The Devil’s Cup, The Ice Breaker & The White Suit

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “I Have Confidence in Me.”

The years in prehospital care blur.  An average of 3x24hr shifts/week, a full college course load and working as an EMT Skills Instructor at Pasadena City College allowed for little hanging out time.  Those spare moments of availability were quickly filled with taking photomicrographs of sand (a totally different discussion), learning to rappel for search and rescue, and making occasional trips to Mexico with some USC medical students to help dozens of families with their medical needs.

And then it all stopped.

Specifically, my right kidney stopped.  At least, stopped working properly.  One fateful day, my EMT Partner and I had an obese patient on our yellow Tonka toy-ish looking Stryker gurney in Huntington Memorial Hospital Emergency Room we had just plucked from his home after talk of chest pain.  In my usual fashion, I was pushing my verbal pedometer detailing the patient’s condition, our response and treatment, and his HAM (history/allergies/medications).  I had sixty seconds to concisely communicate to the nurse as we lifted him from gurney to hospital bed.

Transferring this patient was different.  Suddenly, it felt like a razor sharp Spyderco knife effortlessly sliced across my right flank.  We completed the transfer safely.  I stepped away and quickly realized I was bleeding.  Hours after becoming an ER admission myself, I had learned many things about my biology. I had thrown 72 kidney stones and discovered anaphylaxis followed any intravenous introduction of pain medications ending with an -ine or -one.  Despite having no interest in alcohol or fast food, I had discovered The Evil Kidney.

Ultimately, The Evil Kidney led me to a conversation with a nephrologist.  In all likelihood, it involved getting on a list and lots of dialysis.  I asked if there was anything less invasive; surgery didn’t thrill me in my very early twenties. The doctor shrugged, “There’s research happening.  We could see if you can get in on it.  Lastly, you could work only 40 hours a week, monitor your salt intake, drink at least 1 gallon of clean water daily and ditch your polyphasic sleep cycle.  But no one ever does that.”

Mulling over my quarter life crisis at Starbucks with my EMT Partner, donning our uniforms adorned with fresh splatter, he orders his usual Frapuccino and I my nine shots over ice.  The baristas behind the counter were chattering about their 401k benefits and stock options with each other, passing the time as they made our drinks.  Full medical, dental and vision for part time work.  I had just doled out $5,000 for a recent kidney-related hospital stay, and I had been a frequent flyer by this point.  My savings account was not a big fan.

“Can I have an application?”  I asked as she handed me my drink.

The barista paused for a moment.  “I don’t think that’s very funny.”

“No, I’m dead serious.”  I insisted, meaning no offense.  “Look, I want to work for a company that has a product I am passionate about – and I’d learn a lot about business.  Besides, slopping Frappuccino or hot espresso is far from cringeworthy…”

She handed me an application.  I transitioned to Starbucks from prehospital care and have both kidneys to prove it.  The polyphasic sleep cycle stuck (ditched much later in 2012), but peddling The Devil’s Cup saved me!  I quickly went from barista to store manager and coffee master, achieving bonuses every quarter and participating in everything Starbucks offered.  I earned a spot on one of the early Earthwatch’s Butterflies of Vietnam Expedition.  After visiting coffee fincas in Central America, I co-designed the inaugural 2004 Starbucks Rose Parade Float.  The theme was “The Sights and Sounds of Guatemala,” based on my experiences.

The 2004 Rose Parade was a whole new experience for me!  Raul Rodriguez and Fiesta Floats built the float.  I had the honor of meeting the coffee farmers from Guatemala.  Watching the parade from VIP seats on TV Corner after having my fill of coffee and goodies (served under the grandstands),  I ended up at Tournament House.

Tournament House is a mansion doubling as an organic, living, breathing thing with white suiters and people flowing in and out of the various rooms like blood thrilling through the chambers in a tachycardic heart.  In an anteroom adjacent to the bar, an older man sat slumped in a chair.  He looked tired.  I asked him if he needed a drink; I was after one myself.  We both opted against alcohol and as we exchanged pleasantries.

“Did you enjoy the parade?”  I asked.

“Yes, it was a whole new perspective.”  He answered with a slight smile.

“No kidding!  This is my first time on the parade route, TV Corner.  I am not used to the crowds – I had no idea.”

He nodded, “It takes a while to get accustomed to that.”  He looked at me and asked, “Do you like music?”

“Music?!  Absolutely!  I’ve played clarinet since I was in second grade.  Honors band.  I adore classical music, jazz, concert, you name it.”

He looked uncertain.  “Really?  What’s your favorite music from a movie?”

“Well,”  I thought for a moment, “My dad raised us on James Bond – silly stuff.  But I loved watching Amadeus as a kid.”

“Not Star Wars?  Or Jaws?  E.T.?”  He asked in shock.

“Nope.  Never saw them,”  I answered, matter-of-factly.  “The premise of Jaws seemed so unlikely anyways.  I can’t imagine being afraid of the water.  Such hype.”  I took a sip of my drink.  “So you’re into music?”

He smiled warmly.  “You could say that.”  We proceeded to have a passionate conversation about music for several minutes.  When I realized the time, I graciously wrapped our conversation and hesitated for a moment.  Meh, why not?  I thought to myself.

“So, I’m here because of the float that won the Past President’s Trophy.  I work for Starbucks and have this thing,” I pull out my Coffee Passport, “where Howard Shultz, Dub Hay, and countless mentors and coffee enthusiasts autograph on their favorite coffee.  Our conversation about music echos my passion and conversations about coffee.  Would you care to sign a non-coffee page of mine?”

