You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Parenting’ tag.
The moon is absolutely gorgeous as I write this. All I have to do is look out the living room window to see it – and it got me thinking, and remembering, to a Sunday evening back in 1998.
I’d spent the afternoon with my son, just being together and doing stuff, and as it got dark, drove down to Golden Gardens in the old Saab, and as we were going around the big S turns on the way down, he looked up and saw the crescent moon in the evening sky.
“Look Papa! The moon’s a white banana in the sky!”
And so it was.
It was wonderful to see, and wonderful to see it through his eyes.
We got down to the beach, just as most parents were packing up and leaving, and built a sand castle in the wet sand, it clumping together – bits of shell and the like as we worked… The sand castle appeared over time to the sound of an invisible boat chugging up the Sound.
At this moment, I decided to put all my sensors on full alert, as I wanted to remember this moment, and saw and heard other parents with their children, trying not to blink as they grew up.
That’s one of the hardest things about being a parent, trying not to blink…
As the sand castle took shape, the sounds of the evening changed from children running along the beach and into the water to children bargaining for more time, begging for “just one more minute”, and parents reluctantly giving in, for that one minute, knowing that they’ll be vacuuming the sand out of the car tomorrow, but knowing also that a memory was made, and it’s one small grain of sand in the beach of a happy childhood…
I’m always amazed at the forms my time machine takes, often when I least expect it.
This time some film negatives I’d found and scanned into the computer several years ago just to see what they were, combined with a note I found on an archived CD made for a trip down memory lane to take me back to a simpler time. So, with very little editing, here’s a story from 1996…
I spent the weekend with the kids down at my folks’ place, and made apple cider with the apples from our trees in the back yard…
…on a cider press that’s probably 100 years old. It used to have a hand crank, but my Grandpa at one point put an old electric washing machine motor on it and ever since I knew of it, it ground the apples into pulp at the flick of a switch. You still had to squeeze the juice out by hand though.
After making the cider and cleaning up, and while Alyssa and Oma (German for Grandma – my mom) did only the kinds of things that granddaughters can do with their Omas, Michael and I went to what had always been my grandparent’s farm and went for a walk among the trees (douglas fir, cedar, oak), basically where I grew up. I went for many walks out there with our dogs and BB gun when I was a kid, and often went just to think and clear my mind.
My Grandpa had passed away some years earlier, and at the time, it seemed like my grandma was planning on selling the farm, so I felt I needed to take Michael out there and show him what I used to see and where I used to go exploring before that all changed. It was very strange, and I found myself quite disoriented sometimes. There were trees in places in the back of the farm that had been completely free of trees before. Areas that had been ponds no longer existed at all. What was reality simply didn’t match up with what I had in my memory.
We came to the front of the farm and saw that my grandma was boarding some horses on the land and they came up to us and just wanted some attention (and some Apples).
So we petted them, and Michael later stood up on a stump and scratched one of them while the other one nuzzled him… It was really neat. It’s one of those experiences I hope will stay with him for a long time…
Michael and I explored the swamp in the back, and watched several frogs try to jump away from him, one rather large one managed to escape just as his boot stepped down. He was as surprised as the frog was (but probably not as terrified). We kept wandering and exploring, and saw an area where the water was too deep to be a swamp, and became a large pond. We heard rushing water and went through a fence to find a beaver dam. Michael had on his black and yellow “fighter fighter” boots because he “might” want to go into some water, so when he did, naturally he went in just a little too deep, and the water flooded over the top into the boots…
At that moment I decided that I had a chance to either have some fun and make a memory with my little boy and get my feet wet, or gripe about the fact that his boots and pants were wet and — it was a no brainer…
I waded into the creek in my shoes — the water was COLD (it came from, as I recall, Sprofsky Springs), and went through the swamp and then hit the beaver dam. We later waded down the creek from right below the dam, just to explore, and got completely soaked. He loved it. Lost his balance, I caught him just as his bottom hit the water…
We came back, me squishing in my wet shoes, him sloshing in his wet boots, and saw this HUGE anthill and were both watching it intently when this fairly sizable spider walked into the picture.
Even though the ants were much, much smaller than the spider, they took it down. It was like watching “Nature” on PBS. Michael, who’d decided he was scared of spiders, suddenly found himself seriously rooting for this one, and was first interested, then incensed that the ants could do that to a spider. It was truly amazing. Michael first wanted to throw things at the ants, then thought better of it, and decided he wanted to know what ants REALLY liked to eat, and maybe he could get their attention away from the spider with that. I thought that was nice. He wanted to save the spider, but didn’t want to kill the ants.
Afterwards, he had a rock in his hand, and was wondering how the ants would react to it. I thought back about 20 years, and how I’d thrown rocks at the ancestors of those same anthills, and how typical that was of a young boy. He asked what would happen if he threw the rock, and then asked if they would attack him. (Given what he’d just seen, that was a pretty valid question). I didn’t say yes, but kind of let him make up his mind on his own. He ended up dropping the rock on the ground next to the anthill, feeling some vindication because he may have killed some of the ants that had killed his new found spider friend, but also feeling good that he hadn’t killed all of them…
We sloshed and squished back to Oma’s, and ended up having some of the cider we’d made that afternoon with dinner that evening.
Eventually I packed up some of that cider, a lot of memories, and headed back home as the kids drifted off to sleep in the back of the car.
It was truly a wonderful weekend, and I went back to work on Monday morning to a job I enjoyed, a job that allowed me to support my family, but away from the trees and forests where I grew up…
God has been good.
Take care, folks.
So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as a look back on the first 99…
I had no idea I had so many inside me, but they’re here. For those of you who’ve commented on them and helped me get better at writing through your critiques, thank you. For those of you who were unwitting characters in some of them, I thank you. For my sister who created this blog in the first place and felt I needed to get my writing out there, thank you. For my family who often saw nothing but the back of my laptop as I was writing – I’m working on that – and thank you – really. And to some very special people who decided I was worth keeping around – thanks for your help in all of that. You know who you are.
As for the stories – I think the most fun stories for me to write were the ones where you, the reader, figure out whatever punchline was coming, just about the time your eyes hit it.
All of the stories are true. Some took an astonishing amount of research, ballooned into huge, huge stories, then were often allowed to simmer for some time until I could edit them down to whatever the essence of the story actually was. I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process is… Find what you need. Distill it down to its very core, then take that and make it better.
I did a little looking through the stories and found some little snippets that made me think – and made me smile as I read through them all. They’re below – in the order they were published, so the subject matter and themes are pretty random, but there was a reason for each one of them. So, cue the music, and here’s a selection of quotes and thoughts from the stories (with links to the originals) that made me smile, or laugh, or think, or sometimes just cry.
1. From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt”
“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”
This was when my son went to Paris. In Springtime. And he had memories he needed to share. I listened, and smiled, and I wrote.
2. I wrote a story about a friend named Georgiana – who taught me so more about writing software code than any book I ever read, any class I ever took, and more than she could possibly have imagined.
3. Then there was the story “Have you ever been in a dangerous situation and had to drive out of it?” when I was trying to jack up a car with a flat tire, on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, on a hill, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, “Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. “
4. There’s the story I called “Point and Click” – which really isn’t about pointing, or clicking – but is very much about – well, it’s short – you’ll get it – and even if you don’t, that’s okay. I hope you don’t have to.
“This time, there’s a loud “click” of the hammer slamming down on an empty chamber. “
5. On managing to borrow a car, and within a couple of telephone calls finding myself taking pictures of an F-4 Phantom out of the back of a KC-135 tanker over Missouri.
The look on the face of a classmate as I was printing the pictures that evening was absolutely priceless.
6. Then there was the story called Salty Sea Dogs – just one of the weird little things that seems to happen to me when I go out for walks…
“Into this nautical environment walk two characters straight out of central casting for Moby Dick”
7. There was just a little snapshot of a conversation between two people, one of whom really understood what was going on, and the other who didn’t. And the funny thing is, I’m not sure which one was which. It’s just something that happened On the Bus…
8. Sometimes stories happen in the blink of an eye – or in the ever so slight smile of a spandex covered cyclist riding past.
9. I wrote about a lesson I learned about plumbing once, (water doesn’t ONLY flow downhill – and it’s not just water)- which my kids still laugh about.
10. There was the story where I wasn’t sure whether my daughter was complimenting me or insulting me – or a little of both, but it made it in here in the story Compliment? Insult? You decide…
11. And somehow, I managed to get phrases from the movies “The Lion King”, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and both the old and new Testaments of the Bible into the same story, combining them with a sermon I heard and an attitude from my boss that all ended up in the lesson you can find in the story The view from the Balcony… Forgiveness, Writing in the dirt, and “No Worries”
12. I learned, and wrote about, buried treasure – and it’s often not buried, and it’s not what you think it might be.
13. I had a story bouncing around in my head for years before I finally wrote it down, and was astonished when the right brained creative side of me finally let go of it and the logical left brain started analyzing it. if I’m wrong on the numbers, I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong, but when you hit a certain set of railroad tracks at a certain speed in a 1967 Saab, you will catch air, and a lot of it. It was the first of many Saab Stories…
14. I remember a story that came out of a single sentence. This one is called, simply, “Stalingrad” – and is about – well, here’s the quote – it’s: “a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes” – it was also one of the first stories that caused me to cry as I wrote it. I wasn’t expecting that, and I think it was interesting that people asked me to put “hankie warnings” on the stories I’d written.
15. For the next one – I wanted to have a little fun – and this story, too, came from only a few sentences my dad told me, but it, too, required a surprising amount of research and I figured out the rest, and realized there were three stories inside this one, and I decided I’d try to braid them together in such a way that they came together – ideally, not in just one word, but the same syllable of that one word. You’ll find that story called “B-52’s, Karma, and Compromises…”.
16. I learned that one person can do something stupid, but if you get a few guys together, even without alcohol, not only does the quantity of the stupidity go up, but the quality is almost distilled to a concentration that you couldn’t make up… in the story Synergistic Stupidity, The Marshmallow Mobile, and the Little Tractor that Could… I learned that I could help people, I could do something stupid with a friend, then, while trying to figure out how to un-stupidify this thing, watch as several others got involved, ending up in exactly the same spot we’d gotten ourselves into, break the law, ‘borrow’ a tractor, and in the end, put everything back where I found it, and my grampa, whose tractor it was that I’d ‘borrowed’ – didn’t find out about it till years later. You’ll find that in the story, along with a map of where it happened. Really.
17. I often learned as I wrote – the story about The Prodigal Father took me back a few thousand years, to standing beside another dad, waiting for his son, and I suddenly understood a whole lot more about what he must have been feeling.
18. Some stories were just silly. I mean, Water Skiing in Jeans?
19. Or Jump Starting Bottle Rockets… ? With Jumper cables attached to a 40 year old car?
Yup… I did that.
