Old McDonald's sign

Old McDonald’s sign
Canon PowerShot S95
2015

Lately I’ve been photographing the neighborhood I live in and the shopping centers and restaurants within walking distance. It’s what’s convenient to photograph while I work from home.

Almost all of this stuff has been built in the last five years, and a lot of it within the last 18 months. So we have the latest in strip-mall and fast-food architecture, such as it is.

On Flickr, someone commented on a photo I posted of our brand new Wendy’s. “Thank you for documenting the times,” he said. “In the future folks will see these and say, ‘I remember when the fast food places changed their look!'”

I thought of that when I came upon this photo I made a few years ago of a McDonald’s sign in Richmond, Indiana. It dates to the late 1960s or early 1970s. I grew up in the 1970s, so I remember when these were common. Few are left now. That’s why I stopped to photograph it.

What if someone had photographed places like this extensively back in the 1970s? We’d have an outstanding record of what the United States looked like at that moment in time. Throwback signs like this were all brand new once. The new Wendy’s in my neighborhood will, one day, be a throwback too.

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Essay, Photography

single frame: Old McDonald’s sign

Ruminating on changes in the built environment.

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Essay

More handwringing about social media

I quit Twitter several weeks ago. I finally had enough of the anger.

I joined the service in 2008 and since then I never figured out what to use it for. In the last several years I had my blog auto-tweet every new post. Hardly anybody clicked through.

Before you declare me virtuous, that lack of engagement was what made it easy to say goodbye. Facebook has just as much anger, but I’m still on it because it is easy to make it bring people here to read my posts. I wrote about how I do it here. It’s my number two referrer, after search.

Referrers so far in 2020

I have signed up for a whole bunch of Facebook groups now, mostly about old roads, old cars, and old cameras. I did it because I like those things and can share my blog posts with those readers. But it’s had the surprising effect of diluting the anger in my feed. It’s all still there, but the posts from my groups space it out. One angry post is followed by a post about an abandoned road alignment, a ’72 Mercury Montego, a film photograph of someone’s beautiful girlfriend, and a discussion about Ilford HP5 Plus film.

Twitter had far higher anger density. I couldn’t figure out how to dilute it and one day, all of a sudden, I realized I’d had enough. It felt strange to delete my account after twelve years, but I find that I don’t miss Twitter at all. I thought I would, a little.

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Essay

Juneteenth: are we really woke this time?

My dad was the sole white member of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senior Men’s Club in South Bend, my hometown. Dad was interested in economic development in the city’s depressed west side, where he had lived as a teenager. He worked with a few west-side groups trying to move initiatives forward, and the Men’s Club was one of them.

Through this, I think, he became aware of the challenges black families faced in South Bend. Whenever I’d see him he’d eventually steer our conversations toward those challenges. He could talk for hours about them. As a dyed-in-the-wool Republican he always advanced conservative solutions. The men of the Men’s Club were Democrats to the core and vigorously disagreed with Dad, but they came to like him anyway.

This is how I first heard of Juneteenth. There were celebrations every year on South Bend’s west side, and my parents always went to them.

I work in technology, specifically in software development. This industry is overwhelmingly the domain of young white men from the middle and upper classes. Where I work now, we have the most diverse team of anyplace I’ve ever worked. That doesn’t mean it’s highly diverse — we just have some women and a few black people on the team. We also have several immigrants from India and China and a few old white guys like me. That’s enough to set us well apart.

The murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis was the one-time-too-many that finally captured this nation’s attention. People of all backgrounds are saying enough. It’s time to treat black people with the same dignity and respect that is afforded white people.

At work, leaders have been talking a lot about how to improve the diversity of our team. Because I follow a lot of the local tech companies on LinkedIn, I see through their updates that they are having the same kinds of conversations.

I see it as systemic that our industry is made mostly of young white men. Most jobs either require or favor a four-year engineering-related degree. In my experience, that’s overwhelmingly the domain of young white men of some means.

Technology companies should eliminate the degree requirement. Then they should invest in training and apprenticeships. Yes, let’s apply the old trade model to technology. At least in software development, there are coding academies that teach the basics. Companies can band together to create scholarships to those academies, and heavily recruit people to those scholarships who are not young white men. They can then bring graduates on board and show them the ropes on the job.

Personally, when I have an opening on my team I scour LinkedIn for people who aren’t young white men and I recruit them. Plenty of young white men find my opening on their own. I’m still selecting from the same pool of people who are already in the industry, blocking people who want to get in but don’t yet have the bona fides. But it has led to my last two offers going to a black software engineer and a woman engineering manager.

