Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Body language: Reading body language

There is more to body language than meets the eye. Isn't that an interesting way to put it? But I'm being serious.

One aspect of body language is proxemics, the study of spacial distances between people. How do people maintain their personal space, how do they interact with other people's personal spaces? These are questions which reveal much about who is aggressive, submissive, open, closed, confident, fearful, overcompensating, and overreaching.

Another aspect of body language is kinesics, the study of body movements, gestures, and expressions. How do people express themselves silently? This area of body language is probably the most commonly written about topic on the Internet (and perhaps in books). Kinesics gave rise to some interesting myths, such as the oft-cited (and nonsensical) 7-38-55 rule that tells us 90% of our communication is non-verbal.

Another area of body language, which is especially admired by fast seduction fans, is kinesthetics or kinaesthetics, which they often call "kino". Technically, kinesthetics is the ability to feel movements of the limbs or body. But seduction practitioners refer to the use of touch to seduce another person as kino. I'm not sure how they managed to twist the word's meaning around, but base ignorance often gives rise to new uses for words.

Kino fans don't simply use touch to communicate with their targets. Rather, they use it to anchor or associate feelings with certain actions that the seducers control. Kino-based body language can be very obvious if you know that two people are virtually strangers to each other. Women often use touch to communicate their interest in other people. A woman offering emotional support to someone will touch that person, usually on the arm or shoulder. Men who use kino to seduce women often resort to arm and back-touching in order to create a false emotional bond with the women, as well as to encourage the women to become comfortable with their touch.

When you research body language on the Web, you'll find a plethora of hard-core sales and seduction FAQs, tutorials, articles, and blogs. Most of them are worthless, except as brief introductions to some standard tips and tricks. There are very few in-depth body language resources that I have found.

One interesting resource on handshaking is offered by Robert E. Brown, a management and leadership consultant. I'm not entirely sure I'd trust him in person, as his picture makes him look like an evil corrupted Yoda. But maybe he was just on the 17th take of a very long photo shoot and getting a little tired of smiling for the camera. You never know. Maybe that's what he genuinely looks like when he is happy and feeling good about himself.

Another area of study is photo analysis. Dr. Gabriel Raam's site and Kevin Hogan's site provide interesting case studies about photographs and what they reveal about us. My sister-in-law can look at a picture and evaluate a person's emotional state, maturity, and basic personality in the space of a few seconds. It's an amazing gift.

Patti Wood, the self-proclaimed Body Language Lady, maintains an infrequently updated body language blog that I wish she updated more often. She offers insights from both personal experience and occasionally she shares her interpretations of photographs.

Still, these resources just barely skim the surface of the study of body language. Robert Brown's handshaking tutorial, for example, doesn't touch on the romantic side of handshakes. R. Don Steele, one of many dating experts, wrote a book on body language in which he talks about how women convey interest in men through hand shakes. He says they give you a "Yes", "Maybe", and a "No" handshake. I've often wondered what the "Yes" handshake feels like. I think I've encountered it, but if you ask women about this they act like there is no such thing. Maybe some women convey yes/maybe/no and some don't. Maybe it's entirely subconscious.

Steele is a professionally trained and credentialed psychologist who specialized in body language. After his second marriage broke up, he applied what he knew about people to himself and developed a program for men to help them find, meet, date, and win the girls of their dreams. He doesn't believe in fast seduction and he advises against the use of kino. But studying and understanding body language is central to his philosophy.

Note: For those guys who are curious, I found an audio file where Steele describes the "Yes" handshake in a radio interview. He says the girl gives you a firm, lingering handshake, where she trails her fingers through your own as you release your grip. I have experienced this kind of handshake, but only from women who were unquestionably on the liberal side of sexual behavior. Many more conservative women have given me lingering handshakes which I think were more subtle "Yes" greetings based on their subsequent actions.

Some body language tutorials will focus on minutiae such as lint-picking. According to some guides, if a person starts picking lint off their leg or arm, they are indicating boredom or lack of interest. But lint-picking has also been described as a preening gesture, which is in fact an indication of interest (in fact, it's a sign of sexual anxiety -- "I am nervously attracted to this person"). Lint-picking can also be a signal of arrogance or dominance: "You are less important to me than this piece of lint that just grabbed my attention."

How do you tell the difference? You have to look for clusters of signals. If a girl is picking lint because she is interested in you, she may be very gentle and sensual in her movements. There will be a sinuous quality, and her eyes will be submissively downcast. Her body will be pointed toward you, and she won't position any protective barriers between the two of you. She leaves herself in a vulnerable position. A man who is conveying his disregard for you and lack of respect will not make eye contact and he'll find other things to play with besides imaginary lint on his leg. He'll position things between you and him.

A romantic case of lint-picking is more open and honest. A fearful case of lint-picking may be surreptitious or hidden behind a barrier of some sort. My point is that lint-picking by itself doesn't tell you anything. You have to look at the person's posture and demeanor and understand what you are being shown collectively. But the tutorials and articles really don't go into such detail. More often, you'll find lint-picking listed as a bullet-point in a "good stuff" and "bad stuff" format.

Remember those cute auditors who have been here this week? It's been interesting to watch the men, even married men, find excuses to interact with them. Who people choose to interact with says a great deal about what is going on in their minds. In a dance class I will be very ambiguous about, there was a gentleman who has a noticeably strong body odor. If I can smell it, you know it's strong. Women avoid him like the plague. Watching the dance teacher maneuver a woman to be his partner was a bit painful, but the man seems to be genuinely unaware of how much he reeks and how uncomfortable other people are around him because of his body odor.

I have learned to make a point of being friendly to people even when I don't need to interact with them. You never know when you'll need their help, and you have to look beyond more than just the first impression. Think about how people feel about you if you only talk to them when you need something. You're conveying the message to them that they don't matter to you except when they have something of value (an answer to a question, a stapler, or the skill to perform a function you cannot perform for yourself).

For many years I felt that people who spent a lot of time chatting at work were wasting time, but I've learned that there are important reasons to allow this kind of behavior. You need to be sure co-workers respect each other and treat each other as people, not as faceless servants. They have to have opportunities to bond and form workplace friendships so that they value each other's company. Saying "good morning" and "good night" to everyone, even if that's the only time you talk to them, raises your value in their estimation.

The study of group dynamics is very closely related to the study of body language. Groups form and breakup continually, and one expert says they go through four phases of "life". Some groups may get stuck in the third phase, but eventually all groups hit that fourth phase, which you can call the breakup phase. There is the "Meeting Phase", the "Passion Phase", the "Comfort Phase", and the "Dissasociative Phase". These are my names for the phases, because they correspond to the phases of personal relationships.

Many relationships (and many groups) never get past the "Meeting Phase". And sometimes they die in th "Passion Phase". If a relationship or group reach the "Comfort Phase", things may last a very long time. The "Disassociative Phase" can be traumatic or it can be a quiet denoument. It just depends on how solid the bonds formed during the first two phases proved to be.

A handshake really goes through those four phases, too. When you meet someone, you decide whether you are going to risk being vulnerable enough to offer your hand to that person. One body language tutorial I've read says that a handshake is equivalent to three hours of conversation. If that is true, then refusing to shake hands with someone means you don't want to associate with that person for any length of time. So, when you meet someone, and you offer to shake hands, you are getting past the "Meeting Phase".

How you grasp the other person's hand, and how you respond to the way they grasp your hand, constitutes the "Passion Phase". I often find taller men grasping just my fingers. It's very awkward and they make no effort to adjust their grip to fully envelope my hand. This is a clear signal of discomfort. There is no passion at all, and it usually indicates that things aren't going to last long. On the other hand, if a woman holds my hand just a tad longer than usual, I know I can expect her to strike up a conversation very quickly.

The "Comfort Phase" of the handshake corresponds to the actual shaking. If there is no shake, there is no comfort. If there is a vigorous shake from one side, there is no comfort. Both partners have to genuinely welcome the contact, and when that happens they equally contribute to the shaking process. Men who crush your hand, women who break the contact prematurely, people who collapse their hands usually do so in this phase.

The "Disassociative Phase" is where you let go of the other person's hand. Sometimes I'll get a little playful and refuse to let go. Then I'll be mean and say, "Okay, you can let go now." Usually, if I say that, you know I'm the one who won't let go. Refusing to break off a relationship is a power play. It's a sign of ownership and dominance. It can also be a sign of weakness and neediness. A child may be very reluctant to let go of a parent during a hug or when a father and son shake hands as one leaves the other for an extended period of time (usually for the first time).

I've noticed similar phases with dance partners, although they are more subtle -- especially with fellow dance students. If I provide a very good lead, even advanced dance students will be reluctant to leave me during a rotation. If I provide a particularly bad lead, they cannot wait to get away from me.

When you come together with a woman to dance, you have a "Meeting Phase" where you are paired up. The "Passion Phase" is where you establish rapport and one partner establishes the lead. If the man establishes a good lead, the woman continues to dance with him. If he fails to establish a good lead, she dances with herself. Sometimes the man is at fault and sometimes the woman is at fault. Some women just don't know how to follow, or they don't want to follow. When the man fails to establish the lead, there is no "Comfort Phase".

