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An Amazing Family (Re) Union

An Amazing Family (Re) Union

In February of 2021, I received a highly unanticipated text message on 23andme.com, the online DNA testing site. Someone who’d I had never met, or even heard of, sent me the following direct message:

I immediately looked at this person’s account information on 23andme.com to see what prompted this message as I had difficulty imagining why they would reach out to me. My initial impression raised my curiosity as they were listed as my first cousin:

This was interesting. We “likely share a set of grandparents.” But, my mind had already raced to the more logical conclusion, as the only family member I know that was in Panama at that time was my own father. He was there before I was born and I didn’t know if he was married at the time. If he did father a son there, I was very concerned about what impact it would have on him and on my mother, Sharon. So, for over a month, I did not tell anyone about this note or respond to Roy. I just contemplated it.

Eventually, I reached the conclusion that if it were me, and I was looking for my father, I would be hurt if someone just suppressed any helpful information. So I reached out to my older brother, Tommy, and told him what I knew so far. In the next several days, he learned the exact years that Dad was in Panama and that he’d actually met my mom after returning. With that information in hand, I decided to put the matter into my father’s hands.

After a visit with my mom and dad one day, I had my dad walk me out to my truck. I said, “Dad, I want to talk with you about something, but I don’t want to upset you.” He replied, “Son, nothing you say could upset me.” I smiled, “Okay, let’s see…”

After a brief description of the events and communications, he replied, “Well, it could be.” I told him that my brother was the only one who knew and any decision to move forward would be entirely his. Within a day or two, he called a Family Meeting. As a matter of context, I cannot ever recall him calling a Family Meeting before in my life. My brother and I met him and my mother at their house later that week and we went through everything we knew. My mom’s reaction was not entirely positive, as is understandable. She was under the impression that they were each other’s firsts when they married. But, she is a strong woman, and agreed with the emerging plan: I would reach out to Roy to determine what we should do next. So, I replied to Roy:

Roy reached out to me on iMessage and we began texting…lengthy texts…where we both expressed our amazement, caution, surprise, excitement, and concerns about the matter. Of particular note was a part of Roy’s message where he said that “…I asked if he knew the name of his father and all he knew was his first name ‘Layton or Leighton’ not sure of the spelling.” I replied that, “…based on the genetics, the timing, and the fact that my father’s name is Layton, I’d say you are my half-nephew. Quite a development.” He replied:

Roy informed me that his father, Jose, had submitted a sample to 23andme.com recently, but the results were not back. Roy would see them first as he set up the account for his father. He recommended that we wait until we had some more evidence because he didn’t want to give his father false hope. While we waited for the results, Roy and I began exchanging photos via iMessage. When I saw Jose, the family resemblance was immediately apparent. But we still held off in anticipation of the final results from 23andme.com.

Cox Family: Layton, Tommy, Sharon, and Burke.
Jimenez Men: Jose Jr., Jose, Jose’s Stepfather, and Roy

We exchanged many more messages and I learned about Jose’s daughter, Aida, and that they had another brother, Gabriel, who had died from complications of Covid in 2020. Roy shared with me that he’d been communicating with his brother, Jose Jr., and his sister, Aida, and they all agreed they saw the family resemblance. We went back and forth with many, many messages of excitement and astonishment.

Per my arrangement with my father, I still kept the secret between this small group. On one visit with my father, I asked how he was feeling about the situation. He said he had talked with some some trusted people at his church and everyone was supportive and that he’d discussed it with a few others as well. I asked, “Who else?” He replied, “My sister Myra, granddaughter Alicia, brother-in-law Tom…” and the list kept going. I realized this secret was out of the bag and that with the pending results from 23andme.com, the communications between the families would soon outgrow the current channel between just Roy and me.

I added Tommy to the text message discussion and he, Roy, and I began texting even more. We shared so many pictures and thoughts about the situation. Frankly, we were all getting very excited about it and began referring to our families as one and stumbling through the relationships….it was so confusing at first! We would say “cousin” one time, then “brother”, then “nephew” as we were constantly trying to “do the math.” We learned that Jose had moved here in the nineties and had tried unsuccessfully to find his father and that the entire family was living in New York.

