The cover of my next book, A Place to Start

I’m making slow but solid progress toward publishing my new book of stories and essays, A Place to Start. I’ve collected the best of my writing from this blog’s first two years, 2007 and 2008, and edited and sometimes rewrote it to make it better. I’ve also added photographs throughout, many of which I’ve never shared before!

I plan to release the book soon in print, Kindle, and PDF. I’m trying to figure out access for other e-readers, and I’m also thinking about recording it as an audiobook.

Every book needs a cover, and here’s the one I designed for A Place to Start.

I wanted the cover to stand out, so I used bold, golden letters on a textured brick-red background. I’m a bit of a typography geek, so I cycled through a whole bunch of fonts before I settled on this one: Berlin Sans. It’s a friendly font — I didn’t want something stuffy — but heavy enough to draw attention.

I’ve titled the book after this post I wrote about my first apartment. The photograph is me, aged 22, leaving that apartment one workday morning. My longtime friend Kathy had come to visit, and I would drop her at the airport on my way to the office. She made this photograph.

Side note: I’m amused to see how formally I dressed for my job in a software company. Our industry has always dressed more casually than the rest of the white-collar working world. But 30 years ago it was still common to wear slacks, a dress shirt, a tie, and a sport coat. We defied convention by skipping the tie and the coat! Today, T-shirts and jeans are normal. I am sometimes accused of being overdressed for the office because I pair a button-down sport shirt with my Levi’s.

Anyway, I’m working to release the book in November on paper, for Kindle, and in PDF. Stay tuned! I’m excited to put my stories into your hands.

If you take my monthly email newsletter, Back Roads, you’ve already seen this cover. On Back Roads I share a little more personally than I do here, and you get to see what I’m working on before everyone else. If you want in, sign up here.

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A walk around Indiana University

My son graduated from Purdue and then landed a job in Bloomington, home to Purdue’s arch-rival, Indiana University. So far, he’s not taken too much flak for his educational pedigree! I visited him a couple weeks ago and we strolled around campus as we talked. I had my Pentax K10D along with its 18-55mm zoom lens.

In 1988 I had a girlfriend at IU. Laura and I remain friends to this day. Sometimes she’d come to see me at Rose-Hulman in Terre Haute and sometimes I’d visit her at IU. We walked campus a lot because it didn’t cost anything; neither of us had much money. It’s remarkable to me how after more than 30 years IU feels exactly like it did then, but I recognize almost nothing.

On the Indiana University campus
On the Indiana University campus
On the Indiana University campus
On the Indiana University campus

My son and I stepped off campus proper to walk some of the neighborhood directly to the north. I was drawn to its brick streets and the architecture of the houses. Many of these houses contain university departments today.

Brick streets of Bloomington
Brick streets of Bloomington
Brick streets of Bloomington

Kirkwood Avenue is the heart of the off-campus student experience. It’s remarkable to me how many places on it are still there since the 1980s, like Nick’s below. I remember well having beers at Kilroy’s and the Irish Lion back in the day, and pizza at Mother Bear’s. They’re all still open.

Nick's English Hut
The Von Lee
Buffa Louie's at the Gables

We’re still dealing with COVID-19, of course, and campus was crowded. So my son and I masked up for our walk.

I was just talking to a friend the other day, a fellow with young children who admitted that he doesn’t enjoy his children as babies. I was the same way. I loved them, but I didn’t start to enjoy them until they were mobile and verbal. The older they became, the more I enjoyed them. The middle- and high-school years were my favorite. What I wouldn’t do to have just one more year of high school with my sons! But that ship has sailed. I’m fortunate that my sons are happy that when their old dad wants to come see them. They always make time for me.

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My next book, coming soon: A Place to Start

I’ve been writing this blog since 2007. It’s become largely about my hobbies: photography, old cameras, and old roads. But I’ve always written personal essays, that is, stories from my life and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. These posts never get the most pageviews, but you tell me time and again that they’re the ones you like best.

