Tom, Dad & Michael

Two fathers and two sons… A photo from Father’s Day, 1997

I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…

See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…

Father’s day’s tomorrow.

I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.

See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.

In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.

I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.

I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…

And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.

Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.

So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉  I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years.  See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago.  He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard.  Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing.  I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.

So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.

That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:

…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time…  In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious).  It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).

I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult.  Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind.  I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun.  It actually is the very first story on the blog.

I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.

I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.

This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them.  It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens.  It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously.  A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride.  I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.

There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son.  I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.

Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.

I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written.  This one was a little different.  It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write.  It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.

One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it.  And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.

There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for.  A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still.  I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then.  I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.

And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids.  In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…

And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out.  In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)

Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.

Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad.  Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…

Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure.  So we did.  We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…

I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..

And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.

And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.

Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites.  Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it.  Still makes me smile.

Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI.  He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.

Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story.  In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly.  Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.

It’s about a boy…

And a dragon…

Named Fred.

On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them.  On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.

Oh… My favorite… Springtime.  ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.

And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo.  Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school.  We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.

A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.

I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me.  We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late.  Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step.  “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you!  Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?”  I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.

Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.

And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy.  You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.

Sometimes you spend time on a swingset with your kids, sometimes you spend time in the car with them… Sometimes you agree with them, sometimes not…

But that’s part of life, right?

Oh, and one thing that’s constant…

You always love them.

Always.

 

 

 


Many years ago, there was a little girl who loved red converse high tops.

Then one day, she met a young man and decided that she and her mom would take him out for Pizza, because Mom and Tom rhymed.

And because he had high tops.

They spent a lot of time together, to the point where mom and Tom did more than rhyme, they got married, and the young man slowly started to understand how much the little girl loved the converse high tops.

He taught her how to ride a bicycle, with his high tops on.

Riding rings around Alyssa

Mom took the picture of Tom and Alyssa a few days after Mom & Tom got married.

And he did it wearing his shirt from Sam and Morris’s Market  in Seattle.  This young man, who married her mom (because, among other things, Mom and Tom rhyme), became her papa a few days before her mom took this photo.

One year he did something he’d never done.  He bought two pair of red Converse High Tops, one that was his size, and one that was smaller than any shoes he’d ever remembered buying, so that he and his little girl could both wear their red Converse High Tops and be buddies.

And they did…

Every few years, Papa wore his out…

And every year or so, his little girl would grow out of hers…

But they were loved.

And one day, the papa blinked.

And the little girl grew up.

And she became a young woman.

Years had gone by in the blink of an eye.

And she met a fine young man, who would become her husband.

And he remembered something she had said years earlier.

She had said she wanted to get married in Converse High Tops.

Red Converse High Tops.

And so, on her wedding day, there were fine clothes.

There were suits.

And ties.

And very, very nice dresses.

And there was definitely a wedding dress…

But in the wedding party, there was no leather on anyone’s feet.

You see, Papa had slowly understood how important this was, and had gotten three new pairs of high tops: a new pair for himself, and a new pair for the young man, and especially a new pair for the one who would always be his little girl.

And, as things like this go, that night, she got married to the love of her life.

Photos were taken.

Updates...

…and Facebook was updated.

And just as she had dreamed, she got married in a pair of Red Converse High Tops.

The Bride, her father, and her husband

The Bride, her father, and her husband.

And one day, some years later, while doing some cleaning, the papa found something he hadn’t seen in a long, long time…

A time machine…

And in it were two much smaller, and well-loved Converse.

IMG_8419

And the circle was complete.


I was going through some old photos awhile back from when I was in Sidney, Ohio, and my mind started wandering through the memories.

Going through this one set of negatives (yes, really, and they were black and white, too), I’d been shooting high school baseball – a tournament all the way down in Dayton, and the kids were out there playing, I had been by the field and had watched with everyone, as a storm came in.  While the game was going on, I could see the officials huddled off to one side trying to decide when or if to call the game.  They were paying close attention to the storm.

It turns out that thunderstorms in the Midwest are common, far more than they are here in the Pacific Northwest, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I did have the sense to climb down from the aluminum bleachers I was on as even I knew that lightning struck the highest object first. And, given that I’d been standing on the top bleacher, leaning against the rail at the back – yeah… it was time to come down where it was a little safer.

I’d just gotten to the ground and was standing near the first base line when I heard a loud “Tick” and looked out past the first baseman in time to see a lightning bolt blow a tree apart just past the right field fence.

It was close enough to other things that I could actually gauge the size of the bolt, at least 8 inches across, and the thunder was absolutely instant.

Needless to say, the game was cancelled.  Enough kids get killed by lightning every year that they take it pretty seriously in Ohio, so the kids were running in full tilt before the bits and pieces of the tree even hit the ground.  The parents hustled them to the cars when they got close, and then the rain came pouring down so fast the only thing missing was the Ark…

I got all my camera gear into the car, tossing it onto the passenger’s seat of my ’79 Ford Fairmont, and started the trip up Interstate 75 to the newspaper in Sidney where I’d process the film and get photos ready for the next day’s edition.

The rain, by now, was pretty brutal, and the lighting was constant, to the point where I got to wondering how bright it actually was, so while the traffic was stopped on the freeway, I rummaged around in the camera bag for my light meter that I used to adjust camera settings for Studio Strobe lights, and put it up on the dash.

And then I set it to wait for the next flash.

Which happened about 4 seconds later.

Which, when the light meter was set for ISO 400 film in the camera, registered an f/8.0 aperture.

Consistently.

Meaning if you set the lens to that aperture, the lightning would expose the film perfectly.

Every time.

Which tied in to what they used to say in Grad School: the best way to get a shot was “f/8 and be there” – Because f/8 stopped down the lens enough (think of the lens as squinting) to sharpen things up if you didn’t have the lens completely in focus, but didn’t ‘squint’ so hard that it darkened things to the point you couldn’t see them at all.

And the lightning gave you enough light to take the picture.

Without either of them, neither of them worked.

Hmmm…

f/8 and be there

Even if it’s in the middle of a storm.

