Essay

Our children’s college educations are their inheritance

Under the Clock
Pentax KM, 55mm f/1.8 SMC Pentax, Kodak T-Max 400, 2018

My younger son, Garrett, started his final semester of college yesterday and is on track to graduate with a Computer Science degree. That means I’ve written the last tuition check for my sons, and an era ends. My older son, Damion, graduated two years ago, is now gainfully employed in pharmaceutical manufacturing, and lives independently. Garrett looks forward to his first post-college job and apartment.

Both of my boys are bright and capable, but not enough to get into elite schools. Even if they had gotten in, their mom and I make too much money for them to get financial aid, but not nearly enough to pay their whole bill ourselves. They would have graduated with crushing debt.

Instead, Damion went to Purdue, which is one of the great bargains in education. They have held costs flat for nine years! They had a program Damion wanted, and through it he got his degree in environmental science. Garrett was afraid giant Purdue would be overwhelming, despite its well-regarded CS program. He believed that he’d navigate a small school successfully, so he found the University of Indianapolis, a private school with a foundling CS program. (He now realizes he could have handled Purdue, and believes his education there would have been more rigorous, but hindsight is always 20/20.) UIndy gave generous scholarships to attract students to the CS program, bringing the cost in line with Purdue. Their mom and I were able to cover our older son’s entire first year but after that we needed both of them to take the federal loan offered each year. We paid the rest.

Garrett will be $20,000 in debt upon graduation, and Damion is paying off $15,000 in debt. Adjusted for inflation, that’s less than the $12,500 I had to pay off after graduating in 1989. I managed that debt just fine, even on my meager starting salary. Damion is managing on his salary, and I expect Garrett to do the same.

I’m pleased that they came out of school with minimal debt. Many of the twentysomethings I work with who went to expensive schools are paying off debt in the six figures. I remember one young man in particular who graduated from my alma mater $200,000 in the hole! He would have liked to work at a startup, but he needed the higher pay of an established company to afford his loan payment. My sons’ manageable debt gives them freedom that my young colleague lacks.

These were prime years for Margaret and I to save for retirement. Unfortunately, that money went to colleges instead, and we need to catch up on retirement. We probably won’t retire as comfortably because we chose to carry so much of our kids’ college costs. I told my sons not to expect there to be any money left when I die — I gave them their inheritance by paying the majority of their educations.

We have one more in college, my wife’s youngest. He’s mighty bright — he graduated high school in three years. But then he realized he had no idea what he wanted to study and took a gap year. We live in a surprisingly wealthy suburb and most of his friends’ parents could afford the elite schools they all went to. We are not surprisingly wealthy and as our son looked at elite schools he was shocked by the debt he would need to incur. He pivoted entirely and enrolled at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. This is a joint effort of those two state schools, located Downtown in Indianapolis. It’s a jaw-dropping bargain with tuition at about $5,000 a semester. He saves a ton more money by living with us, rather than on campus. He is studying neuroscience, a course of study that leads to grad school. His research tells him that his undergrad choice matters far less than his postgrad choices. Through his program at IUPUI he will receive his degree from Indiana University. While IU isn’t an elite school, it’s also not a third-tier school or a community college. Degree in hand, he’ll compete for as good a grad school as he can manage.

I applaud all our kids’ choices. They all have or will have educations that set them up for reasonable success. Not elite success, but then, they never had to face the pressure of elite competition. They’ve had balanced lives and I expect that will continue.

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Essay

Make America great again

US Capitol

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my family watched NBC Nightly News every night. I remember coverage of the end of Vietnam, and of Watergate. I remember watching Richard Nixon announce his resignation, and wave his famous two-finger victory signal just before the helicopter door closed and he flew off to become a private citizen.

I remember even better as a young adult the news coverage of Bill Clinton’s public moral failings, his evasive lies (“it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”), and his impeachment trial.

Point is, I’ve seen some shameful things happen in these United States. But none of what I’ve seen before compares with what happened yesterday at the U.S. Capitol.

I remember NBC Nightly News showing things like this happening in other countries — ones with long histories of instability and corruption, led by crackpot despot leaders. Backwater countries. Banana republics.