20. But it’s not just my generation. I wrote a story about my mom, who – well, let’s say she has a healthy dislike for snakes. Not fear, mind you. Dislike. And when they started getting into the goldfish pond and eating her goldfish – well, she armed herself. First with a camera to prove it – and then with a pitchfork to dispatch it. And sure enough, 432 slipped disks later (Thank you Johnny Hart for that quote), that snake was no longer a threat, and mom, bless her, was quite satisfied…
21. I never think of my mom as a feisty little old lady, she’s my mom – but she’s awfully close in age (well, in the same decade) as another feisty little old lady named Cleo. I never thought I would get airborne trying to take a picture of an 88 year old woman emptying a mop bucket, but I did, and it made for a wonderful story, and a wonderful image.
22. I took a little break from writing actual stories and spent a little time explaining why in the “story” Scalpels, sutures, and staples, oh my… It was a hard “non-story” to write – but it was what was happening that week, and I was a little too busy living life in the moment to be able to write much about something that had happened in the past.
23. As some of you know, I spent a few years as a photojournalist, and as I was going through some of my old images in a box in the garage one day, I found they were a time machine – taking me back to when I was younger, and when there was so much of life still ahead of me. I remember sitting across a parking lot from a dad trying to teach his daughter how to rollerskate at Saltwater State Park between Seattle and Tacoma, just knowing she was going to fall, and as I sat there and waited to capture the image as she fell, her dad, unseen behind her, was there waiting to capture her. I had a little ‘aha’ moment about God right then. How many times things have looked like they were going the wrong way, and yet, He was in the background, orchestrating stuff to make it right in the end? (I don’t know the answer to that question, just know it’s worth asking)
24. Another “Proving Darwin Wrong” moment – as my son says – I was working for the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan, and these thunderstorms would come in off the lake, and I wanted a lightning picture with a lighthouse in it. Now I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not the best lightning shot in the world out there, but there was, shall we say, a flash of inspiration that came rather suddenly as the film was exposed – the only frame, the 28th one (yes, shot on film), in Lightning bolts, metal tripods, and the (just in time) “Aha!” moment…
25. Sometimes the most profound bits of wisdom come from the simplest things. I was astonished to find out how many people read the story “Mowing dandelions at night…” – and what they thought about it. Some of those comments are on the blog – some were sent directly to me, but they were all fun to read, and to ponder.
26. I am constantly astonished at the amount of wisdom that can come from simple things. I remember – again – being in the garage, and finding an old, cracked cookie jar – and as I looked at it, and held it gently, I could almost feel the stories it held, and as I started writing – it gave me more and more detail for the stories that I was able to write and share.
27. The next story published was one I actually wrote in 1998, but happened in 1977, and it was then that the phrase, “Really, they don’t shoot on Sundays…” entered into my vocabulary. It was also the story that inspired my son to ask me the question, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.
Hearing that from your own offspring is a little mind bending…
So should you be interested, the story involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.
Actually, in that order.
28. I then found myself writing about a cup of coffee, and the friends involved in making it. I’ve lost touch with Annie – but LaRae is now an amazing photographer, Stevie can still make an incredible cup of coffee, but is making a much better living in the transportation business.
29. I was trying to write a story a week around this time, and had no idea how much time it would take, and found myself staring at Father’s day on the calendar, and realizing how, as hard as our relationship often was (I think an awful lot of father-son relationships have their rocky moments, and I remembered back to the time I taught both of my kids to ride a bike. There was this moment, I realized, where you have to let go of the saddle – and as I talked to more and more dads about this, I realized that they all, instinctively held their right hand out as though they were, indeed, Letting go of the saddle…. I have to warn you – this story took a turn toward the end that I wasn’t expecting, and it was very, very hard to finish. You’ll understand when you get there. I found this story crossed cultural barriers, age barriers, gender barriers, and I ended up putting a hankie warning on this one as well.
30. I needed a little levity, and a smile after that story (remember, they were coming out once a week, but they were taking more than a week to write – so I had spent quite a bit of time on this one, so I, writing, needed a break, and remembered a song we used to sing when I was growing up – and the dawning horror in my wife’s eyes as she realized what it actually meant. (Think German sense of humor (heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales?) and leave it at that).
The thing about these stories is they just come. In fact, they’re all there – all I have to do is listen, and they’ll come…
31. The next story required listening for something that’s very hard to hear, and listening for about 20 years before it all came together. It ended up being two stories that morphed into one, and started out as a story about old Saabs, and ended up being a story about listening to God in the weirdest places. At the time, I had no idea that God talked to people in Junkyards, but, it turns out, He does. He talks to us everywhere – if we’re willing to listen. I have to say this one’s one of my favorites – it was fun to write, fun to search for the right words, fun to put the little vignettes together (there’s a bit about Harley Davidsons in there that I really like) and it was fun to see it all come together. I hope you enjoy it – even if you aren’t a fan of old Saabs, or maybe haven’t heard God in a junkyard. Believe me, I was just as blown away by that as you might expect. If you end up reading the story – let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
32. And we go back into the time machine (in the garage, looking suspiciously like an old box of black and white photos) where I found the picture behind the story “Fishing, Gorillas, and Cops with – well, just read on…” I like the story – love the picture – I think, because it’s just a normal day – nothing special about it except that – well, that it was so normal, and if you’re looking, you can find beauty everywhere, even if it’s an old guy fishing. (actually not far from where I took that lightning shot a few stories up)
33. My next story brought me a little closer to home, and my mom had just made some jelly. I always joked with her that the jars of Jelly were Time Capsules of Love…– and they were. It was neat to be able to finally write a story about them and what they meant to me. I even took a picture of one of those jars for the story.
34. I’d broken my leg that spring, and found myself in an amusing, cross cultural situation afterwards – which ended up in the story, “Knocking down walls with an old brown purse…” I still wonder how the fellow in the story’s doing. I did print out a copy there and leave it with people who could get it to him.
35. I’d written a few stories about my son, and decided that it was time to write a couple about my daughter – and the wisdom you can learn about yourself and your kids showed up in two stories, one ostensibly about greasy fingerprints (and Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®)
36. …and one about Pizza – and finances, and if you’re not careful in college (or in life), how prioritizing one over the other can affect things in a significant way…
37. I wrote about letting go – something hard to do – but with a smile in the story, and letting go in a location you might not expect.
38. I wrote about Veteran’s day – and memories of my dad, crossed with a scene I’d seen when I was a newspaper photographer years earlier, and I suddenly understood what the family whose privacy and grief I chose not to invade were feeling. There is a lot of pain in that story. Writing it down finally helped me to let some of it go.
39. And I needed a smile, so I wrote about Fifi…. This is one of my favorite stories, in which I simply chatted with folks and talked my way onto the only B-29 in the world, but at the same time, talked the photo editor of a paper I’d never seen into holding space on the front page for me because I was going to get a picture from the plane as I flew to the town where that paper was. it was an all or nothing thing from both sides, and was truly an incredible experience. I recently took a training class in “Win Win Negotiations” – and that one was held up as an example of how to do it.
40. There’s a story I wrote about rear view mirrors, and it actually has very little to do with mirrors.
41. and another I wrote about pouring a cup of coffee… which, surprisingly, has a lot to do with pouring a cup of coffee.
42. ….and my favorite prank of all, a story about (and yet not about) spinach.
43. My daughter got mad at me for the next one, called “Playing Digital Marco Polo in Seattle…” – which happened over lunch one day. “Why do these things keep happening to you? – I want things like this to happen to me, and they don’t – and yet here you go out for lunch and get… “ and she trailed off, not sure how to finish it. As it was happening – it had all the drama of a spy thriller – and I wasn’t sure what I’d walked into – but it was fun.
44. By this time it was near Christmas, and we as a family had worked our Boy Scout Troop’s Christmas tree lot for years, and something special happened this time that made both my wife and an old veteran cry. Tears of joy and gratitude – for having the privilege of being part of something special – but nonetheless tears. And I wrote…
45. We’d gone to Arizona that spring to tape me doing some presentations, and I realized there was a story that needed to be written about not that, but about a very special thing that happened down at the Pima Air Museum, as well as McChord Air Force Base many years earlier, so I shifted gears to write a story for the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series, it’s the story called “Can I help you, sir?”
46. There was a sad story about a fellow with hope, on the bus – made me realize that as bad as things were sometimes, they could always get worse, but this fellow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he was just taking things one day at a time. From the story: “He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.”
47. I pondered electrons, and the monthly “Patch Tuesday” we have at work, and my thoughts wandered from very small things like electrons to the really, really big picture of Who made them., and what it all means.
48. Those of you who’ve been around me for some time have heard me use the term Butthead… and one day I decided to just write the story down about how and why that term came about, and what it means. (it’s usually a term of endearment, delivered with all the warmth of a cuff upside the head.)
49. At one point, my guardian angels were sharing pager duty, and all their pagers went off when I was miles from anything, no radio station in range, just, for a rare moment, bored out of my mind, crossing North Dakota one year in that old Ford I had. And I did something to pass the time that apparently set the pagers off. I still wonder, sometimes, how I survived some of these things – or whether they were as crazy as they seem when I write them, or if they were just me paying attention to things other folks just let slide.
50. Often the stories are just from oddities that happen in life. I never thought a broken TV would make a story – but sure enough, it did.
From the story: “Now Michael, because I have educated him in the ways of complex electronics repair, performed the first task one always does when troubleshooting and/or repairing electronics, which is to smack the living crap out of it.”
51. And then there was the story about my friend Betty… and I have to tell you, that was one hard, hard thing to write. It was her eulogy, and it took me a week to recover emotionally from writing it, much less giving it. I still miss her.
From the story: “I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door…”
52. I wrote about my son’s and my time in Boy Scouts – with trips to Norwegian Memorial one year and Shi Shi beach the next year. The places aren’t much more than 15 miles apart, but the experiences were literally night and day. And after months of pondering I learned that while there was absolute joy in the trip to Norwegian, there was so much more in the way of life lessons from the trip to Shi Shi. They were completely different, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.
The thing about these stories is they’re just out there in the order they come into my mind… Some get finished quickly, some slowly. Some are written in a couple of minutes – some take decades to live and weeks to write. Some I don’t even remember myself until I read them again, and at that point, they’re just as fun (or painful) for me to read as they were the very first time…
53. There was the story of Humpty Dumpty in Winter… – (because we all know he had a great fall) – and I think it’s safe to say that that particular story was the epitome of understatement. It’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg from when I broke my leg.
