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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.

 

 

 

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I rolled over in bed and my hand landed on a cold pillow.

That’s not right at any time and it woke me up.  I looked around to find that the living room light was on.

At 4:00 a.m.

That was definitely not right, and I stumbled out of the bedroom without my glasses to see what was going on.  My wife was sitting there in the chair by the window, curtains halfway open. Eyes red. Phone hanging listlessly in her hand.

“Are you okay?”

“My dad went to heaven a little while ago.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry…”

It was a Monday, and the beginning of what one might call a rough week.

I made some coffee, took the day off work, and shortly thereafter, we were using every phone in the house. My wife checked in with family back east, getting details and helping organize things while I made airline reservations and other travel arrangements to get us all there in the next few days.  We’d learn much more later, but it turned out he’d passed away in his sleep. It was how he’d said he wanted to go, so amidst the shock, we were glad he’d gotten what he wanted.

We flew back east to help with some of the arrangements, and had a gathering of family and friends who came to celebrate the life of a man loved and cherished by so many.  We learned a lot about family, and about how there are times when you pitch in and help even when you don’t know what do do, or how to do it.  Friends and long lost family came out of the woodwork, and amidst all the grief and sadness, there was a feeling of simply being blessed by the presence of the people who were there both in body and in spirit.

There were those who listened, those who made sure there was food for all the people who showed up, and those who shared stories that made us both laugh and cry.  I don’t remember all their names, but I will remember how they made us feel, and surrounded by family in the middle of chaos, we felt loved.

Soon it was time to pack up and leave where we had all gathered. We turned to put things away only to realize, to our surprise, that much of the work had already been done. Done by willing hands who offered their help when it was needed, expecting nothing in return. We found that things and people had been taken back to the house. Unbidden, they just did it, and the stories, the laughter, and the tears, continued.

My wife would end up staying for several weeks to help out with the myriad of things that needed to be done, but a day or so later,  it was time for me to head west again.  To do that, we first had to head east about three hours through a massive rainstorm (<–news video of the storm and flooding) to get to the airport in Detroit.

Once again, the wipers were barely enough to keep the windshield clear, and the storm seemed to match physically what we were all going through emotionally.  I had to block the emotion out, I’d have time on the plane to think about things.  Right then, I just had to deal with driving and paying attention to what I could see of the road.

We got to the airport, I got out, managed to hug my sister-in-law, kiss Cindy goodbye and get under cover without getting too wet where I got through the beloved security lines and then to the gate, where it looked like this:

The storm looked and felt like something we’d been through not much more than a month before, so I looked it up on the radar and found this:

The storm in Detroit

See the deep red dot at the left edge of that orange blob in the middle?

That’s where the worst of the storm was.

It’s also where the airport is.

And where I was.

It seemed fitting.

What’s strange is that right about then I realized something profound in its simplicity:

The reality of the storm we were in couldn’t be changed.

We could only change our reaction to it.

I mean, we could run to stay out of the rain, but we’d still get wet while we were in it.

That realization helped me see the bigger picture of the storm I’d seen through the windshield, out the window at the airport, and on the weather radar coalesce with the storm we were all going through emotionally.

That, also, seemed fitting.

Because of the storm,  my wife’s 3 1/2 hour trip back with her sister turned into something closer to 5 1/2 hours.  It was raining so hard they had to wait by the side of the road in places because they couldn’t see, much like the people waiting in the last story.  I waited with all the others in the airplane at the airport until the worst was over, and finally, we were able to take our place in line and head out.

Getting our place in line to take off

It took some time, but we finally took off, climbed out of the storm and saw the blue sky again.

Looking back, I got a different perspective on the storm we'd been through

Looking back, I got a different perspective on the storm we’d been through, how we’d gone deep into it, been bounced around a good bit, and then, finally, a sense of, if not clarity, then acceptance…

After a long stop in Chicago, we chased the longest sunset I’d ever seen, all the way to Seattle.

I watched it for hours, most of the flight, actually.

…and it got me thinking…

A lot.

See, what I was leaving behind, was rain, a good bit of chaos, and tears…

But I also left behind memories of a quiet, gentle man who taught not only his kids to play baseball, and who made an ice rink in the side yard for hockey because winters were cold enough to freeze it. Come to think of it, that wasn’t just for his kids, but all the kids in the neighborhood.

I left behind memories, stories of when he’d hunted rabbit to keep food on the table, and the stories of the look of satisfaction he had when he’d gotten a deer in the fall.  He knew that meant the family would eat well that winter.

I had my own memories – of when I sat chatting with him on the front porch, looking out over his lawn, the bird feeder, and the maple tree he’d planted as a stick, years ago, the same porch we’d sat on side by side when I asked him if I could marry his daughter.

That had been over 25 years ago.

I looked out the window, lost in those thoughts, and then smiled at one more, remembering when he taught me how to pour coffee, and how important it was to pour it *just right*.

Back in the plane, I looked back a bit, and could see the darkness gaining on us.

Eventually we had a glorious sunset in front of us, darkness behind us, but the darkness was faster…

And so it goes with all of us, right?  Each one of us has a flight to take, one on which there will be rough weather. And beautiful weather.