Hmmmm…

I pondered some more, but my curiosity satisfied, I put the light meter back in the camera bag and concentrated on traffic, driving, and just plain seeing the taillights in front of me.  It was a pretty bad storm, honestly… Eventually I got back to the paper and developed the film in the darkroom and did indeed get something for the next day’s paper.

I’d have other experiences with lightning later on, at other newspapers, but it was during one moment that’s lost to time that I got to thinking about storms, and specifically thunderstorms, and the lessons they could teach us.

See, when I was little, we lived in Illinois, where the storms were similar to the ones in Ohio.

I knew other kids who were scared of storms, and like them, we’d all head into mom and dad’s bedroom when the thunder woke us up.

But mom didn’t feed the fear at all.  We went there because that bedroom had the best view of the storms, and since dad worked nights, mom would always invite us up onto the bed or over to the window and say, “Ooh, let’s look at the lightning!”

And we did – and we were fascinated with how clear and sharp everything was in that brilliant flash, and how the darker the storm got, the clearer we could see when the lightning hit.

And it got me thinking.

Last December here in Seattle, we lived up to our reputation for rain and got enough of it here in the lowlands in three weeks to overcome a summer’s worth of drought.  The mountains got eight feet of snow in one week.  In fact, there was enough rain out on the Olympic Peninsula to put out a forest fire that had been burning all summer.

It was… a lot of rain.

And the storms in life sometimes come softly – like that snow – you don’t realize it’s an issue until you can’t get out of your driveway, or walk down the street.

Sometimes they come faster – like those rain storms in December where there were days where we had an inch or two of rain a day, for a long time… The land couldn’t soak it up fast enough, and there were consequences, the flooding that happened right away, and landslides that happened later.

But some of those consequences could come almost instantly – with very little or no warning.  Like there would be if you were standing on the top of an aluminum set of bleachers and idly noticed clouds coming in a little faster than you were expecting.

I learned that sometimes, you can be out in the worst weather – and find yourself absolutely terrified by it – but then realize that the lightning in that dark storm gives you a clarity of vision that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

The lightning may be scary, but it’s also amazing in how it clears things up…

And…

…the lightning has struck before, and I – we – we learned from it that time.

Well, those times.

And of course, it all got me thinking some more…

See, I’m going through a storm myself as I write this – and it’s close.  It’s close enough to where the lightning and thunder happen at the same time – and it’s disorienting.

I don’t have the clarity that I’d like to have right now.

There are times when I am flummoxed at where God is during some of these storms. I’ve seen so many variations of answers in all of this that with the other things that have happened in my life  I’m never sure whether to be upset when the answer to a prayer I have isn’t the one I’m expecting…

…or the one I want…

But the answer…

It will come.

I just need to remember the lessons I learned many years ago looking out mom’s bedroom window, and the lessons I learned standing on top of a bunch of aluminum bleachers, and lessons we’ve learned more recently, going through our own storms…

…I guess another way to look at it is you can either be terrified of the lightning or you can let the lightning bring you wisdom and clarity.

Deal with what you can.

When you can.

With the information you have.

And the resources you have.

Hmmmm…

I guess you could add to that:

Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t deal with.  Just work with what you can…

Those of you who read the Bible might be familiar with this verse from Matthew 6:34 (NIV)

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Hmmm…

So very true.

So instead of focusing so much on the worries of tomorrow…

Be there today.

…instead of focusing on the regrets of yesterday…

Be there today.

It’s far easier to say it than it is to do it, but if you were a photographer,  that’s another way of saying “f/8 and be there

So… I guess the biggest thought in all of this is that I’m not so much waiting for the lightning as much as I’m searching for it.

And the clarity that comes from  a bright flash of lightning in a dark storm.

Take care, folks…

 


Questions from my son tend to add a little different perspective to the stories I’ve told him.

If you’ve been reading them long, you know that there’s a certain classification of stories involving “Stupid Things that Papa Did When He Was Little”.

They’re the kinds of stories that I can safely tell in the first person…

Past tense.

(think about that – it’s important)

So when my son asked, “So just how many fires did you actually set in the house when you were growing up?” – and I honestly had to think my way through them and keep track on my fingers, I knew I needed to write the stories down. So, just a recap of the times I almost burned the house down (note: some of these stories have been written, some are in the backlog)…

Let’s see… there’s:

  • the time the bed caught fire, (still need to write this one – it was an aluminum pilot’s bunk from the USS Ticonderoga… No, really.)
  • the time I lit the fire in the wood stove, with gasoline. (I don’t recommend this),
  • the time the candle holder caught fire (design issue anyone?) and set the set of Encyclopedias, the shelves they were on, on fire, and dripped flaming plastic onto the desk underneath them, setting it on fire as well, (Yup, need to write this one, too…)
  • the time I came very close to doing the Olympic Torch run through the house with a highway flare as I was trying to put out another fire.
  • …and of course there was the – well, let’s not give away the punchline, shall we?

I was still living at home with my folks and sisters, and it had been a Saturday of yard work and gardening and just general cleanup. I’d gotten done with my part, and asked what else there was for me to do, and mom said, “Well, you could go in and make dinner. You can make the chicken.”

Dinner.

Chicken.

Gotcha.

So I looked all over for a chicken and the only one I could find was the one frozen solid.

In the freezer.

Understand, this was an industrial level freezer. The chicken was the same consistency as the granite used by the Canadian Olympic Curling team. I imagined sliding the chicken across the floor and frantically sweeping in front of it – but while the image made me smile, I decided against hurling – or curling – the chicken…

Chances were I’d break something with it.

Besides, dinner for a hungry family was more important.

Speaking of dinner, I had to figure out how to rapidly thaw this hunk of frozen fowl. Dad had spent $600.00 on a microwave oven back then (in the ‘70’s) and gotten a good one (a Sharp) that would eventually last over 40 years, looking brand new the whole time. I hefted the chicken, still in the closed plastic bag, onto the rotating glass plate and pushed the buttons for something like 40 minutes, then turned around to peel potatoes in the kitchen sink and get some vegetables ready for the pot.

I’d gotten maybe two potatoes peeled when I sniffed that something was not quite right.

I smelled the potato I was peeling.

It was fine.

The peeler?

It was fine.

My hands?

They smelled like… raw potatoes.