54. I didn’t write for awhile after that, and when I did, needed something to cheer me up a little, and wrote a story called What Heaven must be like… about an afternoon that was both planned and spontaneous, and I did something that I had never done before. I met new friends, I saw a smile from my son I wish I’d actually caught (there’s a picture in the story *after* he stopped smiling – I was trying to hold the camera steady while we were still coasting toward him at a good clip and missed how big that wonderful smile actually was. That story is very much in my top ten favorites – assuming I have a list like that…
55. And then… for a little fun, I wrote a story that was a combination “Saab Story” and a date with a young lass who shall remain nameless, but who – well, here’s the title: Old Saabs, Big puddles, and Bad dates. You’ll figure it out.
56. Not long after that, my friend Beth wanted me to go out and do something fun, and take pictures to prove it. It was also a time when my friend Greg wondered out loud whether I embellished my stories. I’d heard that question before, and given how weird some of the stories are, I understood the reason behind it. I told him no, I didn’t embellish them, and then, to Greg’s incredible shock, he walked right into one of the stories with me, literally as it happened. The look on his face when he realized what was happening is something that will live on with me for a long time. He insisted I write it down, and that I could most definitely put his name in it, so here it is… There were three main parts to the story – and they all made it into the title: Blackbirds, Blue Saabs, and Green Porta Potties
57. Some of my stories are what I guess you’d call a ‘profile’ of a person – and in this next case, it was of a fellow who was a stranger, was assigned to be my officemate, became a friend, I followed him to another company where he became my boss, and as we grew older and professionally went our separate ways, we still remained friends, and I still have a lot of fondness for the memory of that first meeting of my friend Jae…
58. Then there was the time when my mom used a phrase I’d never, ever heard her use – and I’d only heard used one other time in my life. But that time had a story wrapped around it so tight that you couldn’t hear the words without going into the story. And, as is often the case, the story spans a couple of generations, some youthful stupidity, global warming, and how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when being asked a simple question… You’ll find all that in An “Inconvenient Truth” – and how important asking the right questions is.
59. I went back several years on the next story, which was called, simply, Bathtime… I didn’t realize how – much that little activity with your kid could change your life, but it does, and the story still brings a smile. (yes, there are pictures, but no, they weren’t included in the story, for reasons that will become obvious as you read it)
60. I did quite a bit of thinking as I wrote Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends – and liked the way it came out. Life lessons that took a number of years to happen actually came together in an ‘aha’ moment as I was writing this story – and it just made me smile. I opened up a bit more in this one than I had in others, I thought, but it was all true. I found myself happy with the result.
61. Amazing Grace simmered in my brain for several years before I felt it was ready. It was one that happened as it’s described in the story – but I spent quite a bit of time trying to be absolutely sure the images described in the story were written correctly so that whoever read it could not only see them, but feel them. It was an experience, on so many levels, physical, emotional, spiritual. I hope that feeling comes through. Let me know how it affects you.
62. I changed pace completely with the next story. Shock and Awwwwww… took place in the lobby of Building 25 on Microsoft’s main campus. It’s the classic story of “Boy Meets Girl” but there’s a twist… it’s not just a Boy… It’s a Nerd. And it’s not just a Girl, but a drop dead gorgeous girl in the eyes of said Nerd. Everything is going fine until the paperclip enters the picture, and then sparks literally fly.
63. Over the years I’ve found that chocolate has totally different effects on men than it does on women. I mean, if it’s chocolate from Germany, or Switzerland (both are kinds I had when I grew up) then it’s okay. Other than that, I generally don’t go out of my way to find it. I don’t have a reverence for it like you see in some ads, and simply didn’t understand the whole “oh, it’s so WONDERFUL” idea one mother’s day weekend when we went to Cannon Beach in Oregon – and there, I learned that strange things happen when you put Men, Women, Cannon Beach, and Chocolate in the same story.
64. And then I had a week in which – well, I couldn’t quite write a story.
65. There was so much going on, a little fun – but then so much teetering at the edge of life and death thing that it was hard to think of something fun or funny to write about. Life was happening, and I needed to deal with it. I didn’t realize how personal this would become in the next little bit. I was hoping to write a story about graduation for the young people I knew who were graduating, but a lot of the echoes of what had recently happened to me followed in the next few posts,
66. And I wrote a story about Graduation, dodging bullets, and other life lessons… that seemed to encompass all I needed to say, plus telling the young graduates something that might help them along their way.
67. And then, of course, there was the 4th of July – a holiday that carries with it many memories that would have my son convinced that Darwin was completely wrong. In this case, the story was about Rockets, Styrofoam airplanes, the Fourth of July, and Jimi
68. And an example of how some stories come from the weirdest places – all I can do is point you to this one: TEOTWAWKI* (if you’re an arachnid) – so if you’re a spider, you might not want to read this one.
69. And then, in a story about an event my mom found out about literally as she read my story about it, and, as she told me, had her heart beating a little because she didn’t remember it and wasn’t quite sure of the outcome. Again, proving Darwin wrong, we have what happens when you Take one teenager, add horsepower, and get… It’s entirely possible that that’s when my Guardian Angels were issued their first pagers.
70. After that, I found a couple of stories I’d asked my dad to write. He’d written four of them on the computer and printed them out – just before the computer was stolen. I wrote a ‘wrapper’ around the stories to put them in context, but otherwise, they are exactly as written. I did that with three of his stories, and they are One act of kindness that’s lasted more than a lifetime,
71. Puff balls and Pastries - in which – well, a little mishap caused a problem that had some surprising consequences.
72. …and Some things matter, and some things don’t. I was truly stunned at the world he was describing in this one, in large part because there was something in it that was considered by the people of that time and place to be “normal”. I often wonder about his friend there, what happened to him.
73. By this time it was summer – and it was time for the kids to visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking about that time many years ago when I had to do some Rat sitting while they were gone, so I wrote about that one, and smiled at the memory.
74. And then, a story that had been in my head for years, and I think by far the most read story on the blog, and it was a simple story about Tractors, Old Cars, and a Farmer named Harry
I checked with his family first, having a long conversation with his son before I published this, and got their approval. I heard from his friends, I heard from people who didn’t know him, and because of the story, felt they did or wished they had. I had no idea what an impact a story like that could make – but it clearly did, and I felt it was – and had been – a privilege to know Harry and his family.
75. The next story took place in church – where often children are supposed to be quiet – but one child made her presence known in a totally different way in
76. Writing the story about Harry made me think of Grad School, and I found myself humming the song “Try to remember the kind of September…” and wrote a story around that – my first couple of days in Athens Ohio – what a cultural shift it was, and simultaneously, what a neat and terrifying experience it was to do this (go 2500 miles from home, to a place where you knew no one, and see how much of a success you can make of yourself…)
77. That got me reminiscing a bit, and the next story was from when I was about 12, when I spent part of a summer Haying, growing up, and learning to drive a clutch… It was a fun summer – and both trucks, the ’66 Dodge and the ’54 Ford, the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight in the story still exist. They were sold to a neighbor who still uses both of them. And my uncle’s back has completely healed.
78. “The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee.” I found myself thinking about how God reaches for us in some of the strangest places – and remembered thinking this as we were walking back from a Civil Air Patrol Search. It was our first real search instead of a practice one – and we were quite excited about actually being able to put our training to use… The combination of all of those things brought me to the story God, Searches, and ramming Aaron through the bushes
79. Lest anyone think I’m so incredible (you should know better) that God talks to me like He talked to Moses – there was a little story about – well, it fell squarely into the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series. I learned a lot about keeping the fire (and, come to think of it… starting the fire) in the stove.
80. If you’ve been reading the stories, you might remember that I took a trip down memory lane – on the Autobahn, to Munich, at 110 mph, in the story Octoberfests, Museums, and Bavarian Waitressess – it combined almost getting kicked out of one museum, getting locked out of a second, and trying to drown our sorrows in a very famous place, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. …and – I wonder if the waitress (in the story) is still there… Whether she is or not, she made a memory that’s lasted over 30 years…
81. Taking risks…
“…there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement” Yeah, there’s a story that wouldn’t have happened if the scaffolding hadn’t held, if the receptionist hadn’t called the janitor, or if, simply, I hadn’t thought to ask if I could climb out on the roof of the courthouse to get a closer shot of the construction going on. Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to be bold, step out of your comfort zone, and ask for EXACTLY what you want. You’ll be astonished at how often you’ll actually get it. And sometimes, you might even have proof that you asked…
82. We go from the top of the courthouse to sitting in the shade on Mr. Carr’s front stoop. And I never thought that I would (or could) write a story about a sandwich, but this one was worth writing about. I still remember how cool that water was, how moist the – oh, I’d better stop, pretty soon you’ll want your own Mr. Carr’s Sandwich
83. A story about my friend Jill – including the only picture I was ever able to take of her, as well as the line, “WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?” – said in a way you might not expect.
84. The story behind my son’s famous quote, “Sometimes, things go wrong…” There’s a lesson there that we could all learn a lot from.
85. In the story A tale of Three Christmas Trees, and a little bit more… you’ll find the line,
“In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us. Well, actually… I take that back. He did.”
And it’s true. But there’s much more to that story, involving things like how much character you get from being poor – and learning to not take things for granted, and making things on your own. All amazing stuff in and of itself, but together, wow.
86. Every now and then, a dream will show a startling reality in a way that simply can’t be explained in words. It was new year’s day – and I wrote of a dream I’d had – and the lesson in it in A New Year’s thought, of flashlights, warm hands, and a wish…
87. …and then – a story that had happened a decade earlier finally made it into print, and I wrote about Meeting Howard Carter in the back of the Garage… If you don’t know who Howard Carter is – read the story – you’ll find out. There are links to him there – but what’s interesting is the story has very little to do with Howard Carter, and much more to do with a dishwasher, and a ‘70’s era Plymouth that was big enough to put a small village in the trunk of.
88. Michael and I, in dire need of a break from everything, hit the road in the story Road Trip! (and Mermaids… and the Gates of Mordor) – and crammed just about as much as we could cram into one 24 hour period as we could, in two states. We combined Horses (a couple of brown ones and a mustang), and music, and too many spices, and old, fun music, and theatre, and sports, and an excellent impression of the Four Yorkshiremen, and it all melted into one afternoon/evening/morning/next afternoon that was a tremendous amount of fun.
89. Even as this next one was happening, and I was smelling a truckload of gasoline in a place I’d never thought I’d smell it, and blocking traffic in the last place I wanted to block traffic, I found myself wondering if this was going to make it into a story. It did. It’s here: Caffeine, Clean Engines, and Things that go Whoomp in the Night…
90. If you remember the story about “Transmissions from God”, you know that occasionally I hear God’s still, small voice telling me to do something. Sometimes I hear Him in a junk yard, sometimes I hear him in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.
91. If you’re keeping track, this next story, in the order they were written, was Norwegian… – though it happened a year before the Shi Shi Beach story. It ranks as one of the top camping trips I’ve ever been on.