The bulk of the dance constitutes the "Comfort Phase". If there is no rapport and the two people stay together out of politeness, it's more like a "Discomfort Phase". You cannot wait for the song to end, and it seems to take forever. I usually won't walk away from a stranger, but I have done it on one or two occasions. I've walked away from my friend Maggie a few times because she and I know we'll dance together again.

I can tell if a girl is interested in me by how close she stands when we dance. If I have to keep pushing her away, she is almost certainly attracted to me. If I have to keep drawing her closer, she is almost certainly not attracted to me. I was dancing with someone earlier this week who kept backing away from me. I had to constantly pull her in. Maybe she was just really excited and trying to control herself, but I got the distinct impression she would rather have been dancing with a rock. They say you should trust your gut instincts, so there are times when I'm just not as good a dancer as a rock.

Take that for what it's worth.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Motivation: Men at work in motivated selling

I seldom talk about work. I have spent most of my life working with computers, but on more than one occasion I've found myself in a sales position. I dropped out of high school when I was in the 9th grade. My parents struggled to motivate me to go back to school, but I stubbornly refused to do it. When I turned 16, they said, "Get a job or get out of the house." Well, the "job" turned out to be a 16-month excursion into fruitless direct sales in a depressed economy. I sold soap, mostly to businesses. My customers went out of business faster than I could find new customers.

I attended weekly sales meetings and motivational seminars for over a year. I listened to senior salespeople talk about their successes. I watched people rise to become "top sellers". I saw the same people burn out and fade away. Some of them were driven off in shame and fury because they couldn't produce anything and were always negative.

"Negativity" is one of those business buzz words I have always hated. The sales world fixates on negativism and positive attitudes like drowning people grasping for lifelines. You are expected to buy motivational books that tell you to wake up every morning and greet the new day as a vista filled with opportunities. The indoctrination in some sales organizations never ends. One of the reasons why I left sales eventually was that I wanted to regain my humanity.

When I turned to technical work as a career (after returning to school and getting a tech school diploma and two college degrees), I found that salespeople could be the worst enemy on the planet. Computer systems salespeople especially left me with a foul taste in my mouth. I often found myself having to fulfill contracts where the salespeople appeared to have just blatantly lied to the customers about the capabiliies of the systems they were selling.

I remember one sales guy, Landy, coming in to an office on a weekend and blasting me for not completing a project on time. According to the schedule I had been given, I was doing fine. Another programmer walked up to me and said, "Don't worry about him. Rumor has it he's upset because he's about to lose a $25,000 bonus over this deal. But he never should have promised a conversion in the short time frame he gave the client."

When I became an IT manager for the first time, I had to buy a computer for my office. It was just a PC but this was still back when buying PCs was a considered expense. Dell and Gateway were just starting up and most people still turned to Compaq and IBM for their office computers. I called a local PC distributor and asked for a quote. My supervisor told me to get some competitive quotes. Rolling my eyes, I solicited the competitive quotes and found another supplier offering the same machine (an Everex 386) for several hundred dollars less.

"See?" my supervisor said sagely. "That's why you get competitive quotes. Salespeople are always padding their commissions."

Hm. Well, in the end, we went with the first company because I had proposed installing a multiuser DOS operating system on the PC. We wanted to try a product which I think was called MultiDos by Western Digital (or Western Something). The company with the lower-priced Everex ignored me when I said, "I don't want PC-MOS. I can't remember the other product's name, but that is what I want." They called me back and said, "What you want is PC-MOS."

Salespeople who don't listen just don't get my business. The guy who got the business was named Joe Brown. He told me he hadn't heard of the product but said he would make some calls. I said, "If you cannot find anything other than PC-MOS, please don't try to sell me on it."

"I won't do that, Michael," he promised. An hour later he called up and said, "I don't know if this is what you want, but how about MultiDOS (or whatever it was called) by Western Digital?" He had, in fact, found the real product and he ordered it for me. I got approval to switch the order from the lower-priced vendor to Joe's company.

It's important to build trust and rapport with your customers when you're in sales, and the one thing you don't want to do is come across like a smarmy sales guy who is only interested in earning a commission. Don't ever tell me I want PC-MOS if I specifically say I don't want PC-MOS. It's a simple rule. You'd be amazed at how often people violate it.

When I left the IT field a couple of years ago, I had a pretty foul taste in my mouth again. It wasn't because of salespeople, though. I had inherited an IT management position I didn't want, and I inherited a new boss I didn't know, whom I hadn't interviewed and hired, and who turned out to be (in my opinion) the most incompetent decision-maker I've ever had to deal with. He was easily swayed by anyone's opinion other than mine, regardless of how few credentials and how little experience they had. The ex-boss whose position I inherited told me long afterward that my opinion was disregarded because I was honest about not wanting the responsibility.

You know, if you're going to distrust people because they are honest, there is something seriously wrong with you. Get therapy immediately if you are a decision-maker who doesn't want to hear the truth from your IT guy.

So I eventually settled on sales. I'd actually had to bring in my own business while working for a small software firm after leaving my first IT management position. I didn't like being responsible for my own paycheck and having to solve people's problems. But here I am, invested in sales again.

Now I'm a licensed insurance agent. There is a lot to learn about insurance, which is pretty much the ugly step-child of business. When you become an insurance agent, the first thing that happens is someone says, "Congratulations on making the best decision of your life!" The second thing that happens is they hand you a phone book and say, "Go sell insurance."

A very good friend helped me make the transition to insurance. He enrolled me in a series of insurance selling courses, took me to a seminar in Dallas, and basically walked me through the process of knocking on doors and learning how to open up to business people. He risked a lot to help me out. I've tried not to let him down, though I have since moved on to work for another (much larger) brokerage. There was one rough spot, when I became very ill last year, where my friend took me aside and gave me the dreaded Sales Responsibility Talk.

salespeople who are selling don't hear this talk. But I'm pretty sure every sales person hears it at least once in their career. I heard it more than once when I was selling soap as a teenager. Basically, you hit a slump. Things go wrong. You stop selling, or don't get started selling. Someone who has invested a lot of time in training and motivating you gets frustrated.

I was doing okay, but I got sick. I got really sick, and I stopped going out on cold calls. This went on for a couple of weeks and suddenly I had no more appointments and no one to call back. My pipeline broke, and I was back at square one. Now, being very ill, I was in no position to be driving around Houston, knocking on doors. When my friend accepted that I was that ill, he said two things: "If you're really sick, you need to see a doctor. And just because you cannot drive doesn't mean you cannot pick up a telephone and call people. In the worst case, I'll handle your appointments for you."

And he was right. So I saw the doctor and I spent two weeks hammering the telephone from home. Those were the two most productive weeks of my insurance sales career up to that point. I set up lots of appointments and I overcame what my friend calls "phone call reluctance".

He says he suffers from it himself. Many insurance agents hate to make cold calls on the phone. I don't understand why, but I watched myself and have watched myself ever since. I recognize when the reluctance sets in. I force myself to pick up the phone and call a stranger and say something pleasant and as compelling as possible.

Now that I'm with a larger brokerage, which hired me in part because I got to the point where I made 50 calls one day and set appointments, I've learned that getting appointments is actually the easy part of the business. I switched from selling voluntary benefits to selling commercial insurance. I was hungry to build up my book of business. Every new agent needs 2-3 years to build a solid book of business. There are a few occasional exceptional people who walk in the door with tons of personal contacts that help them get started right away. They become fast burnout star performers because after they run through their friends and relatives they have nothing left but cold calls, and they don't know ho wto make them.

Placing commercial insurance requires a lot of work. And decision-makers don't make the process easy. They are always asking for "competitive quotes" (sound familiar?). If you are dealing with three mid-sized brokerages, getting competitive quotes may actually make sense because none of them can get to all the markets. I work for one of the top ten brokers in the world. There are no markets we cannot get to.

When you deal with a company like ours, we can do the quote negotiating for you. But many business people don't trust insurance brokers to provide the truly best deals. We're supposedly padding our quotes with extra commission. Actually, that does happen, but the law requires that the agent/broker disclose all additinoal fees.

So far, I haven't seen anyone in my office do anything but bust their butt trying to get the most cmpetitive quotes for prospects. When we have to talk about fees, we're up front with them. I'm working with the largest group of honest salespeople I've ever met. There is relatively little smarm in my office, and I have yet to get up in the morning with a dreadful "I wish I wasn't working with these people" feeling.

However, there's a sob story in every crowd. My sob story turned out to be frustraton at the slow pace of building my book of business. My sales manager and the office President kept telling me I was ahead of the curve. I hit the phones every day and filled up my appointment list. That took several months, but at one point I had more new business in marketing than any of the experienced producers. Unfortunately, we didn't land most of those accounts in large part because we were too expensive (for small startup companies) or because it was taking too long to get quotes from wholesalers and underwriters.

Why does it take so long to get quotes? Because every insurance agent in the world is constantly asking for quotes. Underwriters pick and choose who they will provide quotes for. In commercial insurance, the power of the relationship is important. I was a new entity and the underwriters apparently didn't like the quality of the companies I was bringing in. So I made adjustments and started calling larger companies. Quotes started coming a little faster, but I was still frustrated.