Besides, I’d washed my hands, and the chicken was frozen last time I touched – oh, the chicken – uh…

I looked up from the sink, then looked left and right, trying to remember where I’d put the chicken, and it was only when I turned around that I definitely knew something was wrong.

The chicken that I’d put in the microwave to defrost, you see…

…was on fire.

Wait.

What?

I jumped across the kitchen, hammered down on the lever to shut the microwave off, popped the door open, and grabbed the burning plastic bag the chicken was in and heaved it in the general direction of the sink. The flame made a weird flup flup flup flup flup sound (complete with Doppler effect, mind you) just before the chicken thunk-splushed into the sink, putting the fire out and splashing water and potato peels all over the place.

I turned the water I’d been peeling the potato under off so I could see the bag, and it turned out that the plastic bag had been tied shut with what was standard for the time, which was two little pieces of tape with a wire in the middle.

And the wire had gotten red hot, set the tape on fire, which set the plastic bag on fire, which then set – I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it had set the chicken’s butt on fire (which reminds me of yet another story about my friend Bill – but you can read that one later).

I trimmed the burned parts off, pulled what remained of the chicken out of the bag, and put it in a glass bowl with a lid and actually read the manual for “how to defrost a chicken in the microwave” and put it back in there for awhile longer.

I looked out the window, checked on the rest of the gang, knew I had some time, so peeled some apples and sprinkled them with cinnamon sugar and put them on the chicken once it was defrosted and out of the microwave, then wrapped everything in some bacon I found while I was looking for the chicken in the first place and put that in the regular oven.

While that was baking, I made some salad, boiled the potatoes, and in general, made a pretty decent dinner.

I rang the dinner bell for everyone, and pretty soon they came in.

I remember one of my sisters taking a whiff and wrinkling her nose a bit as everyone came through the door, smelling a little bit of everything that had happened in the last couple of hours.

“What’s that smell?”

And I gave the only answer I could possibly give.

“It’s, it’s the chicken.”

And… it was actually pretty good.


Some time back we went over to our friends Tim and Mary’s for dinner, and the subject of weird injuries made its way into the conversation.

In fact, they started talking about someone they knew who knew of a guy who’d had his hand in a microwave when it turned on.

This got my attention just a little bit and so I started asking some questions…

“So, um, where did this happen?”

“The 7-11 down by SPU.”

“Really?”

“Any idea when?”

“Oh, years ago.”

I asked a few more questions – figured there couldn’t be TOO many of us who’d done that – and then I asked, “So, you wanna hear the rest of the story?”

They didn’t get it at first.

And then I got an idea and went all Paul Harvey on them, in large part because I knew “The Rest of the Story,” because the guy they were talking about who’d gotten his hand nuked in the microwave…

…was me.

See, I’d graduated from SPU, having developed some skills in photography, and one of the important things was the ability to have a darkroom. Understand, this was back when film was made of plastic with silver Jello on it that was developed with several poisonous chemicals that came in powdered form that you mixed with water and then soaked the film in…

Which I did in my kitchen.

In the sink.

With no gloves.

(yeah, think about that for a bit – but that’s what we did back then)

So it became obvious to me very quickly that doing food and photography in the same kitchen, while possible, was not advisable to do simultaneously. As a result, I kept the kitchen pretty clean for the most part, so that if I needed to print some photos, I could:

  • close the curtains (to change it from a kitchen to a dark room)
  • hang up the safelight (an orange light that wouldn’t expose black and white photo paper like white light)
  • hang up the fan (to suck out the chemical fumes)
  • clip the plywood shades into the two windows
  • attach the hose from the fan through the one plywood sheet to the outside
  • turn off the white light
  • turn on the safelight and the fan
  • take the cover off the enlarger
  • pour the chemicals

…and I was ready to go.

The building I called home was red when I lived there, not gray as it is in that photo link at left – but that’s the place I called home for a bit.

So the important thing to do here when printing photos for an assignment was simple: Do it quickly.

The reason for this was so I didn’t get hungry while I was printing – because then I had to make a decision between food and photos.

But – it turned out there was an alternative, namely God’s gift to college students, just a couple of blocks away.

And hey – it’s still there.

At the time, I’d done it often enough to where I could dig some money out from the couch cushions, walk down there, get a Big Gulp and a burrito for $1.38, nuke it, and eat it on the way back and then continue printing photos.

Hey – it worked on a bunch of levels. I got some fresh air. I moved around… I took a break, and I got some dinner.

What could possibly go wrong?

<crickets>

Ummmyeah.

So one night, I’m printing a big assignment. Understand, photos were not done electronically back then, they were real live 8 x 10 photos… printed on very nice, rich, contrasty black and white paper so they could reproduce in the magazines they were being published in, the works… They had to be dusted and spotted with some watercolor/ink and a little camels hair brush so that dust that had made it onto the film and thus onto the print was taken care of.  The photos then had to have my photo credit printed on the back with a rubber stamp, the file number of the negative, all of it had to be matched with the invoice, the whole bit.

It was a lot of work.

The burrito, and the Big Gulp, were essential.

But this time, I got to the 7-11, grabbed my beef and bean burrito, popped open the bottom of the two industrial microwaves that could take the burrito from frozen solid to beefy, beany deliciousness (remember, I was a college student) in 2 minutes flat.

And I discovered three things simultaneously.

1. There was a burrito on a paper plate in the microwave already.

2. The light inside the microwave had just turned on.

3. The fan was running.

Hmmm…

The only time I’d seen that before was when the microwave was on.

But microwave ovens are designed to be off when the door is open.

And I was hungry.

And my burrito was cold.

I slammed the door shut and reopened it.

The light came on again.

So I figured, “Well, I’ll just yank it out of there” and reached in to a feeling that can only be likened to pouring 7-Up through my hand. It felt like little bubbles were popping inside my right hand. I yanked it out, hoping I’d misread what had just happened.

Hesitating, one more time I reached in real quick – and sure enough, same thing. I slammed it shut and called the guy behind the counter, who’d been there as long as I’d been a student,”Hey, your microwave just nuked my hand!”

A cop who was standing there getting a cup of coffee saw it all and said, simply, “I’d sue ‘em.”

