I’m coming up quick on my fifteenth anniversary of working at Walmart, along with only one other member of my hire-in group. I started out that journey working in the grocery department, which at my store consisted of three aisles containing some pop, water, soups, cereals, candy, coffee, snacks, and little else.

It wasn’t a glamorous position, but I had previous grocery experience, and I enjoyed the work. My attention to detail and willingness to help out with just about anything were noticed pretty quickly, but after almost a year, my schedule had become almost exclusively cashier shifts. It’s not that cashiering was difficult or even displeasing, but standing more or less still for hours on end was most definitely not for me.

I applied for the first position that came open: department manager of paper goods and chemicals. I figured they’d be a good fit — the areas were pretty small, but it was fast-paced, not unlike the grocery department I was used to. However, I was told by a manager almost immediately that it was a futile application on my behalf as they had already had someone picked out. I was told, however, to apply for a different spot that had come open: department manager of toys.

Toys. One of the largest, most complicated areas of our store at the time. I was told repeatedly at the time for how crazy I was in even applying for the job. I was a shy, backward Christian boy in my early twenties, but that department would drive me to drink. Basically, I was risking my reputation as the goofy kid with the wooden cross on his vest and the perpetual smile and positivity that I brought to my job.

Contrary to what I was told, however, I loved that department. It was tough getting started — I received very little training, and my mentor left after having her third kid, leaving a small string of folks filling in for her whom I had to help train with what little bit I knew at the time. For the first year and a half or so, I struggled, and I admit that. I hated that there was an overnight supervisor who technically had nothing to do with my department but who constantly would criticize everything I did, for example. Still, the work itself? I enjoyed it.

Whether it was seeing the joy on kids’ faces as they found just the right toy or geeking out about all of the new Lego sets and Transformers action figures we’d get in twice a year as the seasons shifted, and those biannual departmental resets were wonderful challenges that I always had a blast working through with my friends on overnight projects.

Eventually, I moved on to other areas of the store by way of becoming an overnight supervisor of the same kind that used to vex me in my earlier years, but that opportunity brought with it a substantial pay increase and an additional day off each week, so I couldn’t just pass it over. I’m glad I chose that position when I did because it wasn’t but a few months later that the position of toy department manager was eliminated at our store, getting absorbed by one of the other department supervisors (sporting goods, I think?).

Flash forward to 2016, and the whole point of this post. By now, I’m… the exact same kind of supervisor as I was before the flash forward, but I do the daytime thing now. I still spent a lot of time in toys as it’s my favorite area of the store (even though we’re at a new building now and our toy department is about 33% smaller than what we had prior to our expansion), but the actual toy department associates have changed fairly often due to supervisor realignments or whatever else.

One of our associates in that area stood out: Sierra. She had begun her time with us as a cashier, and though I didn’t know her all that well, she was uncharacteristically positive and always seemed happy to see me and, well, everybody. She pretty quickly moved to the toy department doing the same job I did ages ago in the grocery area, and I don’t think there was a person that worked with her that didn’t at the very least enjoy Sierra being there.

I’m not sure when it was that she first sat with me on break — was she a cashier still? or in toys? — but we slowly became friends, at work and on Facebook. I’d come to find out that I was one of her first good friends at our store, which surprised me given how extremely outgoing she always was.

Over time, it amused me just how much she reminded me of me when I was her age, albeit without the extreme religious baggage (honestly, I make no claim to know Sierra’s religion — I guess I always assumed she was some sort of Christian, but I don’t think there was a post I made on Facebook, including my extreme atheist posts, that she didn’t at least press “Like” on, which was just the perfect extension of her in-person attitude: always positive, all the time). (Yikes, that was a big aside. Maybe I should’ve used footnotes? Nah…) Anyway, she seemed to generally love the toy department, and even on days when she was scheduled elsewhere, she’d ask about how “her department” was doing. I wish more people took ownership of their areas like she did!

And just like my early time at Walmart, she would get scheduled all over the place — garden center, cashier, toys, electronics… Of course, she was always happy to help everyplace, which was just her way!, and she even helped with the more unusual projects, like the overnight frontend redesign; I can’t recall any truly negative things she’d ever said about her job!

Flash forward to November 30 of last year. She was at work that day, in electronics. I only saw her briefly that day, but for the first time since I met her, she wasn’t smiling. She was petrified that she was going to lose her job because of something she had done at the request of someone else earlier in the day, but our manager (my mentor I mentioned earlier, to bring us back full circle to that for no reason) had reassured her that it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be easily fixed so that she had nothing to worry about. The combination of fear and relief had her shaken up and in tears — did I mention that she actually cared about her job and loved what she did? — and…

… and that’s the last time I saw Sierra alive. She went home that afternoon. On Friday, she didn’t show up for work, and nobody knew why. On Saturday, the same thing happened, but our manager (same one) and another coworker and good friend, Brianna, went out to her house to check on her.

