Confessions of a former U.S. Census taker

First-day-on-the-job pic taken by Paula Stafford as I hit the streets

My friend Ed told me that I should write about my experience as a Census Enumerator, even though I quit the job after just two weeks in the field. This is my story.

In the beginning, I signed up to be a Census taker after seeing an ad posted in late January about the need for workers. The actual Census date was April 1, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused everything to be delayed until mid-summer.

The Census is an important component of our federal system because accurate population assessment helps determine federal dollars that are returned to the community, as well as the number of Congressional representatives a state is awarded.

I was part of a small group that trained together for the position in Arcadia in early July, and we hit the streets on Thursday, July 16.

With my official Census Bureau brief case and new clothes purchased for the occasion, I felt like a kid heading off for the first day of school.

In fact, my wife took first day photos before I climbed into the car.

I’m not positive, but it may have been one of the hottest weeks of the century. I’m 67 years old and haven’t been to the gym lately, so the heat took a pretty big toll on my enthusiasm that first week.

But it wasn’t the heat, it was the unwelcoming reception from people that spoiled the job for me.   Too busy. Too angry at the government. Too suspicious of a stranger knocking on their door. 

Although my territory included my Northwest OKC neighborhood and surrounding territory, knocking on doors of people who wanted nothing to do with me or the Census was incredibly discouraging.

Of course, showing up unannounced on someone’s porch while wearing a mask because of the pandemic did not create the most congenial of environments.

I would knock on 30 to 40 doors in an afternoon and be “welcomed” by maybe three people who actually cooperated in the process with enthusiasm.

Sometimes, as soon as the resident opened the front door after I knocked, they would see me and my clipboard and close the door before I could say “I’m from the Census Bureau.”

I blame the incredible number of roofing contractor reps circulating in the area over the past year for ruining it for the rest of us.

Other residents told me they wanted nothing to do with the Census or objected to the mostly demographic-type questions. One guy quit in a huff mid-interview because I asked for names and birth dates of everyone in his household.

A common theme I heard was “we already filled out the Census, so why are you here?”  

Anyway, after the first week my wife asked me to quit, because she was concerned over the effects of working in the heat and the dangers that COVID presented someone my age.

I told her I was committed for eight weeks.

But midway through the second week, I decided that this would be my last.

The thought of knocking on a stranger’s door and being greeted with either suspicion or anger was not what I signed up for. Or maybe it was.

In fact, on my last day a woman told me she did not want to participate and to get off her porch. As she was shutting the door, I told her that I was required to leave a formal notice of visit on her door.

Before I could fill out the information sheet a man came out and told me not to leave anything on their property. I thanked him and quickly walked to my car.

So, the next day I called Paul, my incredibly kind and understanding supervisor, and told him I was hanging it up. He accepted my decision without shaming me.

One of my neighbors, Rebekah, also is a Census Enumerator and still knocking on doors as I write this.

I am in awe of her tenacity for withstanding both the summer heat and the withering resentment and suspicion from her fellow Americans who refuse to stand up and be counted.

Well done, Rebekah and to all of your fellow Census workers still on the job.

Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance unveils Career Pathways tool as industry occupational ‘roadmap’

Helping launch the OMA’s Career Pathways online tool for manufacturing workers were (from left): Michael Grant, VP of operations for Ditch Witch and chairman of the Oklahoma Manufacturing Workforce Committee; Sharon Harrison, director of workforce development for the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance; Sarah Ashmore, deputy director for the Oklahoma Office of Workforce Development; and Dave Rowland, president of the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance.

Editor’s note: I was invited recently by the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance (OMA) to witness the formal launch of its “Career Pathways” online tool for manufacturing workers across the state. This is the report I wrote on OMA’s behalf:

The Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance (OMA) recently launched an online tool that provides a career advancement “roadmap” for manufacturing workers across the state.

OMA leaders announced the launch of its interactive Career Pathways tool in a special ceremony held at Progressive Stamping & Fabrication in NW OKC.

The Career Pathways site features critical manufacturing occupations and the potential career progression workers can pursue within each area.