That thought hadn’t crossed my mind, I just wanted my burrito so I could go home and finish the dang photo assignment I was working on.

But I got the cop’s badge number…nuked the burrito in the top oven, ate it on the way home as usual, and noticed something strange…

My right hand felt weird, and later, when I got home, it felt like the tendons in it were made of cold spaghetti, like they’d pop apart if I tried to grab something too hard.

It started to swell a bit on top of it all, so I bought some Tylenol and some fingerless leather gloves just to hold my hand together because it really felt like the only thing holding it together was the skin, and when it didn’t get better over the next couple of days, I called the doctor.

I learned that trying to find a doctor who was familiar with radiation burns at that time was a bit of a challenge and got you talking to some very interesting people.  Eventually I ended up talking to a gal in the Burn Unit at Harborview, who, unlike everyone else I’d talked to, knew exactly what I was talking about. She’d been working a food booth at some kind of a fair that summer, where someone actually dropped the microwave they were using, and it cracked.  It still worked, but if you stood at just a certain spot – you could feel the radiation from the outside.

It also turned out there wasn’t really anything I could do other than just wait it out and let it heal.

Another weirdity was that my right hand stopped sweating after that – which meant that little film of moisture you’re barely aware of on your hands (the one that helps you grip things) wasn’t there anymore. I had to grip the enlarger focusing knob tighter to use it – or my hand would slip off. I also dropped the camera (a Nikon F-3 with an SB-16 speedlight on it) a few times (which cost a goodly chunk of money to fix), so in the end, I did go to a lawyer to see what the deal could be, because by this time, the Big Gulp and the burrito had cost a good bit more than $1.38.

The lawyer said if I had any kind of injury that was visible, even a scratch, that’d make a huge difference, but for now, I didn’t have that. Eventually I noticed that my right hand was colder than my left, and found a place in Ohio where I later went to Grad School that would do what they called “Thermographs.” They were basically photos that showed how hot each hand was, and the right one was definitely colder. This would have been good – had they not lost the thermographs before I could get them to the lawyer. Turns out he thought the case’d be worth about $65,000.00, which seemed like a lot of money, but would likely cost about that much to try because, he said both Litton (the maker of the microwave) and Southland corporation (parent of 7-11) were incorporated in Delaware at the time, and he figured they’d do what they could to make it hard for me, meaning after expenses, I’d walk away with having gained nothing and lost a bunch of time in the deal.

So, I ended up just letting it go. Really – at the time, there didn’t seem to be much of an option.

A year or so ago, I was telling the story to my friend Beth and her daughter who were in town, visiting, and figured, what the heck, why not go to that 7-11 and take a look, so we did, and (this may not come as a surprise) but the microwaves had been replaced (heck, it had been 30 years – even my Mom’s expensive microwave that dad had gotten her years ago had given up the ghost in that time). The new ones were much smaller. We thought of getting something to eat or drink – and then decided against it.

In fact, for the first time in decades, I walked out of that 7-11 without either a Big Gulp or a burrito.

And I was okay with that…

Oh – and as for Mary and Tim – they now knew The Rest of the Story.

Take care out there folks – and an unsolicited bit of advice?

Don’t stick your hands in rogue microwaves…

Trust me on this.  😉


Okay, not physical running – but mental running & walking – keep reading, you’ll get it.

A couple of months ago, after having spent the better part of a week physically and mentally fighting off a cold, the weather was sunny enough to get out, so I went to Golden Gardens to get some Vitamin D and fresh air. I sat there in the car for a bit, not quite ready to go outside yet because it was cold and I’d been listening to a program on the radio, which was actually a fascinating story about language.

And in it, a fellow said a number of things, but the two that stood out had to do with how the brain develops mentally along with the development and understanding of language.  He said something about the inability to think without having language, and I differed with him greatly in my conclusion on that – not because I had reams of academic knowledge of it, but because I had personal experience in it.

And, this may come as no surprise, but I have a story about it.

The story was here, about 20 minutes in for several weeks – I wasn’t able to get to it just now, but that’s where it was.

https://www.wnyc.org/radio/#/ondemand/551046

I abandoned my idea of walking out in the sunshine and sat there, transfixed as this fellow talked about language, about communication, and then he hit a nerve in me (here’s the program about 20 minutes in – it’s when he talks about a controversial statement) – and I found myself rocketing back in the time machine – in a way that was different than all the others.

In my writings here, I’ve written nothing but true stories.

They’ve ranged in time from WWI, WWII, the Cold War, they’ve ranged from happy ones to sad ones, wise ones and silly ones, serious and and funny ones. I’ve written about my mom’s childhood, my own childhood, my children’s childhood, all the way up to the present.

I’ve joked with people that I write non-fiction because I’m not smart enough to write fiction, because fiction has to make sense.

Some of the stories were written with years of research corroborating a half-remembered story from childhood, and some were just a snippet of life that happened as I was paying attention, and I wrote it down.

And then there’s this one.

This story is the very first I could write in the first person because it… because everything that happened before this story is pretty much lost.

Because before this story happened – I didn’t have the one thing I’m using right now, and that is language.

So I’m going to use some of the language I’ve learned since this story happened to tell you a little story about a time when I didn’t have any language to tell stories with..

My first memory is from when I was in an oxygen tent overnight in the hospital for bronchitis.

The one moment I have burned in my memory is mom and dad coming to visit me or get me and the joy I had knowing they’d come for me. I don’t have words associated with it, just joy, and just for that moment.

I remember the color of mom’s dress, the color of dad’s uniform as they stood in the doorway in the far left corner, the color of the tiles on the walls in the room, the faint smell of the rubbing alcohol and ether that was always present. And I remember the light coming in from high on the right. I remember a large counter kind of a thing, strangely in the middle of the room, and the doctor standing kind of in silhouette off to the right in front of the windows.

The memory stayed with me, and over the years I kept asking my parents about it until we finally figured out where it was, but far more importantly to me, when it was.

And it turns out the only thing that fit was that hospital visit.

When I was six months old.

Yup…

That’s me, and my sister.

A little older than that memory, but a little younger than the next one.

And it’s hard for me to understand, looking at that photo, that kids – babies – of that age can actually comprehend stuff and have thoughts and feelings and ponderings and not just react to instincts and impulses…

But I was one of them once, and I still have the memories..

