Growth, Stories told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

mymug

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. And in its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

And then I found it necessary to sell almost everything I owned. It was not easy. But after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug escaped being sold was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This reflection from seven years ago absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

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The view from Gilpin Road

The view from Gilpin Road
Kodak EasyShare Z730 Zoom
2009

My sons and I were driving the National Road across Maryland. As we ascended Polish Mountain, the view of modern US 40 and I-68 below was arresting.

Photography, Road trips

Photo: The view from Gilpin Road, part of the National Road in Maryland

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Cameras

Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 1: The fundamentals

There you are, looking at an old camera. And you want it. But you hesitate. How can you tell what condition it’s in so you don’t get burned?

BCSuperSilette

A basket case

I’ve been burned. Like when I bought this Agfa Super Silette. Nothing on it worked – not the rangefinder, not the focusing ring, not the shutter, not anything.

Because I’ve been to the school of hard knocks, because I’ve learned the hard way, my pain gets to be your gain. This is the first of three articles in which I’ll share how I assess an old camera’s condition. Today I’ll explain how to check a camera’s basic functions. Next time I’ll share some tips on advanced features and on cameras with electronic components.

But know right now: all you can do is reduce your risk of being burned. Even the simplest camera can fail you in ways that you’ll be hard pressed to detect through inspection. But my tips will help you avoid most of the junky cameras out there. And you might even be willing to live with some problems, or wish to try to repair them. Your inspection will help you decide whether the camera is worth the money.

Here’s how I break an old camera down.

Voigtlander Bessa

This old folder has some cosmetic blemishes but the bellows are good

Inspect the body. Does it look like it’s been through a war? If it does, it has; move on. But small dings and scratches and moderate exterior wear generally mean that the camera got normal use.

If the camera has focusing, aperture, and shutter-speed rings or knobs, turn them. They should turn freely, but not feel loose.

Look through the viewfinder. You should be able to see through it. This might seem obvious, but I’ve bought more than one camera with viewfinder faults because I didn’t check this.

If the camera folds open, check the bellows. Generally, pressing a button on the body pops it open. If the bellows is cracked or flaking it will likely need to be replaced. It’s costly to have done and painstaking to do yourself. Most common cameras aren’t worth the cost or hassle. Even if the bellows looks sound, pinholes might still lurk in the creases. It’s hard to check for this in the field, as you need a very bright light and a dark room. But I never let pinhole worries stop me from buying, as pinholes are easy to repair with dabs of black fabric paint.

Inspect inside the camera. Open the camera back. The camera should be clean inside. It’s not happened to me, but I’ve heard of others who’ve found fungus and mold growing inside cameras they thought of buying. Steer clear.

Some cameras have foam light seals where the back meets the body. Check their condition, because they all eventually turn to goo and need to be replaced. Gooey seals invite light leaks. You can replace the seals yourself with fresh foam rubber, but it’s a tedious job. To shoot such a camera I usually just tape up every gap with electrical tape.

Check the shutter’s condition. With the camera open, if you can see the shutter, look at it. On a simple leaf shutter, you should be able to see the little spring that provides the shutter’s action. I’ve known them to go missing. But it might also be visible only through the front of the camera, so check there too. On a diaphragm shutter, the leaves should be uniformly arranged. A little oil on the leaves is okay, but a lot is not. On a focal-plane shutter (such as on a 35mm SLR), look for gaps, wrinkles, debris, and pinholes, all signs of trouble.

Ansco B-2 Cadet

This box’s lens was very dirty – I cleaned it with a swab and rubbing alcohol

Check the lens. Ideally, the lens will be clean and clear. A little internal dust and even light scratches usually don’t affect a lens’s performance, but deep scratches usually will. If you find haze or fungus (which looks like etching) inside the lens, walk away. Unless, that is, you want to try your hand at disassembling the lens to clean it. I won’t do it, but others are braver than I am.

Haze and schmutz are different things, by the way. You can (gently, gently) clean off schmutz just by wiping.

To check for these things, look down at both ends of the lens in good light, and then hold the lens up to a good light source and look through it. In a pinch, you can use the flashlight on your smartphone as a light source.

When the lens is built into the camera, open the camera back, set the shutter to B, and press and hold the shutter button.

On interchangeable-lens cameras, dismount the lens. Some lenses screw off. For the rest, you press a button or a lever on the camera body near the lens and twist the lens off.

Check whether it winds and the shutter fires. The winder should function, ideally smoothly, and the shutter should snap cleanly.

Argus A-Four

Cocking lever – cocked – on top of the lens barrel

If the shutter doesn’t fire, you might need to cock it. Look for a cocking lever on or near the lens barrel. Move it until it clicks into place. Other cameras cock during winding via a pin on or near the takeup spool. You can usually cock it with a finger while the back is open.

Try the shutter at all available shutter speeds. It’s common for a shutter to stick open at its slowest speeds. This isn’t always a dealbreaker for me as I seldom shoot that slow.

Even when you can fire the shutter, you can’t check its accuracy and its full functioning. I’ve tested cameras where the shutter sounded okay but was wildly inaccurate. This is always a gamble.

♦ ♦ ♦

These simple checks are just the beginning, but if a camera doesn’t pass them, move on. Most common cameras are plentiful enough that you should just wait until you find another one in better shape. Unless, that is, the price is right and you know how to repair what’s wrong!

Next time: battery corrosion, busted rangefinders, weak light meters, and bad bellows.

Wrapping up the series: the most powerful tool in your camera-inspection arsenal.