“Our Workforce Development Committee surveyed manufacturers across the state – small, medium and large – asking what critical occupations are you going to be hiring for over the next five years, and they gave us eight specific occupations,” said Sharon Harrison, Ed.D., OMA’s workforce development director.

The occupations and specific career pathways identified by the 35-member Workforce Development Committee are:

Assembler, Material Handler, Machine Operator, CNC Machinist, CNC Programmer, Maintenance Technician, Welder and Front Line Supervisor.

Once the critical occupations were identified, the work-based learning subcommittee conducted focus groups for more than eight months assessing required competencies, skill progression and education providers to produce pathways that reflected industry input and needs.

“We hope this tool will help people envision how these occupations are interconnected and how the progression of skills builds manufacturing careers,” Harrison said. “Our goal was to visualize multiple occupations and to illustrate the necessary education, training and competencies required at each level.”

Manufacturers can use the Career Pathways site as a tool to recruit and retain talent for critical occupations, said Michael Grant, vice president of Operations & Supply Chain at Perry’s Ditch Witch, which is now a subsidiary of The Toro Co.

Grant chaired the Workforce Development Committee that identified the eight critical occupational categories for Oklahoma manufacturers.

“Being able to attract talent to the manufacturing industry is key to us,” Grant said. “It was one of the hot-button topics as we talked to industry across Oklahoma. This is another tool we can put in their hands to help them develop their workforce, keep them engaged and retain that talent.”

The Career Pathways tool was developed and launched with the aid of a grant from the Oklahoma Office of Workforce Development and in partnership with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and Central Oklahoma Workforce Investment Board, Harrison said.

Manufacturing companies represented on the committee includes: Ditch Witch, Kimray, M-D Building Products, Valiant Artificial Lifts, Baker Hughes, PACCAR Winch, AW Bruggerman, Flexibility Concepts, OSECO, HEMSaw, United Holdings, Spiers New Technology, Tulsa Centerless Bar Processing and Mohawk.

Workforce development is an ongoing critical issue for Oklahoma manufacturers, said Dave Rowland, president of the Oklahoma Manufacturers Alliance. Career Pathways is designed as an innovative solution to showcase manufacturing jobs to attract and retain workers.

“Even in the pandemic, it is turning into a major challenge, how you interview your people, how you onboard them, how you find people and get them into the workforce,” Rowland said. “In the next few years, manufacturing will see a retirement of almost 30 percent of its workforce.”

The Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance is an integral part of the Oklahoma Innovation Model, which works to grow and diversify Oklahoma’s economy through entrepreneurship, advanced technology and innovation.

“We believe that what we are presenting here is a great step forward for Oklahoma manufacturers and our careers,” Rowland said.

The evangelistic fervor of energy industry maverick Dirk Spiers

Spiers New Technology founder Dirk Spiers in the foyer of his company’s OKC headquarters.

I was invited recently to tour the electric vehicle (EV) battery pack remanufacturing facilities of Oklahoma City’s Spiers New Technologies (SNT), a booming business that virtually created an industry niche.

You can read the story here. 

Founder Dirk Spiers was incredibly accommodating. He provided me and my colleague from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST) an up-close look at the massive operation at SE 89th Street where Spiers remanufactures, repurposes or recycles as many as 2,000 EV batteries per month.

Dirk then patiently answered our questions about the business and why Oklahoma City works so well for a venture focused on electric vehicles when there are very few driven in Oklahoma. The short answer is that OKC is conveniently located geographically in the heart of the U.S., so shipping to and from SNT is less challenging than if it was located on either cost.

All of that is in the story I wrote for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber. However, a few remarks from Dirk did not make the cut for the Chamber story, and I wanted to share them here because I think he’s an important alternative energy industry voice.

“We are the black sheep in Oklahoma. This is an oil and gas state. When people say ‘energy,’ they mean ‘oil and gas.’ And I think oil and gas was maybe good for Oklahoma for a while, but not anymore.”

Dirk speaks about alternative energy sources like solar, wind and vehicle electrification with an evangelistic fervor. Here are his comments in Q&A form.