As a kid, even as a young adult, I believed in American exceptionalism. Over the last twenty years or so, that belief has slowly eroded. Yesterday, the last of it was destroyed. Perhaps you are in the same boat.

I’m trying to see this as a positive. I know that the first step to being a better person is to see yourself clearly for who and what you are. I feel sure that the same is true of nations. The difficult events of the last few years, capped with yesterday’s invasion of the U.S. Capitol by U.S. citizens, are a mirror that shows us who we have become as a nation. May we choose to look deeply into it. May we be shocked enough that we band together to demand meaningful change, so that America can truly become great again.

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Essay

Ship Mode: Recognizing when it’s time to stop polishing your work and just ship it

Every creative project has three phases: make the thing, polish the thing, deliver the thing. The polish step is where you remove errors through testing, editing, inspection, or other review. The deliver step is where you put your work in people’s hands.

It’s so easy to get stuck on the polish step. You keep looking for and fixing little things until you’re sure it’s perfect! This is all about fear. When your work is in the world, they can judge it. They can even ignore it. We want to avoid how bad that feels.

Also, perfection is expensive. You can spend as much time rooting out every tiny flaw as you did making the thing. Those tiny flaws will be embarrassing. But they won’t really hurt anything, and they won’t keep anyone from clicking Buy Now. Crucially, eliminating every last minor flaw keeps you from working on new projects that create new value.

When you’ve applied reasonable polish, when you feel the fear of rejection, it’s time to enter Ship Mode.

In Ship Mode, you single-mindedly do the tasks that put the work in people’s hands. You’re not looking for problems anymore. You choose to think of your work as a finished product. You might notice an error while you’re in Ship Mode, but unless it’s truly egregious, you keep shipping.

My new book was good enough to ship — but it’s not perfect

I self-published my book, A Place to Start (available now at Amazon and Leanpub). I did the whole job: writing, editing, creating the print-ready and e-book files, and (now) marketing. I saved money doing it all myself, but I’m skilled in only some of these tasks. Also, there came a point where I’d looked at my book so much I had become blind to it.

I’m a recovering perfectionist and I’m mildly OCD (officially diagnosed). It was hard for me to learn to let go and enter Ship Mode. But I’m glad I learned it many years ago, or I would still be making myself nuts perfecting my book. I have a day job. There’s only so much time to work on side projects. If I polished this one to perfection, it would not be available for several more weeks yet.

Curse you, Page 50!

I saw it only in the last step of the submission process to Amazon: this ungraceful flow on page 50. No publishing company would allow a paragraph on one page to spill three words onto the next right before an illustration.

When I saw it I gritted my teeth. I probably said a four-letter word. But not only is this problem not egregious, but most readers won’t even recognize it as a problem. Nobody will demand a refund because of it. I clicked the Approve button to finish the submission. That’s Ship Mode!

I edited every story as I assembled the book, and then made two proofreading passes. But when my author copy arrived I found two typos in five minutes. How frustrating!

But I will be shocked if you find something really messed up, like garbled sentences or missing paragraphs. During the polish phase I sweated out everything that would have seriously damaged your experience with the book.

And then I got on with shipping it so you could read it and, I hope, enjoy it.

Ship Mode! Because there’s a point past which polish doesn’t pay.

Here’s how you can get my new book:

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Essay

Hitting the parenting sweet spot

My first wife was not only a good mother to our children when they were very small, but she deeply enjoyed it. I hope I was a good father to our young children. I don’t think I was a poor one. I loved my sons, I was well involved in their care, and we had some lovely moments together. But overall, I did not enjoy their early years.

My sons at Halloween in 2000, aged 3 and 1

These were surprisingly lonely years for me. I worked days and my wife worked nights. Except for dinner we hardly saw each other. We either worked or were alone with our kids. On the weekends we each had house chores to do and it was just easier for both of us to do them alone and leave the other with the kids. I’d feed the kids lunch while she did the shopping. She’d care for them while I mowed the lawn.

I wish we had lived closer to extended family. Our closest relatives were my parents, but they lived 150 miles away. Day to day, we had no help. There was nobody to talk to, or to share the challenges with.

I wonder if my wife was lonely as well. I don’t know; we weren’t talking and connecting well as a couple. We were just pushing through our days as best we could.

