Personal

Redeeming the sins of my father

My father taught me that men work. It was a regular theme of his parenting. He demonstrated it every day: in bed at 10, up at 5, off to the plant by 7, home at 4, rest with the family all evening. He did this week in and week out all through my childhood.

As my brother and I entered our teenage years he all but ordered us to find work in the neighborhood. We shoveled driveways in the winter and mowed lawns in the summer. We delivered newspapers in all weather, including one Christmas morning when the snow was up to our waists. Once we painted a neighbor’s privacy fence. A couple times I minded a vacationing neighbor’s house and took care of their dog.

The four of us with Dad’s Aunt Betty in about 1980

During our college years Dad insisted we work to help pay our way. I was counterman at a Dairy Queen, a courier, a programmer, a gift-shop manager, a switchboard operator, and an administrative assistant.

While my brother and I were in college, the plant where Dad had worked all our lives closed. Manufacturing was in steep decline and jobs were scarce. Dad’s best friend ran the art museum at Notre Dame and had him make pedestals for sculpture and benches for people to sit on. Dad found he had a real talent for cabinetmaking. Well-heeled museum patrons began to ask Dad to make custom wood furniture for their homes. This kept the family going until Dad found another manufacturing job. He rose rapidly; by the time my brother and I graduated, he was plant manager. He worked hard all week at the plant and all weekend making furniture.

After my brother and I had both flown the nest, Dad quit the plant to make furniture full time. He designed and built beautiful original furniture for a wealthy clientele all across northern Indiana.

Dad hoped that word of mouth would build his business. I think he wanted to be sought out and chosen, and so he resisted making sales calls. He was advised to move downmarket, to hire a crew to make similar but simpler furniture in assembly-line fashion at lower cost, and to open a store. He resisted that, too.

The business never took off. After several extremely lean years, he found a job with a startup manufacturing company as plant manager. He found a building for the company to operate from, bought the equipment, hired a crew, and got the plant operating. But he had some difficulty navigating the politics with the company founders and was fired.

These two failures were a one-two punch to Dad’s gut. He gave up. Except when cabinetmaking work happened to find him, he never worked again.

I forget how old Dad was when all this happened. 55 maybe? 60? I was well into my adult life by then, was probably married with kids, and have lost track of the timing.

But I remember being deeply disappointed in my dad as he threw up every excuse for not finding a job, and instead donated his time to various social causes in my hometown. When Mom was forced to go back to work to put food on the table and provide health insurance, I became full-on angry.

I’m not sure that anger ever left. I just had to live with it. I broached this subject gently a few times but Dad wouldn’t let me go there.

I think for all these years I’ve lived with ambivalence toward my father. I loved him, but I lost respect for him and harbored, maybe even nurtured, a disgust for what he’d done. I yearned to be close to him, but I was repelled by how he let my mom down and by how he didn’t live up to the ideals he taught his sons.

My dad at Christmas just before he died, with my older son

Over the last couple years I’ve had challenges in my own career. Just as my sons were entering college a few years ago, I was laid off. Then last year I was fired from another job.

Meanwhile, it turns out I have a knack for writing and photography and I’ve built this reasonably popular blog around my work. I deeply enjoy how people have found and follow my work here.

I am very aware of some feelings and desires within me. I imagine that my dad must have had much the same ones. He and I are more alike than I care to admit.

I believe Dad wanted to be well known and loved for his furniture more than he wanted to have a profitable business. I believe he hoped he would become the wood-furniture darling of the wealthy and well-known. I believe this because I want to be well known and loved for my photography and writing. I’ve gotten a taste of that through this blog and have considered, even dipped my toe in the water of, turning it into a living and leaving my career behind.

And I believe that when Dad’s business failed and he was fired from his last job, a voice in his head screamed at him that he was always a failure and a fraud. I believe that voice told him that his age was a disadvantage, that he couldn’t keep up with the younger crowd, that he was being pushed out. I believe his urge was incredibly strong to let his career go. I believe this because when I lost my job last year, these are the things the voice in my head was yelling at me.

I wish I could say that I thought about what my dad would have done, as a way of seeking guidance. But I can’t. Instead, I’ve doggedly, determinedly done the exact opposite of what he did.

I resisted the urge to double down on photography and writing, and have kept them as hobbies while I kept pursuing my career. At the same time, I’ve worked to promote my blog to put it in front of more eyes, rather than just lay back and hope people will find me.

Both times I’ve lost a job in the last few years, when the voice in my head yelled at me to give up I told it to leave me alone, to get bent, to fuck off. I’ve worked hard to stay employed in my field. I refuse to let my family down.

It’s given me some compassion for my father. However, that compassion has yet to overtake my anger and disappointment. I hope it does, in time. Perhaps that will finally unlock my grief. Dad’s been gone for two years today.

Read Dad’s life story here.

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Personal

My theme for 2020

I don’t like to dwell on it here, but the last three years have been incredibly difficult for my family. We’ve faced one crushing challenge after another.

