Film Photography, Personal

From the archives: WMHD-FM Terre Haute, 1986-87

I was 20 and thrilled.

So many children dream of being a fireman or a policeman when they grew up. Not me. I wanted to be the voice on the radio. And look: here I am! Microphone before me, Sennheiser HD40s hanging around my neck, my finger on the turntable’s go button. Let’s do this!

Me on the air at WMHD, 1987

I’ve written many times about my time at WMHD (click here to read every story) but have shown few photographs. I dug through my archives to find some. While you’re looking at what I found, here’s 45 minutes of my show from Dec. 8, 1987, to provide the soundtrack!


WMHD was the student station at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a tough engineering school in Terre Haute, Indiana. Students built this station from the ground up, including its studios.

WMHD studio

Here are our station’s engineers, Steve and Tim, doing some late-night work to keep the equipment in fine tune. It was their custom to take over the station on Saturday nights, playing album sides into the wee hours as they worked.

WMHD engineers working

This was the lobby of our broadcast studio. If you know your rock album covers you’ll recognize our mural as being a reproduction of the 1981 Yes album, Classic Yes.

WMHD lobby

The station’s office was across the hall. I became station manager in 1987; this was my desk.

WMHD office

Here’s the rest of the office. That’s the Program Director’s desk, our cabinet full of public files behind it. I remember the discussion that led to the drawing on the chalkboard: this is the layout for the booth in the production studio we were building.

WMHD office

My buddies tolerated my random photography but I don’t think they understood it. I simply wanted a record of this place so I could remember it better. Mission accomplished; seeing these images puts me right back in that studio, keeping my good memories fully intact. I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to be a part of WMHD, and to fulfill my childhood dream of being on the air.

Times change. Radio started to lose its luster with the millennial generation, and Generation Z abandoned it in favor of streaming. Student interest in WMHD flagged; the station quit broadcasting over the air in 2013. Rose-Hulman sold the license to crosstown Indiana State University, which operates the station now as WZIS-FM from studios on their campus. The former WMHD studios don’t exist anymore.

The desire to broadcast hasn’t died entirely, however. A small group of Rose students operate an Internet music stream that they call WMHD. You can listen here if you’re curious.

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How to build lasting happiness

All of the posts I’ve been sharing about the Michigan Road lately come from the trip Margaret and I made the day after Christmas. Margaret suggested that trip because she knew that I had become badly depressed after an incredibly hard year of loss and tragedy, and that road trips have always helped me find a little temporary joy.

There are two kinds of happiness, I think. One kind comes from short-lived pleasures, like eating a delicious meal, or sex, or watching a good movie. Or a road trip. Of course, shortly after the pleasure is over, so is the feeling of happiness that it brings.

The other kind comes from doing something valuable in the world. This kind of happiness has a better chance of lasting.

Kurt Garner and I started talking about the Michigan Road in May of 2008. We met through our blogs — both of us were writing about the road, and both of us were researching it online.

Kurt really is the mastermind. Getting the road named an Indiana historic byway was his idea, as was the way we went about doing it. He put together our organizational meeting of interested parties, up in Rochester, ten years ago on Jan. 31. I’m pretty sure it was also his idea to use the byway to drive heritage tourism into its counties, cities, and towns.

But we have been equal co-laborers, with plenty of help from many collaborators. Our work has included having wayfinding signs placed all along the route.

Seeing these signs on our trip was the best antidepressant I could have taken. Encountering them at every major crossroad and at every turn filled me with pleasure — and reminded me that I have indeed done something valuable in the world. Lots of people like following this byway. And we’ve honored this important piece of Indiana’s history. It is deeply satisfying to know we’ve done that.

Here are several of our signs doing their job.

MR Northbound
Wanamaker
Southeastern at Washington
Downtown Indianapolis
Northbound Michigan Road, southern Shelby County
Shelby County
MR signs at Kessler/Michigan
Northwest Indianapolis
The Conwell House
Napoleon
Byway sign
Osgood
Rees Theater, Plymouth
Plymouth

Seeing our signs reminded me of the work it took to get them there. Several of us on our board collaborated to get it done. One board member arranged to have the signs designed and manufactured, and several other of us negotiated with various state and local authorities to have them installed.

I handled Indianapolis, meeting with the Department of Public Works. They were surprisingly happy to work with us. I also worked with a regional office of the Indiana Department of Transportation, where an official let me ride in his state-owned car through two counties so I could point out exactly where we wanted our signs to be placed.

