Blessed By The Little Baby

The music on this little piece is compliments of my lovely and talented cousin, DaVal Johnson, and his beautiful daughters, Cherelle and Lauren. Enjoy!

"Children Go Where I Send Thee"
Original Arrangement by Natalie Merchant
Adapted by Cross Wired
Arrangements by DaVal Johnson
Vocals by Cherelle and Lauren Johnson

The Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin's new book The Happiness Project will be hitting the bookstores soon.  I've been following her blog for the last year and have already ordered my copy of the book at Amazon.  Above is a video clip from September when she appeared on CBS and I think she gives a nice description of her book.

It has been my experience that when I told people, "I just want to be happy," I ended up feeling a little bit immature.  Depending on my company, I would feel stupid or spiritually weak.  Gretchen makes me feel "OK" in my personal quest for happiness.  After spending a few minutes each day with Gretchen I feel like my happiness is important, not only to me but to my husband, children, neighbors and the complete stranger driving next to me on 75th Street!

Happiness Project


I’ve got a problem.  

My husband and I tell one another everything.  When I get a pimple on my butt he knows about it and, unfortunately, vice versa.  But I am not going to tell him about the little episode that happened to me today because he will just say to me, “Denise, you’ve got a problem.”

But I’m terrible at keeping secrets and I’m pretty confident that he isn’t reading my blogs so this is a safe place for my confession, so here it goes.  

He was in LaJolla, California tonight eating Oolong Sea Bass at PF Chang’s (I told you he tells me everything) so back at home I took the two little kids to Meatheads for a special treat.  We have taken the kids to the Meatheads restaurant four different times since they opened.  The name alone is reason enough for my kids to love this joint.  Each time we have been there, this guy, sometimes two guys, obviously the owners, are seated at tables in the restaurant.  They have laptops and piles of papers and cell phones going.  At first I thought, cool, these guys are on site.  They are making sure everything is running smoothly.  This is going to be a successful business.  

But on this visit I realized that we, and other customers, were making an effort to stay out of their space.  One of the guys, the regular, is a big handsome sort who, I’ll bet you, drives a Hummer.  He started pacing around the tables while talking on his cell phone.  My husband does this all the time.  I like to call it the “I’m working on a big damn deal with lots of zeros attached to it and, wow, does it ever make me feel like I have ants in my pants prance.”

So, the crazy, loud and wild, Meathead dining experience that my kids, miniature meatheads, were looking for felt more like eating dinner at home where we have to keep our voices down because Daddy is in the next room doing that same “... ants in his pants prance” instead of sitting at his desk in his office with the damn door closed.  

Now, believe it or not, I don’t consider it my responsibility to mother the entire planet.  I just want everyone to reach their full potential.  That’s why I had to talk to them.  

I tried, unsuccessfully, to make eye contact with either of them.  Twenty years and twenty pounds ago I probably could have gotten some kind of attention, but I couldn’t get either of them to acknowledge me.  So Mohammed would have to go to the mountain.  I sent my two little kids outside the restaurant, where I could see them through the glass windows.  I have to do this because none of my children appreciate my need to make the world a better place. 

I walked towards the prancer, with my hand up as if asking permission to speak, he just put his head down and turned on his heel so he could continue his phone conversation.  Then I walked over to the fellow who was seated, also on his cell phone.  After a few moments of standing at his table, he still didn’t acknowledge me, so I finally spoke, “Hi!  Are you one of the owners of this restaurant?”

He nodded yes, but he didn’t remove the phone from his ear.

“We just finished eating and I thought that you might appreciate some customer feedback.”

He let the phone drop down from his ear, clearly intending to get right back to the conversation. 

We looked at one another with perfunctory, fake smiles. “Sure,” he said.

By now you can see where this is going.  

Don’t get ahead of me.  My problem is not Meatheads.  

My problem is that I can’t keep my opinions to myself.  I worked in advertising and marketing for 25 years and over that time I worked with a lot of small business owners, including restauranteurs, and I can’t tell you how many times I would develop campaigns only to see them laid impotent when the customer walked in the door.  Getting the customer to the door is only part of the equation of building revenue, once that prospective customer touches their toe inside your shop you need to wrap your arms around them.  

I’ve got a purse full of pent up frustration about ad campaigns that didn’t generate the kind of measurable results they could have because a retailer didn’t do their part of the job once the warm bodies showed up at their door step.

A Chicago food joint that understands the importance of customer satisfaction and retention is Portillo’s.  Earlier in the week, I took my two little meatheads to Portillo’s (a very unhealthy week of dining) and the founder/owner, Dick Portillo, was there walking around the store chatting with customers.  When we were ready to leave the restaurant, Mr. Portillo, who was seated at a small table sans laptop or cellphone, thanked each of us for coming to the restaurant and looked into my little kid’s eyes and asked, as if he really wanted to know, “How was your dinner?”  

That is putting your arms around a customer.  Give me great product and service and act like you care about my experience which means that you appreciate the hard earned money I just forked over.  And if you really want to consummate the deal, act like you care about my kid’s happiness.