92. And this next story was literally a dream. If you’ve gotten this far, you know that occasionally I’ll remember one, and for whatever reason it will have something significant in it. I called this one Jungles, White Helicopters, and Long Journeys – because when I had that dream, I thought I was near the end of a long journey – but in reality, – well, if you’ve ever gone through a challenging time – and you can pick your challenge. The story fits. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
93. And after I wrote that one, I got to wandering down memory lane a bit – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a hankie – sometimes both. It’s funny how a certain smell rocketed me back to Sidney, Ohio and this story: Black and White, and Read all over… – and it’s written pretty much how I told it to my son on the way home one evening. It still brings a smile.
94. While I was in the neighborhood, so to speak – I remembered the time I wandered into a radio station just outside of Sidney, because no one told me I couldn’t – and making a new friend with the DJ there. I smile every time I think about that time, and the story Radio Stations, Paul Simon, and Blue Moons came out of it.
95. I’ve had stories take on a life of their own – and this next one was one of them. I started off just writing a story about me doing something that had unexpected results, and it suddenly turned into something more. Something much, much more. You’d never think that Carburetor Cleaner, Hot Water, and a Cold Sprite could be mentioned in the same sentence and have a common theme – but they were – they do, and I feel, honestly, honored to have been a part of the story.
I will miss Dan. He’s one of the best.
It took me awhile to figure out what to do next… the story about Dan was published, along with some of the other “Saab Stories” in the Saab Club Magazine – and I just had to let it simmer a little bit, as it was, if you read it – a hard story to finish.
96. The next story was one I’d written a year earlier, and was one of those things that my daughter would say just happens to me. I don’t know why, maybe because I pay attention? I’m not sure… In this case, I was out for a walk, and a little dog interrupted that walk and melted my heart for a good while. When I found out the dog’s name, I was stunned, and did lots of research into the name, just to understand it. I think it’s because of all the research I did that my mind was completely overwhelmed with the name and what it represented, and I didn’t like the story at all. But – a year went by, and I read it again, and sure enough it made me smile. It turns out that Fuzz Therapy with Rasputin is cheaper than any other kind of therapy.
97. Sometimes therapy comes in different packages. I remember one time, years ago, my son was sick, it had been an exhausting day, and I’d just gotten him to bed, but he wasn’t sleepy. I was sitting there, in the tired exhaustion felt by all parents of youngsters at the end of a long day, trying to figure out what I could do to make him comfortable enough so that he would go to sleep. Of course, if he went to sleep, that meant I could sleep, too. While I was pondering this, I heard his voice cut through the thoughts, “Papa? Tell me a story…”
A story. It was like I’d been in a dream, and he’d pulled me out of it. A story. I tried to think, and knowing he liked dragons, I figured I’d start somewhere and see where it took me. I’d had a class years ago where we wrote a story, one sentence at a time, but the professor wrote a word on the board, and we had to write a sentence around it. Then he’d write another word, we’d write another sentence. Eventually, we’d have a story, but we wouldn’t know, from one sentence to the next, where the story was taking us.
And that’s how I started… Blindly going where no story teller had gone before, I started off with my first sentence: “Fred was a Dragon.” – and I went on from there, the story slowly taking shape until it became the story you can read as: Of Dragons, Knights, and Little Boys… Let me know what you think when you can.
98. I put this next one out on Father’s day. It’s a Saab story, but it’s more than that… it was a trip my son and I took to visit my mom on the fourth of July – and an adventure that had a fun quote come out of him. It made me smile, and – wow – 6 years later, I finally wrote it down. It became the story called …if Will Smith drove a Saab 96
And – it’s still July as I write this… I’ve been going through a lot of these stories, trying to find my favorites – find the ones that made me smile – that still make me smile, and also find the ones that made me think, or helped me learn something…
Sometimes I learn things that people show me, or teach me, or from some mistake I made.
Sometimes I learn from things God puts in front of me and gives me the privilege of seeing, and learning from.
And sometimes I learn from stories that have made me cry, in living them, in writing them, and again in reading them.
There’s a little of every one of them in there. There’s tales of youthful stupidity, there’s the story in which my son says I’ve simply proved Darwin wrong – that it’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the luckiest – and often there’s an element of truth to that. The phrase that sticks with me is the one he said after I told him one of my “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories. I heard words I’d never, ever have thought to hear from my own offspring, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
99. So to finish that off – a tale that involves a uniquely American holiday, youthful stupidity, a good bit of luck, and the sound of Guardian Angel’s pagers going off yet again… It’s the memories of July 4th… When I was a kid…
Thanks for being with me through these first 99 – well, 100 stories. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.
Take care & God bless,
We’ve been fighting the creeping crud for a couple of weeks and seemed to finally be turning the corner on it. It had not been a fun experience, and I would not wish it on anyone, but the other day, it reminded me of a time about 12 years ago, when I had a very sick little boy, and as I was sitting there on the edge of his bed, wishing I could make him feel better, he said 5 words that at that moment, with my mind foggy with taking care of him, stumped me.
He said, “Papa, tell me a story.”
I wracked my brain, trying to come up with something, then heard the first four words below come out of my mouth, and then just hung on for the ride…
“Fred was a dragon.”
Uh… Right… where do I go from here?
(My son was really into dragons at the time, had a Folkmanis dragon puppet he loved – he called him Drako, after the movie – I gave him the voice of Sean Connery – which, after a little practice, I did quite well) I held Drako, who eagerly listened to the story of Fred as I went on.
I was still baffled at where I was going to go with the story, but I plowed ahead valiantly…
“A nice dragon, but a dragon nonetheless.”
One night Fred had some trouble falling asleep, as he had somehow come across some knights that had on a new type of armor, and eating them was giving him some serious indigestion.
So Fred tossed and turned that night (which is bad, since when a 35 foot dragon tosses and turns, it tends to break anything in its path).
Another problem came with that indigestion.
Not just your gentle “Oh, pardon me” type of a burp, but a rip snorting full blown gonzo whopper of a burp.
If this had been you or me burping, or even one of those knights, it would have been different.
But Fred was a Dragon.
And rip snorting full blown gonzo dragon burps are things to be seen.
From a distance.
From a Long distance. Like maybe the next mountain top over.
Another thing about dragon burps is that — well you have to know a little science for this one…
About this time, the light, so to speak, went on in my head, and I had an idea where the story was going to go.
I asked Michael, “You know how a rocket blows fire out one end and goes in the other direction?”
“The same thing happens with dragon burps. And by the time Fred had burped a couple of times he was blasted so far back into the cave from them that he could barely breathe.
I’d say, “You can’t make this stuff up,” – but that’s exactly what I was doing. I had no idea where the story was coming from.
I plunged onward…
“He decided he needed to get out, maybe fly around a bit, and get some fresh air.”
So he got up and started heading for the cave opening.
Now getting up and walking caused several things to happen, one of which was that all that rumbling and growling in his tummy, that had been causing burps, moved a little further down past his tummy, and those things that had been burps were about to become something else, coming out of Fred’s — uh, ‘other end’.
Where they’re no longer called ‘burps’.
“After woozily making it up to the mouth of the cave, Fred stood there for some time, resting and breathing deeply the fresh air at the top of the mountain until he felt he could walk, or maybe even fly.”
“That’s it,” thought Fred. “A night flight would be an excellent idea!”
And so Fred started his takeoff run.
At first it wasn’t a run, it was barely a walk. (he was still a little woozy, you know) and then it became a sort of a lumbering trundle (this would be faster than a walk, but not quite a run yet).
While this was happening on the outside, on Fred’s inside other things were happening. All of those things that Fred had eaten that were giving him the indigestion (all the knights and that new armor and so on) were rumbling together faster and faster, and it was building up to one pretty good sized burp, or something else, depending on where it was inside Fred at the time.
That lumbering trundle became a bit of a run, and Fred started flapping his wings, as all dragons must do to take off.
Except Fred was so woozy that he wasn’t flapping fast enough.
And he was coming close to the edge of the mountaintop.
As all pilots know, this was a dangerous place to be, hurtling along at a run directly toward the edge without enough speed or flapping to actually fly. He flapped harder, and tried to run faster, but for a long, scary moment, it looked like he wasn’t going to make it.
And then several things happened so fast that it was hard to tell which happened first.
Fred, by now getting scared more than any dragon really had a right to be be, took a deep breath and held it as he put all his energy into running as fast as he could.
At that same moment, all of the knights and armor and stuff had rumbled together so fast that a burp was coming.
Not an ordinary burp, but a rip snorting full blown gonzo whopper of a burp.
And right then, Fred got to the edge of the mountaintop and tried to give it one last push to get into the air.
And he stumbled.
The claw on the big toe of his right rear foot hit a rock. A small rock, really, but a special rock. This was the kind of rock that sparked when you hit it with things like dragon claws.
And at that same moment, the burp finally came out.
Except Fred had just held his breath to run.
So Fred couldn’t burp. And it had to go *somewhere*
This burp came out, only most folks don’t call it a burp when it comes out *that* end of a dragon.
I then asked Michael, “Remember when I told you about the rocket? And how when the fire comes out in one direction the rocket moves in the other?”
He nodded, paying attention..
“And do you remember how when Fred sneezed it blew him back into the cave?”
He nodded again – and I continued.
“Well, this didn’t blow him back into the cave. “
It blasted him straight up into the air. Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING on the top of that mountain, was singed by the blast.
Trees no longer had leaves on them.
Bushes no longer had branches on them.
Even Small furry animals no longer had fur on them.
But Fred wasn’t aware of any of that.
In fact, Fred, who moments before had been worried about even being able to take off, was hurtling through the atmosphere faster than any dragon had ever flown.
His eyes were watering, his lips were almost blubbering from the wind and he was just beginning to get control of his wings when he saw the bird.
The bird, on the other hand, lost control of everything when it saw Fred.
Here it was, flying peacefully along on a cool evening, enjoying the stars, the wind, the scenery, when up through this cloud came this –
- and the sound of the startled dragon scream could be heard throughout the valley below.
In fact, the smell of roasted bird and burnt feathers could be smelled for some time, too.
Fred was climbing so fast that nothing in front of him could hear him, and eventually, as he started gliding down and wiped the bird doo-doo out of his eyes, he realized he was above the clouds, and had no idea where he was or how to get home.
He kept gliding, in circles, until he saw a glow in the clouds, and headed toward that, thinking it might help him find his mountaintop.
And he was right… it did make it easier to spot.
His mountaintop was the only one on fire.
Fred didn’t realize it that evening, but he’d just done the first rocket assisted takeoff in dragon history.
People from miles around still talk about it.
They say the top of the mountain caught fire, and well it did.
Only now you know (with credit to Paul Harvey) the rest of the story.
And my little boy was asleep.
© 2012 Tom Roush
I’ve been struggling to write a story for Christmas this year, and it hasn’t worked at all…
The story I’ve been working on just hasn’t come together, and I’m getting the feeling, that just like some stories have to be published at a certain time (hard to explain, but it’s true – some stories have this urgency as I’m writing them that just can’t be ignored, and later, in either comments, feedback, or just people talking to me, I often find out how important it was to get a story out at a certain time.