Q. How do you describe your company’s reputation here in a state that has been dominated for decades by the oil and gas industry?

A: First of all, I think we are the black sheep in Oklahoma. This is an oil and gas state. When people say ‘energy,’ they mean ‘oil and gas.’ And I think oil and gas was maybe good for Oklahoma for a while, but not anymore.

The Devon tower — and I think it is a great building — is now more than 50 percent empty. That shows you how they (and Oklahoma City) misread the future. And now the Devon tower stands there as a symbol of Oklahoma City prosperity, but it is half empty. A relic of an industry in decline. In fact, I think the majority of office buildings here are empty.

The good thing is that you know eventually that everyone will drive an electric car. Those cards have been played. So, we are on the right side of history, it’s just a matter of navigating through a really difficult year because of COVID. Also, it will not all happen at once.

But look at oil and gas. It has been a particularly bad investment for investors lately. Big Oil is not so big anymore. Stranded assets are now becoming a real thing. Dividends are more difficult to sustain. What I find interesting is that the European oil companies are starting to pivot. In the U.S., they are still in denial.

Q: What can Oklahoma do to signal that it is ready for a future with electric vehicles and alternative energy sources like solar and wind?

A: First of all, you need to embrace electrification a lot more. Don’t come up every year with legislation for taxation that doesn’t make sense and is punitive. Do something that is fair and forward looking. But I can see some progress there. I am hopeful.

Solar and wind are important here in Oklahoma. but be more forward looking and don’t try to renegotiate an existing (wind) deal. Renegotiating an existing deal is never a good sign that you are trustworthy.

Solar is completely under-used in Oklahoma. I think it’s the fourth brightest state, and I don’t see many solar panels.

No. 2, allow Tesla to sell and service cars in the state. You can’t say with your right hand, come here, we’re the best state, and with the left hand say we don’t want you to sell your goods here. That’s hypocritical.

Q: Do you consider yourself an evangelist for alternative energy use?

I do believe and always believed in climate change. Climate change is real. It’s here and the effects are increasingly worrisome and easy to see. In the USA it became a political issue and people are still debating this. Only here. Climate change is here, so, deal with it and let’s not lose more time.

Not sure I am an evangelist. But read the newspapers, understand the trends. When you do you know that solar is going to become — if it not already is — the cheapest form of energy, that wind is going to become the cheapest form of energy. and that we are all eventually going to drive electric vehicles. It is not that difficult. Actually, it is good. Who wouldn’t benefit from cheaper and cleaner forms of energy? Who wouldn’t enjoy driving a much better car than what they drive now? We don’t watch black and white TV anymore either on big boxes.

In fact, when you buy the latest TV or smartphone, why would still choose antiquated technology when buying a car?

My 2007 test drive with the original iPhone

Steve Jobs holds an original iPhone at the Apple launch event in 2007.

Editor’s note:  In honor of Apple’s special product event today, I’m reprinting a column I wrote as technology reporter at The Oklahoman in 2007 after using the original iPhone for a week at the invitation of AT&T.  I’ve been an iPhone user now for almost a dozen years. However, in the months after the iPhone debuted in 2007, I had only a lowly flip-phone and some serious iPhone envy. 

I was seated prominently in a popular lunch spot along Western Avenue on Monday afternoon talking on the new iPhone that AT&T provided me for a one-week tryout.

I was there to show it off.

Parked at a table in the center of the busy restaurant, I whipped out the shiny new high-tech toy and proceeded to flaunt it for 45 minutes.

Important e-mails were read and sent, using the iPhone’s virtual keyboard that magically appears when any typing is needed. Web sites were accessed, appearing just as they do on a desktop or laptop computer. Tunes were cataloged on the device’s iPod. Photos were taken with the camera phone.

Nobody seemed to notice or even look my way.

Obviously, the crowd was suffering from a serious case of iPhone envy.  Their jealousy caused them to look the other way, even as I held it up to input an important appointment on the calendar.

So, I stepped it up a notch and took a very important phone call. I let the telephone ring several times before answering it. Loudly.

People continued their conversations at neighboring tables. I’m sure they were seething because they had no iPhone like the one that was providing me with such child-like wonder.