Then, on Sunday March 28th, I received this message from Roy with information from Jose’s 23andme.com account:

I quickly confirmed on my own 23andme.com account and, as Ron Burgundy might say, “Things escalated quickly.” Now, the Jimenez clan scheduled their own Family Meeting to tell Jose that they had located his father, alive and well in Alabama, and that he had two brothers as well. They shared a video of them showing the results to Jose and, now that he knew, information really started flowing fast. Dozens of pictures from both families were exchanged and everyone on both sides was frantically trying to figure out who everyone on the other side was.

Just about a week later, on Easter Sunday, April 4th, we shared the pictures and videos with my dad for the first time at a gathering at Tommy’s (and his wife Julie’s) house. For the first time, my dad was able to see his 59 year old son that he never realized he had. Of course, everyone on the Jimenez side kept asking about how it was going. We shared a video of my dad seeing all the evidence with them and also relayed that my mom was acclimating to the revelation. By the end of the day we received a message from Jose that he was looking forward to meeting us all when the pandemic permitted travel.

Now, we had to get more people involved. I set up a private Facebook group for the families and distant cousins began posting pictures and comments. Everyone was so sweet and welcoming on both sides of the family. The messages continued on Facebook and in an ever-expanding text message group. Before long, everyone was talking about meeting in person. Within a month, a plan had emerged for the Jimenez family to come to Alabama and visit with the Cox family the weekend of July 31st. So amazing, within 90 days of the first contact we had made plans for the first Family (Re) Union.

As the weekend approached over the next two months, we learned more and more about the families. Jose and my father had spoken on the phone several times and we had sent text messages, exchanged phone calls, and did FaceTime calls many times. It became clear to both families that we would enjoy our time together, but of course we were all still very nervous. A sixty-year old puzzle had been solved, but there was so much to communicate in the meantime. There were still sensitivities and occasionally private messages would be exchanged as each side addressed delicate topics.

By July, the trip was fully planned. Jose and his wife Aida would be coming to Alabama, arriving Friday, July 30th and departing on Monday, August 2nd. Joining them was their oldest son, Jose Jr., his wife Yvelisse, and their two children, Daniela and Vincent. Also coming were Jose and Aida’s daughter, also named Aida, and – of course – the instigator of the entire (Re) union, Roy. My daughter, Riley, also drove in for the trip from Missouri. For the first night, we decided to get the three brothers together with members of their family. We all met at The Club which overlooks Birmingham. Tommy’s wife, Julie, filmed the first encounter:

The Jimenez family arrives at The Club to meet the Cox family for the first time.

As the evening went on, we took many pictures as you can see below. By now, most of these faces should be familiar, but Jose’s wife, Aida, and Tommy’s wife, Julie, appear here for the first time.

We were having such fun, the three brothers and a few others decided to continue to (re) union at a local sports bar, The Hickory Tavern.

The next day, Tommy and Julie hosted an event at their house for Jose to meet my (and his) dad for the first time. I am sure everyone was a bit nervous, but after The Club and Hickory Tavern, we already felt like family by this point. The video from the first meeting:

The first meeting of Layton and Jose after nearly sixty years.

For this event, a much larger group was a present including children, cousins, and grandkids….

The next day, we weren’t entirely sure what to do. It was a pretty day though and we had leftover food from Saturday, so we decided to meet back up at Tommy and Julie’s house. This time everyone was fully relaxed and we all felt like one big happy family. And, on this day, the cornhole went to a new level.

My iPhone summarized the day by creating this video…

On Monday we met up at lunch once again as a family. Both Layton and Jose took a moment to speak and shared what a meaningful event the weekend had been for them both. Layton shared that the faith he holds so dear was only accentuated by the events of the weekend and learning he had a son and that their family shared the core value of his Christian faith: Love One Another. Jose remarked about the loss of his beloved son Gabriel and how he had felt so lost, but that he believed the Architect had placed a new family in his life to help fill that terrible void.