The story I was working on, however, is giving me the other impression. It isn’t ready, and needs to wait until it is ready, and I don’t know when that will be. On the other hand, another story showed up just this last weekend, and I think that one might have peeked out of the shadows just in time. As I write this now, I don’t know how it will end, so join me in that discovery.
I’m thinking, over the years, as I see what has happened around not just “the holidays” – but Christmas, that people (myself included) often have such high hopes and expectations of Christmas that it can’t possibly live up to those expectations, and that we end up being sad, or depressed because of that…
I was thinking about it, and realized that we often try to replicate the good parts of the Christmases we had in our childhoods, and sometimes, in those memories, forget the bad stuff that happened that made the good stuff stand out. Often we find ourselves wanting “something” – but not being sure what exactly it is.
We often do what Madison Avenue wants us to do – which is to “Stimulate the Economy” – but that just causes problems in other ways.
Where am I going with this? – Well, stay with me for a bit, we’ll find out together.
I found myself thinking of Christmas trees… I’ll tell you about three of them that I remember having. Two as a kid, one as an adult.
When I was a kid, we were poor. There’s no other way to say it. My dad was off at college trying to get a degree so he could help make life better for us. He could only come home on the weekends if he came home at all. There were several years when the money was so tight that we couldn’t even afford a tree at Christmas, much less presents to put under it. In fact, one year, we got the tree the church had used and set it up on Christmas Eve. I don’t know if many people have had a used Christmas tree, but we did.
Ironically, we didn’t think it was weird at the time, we thought it was kind of neat that at the last second, everything fell into place, and we got a tree, for free.
It was during those years that I had a paper route, earning me about $40.00 a month.
One year, we were praying for both Christmas presents and a tree, and while mom made Christmas presents, God answered the prayer. One Saturday morning as I was on my bicycle finishing my paper route, I saw a Christmas tree laying in the ditch beside the road.
I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was. I delivered the last few papers, and came pedaling back as fast as I could, where I picked the tree up and put it on my left shoulder with the butt facing forward so I could steer and shift the bike with my right hand. I could see through the branches, but if someone were driving by (and several people did) they’d see a rather large Christmas tree riding a bicycle, rather unsteadily, I might add, down the street.
No one crashed, including me, which was good – and we were again blessed with a Christmas tree that year.
One that we couldn’t have afforded otherwise.
The thing I realize now is that we didn’t even have a Christmas tree stand. Over the years, Dad, being home from University over Christmas, would make a tree stand with me out of 4 boards that we’d nail or screw together, then to the tree, with notches at the bottom so there’d be enough room for a pie tin of water underneath.
If we’d had a tree stand like everyone else, I wouldn’t have this memory.
The next year, finances were still pretty rough, and we were still just scraping by. At the time, we had a large garden, and were very familiar with what passed for food banks back then. We didn’t drink soda, couldn’t afford it, but we did drink apple cider we made from all the apple trees we had on the property.
Hmmm… if we’d been able to drink soda like everyone else, I wouldn’t have that memory.
I’ll write about that someday, but that December, even with all the things we’d done to save money, a tree was still not in the budget.
I think that might have been my last year with the paper route, and I was looking for a tree beside the road like we’d had that one year, but there were none.
In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us.
Well, actually… I take that back.
A tree did fall out of the sky, but it was in kit form.
And actually, it wasn’t a ‘tree” per se…
It was a branch.
It was a huge branch from a tree on Fort Lewis – on one of those side roads that’s made by an 18 year old kid driving a 60 ton tank at 35 miles per hour and leaving a trail of wanton destruction in his wake. (Yes, there were kids that age out there doing that. They were, however, in the Army when they did it.)
I don’t remember exactly how I got it home, but I did. The huge branch was far too long to get into a tree stand without gouging holes in the ceiling or chopping holes into the floor, so I got out one of my dad’s old saws and whacked off a good chunk of it so that it would fit. (That cut-off part unwittingly became our Yule Log) I then started cutting branches off and drilling holes into the trunk where I wanted to put them. I whittled them so they’d fit into the holes I’d drilled and ended up moving almost every branch that way.
Then I made the stand for it like I did every year.
And we did have a Christmas tree that year. It was beautiful, really. Complete with decorations, and even some presents.
If I’d been able to buy a tree like everyone else, I wouldn’t have this memory. I’d have forgotten about an anonymous little tree in one of many Christmases a long time ago.
That got me thinking.
Those weren’t easy times that I’m writing about. Seriously. But it feels like it was those parts that made me grow in ways I couldn’t have grown if life had been as easy as I wanted it to be.
Many years later, I’d grown up, become an adult, and was now in the position of trying to support my family, and for a number of years, life was pretty rough, and I got to thinking about where every penny was going, and spending any more money than I had to on a Christmas tree was just impossible to comprehend, and for years we bought our trees at a now defunct store called “Chubby and Tubby’s”.
If you’ve lived in Seattle for any length of time, you’ll remember that Chubby and Tubby trees could be had for $4.61 ($5.00 with tax). Oh you could get nicer trees, for more money, but we bought the trees we could afford, (here’s one of them, picked out by our then two year old Michael, his mittens dangling from his sleeves).
And for a number of years, I made a Christmas tree stand like I did when I was a kid, and I drilled holes in the trunk and moved branches around so they’d look nice, just like I did when I was a kid.
Only this time I was doing it with my son, not with my dad.
I did some more thinking – because we’ve been able to have some pretty neat Christmases over the years in spite of things. There was the year we were able to make it to church Christmas Eve. That might seem “normal”, but I’d just gone through my 4th and last round of chemo, and we had to leave right afterwards – but we made it.
That was cool.
And over the years we’ve found that Christmas comes every year, whether you’re ready for it or not.
And it’s a mixed bag, isn’t it?
Sometimes life happens to be good and you can have a “good” Christmas. That’s a blessing to cherish.
But sometimes – and you can probably figure that I could tell you stories about this: Life is just life, and it isn’t as kind and gentle as we’d hope, or as we might remember. Without going into great detail, a number of people I know are at this moment going through some of the worst challenges a human can go through, the loss of a parent, a sibling, a child, the loss of a marriage, or relationship, and they’re still trying to celebrate Christmas, and trying to figure out how and why they even can, through all the struggles. They’re looking in vain for that blessing.
And after awhile, being pulled in all sorts of directions, it’s easy to lose sight of what Christmas is all about.
I don’t have answers to why this kind of stuff seems to happen more at Christmas, but amidst the turmoil we’re all experiencing, whether it’s spiritual, or health, or relationships, or economy, I’ve come to the conclusion that we crave the opposite of that turmoil, especially at this time of year. It’s one thing: Peace.
A friend who’s experienced his share of turmoil (he’s a medic) noted, “Perhaps that’s why people wish others “Peace” during this season. That doesn’t just mean “absence of war” but inner peace. I wish you both senses of the word.”
His comment about both kinds of Peace got me to thinking of the original words about Peace in this Season, and while you can read the words here, we heard one of the great philosophers of our time do a pretty good job explaining it to his depressed friend, who was also pretty confused about what Christmas was really all about.
In a crystal clear voice he said to him, and to all who would listen,
“And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid … And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord.”
“And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.”
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” – Linus Van Pelt
And so it is.
So whether you have a beautiful tree and all that goes with it, or whether you are struggling to make a tree out of a branch that fell out of the sky, above all else, I wish you God’s blessings, and Peace this Christmas season.
I initially wrote this story in my blog on SQL databases (you can find that here) and realized the story could easily fit here, too, that lessons can sometimes come from the strangest places. There’s a line in this story below that has become kind of a running joke between my son and me, in large part because of the wisdom in it, and how old he was when he came upon that wisdom. That little line could be the title of the story, but as I finished writing it, I realized that the story was both about that line, and about success, and how the two fit together. So with that as an introduction, please allow me to share a story that happened many years ago, but still has wisdom and relevance even today.
When my son was little – about 2, we went out to the Pacific coast of Washington State and stayed in a vacation house for a few days. He got to run on the beach, play with things he’d never played with, and just really, really had a good time. It was wonderful to watch. For those of you who have children, you’ll recognize this.
He was also at this stage in life where he just wanted to do everything by himself – and, for those of you who have children, you’ll recognize some of this, too.
He was a “big boy” now, and he wanted to take care of things in a “big boy” way, so when he had to go take care of some, shall we say, personal business, he wanted to do it, as he said, “all by myself”.
And so, like many parents, I waited for him to call me and tell me he was done, so I could help him finish up the paperwork, so to speak. And he didn’t call, and didn’t call, and didn’t call.
Finally I called in and asked if he was okay. I heard a strained, “I’m fine!” – and then silence. Then I heard a thump, followed by another thump.
Silence followed by thumps is never good. It seemed like it was time to go check on him, so I rushed in to see what was the matter – and in half a second I could see what had happened.
He’d been sitting on the toilet – the “grownup” toilet that everyone else used, not the little one he would normally use, and he’d been struggling to hold himself up with his hands to keep from falling in.
When he was done, and being a little tired from holding himself up, he wanted to be a “grownup”, he skootched himself forward until he could get off, but in doing so, left quite a bit of “evidence” on the toilet seat, the front of the toilet, and all the way up his back that he’d done so. It was clear he’d lost his balance a bit as he was trying to stand and had bumped into the wall, leaning there to hold himself up.
The, um, “evidence” was there, too.
He was standing there in the middle of the bathroom, ‘pullups’ down around his feet, surveying the scene with an almost analytical detachment when I rushed in and saw the whole thing. I could clearly see what had happened based on what I just described, but instinctively wanting to confirm it, I blurted out, “Michael! What happened?!”
His answer was priceless…
“Well, Papa. Sometimes… things go wrong.”
There it was, plain and simple. “Sometimes, things go wrong.”
Despite the best of intentions, despite the best will in the world, as he said, “Sometimes, things go wrong.”
People make mistakes, or don’t live up to our expectations.
Things go wrong.
Things break, or don’t work like we expect.
Things go wrong.
No matter what we do in life…
Things go wrong.
So how do you handle it when they do?
And, when you have a simple acknowledgement of the fact up front, how on earth can you be angry?
How do you – at work or at home – handle it when things go wrong?
What, if you were faced with that situation I mentioned, would be the most important thing?
Seems like they’d be like this, in order:
- Clean up Michael (as in: clean up the source of the – we’ll call it “evidence”)
- Clean up the toilet seat (as in: make sure things are functional again)
- Clean up the wall (as in: take care of any – we’ll call it ‘collateral damage’ here)
- This one’s incredibly important: Remember: Sometimes, THINGS GO WRONG – equipment breaks or wears out, code for our computers has bugs in it, and humans, both personally and professionally, are not perfect.