Meanwhile, I was seething at their ignorance. Or was it apathy?

Of course, they had no way of knowing that the very important phone call I took came from a coworker whom I had asked to call me at that time so I could make a show of taking a very important phone call.

I was engaged in animated conversation on the iPhone for several minutes when I looked around and noticed that the entire section of the restaurant was empty save for me.

I gave up, inserted the phone back into my shirt pocket and quietly walked to the car. Lunch was a bust.

When I walked back into the newsroom, my mood brightened. At least I had a captive audience who couldn’t run when I whipped the iPhone out. I could show off its many great features, from the easy YouTube access right on the main screen to the Google Maps button that let me see a great close-up satellite view of my house.

So, I walked into an editor’s office and pulled it out of my pocket. He was armed only with a Blackberry, which was suddenly relegated to old school technology status. The editor wanted to see the iPhone’s Web browser in action.

We had no WiFi network for the device to automatically find and use, so I called up a page using AT&T’s wireless network. We waited. And waited. Finally, we both had to go back to work.

“I’ll bring it back in when it’s feeling better,” I said, walking out.

On the way back to my desk I passed a co-worker I’ll call “Paul” and sprung the iPhone on him.

Just as I was about to list some bragging points of the device, he reached in his pocket and pulled out … an iPhone.

Paul had had it for a week and never told anyone until that moment. I almost quit on the spot.

Instead, I put the phone away and slinked back to my cubicle. An editor shouted some instructions from her desk.

“Write something about your experiences with the iPhone.”

Oh, great. Well, at least my wife liked the device until I told her about the $600 price tag. She made me put it in a drawer for safekeeping until I could give it back to AT&T.

iPhone, I hardly knew you.

Masked up and feeling smug during the pandemic

I’m a devout mask wearer. Throughout this pandemic I’ve read and listened to the scientists, who are a lot smarter and more educated on the topic than I am.

When I’m out, whether it’s picking up takeout at a restaurant or a prescription at the pharmacy, I’m masked up.

I’ve probably got the same smug look on my face beneath my mask as you see on Prius drivers. I’m sure you’ve seen them looking over at you in your big ol’ SUV wearing an expression that lets you know they are trying to save the planet while you are destroying it.

So, I found myself in northwest Arkansas over the Labor Day weekend, driving back from a couple days in my mom’s condo in Branson. We stopped for gas and food at a popular place outside of Huntsville, Ark., called King’s River Country Store.

My wife put on her mask and went in first to get some food and bring it out to the car. As she came out, I grabbed my mask and got out to go see what the place offered.

It was really crowded inside, but I was pleased to see most everyone followed the “mask required” sign on the door. I poked around for a few minutes, then picked out a sandwich and some cut watermelon.

The woman at the checkout counter could not have been nicer. I paid for my food and walked out.

Then I reached to take off my mask and was horrified to discover that I was not wearing a mask.

Nothing but stubble on my face.

But I saw it as I neared the car. There, on the pavement outside the car door lay my mask.

I felt about 1-inch tall as we pulled out of the parking lot and headed out of town, no longer wearing the smug look of a mask devotee.

OSU center pursues alternatives to Opioid pain medications

A screen shot of the August meeting of the board that oversees the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology.

Editor’s Note: I recently sat in on the August virtual meeting of the board that oversees the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST), where a couple of scientists made some interesting presentations. First up was a presentation from OSU’s National Center for Wellness & Recovery, followed by Sean Bauman of Norman’s IMMY.  I wrote up this report on the presentations, a portion of which was published in the Oklahoma City Journal Record business newspaper.   (Subscription required)

Researchers at Oklahoma State University’s National Center for Wellness & Recovery (NCWR) are pursuing promising new molecules that could break the link between Opioid pain medications and the often-fatal side effects that accompany them, a scientist said this week.

During a presentation to the August meeting of the board that governs the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST), Don Kyle, Ph.D., said the Center has “unpublished research molecules” that show efficacy in pain relief without the common side effects of Opioids.