Needless to say, there were tears all around. But so much joy for everyone. For me, it has been such a privilege to meet this new family of mine and to be embraced in such a pure and loving way. I know I can speak for the entire group, on both sides of the family, that we all feel incredibly blessed to make this mutual discovery in time for Jose to meet Layton and Sharon. And, certainly, we are all in great anticipation for the first REUNION of this new mixed family.

Follow Your Heart

Follow Your Heart

I spent over 10 years in the federal government contracting space and 15 years before that developing software. I was successful at it. I was able to work with hundreds of talented, passionate people. We built great teams and provided our country with great technologies to support important missions.

But some changes in my personal life gave me the opportunity to reflect on some childhood experiences. One of the most influential men in my life (like so many other boys) was my grandfather. He was a general contractor in Baton Rouge and worked on many small and medium-sized projects. His career was waning as I was growing up and he was mentoring my cousin, who was starting his own firm.

I worked with my grandfather one summer and was able to drive around Baton Rouge with him in his pickup truck to work on various projects, provide estimates for potential customers, and check in on various crews. My biggest joy was when he’d point something out: “You see that parking deck over there? We built that 10 years ago, when you were just six years old.”

The permanence and impact of construction made an impression on me.

I loved writing software. I was good at it. But as I moved from C to C++ to Java to C# and beyond, I realized much of what I was doing was ephemeral. This is not to say that software isn’t important; that’s a silly conclusion. But, as I got older, the joy of learning new technologies was tempered by the realization that a new one would be coming around the corner. And, importantly for me, what I was building simply wouldn’t last.

So, here I was. Fifty years old with an accumulated skill set that the market saw as valuable. And opportunities in the DC area are always plentiful. But I had a nagging feeling that I wanted to do something different; something that might last a bit longer than the usefulness of my ability to build TSR apps (inside joke for the old coders out there).

So, when my best friend suggested I relocate to Alabama to help him launch a real estate investment fund (where we would buy, build, and improve large real estate assets), I jumped at the chance. Well, that’s not entirely true. Actually, it’s a lie. I fretted over the decision for a long time. I had several “safe” opportunities in DC to lead other contracting firms. I had a reputation for helping 8A companies “get to the next level” and that’s what many 8A firms want to do.

Eventually I decided that returning to my hometown (Birmingham, AL) on a shoestring budget (moving into my friend’s basement) was a roll of the dice worth taking. I had ongoing financial obligations, including two kids in college, and knew my knowledge of real estate was a thin as my knowledge of Rust (inside joke for the young coders out there).

We recently announced a special investor distribution and acquisition of $24.7 million in properties. We have another $150M of off-market opportunities in our pipeline today. And we were able to build it during a global pandemic. No one knows the future, but I’m loving driving my own pickup to sites under construction. I love being back home where my parents and so many of my old friends live. I love seeing my best friend envision the transformation of a property and then bring it to life, in a way that elevates both the property and the surrounding community.

I cannot predict if the financial future will be better or worse for my choice. I’m still not where I was related to income. But my quality of life and satisfaction in my career is substantially higher. Ultimately, I am helping build something that lasts and that matters to me at a core level.

We all face crossroads in our lives. Sometimes the “easy” road is the right choice. Other times, it’s better to “follow your heart” even if that path is less certain and more challenging. I share this only because I know some of my former friends and colleagues are facing similar choices today and I hope my story might provide some encouragement.

With much thanks to everyone who I have worked with, who have mentored me, who have invested in my success, and who have supported me with encouragement during difficult times.

Premium Property Trust acquires seven properties for $24.7 million

Premium Property Trust acquires seven properties for $24.7 million

(As reported in the Birmingham Business Journal…)

Birmingham-based Premium Property Trust acquired seven properties in a package deal from its founder and various joint partners.

Premium Property added 63,000 square feet of combined office, retail and medical space as part of the $24.7 million deal, it said. The assets were previously jointly owned by founder Chris Reebals and various investment partners.