I'll call anyone. I don't care how large or how small they are. But top ten brokers have business plans that call for customers who meet minimum requirements. Easy as it was to learn to qualify small companies out of the competition for my high-powered resources, I now found myself calling on companies that were too big. Hey, if the president of a $1,000,000,000 corporation is going to pick up the phone and return my voice mail about insurance, why should I not take his call?

Sadly, I've been told to drop more than one prospect because they were too big. We just don't go after that kind of business. We specialize in "the middle market" -- companies that make $5,000,000 to $500,000,000. But it's not easy to find these companies (don't even mention Dun & Bradstreet).

Well, this is getting long (as usual), so I'll cut to the chase. I switched to telemarketing. That is, my company uses an outside telemarketing firm to set appointments. When I heard what that firm was being paid per appointment, I told my sales manager, "I'll set appointments for that kind of money. I can get appointments, dude."

I was half-joking but we were having a Michael-is-frustrated-because-marketing-cannot-keep-up day. He went back to his boss and pitched the idea. They liked it. So now I telemarket for the brokerage and I set appointments for the other producers. Technically, if a prospect wants to meet me I'm free to go on the appointments, but I can't make phone calls when I'm doing that.

I have turned my accounts over to other producers. Some of them have required more attention than others. Insurance agents have to drop what they are doing and deal with client requests. Now that I'm setting appointments for other producers, I cannot afford to spend that time working on client requests. So my book of business is gone, but I'm making more money than I was last year. I have no complaints.

Still, not every agent is happy. There is always a certain amount of turnover in any sales group. Despite the fact that I'm seeing improvement in our marketing group (they have expanded and are hiring) and customer support group (they are also hiring), some of the producers are not happy. Some are happier than others. One producer in particular is having a hard time setting appointments and today she unloaded on me.

I don't take crap from people. I've tried to be a good office buddy, but in sales you have to promote a positive, outgoing attitude. When you're frustrated or angry or not feeling good, you have to dig deep and find something to feel good about. Otherwise, you project the wrong attitude to people. Even telemarketers have to adhere to this rule. I know when I blow a phone call because I listen to myself, and I take notes and write down, "Blew it. Sounded smarmy and cheap" or "Fumbled on the call. Sounded like a fool."

But the worst thing that can happen is for one producer to seek emotional support and rapport from another producer. Do you know what happens when you start sympathizing with someone who is having a bad day or week? You have a bad day or week. We instinctively take on the feelings of anyone we strive to build rapport with. While in a therapeutic situation that can help in the long run, in sales it's a disaster. I've seen salespeople who started spreading their toxic moods around be shown the door with the most unceremonious speed.

I'm not saying that happens where I work, but it easily could. If all the producers started feeling bad and complaining about how they hate to get on the phone and how they hate this company and don't want to bring their friends in as customers, you'd better believe the president will start handing out pink slips.

We are not liars. We don't go out and promise the moon to people. But we do look for opportunities to show people that we're willing and capable of going the extra mile. This one producer mentioned a former employer when we went to lunch. It's a company I tried to cold call and got nowhere with. She knows the owner. I suggested she call him.

She came back to me later and said she was trying to get his cell phone number. I said, "Just call the office."

"He's not always there."

Okay. I let that slide. But then she started saying, "Besides, he's happy where he is. I know I can get the appointment but I don't know what we can offer him. He self-insures in one area and I don't know what his business income coverage is like."

Now, understand that she and I are both relatively new to insurance. We got into it about the same time, although she has worked in Sureties (bonds) for over ten years. Still, I know that many companies are underinsured when it comes to business income. They don't understand that just because an insurance policy will pay for lost inventory, equipment, and ruined property when a tornado or hurricane strikes that they are still not making any money. Business income insurance replaces the income you lose while you rebuild.

I'm amazed by how many companies along the Gulf Coast cannot start up again because they had inadequate business income coverage. A lot of companies that did have it have long since exhausted their coverages. So I said, "Did this guy lose business when Houston was evacuated?"

She agreed he must have. So I suggested she go after the business income. "But first I want to check with marketing and see if we can provide any," she said.

While that is a prudent move, by this point in the conversation I was sure she was just coming up with excuses not to make the phone call. It is nothing to say, "Joe, do you have business income insurance?"

If he says, "Yes," then you know the coverage is available. If he says, "No," you say, "Well, let's get together and discuss it. Maybe I can help you in case Houston is evacuated again."

You don't promise anything more than an offer to do some research.

Unfortunately, the conversation tanked at that point. Why? Because she wasn't looking for advice. She was looking for rapport. And I don't give rapport to people who are feeling bad when I'm on the job. I have to write positive letters and make happy phone calls.

Could I have handled that conversation better? Yes. I could have remembered that women instinctively seek rapport and emotional support when they are feeling down, and that men just want to solve problems. I cannot be an office girlfriend, and to be honest I've learned not to be any woman's girlfriend anyway. Men offer emotional support and rapport to their close partners, not to co-workers. That may sound cold, but that is how men have had to be throughout history.

From a biological perspective, we are expected to walk into dangerous situations and bring home the food, fight off the dangerous enemies, and keep the women and children safe. We cannot stop in the middle of a crisis and say, "Frank, I'm having a bad day. You know how I feel?"

"Sure, Michael. Let's talk about it. We can fight the Zombie Demons after lunch."

That just isn't the way men are wired. I know some men try to be that way, but I don't believe that's what we're supposed to be like. We need to be polite, professional, and positively encouraging and supportive in the workplace.

But if a man is working in sales and a co-worker is having a bad day, he cannot afford to become that co-worker's girlfriend. The co-worker cannot afford to convert him to a girlfriend. It's harder for a woman to turn off the emotional support because they are so naturally good at providing it, but saleswomen have to be just as focused.

After all, if your salespeople aren't selling, where is your revenue coming from? They don't offer insurance for having-a-bad-day-at-work. And even if they did, how many companies would buy it when they don't have sense enough to buy business income insurance to take care of the real disasters?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Updating the updates, or, keeping up-to-date on dating and updates

I said there would be no more "Michael Meets Girls" posts for a while, so that's not what this is. (As an aside, I love doing that and have ever since I saw an old sitcom, maybe I Love Lucy, where this wacky oldtimer says to one of the show's stars -- who has stopped to ask for directions -- "You see that old tree down there? Well if you go that way and turn right and drive for about a mile, you'll come to a dead end -- so you don't want to go that way.")

The right way to go -- I mean, Miss Cute Reluctant joined me for dancing Saturday night. I don't know that anything will come of it, but I at least got her name and phone number (before Saturday evening). And May may or may not come back in May. She did ask if I would be there again, so that's something, but she was in a weird mood tonight. There were some laughs and giggles, but I all but had to break out into Hip Hop dancing to elicit them (and if you have ever seen me Hip Hop dance, you'd understand why there should be plenty of laughing and giggling).

In other news tonight, Julie Tam has updated her blog but the layout is now different and I don't feel like clicking on all those links. And the automatic song may put some people off. Sorry, Julie. I just calls 'em as I sees 'em.

However, while scrolling down through Julie's main page, I noticed she has a really cute friend whose profile says she is single and still lives in Houston.

Girl, make up a boyfriend for your profile before you find yourself inundated with phone numbers. Better yet, contact me and I'll set you up with a dance class where you can meet crazy, funny, non-creepy guys.

So, today at work I heard the IT guy setting up computers just on the other side of my cubicle. I detected the sound of 1 or 2 female voices. Curiosity got the better of me and I stepped around the corner and introduced myself. Whoa! These three cute girls have come in to audit us. I told my boss this evening, right before I left, "I don't know what we did wrong, but I hope we keep doing it." He laughed and said, "I wondered why you were staying so late."

Of course, after making a great first impression by saying "Good morning, ladies, I'm Michael and though you won't be needing my help with your audit, I wanted to introduce myself", I later on managed to run -- I say again, I ran like a fool to get -- to my boss' office before someone else got there and Julie, the cutest one in the bunch (in my opinion) just happened to be walking down the hallway as I came barreling out of a doorway.

It's a good thing you're not supposed to hit on auditors, because I'd have lost all opportunity at that moment. If you could have seen her expression, you'd know what I mean by "Oops." Make that a BIG OOPS. Nor was my boss in his office at that moment. He had gone off to another meeting. You have to understand that the guy is really busy and even when you book an appointment in advance just to recap your week with him, he may or may not make the appointment.

I washed my car this weekend. Is that worthy of mention in a blog? I did it Sunday evening, after the weekend was over. Went to an automated car wash and paid for the $7.00 Everything Goes special (or whatever they call it). As I drove up, something blasted the undercarriage of my car like a skirt blowing machine in a fun park. I thought, "Should I have driven over that thing more slowly?" Of course, the blower at the end of the session doesn't dry your car off. It just sort of moves the water around. I've never quite figured out if you're supposed to drive slowly through it one time, or just sit with the air blowing at the center of your car, hoping the water is all pushed away. I tend to just rock the car back and forth. A guy in a pickup truck almost hit me one time as I did that.

