Saturday, June 19, 2021

He Lets Me Love Them

A couple years ago, I gave a TEDX talk about my adventures in a cow suit at the TEDxIdahoFalls event. Organizers held a number of workshops to help speakers synthesize our thoughts and really hone in on our message and delivery. After I presented a first draft, one of the speaker coaches suggested I explore how the cow suit combats taking life too seriously. At first, I silently poo-pooed his idea, but the more I thought about it, he hit the bullseye.

I've used my cow suits (I’ve got 11 of them now) to disarm myself and others, to direct interactions and simply add some levity in life when it has seemed impossible to find – when life was almost too serious to handle. The title of my talk eventually became “My Udderly Serious Life: Uncovering Courage in a Cow Suit."

With their permission, I incorporated pictures of all three of my step-kids who were 11, 14 and 19 at the time. As I was making edits and working through draft after draft,  I was struck by how disingenuous it felt to mention or showcase the kids on such a wide, visible stage without including their dad. In fact, when I bring up the kids in a column, I feel remiss not having mentioned him.

As an engineer and lifelong math geek, the transitive property comes to mind. If A = B and B = C, then A = C.  If he is the kids’ family and I am the kids’ family, then he and I are family. We may not have chosen to be each other’s family, but here we are.  While working on my talk and folding in family, it was important to me that he be included.

But my talk was about my cow suit adventures. How in the heck was I going to get this guy in a cow suit or have an interaction with him while I was in the cow suit that would be authentic and natural? And would he even be on board appearing in my talk that centered on something as ridiculous as a costume cow suit?  The guy grew up on a dairy farm, so I had that going for me, but I hemmed and hawed about whether or not to approach him and what to say.

I imagined the setting from his perspective. His ex-wife gets remarried. Her new spouse calls him up and starts out, “Hey, listen, I’m giving a TEDx talk about my cow suit adventures, and I was wondering...” That’s pretty much what I did but with an email. He was already well aware of the cow suit shenanigans, but I’m not sure he knew how I felt about him or our relationship until I told him.

My relationship with our kids’ dad is one of my most serious in all definitions of the word. It’s serious because there isn’t historically a lot of joking. It’s serious because how we get along significantly affects three young people we both adore, and it’s serious because he is someone whose happiness I’ve come to hope for as much as my own.

The better I’ve gotten to know their dad, the better I’ve gotten to know the kids. I’m pretty sure they were all versed in witty sarcasm before their baby teeth fell out. They all appreciate science, logic, and reason and have a penchant for all things technology. The boys in particular move their hands like he does when they debate, argue or simply get excited. Their smirks are identical and arise from the same things. Knowing what motivates their dad helps me uncover what motivates the kids, and the glimpses I get into his heart and mind help me understand the hearts and minds of his children.

When I emailed the kids’ dad to explain my request and reasoning behind it, I decided not to ask him for a full cow suit adventure, but rather if he would simply pose for a picture in a bull hat next to me in my cow suit. He responded within minutes that he was fully on board and asked where should we meet. With that swift and enthusiastic response, perhaps I should have asked for a full cow suit adventure. Next time.

Our family has plenty of the normal complications and conflicts that families do. The adults don’t always stand around merrily in heifer get-ups smiling for the camera, but we will do something just like that if it’s in the spirit of benefiting the kids.

On this Father’s Day, I salute the dad who didn’t hesitate to wear the bull hat, and I’m so grateful for how he shares himself and his kids with me. I’m grateful for how much lets me love them.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Cowbells, Of Course

Published in the Idaho State Journal on March 14, 2021.

I got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last week. The word "vaccine" is derived from the Latin word vacca, meaning cow. So, naturally, I wore a cow suit to make it “udderly” memorable. It’s not all that remarkable that I showed up in a cow suit because I’ve got 11 of them. I could retell my cow tales … until the cows come home.

When I was in college, my volleyball teammates wanted to dress up as 1920’s flappers for Halloween. We went to the local costume shop, and as they each came out of dressing rooms in shorter skirts than the one before, I was a firm “nope.”  I wandered away and spotted the packaged cow suit for $14.99. The udders saved me from the flappers.  

I lived on campus and a few days before Halloween, I suited up to surprise a friend in the library. I snaked through the stacks of books grinning at the whispers and giggles. My pal looked up from her studies, saw the udders, and destroyed the library hush with her cackles.  This is when I saw the potential for fun while experiencing everyday moments in a cow suit. It’s got the power to change everything.  And so does a vaccine.