“While Reebals founded Premium Property and is still its chairman, the company is now made up of independent investors,” said CEO Burke Cox. The plan right now is to use these in-service properties to launch an investment fund and eventually elect as a real estate investment trust. “Longer term, the company would seek a public offering,” Cox said.

“It is an exciting time for us as we have spent over two years raising capital and negotiating this deal with several partners across the properties,” Cox said.

The properties the company acquired as part of the deal were:

• 2601 Highland Ave., Birmingham: 13,190 square feet
• 3040 Independence Drive, Birmingham: 5,000 square feet
• 2913 Linden Ave., Homewood: 7,500 square feet
• 2915 Linden Ave., Homewood: 1,300 square feet
• 324 Commons Drive, Birmingham: 15,030 square feet
• 2081 Columbiana Road, Vestavia Hills: 14,130 square feet
• 4213 Dolly Ridge Road, Vestavia Hills: 2,800 square feet

Premium Property also consolidated a refinancing deal for one of its existing properties, the 5,000-square-foot 1920 Huntington Road, as part of the transaction.

“Premium Property is also in the midst of a 60,000-square-foot mixed-use development project on Morris Avenue called the Armour Building,” Cox said.

Managing Conference Rooms and Shared Calendars with Outlook 365

For many years, we struggled with getting our shared calendars and meeting rooms to work like we wanted them to in the Outlook 365 environment.  Recently, we came up with a solution that we like and I’m documenting it here for two reasons: (1) to share the information with others, and (2) as a repository for the Byzantine steps needed to accomplish the goals of our calendaring solution, which are:

  • We wanted a centralized “Shared Calendar” where all of our employees could place information about when they will be out of the office, travelling, or having a significant (client) meeting.
  • While we wanted this shared calendar, we did not want people to have to enter information twice (once on their personal calendar, the again on the shared calendar).
  • We wanted to be able to quickly see the status of conference rooms from a calendar view (not within the scheduling tool).

The first step was to set up a “SharedCalendar” that we could use to reflect what we wanted the other members of our team to see.  With this in place (and using an initialing system for the subject lines of the meetings), we can get a quick look at what is happening across our company.  Of course, you could do something for a specific team as well (e.g. “DevCalendar”).  The result of looking at this calendar is:

Unfortunately, actually achieving this requires much more than just setting up a room for SharedCalendar.  Here come the steps…

In the Microsoft 365 Admin Center (“M3AC”), click “••• Show all” at the main menu:

This will reveal an option for Resources, that looks like:

Under here, add a resource for whatever you’d like to call your shared calendar, and assign it the Resource type of “Room”.

Now, whenever you want to include anything on the SharedCalendar, you just invite the SharedCalendar to that meeting.  Unfortunately, there are problems with this:

By default, rooms do not let you “double book” them.  In this case, our “room” is just a virtual shared calendar, so we want to be able to double book it.  This requires a PowerShell command:

Set-CalendarProcessing -Identity sharedcalendar@christopherai.com -AllowConflicts $True

If you need help with PowerShell, please see https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/powershell/

So, now, multiple people can book meetings on the SharedCalendar, but when you look at the SharedCalendar in Outlook, it will only show free/busy information.  Next step is to show the details in the calendar view.  To accomplish this, you will need to name yourself as an owner of the mailbox associated with this resource.  First, select the resource in the “Rooms & equipment” list of M3AC, then choose “Edit Exchange Settings.”

Once in there, you will need to select “mailbox delegation” then add yourself to the “Full Access” permission:

Now, off to the next step of showing more information, log into your Outlook 365 account online and click on the avatar area on the top right to reveal a menu:

Under this window, select “Open another mailbox”… and open the SharedCalendar item mailbox.

If all permissions are set up correctly, it will open and you can then go select the “cog” icon on the top right, which will show the simple settings view.  At the bottom, click “View all Outlook settings”.

In the “all Outlook settings” view, select Calendar | Shared Calendars…which should look like this:

In the top section “Share a calendar” select Calendar from the drop-down.  Change the default setting for “People in my organization” from “Can view when I’m busy” to either “Can view titles and locations” or “Can view all details” depending on how much you’d like to share.  Of course if you are doing this at team level, you don’t have to use “People in my organization”; you could simply choose a team, or team members individually.

