel free to wish me Merry Christmas.  If you’re Jewish, feel free to wish me Happy Chanukah.  If you’re African-American, feel free to wish me Joyous Kwanzaa.  If you’re something else, feel free to wish me holiday greetings in whatever your beliefs or culture allow, or simply wish me Happy Holidays.  I won’t be offended.  I’ll be happy that you took the time to say something nice to me.”

I agree with the sentiment 100%, but I also want to take it a step further.

We are a multicultural world, with many points of view, religions, beliefs, and mores.  What might be strange to one culture might be everyday life in another.  Many of us enjoy traveling to exotic countries and cultures, mostly to experience other worlds that aren’t our own.  As foreign travelers, we want to know what it’s like to be part of that culture.  Visitors to Hawai’i, for example, want to receive leis, eat poi and poke, wear Hawaiian shirts, and learn to play the ukulele.  (By the way, one thing I learned from my Hawai’i trip several years ago is that the correct pronunciation is OO-ku-lay-lay, not YOU-ku-lay-lay.)  I think this is a good and healthy thing; it allows us to understand, experience, and appreciate what it’s like to be part of something that is not our own.  This, in turn, enhances our knowledge and understanding of each other.  And when we’re accepted into the culture, it makes us feel pretty good.

I regularly say, “feel free to wish me a Happy (whatever your preferred holiday is).  Not only will I not be offended, I will actually be flattered that you think enough of me to wish me well from the standpoint of your culture, religion, more, or belief.”

I’ve had deeply religious people tell me they’d “pray for me” (and I do NOT mean in a spiteful or sarcastic way) or ask me if “I would pray with them.”  Granted, I am not a religious person; although I do attend church, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.  But when I get asked this, I have absolutely no problem with it (in fact, I’ll join them more often than not).  Even though my beliefs are not necessarily the same as theirs, being invited to join them makes me feel pretty good.  And taking part acknowledges that I respect their belief.

So if you happen to see me around the holidays, feel free to wish me a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Diwali, Ramadan Kareem, Peace to You, Live Long and Prosper, Happy Holidays, or whatever you prefer.  I will thank you for it!  After all, sending happy greetings and best wishes to another person is what it’s all about, regardless of what you believe.

Blind spots

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis — whomever you prefer)

“You’re only human; you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes…”
— Billy Joel

One of my favorite books is The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.  For the benefit of those of you who’ve never read it (spoiler alert: if you’ve never read it and want to, I suggest you stop reading this paragraph and move to the next one, because what I’m about to say doesn’t get revealed until near the end of the book), the book involves a magic sword that has the ability to reveal truth.  When the sword’s magic is invoked, both the wielder and the recipient are forced to confront the truth.

There are many times that I wish I had a Sword of Shannara.  I can think of many people who would benefit from its magical power.  And I put myself at the top of that list.

An incident that occurred last night served to remind me of the blind spots that I have.  I don’t care to talk about the incident (the details aren’t important here, anyway), except that I felt as though I’d taken a big step backwards.  It’s not the first time that I’ve taken a step back, and as much as I try to avoid it, I suspect that it will likely not be the last.

We all have blind spots; it’s a part of being human.  More often than not, we aren’t aware that those blind spots are there — hey, there’s a reason why they’re called “blind” spots.  There is no magic sword to reveal those blind spots.  The best mirror we have for those blind spots is each other, in how we behave and react around one another.  If someone is smiling, laughing, or nodding his or her head around you, you’re probably doing something right.  If that person is frowning, yelling, or criticizing, then probably not.

As much as we try to do our best, inevitably, we will stumble somewhere down the line.  I admit that I’m probably still dwelling on it — I probably wouldn’t be writing this article, otherwise.  I’ll eventually get over it.  All we can do is to recognize our blind spots — once we recognize that they’re there — keep an open mind, learn from our mistakes, and keep moving forward.

“I lost my job. Now what?!?”

Before any of my friends panic, no, I didn’t actually lose my job (at least not at the time of this article); this is just what I’m using for the title.