Yelling at my son about making a mess he already told me he didn’t mean to make wasn’t going to solve anything.
Managers yelling at employees when things go wrong generally don’t have much of a good result either, nor, often, does yelling in personal situations.
The important thing there was to help clean up the mess, then reassure him and let him know that everything was okay. Just like you need to reassure and encourage the people involved so they’re not afraid to, shall we say, ‘get back in the saddle’.
And this takes us to…
5. If you want to keep this kind of thing from happening again:
Personally: I can’t stress the importance of communication – not just speaking, but being willing to listen. I can’t tell you how crucial that is, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not perfect in this and have definitely made my share of mistakes, so please don’t take this as some perfect being sitting on the top of a mountain dispensing wisdom. Nope, I’m down in the trenches, muffing things up along with everyone else, trying to learn the lessons God has for me, and trying to share the experiences along the way.
Also, (this one is challenging) realize yours might not be the only right view there. (Yes, hard as it is to understand this in the moment, it’s possible for two people to be right about something – and still disagree with each other). Often, one will be thinking short term, one long term. Or, one may be thinking, we’ll call it ‘rationally’ while the other is thinking ‘emotionally’.
Note: One is just as valid as the next.
Professionally: Communication here is just as critical. You might have one person thinking long term, but unable to articulate it, while another is focused on the immediate problem, and is more vocal.
Both are valid.
Be sure to listen to the quiet people in your organization. Make sure your people are equipped with the proper tools to do the job they’re expected to do. Going back to my son’s analogy, it’s good to make sure the saddle’s the right size in the first place. Instead of your people using all their strength to keep from falling into a place they’d rather not be because the hole – or the responsibility – is too big, make sure they have the skills (read: training) to be big enough to keep from falling in in the first place.
Does that make sense?
There are many ways to handle situations like this, but for those of you doing management of some kind, understand that the minds of your employees are the most vital things you have. Most often, it’s in there that the solutions to the problems lie. Making them quake in fear of you isn’t a productive use of your time, isn’t a productive use of their skills, and doesn’t make them feel comfortable getting, as I said, ‘back in the saddle’.
So, whether it’s in your work life, or your personal life, when dealing with folks:
Respect them for their skills, whatever they may be.
Forgive them for their mistakes, whatever they were.
Put the past where it belongs, behind you, and in doing so, you’ll help them learn, and you’ll teach them something far, far more valuable than you realize.
You’ll teach them they can trust you to have their back when they need you.
You’ll teach them they can take risks and fail, and not worry about their jobs.
But in setting them up like that – they’ll also feel comfortable right at the edge of their skill envelope, and, as one leader (the former CIO of the company I work for – yes, this means you, Dale) once said, “it’s when you’re at the edge of your envelope that you make mistakes, but that’s also where you learn the most. Yes, sometimes you fail, but sometimes you succeed beyond your wildest dreams.”
He was right, and I appreciated that sentiment more than I ever really found words for.
It also boggled my mind that someone, with all the education he had, with all the experience he had, at the peak of his career in a company could come to the same conclusion that my then two year old son came up with on his own.
It shouldn’t be that hard for those of us somewhere between the two to come to similar conclusions, should it?
In fact, it seems like a huge part of success comes from understanding, and accepting, that…
Things go wrong.
(C) 2011 Tom Roush – all rights reserved
A quiet time, when the cares of the day are soaked away by a warm, relaxing soak in the tub…
…for people without kids, that is…
* * *
When my son Michael was much younger, we used to take baths together, you know, a father-son kind of a thing…
Well, he’s gotten bigger, and unfortunately, so have I, and so getting the two of us in the tub at the same time isn’t as easy as it used to be. So I’ve taken to sitting on the edge of the tub with my feet in it, having taken my shoes and socks off and having rolled up my pants…
That said, one night, many years ago, he was taking a bath, and as is often the case, he called out, “Papa, can you come in here?” (Actually, it was “Papa, kannsch du do hehr komma, bitte?” – he still knows some of his German – Southern German to be clear.)
Sometimes he wants someone to read him a book while he’s in the tub, sometimes he just wants someone to play with.
This time, he wanted someone to play with…
Okay, I thought, what are my options? There was a TV program I was considering watching, that will probably be rerun, and I have the childhood of my little boy, which will not.
It was a no brainer…
So I went in there, and we’ve got some old shampoo bottles there (which make far better bath toys than anything else. You can make boats out of them, submarines, bombs (filling them and then dropping them into the tub – they make a pretty good splash when dropped by a creative 6 year old), and most of all, squirt guns…)
I was planning on just kneeling down beside the tub and playing with him, grabbing one of the shampoo bottles and kind of having a squirt-gun war… But when I got into the bathroom, he said, “Can you put your feet in the tub?”
Well, that would have meant taking my socks off, rolling my pants up, and in general getting ready. He would have had fun, and that would have been that.
On the other hand, I thought, “what if I just get in there with him?”
So, right after he said that, I stepped into the tub, socks, pants and all. He was looking down at the time, heard the splash of my left foot, and saw something just slightly unfamiliar at the bottom of the tub.
With a sock on it.
At the bottom of a hole in the water.
Attached to a leg.
With pants on it.
The water splashed back, and he followed the splash and the leg up to the rest of me with this look that was a mixture of, “No, really? and “You’ve GOT to be kidding me” and “WOW!!! This is COOL!!!”
Then he started laughing that wonderful belly laugh that just makes your heart melt…
We had fun…
We found that if you have the shampoo bottles that have the little button on top to push down to get the shampoo out, you can actually take that whole unit off without taking the actual lid off and have a really good squirt gun.
So we did.
…and started squirting at the little lids that were now floating in the tub, the other stuff in the tub, and each other.
Within a minute I was significantly wetter than I’d planned on being.
We called Cindy, who had that, “Oh, you boys…” kind of look on her face…
So we went back to squirting each other…
Now after awhile my pants were pretty darned wet, and it was getting close to “Bedtime for Bonzo”, so I got out, and tried to take the pants off.
Now if you’ve ever tried to take wet pants off you know that it’s a bit harder than taking dry ones off, because they cling to your legs and won’t let go.
Michael watched with amusement as I made this discovery
So there I am, hopping around in the bathroom on one foot, with my very wet socks sklorching every time I hit the floor, part of one semi removed pant leg flying about, splattering water everywhere, and Michael’s laughing…
After flopping and splashing and sklorching and kicking for a very intense minute or so (it was probably less, but it sure seemed that long…) I managed to get my right foot out of the pants leg and onto the floor.
But in that last desperate kick to get my foot out and catch my balance, I very skillfully kicked the pants leg into the toilet.
This couldn’t be happening.
Had he not been in the tub, he would have been rolling on the floor.
As it was, he was laughing that laugh that you just can’t get from anywhere but a small, happy child.
So, I got me dried off and changed, got him dried off and changed, and then got him bundled off into bed.
Such a relaxing time…
In this blog, I’ve been trying to write stories that have been “baked” – where I’ve spent the time over the years getting to that “aha” moment, where the laughter, the lessons, the tears have been learned, and I can share them with you.
This post is a little different.
I’ve been asked by a number of people to give “hankie warnings” on some of these stories, and in honor of that request, please consider yourself warned.
This post is a little more personal than the others, and it’s a number of stories, kind of intertwined.
As I write this – November 8th, it will have been 10 years since I spoke the words below, in front of a well-dressed, somber group of people who listened, who laughed and who cried.
I had been in that last category for ten months, and on November 8th, 2000, these people joined me there.
It was the day we buried my dad.
He’d been in the Air Force. He’d done his time in many countries. It was his time in the Air Force that had him meet my mom, that gave him stories of far-away places to tell, and that shaped my childhood. Some of those stories I’ve recalled in past posts, some are still, as it were, baking, and will be written when they’re ready.
I was at work on January 10th, 2000, when I got “the call”. Those of you who’ve been through this will understand what that means. It’s actually hard to describe the feeling to someone who hasn’t been there, but when I got “the call” – my heart froze, and given where I was, I did the only thing I could do…
…and then I wrote.
I didn’t know whether I’d ever get a chance to tell dad all the things I’d wanted to say over the years – and it seemed that if I was ever going to take the chance, that right then would be that chance, instead of saying all the things I wanted to say to him in a eulogy where he couldn’t hear me, and the words would be empty.
So I wrote a note to him that January afternoon. It’s included in what’s below – which, ironically, is the eulogy I gave for my dad, 10 years ago today.
= = =
That’s what it says there in your program that this is going to be.
But how do you put into a few words the life of a man who was a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, a father in law, a grandfather, a teacher — and all those countless other things that a man is in his life?
I’m not going to go into the history of dad too much, you all can read that on the backs of your bulletins. We tried to get as much in there as we could. We’ll also have some pictures going in the fellowship hall so you can see a little more about who dad was.
But right now, I’d like to tell you a little bit about who dad is.
By now most of you know a bit about how this all came about, and for a number of you, the last time you saw him was in this very church on January 8th of this year at Tom McLennan’s Memorial Service.
Dad went into the hospital that night, stayed in ICU at Madigan until May, during which time he had a stroke and some other complications, and later was taken to Bel Air Nursing home in Tacoma, where he died last Friday.
I wrote him a note on January 10th, when things looked pretty bad, his heart had stopped the night before, and we didn’t know what was going on, since he’d walked into the hospital the night before that, and I tried to tell him what he meant to me. I’d like to read part of that note to you, because in a lot of ways, it tells a bit about the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, and the legacy that he left behind.
1:45 PM 1/10/00
It’s Monday, you’re in the hospital right now, and I’m praying for you.
I have to tell you a few things, just so you know them.
I love you.
– this is so hard to write…
I don’t want this to be the time to say goodbye, but I need to say a few things so that when the time comes, I can say goodbye knowing I’ve told you what I need to tell you.
You know as well as I do that there were a lot of things in our lives that haven’t panned out the way we’d planned.
Because of the time you spent away from the family in the Air Force and at school, I didn’t get a chance to have you around when I really needed a dad.
This doesn’t mean it was easy for you, in fact it was hard. I know now it was very hard for you as well.
But I want you to know that good has come out of that.
I try to spend time with my little boy now as a result, and I’m glad I was able to get my schooling out of the way before I became a papa.
Because you went away to school to improve yourself, I learned that sacrifice is sometimes necessary for future growth.
And good has come out of that.
I learned how much a son needs his father, and I try to be here for my son. So even though you felt very much like you were a failure, you weren’t. You taught me a valuable lesson, one that I will treasure always.
Because of the time you spent fixing things (and the time I spent holding the flashlight for you*)
*He’d ask me to hold the flashlight for him while he was working on something, and being a kid, my attention span was about as long as a gnat’s eyebrow, and so I’d be looking all over, shining the flashlight to what I wanted to see.