Sierra had passed away in her sleep sometime the night of the 30th, at only 20 years old. I remember getting a message on that Saturday from Kayleigh asking if Sierra had passed away, and the utter confusion and shock that that brought with it. Sierra? The ever-jubilant and seemingly healthy young Sierra? No way.

But then other people confirmed it. Eventually her family was sharing the news on Facebook. By the end of the day, I’ve had to break the news to others too, even while I was still in denial.

All the denial in the world — from all of us at Walmart — couldn’t change it, though.

Her visitation and viewing came that following Thursday. I was at work that day, so I went on my lunch break, arriving to it late, but staying longer than I expected to, honestly. I remember walking into the funeral home and a big group of my friends all surrounding me, and there were so many hugs. We hurt. Our circle was broken. Everything was wrong.

I waited a long time before I went to see Sierra, instead spending time looking at her tables full of pictures of her with so many of her friends. Except me. I’ll get back to that.

When I did approach the casket, I wasn’t sure how to feel or what to think. I wasn’t through with feeling denial, and my brain was an electric mess of dissonance in trying to organize itself.  I didn’t linger long there, but I stood with my friends for well over an hour, as well all seemingly took turns breaking down, welcoming and hugging those who were still showing up, and sharing memories of Sierra.

We didn’t all have pictures with her up on her display table. Some of us were very new to our group. What was my excuse? Why didn’t I have photos with her or, well, just about any other of my friends? It didn’t help my fear of death any to think that when I die, there won’t be much to memorialize me with.

And so that’s what Sierra taught me: Beyond reminding me of myself of over a decade ago, she reminded me of the joys of friendship. I wish I would’ve realized that while she was yet here — or that she was yet here period — but I resolved there and then to try to be a better friend, and not just to those friends I usually spend all my time on (the long-distance ones that appreciate a text-only bond come to mind).

My friend Dakota — and I’m not sure what exactly prompted this but it came at just the right time — told me, either during the viewing or the next day during the funeral — that I meant more to everyone than I could ever know.

I needed to hear that. Having an awesome family is one thing, but a person needs friends — unabashed friends which become a special kind of family.

After the viewing, I went back to work, and my wonderful, if broken, circle of friends went out to eat. They all ended up back at Walmart after — I’m not sure if all together or coincidentally separately — but I know Brianna and Jordan wanted to bring me some food as I didn’t spend my lunch eating. We all ended up back there in electronics, where I was covering as nobody else came in that day due to the viewing, and I realized that I needed a picture with all of them. We took a few until everyone in them was satisfied. We joked, laughed, and enjoyed each other for a while before everyone left.

The next day, around noon, we all met again at the funeral home for the final services, and even on that day, I met new people, new friends: Kelsey, Devon, and their baby. It was with them and Brianna who I rode out to the cemetery with, and in true “it’s a small world, especially in a small town” fashion found out that they lived just one block away from me.

We laid Sierra to rest out in the country, not too far from where she lived, and afterward, there was a meal for everyone at a church not far from my neighborhood. It was great being with all of my friends outside of Walmart, even if the circumstances, in a word, sucked. Dakota and I had work, so he left when I did.

Since Sierra’s passing, I’ve tried to be more open with my friends, and more available. I’m sometimes a pretty smart and funny guy, and I have plenty to offer in the way of friendly advice, especially when it comes to avoiding all sorts of relationship pitfalls, after all! My wife and I even invited some friends over for New Year’s, which was an absolute thrill even if that infernal game of Uno lasted two hours too long! There were some whom I invited that couldn’t make it (which is a shame because if even just one had shown up, we could’ve had a balanced game of “Battle of the Sexes” going), and there were still others I probably should’ve invited but didn’t in the interest of keeping it small given that we’ve never really entertained before.

Time has marched on, and I’m enjoying work a lot more in focusing all the more on friendships — something I haven’t done for quite some time. I see a lot of people whine on Facebook about interpersonal troubles with those whom are politically or religiously opposite to them, and I just don’t get that. I’m an outspoken liberal, and sometimes I can be an absolute ass about being an atheist, but it has never been a barrier with my friends. It’s remarkable what happens when you treat people well!

Not a week goes by, though, when I don’t hear from a friend or see a post about missing Sierra. While part of me hopes that I never stop hearing that — we all most certainly will miss her always — I know that we must do our best to move on, to honor her memory exactly as she would want us to: By being there for our friends (“I got you!” being her sweet refrain), by owning our work and finding pride in it, and by facing every day with an overflowing positivity which drowns out the dark.

Sierra cannot be replaced, and ultimately, I hope the same will one day be said about me, and about everyone whom I care about.

