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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.

 

 

 


So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as it is 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 (not the order they were written in), 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 storyHave 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, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, on a hill on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, “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 calledPoint 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.

It had to be harder than this…”

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 from that one.

 15. That one was hard to write – emotionally, so 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 CleoI 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 down by their hip, palm out, fingers curled, 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 coffeewhich, 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

Thump.  Thump… ThumpThumpThumpThump!

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,

Tom


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 most unexpected 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 became the title of the story, and 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…

Michael & Alyssa at Pacific Beach

Michael & Alyssa at Pacific Beach

Play with things he’d never played with…

Michael and his Friend

Michael and his Friend

play with airplanes…

Michael and his Aiirplane

Michael and his Airplane

…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.

Hmmm…

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…

Sometimes…

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:

  1. Clean up Michael (as in: clean up the source of the – we’ll call it “evidence”)
  2. Clean up the toilet seat (as in: make sure things are functional again)
  3. Clean up the wall (as in: take care of any – we’ll call it ‘collateral damage’ here)
  4. 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…

Sometimes…

Things go wrong.

(C) 2011 Tom Roush – all rights reserved


I was talking to someone about being an “expert” at something, and strangely, I’ve found myself accused of being an “expert” too – which just wigs me out no end.  I just don’t think of myself as an expert, but I’ve learned I’m in the minority on that.   I mean, I do my job to the best of my ability, people ask me questions, and I do my best to answer them.

The thing is, sometimes they have no idea how close they’ve come to a sheepish look and an “I don’t know.”  It is at these times that the ability to think fast and type faster has been a great asset.

Come to think of it, the rather strong reluctance to say “I don’t know” to someone is pretty much part of it, too.  If someone asks me a question, I’m going to do my best to get them an answer, in part because it’s my job, in part because it’s who I am…

I remember one place I worked, a fellow in came up to my cubicle with the guiltiest look I’d ever seen – if he’d been a dog, his tail would have been so far between his legs he’d have been able to nibble on it.  He’d done something wrong – muffed something up pretty bad, and he needed me to fix it.  The reason he came to me was because I was “the expert” and he asked me this question about a problem that I absolutely, positively, honestly, had no idea how to solve.

I’d never heard of it, never seen it, and never thought about it.

In fact, in all the years of my life, I’d devoted precisely zero percent of my brain space to this problem.

But he didn’t know that.

And he wasn’t going to know that.

After listening to him describe what he’d done, I gave him a big sigh, “the look” and swung around in my chair to try to figure out how to fix it.

I called up Books Online (the database reference material I needed) and muttered something about “let me see if I can remember the syntax for this thing…” while I found out precisely how to do what it was he needed to have done.

While I was looking, and typing, I was just constantly flipping him crap about what it was he’d done that he needed me to fix, in essence, gently chastising him for muffing up whatever he’d muffed up, but all the while, doing everything I could do to make sure the problem he came to me with was solved.  The thing is, this whole ‘flipping of crap’ stuff – it’s what I do with folks, it’s disarming.  They realize I’m joking a bit, but they’re just off balance enough to not be completely sure, until – well, we’ll get back to that…

So while I was flipping him crap, I fixed his problem, and swung back around and looked at him “sternly” and told him, “Now go away or I shall have to taunt you a second time…” (a la Monty Python)

Then, figuring the problem was solved, I turned around and went back to the work he’d interrupted when he walked up.

But I noticed a shadow on my cubicle wall – and realized that while he’d stepped outside my cubicle, he’d stayed there and hadn’t moved.