The first of each year I think of a word, a theme, that represents the growth I want to achieve that year. My themes for the past two years have reflected a desire to get out on top of these difficulties. In 2018, I was going to build stability for my family. In 2019, I would seek renewal in my faith, my career, and my health. I was going to regain control of my life!

Yeah, that didn’t happen. At all. 2019 was the hardest of the last three years. I’ve written about the structural failure at a rental house we owned (here) and us eventually selling it as is (here), and how intensely stressful that was. I mentioned the death of my mother-in-law. I’ve not written, and won’t, about some of the serious life challenges some of our adult children have faced. Three of them live with us right now while they sort their lives. Meanwhile, both my wife and I started new jobs twice in 2019. I told the stories of mine here and here. The first came after being fired in 2018; the second came out of the blue. While it was a terrific career move, new jobs are always very stressful while you learn the ropes.

Clearly, I lack control. It’s driven me to drink, it’s messed with my sleep, and I’ve gained 15 pounds. In about March I threw up my hands and got a therapist, who’s gently helped me untie a knot of anger and resentment, and begin to find peace so I can move forward.

I admit that these problems have been bigger than me. My attempts to control them have failed. I’ve been upset most of the time for far too long, and I want that to end. It is for that reason that in 2020, my theme is equanimity.

Equanimity is a mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. It is admitting that I can’t always do something about unwelcome life events, but I can seek inner peace as they fall. That can be very hard in the face of a shock. But my inner state is ultimately the only thing I can control.

I want to be like a blade of grass. When the strong winds blow, the blade of grass lies back until it passes. Then it stands up straight again, and keeps on growing.

If you’re curious, you can look back at all the posts I wrote about my annual themes here.

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Personal

Farewell Abigail

The family I grew up in, we’re dog people. We had a couple hounds when I was very young, but then we got a Labrador retriever and stayed with the breed from then on. The first was Missy, and then came Shadow. The last of them, Abigail, was a rescue. She died recently. It was cancer. She was 12.

Here are photos from the day Mom and Dad brought Abigail to my house so we could meet her. It was March of 2011. That’s my brother in there, also with my dear friend Gracie, who passed in 2013.

Abigail’s muzzle almost immediately began turning white. By the time she died, her face was largely white. Here’s a black-and-white film photo I made of her in 2014, her muzzle about half white.

Abigail

Abigail was a quiet and gentle soul, a perfect companion for my quiet, homebody parents. Since Dad died, it was just Mom and Abigail at home. Now it’s just Mom.

My, but do we become attached to our dogs. We’ll all miss Abigail. Thanks for indulging me today as I remember her.

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Personal, Stories Told

How to make a bumper sticker in the 1980s

I’ve written many times about my experience in college at the campus radio station, WMHD. I’d always loved radio and was thrilled to be on the air.

The station went on the air in 1981, and off the air for good in 2013. Who could have foreseen how radio would be come less and less vital? Fewer and fewer students wanted to be on the air, and finally the school threw in the towel.

A small group of students shifted the station to online streaming and still operate it that way. You can listen here. Over the summer, the current station manager found some of my old blog posts about WMHD and emailed me to ask about the old days. She described a small but vibrant group that keeps WMHD streaming, but also involved in providing live music at campus events. It’s exciting to see.

I was looking through some old files the other day when I came upon these two WMHD bumper stickers from around 1987. I designed them myself.

It’s crazy to imagine it now, but in 1987 computers were primitive compared to what we have today and they lacked the tools to design such things. I used paper and pencil to design this sticker. I used a straightedge to draw the WMHD logo. If I recall correctly, I traced some curved object to get the D right.

I used rub-on letters for “Rose-Hulman 90.5FM.” These were sheets with lots of letters on them. You could get them in a bunch of different fonts, but I chose this typewriter font because it looked clean. I drew a faint line and then, letter by letter, put the sheet down onto the paper letter side down, lined up the letter on the line and next to the adjacent letter, and used a pencil to scribble across each letter to transfer it from the sheet to the paper. It was exacting work.

Then I sent the finished artwork off to a bumper-sticker company with written instructions to make the background black, the WMHD and 90.5FM letters yellow, and Rose-Hulman white. I forget how many we ordered, probably 1,000. They came back perfect.

After I graduated I put one on my new car. Looking at it now, I see that it is a slightly different design. We must have run out of the original stickers and lost the original artwork. I would have had to recreate the artwork for a second sticker run!

This wasn’t the only time or way I rendered the WMHD logo. The school let me and some buddies paint the hallway in the dormitory our station was in. We chose this red-stripe-on-white scheme to replace a drab beige. I painted our logo on the wall next to the broadcast-studio door. Because I always did our logo by hand, they came out a little different every time. We painted these walls in 1988 and they stayed this way for nearly three decades. My son made this photo of me next to the logo in 2012.