He perked up and obliged.  Without looking at the page, I stuffed it back into my pocket and headed off.  One of the white suiters overheard our conversation and stopped me.

“You should think about being a white suiter!”  The volunteer exclaimed as he regurgitated various details weaving the Tournament of Roses, the Parade, and the Valley Hunt Club together.  I caught up with my co-designer, excited at the opportunity, only to have her squash it:  I don’t eat white foods or wear all white.  Ever!

Granted, her response took me down a notch.  A story began forming in my head culminating all the reasons I shouldn’t bother with the white suiters:  It is such a Valley Hunt offshoot clique.  There is no way I’ll get accepted for one of the coveted spots because I don’t know anyone already volunteering.  I’d have to give up my December and New Year’s Day every year.  The crowds are unbelievable!  Oh yea, and I’d have to wear all white.

An irrational story that seemed to rationalize my not attempting something that initially sounded so exciting was gaining emotional traction fast.  By the time I got home, dejected, I pulled out my Coffee Passport and casually turned to the page of my most recent signor:  WHAT?!John Williams?!  

My eyes widened as I realized how absolutely bone-headed I had been!  In all fairness, I had no clue what he looked like in person.  I face palmed as our conversation played back through my head – of course!  Music!  The details didn’t connect with any working part of my brain.  He was the Parade’s Grand Marshal!

By the time the Starbucks float rolled down Colorado Boulevard, the Starbucks management training had been practically applied to my life.  Why settle for good, when you could have great?  Soon after being notified of having the winning design, three years into Starbucks, I left for Caltech.  I had to.  This recent accolade could have kept me at Starbucks for 15 – 20 years.  Did I want that?  What did I really want, if I was in “sandbox mode?”  Anything goes, no risk of failure: Caltech.

“So how was the Parade?”  One of my Caltech coworkers asked.  I related the whole experience, embarrassed.  She shook her head, “You should go for the white suiter thing.  You’d be great!  Your friend, she sounds nuts.”  Valid, I thought.  She is the reason I have The Coffee Table Conjecture.  “Besides, I bet he got a kick out of talking music to someone who didn’t know who he was.  It didn’t get in the way.”

Eventually, I sent in my application to the Tournament of Roses to become a volunteer.  They accepted and asked me in for an interview, sharing few details other than date, time and location.  It was just a few weeks out!  The day after getting the Tournament of Roses letter, I was asked by a student to come by a new group trying to form on campus aimed at better speaking and leading skills.  I signed up as a charter member for Caltech Toastmasters and gave my first Ice Breaker, a ~5 minute speech about yourself.

At the Tournament of Roses Interview, I walked into The Rose Room to find a lecturn, multiple rows of chairs, and the Membership Committee sitting at two round tables flooded with folders in the back of the room.  They were holding two sessions full of people for a few dozen open spots.  By last name, alphabetical order, each person had to address the room, introduce themselves and why they should get one of those cherished spots.

The first person, last name starting with “A,” approached the lecturn.  He uttered only vowels and froze.  He returned to his seat, shaken.  I was next!  I approached the lectern.  Deep breath.

“Hi, my name is Karen Baumgartner and I work at Caltech in Environmental Health and Safety…”

My hands clenched the lectern; my knuckles white.  For a few moments, I froze.

“I guess this is why I joined Toastmasters…”  I reasoned out loud to the crowd.  Two of the Tournament members – in the back – looked up amongst the sea of folders.  It wasn’t because I was in any way funny.  They were also Toastmasters!  I instantly plunged into The Icebreaker speech I had just delivered and sat back down, surprised at my own ability to adapt to the situation.

Other prospective members took their time at the lectern.  Doctors, lawyers, local politicians, former Queen and Court members, former football players, and business men spoke afterwards.  Thank goodness I was a “B!”  I don’t know that I would have had the courage to hear these stories and then share mine.

Weeks later, a big packet adorned with a rose logo arrived in the mail.  I had been accepted into the newest class of white suiters – after my first time applying.  If it wasn’t for Toastmasters, this packet wouldn’t be in my hands.  Their program speaks volumes of the public speaking and leadership skills, but what it truly gives every member is confidence.

 I have confidence in me because I have a safe place to fail:  Toastmasters.  I keep going back so that I have the skills and confidence to go out into the world and offer great instead of good.

Infuse your life with action. Don’t wait for it to happen. Make it happen. Make your own future. Make your own hope. Make your own love. And whatever your beliefs, honor your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high, but by doing what you can to make grace happen… yourself, right now, right down here on Earth. – Bradley Whitford

This is what
My partner and I alternate sleeping and studying during some “downtime” on the ambulance.  I sleep like my 4 year old!
News that our design was chosen by bouquets of Jacob Maarse roses from our entire district team!
News that our design was chosen via a surprise visit from our entire district team – bouquets of Jacob Maarse roses!
2004 Starbucks Rose Parade Float built by Fiesta and Raul Rodriguez, winner of the Past President's Trophy.
2004 Starbucks Rose Parade Float built by Fiesta and Raul Rodriguez, winner of the Past President’s Trophy.
A day in the life of a Chemical Engineering Department Administrator - confident and ready to take on what's next!
A day in the life of a Chemical Engineering Department Administrator – confident and ready to take on what’s next!

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