Having said that, here’s a little background for what prompted me to write this. A few weeks ago, I saw a Facebook post from a friend of mine. She was (understandably) flustered because her husband had lost his job.  I wanted to help them (and others) out, so I began jotting down my thoughts for this article.  Ironically, I had a Facebook “on this day” memory come up on the very same day that I started jotting down my notes for this article; it turned out that on that day four years ago, I was laid off from a job as well.

Losing your job is always a scary proposition. Very few people (that I know of) wants to be unemployed.  There’s a great deal of uncertainty.  Questions enter your mind; among others: “how long will I be out of work?”  “How will I pay the bills?”  “How will I get by?”

Having been there and done that, I empathize with people who find themselves jobless.  For those of you who find themselves in such a situation, here are some tidbits that helped me through these tough times.

  • Above everything else, control your emotions.  When you lose your job, your emotions run wild.  Most likely, you (understandably) get scared, depressed, angry, frustrated, and so on.  The worst thing you can do is lose control of yourself.  If you need to do so, find a safe way to blow off steam and keep your feelings in check.  It isn’t healthy to keep those emotions bottled up, but at the same time, it is absolutely critical that you keep your head on your shoulders.  Find a healthy way to get those feelings out of your system, but don’t let those feelings control you.
  • Keep a positive attitude.  It is very easy to get down on yourself when you lose a job.  Strangely, the last time I lost my job, I actually felt invigorated.  I looked at it as an opportunity.  It wasn’t so much that I’d lost my employment as much as I was being offered a chance to try something new.  I wrote a while back that a positive attitude can be a powerful thing.  Rather than dwelling in what was, focus on what might be.
  • Take advantage of your free time.  A friend of mine who’d lost his job at one point told me that he took advantage of his suddenly-acquired free time to spend time with his family, play golf, and do things he didn’t have time to do because he was at work.  While he did focus efforts on his job hunt, he also made it a point to balance his time between searching for a job and having fun — which brings me to another thought…
  • Looking for a job is a full-time job.  Back in the good-old “answering help wanted newspaper ad” days, quantity was quality (there might be some recruiters who disagree with me on this, but I digress).  I am, admittedly, old school, so a part of me still subscribes to this mindset.  There were job hunts where I averaged about ten applications a day.  There’s also doing your homework — researching companies and potential employers, sizing them (and yourself — again, more on that in a minute) up, getting addresses, making phone calls, polishing your resume and your cover letters, and so on.  That makes for a lot of time and effort, and it will tire you out.  Make the time for your job hunt endeavors — but don’t forget to balance your life as well.
  • Find something to hold you over.  No, flipping burgers isn’t sexy, but it’s a source of income.  Even minimum wage is better than, say, zero (and it might also be better than unemployment benefits, which, in my experience, usually pays squat).  There is no shame in taking a temp job to hold you over until you land on your feet again.
  • Get involved, and keep yourself busy.  Number one, it’ll get your mind off your situation.  Number two, it’s a chance for you to network (again, I’ll expand on that in a bit).  Number three, you might learn something new that would make you marketable.  For more thoughts on getting involved, check out my article on getting involved with user groups, as well as an article I wrote about using your skill set for speaking at conferences.
  • Be honest with yourself.  When I started getting down on myself about my job situation, I asked myself a few questions, including: “where do my strengths lie,” “what am I capable of doing,” and “what do I really want to do?”  I identified my own skill sets and my interests; this, in turn, helped me identify positions for which I was qualified, as well as developing my own professional persona that helped me with interview skills.
  • Be creative.  As part of my job search, as well as a tool for networking, I created business cards for myself.  However, these were no ordinary business cards.  I remembered a scene in Mr. Baseball where Tom Selleck’s character learned that Japanese businessmen networked by exchanging business cards.  He gave them his baseball card.  That got me thinking: “Business card…  baseball card…” and I put the two together.  The result is what you see in the picture below.

    raysbizcardpic
    My networking business card

    The picture is a souvenir photo I got on a trip to Cooperstown (they dressed you up in the uniform of your choice and took your picture with a stadium backdrop).  I took that photo and made it into the business card you see above.  The back side has my contact information, and inside (it’s a folded card) contains a mini-resume with my career information.  I always get great reactions from people when I hand these out; someone even once said to me, “if I was in a position to hire, I’d hire you right now just because of this card!”  People will remember you, and it makes a great conversation piece.