I have a few other memories of that time – all of them raising more questions in me than they answer. The next one I have very clearly is of our first trip to Germany. Dad had orders to go to one place, and for the first part of the trip, we were on the same plane. I was on mom’s lap and remember looking across the aisle at him, and how proud I was of him in his uniform, with the sergeant’s stripes on the sleeve..

…and while mom remembers the flight as me having a tremendous earache and crying, I remember one moment of it being very quiet, and in that moment, as I turned to look forward, I had this thought:

“I wonder what’s going to happen to me in life?”

In English.

Understand there is significance of this, because dad spoke English and mom spoke German, and as kids, we were learning English and German at the same time.

And I remember having this thought.

In English.

The question asked has been partially answered by roughly half a century of – well – life, but the answer is not as revealing as the question that still baffles me.

How would I, being 18 months or so old at that time, know that I had life ahead of me?

If I knew life was ahead of me, that meant I had a sense of time, and my place in it.

If I knew that there was something, some things before me, what are the faded memories of those that were behind me?

How would, how could I know that things would happen?

There was a sense of understanding that the future existed long before you’d think a kid would be even capable of having thoughts like this.

Come to think of it – what about being proud of my dad? It wasn’t any other emotion… I was proud of my dad. But how could I explain that one? How could I, at 18 months, explain the sense of happiness in someone else’s accomplishments or achievements? Just trying to explain that would also mean that I could be aware of the opposite, someone else’s failings. Pride in their accomplishments would be happiness that those accomplishments, and not the failings, happened.

The more I thought about it – the more baffling it became.

And the questions kept coming: Who was I directing this question to? Or was it just me thinking to myself?

How did I know that there were options as far as what might actually happen that hadn’t happened yet?

Why did this thought come to me, fully formed, in English and not German?

I couldn’t talk verbally at the time, but I could clearly think.

I remember when we got to Germany – and when our uncle picked us up from the airport in his blue Volvo (I remember because of the bar speedometer I saw years later in my sister’s Volvo) . But it’s that little boy up there in that photo who remembers these things, not just the adult writing it down. It makes me wonder about memory, about the things we do remember, and what it takes to actually remember them.

And I realized that one could have thought, or thoughts, without language, but maybe what the person in the radio program was trying to say was that one couldn’t express those thoughts very well without words. And yet, I remember once, years later – having a fascinating idea that literally came to me in a flash: again, fully formed, poof, there it was. It took hours to explain it. And it makes me wonder how language can allow us to express the thoughts we have without language and communicate them. But at the same time, it feels tremendously slow and inadequate sometimes. There are times when words – well, when words are not adequate, and, going back much earlier, when words simply didn’t exist.

I remember very clearly, at about the time of that photo up there – actually it was likely earlier, being able to communicate with other kids my age.

Before we were able to use language.

I remember just… knowing not just what I was thinking and feeling, but what they were thinking and feeling, and we were able to let each other know that.

Without words.

Please understand, I have no idea how this worked. And I can’t tell you what, if any, language we were using. I just know that it did work. I also know that as I learned to use both English and German, my ability to communicate with other kids like that faded, and I remember the ability to do it like one remembers a long lost, half-forgotten treasure, and much as I wanted to, still not quite being sure how it worked.

All this is from within about a year of that photo up there.

And that question about, “I wonder what’s going to happen to me in life” – that one still pops up now and then… the philosophical areas one could explore with that, the nature of ‘self’ and the whole ‘nature/nurture’ discussion – where we’re a product of both our nature – (genetics and the like) and the way we were brought up (nurture)… I wonder about that because there was far more nature than nurture at that time, but these thoughts, these ponderings, seem to me to be right at the border of nature and nurture.

And I still ponder…

And I still have questions…


The bus just rumbled slowly past the house, and it brought back a fun memory that I thought I’d share.

A number of years ago I’d started following in my ancestor’s footsteps and was making bread – the kind out of wheat and yeast and stuff. My family all got together and decided that Christmas would have a theme, and so that year got a bread making machine, a 50 pound bag of flour, and a monstrous bag of yeast.

So I started making – well, baking bread with the machine.

You could set it in the evening with the ingredients, and then set the timer, and in the morning, my nose would rouse me from my slumber with the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the house.

There are worse ways to wake up.

So I did that for awhile, and as with anything fun, eventually I got confident enough in what I was doing to share the bounty – so I decided to take some to work.

So one Thursday night I put all the ingredients in, set the timer, and went to bed, knowing that Friday morning I’d have freshly baked bread to take to work with me on the bus.

Oh, yeah, the bus. Taking a loaf of freshly baked bread wrapped in a towel onto a bus full of sleepy commuters wakes them right up… I could see people sniffing and trying to figure out where the smell was coming from. (the loaf was in a bag, wrapped in a towel, under my seat)

I was sitting right by the regular driver who had the window beside him open, drawing air out of the bus right past his nose, and once the bus was moving, he was surrounded by the freshly baked bread smell to the point where he would look around at every stop, trying to figure out where it was coming from.

So I told him I’d made some and was taking it to work.

We talked the rest of the trip about our moms and growing up and – well, talking about fresh bread made us feel, how coming home to that smell just made the whole day better, so before I got off, I asked him if he’d like some the next time I baked a loaf. I didn’t need to ask – the answer was obvious in his eyes.

“You like homemade jam? I have some grape jam from my mom that’s pretty good.”

He had to work hard at not drooling – it was clear that the combination would make his Monday morning something to look forward to, and he took one last deep breath as I got off the bus and headed to work.

Sunday evening came, and I set everything so it would be ready just in time to have the bread ready when the bus pulled up.

And I’d know when it pulled up, because that bus had one very squeaky brake, so I knew that when I heard that brake, I had about a minute to get out of the house and down to the bus stop before it pulled away.

But I’d miscalculated by a couple of minutes the night before, and I was just getting the bread out of the bread maker when I heard the squeak.

Oh no… I’d promised – and was counting down the time he’d normally be there waiting before he took off… I might be able to catch the next bus, but most important was catching this driver.

I got the bread and jam out of the fridge.

And heard the bus engine still idling.