My next book collects the best stories and essays from this blog’s first two years, 2007 and 2008. My horrible first marriage had finally ended after a protracted and brutal divorce. I was left to build a new life, to go in a direction I didn’t foresee when I made my wedding vow, a direction I didn’t want. But our marriage was truly destructive. We weren’t able to fix what was broken about us. Our home was desperately unhealthy for everyone, including our children. The end of our marriage left us both broke, but in every other way our family was better off.

Down the Road, v. 1.0

I needed a hobby. Money was tight. Blogging was free. And so I started to write my stories and share them here. Not the ones from the bad marriage — I decided straight off that I would not air our dirty laundry, would not work through my pain by sharing its causes with the world. It would have been cathartic to do it, as my ex had done some breathtakingly awful things. But I had done some breathtakingly awful things, too. I didn’t want her telling my stories. I wasn’t going to tell hers.

Instead, I wrote about my childhood and my young adulthood. I wrote about the challenges of adapting to newly single life. I also wrote about my faith, which the divorce challenged to the core. Through it I lost my childish ideas of what following God was about, and gained a genuine, sustaining relationship with my creator.

Reading the Sunday funnies in my living room, age 22

I’m titling the book A Place to Start. It’s the same name as a story I first published a month after I started this blog. You can read that story here. I wrote of my first apartment after graduating from engineering school and landing a job. I lucked into a great apartment, one much nicer than my meager income could ordinarily have afforded. There I figured out a new adult life. There I also started to see some of the baggage I was carrying from my childhood — baggage that led me to form unhealthy relationships. I began the hard work to change my thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors, so I could be a better man. That apartment truly was a place to start.

I’m on track to publish my book in November. When you read it, you’ll see that neither I nor my blog had fully found our voices yet. But I had started. There is so much power in starting. From there, you can find your way. You can’t find your way until you start.

With this book I start my publishing journey. Who knows where it will take me? I get to enjoy finding my way with it, just as I still enjoy finding my way with my blog. Just as, now that I can look back on it, I enjoyed building a new life after my marriage ended.

Blogging for so many years has made me a much better writer. As I laid these stories and essays into this book, I revised them all to better tell my story and to make it more interesting.

I think everybody’s life is interesting — yours too. It’s all in how you tell the stories. I’m an ordinary man with an ordinary life, but these stories together form a memoir that tells how rich even an ordinary life can be.

I’ll share more about A Place to Start in the weeks to come as I finish it and prepare it to be published. I have a lot to figure out between now and then!

If you take my monthly email newsletter, Back Roads, you already knew I was working on this book. I even offered you the chance to review an early draft of it, and give me feedback. On Back Roads I share a little more personally than I do here, and you get to see what I’m working on before everyone else. If you want in, sign up here.

I dipped my toe into the publishing waters a couple years ago by releasing two books of my photographs. If you’re interested, have a look at them here.

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As I turn 53 today I’ve been thinking about the life lessons I still haven’t learned.

Row of Herbies

Chief among them is that I will always have shortcomings. During my 40s I put a lot of effort and energy into working through shortcomings. I believed, deep down, that I was unacceptable because of the ways in which I failed or fell short. I felt real shame over a few of those shortcomings. I wanted to identify and eliminate them all.

I’d like to get over that in my 54th year. That’s not to say I won’t keep working to be a better man. I just want to to accept that I’ll always be a work in progress, and that I may never be able to change certain things about me that I wish were different or better.

I want to be a better man because I want to have a better life, one less characterized by stress, disappointment, and sadness; one more characterized by peace and joy. I want to not be a jerk or an ass in the world, even unintentionally, even when I feel justified. I want to be more effective in the things I do and in my interactions with others. I want to build people and institutions up, not damage them.

It might surprise you to learn that I’m largely driven by anger. I see things that are wrong and it pisses me off. I want to correct or control them. I want to fix what’s broken and shape what’s wrong for right. I want justice. It’s my basic nature.

My photography and my writing counterbalance the anger. Photography is a wonderful distraction where I can lose myself in pleasure. Writing helps me discover what I think so I can make peace.

I still haven’t learned what to do when I feel angry. I’ve spent my life trying to not yell and punish in anger like Dad often did. He always played it down by saying he only raised his voice, but his raised voice always frightened me so. I don’t want to pollute my world like that.