Be irreplaceable. Find those who care about you and celebrate those relationships. Let your life be a celebration of (at the risk of sounding redundant) life, friendship, and love. I can think of no better way to honor Sierra’s life than to carry her light forward, sharing it with us as she selflessly shared it with us.

Sierra Stamper-Morgan. 1997–2017.

My lack of religious beliefs notwithstanding, I hope the same thing whenever the matter of death arises: May we meet again, in some form.

child building with interlocking building blocks

Just…

Sometimes I wonder why I use the bookmarks feature of any web browser. Aside from keeping a list of quick-access websites in my bookmarks bar, any other bookmarks end up in a folder with hundreds of other sites which I’ll likely never actually get back to.

I thought I’d do a bit of curating of my bookmarks, and I came across this brief bit of advice called “Just.”

The author, Brad Frost, lamented the responses he’d receive on Twitter when asking for tech help because, as he describes, they often tended to assume things about his knowledge by presenting answers in an over-simplified manner introduced by the word “Just…”

Rather than being helpful, those answers made him feel like an idiot, as if he was lacking what others seemed to consider to be fundamental understanding of a topic.

Back when I bookmarked the thing, I’m sure I did so with the hope that applying the advice to ban “just…” oversimplifications, I’d be a better writer when it came to topics of blogging, code, and even religion.

However, the “just…” shortcut is far more universal, showing up in every manner of conversation.  Continue reading

an amber-colored ornament ball hanging from a Christmas tree

Christmas 2017 Leads to Science!

The earliest bits of this website date to 2003, fifteen years ago. That’s nearly half of my life! I keep telling myself that I need to tend to this site (currently called Dammit, Rick!, but who knows what it’ll be called next time I post here), but for the past few years, I’ve been objectively lax in creating meaningful content.

(Wait, have I ever produced meaningful content?)

Anyway, we’re fresh out of the 2017 holiday season, and my daughter enjoyed her sixth Christmas, at our house and elsewhere, with some awesome gifts, such as the fantastic My Little Pony Canterlot castle.

I can’t deny that when it comes to toys, she’s not at all wanting, and to totally parent-brag, she’s a pure joy to go shopping with: it is absolutely rare for her to get the “I want! I want! I want!” attitude, even in aisles filled with her favorite things!

What is going to define this year, though, is not an abundance of toys, but science! That’s right, science! My mom gave my daughter two really amazing gifts which I’m eager to get up and running: an ant habitat and a carnivorous plant garden!  Continue reading

Refusing to Remain Silent

Testing, testing. Is this thing on?

It probably isn’t, but here I am anyway.

A lot has happened over the course of the year since I last wrote here.

My wife Jade and I celebrated our third wedding anniversary this month, not with fancy gifts but with several special dates over the course of this past week. Notably, we stuffed ourselves senseless at Willie & Reds in Hagerstown, Indiana; I had never heard of the place before, much less eaten there, but their smorgasbord’s food was delicious, the selection right up my alley. I’m glad Jade introduced me to it! It was, I think, our second choice; I wanted to revisit the restaurant we ate at in Metamora, Indiana, on our wedding day, but they’ve since closed down.

Three years doesn’t seem like such a long time, but Jade and I have been together since my daughter was about a year and a half old; she’s five now, so damn near literally, Jade and I have been together for a lifetime, if not our own lifetime, yet.  Continue reading

Christianity Needs a Preacher

I once wanted to become a preacher.

I believed so fervently in the Bible that the thought couldn’t escape me that the more I learned about it, the more I should share what I learn with others. It felt only natural. (Or supernatural, as it were.)

My church gave me a few opportunities to preach, and I cannot lie, it was fun. I knew what to say to get shouts of “amen!” and “preach!” from the pews, and when up there, my usual fear of public speaking seemed to fade completely.

Those opportunities came when I was a fairly cookie-cutter Baptist fundamentalist. I stuck to the doctrine and expressions and talking points that were oh so very familiar to the listeners.

I preached, but I didn’t challenge.

I didn’t challenge because I wasn’t challenged.

Baptist fundamentalists, not unlike so very many other sects of Christianity, have a groove into which most of their adherents can fit into without causing much friction.

Far too closely to the end of my life as a Christian, though, I learned that Christianity cannot exist in a frictionless environment, that Christianity must shatter the grooves so many people fit snugly into, upending not just worldviews but whole lives, redefining the fates of its adherents in such a way that, frankly, I had never seen before.

I never had the opportunity to preach this radical new (ancient) form of Christianity. My faith was swallowed up by knowledge, and so I cast off the vestiges of Christianity.