“New molecular approaches to treating pain outside the Opioid world, or using Opioid mechanisms in new ways are of premiere importance to develop Opioid-strength analgesics without the Opioid side-effect baggage,” said Kyle, an adjunct professor of Pharmacology and Physiology at OSU’s Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa.

Launched in 2017, the National Center for Wellness & Recovery is located on OSU’s Center for Health Sciences campus. A settlement announced last year between the State of Oklahoma and drug maker Purdue Pharma established a $200 million endowment for the Center to pursue research and treatment for Opioid addiction.

Kyle provided a historical perspective on Opioids for the OCAST board.

A graphic used in the presentation revealed that Opioids were first developed in the 1800s, but scientists didn’t discover the biological mechanisms by which they provide pain relief until the 1970s.

Efforts to develop side-effect free alternatives to Opioids have been largely unsuccessful, Kyle said.

“Look back over the past 25 or 30 years, FDA approval of new non-addictive pain medications has been disappointing,” he said. “It’s not because no one is trying.”

With discoveries of new molecules that show efficacy in pain reduction in pre-clinical trials, OSU’s National Center for Wellness & Recovery is pushing the science closer to a real alternative, he said.

“These molecules show analgesic efficacy that is comparable to morphine in animal models, but have reductions in the unwanted side effects,” Kyle said. “The bottom line is to end the Opioid crisis using scientific research.”

The OCAST board also heard a presentation from Sean Bauman, Ph.D., CEO of Norman-based IMMY, a developer and manufacturer of diagnostic tests for infectious diseases. Through a subsidiary called IMMYLabs, the company developed an FDA-approved test for COVID-19 in March to make testing more widely accessible across Oklahoma.

IMMY has since set up drive-through mobile test sites in nine communities, including Claremore, Edmond, McAlester, Midwest City, Moore, Norman, Sapulpa, Shawnee and Yukon.

“I can tell you, there is nothing else like this in the state of Oklahoma,” Bauman said. “You can make an appointment at IMMYLabs.com, pick a site, a day and an appointment time. All the data entry happens in advance of your appointment.”

The whole process takes less than 10 minutes, with diagnostic results available within two business days.

“We’re committed to fast turn-around,” Bauman said.

 

Stepping out of my comfort zone

Tools of the trade for 2020 Census enumerator

For years I’ve heard that a person doesn’t really experience life until they step out of their comfort zone. Well, I’m about to take a giant step (for me) out of the box.

I’m hitting the streets later this week as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau.

For the next eight weeks, myself and a host of other enumerators in the OKC area will attempt to collect information from residents all across the metro who haven’t responded to the 2020 Census count. Enumerator is the word that describes a person who is employed to take a census of the population.

As a retired newspaper guy, I’m pretty busy in my own little freelance writing business. But there are periods of slack time, naturally.

So, when I saw a notice back in February advertising for Census 2020 enumerators, I signed up — and was accepted.

Then the pandemic hit and the local Census Bureau office shut down. I heard nothing for months until one day in May I got a call asking if I was still interested in the job. I said “yes,” so I went in to be fingerprinted and submit to a background check.

About a month later, I got another call asking if I was still interested. Yes, I responded. So, I was assigned to a team for training purposes, which met for in-person orientation in early July.

We took the oath of office, which made us official federal employees.

After about 11 hours of online training that dealt with everything from the history of the Census to various scenarios we might encounter in the field, I passed a final exam on Sunday.

We’re hitting the streets on Thursday of this week, I am told. I’m adding a big-brimmed straw hat to my wardrobe for the hot summer days and taking a cooler of bottled water on the road with me.

So, if you see me walking up to your front door carrying a U.S. Census brief case and a clipboard, be gentle. Just know that the answers you give will help our local community access its share of federal funding and Congressional representation.

And remember, I’ve definitely stepped out of my comfort zone.

Scenes from a park

OKC skyline seen from the footbridge across Scissortail Lake

I’m embarrassed to admit that Thursday was the first time I have visited OKC’s new Scissortail Park since it opened last year.

I had stepped on the grounds just a few weeks before it opened to shoot some photos of the new convention center under construction, but had not returned.