And I am sure other things happened. I just don't care to tell you about who I met, where I had lunch, what came in the mail, or all that good stuff you find on so many other blogs. I can't say anything exceptionally exciting happened. I certainly wasn't treated badly by passers-by like Julie Tam reports she was (skip over the "Desperate Housewives" entry if you're a man).

I have been reluctant to update Xenite.Org with new content because Google doesn't seem to like the pages in one particular directory. They have no hidden text, no redirecting links, nothing sneaky. Google just doesn't want to index them. What's up with that, Google? In the meantime, I've got people waiting for me to write articles and stuff and post them on Xenite and I have no idea if I need to come up with a new page template.

I have often said that Google needs me more than I need Google, and that's true because Xenite gets a lot of traffic. But it just irks me that they'll disregard good, clean content. And don't even think about saying, "You need more links" because they gobble up new content in other directories. It's just this one directory.

I suspect the problem is due to the fact that the directory itself is fairly new and Google has changed the way it crawls the Web. There may, in fact, not be enough links to that directory. In which case, I may have to ugh engage in a link-building campaign. I hate link-building. It is so street-level SEO.

I'm a high-priced call-boy when it comes to SEO. I don't sell my services to just anyone. I'm still trying to figure out if I can afford to pay myself enough to do my own link building campaign. It might be cheaper to hire one of the so-called linking experts.

Google, that is just too weird. So, what's up with you guys, anyway?

Search engines: search engine optimization and search engine marketing

I occasionally take on a small contract to help businesses improve their online marketing. Some people ask why I don't try to earn a living at this, since I am stay involved in the SEO community. The short answer is that I don't like the responsibility of having to maintain someone's Web site.

Proper, full-blown search engine optimization requires a lot of hands-on work. You have to make sure that the Web designer(s) include content that search engines can find, index, and use to find more content. It's not just about links. Optimization comes down to details like word choice, word emphasis, word positioning (should I put "green eggs and spam" or "spam and green eggs"?).

Search engine optimization begins with goal setting. You have to know what you are optimizing for. Goals cannot be limited to "we want the top position for our keywords". That's just bogus. It means nothing. Do you have the right keywords? And if you do have the right keywords, what does the search engine show people when they see your site in the search results.

Which links are you more likely to click on when you search for "girls, girls, girls":

Link 1: Girls, Girls, Girls, girls, girls, girls, girls

Link 2: Girls, Girls, Girls. We've got more pictures of girls, tips and tutorials on how to meet and date beautiful girls, links to great Web sites where girls hang out....

If you're a lonely guy searching for girls on the Internet -- well, first of all, get off the Internet and go meet some girls at a local college or something. But if you're looking for stuff about girls on the Internet, aren't you more likely to look at the site whose description tells you they have "tips and tutorials"?

A competent SEO specialist knows that you have to pre-sell the surfer with the search engine listing. Many people who practice SEO understand that directory descriptions, often limited to 25 words or less, have to be conceise and compelling. But they fall short on title tags and meta descriptions. They cram them full of keywords hoping they'll get good rankings.

But what good are rankings without conversions? Search engine optimization is about selling. You are selling from the first moment you propose you optimize someone's site all the way through getting that last check as you say, "Bye, and thanks for all the business!"

You have to sell people on the idea that clicking on the link is good for them. You have to sell people on the idea that the page they have clicked to is what they are looking for. You have to sell them on the idea that following your call to action is the right thing to do.

I visit a lot of Web pages and believe me, the wrong-way selling that permeates the Web is killing people. The last thing you want to be doing is requiring people to scroll through 15 pages of endless B.S. hype and pseudo-testimonials (they always come in ugly yellow boxes). Don't put the, "Are you convinced now? Just click on my PayPal link and pay me $39.95 for my valuable eBook!", at the bottom of the last page. Don't put it at the bottom of any page.

If someone is willing to scroll past all the B.S., you're lucky. You're not smart, not clever, not cool. You're just plain stupid and lucky that you got someone to go that far. It's like a guy trying to ask a girl out for a date by looking down at his shoes and saying, "Gee, Louise, I guess since you have all those manly men knocking on your door you don't want to go out with a small, mousy guy like me. I'll just wait until you are lonely and desperate like I am and maybe then you'll see what a really great guy I am and we can maybe, I dunno, go see a movie or something."

And you're waiting for Louise to scream out, "Ohmygod! You're the sexiest man alive! I want you! Take me, you tiger! Take me now!"

If it don't work so well with getting a date, why should it work so well in selling eBooks. I just don't believe people who put up pages like that really know how to sell merchandise online.

If they do it because they "need content", the best content to get is a customer review. The world's largest online retailers (Amazon and eBay) allow customers to post feedback and reviews. Is it any coincidence that people buy their merchandise?

Indexable content can be compelling if it's honest, to the point, and doesn't try to flim-flam people. You don't have to waste everyone's time by extolling the virtues of your unnamed, unpriced product for 14 pages while boring people to tears with repetitive B.S. testimonials like, "I think Michael Martinez is the greatest! K. Smith, Wisconsin".

Puh-leeze, get a clue.

When you sit down to plan your next search engine optimization campaign, remember that what you serve up to the search engines is just the beginning. You have to provide good, compelling content and be sure that it's content people are actually looking for. If you're hiring SEO specialists, I might give you a shot, but frankly, many clients pay an SEO for advice they won't follow.

I'm serious. One of the most common complaints among SEOs is that they take on a contract, the client won't give them control over the site, and then the client won't make any recommended changes. Some SEOs use external content to manipulate search engine positioning. And you know what happens to that content when you stop paying those SEOs? It goes away. Along with your good placements (assuming you actually had any).

I've had people come to me for advice, pay me to do research and offer advice, and their Web sites today look the same as they did when they came to me. I don't like taking money from people who aren't serious about search engine optimization. Maybe you are. Maybe you really want my help. Frankly, I have found more enjoyable challenges in life. Most of you will have to get by with what you can find on the Internet.

You're rolling the dice. Good luck to you.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The other side of body language tips

Learning about body language through the Web is very difficult because so many sites just repeat the same vapid bullet points without exploring the topic in depth. Admittedly, most people reading the Web don't have much time for depth, but when you're looking for new information, seeing the same old regurgitated information is not helpful.

One of the most common "facts" I have seen cited concerns sock pulling by Men. This is supposedly a major preening gesture. Um, I've read the studies that produced this nonsense fact, but let me set the record straight. Men pull up their socks when they are alone, no one can possibly see them, and there is no hope of anyone seeing them with straight socks.

We do it because we feel uncomfortable and we want to feel more comfortable. While discomfort can be associated with a stressful or emotionally charged (or hormonally charged) situation, when it comes to socks, the most common reason we feel discomfort is that they've lost their elasticity. They just sag around the ankles and they feel uncomfortable. I have learned to buy long socks that reach up over the calf, but they are more expensive than the nylon socks you can buy at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and Target stores. And eventually those socks shrink, shrivel, or waste away into wads of lint you have to clean out of the dryer.

I'll be rolling down the road on a 12-hour trip, minding my own business, when suddenly one of my socks slides down my leg. I pull it up. I don't do that because I hope the 300-pound trucker who is now about to pass me may decide I'm cute enough for a cup of coffee. I do it because it just feels weird to have a sock squished down around my ankle.

So, to all you sock tip body language experts: GET A CLUE.

There are some other body language tips I don't always agree with. For example, hands on hips. Sometimes I put my hands on my hips because I have nowhere else to put them. I could put them on my butt but that feels weird. Actually, sometimes I do put them on my butt when I'm around women because women say I have a nice butt. If you see me with my hands on my butt, I'm overtly saying, "Hey, ladies, look at my nice butt".

And I'm also trying not to look dorky by letting my arms dangle at my side.

Body positioning can be due to non-sexual/non-romantic causes as well. Sometimes, you cannot help but point your body a certain way. Sometimes, when you're sitting in a small seat, you spread yourself out as much as possible in order to keep other people from sitting down next to you. So that, "Hey, baby, I like the way you look" knee on leg scenario could be, "God, I hope the dirt-covered, major stinky dude who hasn't bathed in a week doesn't come sit next to me".

Hands on hips is another way of marking turf and intimidating possible rivals for space. If you don't want other men to stand near you, put your hands on your hips. Yes, it's a signal that says, "I'm ready for action -- I might just kick your knee caps if you get too close."

You can be inviting to other men by putting your hands on your hips if you look at them squarely, engage them in conversation, and tilt your head. Why does that work? Because head tilting bares the neck and makes you look vulnerable. You're saying, "Dude, I'm on your side. Let's get together and strategize."

Preening (straightening of clothes) is usually a reliable sign of a man's interest in someone else, but it may not be romantic/sexual interest. Men will preen before going on stage, before going into a sales meeting, and before going into a boardroom meeting where they have to make a presentation. But in all situations where men preen, we are trying to look our best and feel our best. Feeling comfortable and feeling like you are well-put together helps you feel confident. Looking your best reassures you that you will make a great first impression.