    You don’t have to come up with a baseball-business card (hey, my idea, darn it!), but by all means, tap into your creativity to get yourself noticed!

  • Network, network, network!  Did I mention that you should network?  These days, networking is probably the best way to find a job.  Someone who knows of a job opening can probably tell you about it long before the open position becomes public knowledge.  That extra time could very well be your foot in the door.
  • Take advantage of available resources.  In this day and age of communication, you have no excuse not to make use of social media.  LinkedIn is specifically designed for professionals, and many online resources (including and especially job-hunt and networking resources) ask if you have a LinkedIn account.  If you’re looking, you can’t afford not to have an account.  While Facebook isn’t specifically geared toward professional networking, it is still another resource you can tap.
  • Don’t limit yourself.  Would you consider moving or taking a job outside your geographic area?  Would you consider working from home?  What about a different line of work?  Would you work part-time, odd hours, or a contract position?  If you’re in a jobless situation, you may very well need to keep your options open.

These are just some of my thoughts regarding surviving a jobless situation.  Did I miss anything, or do you disagree with any of my thoughts?  Feel free to comment below.

Memories of 9/11

(Photo image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I still remember the morning of September 11, 2001 (15 years ago today) like it was yesterday.  It was an ordinary Tuesday morning.  At the time, I lived in a townhouse in Clifton Park, about 15 miles north of Albany.  I got up, showered, got dressed, kissed my then-girlfriend (now wife) good day, stopped at the local convenience store to pick up the day’s New York Times, and drove to work.

My company had an office in the World Trade Center.  Although I was based out of the Albany, NY office, I regularly made business trips to the World Trade Center roughly about once every couple of months; in fact, I had been in the World Trade Center only a couple of weeks earlier.  I had been down there often enough to become well-acquainted with the area; I knew the hotels (including a Marriott right between the two towers) where I regularly stayed on business, I knew some of the restaurants in the area, I’d become familiar with the subway lines that went in and out of the area, and I’d become accustomed to taking walks in Battery Park.  While I am a lifelong upstate New Yorker and not an actual resident of New York City, I’d been to the City often enough that, to me, it felt like a second home.

Likewise, I knew the thirtieth floor of Tower 1 — where one of our offices was located — very well.  One of our large data centers, a server room (in which I spent a lot of time when I was there), was on that floor.  I made sure our server room maps and information were up-to-date.  I had come up with a map grid system (identical to the letter-number grid combinations that you’d find on road maps) to identify and label server racks.  Whenever we added a new server rack, I’d create a label for it, record the servers within the rack, and make sure it was updated on the map.  Years later, I would eventually come up with an online system, including a SQL Server database back-end, that automated most of the data that I gathered from my regular server surveys, but in those days before automation, I had to do the work manually.  No matter.  I enjoyed working in the World Trade Center, and I always looked forward to my excursions down to the southern tip of Manhattan.  Those trips always made the mundane work worthwhile.

At first, there was nothing out of the ordinary (from my perspective, anyway) when I arrived at the office in Albany and went upstairs to my desk.  Someone told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  I didn’t think anything of it at first.  My first thought was that a small single-engine Cessna had hit one of the towers.  How tragic, I thought, and I told myself to check the web for any news about it later that morning.  I dropped off my briefcase and my newspaper at my desk — again, another normal, typical morning for me — went downstairs to the cafeteria to get myself some coffee and some breakfast, and went back upstairs to my desk.