After my less than perfect experience at Meatheads I should have just voted with my feet and never returned.  That’s what any normal person would do, but like Malcolm In The Middle’s overbearing, authoritarian, borderline crazy mother, I’ve never met a line that I won’t cross.  

I stood in front of this fellow at Meatheads, looking him straight in the eye.  Finally he simply clicked the cell phone in his hand off or put it on mute, without saying good-bye or I’ll be right back or anything, confirming my suspicions that his phone call probably wasn’t important enough to ignore a paying customer standing right in front him.  Either that or he didn’t want the person on the other line to hear what I was about to say. 

I began my One Minute Manager speech which I perfected in the 1980's.  State the purpose of the conversation, praise ‘em and then whack ‘em.   

“My children and I just finished eating here.  The food is good and your decor is fun.  We really like the beautiful pictures of Naperville and I see that you’ve even put effort into decorating for the holidays.”  I touched one of the many Christmas bulbs hanging from every single light over every single table, for emphasis.  “I know that takes time and money.  I want you to know that, as a customer and as a person who spent 25 years in advertising and marketing, I really appreciate that kind of attention to detail.  In fact, I believe that the quality of the atmosphere of a restaurant can be nearly as important as the quality of the food.”

“This is the fourth time that we have been to your restaurant and it is the fourth time that your partner, or both of you, have been playing office in the main dining area.  I’ve gotta tell you we came here for a wild and crazy Meathead kind of experience.”  I leaned back and did a little jazz dance with my hands in the air for effect which was a bit too much, now that I think about it, but I was getting myself kind of worked up and I tend to get hyperbolic in confrontational situations, even if they are of my own making.  “Instead, my two little kids and I felt like we were imposing on your personal office space.  That’s not all that wild and crazy and Meathead-ish to us.  If we wanted to sit and eat quietly so we wouldn’t disturb some guy pacing back and forth while he was on an important phone call we could have stayed at home with my husband.” 

He kind of fake laughed when I made fun of my husband.  My husband is right, the middle aged, chubby white guy is a universally acceptable place to poke fun.  As I walked away I added, “I’ve learned that I am a pretty average gal.  If I feel like this, other people are probably feeling the same thing.  It’s just something to think about.”

And that was it.  In a blink, I was outside with my kids.  We walked through the empty parking spaces to our car.  I looked down the sidewalk of the strip shopping center where the prancer was still on his cell phone.  He was walking towards the Buffalo Wild Wings, where the parking lot was overflowing.  Even more for them to think about.  

After writing this piece I went to the bookshelf to pick-up my copy of The One Minute Manager for old time sake.  Right next to it was Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People.  Something for me to think about.

Birthday Gifts

It is hard for me to make sense of the opulent suburban gift giving.  My family never had a lot of money and I remember having one birthday party as a child.  My husband is equally uncomfortable with the overly-generous gift giving but that's just because he is a real tight ass when it comes to spending money.  (That is kind of mean to say but I'm kind of mad at him right now but that's another blog entry, besides, it is true.)  So, instead of birthday gifts I encouraged our little kids to ask for dog and cat food for the local animal shelter.

We don't have birthday parties every year.  Our daughter, Randi, is an animal freak and the idea of forfeiting gifts to help animals in the shelter totally worked for her.

Our son, Alex, was a different story.  He has had a few more birthday parties than Randi and a few times he really, really needed presents.  I think we still have a couple of $25 hunks of plastic from those parties loitering in our basement.

I didn't choose the animal shelter because I am a big "save the puppies" kind of gal, I just didn't want my kids to be getting gifts out the wazoo just for being born.  I was unnerved by the piles and piles of gifts that I saw at parties.  We were invited to birthday celebrations in our neighborhood that were hours long and one of those hours was spent watching the birthday child open gift after gift after gift.

A few days later we would get a hand written note, obviously from the child, thanking us for our specific gift.  I'm not criticizing thank you notes.  Despite my backwoods country upbringing, I do know that thank you notes represent good manners, but I couldn't get my kids to sit still for twenty seconds on the toilet let alone get them to sit still at a table and scribble out twenty thank you notes.

The whole birthday party gift giving thing intimidated me.  So asking for pet food was my way of avoiding that scene.  Asking for donations was met with lots of comments, mostly positive.  Although one mother said her older son had seen the invitation on the refrigerator and kept asking, "What kind of kid doesn't want birthday presents?"

But my departure from the excess of suburban birthday gift giving has an interesting twist.  My lovely over-achieving suburban party guests brought bags and bags and bags of food for the animals.  When we drove up to the animal shelter with our bootie the employees and volunteers were shocked at the amount of food and supplies that we delivered.  They were very appreciative, took pictures of our kids and heaped tons of praise on them.

In a way, we were making our own little suburban scene.  I realize now that we were the stereotypical over-achieving family but instead of a mountain of gifts we had a mountain of smelly dog and cat food which is kind of obnoxious, in it's own way, too.