I cut a slice of bread, nice and soft on the inside and crusty on the outside.

I heard the air brakes hiss.

I spread the butter on the bread, and it started to melt.

I heard the door hiss closed.

The bus kept idling – then started to take off, ever so slowly.

At that moment – I knew he’d been looking forward to that bread, so I ran to the window just in time to see the bus go by at about five miles an hour, and could see the driver looking up at the house, searching.

I waved the slab of bread at him, still without jam, and he saw it and stopped the bus.

In traffic.

Blocking everyone.

I grabbed a napkin, put the bread on it, slathered the jam on, grabbed my stuff, and ran out the door. He’d stopped just barely past the house. I ran down the driveway, and he’d opened the back door. I ran in, ran all the way to the front, and went down on one knee, presenting him the freshly baked bread and jam on a napkin like a knight might present a sword to a king.

His smile was worth it – and he took it gratefully.

I stood up, turned around, and the entire bus applauded.

I took a bow, then took a seat, and another Monday began.

With many smiles.

It was a fun enough story that I sent a note to Jean Godden, then a columnist for the Seattle Times who loved little tidbits like this – and she liked it enough to put it in one of her columns.

Eventually that driver was transferred to another route, and I didn’t see him again until one day years later I was at the Seattle Center with my son, and heard a voice, “Hey! Mr. Bread Man!” –

Turns out it was my old bus driver – who remembered that story after all this time. We talked, we laughed, and reminisced a bit.

Life had moved on for us both.  He was working for the Red Cross somewhere in Seattle, and I never got to know his name.

As for me? I was Mr. Bread Man.

And you know? I’m okay with that.

So wherever you are, Mr. Bus Driver, Mr. Bread Man hopes life has treated you well.


Our scout troop has sold Christmas trees at a church parking lot every year for about the last 75 years.

I last wrote about it here. One of the things that we prided ourselves on was getting the best looking trees available, and a few years ago I drove a big truck down to several of the tree farms to get a fresh load of them. As I recall, at the end of that day, we ended up bringing home 435 trees. Over the course of the trip home, the trees settled a bit on the rough roads, and I remember checking the side mirrors once and was surprised to see that the sides of the truck were literally bulging. I wish I’d taken a picture of it that day, but the day was long, by that time it was dark, and many, many pictures weren’t taken.

One of the pictures that I not only didn’t take, but didn’t see, was taken by the scout dad in the troop named Dan who’s a forest geneticist, which is the best kind of guy to have as a resource when you’re trying to sell small forests of Christmas trees.

Dan would go out to the tree farm in August and hand pick the 1500 or so trees we’d be selling that year, and in doing so, he saw some things that most of us don’t see. He took the picture below, that looks pretty much like a picture of a wooded foresty place (that’s the Olympic mountain range in the background), but there’s a couple of white spots in the picture that don’t really make sense until you look move closer.

If you look at the third and fourth tree in from the left, you’ll see a small white dot on each of them. As Dan got closer, he took a picture of what those white dots really were, and you can see that in the picture below:

You see, the tree was perfect in every way, it’s just that the top, the part that can make or break the sale of a tree, was crooked, and so the grower, realizing that he had some time on his hands, tied a rock to a branch to help straighten the tree out.

So for years, the tree carried this burden. Day and night, through good weather and bad, through heavy rain and parching drought, the tree carried this weight.

The thing is, not all trees got this treatment. Some trees were pruned, all were fertilized, and some were found to be almost perfect but for this one flaw, so they were given this rock, this burden, to carry.

And over the years, the rock changed the tree. The tree got strong enough to carry the rock, but when the rock was put in the right place, the tree was both stronger and straighter. It had shown that it could indeed carry this burden, and carry it well.

And in the end, when the tree was done growing and it was time to harvest, the burden was lifted, the weight was removed, and the tree was straight and beautiful as ever.

And I saw something interesting in that. It made me wonder about the burdens we carry, and why. It made me wonder about burdens, being there just long enough for us to learn lessons, to grow straight, being lifted. And then I wondered about burdens that are there longer, that people carry, day in, day out, sometimes for years.

In fact, in the last year, I’ve learned of friends losing their jobs, and the financial hardship that comes from that.

I’ve learned of friends who were suddenly transferred to another part of the country, and the uproar that can cause in a family.

I’ve learned of friends who are losing or have lost loved ones.

And you can almost hear the branches of their trees creaking as they strain under the burden.

And I don’t understand why it seems that some folks are given burdens when others aren’t.

There are times when I don’t know if the burden they carry is one they can carry alone. In fact, there were times when the burden we as a family had to carry was more than we could handle, and I know personally that in situations like this, those struggling under those heavy burdens need support until they can stand on their own.

I thought back to that tree there in the picture.  It could handle good sized rocks, and over time get strong enough to carry them and stand straight.  Trying to hold up a 100 pound rock with that little branch would be another story. It’s not strong enough to handle that, and it would break.

I’ve seen this in other trees over in Eastern Washington, where instead of rocks, they were carrying such an amazing amount of fruit that their branches weren’t strong enough for that burden. The farmers growing that fruit helped brace the branches with large poles, sticks, or, for lack of a better term, crutches, until harvest time, at which point the weight is removed, and the tree is relieved of the weight, or what might be perceived as a hardship.

Without the constant care of the farmers, those trees would have had branches broken by burdens they were not strong enough to carry. Un-braced branches were damaged, or had broken off and fallen down, breaking other branches on the way and peeling the bark with them as they went.

It’s not pretty, and parts of the tree die when that happens.

I’ve also seen people break under burdens they weren’t strong enough to carry. Lives are damaged, people can break down and fall, causing damage to themselves or others as they go.

It’s not pretty, and parts of who that person is die when that happens too.

Understand, this doesn’t mean these people were weak.  It means that as strong as they were, they weren’t strong enough for that burden, or those burdens.

There is a difference.

And it got me thinking, about trees, and support, and strength.

See, some of the trees, the evergreens, have burdens over time, for a reason.

And those trees, over the years, like the ones in the photos, develop inside support. They develop a stronger core with each passing year they are forced to carry their burden.

By the time these trees are ready for harvest, they stand straight and tall, even though what made them that way was a heavy burden.

