Apple

In November 2002, having been dismissed from my first job out of college (no hard feelings, NI), I reluctantly took a call-center job. It’s a glum rite of passage for any underemployed early-20-something, and the only thing about it that didn’t depress me right into the ground was who I’d be taking calls for: Apple, my favorite company since before I knew what a “company” was.

“OK.”

I walked in the doors as a temp worker on November 1, 2002, where my future coworker Elizabeth trained my class of new hires in the mysterious art of troubleshooting PowerBooks. After a three-week boot camp I was shown to my desk and issued an outdated blue-and-white Power Mac G3. My first bewildered day on the phones—telling people to reset their PMU *way* more than was necessary—was Thanksgiving Day. 

 Apple was more of a punk-rock company in those days, still an underdog to Microsoft and only five years removed from its near-certain death. Our call center was a couple of prefab buildings overlooking a highway interchange in low-rent Austin. Mac OS X was a buggy mess, and plenty of people were using the “classic” Mac OS. The iPod was still an overpriced curiosity.

Having passed muster with my call metrics, on my birthday—June 30, 2003—I was officially “badged” as an Apple employee. My employee ID was 55508; ID numbers are issued numerically, meaning I was the 55,508th person to ever be hired by Apple (Steve Jobs was #1). By the time I left, the numbers were approaching 650,000, which means by this inexact metric, Apple has done over 90% of its growing since I’ve been there.

Though Apple is a superior company to provide tech support for, it was still call-center work. Doing it for five years felt like a stint in purgatory. I remember in the early days having a pile of pennies that I would toss into a dish, one every three seconds, which was roughly the rate I was earning them.1 My Job-like patience helped me stay on the job and get promoted to Tier 2, but there were many occasions where I was inches away from leaving The Fruit for somewhere else. 

I didn’t. 

There were many memorable moments over the years. Every Advisor had their share of famous-customer interactions. Mine included Isaac Mizrahi (tricked him into thinking he was getting VIP treatment; it was really our normal repair process); Scott Baio (spent an hour troubleshooting his printer); and Pat Sajak (replaced his PowerBook G4, only for it to be lost in transit due to Hurricane Katrina).

And naturally there were the exchanges that sound like jokes from an email forward. Not once, but twice I asked a customer to look near the clock at the top-right corner of their screen, only to have the following exchange:

“There’s no clock in the corner of my screen.”
“Okay… what DO you see in the top-right corner?”
“It says Tuesday, 2:43 pm.”
“…”

The most seminal moment during my 18 years was at noon on January 9, 2007, when a number of us watched the live broadcast as Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. (If you’ve never seen it, the first couple of minutes are genuinely worth your time as a historic artifact.) Steve was a deeply flawed man, but good lord, he could pitch a product. And he correctly predicted that everything about our company—maybe about the world—was about to change. 

The iPhone even helped me escape the hourly-wage tech-support life. A few months later I helped train the very first class of iPhone support agents, which would help land me a job in the AppleCare Training organization. 

That first class was a bit of a mess, because the iPhone wasn’t physically available to us—we didn’t even see one in person until the afternoon of the day it was released to the public. Apple is like that when it comes to secrecy. You don’t get new-product information unless strictly necessary, and sometimes not even then. When I wrote training all of our projects had code names, and often code names for code names. The training team once got a black eye when some of our screenshots leaked to an Apple rumor site, but I used context clues to help Apple Security identify the culprit, who I assume was drawn and quartered.

I also experienced business travel for the first time, visiting call centers in places as out of the way as Daleville, Indiana or as exotic as Hong Kong. (The latter was a spectacularly whirlwind trip: my boss asked me on a Thursday morning if I could be in Hong Kong on Monday morning.) My favorite trip was a three-week training class in Portland, June 2008—the class ran until 3pm, giving me leisurely evenings and not one but two weekends to explore the Pacific Northwest.2 Regular business travel might never return in our lifetimes, but if you get the chance, I do recommend it.