That’s led me to internalize angry feelings. Sometimes I can process them and let them go. Once in a while they leak out in passive-aggressive ways. Mostly I get stuck in them. They keep me awake at night. They lead to pervasive feelings of disappointment. Unchecked, that disappointment leads to depression.

This year I’d like to work on dealing with anger more in the moment. First, I’d like to analyze quickly whether I can act on the thing that has activated my anger. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

For the things I can’t do anything about, I want to work on acceptance — radical acceptance, if need be — and set boundaries that let me protect and care for myself.

For the things I can do something about, I’m still afraid of losing my cool like my dad used to. That will remain unacceptable to me. But if I can just stay steady in that moment, and speak swiftly, I think I can speak my mind and discharge the anger without leaving others feeling burned. Take a quick breath, find as even a tone of voice as I can, and say what’s bothering me. Stay steady, speak swiftly. Maybe that will sometimes change things. But if it doesn’t, at least the anger should reduce and be less likely to linger.

I think this starts with me accepting my basic angry nature. After 53 years it’s still here, which is strong evidence that it’s not likely to go away. This is who I am. I don’t have to like it, but the path to peace and sanity is to accept it.

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Personal, Stories Told

Brant’s and South Bend’s Miami Village

In the early 1980s I was a teenager living with my family on the south side of South Bend, Indiana. I lived in a real neighborhood, with plenty of shops and other businesses within walking distance. My favorite of them was Brant’s. In days gone by, Brant’s was known as a five and 10 cent store, or a five and dime store, or just a dime store. These were the dollar stores of their day — everything was a nickel or a dime. But their day had largely passed by the 1980s, and stores like Brant’s were more commonly called variety stores. The only thing you might still get for a nickel or a dime in them was a piece of candy. But nothing Brant’s carried was particularly expensive. It was a fine store to visit when you were on a tight budget.

Brant’s centerpiece was its gleaming stainless-steel soda fountain and counter with six stools. You could get a light lunch there, a hot dog or a grilled-cheese sandwich and a cup of soup. I did that from time to time, always the grilled cheese and bean-bacon soup with a Coke. They still made Cokes by squirting syrup in the bottom of the glass, filling it the rest of the way with soda water, and stirring. That was a throwback even then. They also made Green River sodas, a sweet lime drink. But for me, the soda fountain’s crowning glory was the milkshakes, hand dipped and mixed. I drank dozens of them over the years. Make mine chocolate, with extra malt.

I often went with my brother, who loved root beer. One day at the counter he asked if it were possible to make root beer double strength, that is, to use twice the syrup. “Of course,” was the answer, and they made him one. After that, he ordered one every time we went in. He became so well known for his double-strength root beer that every time we visited, while he shopped they’d make him one and leave it on the counter for whenever he was ready for it.

Like all five-and-dimes, Brant’s carried all kinds of miscellaneous stuff in its handful of aisles. For example, Brant’s was the only store on the south side that carried photo corners. They are little black paper pockets, backed with lick-and-stick adhesive. You place one, moistened, on each of a photo’s four corners and then press the corners onto paper. Regular photo albums were crazy expensive on my meager allowance. But at Brant’s I could make affordable photo albums out of three-fastener cardboard report covers, three-hole notebook paper, and photo corners.

Brant’s also had a postal station inside. I had pen pals in other countries, and we used to make mix tapes for each other. I packaged them up and took them over to Brant’s, where owner Ray Brant always took care of me. He’d weigh the package, look up the rate, take my money, affix the postage, and make sure the letter carrier picked it up.

That was another thing about Brant’s: it was a family business. His daughters and I’m pretty sure even his wife (who drew the image at the top of this post) all worked there. The whole family came to know the many kids who came in. They tolerated all of us kids very well. My brother and I were good kids who never caused trouble. Sometimes they’d chat with us briefly at the soda fountain — once Mr. Brant shared his snack of string cheese with me — and they always let us linger over our browsing well beyond the time we needed.