I can’t believe that we have accomplished all of this. We’re just everyday Hoosiers who had some ideas and willingness to work toward them.

Most if not all of us is capable of doing something valuable in the world. It doesn’t have to be something as big as getting a road named a historic byway. It just has to be something that gives you some goals to go after and stretches you. Something that, if you look, you can see the results.

I think you can define “valuable in the world” pretty broadly. You just need to do something you find meaningful. Maybe you love your family well. Maybe you master a skill, such as cabinetmaking or photography. Maybe you give your nonworking time to your church or to a nonprofit. Maybe you rise in the ranks at work. Maybe you get fit or finish school while working full time. It’s up to you.

This kind of happiness lasts. It doesn’t mean you’ll never feel blue — but when you do, you can reflect on the good things you’ve done and be reminded that you have every reason to be happy. Maybe it’ll help you recover faster.

I forgot that as I headed into this road trip. I’m so glad the signs were there to remind me.

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One year on

“Maybe you pre-grieved the loss of your dad,” my pastor said to me.

Father and son, about 1970

I sure hadn’t felt much grief since he died. It bothered me.

But my pastor has a point: we knew it was coming for a long time, and I was actively preparing myself for it.

I’d found a level of peace with my relationship with my dad. It would never be as close as I hoped it would be; he was probably not capable of it. But he had shaped his two sons into good men, and he provided well for us. From his working-class life he helped his two sons into upper-middle-class careers and lives. I have to call that successful fathering.

But it’s obviously not a perfect peace, because for many months I wondered why I wasn’t sadder over his death, one year ago today.

I won’t belabor the terrible year my wife and I had, except to repeat that it was terrible. The stream of hard stuff that came our way and the need to respond to it all surely got in the way of whatever grief I might have felt.

The last photo of my dad, with his sons and grandsons. 2017.

During my recent unemployment I had about a month between securing my new job and my first day at work. I worked on my blog, I made a lot of meals for my family, and I learned a little of the Java programming language. But mostly I was at loose ends.

In that downtime sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, tears came. One rainy afternoon I was burning calories on our treadmill, watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It was just an ordinary episode. The Vidiians had attacked and had boarded the ship. Routine stuff. But the emotional plot points brought me to heavy tears three times.

That was just the pregame show. On the afternoon of Christmas Day I could feel depression fall like a heavy theater curtain. By evening I was so sad that my body ached.

Margaret suggested we take an immediate impromptu road trip to help me cope. She was so right to suggest it. Road trips were a major way I coped with the grief over losing my first marriage. Being on the road kept me screwed together.

North into Plymouth
The Michigan Road entering downtown Plymouth, IN

So up the Michigan Road we went on the day after Christmas, through Logansport to South Bend, my hometown. The afternoon was chilly but sunny, fine for photographing the old houses and charming downtowns of Rochester and Plymouth along the way. After we checked into our downtown hotel I rang up one of my oldest friends. He and his wife were totally down for meeting us for drinks. It was so good to see them. The next morning it rained, so we drove the Michigan Road straight to Michigan City and shopped in the outlet mall there. We took the long way home. The trip took away the worst sadness for a little while.

The next several nights were choppy. I alternated between bad dreams and lying awake processing. And crying, lots of crying. It seems like every night something different was on my mind: my dad, the job I lost, the challenges my wife’s elderly parents face near the end of their lives, the challenges several of our children have had, how disorganized our lives have been through it all, how it has challenged our young marriage.

It felt like all the deferred grief came all at once. Thank heavens I’ve built good skills at just sitting with my feelings — not wallowing in them, not denying them, just noticing them and letting them be, even when they’re uncomfortable.

By New Year’s Day the worst of it had lifted. I didn’t exactly feel light on my feet, but the sadness had returned to a low level and I started sleeping through the night.

What I know about grief is that it crashes in like waves. This was a tidal wave. I hope the remaining waves are gentler.

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Day one

I start my new job today, as a manager of engineers in a large software company.

I’m happy to be going back to work. It was nice in a way to have the last month off, unpaid as it was. I needed some serious downtime and I got it. But I felt unmoored. I like to work.

The job search was challenging for a number of reasons. First, in the last couple months of the year many companies just push off hiring to January. I heard it over and over: we could use someone like you during the first quarter of next year. Awesome, but I’ll be homeless by then.