I learned how to fix things I never thought I could.
I also expanded my vocabulary during these times.
Because of the way you showed us responsibility, I was able to get a paper route and learn responsibility early, on my own.
Because you helped us deliver those papers on weekends sometimes, I learned that sometimes helping your kids to do the things they’re responsible for doing is a good thing.
Because of the way you told me to take things one step at a time, I was able to build pretty big things at Microsoft when I was there,, one step at a time.
And because you made things for me (like a train table)
and read to me (from Tom Sawyer)
and told me stories (like Paul Bunyan)
and sang to me (The Lord’s Prayer)
and took me to work (where I spun the F-4 Simulator)*
* — in the Air Force Dad was a flight simulator technician — he fixed flight simulators, and one time he took me to work, I think I must have been 5 or 6, and there was this whole line of these simulators — all just cockpits of airplanes, and he, as fathers are known to do, picked me up and popped me in the driver’s seat. I sat there, my eyes huge, as I saw all these dials and gauges in front of me, and it was just so cool and so complicated. — And there was this big stick thing in the way, so I pushed it off to one side so I could get a better look at the dials. I didn’t know that the simulator thought it was flying, and by pushing that stick over I made it think it was corkscrewing into the ground, and all the dials and gauges started spinning and I got so scared, I thought I’d broken it, and I looked out at him — he was standing right there, talking to someone else, and with fear and trepidation said, “Daddy?” — he turned around, took one look at what was happening, reached in and fixed it. Just like that. He fixed it. I hadn’t broken it. But he just reached in, and with one touch, he fixed it.
and showed me things, (like Wolf Spiders)*
When we lived in Illinois, we discovered that the spiders there are significantly bigger than spiders here in Washington.
So one time Dad was in the basement, doing something, and he called me down. He wanted me to see what he’d found under this can. So, being a kid and being curious, I squatted right beside it, and then picked up the can — to find the biggest, hairiest god-awful ugliest wolf spider I’d seen in my entire life. I jumped up and screamed, and dad was over there laughing so hard. I didn’t think it was funny then, but for years all we’d have to say was “wolf spider” it would bring the whole thing back, and we’d have a good laugh over it.
and surprised me with presents (like at Christmas in 1971 when you told me to clean up a pile of newspapers, and you’d put a bunch of toy trains underneath them)*
*He kept asking me to clean up the papers, but there was always another present to unwrap, another toy to play with, another cookie to eat — and finally, when the Christmas eve was finally winding down and we were cleaning up, I remembered the newspapers and started to clean them up — and underneath was a train set he’d gotten from somewhere, on a set of tracks, just waiting for a little boy to play with them.
and provided for me (helping me get my first Saab)*
*Many of you in this church may remember praying for that very car…
and went out of your way to help me (when that first Saab broke down)
– and the second Saab, — the third one (the fourth one’s out there, it runs fine)
and drove all the way up to Seattle to SPU when I was a student one Christmas to bring me a present — a radio controlled Porsche 928) when you knew it was the only thing I would get.
and visited me at work when I was able to show you where I worked and what I’d become professionally
And supported me in your thoughts and prayers as I became a father in my own right.
You showed me love.
And because you told me, I know you love me.
I love you too.
I read this note to him several times, never being quite sure whether it got across to him. In August, at the nursing home, I read it to him again, and he looked at me very intently while I read it, and as I finished, there was this look on his face, of peace, of contentment, of, “My job is done.” and for a split second, the stroke seemed to be gone.
He then took the note from my hand and read it himself.
And I know that he knew when he left that he was loved, he was cared for, he was appreciated, and that he would be missed.
We rejoice for him, we’re happy, for him, that this ordeal is over, but we’re sad for us, for the big, dad/Gary/grampa shaped hole he leaves in each of our lives.
– I was thinking the other day about the things I’d miss about him, and I’m sure there will be many to come, but the things that come to mind right now are the little things — and it’s always the little things, isn’t it?
The fact that he’d say “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” so often that we didn’t realize how important it was for him to be able to say that, and now, how important it was for us — the whole family to have him as a cheerleader in the background. There were times he couldn’t do as much as he wanted to do for us, and in his mind, he always wanted to do more — and the fact that he’s no longer in the background, just being there cheering us on — I’ll miss that. We’ll miss that.
I miss his meow — for those of you who don’t know, he had this way of meowing like a cat so you couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It drove us nuts — and we miss it.
I miss him greeting Michael and me with, “Hello Sonshine”
I miss seeing him snuggle my little girl Alyssa, in his lap, reading any of a number of books to her, and the look on her face that told me of the security she felt in those arms.
I miss him standing with mom, waving good bye to us as we left after a visit. — and no matter where we were, when we got together, he’d always thank us for taking the time to do that, to get together as a family, and to include him and he would always remind us, “You are loved.”
We miss him telling us “Remember, a fat old man loves you.”
I miss him yelling at us to shut the living room door. That’s the sound we grew up with. We’d run out, be halfway up the stairs, and hear, “SHUT THE DOOR” — of course, he hadn’t done that for years since he put a spring on it so it’d shut itself. But I miss knowing I won’t hear it again.
I miss him calling me up at night to tell me there was something interesting on Channel 9 that he wanted to share with me, even though we couldn’t be together, we could see it at the same time.
When I was growing up, and I’d be upstairs brushing my teeth late at night, I’d hear dad snoring downstairs, — a gentle snore (at least from upstairs) and I knew that that meant all was right with the world.
I’ll miss that, too.
And even though there are many things we’ll miss about him, I know he’s better off now than he was for the last 10 months.
Some time ago I had a dream — a dream of him essentially dying, and it didn’t look as bad as we all generally think of dying.
In my dream, he was laying there, his body all there, but kind of gray, and damaged. It looked like dad, but suddenly he broke free of that body, and he just kind of came up, there was this whole, healthy copy of him, in living color that kind of came out of him like a butterfly comes out of a cocoon, and he was free, he was whole, and he flew away, leaving the gray, damaged body behind him.
After Dad died, Petra was doing some thinking about what his death was like for him, and the image she came away with was this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed, suddenly could see her.
The machine wasn’t breathing for him anymore.
His mind was clear, not muddled by a stroke.
His heart didn’t struggle.
His feet weren’t cold.
We imagine he looked around, saw the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his wife to be with his Lord.
During dad’s life, we all knew that no matter where we went or what we did, dad loved us, and I am convinced that up there in heaven, he loves us still.
When the service was done, we headed to what would be dad’s final resting place, and on that cold, clear day, the wind blowing the oak leaves around the cemetery, our family gathered around dad one last time as he was given a military funeral, with an Air Force Honor Guard from McChord Air Force Base, a flag, and a rifle salute.
We shivered as we took our places in the chairs under the portable gazebo they’d set up for us, with mom sitting in the front row. I walked away for a bit to clear my head as the ceremony started.
I’d seen the airman with his trumpet, trying to keep his mouthpiece warm on that cold day, and I knew he was going to play Taps – which I’d learned to play when I played the trumpet in junior high school, but I’d never had to play when it counted.
Taps, originally used to signal “lights out” in the military, eventually became the bugle call played at funerals, where it signaled – or symbolized – a final “lights out” for an individual.
I’d heard it played when my friend Bruce Geller died in 1978.
I’d heard it played when I, as a photojournalist, was covering the funeral of Lee Stephens, a sailor from the USS Stark that was hit by a missile on May 17th, 1987, and each time I’ve heard it, it has been like a knife in the heart for me.
It is a symbol of the end of a life, and of a loved one, where they make that transition from living in your life to living in your memories.
I remember, as I shot the funeral of Lee Stephens, how I wanted to honor the grief and sorrow his family was experiencing, but at the same time, I wanted to tell the story that this young sailor, from a small town in Ohio, who’d graduated just a few years before, had people left behind who still loved him.
I remember seeing, through the viewfinder of my Nikon, through a long, long telephoto lens, the look on this sailor’s mom’s face as the sergeant of the honor guard handed her the flag. It was a photo that, while it was “the” photo from a photojournalism point of view, I did not take. The moment was too intimate, the grief was too raw.
I remember her eyes, simultaneously exhausted, numb, disbelieving, and utterly spent as she accepted a flag from an honor guard member, “…on behalf of a grateful nation…”
In walking away a bit, I had unconsciously recreated the view I’d seen through that camera, the photo I didn’t take in 1987 at that cold cemetery 13 years later, and I was not prepared to see that look on my mom’s face and in her eyes
But I’d seen that look before, and knew what it meant.
We’d had 10 months to prepare for this moment, but the fact is, we all know we’re going to die. Being faced with it as “sometime” in the vague future is one thing. Seeing it in front of you in unblinking reality is something else entirely.
I saw the honor guard fold the flag as precisely as they could fold it
But this time, I wasn’t hiding behind my camera, trying to insulate myself from the pain of a mother who had lost her son.
This time, while I wasn’t a mother who’d lost her son, I was the son of a mother who’d lost her husband.
This time, I was a son who’d lost his father.
I understood things a little more clearly now.
I understood a little more about how much it means to sit in that chair, and have someone hand you a flag, in exchange for someone you love.
As if that wasn’t enough, it was then that they did the rifle salute. For those of you who have not experienced it, it is very much like a 21 gun salute. Retired military members who have served honorably receive a 9 gun salute, a volley where 3 soldiers fire off three rounds apiece. It is done as a sign of respect, of honor. For those not prepared for it, it can be shocking.
The call was made,
“Ready! Aim! Fire!”
Three fingers squeezed three triggers.
Three firing pins hit three cartridges.
Three cartridges fired and were ejected.
The honor guard was called to attention, and the command “Present Arms” was given so precisely – they all moved as one. Those without rifles saluted – those with rifles held them in the “present arms” position.
As the three shots echoed away, the only sound left was of those leaves, the movement of cloth, and the click of rifles being presented.
There was a moment where this was all we heard. Leaves rustling, coats flapping, and the stunned silence of those still not ready to let go.
It was then that the bugler, who’d clearly kept his mouthpiece warm, played Taps. He played it solemnly, clearly, and with the respect and honor due.
– and through the wind, I heard the sergeant’s words I’d heard years before, “on behalf…of a grateful nation…” drift across on the wind as he solemnly handed the folded flag to my mom.
And at the end of the day, as I watched them drive off, I found myself, in spite of the fact that I had my own family, a job, a mortgage, all the trappings of being an adult, I found myself crying, because underneath it all, I was a little boy who’d just lost his daddy.
I cried for the fact that much as I’d wanted to, there were things left unfinished.
I cried for the relationship that had at times been rough, but had started to mend.
I cried for the relationship that, like it or not, mended or not, was ended.
It is Veteran’s Day as this is published…
For those of you out there who are wearing the uniform, or for those of you who have worn it, with honor, you have my greatest respect.