Some fathers feel bonded to their babies from the start, but not me. Deep down I knew I’d do anything to protect them, and it was fun to make them smile and laugh. But it wasn’t until their personalities emerged in toddlerhood, when I could see glimpses of myself and their mother in them, that they truly entered my heart and felt like a part of me. Until then, my sons were just work.

Damion was colicky. He’d start crying midafternoon — and my goodness, was he loud. His mom and I used to joke that if the city’s storm sirens ever broke, we could just rent them Damion. When I got home from work and exited my car I could hear him screaming from our driveway, even in the dead of winter when the house was closed up. I’d put him in my arms and walk him from one end of the house to the other for hours. I have a heavy step that jostled him as I moved, which I think was been calming. I’d sing softly to him while we moved, two songs in particular, over and over. As long as I walked and sang those songs, he was calm. If I stopped, he’d scream. His colic usually passed sometime after 8 pm, by which time he’d exhausted himself (and me) and I could put him to bed. This was our routine for the first nine months of his life.

As Garrett grew, he struggled to cope with frustration. He’d try and try to achieve some goal that was just beyond him. I’ll never forget how he fixated on the sofa, which he purposed to climb. Little by little over several weeks’ time he gained the ability to reach the cushions, then the arm, and then the top of the seat back. I stayed close, but let him do it because he seemed so intent. But when he couldn’t reach the next level, he’d grow so frustrated and angry that he’d melt down. He’d cry in dark anger, turning crimson. He frightened the crap out of me a few times when he cried so hard he couldn’t draw in a breath. I had no idea what to do for Garrett.

Those were just the especially challenging aspects of our sons. Overall they were typical boys. I played with them and we watched TV. I gave them their baths and I made them lunch. I read to them a lot; they preferred Dr. Seuss: Wake every person, pig, and pup, until everyone in the world is up!

But for the most part, I was left with a feeling of is this all there is? I wished for greater connection and engagement with my sons, with my wife, and with the outside world.

Making cookies, still ages 1 and 3

It came as my sons grew. The older they became, the more I enjoyed them, the less my wife and I had to divide our time around child care, and the more easily we could all do things outside the house. When the boys developed basic self-sufficiency — they could dress themselves, use the bathroom alone, make a bowl of cereal — I started to experience real joy as their father. The boys and I could finally do things together, rather than me doing everything for them.

In the one-room apartment I rented while I waited for the divorce to be final, ages 6 and 8

I enjoyed fatherhood the most while my sons were in middle and high school. They were turning into their adult selves, and I was excited to watch it. I could share my interests with them, and they could share theirs with me. Damion set up his computer as a Minecraft server and we spent several lovely Saturday afternoons building things together in that virtual world. Garrett and I put together a lot of giant Lego sets. I took them on spring break trips including Washington, DC, and Route 66. Damion shared his interests in anime and in Dungeons and Dragons, and Garrett shared his surprising love of dark comedy.

But more importantly, I was able to speak into their lives and help them figure out how to finish growing up. The challenges they experienced in early childhood all baffled me, but I was primed and ready for their adolescence. I don’t know why, I just was. I still made mistakes, but overall I feel like I was made to be a father of teenagers. I wish I could go back and have just one more year of high school with them!

My first wife, in comparison, seemed happiest to be a mom during the baby and early childhood years. The story I piece together from things my sons told me is that she was far less engaged, perhaps even disengaged, while they were teens. It’s hard to know for sure because the divorce meant I wasn’t there to witness it. But my conclusion isn’t far fetched as that’s exactly what I witnessed with her child from her first marriage, who graduated high school before we divorced.

That doesn’t mean I was a poor father of my young children or my ex was a poor mother of her teens. Damion once told me that he feels like he is very lucky to have drawn us as parents; he called us both “fantastic.” It’s just that my ex was a natural with our small children, and I was a natural with our teenagers.

Damion, me, Garrett, and my mom at Garrett’s high-school graduation – ages 20 and 18

I think most parents, those who work to be engaged with their kids, experience this. There will be some years they don’t enjoy parenting, and other years where they love it and are just crushing it.

If you’re a parent of young children and you’re not enjoying it, hang on. The good years are ahead.

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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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