And at some point – there will be a sunset that we all must face.

I pondered a bit more as the plane was slowly enveloped in the darkness, and that glorious sunset slipped away, replaced with a gray, unearthly twilight.

Looking back again, I could see the moon casting shadows on the clouds. The darkness had its own beauty. It was easy to look down, but I felt a strong urge to look up, to see what the sky looked like at night from this high up, so I slouched down in my seat as much as I could,  turned my own light off above my seat, and as hard as it was in that position, I looked up.

And as our plane descended through the turbulence back to earth, the sunset faded, and I looked up into the dark, dark sky. I realized that the beauty of the fading sunset…

IMG_4514-001

…had been replaced by stars.

 

 


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


Some time ago I was visiting my in-laws in Michigan, and had to learn how to make coffee all over again.

The thing is, living in Seattle, and having a daughter who’d worked at a, shall we say, ‘Moby Dick’ sized  purveyor of coffee (therefore getting me the beans at a lower price than normal) I’d gotten quite used to grinding my own beans, brewing my own coffee, and knowing what I’d get in the end.

It wasn’t scientific perfection I was after, it was simple things, like knowing how much water to put in (until it looked right), and how much coffee to put in (until it looked right), and then letting it brew (until it dissolved any spoon used to stir it) and then it WAS right.

But their coffee maker was different, and at the time, I don’t think there was a Starbuck’s anywhere near there.

I tried to make coffee using their little coffee maker, and did manage to succeed at that, but the next step was so remarkably unsuccessful that I could do nothing but stand there and wonder what had gone wrong.

In trying to pour coffee into a mug (note: you shouldn’t need a degree in physics or thermodynamics to do this) – I managed to pour it all over the counter.

At first, I just thought just wasn’t quite awake enough and maybe I’d just missed, but later tried it again, and realized that the lip of the coffee pot was bent in such a way that instead of the coffee shooting out toward the cup, a good part of it would actually shoot backward under the coffee pot as I was pouring – and miss the mug entirely.

And I’d have almost a third of the coffee on the counter, not in the cup.

Day after day I tried to fix this, pouring faster, slower, different angles, aiming at different spots in the cup – didn’t matter, it just poured out onto the counter, and I’d clean it up.

One day, my father in law walked up and watched with mild amusement while I was trying once again to pour a mug of coffee.  This was the guy who’d made coffee with this crazy little coffee maker for years, and I figured that over that time, he must have found some sort of secret way to do this right.  So that morning, out of just a touch of frustration, I asked him, “How on earth do you pour this without getting it all over the counter?”

And the answer was simultaneously simple, basic, and brilliant.

“I just pour it over the sink.”

You… just…

What?!

And he showed me.

He poured the coffee into his cup, and it spilled just about as much as it did when I poured it –but he did it over the sink, and while it spilled, it didn’t get on the counter.

And it made me think about the question I was asking and the problem I was trying to solve.

Which was more important?

Getting coffee into the mug?

Or keeping it off the counter?

Because if I could solve one of the problems (getting a decent amount of coffee into the mug) while keeping it off the counter, I could effectively solve both problems at once.

And if spilling a little coffee was irrelevant, then the problem was solved.

You could substitute anything for the two options there, and in this case, a simple solution that didn’t even cross my mind solved all the problems I was concerned with at once.

It was a win-win…

I got the coffee I wanted.

I kept the counter clean.

…and I learned a lot about solving problems from a little off the cuff comment from my father in law Bruce.

Bruce Harris, Coffee Pourer extraordinaire (and cool father in law)

Bruce Harris, Coffee Pourer extraordinaire (and cool father in law)


Back before all this espresso craze hit the country – in the age of dinosaurs – well, back when the oil in the gulf was still dinosaurs – I remember thinking that this whole espresso thing was just so stupid. I mean, I remember going into a place and asking for a cup of coffee, and they’d run down the a simple list for me.  Black? Cream? Sugar?

It was simple… Clear… Concise…

I was used to all that.

I liked it.

And then, it changed…(cue the dramatic, ominous music…)

I’d ask for a cup of coffee and they’d throw all these Italian words at me that made absolutely no sense whatsoever…

Venti? Macchiato? Frappucino? El Dorado? – no, wait, that’s Spanish…

Anyway, it was just tons of what I thought was idiocy, I just wanted a cup of coffee, you know, the kind where you find some berries, pit them, throw the berries away, dry, then burn the pits, smash them between some rocks, and then pour hot water over what’s left until the water turns brown.

You know… Simple… Clear… Concise…

<ahem>

WHOEVER came up with that whole concept was either a genius or… well, one of Rube Goldberg’s ancestors…

All I wanted was coffee…

Wait… let me rewrite that…

All… I… Wanted… Was… COFFEE.

Until the day someone bought me this…

…this …

…this creamy, heavenly mixture of coffee, foamed milk, and chocolate.

Ooooohhhh wow….

I remember the first time I pulled into an espresso stand – it had been a Fotomat booth years before – and was out in the middle of a parking lot.  I remember the car seemed to just drive itself into that parking lot.

…and I suddenly understood what addictions could be like….