For those of you who’ve lost your sons – like Mr. and Mrs. Stephens, who lost their son Lee, and so many others, and for those of you out there who’ve lost your daddies, my heart goes out to you.
For those of you who are still daddies, remember your kids only have one of you, and they only have one childhood.
It’s not a dress rehearsal, it’s the real thing.
Take the time to be there for them while you can.
Love them. Hug them.
Veteran’s Day, 2010
“Love your kids.”
“Love your kids.”
“I already do.”
“Love… Your… Kids…”
And so began another little journey into understanding a little more about who God is and what being a parent is supposed to be.
I’m not sure why I was told that – I just know that during one of my chats with God (most people would call this ‘praying’) – He said three words… Very simply, without a clue as to why this time was any more special than any other time.. “Love your kids”
I’ve learned, over time, that if you don’t pay attention to God’s Celestial Feather Duster, you occasionally get acquainted with God’s Celestial 4 x 4. Having had enough experience with the 4 x 4, and the scars to prove it, I knew that paying attention to the Feather Duster would be a good idea.
So I paid attention.
And a few days after that, on a Sunday, just after church, my phone rang, and it was my daughter, in an absolute panic because she’d been working so hard at putting in practice all the hard lessons she’d learned about finances, and one automatic payment hadn’t been cancelled when she’d done a payment early manually. Bottom line, if both payments hit at the same time, there wasn’t going to be enough there to cover it, and there were going to be fees – reminders of those lessons she’d been taught in that hard way that we often learn lessons when we’re young.
She had the money – it was supposed to get there on Friday. Problem is, it was Sunday, so she needed to borrow money for 5 days and was willing to write me a check to deposit on Friday.
The thing is, she hates calling and asking for money. She hates it because it’s clear to her that asking for money means she hasn’t planned properly, and she sees it as a failure on her part, but she gritted her teeth, and picked up the phone, and made a call she didn’t want to make.
That I got just as I was leaving church.
“Love Your Kids…”
So I listened on the phone for a bit, and she explained with that adrenaline fueled desperation sound in her voice that I’ve heard from myself how she was in a place she didn’t want to be and how hard it was for her to be making that call. I realized the rest of this conversation would be better done face to face, so I went over to her house, and we talked.
On the way I found myself thinking about this whole “Love your kids” thing – and finances, and how parents often find themselves helping their kids through things that they themselves have gone through – it’s that “circle of life” thing… and it took me back a few years to when I was in Grad school…
…where the lessons we learned weren’t all in the classroom.
It was grad school for photojournalism – back in the days of film, when a digital camera cost $10,000.00, and our evening routine was being either in the darkroom or the computer lab. In this case, it was the computer lab, where we were working on stories for our projects, or layouts, or whatever. We’d stay there till it closed – usually around 11:00, and for those of us who’d had dinner, 11:00 was pretty late, and we were pretty hungry by then.
Someone actually mentioned this. More specifically, they mentioned that they were hungry for pizza.
We were grad students.
None of us had enough money to buy a pizza.
All of us together, however, did.
Next thing we heard was “Anybody wanna go in on a pizza?”
And it turned out that $2.50 would do a nice job of getting a couple of slices of pizza, which would be enough to make it until the lab closed and we had to leave.
I didn’t have cash, so I wrote a check out for the $2.50, and in 30 minutes or less, God’s own gift to college students, a pepperoni pizza was delivered.
It couldn’t have disappeared faster without a swarm of locusts of Biblical proportions.
And… it was gone.
Or so I thought.
See – it turns out that in a college town, overdrawing your account is considered a slightly worse thing than in a standard, everyday town. And a certain pizza place that used to deliver in 30 minutes or less categorically refused to put up with that, so no matter what happened, if your check bounced, it went to collections faster than a – well, a pizza delivery driver on commission…
Now financial institutions work wonders with money you don’t have. In this case, the bank charged me $15.00 for bouncing a check for $2.50. The collection agency thought they’d jump in, too, and charged me another $15.00.
And they sent me mail to prove it.
I – um – didn’t see that envelope until I got another one in the mail, telling me that they’d be happy to continue charging me another $15.00 a month…
…for the privilege of sending me notes asking for another $15.00 a month…
At this point, that incredible pepperoni pizza – correction, those two slices of pepperoni pizza – had cost me $47.50.
Long story short, once I figured out my finances, I realized I was in what some have described as “deep kimchee”, and I needed help. My student loan had not come in as expected, so I was living right on the financial edge, and those two slices of pizza had thrown me over it. I knew I needed help, but to ask for it required an admission that I hadn’t taken care of things like I should. In the end, I had to make a telephone call to my grandmother, who had lived through the depression, correction – lived through THE Depression, the one in 1929 – not this recession we’ve just gone through, and in her mind, the way you lived was simple:
Use it up.
Wear it out.
Make it do…
…or do without.
You did not waste money.
So calling her and asking her to help bail me out of this was one of the hardest calls I ever had to make. She didn’t seem to think that spending money like that was particularly wise (I agreed) – but she sent me some money that helped me get through until that delayed student loan of mine finally came through.
And I thought about all this as I was heading over to visit my daughter, who had actually done something far less silly, but had the same feelings about calling me and asking for money as I did in calling my grandma.
I wanted to make sure that my daughter understood that this kind of stuff happens, people aren’t perfect, and I didn’t want to do anything silly to try to pretend I’m perfect, because I know I’m not. When I was telling her this story of my past, along the lines of “When I was your age…” she asked, being between jobs, “Does it ever get better?”
I tried to tell her that it does, but at that moment, had to focus my thoughts on the ATM machine – which, for some reason, wasn’t giving me any money out of my checking account…
I tried savings.
This is weird – I know there’s enough money there…
Eventually I found that the card was linked to the wrong account and transferred some to the right place, but what got me about the whole thing was that there really was less money there in the account than I thought.
And it wasn’t there because an automatic payment of mine had gone out that I’d forgotten about.
Which was why we were here in the first place, one generation later.
When I told her that – she just laughed and laughed.
Things do get better – if you’re saving money – you have some stashed away that you can help your kids with.
And somewhere in all of this, I knew that this was one of my chances to “Love My Kids”
And I’m glad I was able to be there for her.
My son has informed me that “to be old and wise, you first have to be young and stupid” – and with that in mind, we’ll start with a story –it’s from my childhood, when I, like most of us, was young and stupid.
Speaking of my son, as he was growing up, I told him “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories, in hopes that he wouldn’t do those things. Now it’s said that tragedy plus time equals comedy, and when hearing these stories of my stupidity in my childhood, he would usually laugh at the tragedy I’d survived, mostly of my own doing. And somewhere in the story there’d be a lesson, and he’d remember it. Now since I was telling him the stories, it must have meant I’d survived, but still, stupid is stupid.
So, in this case, I was about 16 or so, and I was building a diorama – a model of a burned out, destroyed building that a model tank would be positioned as crashing through. It involved a bit of plaster, a few small pieces of plywood, and a whole bunch of little wood scraps and such – oh, and the model. I must have been trying to make it look like the building had burned, and needed that black smoky look to come out of the windows.
Black… Smoky… the kind of smoke that comes from… oh, what is that yellow/orange stuff?…
Fire, yeah… that’s where smoke comes from…
(insert ominous music here)
Now, was I doing this on a desk?
(that would have been smart, and I wouldn’t have this story to be telling you)
…a modeling table?
(that would have been smarter, as I’d have a place to put all the bits and pieces and let glue dry)
…someplace where I could safely light a match or candle and let the smoke do its thing?
(that would have been smartest, as – well – lighting matches… teenagers… in the house… need I say more?)
I was doing it on the carpet in my room.
Oh wait. It gets better.
See, I was trying to get a smokey effect…
A match would have been good.
A candle would have been great.
But for some reason, which I must attribute to my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, I decided that they weren’t quite good enough and decided to use a highway flare instead of a match.
Oh, just go back and read that again, you know you need to…
Yes, a highway flare...
In the house.
Over the carpet.
Well – it’s not so much that I really wanted to use the highway flare, but I had it in my hand, and had the cap off, and was idly wondering how much force it would take to get a spark – oh heck – like that would go over as an excuse…
…did you know that once lit, highway flares are, um, extremely hard to put out?
…and they drip red hot stuff when they’re burning?
…that melts carpets?
Doing the “Olympic torch” run through the house to get it outside just wasn’t going to happen. I mean, there’s that red hot stuff dripping, In this case, it was a carpet, but if I were running (and who can’t imagine running through the house with a flare like an Olympic torch, the crowds cheering, the – no wait – that was just SO not happening… And that red hot stuff would have been dripping on my shoulder, and that would have been, oh, bad… yeah, we’ll just call it bad… (keeping in mind of course that dripping red hot burning stuff onto a carpet really isn’t on the “good” side of the spectrum).
The more I think about it, the more I realize we’re so far past the border between dumb and stupid that you can’t even see it in the rear view mirror. I’d had some plaster powder there for the diorama I was making – and I shoved the flare into that – which, surprisingly enough put it out. But the thing that got me, I still can’t believe it to this day, was that mom smelled the smoke, came in, and wondered what was going on. And my guilty conscience went ballistic trying to defend myself. Understand, this is a teenage mind going off here – but here was my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® reasoning:
“Just because you smell smoke, and
just because you walk into the room that you can barely see through because of that smoke, and
just because I’m the only one in it, and you came in through the only door, and
just because I’m sitting there on the floor, with a hot flare sitting beside me and a smoldering hole in the carpet, you think I DID IT?”
We pause, reverently, hands over hearts for a moment, as the parents out there realize they’ve heard some variation of this before, both from their own mouths and from their children’s…
“Uh… Yeah… As a matter of fact, I do think you did do it.”
My mom, bless her, realized that she was not arguing with logic in the slightest, she was arguing with a guilty conscience and emotion, and no amount of logic was going to make it through that.
I have no idea why I was defending myself so much at that time – but I was. I’m sure I would have said that someone else was using my fingers and put my fingerprints on it had it gotten to that… Dumb, dumb, dumb…
Speaking of fingerprints…
…fast forward about 25 years – I was in my darkroom developing film for a client, and had some hanging up to dry. My daughter came down, eating some chicken. I put two and two together and said, “Don’t touch the film.” I then turned back to the enlarger. Something made me turn around.
One of the strips of film was moving.
The one with some greasy fingerprints that hadn’t been there a moment before.
There was also a very guilty looking 8 year old.
“Didn’t I tell you to not touch it?”
“I can see your fingerprints right there!”
“It wasn’t me”
“We’re the only two in the darkroom!”
It dawned on me…
I started thinking about fingerprints and realized that I wasn’t the only one who had a stranglehold on denial, and that my son was right…
To be old and wise, you have to be young and stupid first…
I just didn’t know it would be hereditary…