There is a funny television commercial that sells something I cannot remember. It starts out with an executive, a silver-haired gentleman, strolling down the hallway on his way to a meeting. His employees casually and gracefully say "Hello" to him, "Good luck", etc. They tie his shoe laces, clear off his dandruff ("There is snow on the mountains! I repeat, there is snow on the mountains!"), and generally fix him up. Unfortunately, when he greets his Japanese guests, he smiles broadly and reveals that part of his lunch is hanging in his teeth.

The commercial drives home the point that first impressions are crucial. It's a pity it didn't compel me to remember what it was advertising, but this kind of preparation for any encounter is a major part of a man's behavioral arsenal. Sadly, too many men let this weapon rust in the shed.

We don't consciously communicate our feelings through our body language. Our bodies do that for us. Think of body language as the body's way of seeking equilibrium in a constantly swirling pool of emotions, stimuli, and circumstances. We never quite settle down. Even when we sit perfectly, rigidly still, we are saying something about our emotional states and our mental states.

Nonetheless, many experienced public speakers know you can school yourself to project certain elements. Older men often put one hand in a pocket (usually a jacket or sweater pocket) and gesture moderately with their primary hand. They look casual, comfortable, and authoritative if they do it right.

They look like John Kerry if they do it wrong. The guy must have been coached by whoever conceived the original "High Karate" commercials, because he karate chops every point he makes. Kerry's body language screams out, "I am coached. I am going to beat my point of view into you regardless of what you want to believe."

Do you honestly want to entrust your life with a man who is trying to beat the crap out of you? He may have run a close election, but he lost in large part because his body language made him look belligerant, rude, bullying, and arrogant. He acted arrogantly in many other ways, as well. His body language, as coached as it was, revealed his true inner state: he was feeling aggressive and wanted to dominate the American people. He allowed no room for other viewpoints.

President George W. Bush's body language has been roundly critized as well. While his sincerity is legitimate (he often touches his heart, which is a widely recognized sub-conscious gesture that proclaims, "I believe what I am saying in my heart"), he often furrows his brow. The brow furrow can mean many things, but I believe most Americans correctly interpret Bush's furrowing as "I am trying to figure this out."

Our President's most frequently cited drawback, at least in the eyes of many people, is that he doesn't seem to be too bright. Most people who know him personally say he is extremely intelligent and very capable of seeing depth in complex situations. But on television he looks like a totally lost first year freshman student who just stepped onto the campus of life. Do you really want to entrust your future to someone who constantly misses the student life center?

Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, was just absolutely awesome to watch. I was always impressed with the man's presentation, and he left office many years before I learned my first lessons in reading body language. He projected warmth, humor, confidence, knowledge, passion, and strength. He was powerful and even his greatest detractors gave him credit for being able to save any situation. He is, to my knowledge, the only President of the United States to pass gas on worldwide television. When that happened, he paused long enough to let the distraction finish itself, and then he continued right on without missing another beat. He never lost his poise. He didn't become infatuated with infantile humor or petty personal attacks.

Reagan's politics may not have pleased everyone, but most people felt more comfortable with Reagan as a leader than they do with any of today's politicians. Men in general have lost that polish they were once taught to flourish in public. We are no longer conscious of why we do what we do. We have given up control over our own actions and we're just going with the flow.

Guys, the flow ain't too comfortable. You feel like you're not in control and you look like you're not in control. A man has to take responsibility for his actions in every way. He has to present himself as someone he is proud to be, not as someone who is better than everyone else, but as someone who is the match and equal of anyone in the room. Of course, there are times when we defer to others. But even in such moments, you have to learn to assert your stature or you run the risk of losing the other person's respect before you even have a chance to earn it.

Remember, the next time you are around anyone, make yourself feel like you are someone to be respected. You'll project that feeling, and other people will see it and they'll react to it. Or make yourself feel like you are lower than dirt, worthless and just something to be stepped on. See what happens then.

That's the kind of depth I find lacking in body language tutorials on the Web. Notice I didn't include any bullet points.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Things I wrote that you may never read

I have written far more essays and book-length projects than will probably ever see the light of day. Or, some of them have seen the light of day but they have slipped into darkness for a variety of reasons.

One of my first paying assignments was a work-for-hire project for a company called CyberAction. They produced interactive collectible cybercards with a unique technology that allowed you to buy specific electronic files that were branded with serial numbers. The system supposedly ensured unique value. That is, you couldn't simply copy the files from one computer to another. You had to deactivate the file on the first machine and activate it on the second machine.

Unfortunately, CyberAction did not survive the dot-com meltdown of 2000-2001, and all the work I did for them has vanished (except from my personal archives, possibly). I was hired to write scaled-down episode summaries of the Kevin Sorbo Hercules movies and the first season of Xena episodes. The CyberCards included trivia questions that I was quite proud of. Actually, encapsulating a 45-minute episode into 7 paragraphs was quite a challenge, too, since I had to include as many dialogue quotes as possible.

Another work-for-hire project was a collection of commissioned essays for Toy Vault, makers of a pre-Peter Jackson line of Lord of the Rings action figures. Toy Vault wanted their customers to get a feel for Tolkien's Middle-earth, so they commissioned me to write an essay for each character they featured in the line of action figures. The last project I did for them consisted of writing liner notes for their Lord of the Nazgul supersized action figure. The factory producing the packaging made an error on the first production run, and if I recall correctly, about 200 (or maybe that was 2000) boxes were printed with only a portion of my liner notes.

When Tolkien Enterprises started yanking licenses back from various companies around the world so they could relicence merchandise in association with the movies, Toy Vault lost its franchise and they turned all my essays over to Tolkien Enterprises. I have never seen them since. I don't recall all the topics I wrote about, but I am sure I wrote essays on Galadriel, Gimli, and the Balrog. It's possible a well-known Web archive has copies of some or all of the essays, but I haven't looked recently.

In 2004 I left Houston briefly and returned to Florida, land of my birth. During that transitional process, I signed up with a service called Blogit. I wanted to see if there was really any decent money to be made in subscription blogging. While it seems some people did make good money, the effort to create content and attract an audience was just too demanding. I posted three essays at Blogit that I didn't keep permanent copies of. Tonight, I finally signed up again (burning $6 in the process for a one-month subscription) so that I could get my essays back. I deleted them from the service after saving them.

Those essays are now republished in the Xenite.Org Staff Essays section, where you may read them for free. Technically, they cost me $12 dollars to write. I paid for a one-month subscription to test the service. They are the only works I have ever paid to have puhblished, despite what some people would tell you.

In the merry old land of Oz is a nostalgic review of the power and the influence of L. Frank Baum's original Wizard of Oz story and the 1939 Victor Fleming film adaptation (starring Judy Garland, Buddy Ebsen -- I mean, Ray Bolger, and a few other great actors). The essay ranges into Tolkien and Rowling and the movies based on their books, too.

Sky Captain and the world of yesterday's movies is another nostalgic piece disguised as a pre-review of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow". I actually like "Sky Captain" and I bought the DvD. I hope we'll see more movies like it, but I'm not holding my breath.

The third Blogit essay I wrote was A song for the soul, a melody for the day. This piece is another nostalgic venture into my youthful interest, passing up into more recent musical tastes. I had for a while entertained the notion of focusing on nostalgic writing for Blogit, but the low rate of return on my monthly subscriptions and the amount of effort it would require to build a paying audience just didn't justify that much creativity. Besides which, I wasn't feeling all that nostalgic after writing these essays.

In the 1990s I wrote a series of book-length manuscripts for a fantasy world. These stories evolved from a teenage Tolkien knockoff world I created. The 1990s books were too traditional compared to the schlocky fantasy novels that were being published at the time. Modern fantasy has descended to new depths of low quality every few years. I'm not sure of why people get tired of reading more traditional fantasy, but I suppose the fact that every self-appointed critic bashes Tolkien has something to do with it.

Which is not to say that my books were well-written masterpieces. A few publishers indicated some possible interest, one agent said she thought they might be marketable, but no one bought anything and I got tired of collecting query letters. I did take the opening chapters for one of the books and rewrote them into a short story. I submitted the short story to a workshop Marion Zimmer Bradley offered to do for a small convention I was helping with. That may have been the last or one of the last workshops MZB did for unpublished writers.

The lady was simply amazing. There was no fooling around with her. She took my story out of an envelope, slammed it down on the table we were using, and said, "This is a novel, not a short story."

Did she think there was hope? She was circumspect about promising me riches and fame, but she offered concrete advice on how to expand the story (back) into novel form. I never found time to work on it again.

That short story, the original book it came from, and many other books, partial books, protobooks, and some short stories all went into boxes that I left with a relative in New Mexico when I moved to Texas in 2001. Through the years, those boxes -- I am told -- have ended up in yet another person's possession, although they are in storage. I no longer have access to my own work.

I did bring five notebooks with background information, historical essays, notes, chronological tabels, genealogies, and maps to Texas with me. But those notes were packed up when I moved to Florida and I had to leave them in my brother's care. I have since toyed with the idea of recreating the entire fantasy world from scratch and self-publishing it as a series of eBooks (for pay). But those manuscripts and notes represent about 15 years' worth of work. It is just such a daunting task to start over from scratch. And though I might actually write better stories this time around, they would not be the original stories.