And some of the trees, the fruit trees have burdens that come in waves, for a season (or many seasons).

Their roots will hold them up, but to keep from breaking, they need outside support to help shoulder their burden, like the fruit trees I mentioned earlier.

Those trees, over the years, develop scars and are gnarled from the burdens they’ve carried and from the crutches supporting them, but they are strong, and have produced good fruit.

And then there’s a third type of tree, and support, and it’s not just for a reason, or a season, but a lifetime.

I’ve heard that the Redwood trees in Northern California have very shallow root systems, so any strong wind could knock a single one of them over, but because they’re in groves of trees, their roots intertwine, and they support each other. They do this without crutches to hold branches up, and they do it without rocks to hold branches down.

They curl their toes together.  No, really… It’s interesting, thinking about that. Those trees, they become a community. They support each other, and when one is threatened, all the interwoven roots (the toes) are all tangled, and they hold each other up, together.

There’s a chance you, or someone like you, will spend part of your life as any one of these trees, and who knows, you might have experience with more than one type in different parts of your life.

Whether you’re an evergreen, carrying small burdens over your entire life, or fruit trees, carrying huge burdens seasonally, or whether you’re a redwood tree, reaching for the skies, but curling your toes along with those near you, help each other.

Support each other.

Be there for each other.

Forgive each other.

Take care out there, take your strength from wherever you can get it, and enjoy the blessings of the Christmas season.

 


The other day my wife got several packages in the mail, and as we opened them, at first, we couldn’t see what was inside other than Styrofoam packing peanuts…

Styrofoam packing pellets

…so we kept digging, trying really hard to keep them from getting everywhere, and eventually found some very pretty glassware she’d gotten sent to her from an auction. But I almost missed it because as we were opening the box, I found myself being sucked ricocheting into the time machine like never before.

So some of you know I went to grad school and have a Master’s degree in photojournalism.

Some of the stories from those days have made it into the blog (the conversation about the photo at the end of this story, about talking my way onto a pretty cool airplane, happened where the bulk of the following story happens), but every now and then, an old memory comes back that surprises me.

See, the thing about grad school was that it was like boot camp. You are given assignments, and you are expected to perform. There are no excuses, there are no do-overs. You end up growing up very fast, and learning how to succeed, or you fail.

Those are your options.

So part of the deal was that we worked very, very hard to get all the things done we needed to get done, and that meant very late nights. At the time, I was on the student meal plan, eating three meals a day, plus a Burrito Buggy run at midnight) – and I’d eat as much as I could get into me, and I still lost 30 pounds in the first quarter I was there. I slept, usually, from 4:00 AM to 8:00 AM.

I have no idea how I did that, looking back on it, but there were some things that happened late at night, in or near the darkrooms, when things just got… a little weird…

See, this was “back in the day” when photos were printed on light sensitive photographic paper… Having been shot on real live film, both of which had to be developed in chemicals so you could see the image.

The chemicals stunk, frankly. And it’s good they did – there was sulfuric acid and all sorts of good stuff in there. There was one company that recognized this and put an odor neutralizer in one chemical and made another smell like vanilla. But the reason I mention the smell is because the chemicals had to be kept at a certain temperature, which often meant they were giving off fumes, which were bad for you.

That meant that for safety, there was a huge fan installed on the roof of the building. Huge as in it had myriads of ducts that ventilated two darkrooms with about 50 enlargers each, on two floors, sucking out chemical fumes through these large, triangular shaped vents. Each vent was about 3 feet wide at the bottom with an air slot wide enough suck fumes out, keep the smell down, and keep the fresh air coming in through the entrance fast enough to create a good strong headwind as you tried to leave.

One of the things we learned was that if the fan was running and we had very large images to print, it meant that the enlarger head was raised very, very high, and it made for very long exposures. It also meant that the photos we were printing at the time were often blurry. We found out that some years earlier, that huge fan on the roof had had a blade break, and it was welded back on, but it wasn’t completely balanced well, so unbeknownst to us, when the fan was running, the entire building shook, ever so slightly, and we only found this out when we were printing very large photos, where the enlarger was raised several feet up above the image we were trying to print. At that point, the combination of the height, exposure length, and off-balance fan meant that the image we were projecting onto the paper was shaking ever so slightly, and no matter how hard we tried, it meant the picture would be blurred.

We found we could fix this by turning the fan off.

No fan = sharp pictures.

But, there were side effects…

See, you take a bunch of grad students working in a very high pressure environment, pulling all-nighters, some forgetting to eat, and occasionally there are judgement lapses…

Like when we turned the fan off too long one time because we were all under deadline and Stephanie started hallucinating. She came tearing out of the darkroom, terrified of the black dog hiding under the counter.

We checked for her.

There was no dog.

But we did turn the fan back on, and the smell of developer, fixer, and very, very tired grad students was soon replaced with cool, dark, night air.

Then there was the time when I was trying to use this massive paper cutter to cut matte board for a presentation due the next day. It had a lever on it that helped evenly clamp down what you were cutting so your cut would be straight. There was a hole drilled into that lever, and a wooden handle attached, with a metal plate between the two to keep your fingers out of the way, because the lever was right next to the paper cutter’s blade.

On one of the two paper cutters.

That one was being used, so around 4:00 in the morning on one of the rare all-nighters, I was using the other one. The one with just the lever, and not the handle or protective plate attached to it.

And I brought the paper cutter down onto the matte board, and – did you know that paper cutters cut fingernails, too? I didn’t know that till right then. In fact, I didn’t know you could cut fingernails that short. (It’s not something I recommend, by the way). Johnny’s wife, bless her, was there – and went home to get their first aid kit.  Sid kept me sane while I waited, and when she got back, we bandaged my finger up as best we could, and kept me from bleeding on the matte board (that would have been expensive). I was able to carefully cut it and then went back to the darkroom, where I learned that there’s this wicking effect if you happen to have a bandage covering up an open wound on your finger, and you pick up a photograph that’s been soaking in fixer…

And – well, did you know that getting sulfuric acid into a wound stings just a touch?

Um… Yeah…

The assignments had to be turned in at 8:00 the next morning – which meant no sleep that night.