Me at WMHD

I loved my time on WMHD. It gave me pleasure and joy as I ground my way through engineering school. I used to do the morning show (story here), and I was on the air when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded (story here).

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Personal

You might know that one of my esoteric interests is classic television. It has been for a very long time. I’ve been looking at vintage TV video online since well before YouTube existed. In those days, sharing video online was hard, and expensive. It was also challenging to find classic TV online using Lycos, and then AltaVista, the search engines I preferred before Google came along.

One of the sites I found was called ClassicTVAds.com. The site owner personally found and restored film of old television advertising from the 1950s to the 1970s. It was a treasure trove.

Margaret Hamilton

He also ran two sister sites: RoadOde.com, which contained video clips of the Carpenters from their 1970s TV specials. I’m a big Carpenters fan! The final site was MargaretHamilton.com, a fan site to the actress who played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

When YouTube came along, people started stealing these sites’ videos and uploading them there. The site owner kept asking visitors not to do that, but a man can take being ignored for only so long. By about 2012 he’d had enough; he took his sites down. Going to any of his URLs redirected you to YouTube with the search keywords “old commercials.” Today, those URLs go nowhere.

The other day on YouTube, ironically, I came upon a brief interview with Margaret Hamilton. I’m not sure what made me do it, but I opened a new tab and typed MargaretHamilton.com.

Glory be, that fellow put a new fan site up, with many of his former movie clips restored and a few new ones added. Check it out here: MargaretHamilton.com.

MargaretHamilton.com

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Personal, Stories Told

It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke

First published Sept. 20, 2013. I have a complicated relationship with the futon in my family room. My wife and I bought it while we were still married. The day we brought it home, I regretted the bright blue mattress cover that we chose. Later, as my marriage splintered apart, I spent a year exiled to it at night. I couldn’t resent the situation, for it would acknowledge that our marriage was over. I resented the futon instead, and then it was the one major piece of furniture I got in the divorce, the only thing I owned on which I could sit. I made myself feel glad to have it. Then bouts of mournful insomnia expelled me from my new bed back to the futon, as there I could always eventually find sleep. Now I start my nights on the futon, but wake later and stagger off to bed. More than a dozen years in, I’m no longer happy with its style, springs are starting to poke out on the sides of the mattress, and I still hate its cover. But I fall asleep on it so reliably that I’m reluctant to replace it. A new couch might not carry that nocturnal magic.

Futon1

My relationship with my futon is not as complex as the relationships with those I love, of course. I’m thinking specifically of my youngest son, a teenager. He broke the futon the other day.

My boy lives fully in the moment. He makes no plan and weighs no consequences. Once at motion, he tends to stay there; Newton would be proud. If you spent a day with him you might call him absentminded, but that would be an injustice. He becomes consumed by his activity and the world falls away. His inner world is his best friend. He lives there.

In that state, he has damaged or broken many things. I used to think he was careless or, worse, deliberate, and so I meted out consequences of loud and harsh words, limitations of his freedom, or both. But slowly, thankfully, I’ve come to see the truth: the boy means no harm. He is surprised when he damages or breaks something.

Even though these things are just things, they do belong to somebody, usually me. They have an important purpose or some sentimental or emotional value, and I feel the loss.

My son matters more than these things, and so I absorb those losses. But it’s also my job to help shape the child. Trying to help him to be more self-aware was a losing game that frustrated both of us, so I gave it up. Perhaps time and life will bring this growth naturally. Meanwhile, I intend to teach him to repair the things he’s damaged, both physical objects and relationships. All of us sometimes damage our relationships through our quirks and limitations. All of us need to know how to make amends.

He was standing at the TV deep inside a video game when, in a moment of exuberance, he leapt backward and landed on the futon. I am sure he’s done this many times. But he was much smaller and lighter before a major growth spurt this summer, and the poor futon could no longer bear him. The main beam supporting the mattress split wide, and the futon collapsed.

I called my dad, who made custom furniture for a living for many years, and described the damage. “Easy,” he said. “Get some wood glue and some long wood screws. Glue the board together along the break and then drive the screws in every inch or two. It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.”

I assembled the materials and the tools and called my son. I showed him what to do and had him do it. As he worked, I spoke gently about repairing damaged relationships. He is my son, and I love him, and he will always receive grace from me. He should accept no less from those who are in his life. But when he causes damage, he needs to try his best to fix it, if he can. I hope my words connected with him.

Futon2

The repair is ugly, as we couldn’t quite get the halves of the board to line up on one side of the break. My son didn’t have enough strength to drive the screws all the way into the hard wood, so he started them and I finished them. As we put the frame back together, I could feel our relationship coming back together, too. I hope he felt the same way. After we finished the repair we turned the futon back over and sat down on it. It supported us as before the break, and I could see the satisfaction of accomplishment in him. Here’s hoping this creates a connection in him that he can mend things broken, including relationships. That he should. That it’s satisfying to do it.

“It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.” Was Dad really talking about my relationship with my son?

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