Though the company changed, my job from 2007 until now largely hasn’t—besides switching from training delivery to training development, I’ve remained in place as Apple ballooned around me. In 2002, the iPod seemed like an odd product offering for Apple to be offering. Now we’re offering Ted Lasso.

I never aspired to greatness at Apple. I never wanted to be a manager, and I certainly didn’t want to move to California, so I was content to contribute to the big big company in my own small small way. I’m powerfully lucky to have found a niche where my tech-writing talents could be of good use. And I’m amused that that niche is almost exactly where I started—training newly hired tech-support agents.

Apple was a golden-handcuffs situation, to put it mildly. The company’s wild success is gratifying for anybody who rooted for it as an underdog, but it’s gone from a plucky little sailboat3 to an nuclear-powered icebreaker. That took some of the shine off the rose over time; much of my work the past year in particular has been 5% writing, 95% approval-process. Trying to implement a change these days is like turning an icebreaker. When you add that to my compelling personal situation, and with the *waves around generally* that is 2020, there are plenty of reasons to call it a career and figure out what’s next. I’d say it’s no guarantee that I won’t be back, but I’m very happy to think of my time at Apple as being finished.

Much like with improv, it’s difficult to imagine how different my life would have been without Apple as my employer. It seems unlikely that I would have gained the privilege that lets me now, 18 years later, quit the race and move to Europe. I’m boundlessly lucky and grateful to the company, even though the big ship will hardly notice as I hop off and set out across the ice.

So long.


Ik spreek Nederlands. Soort van.

You do weird things when you date Dutch girls. 

Like learn Dutch.

I hadn’t made the barest attempt to learn a new language since Spanish class back in college, but a couple of years ago I went over to Duolingo.com just to see what the deal was. The clever bastards who run that website have made it absurdly easy to get started. Within three clicks I was learning the Dutch words for man (man), woman (vrouw), boy (jongen), and girl (meisje). 

…Sure.

This is kind of a dumb way to spend my time. Dutch people not only speak English, they speak it better than you do. Thanks to an upbringing of American media with Dutch subtitles1, Amsterdammers are not only fluent in English, they sometimes have American accents when they speak it. And when a waiter hears YOUR American accent as you try to stumble your way through a pancake order, they’ll more-than-likely just take pity on you and switch to English.

So I have little practical reason to learn the local language. Many expats never bother. But Duolingo is an addictive website, and I’ve been learning from the cartoon owl for 815 days and counting. I’m afraid to stop.

There are the quirks that come with learning any language—yesterday I did somersaults trying to remember the Dutch word for “hard,” finally remembering it’s just “hard.” You also learn a bit about your own language in the process. I learned Dutch uses the word “weg” to mean both “way” and “weigh,” which sounded completely insane for half a second, until my eyes widened and I realized ENGLISH DOES THAT TOO. Sometimes it’s so dang close to English that it sounds like you’re faking it (“That is my cat” = “Dat is mijn kat”). Other times you swear it’s just messing with you.

(But their word for “checkout counter” is “kassa,” so we’ll call it even.)

The biggest pain in the language is the whole gendered-noun situation. Ya know how Spanish has masculine and feminine forms like “el chico” and “la chica”? Dutch has that as well (“de jongen,” “het meisje”) but without the -o or -a clue at the end of the word. So you just kinda have to KNOW which version of “the” you should use for every, single, noun.

It has some fun advantages, though. Dutch people get to use words like “efficienter” and “expensivest.” There’s even a word for y’all—jullie, pronounced “yooly.” It can be delightfully literal: rhinoceros is “neushoorn,” cheating is “valspelen” (false-playing), and gas is “brandstof” (fire-stuff). And while we stumble through all four syllables of “The Netherlands,” Dutch people just call it “Nederland.” Can we at LEAST adopt that one?

Free Dutch lesson: the letters “ui” are pronounced “ow,” which makes words like “uit” and “huis” a lot more understandable. If you pronounce your j’s like y’s and your w’s like v’s, you can sound like you know what you’re talking about next time you visit! 