Now one of the things I’ve always done with folks is just – as I said, flip them crap about anything.  Often folks tend to put the DBA’s (Database Administrators) on such a pedestal, with the whole ‘bowing’ thing and the ‘I’m not worthy’ thing (also a la Monty Python).  (okay, I made that part up, deal with it… :).  Sometimes it drives me just this side of nuts – but I have fun with it… I rarely if ever get angry at folks at work, because I’ve been around long enough to realize I am fully capable of doing something stupid – I mean, I’m human, it comes with the territory.  My gosh, having the system administrator’s password or being in an administrator’s group only allows me to apply this human stupidity to more machines, far more efficiently, at any given time than they can – so I’ve learned to be very, very careful.  But because of this, I just accept that things happen, help them fix it when they muff things up, and then try to teach them how not to do it again. However, whenever someone does something exquisitely stupid, I tend call them a butthead.  I didn’t realize it – but over time, it turned out that being called a butthead by Tom had become a coveted thing, of all things, a badge of honor…

Seriously.

If I called them a butthead, then all was right in the world.

If I didn’t, there was this inequality, this buildup of tension that they couldn’t get past, and they thought I was mad at them, and they literally cowered when they came to me the next time.

It was so weird…

So this time – I just went back to work and forgot about it until I noticed that shadow and the fellow standing outside my cubicle, clearly nervous that he’d done something very, very bad.

Not knowing what was going on, I looked at him… “What?” (said still using my ‘stern’ persona)

“You didn’t call me a butthead…” (said with all the boldness of a whipped puppy)

Huh?

“Oh… right…‘Butthead!’”

And he smiled, you could actually see the stress melt off him, and he walked, no, floated away, totally content, his knowledge reinforced that Tom Knew Everything, and that Tom WASN’T mad at him.

And when it comes to communication, either at home or at work – if people, for whatever reason, are only afraid of you – you just won’t be as effective as you can be.

People need to respect you, but they also need to feel comfortable around you.  Much to my surprise, Craig’s (yes, Craig, this one’s for you) nervousness when he came up to me showed me how much he respected me, and the way he melted when I called him a butthead showed me that while he was respectful, he was also comfortable enough to ask for help when he needed it

And I’m okay with that.


When I was a kid – growing up in Roy, Washington, the things we did for fun were limited not by batteries, but by our imagination.  Electronics like video games and the like were simply not a part of the definition of fun.

Gasoline, heavy metal, and explosives were – but I’m getting ahead of myself…

It’s one of those things you talk about to your kids when you’re a grown up, you know, the “Back when I was a kid…” kinds of things –

One of the things I’d do often was ride the bike I used on my paper route out onto Fort Lewis, over by Chambers Lake, and just explore.  One of my customers was also a friend.  He had this late ‘60’s blue iron monster of a car.  No idea what the make was, and it had no distinguishing characteristics other than the following:

  1. It was blue.
  2. It had 4 doors.
  3. It had a V-8 engine.
  4. It had a suspension that rivaled the stiffness of the Sta-Puf Marshmallow® man.

Now there were two types of roads on Fort Lewis:

  1. The kind that had been surveyed, graded, paved, and marked by professionals, and had speed limit signs to keep you on the straight and narrow, so to speak….
  2. The kind that were unsurveyed, ungraded, unpaved, and were made by a teenager driving an M-60 tank. They most definitely didn’t have speed limit signs, because the roads were so rough that a sane person didn’t need them.

Now, sanity aside, guess which ones were the most fun to drive on?

…and guess whose car was just a touch inadequate to use on said roads?

Yup – My buddy Mike’s car with its Marshmallow Suspension just didn’t do too well out there … In fact – there was this one place where – well, the road wasn’t even a road… See, the water going out of Chambers Lake goes into what’s called Muck Creek… And just as it does – it goes under one of the paved roads.  The thing about this road and the bridge is neither of them were stressed for 60 ton M-60 tanks to drive across – so the Army had put this ford in beside the bridge for the tanks to cross the creek on.  Understand, this isn’t a ford as in Ford car – but ford as in “shallow spot in the stream” – they’d put huge blocks of concrete down so you could drive across/through the creek to get to the other side without sinking in.

That is, if you were driving a tank.