I didn’t *need* a cup of coffee, but I *WANTED* a mocha.

Oh, man…

I’d grown up – oh – how to describe this right…  We weren’t swimming in money to the point where we needed life preservers – in fact, galoshes would have been overdoing it…  Come to think of it – a damp spot in the sidewalk would have been a better description of the finances I’d grown up with.

There was a tremendous difference between a “want” and a “need”.

Wants were optional.

Needs weren’t.

And for once in my life, I *wanted* something far more than I needed it, and I was about to act on that want…

Never had I scrounged around the seats for loose change unless I needed it.

But I did this day.

Never had I gone through the glove box for change unless it was necessary.

But I did this day.

And never had I put all the “emergency” money in the car to a single use that wasn’t an emergency.

But the definition of “emergency,” like it or not, was about to be redefined, and sometime later – I learned that this whole thing was just the beginning…

I worked at Microsoft for a few years, where they had a Starbuck’s inside one of the cafeterias – and I had no idea how to order anything other than “coffee” or the heavenly “Mocha”.

But there was this guy working there who had the job title “barista”, and he helped me out.

And I realized after a while that I could customize this whole thing… I could have more or less of something in there than is required by law, so to speak…

One day he did something weird – he made it really creamy – so that it wasn’t just milk and foam, but kind of a foamy mixture all the way through.  Somehow this involved banging the milk foamer thingie (they get paid to know this stuff, I don’t) on the counter, which somehow made the foam thicker.  It was wonderful – so we decided to go with that.

I realized I didn’t like quite as much mocha – or chocolate syrup – in  there (they put three pumps worth, which was a little too much for me) – and over the next few weeks, this barista and I figured out what it was I liked. (one pump)

It takes me a long time to decide what I like, but once I’ve decided, then that’s pretty much it.  So once we’d come up with what it was I liked, I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

And when I went to get my coffee (understand, getting coffee was free at Microsoft at the time, I was choosing to pay for it, and given my growing up, that was significant) – and I’d get the same thing, every day.  In fact, it got to the point where I didn’t even order it anymore, I’d just show up and it would be there – and I’d pay for it, we’d make small talk, and then I’d leave…

…with my little paper cup of heaven…

And then…

One day…

He was gone.

A new barista who didn’t know what I wanted was there.

I was stunned.

I had no idea how to order this – this… this paper cup full of dark, foamy heaven…

I was crushed.

No more heaven in a paper cup.

Shortly after that, I left Microsoft, and had to figure out how on earth to order this thing in the real world…

And over time, I was able to get a barista to explain to me how to order what it was that I wanted.

So when I got my next job, I went to the Starbucks across the street from work, and I ordered it the way I’d been told to order it.

(ready for this?)

“I’d like a double tall one pump mocha free pour wet cappuccino”

And I said it with a straight face.

Which was followed immediately by a look of total shock on that straight face.

“Oh my gosh,” thought I…

“I’m one of….. ‘THEM’”

The cashier dutifully filled out the little boxes on the paper cup

The Barista, who was juggling cups – stopped and looked over at me, got the order, and made the drink.

It was perfect.

Clearly I had to come back.

The next day – I wandered in with my buddy Jae and we each ordered our drinks… He ordered a hot chocolate.  I ordered a double tall one pump mocha free pour wet cappuccino…

Same barista…

He stopped what he was doing and looked at me with one eyebrow raised…

You could clearly see in his eyes, “Oh oh, one of ‘those…’”

But I wasn’t “one of ‘those’” – although I sure as heck sounded like it….

I was just stunned that I could order the fool thing with a straight face, and I told them that.

They laughed…

Next day – I came in – and Stevie, same barista was there, Annie was there wearing out a Sharpie filling out all the little boxes on the cup (it fills all but one of them), LaRae was riding shotgun, and I didn’t even get a chance to say anything.

I walked up, Stevie saw me coming, and said, “I know… Yadda Yadda Yadda…”

And from there on out – it became known in the Fremont Starbuck’s store as a “Yadda Yadda Yadda”

I’d left that job, and hadn’t been in there for a long time… I wasn’t sure what the typical employee turnover had done to the institutional memory there, but for a long time after I left, you could order a Yadda Yadda Yadda, any way you wanted, you could order a decaf or a nonfat Yadda Yadda Yadda, heck, you could have them fill out all the boxes on the cup and order a half caf, half decaf Yadda Yadda Yadda – it was fun.  The Fremont Starbucks was the coffee equivalent of “Cheers” – and to Annie, LaRae, Stevie, and the other baristas at the Fremont store – thank you – for making it such a special place back then.

A while back I went in with a friend, and like I said, hadn’t been there in a long time, and one of the same baristas was still working there.

She saw me, her eyes lit up, and she said, “Oh! Oh! I remember, it was a Yadda Yadda Yadda…”

It was…

And it still is…


“Yes… Caffeine headaches are SOOO much worse than your coffee”

 — My daughter, who works at Starbucks, when she came over this morning and I offered to make her a cup.

(I’ve been known to make coffee that spoons would stand up in for a couple of seconds before they melted)

Sigh…

: )

Tom Roush

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