At this point, the office was abuzz.  I checked a few news websites for information.  That’s when I discovered that the plane that had hit wasn’t a small private plane; it was a Boeing 767.

I called my house immediately.  I told my girlfriend, “turn on the TV right now!”

That’s the last of what I remember clearly from that day.  The rest of the day is a blur.  While my memory of the events from that point forward is hazy, this is what I remember.

No work was done for the rest of that day.

I made my way over to the help desk area where a TV was broadcasting the news.  Other than the news broadcast, the entire area was deathly silent.  I remember one girl on the help desk was sobbing.

My manager had gone down to the City that day; he was there every week.  I remember his wife calling me.  She was understandably in hysterics.  I told her that I had not heard anything from him (the lines were all jammed from the amount of cell traffic, so no calls were getting through), and I promised that I would give her a call once I’d heard any news.

(I did see my manager later that evening; he told me that as he approached the office, a crowd was heading in the other direction.  He was there to see the towers fall.)

I remember Dan Rather broadcasting the events.  I remember the stunned silence as we all watched the towers fall.

I had heard stories from my friends and co-workers who worked in the World Trade Center.  One person was downstairs getting breakfast.  He had only moments earlier gotten out of the elevator — when flames shot out of the elevator.  Another person ignored announcements to stay where they were, and escaped down the stairwell — a decision that likely saved his life.

The next few weeks were hectic.  Our department (we were responsible for supporting the company’s server infrastructure), including employees from New York City, Harrisburg, Syracuse, and Middletown, convened in the Albany office to come up with a recovery plan.  We started with rebuilding critical domain controller servers and went from there.

All that time that I had spent in the World Trade Center documenting the servers proved to be crucial.  Based on the data we had, we were able to recreate the servers we had lost and rebuilt the infrastructure.  We obtained backup data from offsite storage — proving the value of backing up your critical data and storing it offsite — and recovered much of the data stored on the lost servers.  We worked thirteen straight days around the clock, working in shifts.  A server engineer would rebuild a server; if it wasn’t finished by the end of his or her shift, another engineer coming on-shift picked up where the previous person left off.

Everyone wanted to do their part.  I remember one of our colleagues was away on vacation when the planes hit; he was unable to return immediately because all flights were grounded.  He eventually was able to make it back to contribute to the cause.  Even my own manager had to tell me to go home and get some sleep.  He knew I wanted to do my part, but he also knew that it was important for us to get our rest so we could contribute.

I was willing to give up my extracurricular activities to help out.  I was going to skip band practice to help rebuild.  No, I was told.  If you skip things like that, the terrorists win.  Stick to your normal routine.  It’s important that we maintain morale and keep our spirits up.  We were all encouraged to work and to rest when we had to.  Employees from out-of-town were encouraged to take trips home to spend time with their families, then return to Albany to continue with the work (we set up a schedule so that everyone could do so).  Any sense of normalcy and efforts to boost morale were evident.  The company even served us breakfast during those two weeks; I remember eating a lot of pancakes, eggs, sausage, and bacon when I got into the office each morning.

After two weeks, we had rebuilt enough of the server infrastructure that we were able to maintain our business.  We weren’t at 100%, but it was enough to keep it going.

It wasn’t until later that we discovered the aftermath in regards to our company.  We lost nine employees.  Among our lost employees were a man confined to a wheelchair and his friend who wouldn’t leave his side.  Every year, on September 11, I still think about those nine co-workers that I lost.  I didn’t really know them.  (Regarding the man in the wheelchair and his friend: I vaguely remember exchanging a couple of emails with them, and I think I spoke to one of them on the phone a couple of times, but I did not know them that well.)  Nevertheless, I still consider them as I would friends or family members that I lost.

Fifteen years have passed since that fateful day.  It is important for us to remember.  We can and must always remember the lessons of 9/11.  However, it is also important for us to continue with our lives.  Not moving on would be a great disservice to everyone who lost their lives on that tragic day.

Life goes on.

How do you want to be remembered?