My fiction career just never took off, and I have advised so many authors not to self-publish their fiction that I would feel very hypocritical to do so myself. Then again, since the kind of stories I like to read are no longer being published by mainstream publishers, I guess New York City is irrelevant to my fantasy interests anyway.

My current agent, who hasn't received anything from in a year, may no longer consider herself my agent. I've been struggling with some chronic health issues -- not simply chasing girls -- for a couple of years. It is very difficult to write for any length of time when you are not feeling well. Good writing requires discipline. After I started this blog, I realized it would serve as an opportunity for me to re-establish my discipline.

I don't pretend that this blog will become as popular as my old Suite101 topic was. While I hope the Suite doesn't represent the highlight of my career, I was riding the coat-tails of three immensely popular movies. And my essay topics were focused and consistent enough that I was able to build a large loyal audience. Here, I'm just sort of meandering through personal experience pieces. It's a new style of writing for me. But, who knows? Maybe it will help me write some first-person fiction -- that is the most dreaded form of fiction, by the way. Some people would say it tends to be the most dreadful form, since many beginning writers resort to it.

But if I can keep the momentum going, maybe I'll hit a new stride and kick off another great period of productive writing.

Immigration: Illegal Immigrants Like Puritans Should Go Home!

My father is Mexican. He was born in a little village which has long since been swallowed up by Monterrey. His family moved to San Antonio when he was about 8 years old and his father died soon afterward, leaving my grandmother to raise 10 children by herself. And she died within a few years, leaving the older children to raise the younger ones. They lived in what is now a tourist attraction called La Villita, "the little village", near the Alamo. The house where they lived is now a store selling gifts and souvenirs.

My mother's father was German. His family came over from Germany, and he married the daughter of an Irish immigrant, who had married the daughter of a Dutch immigrant.

Do you see a pattern here? I do.

When hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans marched through the streets of our cities recently, I wanted very badly to join them. I wanted to show them that they are as important to the United States of America as anyone who (like me) was actually born here. Circumstances prevented me from taking time off from work to join those protests, but I was with them in spirit.

While I understand the concerns of millions of Americans about the so-called expense of maintaining social services for illegal immigrants, those concerns are largely misguided. Let's look at health care and education.

Health care costs have been rising steadily for decades. The chief reasons for these spiraling costs are: the larger and more frequent malpractice settlements brought against doctors and hospitals by juries; the impact of an aging Baby Boomer generation that abused fast food, cigarettes, alcohol, and prescription and illegal drugs for decades; and the short-sightedness of many American companies whose owner-operators only buy insurance from close friends or relatives without demanding fully competitive pricing and service.

It has been said that the United States could not exist without lawyers. Our constitution was framed by lawyers. Our laws are shaped by lawyers. Our courts are run by special lawyers (we call them "judges"). And we reach for lawyers every time we have a car accident or serious physical injury.

I've retained a personal injury lawyer on two occasions, the same one each time, and both times he said he would not pursue vindictive judgements. He was up front with me about getting a quick, reasonable claim from the insurance company and moving on. I wasn't seriously injured either time. The total amount of "pain-and-suffering" I experienced was judged to be $5,000. He got his cut and I moved on.

Some lawsuits end up with massive settlements, though. Where medical services cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, one certainly expects an insurance company to pick up the cost. That is what insurance is supposed to do. Lost wages and income should also be covered, but ironically they often are not replaced by typical settlements.

On the other hand, our Workers Compensation laws have become encrusted with procedures and requirements that many people now game. Companies have burdened themselves with the expense of seeking out and fighting fraudulent Workers Comp claims because they cannot know in advance which employees will try to game the system with "Monday Morning Injuries". (Ironically, many companies can reduce WC claims and costs by offering their employees supplemental accident insurance, even on a voluntary basis -- but they don't take advantage of such plans.)

Baby Boomers are famous for being the "wild generation" of the 60s and 70s. I grew up with Baby Boomers to the right of me and the left of me. They loved their cigarettes, booze, and drugs. Not all of them, but a great many of them abused substances. Cigarette and other tobacco addictions kill thousands of Americans every month and the medical costs of treating them and caring for them will increase until, basically, the entire generation has died off.

But Baby Boomers also gave us the megacorporate fast foods (including microwavable dinners, junk food, and fast food hamburgers) industry. So now Americans are struggling to rein in their growing waistlines. We're getting fatter every day, and we're becoming increasingly diabetic and incurring other weight-related illnesses. These conditions force us to turn to doctors and medicines and hospitals.

And American businesses often hate to discuss insurance. They rush through their renewals without really looking at who is placing their insurance and how much that placement costs them. Companies that could be substantially reducing their insurance costs instead pay friends and family to gather a few quotes and turn in something that can be lived with.

All these factors, as well as others, are both controllable and well beyond the influence of illegal immigrants. If we take control over these cost-inducing elements of our society, health care costs will start to level off. I wish I could prescribe a formula for bringing them down, but that's not likely to happen.

Education is another area where illegal immigrants are hardly breaking the system. We've already forfeited per capita educational spending on our future in more ways than I can blog about here. Basic reading skills among Americans decline each year because we are no longer held to the stringent standards of learning to read (and write) proper English. Instead, we have allowed ourselves to become lazy.

The most abused word in the English language today is "myself". There was a time when anyone who dared say, "The total effect of poor education is borne by Americans such as myself" would have been scolded by a teacher. Now we have teachers saying nonsense like that.

Our communities devote less and less money to school systems each year on a per capita basis for a variety of reasons, the most often-cited reason being that taxpayers want relief. We're not willing to pay for the education our children should have, so let's blame illegal immigrants for the problem. Sorry, dudes, that dog won't hunt.

If we're going to start sending people home because they're here without visas, we need to round up all the descendants of the Puritans and the founders of Jamestown and send them packing back to Europe. Who in America invited them to come and stay? Who in America said the land was free for the taking? History teaches us that this land was taken and its prior inhabitants conquered or driven off.

Hispanic immigrants are coming north for the same reason that English immigrants came west hundreds of years ago: they want to feed their children and make a better life for themselves. Our business policies only exasperate the situation. Despite considerable opposition from labor unions and businessmen like Ross Perot, we agreed to the North American Free Trade Agreement. While we haven't heard that "huge sucking sound" Perot said would come, several hundred thousand American jobs did go south.

And the reason they went south was that the cost of labor is lower in Mexico. Since te cost of labor is less, we can make bigger profits by manufacturing goods in Mexico and bringing them north or shipping them overseas. As stockholders, we love the dividends and stock splits we get, but as jobholders we have to wonder how much longer we'll keep our jobs. In the meantime, we don't want to pay the same price for goods made in Mexico that we're willing to pay for American goods.

So should anyone wonder that Mexican laborers still want to come north to get better paying jobs? Maybe if we shipped more jobs south we'd stem the flow of illegal immigrants. Maybe if we decided to pay the same prices for Mexican goods as for U.S. goods we'd stem the flow of illegal immigrants.

I could go on, but time and space don't allow for that. While many Norte Americanos feel somehow threatened by the Mexicans and other Latin Americans who cross our borders illegally, they're just coming here (for the most part) to find work that we ourselves are not willing to do. We cannot afford to live on $500 a month. We need $5000 a month so we can drive the best cars and live in big houses.

American men have no problem crossing the Mexican border to visit prostitutes, many of them only teenagers, who have no other means of earning a living. Many Mexican girls who come north are driven to become prostitutes either through slavery or desperation. So how badly do their patrons want to send them home? They might be better off if we did deport them, but that's just insult to injury. The real problem is that we want cheap labor and cheap goods but we're not willing to tolerate the full cost of keeping the prices of labor and goods in the conveniently affordable range.

There is no quick, easy solution to the illegal immigration issue. It's not a problem, it's a whole set of problems, many of which really have nothing to do with Latin Americans. Last year, a girl from Mexico lost both her legs below the knees while trying to jump a train in Texas. She came here because she needed work. American factory workers sometimes complain that people like her take their jobs away. In fact, the people who are taking away American jobs are the CEOs who enact cost-cutting measures in order to keep their stockholders happy.

How many Mexican girls do you honestly believe would want to lose their legs just so hey can be deported for trying to pick tomatoes -- a job neither you nor I want to do anyway?

If the best response you can bring to these and other concerns is along the lines of, "This is our country, not theirs" or "they don't belong here", think again. The truth is that this country was founded by immigrant families, it was built by immigrant families, and it has long been defended by immigrant families who have sacrificed sons and limbs to fight in America's wars (and my father served this country for 24 years as a soldier). The fact that today millions of Americans don't have the right piece of paper in their hands doesn't make them any less Americans. Some of them only want to work here temporarily. Some want to live here permanently.

There is still room to spare for new people. And we need new people because we're not having as many babies as we used to. When you're old and depending on an immigrant to wheel you around the hospital, you'll thank God stupid anti-immigrant laws didn't pass review.