I loved going to Brant’s and headed there anytime I had a little money. A Coke was just 35 cents, so it didn’t take long to save up for a trip. I even had my first date at Brant’s, at age 13, taking a sweet girl to the soda fountain for lunch. But even as long ago as the early 1980s, stepping inside Brant’s was like stepping into 1965. It was clear to me even at that age that Brant’s was a holdover from a different time.

Brant’s was part of a larger community of businesses known as Miami Village, named for the street they were all on. Here’s a photo with Brant’s in it, next to a barber shop and what I remember being a little bar. Judging by the cars, this photo was taken in the 1980s.

The History Museum (South Bend) photo

Miami Village was just a mile from my house, a short bike ride or a long walk away. This composite photo from about 1975 was taken just north of Brant’s in the same block, on Brant’s side of the street, looking south on Miami Street.

Composite of two The History Museum (South Bend) photos

Miami Village offered bars and restaurants, banks, dry cleaners, gas stations, a dairy store (a convenience store before anyone coined the term), a public library branch, a hobby store (where I bought the plastic model cars I put together in those days), and more. In this north-facing photo from abut 1975, the gas tower looms over the village. It stored coal gas used to heat homes, and was a South Bend landmark for 60 years.

The History Muesum (South Bend) photo

The south end of Miami Village was anchored by Buschbaum’s Pharmacy. I used to go in there to buy MAD Magazine and candy. This photo is from the Blizzard of 1978.

Sourced from a South Bend group on Facebook

Miami Village started to slowly decline after I moved away from South Bend in 1985. For years it seemed like every time I went home to visit, more businesses had closed along this strip. Brant’s held on for a long time, through the late 1990s or early 2000s if memory serves. By then Mr. Brant was ready to retire, and he couldn’t find someone interested in continuing his business.

Today, the only Miami Village businesses still operating since the 1980s are a pub and, of all things, a lamp shop. The library branch is still open, too. Other businesses have moved into the old spaces. I hate to say it, but they’re not of the same caliber as the businesses they replaced. A wig store has operated out of the Brant’s building for many years, one of its plate glass windows replaced with an ugly piece of particle board.

At least Miami Village was still great at a time when I’d earned enough autonomy and had a little money, and could enjoy it.

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Too many books

I’ve been a reader as far back as I can remember — more nonfiction than fiction, and more short works than long books. But I love to read.

A book about me

I used to keep every book I read. That way, there was a lasting physical connection to the feelings and thoughts each book stirred in me.

Additionally, from my mid-20s until about my mid-30s I edited books, for a while as my main job and later as a side gig. Publishers sent me a copy of every book I edited. They were like my babies; how could I let any of them go?

I had shelves and shelves full of books, and more in closets, and some in boxes in the garage.

And then my first marriage ended. Nearly broke, I downsized into a 300-square-foot apartment. There was no room for most of my stuff, let alone my books.

As I sorted through them, I realized I had read only tiny fraction of them more than once. It finally struck me that keeping them was just wasting space. I sold or gave away all but a short stack of books that represented a cherished memory or that affected me deeply.

I took to borrowing books from the library, and later buying them for my Kindle. The cloud can store far more books than my house can! And when it’s time to move to a new house, the Kindle is far lighter than a whole library of books.

This was part of a larger change in the way I looked at stuff. I had tons of it, and to fit in my tiny home I could keep almost none of it. So I got rid of it — and then I felt free owning so little. It shocked me how good it felt.

I eventually bought a house again, but did not return to my accumulating ways. I furnished the place and I bought things I needed to function there. But periodically, and especially when I sold the place a couple years ago, I went through my stuff and got rid of things I didn’t use regularly.

In recent years my hobbies have led me to buy paper books again. I own a couple dozen books related to transportation history, which I use to research my road trips. They are all long out of print and not available electronically.

I started buying books of photographs a few years ago. It’s lovely to see photographs printed, rather than always on screens. I own a book of Polaroids made by Ansel Adams, one of 1930s New York scenes by Berenice Abbott, a collection of Edward Weston images, and a lovely book about making photographs around one’s home by Andrew Sanderson. I’ve learned a lot studying these works of accomplished photographers. I also own a couple dozen zines, chapbooks, and Blurb books published by other photo bloggers. I’m a sucker for those. If you make one, I’ll probably buy it.

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