Out of the blue, my company this week announced that they are giving us this afternoon off to celebrate Juneteenth. My brother works for another local tech company that has one-upped us: they’ve made Juneteenth a paid company holiday, starting this year.

I’m cynical. Are we just signaling virtue? Will we actually carry our discussions about diversity through to action?

None of the social welfare and justice initiatives Dad was involved in drove lasting change. It was an uphill climb, and it required persistence and cooperation beyond what my father could arrange. The same persistence and cooperation is required to drive diverse hiring in the tech industry. It’s also needed across the United States for the good of our whole nation.

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Essay

Will the United States ever rebuild from its ugly and shameful history of institutional racism?

A pilgrimage to Central Camera

News is rippling through the film-photography community today that Chicago’s Central Camera was looted and set ablaze last night. Violent protests began Friday night in Chicago, and in many other large cities across the US, after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a black man, while he was in their custody.

Downtown Indianapolis has seen violent protests this weekend, as well. One person was shot to death and at least two more were shot and injured. Windows are broken and shops have been looted, including in the block where my workplace is located. The city has instituted a 6 pm curfew tonight trying to stem the violence.

Anger was already high in Indianapolis. Earlier this month, city police shot Dreasjon Reed, an black man, to death as he was running from them. Reed was armed, it turned out, but the news does not indicate that he was waving his gun at the time he was killed. This happened about a mile and a half from my old house, near the Michigan Road, which quickly filled with protesters and was closed for hours. Read the story here.

As I scan news reports, it sounds like the majority of protesters in every city are loud but otherwise peaceful. A minority is violent.

I condemn the violence. But I fully support the right of everyone to protest police overuse and misuse of force, especially because it appears to affect black men in gross disproportion. I can’t imagine a valid reason for a Minneapolis police officer to keep his knee on a man’s neck for nine minutes, ignoring his protests that he couldn’t breathe. I can’t imagine a valid reason for an Indianapolis police officer to shoot a man in the back as he ran away. I can’t escape the feeling that if these two men were white, they would not have died.

The owner of Central Camera says he will rebuild his store. But will the United States ever rebuild from its ugly and shameful history of institutional racism? I’m not optimistic.

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Essay, Personal

When your wife divorces you

I read a monthly e-mail newsletter called The Masculinist, written for Christian men living in the modern world. Its author, Aaron Renn, has some very well-reasoned positions on men in the church and in living the Christian life. He does a great job of explaining and building upon his positions in his newsletter. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.

In his most recent newsletter, he offers advice for men whose wives decide to divorce them. He points out that women file for 70% of all US divorces, and it is therefore wise as married men to think about how it will affect us should it happen to us. He then offers solid advice and perspective. Read it here.

His advice really resonated with me. My first wife divorced me. I won’t tell the story as I’m sure my ex wouldn’t like me telling stories on her, as I don’t appreciate her telling stories on me. But she was the one who decided the marriage was over, and filed.

At that time I got two pieces of excellent advice that line up well with Renn’s perspective. The first one came from an unlikely source: my attorney. He told me to find five trusted men who would take my call and who would pray with me. Many of us men don’t have five male friends, especially ones not married to our wives’ friends. If I couldn’t find five men, find as many as I could. My attorney warned me that they would probably not be able to offer me any real counsel or help, and I should let them know I understand that. Their purpose was simply to listen when I needed to talk, and to pray with me and for me.

My young sons on the suspension bridge at Turkey Run State Park. It was 2005, after the separation but before the divorce was final.

Second, do not date for three years. My mother gave me this advice. You are a mess, she said, and need time to recover and figure out who you are again. If you date now, you will choose a woman like the one who just rejected you, or a woman equally a mess for her own reasons. Either way, it won’t lead to a healthy relationship. That will be bad for you. But more importantly, you do not need to be that distracted from your sons, who are also hurting and need you.

I took both pieces of advice. The trusted male friends (and family members) I lined up really did take my call at any time, and really did pray for me and with me. True to my lawyer’s counsel, they seldom had any meaningful advice or material help to offer. But they did listen, and offered comforting words. Because of them I was never alone through any of what came. It was a long, dragged-out mess — after filing, my ex flatly refused to negotiate, our judge refused to order mediation, and we went to trial in a badly backlogged court. It was more than a year before we stood before the judge.