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Blogosphere

Recommended reading

Here’s my Saturday roundup of Good Blog Posts™ from around the Internet this week.

Parenting is full of unexpected adventures, and Jaye Watson humorously tells of one that involves her son’s posterior. Read Splintered

Aaron Renn says that journalist Richard Longworth saw it coming way back in 1998, how globalization and free trade was going to create a social crisis. You know, the social crisis we appear to be currently embarking on. Read How Richard Longworth Predicted 20 Years Ago That Globalization Would Cause A Social Crisis

This week was a great one for film photographers in the blogosphere. Everybody seems to be figuring out that film photography is making a resurgence. Not to pre-digital levels; never to pre-digital levels. But enough that new films are being announced, and some people are wondering how to buy an old film camera to try it out.

And so Dan James wrote a great article about how to get started in film photography for £27. (He’s in the UK; that’s about 34 US dollars.) Read How To Start Film Photography For £27.

And James over at Casual Photophile gives you an even bigger budget: $50. He polled his entire writing team and got some solid recommendations. Read We Pick Your First Film Camera For Under $50

And finally, Nicholas Middleton reminds us that Take Your Box Camera to Work Day is rapidly approaching. Are you in? Read Tuesday 28th February is ‘Take Your Box Camera to Work Day’

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Stories told, Ten Years of Down the Road

The Electric Breakfast

Blogging today is like radio was for me 30 years ago, when I was a disk jockey.

Does anybody listen to the radio anymore? Even for the listeners who hang on, it’s not like it was even 20 years ago. Stations increasingly automate everything. A computer runs the show, playing both songs and commercials. The disk jockey in Denver might actually have been recorded yesterday in Albuquerque. The computer knows when to make the recorded disk jockey speak, too. It’s driven the feeling of connection out of the medium.

mewmhd1989aI got my start in radio long before all that, at my college’s station. Our biggest audience tuned in weeknights after 6 pm, which was when students settled in for a long night of homework. It was an engineering school, an they worked us hard.

Sometimes I’d break from my own homework and walk through the residence halls. I’d hear our station coming from dozens of rooms. Or I’d visit the broadcast studio, where the phone rang off the hook with students and townies calling to request their favorite music.

Radio was still live and local everywhere then, not just at college stations like ours. We engaged with our listeners, and they responded. It made the evening shows so much fun! Our best jocks lined up to take them. Afternoon shows were next most popular, but shows before noon were hard to fill. The morning show was nearly impossible to staff, as it meant being on the air at 7 am.

I was station manager, the top dog, and I could have any show I wanted. But I chose the morning shift whenever my class schedule allowed. I loved it.

WMHD was in the basement of a residence hall. I lived in a room about a hundred feet away. When my alarm went off at 6:45 a.m., I’d put on my glasses and head right for the station, barefoot and in my nightclothes, stopping only to answer nature’s call. I’d pick out the first four or five songs, fire up the transmitter, and play the sign-on message. The Electric Breakfast was on the air!

mewmhd1989bOur station’s hallmark was that each disk jockey got to play whatever he wanted. For the morning show, I chose mellow acoustic music to gently ease listeners into the morning. It really stood out against the station’s regular alt-rock and heavy-metal programming.

I figure that most mornings I had at most a handful of listeners. I am sure that sometimes I played music for nobody at all. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard within only about a two-mile radius, half of which was a cornfield and a horse farm.

I would have been thrilled for hundreds of people to hear my show, but I was plenty happy with the way things were. You see, I loved to match key, tempo, and mood, mixing songs so that each one seemed a natural extension of the one before. I did it all by feel, and was supremely satisfied each time I nailed it.

But more importantly, once in a while the phone would ring. It was usually a fellow from Seelyville, a nearby tiny town. He often listened to me as he got ready for work. He enjoyed the tapestries of music I wove and would call to tell me when he especially enjoyed a transition I made between songs. And once in a while someone would stop me on my way to class to say that he heard me that morning and liked it.

This occasional praise was all I needed to keep at it.

I am so glad I recorded a few Electric Breakfasts. Here is the first 45 minutes of the show from Wednesday, April 6, 1988. You can hear pops and scratches in the records I played – unlike most radio stations, we didn’t compress our audio to eliminate noise and make the music seem louder. You can also hear the sleepiness in my voice; it usually took me most of the first hour to shake it. But I was not so sleepy that I couldn’t manage a few good transitions between songs. Check it out.

My blogging experience has been very much like The Electric Breakfast. Down the Road is a mere blip in the blogosphere, barely a whisper among the Internet’s clamoring voices. This post might find 25 views today, and maybe that many more the rest of this week. Thanks to the Internet’s long tail, it might find another 50 readers in the next year.

But I love the writing process and find it supremely satisfying when my sentences flow seamlessly into powerful paragraphs, which build an engaging story. And I love it when you leave comments, sharing your experiences or challenging my assertions or just saying that you enjoyed what I wrote. This is enough to keep me blogging indefinitely.

I never thanked that guy from Seelyville for listening. But I thank you for reading!

I first published this story in 2010. I revised it significantly for this retelling.

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Old US 50 in Illinois

Abandoned US 50 in Illinois
Kodak EasyShare Z730 Zoom
2009

A long section of US 50 stands abandoned to the current US 50 alignment in central Illinois. The state planned at one time to build a four-lane US 50 here, but the plans were scuttled after the new lanes were built. So they just routed the whole road along the new lanes and left the old ones behind.

Photography, Road trips

Photo: Abandoned US 50 in Illinois

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