It was Dr. Edward Jenner’s work in the late 1700’s that led to the word “vaccine.” He noticed that milk maids who had contracted cow pox were not getting small pox. He conducted a number of experiments using materials from horses, cows and people with cow pox to infect others, and then he tested against the small pox virus.  They were resistant and thus the cow’s namesake “vacca” got eternal credit with “vaccine.”

I had known about the word “vacca” or “vaca” with one “C because of a conversation with relatives three years ago. My wife’s brother and his wife were expecting a baby. During a family vacation in Texas, the four of us stole away to Whataburger to visit. The new parents-to-be are both seminary graduates from Baylor and I love talking to them about life and death and all we face in between. When our conversation centered on everything about the baby, they asked if we both wanted to be called “Aunt”, “Auntie” or something else.

I hadn’t realized until they asked. My mind never considered that I might be an aunt. I am an only child, so it wasn’t possible through my bloodline and having lived over 40 years without the legal means to marry, my subconscious never explored the titles and relationships I might have through matrimony. “Aunt” didn’t sound quite right for me, though. Considering my numerous adventures in a cow suit, I asked the table what “cow” is in other languages.

Someone piped up with “cow” in Spanish is “vaca”.   That was it. That’s what I wanted my aunt name to be. And while we’re at it, my grandparent name, too someday.

Underlying health conditions along with my company’s “essential” designation moved me up in the distribution schedule, but my vaccine came about sooner due to no-shows at a local pharmacy. People are signing up at more than one place and when they have a slot secured, they aren’t cancelling other appointments. This is leaving distribution outlets with extra doses set to expire at the end of the day, so workers are franticly ensuring they are not wasted.

Thanks to a network of people, I was steered in the direction of one of those extra doses.  I got a phone call at 5:30pm on Friday and had 10 minutes to get to the pharmacy. Knowing that herd immunity is our ultimate goal, I’m happy to do my part. Thinking of the others who are still waiting and the parents of friends who have died from this virus gives me great pause.

After the pharmacy employee administered my shot, she handed me the appointment card for my next dose. It’s over Spring Break. We were slated to be at an Airbnb on the Oregon Coast, so I emailed the pharmacy to ask about rescheduling. Someone replied at 11:01 pm. They couldn’t reschedule due to volume, and I would need to bank on another no-show.

The time stamp of their reply was a cattle prod to my rump roast. Our healthcare workers are exhausted and I was a “cattle-ist” to one of them responding to an email near midnight – after a workday that entailed scrambling not to waste vaccines. This cow was swiftly becoming an ass.  That’s not who I want to be and not the Vaca I want my niece and future grandkids to have.  We adjusted our plans, and I’ll be at my scheduled appointment for dose number two with bells on.  Cowbells, of course.

How grateful am I? Moooocho grateful.


Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Cow Who Made the Bus Driver Cry

This is Tammy. She’s a friend and coworker. (I love that “co-worker” begins with “cow”.)
During a binary counting exercise. Trust her. She knows.
She’s one of the Cowculator’s biggest fans. So much so, she became a Cowculator yesterday at work right along three udder colleagues. 
Cape-able Cows
Our company hosted a field trip of 290 students and 30 chaperones and the five of us boarded each bus as they arrived to give the day’s welcome – Cowculator style. 

Organizing the Herd
We had a script to tell the kids the following:

Greetings!  My name is                                       – but today I’m talking to you as “The Cowculator!”  A lesser-known super hero. Solver of problems; lover of STEM – Science Technology Engineering and Math. Before you come into our corporate corral, I’ve got a few important announcements. Some bull-et points. Or a Cattle-log of things. There are 3 C’s just like “Cowculator” to help you remember.

First C – Careers.
That’s why you’re here today. You’ve got a little time before you need to decide what you’d like to do in life, but this is exactly when you should be thinking about your future and a possible career. You know – a job that will put a roof over your corral and food in the trough, and afford some of the fun things.  Pay attention to the careers like no udder that you’ll be exposed to today. 

Second C –Capes.
Usually we think of super heroes who wear capes. Super heroes solve problems. They have a fearless approach to problem-solving; they have confidence and courage to tackle hard things.  Just like professionals in a tech field.  You are going to see some things that look complicated or overwhelming today. You might think, “this is way outta my league” or “I’m not smart enough to do that”.  Bull!  Imagine your own cape. You’ve all got the capacity to do hard things.

Third C - Courtesy
Although you’re outside of your corral today, you’ve coming to our company corral today. Please remember, our colleagues are working and need to continue to get stuff done. Be courteous to them. And also – you may have a classmate who’s interested in what’s being presented, who’s imagining their own cape, be courteous to them. Please don’t detract from their experience.