I’m still in what I call Phase 1 of learning the language—if you give me a second I can mostly read a sign, and I can get the gist of a conversation, if not actually follow it. With some mental preparation, I can probably order those pancakes. I’ll have Kiki’s nieces for conversational practice, which is great since (a) since they’re not throwing around five-dollar SAT words and (b) they seem amused with my efforts in the same way they might be with a talking parakeet. After a year or so, maybe I can converse with adults. Maybe.

Chevy Volt is a good car

I’ve been so in love with my car ever since I bought it that I’ve repeatedly thought of writing a blogpost just to sing its praises. Now that I’m offering it for sale (here’s why), I have a perfect praise-singing excuse.

In short, I have no idea why everyone isn’t falling all over themselves to buy a Chevy Volt. It’s an electric car that lets you take road trips. 

Here’s the key thing to know: the Chevy Volt is NOT a hybrid car in the normal sense of the word. It’s got both an electric motor with a limited range1 and a regular gas engine. But the magic trick is this: from the moment you unplug the car and drive off, the Volt is a pure electric car until the battery runs out. At that point you feel the gas engine gently kick in, and the car behaves like a Prius-style hybrid; I typically get 35-40mpg when on my various road trips.

The upshot is that, given typical commutes (remember those?) and errands around town, I can sometimes go weeks without using a drop of gas. The display in the car reads “250+ mpg” and I whistle past every gas station I see. Even though it’s the most I’ve ever spent on a car, it’s also saved me a ton of gas money. There have been several months where my only car-related expense was a trip through the car wash. 

But again, you can hit the road and not worry about finding a plug anywhere. My car’s lifetime mileage is about 80 mpg, but if you’re not a frequent road-tripper then you can surely improve upon that. (Bonus: lots of places have primo parking for their electric charging stations, and charging is cheap.)

A few other nice things to know: the car is a hatchback and has carried home 2x4s without complaint many times. It’s the Premier-level model, so it’s got all the heated-leather-seat types of goodies—see below.

It’s just a fantastic car. It’s yours for $14,000. I’ll be so sad to part with it.

Some more details:

2016 Chevy Volt Premier in “light ash” with black leather interior. About 64,000 miles (although, for reasons above, the miles on the gas engine are a fraction of that). Condition is generally excellent, and it’s under powertrain warranty until 100,000 miles.

Basically every option is included: heated leather seats + steering wheel, backup camera, warnings for collision + blind spot + lane-keeping, a fancy robotic parallel-parking feature, CarPlay + Android Auto, etc. etc. Sunroof wasn’t an option. ?

Vote for Project Connect

Way back in 2014, I appeared in a commercial to oppose the light-rail plan then on the ballot. I don’t have a single regret about doing so. Much like belief in science has become a liberal thing, the desire to spend our tax dollars wisely has become a conservative thing, even though neither should have the slightest connection to politics. That’s a long-winded way of saying that I was against the 2014 proposal even though I’m in favor of mass transit. It just wasn’t a good proposal.

Now it’s 2020, and a new light-rail proposal is on the ballot. Like all ballot items, it’s far from perfect. Unlike the 2014 proposal, it’s very much worth voting for.

And so I’ve done what small thing I can to offer my support: I’ve self-produced a commercial to endorse Proposition A. As you can see it’s an unauthorized sequel that turns the original concept on its head. I’ve got no money left to get it on the air (if you know any rich uncles, let me know) so instead I’m sharing it, hoping you’ll enjoy it and consider sharing it yourself. Thanks to all the fabulous creative people who helped it to look and sound so good (credits are in the video).

Vote YES on Proposition A, and please encourage your friends and family to do the same. https://capmetro.org/project-connect

Operation Market Garden

For all my travel these past few years, I’m much more of a homebody than you might think. I might judge the folks who never left their hometown after high school, but like a big ol’ hypocrite, I never left my hometown after college. In fact, I’ve never lived outside of Texas—let alone outside the US—in my entire life.

Well… it’s a crazy year.

Thanks to a very pretty, funny, and loving Dutch-Australian girl—and thanks to a country that would rather see me leave than welcome her as an immigrant—around the end of the year, I’m moving to the Netherlands. For the first time in 18 years I’m quitting my job. For the first time in 24 years I’ll need to learn my way around a new city, albeit one I already know and love.