Have you ever thought about your own obituary?  (I apologize for the morbid thought.)  Dying is something we’re all going to do someday.  When that day arrives, what kind of a legacy do you want to leave behind?

This week, I had the misfortune of attending two different wakes for two different people.  Interestingly, I did not know either person well; in one case, I was friends with the deceased’s sister, and in the other, the deceased and I had mutual friends.  In both cases, despite not knowing the deceased that well, I felt compelled to go.  Mainly, I went to support my friends in their time of grief.  However, both people had compelling life stories that made me wish that I had known them better in life.

I don’t remember the exact wording of the quote, nor do I remember where I read it, but I remember reading something to the effect of “the way you measure the success of your life is by the number of people who show up for your funeral.”  Okay, granted, after I pass on, I won’t know how many people will show up at mine, but I’d like to think that a large number will show up.

(Side note: my favorite rock band is Kansas.  I’ve told people that I want “Dust In The Wind” performed at my funeral.)

Honestly, I don’t know how I’d want to be remembered (or at least, outside of this article, I’ve never really stopped to think about it).  I suppose I’d like to be remembered as someone who was a good person, someone who cared (sometimes too much), someone who gave it a shot, and someone who gave his all in whatever he did.  (There’s probably more to it than that, but it’s not something I feel like writing now, and to be honest, you probably don’t want to read about it.  I’d rather do my thing and let others be the judge of how I did.)

When it comes down to it, how you live your life and how you treat others will likely be your legacy.  So make the best of it.  As someone once said, live every day like it’ll be your last — someday, you’re going to be right.

What music taught me about being a professional

They say learning music improves cognitive skills, and I definitely understand the correlation.  I’ve been playing music my entire life.  Reading a score is like a computer reading a program; there are notes (that correlate to instructions), dynamics (attributes), repeats and D.S./D.C. instructions (loops), and so on.  (If you want to take the programming analogy further, you could say that each movement in a suite is either a function or an object.)

However, that is likely another article for another time.  What I want to talk about is my involvement in music, and some of the lessons learned throughout my life.  Granted, not everyone is a musician.  For the purposes of this article, I could easily replace the word “music” with “sports.”  These lessons aren’t necessarily about the science of music; rather, it’s how my experience in music shaped my life and, eventually, my professional development.   It’s about being a part of something bigger than myself, and how I’ve been able to contribute.  Many other people likely had these same experiences playing sports; it just so happens that my experience was in music instead of sports.

Anyway, for the context of this article, some personal history about my musical background is in order.  I started learning the piano when I was 7, and I picked up the clarinet when I was 8.

In my school district, second graders were offered the chance to learn an instrument, which was determined by your skill in recorder lessons.  You had your first and second choices of instruments.  The saxophone was actually my first choice; the clarinet was second.  I don’t remember why, but they wouldn’t let me take up the saxophone, so I ended up on clarinet.  As it turned out, I became pretty good at the clarinet — good enough that it provided me with opportunities later down the road.

Lesson learned: just because your first choice doesn’t work out doesn’t mean opportunity doesn’t exist.

XmasSax

I ended up learning how to play saxophone years later, when I was in high school.  I actually discovered that it was easier for a clarinetist to learn saxophone than it was for a sax player to learn clarinet.

Lesson learned: sometimes, things happen for a reason.

Like just about any typical kid, I hated to practice.  (Admittedly, I still do!)  But as time went on, I realized that the only way I was going to get better was to work on it on my own time.  So I worked at it, and got better.

Lessons learned: practice makes perfect, and preparation is everything.

As a kid growing up, my piano teacher lived next door.  To get to my lessons, all I had to do was climb over the bluestone fence that separated our properties.  Every year, we had an end-of-year recital at our local community college.  (I remember looking forward to the post-recital reception — hey, cookies! — the most.)  Every year, I felt nervous about getting on stage to perform — a feeling that lessened each year.  I suppose it was a sign of my growing confidence in something that I enjoyed and was able to do fairly well.