Three engineers, an operations manager and an admin. Women you can cownt on.

And, boy, what an experience the day was!  We had over 40 employees corralling kids and giving workshops on semiconductor processing, failure analysis, concepts of electricity and the power of innovation.  Tammy was the event’s Head Heifer. The Divine Bovine. The Main Moo. She thought of every little detail from color-coded name tags, to lunches for the volunteers, to photo-ops, to the welcome sign, to parting gifts for the students and chaperones – and the bus drivers. 

Two of the six bus drivers opted to join in on the day’s tours and near the end when the students were eating lunch, Tammy escorted them back through security. I saw Tammy after she returned from the parking lot making her deliveries and asked where she had been. 

“Oh, just making a bus driver cry.”

Earlier in the day, Tammy showed me the gifts she prepared for each driver with a company water bottle and pen – because, really. The bus drivers were critical players in getting loads of kids including our next generation of scientists and engineers to our facility. She told me that one of the bus drivers, a man, started to tear up and said,

“Wow. No one ever thinks of the bus driver. Thank you.”

And there we were. Standing still in our corporate corral, now both of us tearing up at that exchange. Students were swarming in the halls and conference rooms around us. Volunteers were scarfing lunches. It was a brief moment before we re-began the bustle because that’s how we both work. A zillion things and thoughts churning, and we’re acutely aware of most of it while getting stuff done.
And, Tammy gets it done. She’s a natural Cowculator, solving problems and figuring it all out. She does the thinking behind the scenes when many just see the result. It makes me happy that the bus driver appreciated her thoughtfulness, because I do, too.  A Divine Bovine, indeed

"One way or an udder, I'll get it done!"

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Cowculator

What does a farmer use to add up his bulls? A Cowculator.  Ha!

Years ago when I was coaching a middle school math club, a student told me that joke. Hmmm… I had a cow suit from Halloweens past.  What else could I do?  With a decorated cape and matching Converse sneakers, I invented the lesser-known math superhero, the Cowculator.
The Cowculator made her debut to welcome 100+ Mathletes to the annual Eastern Idaho MATHCOUNTS competition a few years ago. I feel silly and whimsical in a cow suit, but as soon as the cape completes the transformation, I am unstoppable. There is no problem too difficult or discouraging for the Cowculator.

Hours after my foray at the microphone, I had a poignant exchange with a lanky, freckle-faced Mathlete, who reminded me of myself at that age. He fit the checklist of stereotypes. He was jittery and nervous as he spoke. His white socks emphasized his faded high-water jeans and grubby sneakers. Those sneakers likely never did anything athletic. I imagine he only combed his hair when someone reminded him and since he boarded a school bus at 5am, there was likely no one awake at his house to offer a reminder.
Propelled and disarmed by our mutual love of math, and likely by the cow suit and cape, this Mathlete zigzagged through the tables during lunch when he spotted me. He waved and yelled,
 “I know you’re the Cowculator!
I only wore the costume during my welcome address. I changed into a geek-sanctioned polo shirt and khakis while I coached my team. My tie-on cow hood left my full face visible, so I’m sure everyone in the ballroom knew I was the not-yet-famous superhero, but I played along.

 Oh? And how did you know that?

With a goofy-toothed grin and pizza sauce on the corners of his mouth, he pointed to my feet. 
Your shoes. “   
Ah yes. My sneakers gave me away.
I winked at him and told him that he would make a great detective someday. 

I know. I figure things out because I’m a problem child.

A handful of students that day had buttons with the slogan “Problem Child” pinned to their backpacks and jackets.  These kids think they are merely doing math, but they are learning how to solve problems. Answers may not come easily or quickly, but they come.  Solutions may be elusive, but they exist, and this world needs all the problem-solvers we can get.
Today, the Cowculator is part of the team to welcome students to my company's facility for field trips and tours.  Wearing a cow suit and cape to work is a blast, but the Cowculator seeks to serve a critical role in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) outreach.  The technical concepts and professional environment can be intimidating or daunting. With humor and puns aplenty, the Cowculator works to connect with students to demystify conceptions about careers in STEM.

The Cowculator doesn’t help students solve their problems, but rather she’s all about empowering them. Puzzles and problems can be “udderly” fun when it’s in the process. The challenge.  The work. With a little grit mixed into instruction, kids can become their own personal problem solvers with no need for a Cowculator.  They can be their own superhero—with or without a cape.

At a Supergirl STEM Conference
About to read a children's book on Engineering to 1st graders