To call this a big shift is an understatement. Amsterdam is no Kuala Lampur, but it ain’t Dallas, either. They do typically European stuff like putting the day before the month and pronouncing the letter Z “zed” and calling the first floor the “ground floor” and the second floor the first floor.1 Rush hour is a flood of bikes, hot or cold, rain or shine (usually “cold” and “rain”). Good Surinamese food can be found everywhere; good tortillas can be found nowhere. Football is played with feet. And so on. 2

So what am I doing when I get there?

First and foremost, after two and a half years, I’ll be in a relationship that’s NOT long-distance. I’m excited about the utter mundanity of seeing my fantastic girlfriend—and her fantastic cat, Percy—every goshdarn day. I’ll be privileged enough to stay funemployed for a bit, giving me time to work on my Dutch and tackle some creative projects (painting, writing, etc). I’m excited to join the fantastic Amsterdam improv community. Beyond that, who knows? Watch this space.

If the job search doesn’t pan out, I could always work at Amsterdam’s hippest clothing retailer.

I love Amsterdam, and I love Kiki who lives there. I’m deeply excited about having the adventure of a lifetime. But I can’t write this without acknowledging what’s bittersweet. There won’t be a farewell party or improv show. Austin is my favorite place on earth, and I’m leaving it at its lowest point. I’m swamped with guilt as I move off to (frankly) a better place while the places and people that I love the most are struggling. I sure wish I had an uplifting end to this paragraph.

I have so many things to do before I go. I’m doing what tiny amount I can to make Election Day a happy one. I still have 52 county courthouses to visit. I need to inventory every single thing I own and label it Store, Sell, Donate, or Pack. I need to see so many friends (even if at a distance) and eat so, many, tacos.

And no, I’m not leaving forever; I love Austin far too much for that. Hopefully in the near future our country won’t be such a fuckface about immigration and COVID, and Kiki can come here! For now, though, we’ll be there.

FAQ AND THINGS TO KNOW

  • I’ll be renting my house, hopefully to tenants who are excited to be chicken tenders. More details soon, if you’re interested.
  • The cats are coming—Sabado in December, Suitcase sometime next year. Moving them across an ocean and introducing them to Kiki’s cat is the most nerve-wracking part of this whole thing. (If you’ve read this far, maybe you’d be a good Suitcase foster parent?)
  • Holland is to the Netherlands what England is to the UK. Denmark, though, is a completely different country.

Eat less beef. It’s pretty easy.

I love beef. It’s soooo yummy. But a couple of years ago, I started cutting back on it, for reasons I’ll get to in a second.

Here’s the really crazy part: it wasn’t hard.

Now, there are probably some good health reasons to reduce your cow intake, which is fine and dandy. But I’m gonna skip that for the sake of your short attention span and get to some even better reasons why you can skip the beef stroganoff next time you have the choice.

1. It’s really good for the planet.

So the world is on fire, if you haven’t heard, and it turns out that our collective love for beef is a shockingly significant factor. Let me throw a crazy chart at you:

Source (good article)

If you pick chicken over beef just once, you’ve generated a sixth of the carbon emissions that you otherwise would have. Less methane from cow farts, less rainforest chopped down for cattle grazing. Not bad for a dang ol’ sandwich.

2. It makes beef fun again.

You’ve had a burger for lunch. You probably didn’t think much of it. It was good, but not great. You forgot about it an hour later.

Meh.

Guess what happens when you cut back on your beef? Burgers become special again. “Oh my God,” you think, “know what I want to do tonight? Eat a burger.” You decide on a place that serves properly good stuff (RIP Hut’s; long live Casino). You make a plan to go. It feels like the tastiest thing you’ve ever eaten. Sure you might regret it the next day; but you regretted that burger lunch, too, and this one was worth it.

Helloooo, lover.

For the same reason, I’ve cut my steak intake to once a year, on my birthday. Believe you me, I look forward to that birthday steak. It’s better than Christmas.