We groggily marched over to Scripps Hall to turn in our assignments for evaluation. I didn’t mention the reason for the bandage to the professor. The assignment was turned in, that’s what mattered.

The time machine took a breather, kicked me out for a bit, then sucked me back in – this time back to the Styrofoam packing peanuts that had sucked me in there in the first place.

I’m sure this next bit happened the same night Stephanie was hallucinating, because we all had to get out of the darkroom for a while to let the fan air it out.

Understand, if you haven’t figured it out by now, things got loopy late at night, and one time, someone had ordered something rather large that had been delivered there to the darkroom area, and it had been packed in Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Lots and lots and lots of them.

And the custodians hadn’t gotten there yet.

So we tried to throw them at each other (that didn’t work). Definitely didn’t want them in the little film developing rooms – the static electricity could create sparks that could fog (expose) the film, and the garbage cans were already full.

Paul was playing with them near the ventilation intakes just above one of the counters, and the peanut just disappeared. One second it was in his hand, the next it was just… gone.

COOL!

We grabbed some more out of the box they’d come in, and like little kids, Paul, Stephanie, and Elaine were giggling the giggles of the sleep deprived as we gleefully put them in front of the air intake, where they magically reported for duty and disappeared.

It… was… amazing…

(Remember, this is very early in the morning, and very late in the quarter, it didn’t take much to amaze us)

So we kept getting more and more of them… Someone went out hunting and found an entire garbage bag of packing peanuts that were waiting for the custodians and brought them over.

It was like shoveling snow into the open maw of a snow blower – they just simply disappeared.

It was great, but eventually we ran out, and had to finish our projects for the night and, that night, get some sleep.

We put our tools, chemicals, and supplies in our lockers, and Paul and I went down the stairs to head out, and locked the door behind us – and…

…and saw snow in the parking lot.

Lots… and LOTS of snow in the parking lot…

We hadn’t heard of any snow in the forecast.

And then we saw that some of it was kind of a lime green…

Not unlike the… Oh Lordy…

The Styrofoam packing peanuts…

As our eyes got used to the dark a bit more, we realized that they were EVERY where… on cars… drifting up against the curbs, eddying in the breeze.

There was nothing we could do about it really – we hadn’t thought that far ahead, and they were, as I said, *everywhere*.

The next morning as we walked across the parking lot to class, we saw the wind had distributed them a bit further… and it makes me wonder if somewhere, hiding in a bit of forgotten shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot behind Seigfred Hall, in Athens, Ohio, whether there are still anonymous little pieces of Styrofoam with a story to tell.


I saw an old movie awhile back, and saw this fellow walking down the sidewalk, carefree, flipping a coin into the air and catching it, over and over, and laughing as he did it.

It looked like a lot of fun, that whole carefree attitude and all.

He made the coin look light and easy, and it got me thinking.

The ‘coin’ I was flipping at the time didn’t seem light and easy at all.

In fact, it seemed like the coin I was trying to flip had grown to the size and weight of a manhole cover.  It was hard enough to flip, much less lift.

And then one day, I got a glimpse of what someone else was going through. Someone whose life seemed so together.   They looked like they had everything they wanted in the world.  A good job, to provide for a wonderful family…

But it wasn’t like that at all.

Their life was falling apart.

They were going through a breakup and their marriage, their home, their family as they knew it, was finished.

In fact, the coin I saw them flipping was clearly heavier than it looked.

I had a friend who lost a good paying IT job. For years no one would hire him.  Not because he didn’t have skills, he did, and he does.  He ran the entire IT department at his company, and they decided that since everything was going so well, they didn’t need him anymore.  So they let him go.

He’s looked for a long time, and now has a job, but it’s changing oil for people at 1/4 the salary he was making before, has gone through his retirement account and all his savings, and is wondering where next month’s mortgage is coming from.

His coin is heavy.

Another friend, similar situation.  Lost his job, tried to make it on his own.  Economic downturn, real estate bubble, and they lost their house and had to move out of the home they’d had for decades.

Their coins are heavy.

A work colleague just lost his mom.

Another lost his mother-in-law.

A good friend lost his dad and had to fly out of the country while dealing with other family issues, then came back to unexpected health issues of his own.

A friend is worried about his children, their faith, their ability to find work.  One has a good college degree, another has no degree and has health issues.

Neither has work.

One friend sees the path his kids are on – let’s just say there were some bad choices made that the parents warned about, and now the consequences are rearing their ugly heads.

Another friend is dealing with a chronic health issue that simply won’t go away.

Those coins are heavy.

It makes the coins I’m flipping feel so small.

So what to do?

I thought about it a little more, and realized there was a depth to the situation that wasn’t obvious on the surface.

The coin flipping ones were also making decisions, and each flip was a choice…

Do I fight this battle? (whatever the battle is, health, faith, family, job)

Do I give up?

Heads… I keep fighting.

Tails… I give up.

Do I go out swinging?

Heads… I swing.

Tails… I get knocked out.

Do I try to smile through it all?

Heads… I try to see the bright side.

The Coin and the Manhole Cover

and tails…

…if there is no bright side, then as my son once said, I have lots of practice polishing up the dull side.

I was privileged to have friends share some of their hard and dark moments with me, and the above things I mentioned are all true – and have happened within the last few months, and it really kept me thinking.  I finally came not to a conclusion, but to a realization.

Everyone has decisions to make every day that you will never see.

Sometimes their coin comes up heads, sometimes tails.

Sometimes folks have the energy to claw up the manhole cover that fell down tails and use the last bit of their strength to make it heads, and the expression on their face as they do it is no longer a smile, but a grimace.

The decisions and tasks some folks have to consciously go through are things so many are blessed to take for granted, and it takes me to these simple sentences:

Respect that others around you have their own journey even if you don’t see it.

Respect that those around you have their own struggles along that journey of theirs, and you cannot tell from the surface how difficult their journey is.

There will be some around you who have been carrying their burden so long that they’re no longer even capable of putting it down, or would know what to do if they could put it down.

Be kind to them.  Be gentle with them.

And if you can, if they can, maybe you could put your manhole cover down next to theirs, and you can lean them together and roll them along your journey, each of you helping the other, and recovering a little as you go.

Take care out there, folks.

Tom Roush

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