Second, I began looking while I was still reeling from getting the sack. I was fired after a crazy difficult ten months under new executive leadership. I think I did an exceptional job leading the engineers through a chaotic time, and I had been praised for my work. To find myself no longer wanted was deeply confusing and upsetting.

Everyone asked why I was let go, and I struggled to tell the story. As the days stretched into weeks, I kept unpacking what happened and it changed how I told it. No two people heard the same story, though everything I said to everyone was true. Also, I was still angry and really wanted to say some things that, while true, put some people at my past company in an unflattering light. That never goes over well, so I avoided it. But that left gaps in my story, which led to questions I couldn’t answer well.

One way to Lucas Oil

Third, despite my successes I had a weak story to tell about being a leader of engineers. I just hadn’t been doing it long enough — only 16 months. I had been in QA (software testing) leadership for the previous 18 years.

I was fortunate to shift into engineering, as changes in my industry are leading to fewer QA leadership roles. And I was ready for new mountains to climb — I’d done everything I ever wanted to do in QA.

I have a great story to tell about delivering a very good quality “version 1.0” software product in a short time. It impressed everyone who heard it. But as people asked questions that would reveal my depth, I had to lean on my QA experience, which didn’t connect with them.

Fourth, my technical skills kept being a concern to interviewers. I’m far more technical than the average person, but I lack a deep understanding of the technologies my last few employers used. I am convinced that it’s a rare unicorn who can be deeply good both in technology and in leadership. Becoming the leader I am has required my full attention over the last 10 years and it meant letting my technical skills go stale. But I feel certain that the leader who had focused on technology would not have had the same success I did building leadership alignment on direction, and bringing my engineers through that startup’s “version 1.0” delivery as well as through the chaotic, difficult months that followed. 

Yet nearly everyone I spoke to had some level of concern — dare I call it bias? — that I’d need to be a committed technologist to be able to lead engineers. It’s bunk. Here’s a great article that explains how your VP (or Director) of Engineering is different from your Chief Architect or Chief Technology Officer. Search Google for “VP Engineering vs CTO” — you’ll find many similar articles. I’m a classic Director of Engineering, with strong people and process skills, and enough technical skills to get by.

Still, there’s no way to escape that I did not spend enough time in the technology at my last company. I took a JavaScript course online and read a book on functional programming so I could understand the approach and language the engineers were using. But I can’t draw you an architectural diagram of that application, can’t tell you much about how the application is configured on the server, and know little about the state of the codebase and what challenges lie ahead in it. I needed to know those things as Director of Engineering. There were just so many challenges I needed to solve at that company with straight-up leadership that I kept deferring getting into the tech. I will not make that mistake again.

This reminds me of 18 years ago when I pivoted from technical writing into QA. I’d been a technical writer for a long time, and I’d done all I cared to do in the field. I liked to joke that if I had to write open the File menu and choose Print one more time I was gonna go postal. The company I worked for offered me a QA role, leading a test-automation team and building a lab of testing hardware. I did that job for barely two years, during which time the dot-com bubble burst and September 11 happened. Software companies everywhere went into tailspins. The one where I worked went through waves of layoffs. I got caught in one of them.

After three months of unemployment I got picked up by a large health-insurance company. I was to be a QA engineer, testing software applications for them. My QA story was weak; I had not done it long enough. I think they liked that they could pick me up for cheap. I’m glad they did as it kept the wolves from the door. 

It was both a difficult place to work because of its top-down control culture, and an easy place to work because the expectations weren’t high. On that job I built solid experience as a tester, and then as a manager of testers. And then in the craziest thing that ever happened to me in my career, I was fired and un-fired from that company. Read that story here. I eventually left on my own, my QA cred well established. I had zero trouble getting jobs, and had great success building QA practices from scratch at several other software companies.

I hope I’m in a similar place in this job that begins today: about to build deeper experience and credibility as an engineering leader. I’m going to rest on my leadership skills as they are and switch back to learning technology. I will know how the product is architected, will understand what headwinds we face in the codebase, will know how it is deployed to and configured on the servers that run it, and will learn how to do at least basic things in the programming language they use (Java). I was able to do all of these things early in my career, and I know I can learn it all again in these modern technologies. That will set me up well for the rest of my career, wherever it leads.

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My theme for 2019

I’ve never had a theme for a year be so useless as last year’s was: stability. 2018 turned out to be incredibly hard, maybe the hardest of my life. My dad died. Our daughter-in-law died. We helped elderly parents transition to the home where they will live out their days. Several of our children had serious struggles. There were family squabbles. Work was brutal, needlessly so, culminating in me losing my job.