3. There’s usually something else to eat.

This part won’t make my vegan friends happy, but news flash: pork is delicious. Chicken is good. If there’s an option, you can take it. Here’s a really wild suggestion: turkey is normally the worst of all meats, but next time you’re at a barbecue place, try the smoked turkey instead of brisket. Holy moly, it’s delicious.

And as for veggie options: I’m not over here yelling at you to eat a salad, but if you haven’t tried an Impossible Burger yet, now is the time.

And yeah, I cheat sometimes! You can too! But I’m beefing a lot less than I used to beef, and that’s me doing my tiny-tiny part. And if a couple of you can join me, that would make my tiny-tiny part just a little bit bigger. (That’s what she said.)

4. It’s a birthday present.

I told you that I wanted you to read this blogpost for my birthday. That was a lie. What I really want for my birthday is for you to think for one minute—60 full seconds!—about eating less beef. Not to quit the stuff entirely! Just notice it on the menu next time you’re out, and notice the other options, and maybe go for one of those.

You probably won’t mind the shift so much. You probably will notice beef tasting just a little bit better once it becomes a sometimes food.

Lola

The name on her placard at Town Lake Animal Shelter1 was “Shannon.” SHANNON. There has never been a worse name given to a dog. I like to think I lifted that curse when I adopted her. I also got her on sale; the shelter wasn’t no-kill back in those days, and “Shannon’s” days were literally numbered. Best $20 I ever spent.

She went nameless for a couple of weeks as my roommate Amalia and I sussed out her personality2 and wrote a dozen suggestions on the whiteboard in our small apartment. The finalist just behind Lola was “Lego,” which in retrospect would have been PAINFULLY on the nose. 

But in her trips to the dog park she turned out to be a speedy runner, doing aimless excited laps around the other dogs, red fur flashing in the sun. Her name was definitely Lola, and if you don’t get that reference—most people don’t these days—then you have a crazy movie to watch.

She followed me to seven different addresses over 18 years. She was there for friendships, relationships, heartbreaks both given and received, and marriages (well, just one of those). In her prime, she knew a fantastic array of tricks that we would do in sequence: “Sit! Lay! Roll over! Up! Down! Speak!” She followed along excitedly, her eyes shining, her ears perfect triangles, her curled tail wagging irregularly. When I got laryngitis at one point, she re-learned the tricks with hand gestures and whistles. Clever girl.

I’m not just a different person than when I got her; I’m two or three people removed. The college graduate half my age, clinging desperately to his thinning hair; the married suburbanite living in Leander (Leander!!); the world-traveling improv teacher. None of this has anything to do with Lola per se, except that she was constant. One of the very few who knew and loved ALL of those skinny bald men. 

The last picture is cheating. EVERYBODY looks better in dramatic lighting.

In 2014, doctors found a tumor the size of a dragon egg attached to her spleen—more accurate to say her spleen was attached to the tumor. She was rushed into surgery the next morning.

Khaleesi?

Looking back on it, I realize that’s when her time was up. But Lola decided otherwise. The tumor was benign; she recovered within a week; and she lived on borrowed time for another five years.

She faded over time, of course. First went the hearing, then the vision, then the hips. In the last year or so, she would wander the house listlessly, nails clackity-clacking on the laminate, as though she were seeking a spot she couldn’t quite remember. I’ll miss that persistent sound as I go to bed every night.

When we got divorced in 2011, my wife requested a clean break, and specifically asked me not to let her know about Lola’s health. “I’m just going to imagine her living happily forever,” she told me before we parted ways.

She very nearly got her wish.

One Breath Around the World

Guillaume Néry has a superpower you and I don’t have: flight. Thanks to his massive lung capacity and low regard for safety, he can take a breath and soar around underwater spaces with the casual ease of a superhero. Here’s a lovely 12-minute video that made me painfully jealous. …But not so jealous that I’m going to venture more than two inches underwater.

God Forgives, I Don’t

This is just a hair too important for a Facebook post.