The second piece of advice was wicked hard at first. I was so starved for attention and affection! But not dating helped me keep my head in the right game: raising my two sons, with the time the court granted me to have with them. Three years became seven, with my sons in high school, before I dated at all. At ten years, I met the woman who would become my wife. Even then, we delayed until my youngest son was out of high school. We agreed that it made no sense to upend his life as he knew it with me, with a new house and stepsiblings, when he was so close to the finish line.

The stability I provided for my sons in my home became foundational for them — the oldest has acknowledged this openly without my prompting — as their mom went on to marry two more times, moving our sons with them each time.

The other thing that I did on my own was double down on my faith. I was furious with God for the failure of my marriage. I’d prayed daily, on my knees and in tears, that he intervene and save us. I felt that God had not kept his promises to me, the ones I felt he had made all through his Word. I could have easily walked away at that point.

But there was something in me that insisted on holding God to his promises, and I let him know it in no uncertain terms. I spent a lot of time searching the Scriptures like a lawyer poring over legal texts trying to find where God had made those promises. Instead, through this study I learned how my understanding of God’s nature was thin and inaccurate. I came to understand him far better — and built a feeling of closeness with him that I didn’t know was possible.

Even though the divorce has been final for 14 years, recalling it still brings up residual pain. That’s the other piece of advice I wish I had been given: this is a very serious loss, and you will find a new normal, a new peace, and hopefully a new happiness. You will eventually no longer think about your loss every day. But it will remain a sad, difficult memory for the rest of your life.

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Essay

Communication: Throwing the ball so others can catch it

“You are unusually direct,” Elsa said to me. She was one of the first people I hired in my first management role, in the late 1990s. She said this to me on a few occasions as we worked on a large project together. I took it as a compliment then, but with hindsight I see that Elsa found my forthrightness to be challenging.

I say half-jokingly that I was this direct because I have hillbilly and blue-collar roots. My dad grew up in the hills of West Virginia. His family moved to Indiana to find factory and construction work. Dad worked in a farm-equipment factory while I grew up. In the culture I came from, anything less than saying it straight — no matter how much the words hurt — is seen as being untrustworthy.

Handley, WV
Handley, West Virginia, pop. 350 — where my dad’s family is from

I was proud of my direct manner. I believed that my forthrightness was good and valuable. It came from a place of wanting good outcomes for the company, customers, and my co-workers. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but that’s how I was sometimes perceived.

I’d been a manager for about 10 years when the fellow I worked for at the time said it to me: “Jim. You’ve got to stop leaving dead bodies behind when you talk. Learn some tact.” He told me he’d like to see me move up in the organization, but not while this behavior stood in my way.

That got my attention. I had been pitching fastballs at peoples’ foreheads. That boss coached me in throwing drifts that others can catch. I’ve practiced it ever since, and have built reasonable skill. It has unlocked all sorts of opportunity for me. It has helped me build influence and trust.

It took a long time for more nuanced communication to not feel wrong. It turns out I’m not among my hillbilly family, and I’m not working a blue-collar job. I’m working with midwestern professionals, and the rules are different.

I revert to my natural form when I’m anxious, over-stressed, or very tired. Those are not my finest moments.

But there are times when speaking directly is valuable. Emergencies are one such time. A couple companies ago I managed the testing team. Production went down while all of the site operations managers were at a conference. I was ranking manager, so I dove in and, using my natural directness, led the team to quickly find root cause and get Production back up again. One engineer praised me: “You came outta nowhere and crisply and efficiently drove the train back onto the track. I’ve never seen this side of you!”

Another time is when I think I see something critical that nobody else does, and nuanced communication is not getting the ball across the plate. A flat statement can grab attention and change the conversation. It can also blow up in my face, so it’s a calculated risk. I’m hoping it works because it seems so out of character. “Whoa, Jim is really strident about this one. He’s usually so collegial. Maybe we should listen a little more closely.”

Finally, sometimes you have to say a flat “no” to a challenging request. I try very hard to find a way to say yes while highlighting the tradeoffs I or my team will have to make. “Could you deliver this feature two weeks earlier?” “Yes, if I pause work on this other feature.” Or, “Yes, if we trim scope and accept greater quality risk.” Or, “Yes, if we can flow some of the work through this other team.” But if scope, quality, and team are fixed and don’t support the timeline, I’m left to say no, and I do so plainly.

I will always wish I could be direct all the time. It’s how I’m made. But I care more about being effective than leaning into my basic nature.

I first shared this post on my software blog, here. It felt like a general enough topic to share here as well. It expands on a comment I left on another post on this subject, on Johanna Rothman’s blog, here.

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