Now somehow, Mike and I had decided, in that synergistic stupidity that only happens when young males make decisions together, in which the decisions made by a group of young males are far, far superior in both the quality and quantity of their stupidity than any one young male could possibly achieve on his own, that his car would be an absolutely optimal piece of equipment to get stuc – er – to drive through said creek, across the ford and up the other side. The fact that a perfectly good bridge was right there was completely irrelevant. Oh – I didn’t mention the fact that the banks of the creek at that point were actually rather steep, the rocks in that area were all round – like ball bearings, and scraping the bottom of the car on those rocks as you went down was to be expected.

That is, if you weren’t driving a tank.

So, Mike driving, we slowly coaxed the car down until water was washing over the tires – and then started up the other side – at which point things started scraping again and those old tires really didn’t work too well.  Now, being guys, the mentality there was simple: If a little power wasn’t getting us up the other side of the creek, well, more power would be better.

Right?

Riiiiiight….

Mike’s old, smooth tires on the smooth, wet rocks of the creek bank simply didn’t offer any traction, and try as he might, all that hitting the gas did was dry off the rocks as the tires started steaming the creek water off them.

Hmmm…

While we were trying to figure our way out of this conundrum, lo and behold a couple of guys showed up… in a tricked out 1954 GMC suburban… (by ‘tricked out’ I mean it actually still had functional paint and had mag wheels.  Think about what kind of surface mag wheels are good for – if “round wet rocks” isn’t at the top of your list, you’re on the right track…)

So these guys figured they were going to be our heroes and save the day…

They backed their suburban down the bank in front of the Marshmallow Mobile®, tied a rope to it, hit the gas, and promptly got stuck up to their axles.

So – big picture here – the Marshmallow Mobile® is in the middle of the creek.  A rope’s tying it to the Suburban on the bank.  Both of them hitting the gas only gets them up as far as – well, both of them getting stuck a little further up the bank.

Wait – it gets better…

Lots of testosterone fueled pondering ensued – which was interrupted by a third vehicle driving by, seeing the commotion, and the driver realizing that he, being far more manly than these poor, wretched peasants stuck in the creek, would be far better able to get us out than we were…

Little did he know…

To be honest, I don’t remember the kind of car that that one was – all I remember is standing on the bridge, looking down at three vehicles, all tied together, with their 3 V-8 engines putting out several hundred horsepower, and the only achievement was that the gas was being turned into smoke and steam from the tires on the wet rocks.

After a few minutes of this I realized that clearly the thing that was missing wasn’t power, it was traction.  So I walked over to my Grampa’s farm (my options being rather limited since all available vehicles were busy either farting exhaust bubbles into the creek or redistributing the gravel on the bank) to see if I could borrow one of his tractors to help pull the folks (and my buddy Mike and his Marshmallow-Mobile®) out.

Grampa wasn’t there – in fact, nobody was, so in my (ahem) Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, I figured forgiveness would be far easier to obtain than permission, so I ‘borrowed’ one.  This was an old Ford Tractor that had a transmission with 12 speeds forward and 3 in reverse.  First, as you might imagine, was pretty low.

When I got back to the bridge – all the cars were tied together right where I’d left them, just like the children’s story, the “Little Engine that Could” – only with three stuck locomotives and no caboose.  I looped a chain from the back of the tractor to frame of the car in the front, put the tractor in first, and, with 3 V-8 engines roaring plus a little 34 horsepower tractor chugging – everyone doing the delicate gas pedal dance of hitting the gas hard enough to try to move, but not enough to run into the person in front of them (it was a bit of a challenge), our little choo-choo-train of cars made it out of the creek.

We untied the ropes, unhooked the chains, and went our separate ways.  I took the tractor back to Grampa’s and put it back in EXACTLY the same spot it had been in (still nobody home).

And… I never volunteered to ride in the Marshmallow Mobile® again.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I was ever asked to.

Moral to the story?

Heck, when I started writing, I was just writing for fun, and I didn’t think there would be one – but I guess there is one, and that’s this:

Raw power will not always get you out of the trouble that gravity can get you into.  Sometimes it’s the steady application of a very small amount of power in exactly the right place that will do the trick, rather than hundreds of snorting, whinnying, or roaring horses applied in the wrong place or the wrong way.

Tom Roush

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