However, the park drew my son and me downtown late in the afternoon to shoot some photos of the OKC skyline and scenes around the park.

We arrived about 7:30 pm, and had no worries about social distancing. There were no crowds for us to negotiate, because we saw just a few families strolling on the grounds.

So, we parked in the boathouse area along Hudson Ave., and walked into the park.

Convention Center just east of the park

I noticed two things in what turned out to be a fairly brief visit.

First, the downtown skyline vistas are awesome. You have unobstructed views of skyscrapers immediately north of the park. And it’s spectacular.

Second, this is a great place to walk for exercise. There are sidewalk/trails around the lake and throughout the park that invite you to walk or even ride your bike. We saw quite a few families strolling in the late afternoon light, along with a few bikers. Plenty of dogs on leashes, too.

Our walk took us across Scissortail Lake on the footbridge and then around the south edge of the lake back to the boathouse.

Although the park is a good 16 miles south of our house, I plan to return ASAP and walk a lot more of the grounds.

Take me out to the ballpark — for graduation

Zeke Brewer accepts his diploma in graduation ceremony at Globe Life Field in Arlington, new home of the Texas Rangers

 

We watched our friend Zeke Brewer – Reggie Ezekiel Brewer – cross the finish line Friday night when he received his high school diploma from Irving MacArthur High School.

Congratulations, Zeke!

What made the ceremony cool and unique is that it was held at Globe Life Field in Arlington, brand new home of the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball team.

Instead of having a virtual, “Zoom” graduation during this pandemic, Irving school district officials figured out a way to have graduation at a location that allowed plenty of social distancing for graduates and their families.

The ballpark seats approximately 40,000 people, so the 400 or so grads and the five guests they each were allowed to bring meant that roughly 2,500 people were in the stadium.

But the really cool factor was the live stream allowed us to watch the ceremony from our living room in Edmond, OK. We got to see and hear the commencement addresses by the various dignitaries and the student achievers in real time.

We got to watch a Zeke receive his diploma in an up-close-and-personal camera shot.

Thanks to Zeke’s Mom, Carmen Oliva, for sending us the link. We couldn’t be there, but we could.

And wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

One year ago, breaking news in Capitola: My grandson has arrived

My grandson, Solomon (above), has brightened our lives as a happy 1-year-old

 

One year ago today, I woke up about 7 am in Capitola, California, and picked up my phone. There was a text alert on the screen from Jane Loafman back in Edmond, OK. It said something on the order of “congratulations on Solomon’s birth.”

Wait, what?

Turns out that my daughter had given birth overnight, and I slept through her calls and text messages. So, I got the news from Jane, with whom I have attended church for many years at The Springs Church of Christ in Edmond.

While I was in California, Solomon Stafford was born 8 weeks premature on May 29, 2019.

Solomon’s mother, my daughter, Sarah, still won’t forgive me for not being present during the birth.

I had a great excuse for being 1,600 miles away.

My 86-year-old mother had suffered a heart attack and undergone emergency bypass surgery while visiting a friend in California about a week earlier.

So, I flew out to give her support from a familiar face while she recovered, first in the hospital, and then in a rehab center. She was unable to fly back to her home in Fort Smith, Ark., for about three weeks.

Papa holding Solomon soon after birth while he was still in the hospital

After staying with her for about 10 days, I flew back to OKC on a Sunday evening. My friend Ed picked me up at the airport and drove me straight to the hospital, where I met Solomon for the first time.

The timing of Solomon’s birth was a big surprise for all of us, because he was 8 weeks premature. He weighed only 3 pounds and change.

Sarah and my wife, Paula, urged me to hold him that first day, which I nervously did for just a few seconds.

I remained in Oklahoma for a week, then flew back to San Jose and Ubered down to Capitola to continue providing support for my mom until the doctor gave her permission to return home later that week. We flew back to Fort Smith together.

Now, a year later, my Mom is thriving as an 87-year-old widow who still lives on her own.

And Solomon has made tremendous progress, as well. He’s now a 20-pound, almost-toddler, crawling, climbing and bringing joy to our lives.