If there is a problem, the solution is not to close our borders. The solution is to help people find the means of providing safe, comfortable lives in their own countries while encouraging a reasonable number to join us and keep our culture and our economy rolling along. We won't find that solution through close-mindedness, prejudice, and failing to take responsibility for our own actions.

News, Breaking News, World News

In other news around the world, the legendary Julie Tam got a new engagement ring. I only mention that -- well, I'm not going to say why I mention it, but I doubt many of you would actually figure out the technical reasons for why I write some of the things I write.

In any event, Julie Tam is a native Texas girl making good in...Tennessee or someplace like that. She's a television reporter who now has her own official Julie Tam blog. Julie's blog is not quite as adventurous as mine, I suppose. After all, she stands before a television camera most days of the week and she's been interviewed by CNN and other networks for her coverage of some national interest-achieving stories (including the kidnap of a little girl in Tyler, TX).

Yes, that is where you may have heard of Julie Tam, if you didn't read about her on our Xenite Cool Sites page. So, maybe her blog is just a way of letting people know she's not a plastic television person. Maybe it's just a way for her to relax and stay in touch with friends and family. But it's one of the blogs I occasionally visit. While Julie may not tell the funniest stories in the world, or obsess about bass fishing like I do, she did post an interesting article on her blog on April 16. The entry is titled "Why I've never dated an Asian man".

You may never have heard of Angry Asian Man syndrome, but I have. It's a growing ethno-social issue here in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere, that is becoming more visible. In a nutshell, young Asian men are increasingly complaining about the difficulty of finding and marrying an Asian girl. Julie offers one Asian girl's perspective:

Here's some advice to you Asian guys out there, so you don't lose another Asian woman to another race... Don't be shy, show a girl you're interested, open your mouth and talk! Otherwise, we get impatient, discouraged, and we move on.

You know, this advice cuts across all ethnic and age groups. There are a lot of guys today who haunt dating and seduction forums, asking for magic bullet advice that will help them get the girls of their dreams. The chief obstacle to finding a good relationship is one's own reluctance to get out there and say, "Hi. What's your name?"

So what if the girl is seeing someone? Maybe she is willing to trade up. You just need to show her you're a good tradeup. And maybe she has a lot of friends who are not seeing anyone. Just because a girl is committed to someone doesn't mean she won't like you enough to include you in her social circle. You never know who you'll meet.

Well, I stumbled across Angry Asian Man sites last year while I was doing online research about Asian culture. My Asian friends would tell me a few things, but I wanted to see what is on the Internet. My long-standing criticism of the Internet is generally vindicated by the huge amounts of nonsense I found. I'd mention a few things to my friends, or to Linda (the ex-, not Tall Linda from the dance class) and they would roll their eyes and say, "Why do you search the Internet for this stuff?"

You're not going to learn everything about what it means to be Asian and living in America from the Internet. I don't expect to ever have more than a casual awareness of some of the issues Asian Americans face. But you can watch new phenomena unfold across the Web and discussion groups if you know what to look for. People share their most intimate, personal feelings on blogs and in online discussions. They feel a false sense of security and anonymity and that makes them uninhibited (or less inhibited).

When you put enough similar comments together, you can detect a broad social stress point, such as the fact that Asian families are struggling to maintain their cultural heritage in the United States. Other ethnic groups have passed through similar stress in their acculturation processes. Hispanic families experience similar cultural incongruities as their children grow up in largely English-speaking cmmunities and attend English-speaking schools.

I can attest to the confusion a child experiences when people assume he or she is a classic Hispanic stereotype. I don't speak with a Hispanic accent, I don't really speak Spanish, and I didn't really develop a taste for Mexican and other Latin foods until I was an adult. I grew up on hamburgers and hot dogs. Captain Kirk was my childhood hero. Gilligan and the Skipper taught me how to laugh. Donna Douglas and Dawn Wells taught me why men appreciate non-plastic, down home girls.

Italians, Germans, Swedes, Spaniards, French -- every classic "white" ethnic group that has settled in America has melted into the mainstream. But there remain enclaves in some areas where old languages and traditions persist. Those cultural enclaves continue to impact our cuisine, our language, and our imagination. Maybe one day they'll vanish completely, but hopefully we'll be comfortable enough with who are and who we are becoming to accept that we have a new culture that is directly derived from all the old cultures.

Culture has never been idle or static. The "old ways" were once new ways in the old world. People don't appreciate that their ancestors once crossed a desert or mountains or passed through a jungle to settle in a strange new land where they had to adjust to a new way of life. It's a continuing process in human experience.

So, yes, maybe I'm having fun with Asian girls because they respond to my confidence more than they do to Asian men's traditional quietness. Maybe there are other reasons. I know that some Asian girls don't make the switch to non-Asian men. At least not for long. I'm pretty sure I started losing interest in my last relationship when it became clear to me that I wasn't Vietnamese enough. I never wanted to be Vietnamese. I am who I am and I am comfortable with that.

For some girls, I won't be Hispanic enough, either. One day, those concerns won't be with many of us because each generation finds a way to confront them. But today we can see in the Asian and Hispanic communities the resonating clash of cultural identities that new American families have always experienced through the generations.

In reality, that's not news at all. It's just the way human experience unfolds.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Girls, Girls Gone Wild, And Girls, Girls, Girls

Okay, now that I have your attention, let me say this will be the last "Michael meets girls" post for a while. I don't feel like documenting every flirt, name exchange, evening out, and whatever for the rest of my love life. So, pull up a chair and enjoy the show. Tomorrow we'll move on to other interests.

First of all, I ran into Lan Saturday night. It wasn't the plan, but that's the way things turned out. I was supposed to spend the evening with someone else, but she and I forgot to followup with each other, and when I called her Saturday night to confirm, well, we didn't get together.

I realized later on in the evening that I am doing this so half-heartedly. I need to just relax and stop thinking about where I'm going next, because I am honestly having more fun when I do that than when I try to plan something. Besides, Easter weekend is not the best time to get together with someone you're not already seeing on a regular basis. People have families. They make plans for holiday weekends.

It's kind of funny, though, as I sometimes check my horoscope at a popular Web magazine just to see how far off from my reality the generic advice doled out to 250 million men (1/24th of the current human population) can be. This week it said I might have opportunities for romance if I involved myself with events that have something to do with children. Hm. Actually, two strange conversations occurred where that did seem like a possibility. But I didn't follow through with either one.

What I did do, as I realized I had fumbled the ball on my Saturday night, was call up Geno, who had told me a week or two ago that he had no parties or special events scheduled for the Saturday of Easter weekend. That just means Geno picks out a club and dances the evening away. I called him up and got him on the phone just as he was getting ready to go out for the evening. The chosen hot spot was Tropicana. I had also spoken with Lan, to see where she was going, and she also said Tropicana.

So, Tropicana became my Plan B right before I found out for sure that Plan A wasn't going to happen. I was kind of disappointed because I wanted to see Mary's Band, who now only play at Plaza 59 on Saturday nights. I sometimes wonder if Lan doesn't like the competition from Mary, but maybe she just likes different bands. She's allowed to have likes different from my own (but she always teases me about how I love Mary -- so I'm going to trust my instincts and stick with "Lan doesn't like competition").

Well, the hostess at Plaza 59 came over to talk with me but she had to get back to work, and I couldn't see me sitting around by myself for 2 hours waiting for the band to come on. So I told the guys up front it was nothing personal and headed out to Tropicana.

Normally when I go to a club I call and reserve a table. I don't like getting stuck in the back or having to spend the evening at the bar breathing in everyone else's cigarette smoke. Nonetheless, I hit Tropicana as the free dance lesson was winding down and found a table in the back against the wall. But I really couldn't see anything and doubted my friends would wander around the club looking for me (it's hard to find people once the crowd shows up, so we tend to stay close to our reserved tables).

The hostess at Tropicana sort of knows me, so I finally went to ask her if I could steal a table by the door. She looked a little panicked but started to think about whom she could move away. All of a sudden, Lan walked in. "Hi, Michael!"

Well, turns out she had a table in the usual spot, and she said something about "My girlfriends will be joining me later. But there's room for one more." So, I invited myself to join Lan's group.

She looked stunning, by the way. Absolutely gorgeous. And Lan never lacks for dance partners. She occasionally gives me grief if I don't ask her to dance, but I honestly don't feel like standing in line waiting for a chance to grab her. She'll ask me to dance once in a while, and she is a great dancer. One is rarely disappointed with Lan as a dance partner. We were chatting for a while as people slowly walked into the club and a bachata started up, so I took Lan out on the dance floor "before your queue of partners shows up". She laughed and said it was good to dance before the club grew crowded anyway.

I think that was the only time I danced with Lan all evening. But when the girlfriends showed up, I suddenly found myself the center of attention. There I was, surrounded by some of the hottest Vietnamese women in Houston, and they were dressed to kill. Men came darting from all sides of the club to ask my permission to dance with the ladies. I had only met one of them once before. She actually signed up for one of Gloria Jones' Houston dance classes and we had spoken briefly about ten days previously.