Part of me regrets that decision.  Continue reading

Christianity Is under Attack‽

The first chapter of Ken Ham’s The Lie begins with a bold statement: Christianity is under attack! I’ll let the inimitable Jon Stewart speak on that notion as only he can:

Yes, the long war on Christianity. I pray that one day we may live in an America where Christians can worship freely! In broad daylight! Openly wearing the symbols of their religion… perhaps around their necks? And maybe — dare I dream it? — maybe one day there can be an openly Christian President. Or perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.

Christianity has a pretty sweet ride here in the United States. In my county alone, there is just about a church for every 250 people; they’re everywhere! Pastors and church leaders are respected members of the community. Church or worship service-like programming can be found on television at all hours of every day. The President of the United States has a spiritual advisor who is a Christian, and next to a highway in Kentucky, a 1:1 scale model of Noah’s ark stands as a brazen testimony to Judeochristian fundamentalism.

If there is an attack on Christianity, at least here in the United States, it’s not a very overt attack. So let’s look at what Ken Ham is talking about here. Continue reading

keyboard keys on a styrofoam background; the keys spell out "FUCK HATE"

When Hate Hits Close to Home

Update: WTHR covered the events described below.

Twenty-one years ago, I met a kid in the neighborhood my mom, my sister, and I had moved into. It was a Friday afternoon, and we hung out on our front porch, looking at and trading collectible comic book cards, a hobby I had recently taken up and which he was leaps and bounds ahead of me in.

We were well underway with our card trades when my dad arrived to pick my sister and me up for the weekend, at which point my friend and I realized we didn’t even know each other’s names!

As we got to know each other, I’d learn that Chris — his name is Chris, by the way — very much enjoyed comic books; if memory serves me, the walls of his room were lined with comics displayed in plastic sleeves. I’d also come to find out that the guy had a passion for pranks. I remember he tried to convince me that he had a twin, and that I could tell them apart by the direction the hair swirled on the crown of their head. Chris also had a few of the younger kids in the neighborhood convinced that behind the shrubs by his house was a portal which led to a realm of dragons, so that was fun.

As we grew up, I moved to a neighborhood a few streets over and made friends with a new group of kids. Of course, I had to bring Chris into that group! He fit right in, and the pranks naturally continued, though usually at my expense, such as when he and our friend Michael tried to convince me that they had become vampires. That was a weird couple of weeks.

Vampires. A monster in the woods near the house. Our own pet cemetery. Believing one of us to be demon-possessed. An exorcism on a household. Fun times! Innocent, naïve times.

I loved my town growing up, and I certainly never understood the hate shown to it by so many of my peers. I still love my community, but it’s far less rosy than it was back in those days of childhood.  Continue reading

Ken Ham posing next to a dinosaur exhibit

Introducing “The Lie: Evolution”: An Examination

Some years ago, never mind how many exactly, I had the opportunity to attend an Answers in Genesis conference featuring Ken Ham, their founder and president, and another gentleman whose name I cannot recall but whose presentation was much more targeted toward children.

At the time, mind you, I was a fundamentalist Christian with a passion for creationism. I spent my time debating the merits of “creation science” in a number of online forums, and greatly enjoyed seeing the Ken Ham live and in person. I even dropped $60 or so on a collection of around ten Answers in Genesis publications.

cover art of "The Lie: Evolution," featuring an apple-shaped globe with a bite having been taken out of itAmong those books was The Lie: Evolution: Genesis — The Key to Defending Your Faith, (Seriously, the book basically has two titles for some reason) written by Ken Ham, “a very popular and effective speaker with American church audiences,” according to the blurb.

When I heard Mr. Ham being an “effective speaker,” he described what he considers one of the primary reasons why so many scientists accept evolution despite having the same evidence available to them as the clearly scientifically superior creationists: they wore different “glasses” which colored their interpretation of the evidence available to them. Continue reading

Raising My Daughter in a Broken World

When I first set out sixteen or so years ago publishing content online, I did so as a naïve child, using what little of a homepage I could build to unite my chat room friends, to socialize with a few local friends via guestbooks, and to share a little bit about my interests.

The skills I picked up would soon be put to use in force when I became a Christian in the fall of 2001. I wasted no time in putting together website after website to spread the gospel of the conservative Baptist church of which I had become a member.

What began as largely static websites would blossom in time to blogs, message boards, and more, smaller projects than I care to try to count.

Much of what I wrote about was very abstract; I dealt with doctrine and theology, and I treated the world as if it were black and white — this is good, that is bad.

There was never a weight to my life, and I remained comfortable judging the world from behind my screen, disconnected from it all.

Flash foward.  Continue reading

A Fully Modular Phone

Almost four years ago to the day, I asked for a modular phone.

In the years since, I’ve learned that I would never want to use an Android device, but still, the idea of a modular phone? It almost happened.

(And yes, I’m aware that there are other phones with modularity, though none were as close to my original vision as Project Ara seemingly would have been. The in-development PuzzlePhone, though? It looks beautiful!)

Featured image: © Google