A year or more ago, I became enamored with a print that hangs next to the pool table at The Liberty in east Austin. It got to the point that I would specifically choose The Liberty over the other bars in the neighborhood, just to visit “my girlfriend.” I would even choose the table that faced the painting so I had a view of it. This doesn’t happen to me with art! But it did with this one.

It’s titled “God Forgives, I Don’t.” It’s by an artist called Gabe Leonard. He reminds me of Vermeer in how he captures an energized, dynamic movement and freezes it in amber. She’s swinging the gun around to fire, her face full of resolve, her dress shining and flowing; and yet she also seems perfectly at rest, stuck in time, never to pull the trigger.

Finally one day I got the courage to ask the bartender if it was for sale. No, it’s wasn’t; but they put me in touch with an Austin gallery that had some of his work. And his work is fantastic, you really should check him out! (This is a personal favorite.)

But it wasn’t the one I loved. Furthermore, they told me, Gabe had only created 100 prints of the painting, and they were all spoken for. And there my dream ended; any time I wanted to visit my girlfriend, I had to visit The Liberty. I told my friends that if anyone heisted the painting at any point, they could find it at my house.

My girlfriend—the real human one, not the painted lady with the rifle—knew about my obsession with this painting, and had seen it on a previous visit. And a few weeks ago, she confessed something: she had emailed Gabe Leonard directly (something I never thought to do) and asked if he knew of any prints that might be available. Alas, she told me, he didn’t know of any. That’s too bad, I said; but it was so sweet of her to even try!

A couple of weeks later, a roll arrived in the mail.

I may have gasped audibly.

Kiki told me the truth about contacting the artist, but she was a sinful liar about no prints being available. Gabe had put her in touch with a gallery in California; they mailed it directly to me.

I was astonished.

A few days later I took it to the framers; today, I got it back. I couldn’t be happier. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

South Africa 3: Saturday

The last full day in Cape Town was the warmest. Mid-70s, sky so clear you’d think you could see the stars. I found myself back at my preferred local dive, slowly sipping a beer1 as the open windows allowed in the air and noise of the afternoon, and—weirdly—a six-year-old boy seated next to me nursed his hot chocolate and occasionally showed me drawings from his Shopkins book. I’ve had weirder barmates.

I spent the afternoon with my fellow Americans festival-goers climbing Lions’ Head, a mountain adjacent to Table Mountain with a spiraling trail to the top that was more like a climbing route for the home stretch. Cape Town beneath us to the east. The Atlantic, impossibly huge, to the west. Dozens of sailboats drifting close to shore, with a cargo ship loitering on the horizon. Once, a trio of paragliders zoomed into view, each of them passing within ten feet of the trail before soaring off to the distant beach. Ground squirrels and songbirds stalked us at the top, hoping for snacks.

Once I got back to the Airbnb, my trip hit the fast-forward button. A brief shower.2 The crushing realization that I didn’t have time for a nap. The festival’s instructor showcase, which evolved into a narrative about a coup at a Catholic girl’s school. One final mixer show. Last visit to the local dive bar. Four underpriced vodkas. The penultimate History Under the Influence, which went very well. Festival afterparty. Nice chats with interesting people. Hugs and farewells.

The walk home was serene. I’ve been warned to stay vigilant on the streets here, and I did. And my heightened senses reported back nothing but the sound of my steps bouncing off the pavement of the narrow street and the security walls to either side; the faint hum of the orange lights overhead; the whisper of highway traffic somewhere in the abstract distance. Orion watching over me, upside down, like he was doing a handstand.

I finally figured out just the right jiggle to unlock my Airbnb’s security gate—the last time I’d ever need to; don’t it always go that way?—and let myself in.

PS: I’ve said precious little about the festival itself! I had a great time teaching my workshop. The performance highlights were Lusty Mannequins, two instructors from Second City Toronto; and La Teatre Andre, a spectacular trio from Oslo.3 The locals were, as always, fun to be with on and off the stage. To any improvisers reading: if you have the means—for the plane ticket; it’s stupidly cheap once you get here—I do recommend applying.