Unfortunately, we are not through yet, because when accepting a calendar invite, the Room resource modifies the subject by deleting it and replacing it with the organizer name.  This requires another PowerShell command to resolve:

Set-CalendarProcessing -Identity sharedcalendar@christopherai.com -DeleteSubject $False -AddOrganizerToSubject $False

This gets us there, finally.  For the meeting rooms, you’ll need to go through the same exercise, creating them (but skipping the step for allowing conflicts). Go through the visibility exercise by opening their mailboxes, and prevent them from deleting the subject and adding the organizer to it via PowerShell.

For our company we named the physical meeting rooms starting with an “@” symbol (e.g. “@ConferenceRoom”). 

So, by simply who I invite I can have multiple outcomes:

• Inviting SharedCalendar, puts the meeting on my personal calendar and the SharedCalendar.

• Inviting @ConferenceRoom, attempts to book the meeting in the ConferenceRoom, but will fail if it is in use.

• Inviting both SharedCalendar and @ConferenceRoom, books the room and also puts it on the SharedCalendar for others to be aware of.

We have been using this system for several months now.  With it, I can see several views:  My calendar mixed with the shared calendar:

And a quick look at all the conference rooms:

You will note that on many of these, you see the organizer in the subject line. That’s just an artifact of me not running the PowerShell script to prevent that prior to the items being created.

Hopefully this article is helpful to someone.  It will certainly help me (I created it because I added a new conference room yesterday and had to re-learn all the steps) if our environment changes again.  If you use these steps and run into trouble, please let me know so that I can improve how they are communicated.

Book Review: FALL OUT by M. N. Grenside

Book Review: FALL OUT by M. N. Grenside

When your brother-in-law announces he has written a novel, your initial reaction of “Isn’t that cute?” is probably warranted. It’s certainly how I felt when my brother-in-law started talking about it several years ago. 

I am not a literary critic. But I’m an avid reader and probably complete over 25 novels in any given year. My brother-in-law’s first novel, FALL OUT, is as promising of a first novel that I’ve ever read. The blend of his knowledge of the movie business combined with historical and cultural research results in a global and historical tale of murder, deception, and intrigue. 

The characters are real; they are interesting and flawed. And the expanse of the book is compelling. If I have anything negative, it’s the sheer volume of characters. I needed the notes at the beginning of the book on more than one occasion to keep up with Mark’s great ambition in this book. 

I saw that Piers Morgan commented it to be a blend of “The DaVinci Code and Get Shorty.” I’d add a couple of more including Robert Altman’s The Player and Robert Ludlum’s Pillars of the Earth, where ancient architecture comes alive for the reader. In the same way, FALL OUT draws you into a world few of us know, but all of us are influenced by. 

This debut novel doesn’t let its themes of Hollywood define its story. The characters and plot arc do that. But it makes you feel as if you are “on the inside” of the movie establishment, from Los Angeles to Cannes, and all the aspects of that complicated business (financing, stardom, reputation, even stunts) that can lead to success or failure in the business so many of us see as a casual indulgence. 

In writing this review in hopes that you, too, will take the leap of faith and take on a new author. I haven’t spoken with Mark (M. N. Grenside) prior to posting this review. As it’s positive, I’m sure he will be pleased, ha. But I want you to know that it’s sincere and a genuine reflection of my great admiration for what he has accomplished. 

I hope you will take the opportunity to order on Amazon and enjoy this ride for yourself. Please let me know if you agree that it’s a great read. And please join me in never doubting someone just because they were naive enough to marry into your family. 

Congratulations Mark. Job well done. I’m looking forward to your next book: THE BASTION, promised to be out next year. And I’ve heard there may be a movie in the works for this one. Not trying to be nepotistic, but I think I’d make a great Louis McConnell for the film.  When people read the book, they’ll know that isn’t exactly a self compliment!