By my senior year in high school (and my final recital), my fellow seniors asked me to present our piano teacher with flowers as a “thank you for putting up with us everything you did.”  (I told them I wouldn’t do it unless they were on stage with me; they obliged.)

To this day, I’m not entirely sure why my fellow seniors picked me to be the spokesperson, but they saw something in me that I didn’t.  By that time, I’d gotten comfortable with performing on stage, but I felt pretty nervous when my friends appointed me to make that presentation.

Lesson learned: to be successful, you need to step out of your comfort zone.

My school’s marching band had built quite a reputation.  In 1973 (?), they were selected to perform halftime at a New York Jets game.  The Jets still played at old Shea Stadium, and the weather that day was, to put it mildly, not nice.  Despite the weather, the band took the field at halftime.  The play-by-play man said on national TV, “this is probably the bravest marching band in all of America” (or something to that effect — they actually showed halftime shows on TV back then)  In 1976, they were selected to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  In 1980, they were featured in a commercial for Pepsi-Cola.  I remember watching that commercial as a wide-eyed kid and proclaiming, “I’m going to be in that band.”

Lesson learned: sometimes, you need a dream — or a goal.

Ray_OCS_MarchingBand

I was supposed to play clarinet in my high school band, but my freshman year, the band got a brand new set of marching bells.  Because I played the piano, I was one of the few people in the band who knew his way around a keyboard.  So guess who got the job of playing the new set of bells?  I was already getting praise for my musical prowess, but somehow, playing the bells gave me a whole new prominence with the rest of the band.  Had I stayed on clarinet, I would’ve been just another face among about a dozen other clarinet players.  I played the bells for three years before I switched back to clarinet.  But the bells gave me new experience that I was able to parlay into mallet percussion opportunities later in future groups.

Lesson learned: if an opportunity arises, jump on it.  You never know where it might lead.

I played in my high school band for four years, and ended up doing quite a bit with them.  I marched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1981 (yes, I am visible in the video link; you can see me in the percussion section playing the bells at 0:22).  We performed halftime for a couple of New York Giants games.  We were in the stands for the infamous snow plow game (the Patriots would not let us on the field because of the snow; we performed The Star Spangled Banner from the stands and left the game before halftime, so we never got to see the field goal).  We played pregame for a couple of Yankee games (I remember standing in center field, playing my music, and thinking to myself, “wow, I am playing in center field in Yankee Stadium!”).

My last game as a member of my high school marching band was a Giants game.  I remember thinking that it would be the last time I’d step on a football field with a marching band.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up attending a college that had a marching band.

Ray_SUMB_Parents_Wknd

College was a whole new experience (as it usually is for any kid coming out of high school).  Here I was, a small town kid going to a large university that happened to play NCAA Division I sports.  And as is often the case of most major college football schools, the school had a marching band.

When you’re in high school, and you become really good at something, you tend to think you’re hot stuff.  You’re a big fish in a small pond.  But for me, in going to a large school like Syracuse University, the pond suddenly got a heck of a lot bigger.  Suddenly, here were a bunch of people who could do the same things that I could — sometimes, even better.  For me, however, it set the bar higher.  I was determined to do well in a band of over two hundred people.  And for four years, I felt proud to be part of that team.

Lessons learned: you get better by setting the bar higher.  Be a team player; your contributions make a difference.

Even after I graduated from Syracuse and moved to the Albany area, I continued to play my music (and I still do).  More opportunities came up.  I joined a few large ensembles.  I became an accompanist for a church.  I’ve written songs and created some demos.  I got paid to play for weddings.  I found a bar in downtown Albany where I could play for a few extra bucks.  I was asked to accompany students, instrumentalists, and show productions.  And through all these opportunities, I still continue to improve and grow as a musician, as a professional, and as a person.  I continue to enjoy what I do.  And I intend to keep playing for a long time to come.

Lessons learned: never stop doing what you love.  You’re never too old.  Share what you love with the world.

Play on!