Meanwhile, my wife had her own life challenges, including a serious back injury, all while she and I are still fairly new in our marriage and are still trying to figure out how to blend our families and love each other. We frequently got it wrong.

It’s been too much.

We’re still grieving our losses and trying to make sense out of all that’s happened. But — dare I risk saying it? I’ve said it before and have been wrong — the worst is over.

Early spring crocus

It’s time for Margaret and I to get back to our core principles and values. To take good care of ourselves. To build our marriage as if it were brand new. To love our families.

It is time for me to renew myself. My faith, which is lagging. My career, which took it on the chin. My physical health, as I’m overweight, my digestion is bad, I sleep poorly, and my blood pressure has soared. My mental health, as the twin monsters of anxiety and depression are holding me back. My marriage, as the events of the last couple years have really been hard on us.

That’s why my 2019 theme is renewal.

I’m going renew my faith, first by spending time in my Bible every day this year. I have a great Bible that lays out the entire Scripture chronologically in 365 chunks. I’ve read through the Bible this way a few times before and I always find it incredibly rewarding and enriching. It’s been years; it’s time for me to do it again.

I’m also going to rededicate myself to my service in the church. I’m an elder in my congregation, a sort of lay leader. But I’ve not been able to fulfill most of my responsibilities there as our family’s challenges have been so consuming. I don’t think I’ll be able to give the church all of the time and effort I want to in 2019, but I expect to be able to give significantly more than I did in 2018.

I’m going to renew my health, in three key ways. First, I’m going to shed the 15 pounds I’ve put on, by limiting my calorie intake and taking long walks every day. I love to walk.

Second, I’m going to keep working toward best possible function through a chronic condition I live with. I changed to a functional medicine practitioner last year and she has already seriously moved the needle on my health. But there’s far more that needle needs to be moved and she and I need to seriously team up to make that happen.

Third, I’m going to stop relying on my nightly shot of bourbon to help me sleep. Through all this stress, sleep has been elusive. All the sleep aids my doctor prescribed had unacceptable side effects. My nightly shot of bourbon, which I’ve come to very much enjoy, works great. The trouble is that it sometimes becomes two, and once in a while three shots. It reduces the quality of my sleep, is a source of empty calories — and is potentially a slippery slope.

I’m going to renew my career, by getting busy learning the ropes in my new job, which starts Monday. It still stings that my last job ended the way it did. It hurts that my dream of startup glory had to die. But I know I’m fortunate as hell to have landed another role at comparable pay so quickly, and that I’ll learn a lot at this company.

I’m going to go away with Margaret once a quarter for a long weekend. We find it possible to talk about things on these breaks that we just don’t get to at home. We remind ourselves just how much we love each other’s company. 

We’ve already agreed that in 2019 we want to focus on our relationship and our home, making both happy and comfortable.

I’m tired, and I’m sad. I’ve earned these feelings; something would be wrong if I didn’t have them. But now I believe I have the time and emotional space to let them work their way through my system. I’m looking forward to renewed energy and happiness in 2019.

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The Christmas experience

Before we got married, Margaret and her kids had their Christmas traditions and I and my kids had ours.

At Christkindlmarkt

Because our children are older — our youngest is almost 18, and our oldest is 33 — I hoped our families would blend their traditions and we’d have one giant Christmas celebration that satisfied everybody. That’s not how it has turned out.

I am surprised to find how strong my family’s traditions became. I always thought that we made them up as we went, as we flexed around frustrating parenting-time rules and my ex-wife’s holiday plans.

At Christkindlmarkt

But in the couple years Margaret and I have tried to blend our family’s traditions and get-togethers, I can see that the main flexibility my family had was in timing of our gathering. Sometimes it was Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, sometimes it was the weekend that worked out best before or after Christmas, and once it was New Year’s Eve (which was very cool). But we celebrated together in exactly the same way every year. Unfortunately, that celebration just doesn’t blend neatly with Margaret’s family’s celebration.

At Christkindlmarkt

So this year we decided to just honor each family’s ways separately, and have two celebrations. The Greys celebrated on Saturday. I’ll celebrate with Margaret’s family tonight and tomorrow morning. And I think everybody will have had a satisfying Christmas experience.

However you celebrate, happy Christmas to you and yours!

Ornaments photographed with my Canon PowerShot S95 at this year’s Christkindlmarkt Chicago.

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