Geno came over at one point and said, "So, what's it feel like to be the center of attention?" I honestly didn't know what he meant, as I was trying to spread my dancing out across several ladies (Elsie, another of Gloria's students who asks me to dance, came by -- she's very good, too). I let Geno's comment pass until Lan came back to rest for a moment and she sat down next to me. She leaned over and said, "Michael, how does it feel to be the center of attention?"

I said, "What do you mean?"

She laughed and replied, "You're surrounded by beautiful women!" I looked around and suddenly understood what she and Geno were talking about. We were in the middle of a cluster of women. Now, the doorward area of the club is often a spot where guys congregate, but Saturday it seemed like the girls in that spot outnumbered the guys 2-to-1. It's usually the other way around.

The full effect didn't hit home, though, until I was actually leaving. As I got up to leave and said good-bye to Lan and her friends, a cute girl behind us actually gave me the most disappointed look. I didn't even know she was there, but that's the way it goes. She could have asked me to dance or something.

Although I hate dancing with strangers unless I've seen them dance first. I broke that rule with one lady. I was walking by Elsie at one point and she said, "Michael, this is my friend...." She couldn't remember the friend's name, but I held out my hand and shook the friend's hand. Elsie suddenly disappeared. I thought, "Okay, I guess she wants me to dance with the friend." So I did the courteous thing and asked the friend to dance.

This lady could not dance Salsa, and she didn't want to follow. I owe Elsie BIG for that.

Or maybe it was just a trick Geno set me up for. When he came by the table at one point, I said, "Why haven't you asked one of these ladies to dance?"

"They look like beginners."

I laughed and shrugged. "They are beginners," I said. But I figure forewarned is forearmed. Besides, they were willing to follow. So Geno grabbed one and took her out on the dance floor. Naturally, the band (Grupo Kandente, who have just added a female singer) launched into a super fast Salsa. You don't want to dance with a beginner on such a fast song, but Geno stayed with it and she did a pretty good job of following him, in my opinion.

I saw German Hernandez standing close by and asked him why the song sounded different to me. It seemed to have an almost Jamaican feel to it.

"They're playing it too fast," he replied. "It's just a standard Salsa, but they've upped the beat." He counted off 123..567..123..567 really fast and suddenly I understood what he meant. "But this is an older Salsa song," he added. "It's a classic." Older Salsas (from the 1960s through 1980s) tend to be slower than modern Salsas, but the band had obviously brought it up-to-date for the 21st century.

So, I had a great time Saturday, maybe I found a new dance partner in one of Lan's friends, and my only big disappointment was not getting to hear Mary's Band. I may check them out at another venue next weekend. They play at Cantina Laredo earlier in the evening on Fridays and Saturdays.

So, what's with the "Girls Gone Wild" in the subject line? I'm getting to that.

I went by the dance studio to help out again tonight. I helped demonstrate the Two Step for a beginner class at 8:00 PM. I'm not very good at Two Step but for beginning stuff I can usually handle a teacher's backleads well enough to get a basic step across to other people. I didn't embarrass myself too much.

The real fun started at 9:00 PM, with Gloria's Beginner Ballroom class. Anna, the cute redhead from the Intermediate class, did not stay around to help as there were once again too many ladies. Another girl I don't know did stay. But I found myself standing near the tall Asian girl I mentioned previously. I think she has a boyfriend, but tonight she was by herself.

Asian women generally are not as aggressive as American women. American women may not feel they are aggressive, but the cultural differences are immense. I think that was the big problem between me and Linda, the Vietnamese girl I had been seeing for a few months. She stole my heart but my Asian friends warned me that she was probably too traditional to accept being with an American man. I don't know. I meet Asian women all the time, and their acculturation (or Americanization) varies tremendously. The girls who grow up here are very much like other American girls, except that they still tend to be more conservative than Anglo and even Hispanic girls (in general -- every ethnic group of course has its conservative and liberal families).

But my point is that Asian women don't usually try to draw men out (through overt flirting) the way non-Asian women often do. An Asian woman can be just as intensely interested in you as any other woman, but her family has raised her to act a certain way. It's hard to know if there are signs of interest or what the interest represents (it's not always romantic or sexual interest -- some Asian women are more receptive to befriending non-Asian men than others).

So I moved over to stand next to the tall Asian girl and started chatting with her. She recognized me from both the Ballroom and the Beginner Salsa class. I drew a complete blank on the Salsa class, but she is taking the Beginner Salsa class this month. I'm sorry, but I have danced with so many girls in Salsa classes, they have to spend a fair amount of time with me to register on my radar. I slowly began to recall her from across the room. I spent most of that evening with the girl I called Miss Cute Reluctant, whose friends had brought her into the class on the second week. (NOTE ON EDIT: Nope. Miss Cute Reluctant is from a Saturday class -- I cannot keep them all straight.)

So, we're talking and I learn she's out of college and working for a company in a nearby location. And her name is Linda (but she is not Vietnamese -- at least not ethnic Vietnamese). I was kind of stunned to be dancing with a Linda but life goes on. There are a lot of Lindas in Houston. Lots of Asian Lindas. Who are beautiful and find me interesting enough to engage in light conversation with me. Yeah, right.

It was a freaky moment, but she made a point of saying good-bye to me when the class was over.

As we started dancing, Linda refused to make eye contact with me. That's not unusual in Asian culture. It's a sign of respect for the other person, so I knew not to try and stare into her eyes, and kept my eyes diverted as much as possible. But at one point I noticed her pupils were extremely dilated so something had got her interest and I'll be bold and say I think it was me.

Linda has danced before. So she followed well enough and we were having a nice chat when Gloria came over and asked me to trade partners (was I being too obvious, or what?). I'm just there to help, so I do what I'm asked. And Gloria asked the Intermediate girl who had stayed to help (and who was filling in as a "guy") to dance with Linda. Gloria paired me up with the other Asian girl I had danced with last week.

This girl's name is May (I asked her tonight, and she at least asked me what they call me when people speak with me). I don't know much about May, but she is not a traditional Asian girl. She grew up in America. For all I know, her parents grew up in America. So, not only is she extremely cute; she's not afraid to flirt.

Dear God, what a flirt this girl was. So far as I know, she's only 18-20 but I don't ask ages and I just go with the flow.

May doesn't have as much dance experience as Tall Linda, so she still needs a little gentle reminding about keeping her frame and putting a little more pressure into her arms. I decided to make a game of it by gently but firmly pressing her hand back until she caught on.

Boy did she catch on.

One minute we're dancing the FoxTrot and the next we're locked in an arm-wrestling competition. She slammed her hand back into mine and caught me off-guard. My first reaction was to relax my arm because I didn't want to look like I was fighting with a girl half my age in the middle of a dance class. But I realized quickly that would send the wrong signal, so I started fighting back.

Now, I'm pretty sure Gloria doesn't want me to wrestle with her students in the middle of class, so I didn't put all my effort into it. But May found a little more strength to throw in. This girl is strong. I didn't ask her, but I think she must be into sports. She works out, I'm sure. I had to struggle to seem manly and firm without losing the poise and dignity of just being there to dance.

By this time, we're locking gazes and our expressions are getting intense. She was smirking at me and I said very carefully, "What are you doing?"

"Giving you pressure."

"I see. So, you like to dominate all the guys?"

She laughed and kept it up. By this time I'm leading her around the room in a FoxTrot but she's not following at all. Too much of her attention is going into pressing home the attack. She got out of step several times and tried to take the lead away from me. That don't work with Michael.

I said, "You're not going to win this battle, so don't even try." She began to relax at that point, but the fight hadn't quite gone out of her yet.

I teased her about leading street gangs in her spare time. "But my gang is such a nice gang," she replied.

"There ain't no nice gangs," I said coldly. "You just need to learn to submit."

Now, I'm just recapping the highlights. Every time Gloria came by I had to relax and act like nothing untoward was happening. Fortunately, May caught on to that quickly and she relaxed, too. But we'd go right back at it as soon as Gloria moved on. If Gloria ever reads this blog, she'll kill me, I'm sure.

I kept saying, "You are so going to get me into trouble."

I've been in a lot of funny dance situations, but that's the first time anyone has tried to wrestle me down. It was a funny moment but as the other students rumbled across the room in their first unrehearsed dances, things got a little crazy. I'd be counting for May to help her (and me, to be honest) stay in time, playing the subtle Pressure Game with her, teasing her about wrestling tigers on the weekends, and avoiding collisions on a near minute-by-minute basis.

I doubt she learned much about Ballroom Dancing tonight, except that it's important to follow the man's lead. By the end of the class, I'm pretty sure she understood that I lead, she follows. I injected a few moves that Gloria wasn't teaching yet just to keep May off balance. She had no idea of what was coming next, but she didn't stop smiling so I know she was loving every moment of the class.

Only problem is, what am I going to do next week?

Well, you all will just have to bide your time and hope I blog about it again. But this girl, young as she is, definitely has some potential. Yeah, I said that. Any 18-20 year-old-girl who is gutsy enough to almost start a fight with me in the middle of a dance class deserves a second look. You just don't often run into spunk and fire like that.

And she's cute, too. Did I say that?