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Thanks for the coffee

Nine months ago I stopped showing ads on this site, and replaced them with a donation button at the bottom of most posts. It asks you to buy me a coffee, a $3 US donation. But really, I’m using it to buy film and cameras and other photographic things to share with you here.

I figured I’d get at most a few donations. But to date, you’ve bought me 79 coffees. Thank you!

To my great surprise, that is a larger amount (even after PayPal’s fees) than I made in any nine months of running ads.

I used coffee money to buy the two packs of Polaroid film I featured today. Whoo-wee, is that stuff expensive at $25 per pack!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Like I said when I killed the ads and added the donation button, the small stream of income is nice, but not necessary. I can afford my photography and blogging expenses. I just want to offer an opportunity for you, if you like, to partner with me to fund more film, cameras, and adventures. If you do, you can click this “Buy me a coffee” button to send me $3. My favorite color film costs about $3 a roll, so it’s perfect.

Clicking that button can be your way of saying you appreciate my work and want me to keep at it. But if you never click that button, you’re welcome and wanted here.

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The freedom to live life on your own terms

My youngest son, Garrett, turned 21 yesterday. Were it not for COVID-19, I’d have taken him out last night for a drink. We were both looking forward to it.

Garrett has what they used to call Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve danced around naming it for years in stories like this one and this one, but have always shied away because it’s more his story to tell than it is mine. But I’m taking the risk today because I have a story to tell about him and me and my dad, and how there may be a common thread that runs through all of our lives.

Garrett is a junior in college and he’s on track to graduate. He seems happy. I think he has a great chance at launching into a successful adulthood, on his own terms.

That wasn’t always true. Starting in about middle school he seriously struggled with communication, organization, and school deadlines. He broke some school rules, and ended up in trouble — if the rule didn’t make logical sense to him, he would follow it only if it were convenient to do so. He was once suspended for repeatedly walking down an up staircase. (That rule did make no logical sense.) If a class didn’t interest him or if he felt the teacher was unkind, he couldn’t bring himself to participate or do the homework. He didn’t have any friends, and I think he was desperately lonely. He was easily overwhelmed. He felt a lot of stress.

I worried endlessly over Garrett. At first, my approach to him was not helpful and may have been counterproductive. I rode him hard on getting organized and getting things done. I was scared to death that he would not succeed through school. I succeeded in school, my brother succeeded in school, my other son Damion succeeded in school. I had no script for a kid who didn’t. I had no idea what to do. I needed this kid to be all right.

You all know I was divorced after a disastrous and destructive marriage. There was no co-parenting with Garrett’s mom. At her best, she simply wouldn’t engage; at her worst, she was deeply unpleasant. So I turned to my parents for support and advice. I talked to them a lot about Garrett and how best to help him.

Dad had an almost supernatural understanding of this kid. He seemed to get Garrett at the deepest levels.

Garrett and Dad

That doesn’t mean that Dad always knew what I should do for Garrett. His advice was sometimes obviously and painfully wrong. Dad believed that if you just were able to reason with people, say the right thing, get them to see the light, that their behavior would suddenly change for the better.

I know better, because he tried to raise me that way. I endured hours of him trying to convince me of his view. I hated it. I wanted our relationship to be characterized more by happy shared experiences. But moreover, I deeply wanted to figure out my life for myself. I could listen to Dad’s perspective and advice as long as it was okay to adopt what made sense to me and leave what didn’t. I did adopt some of his way, the part that made sense to me. I did leave the rest — and that was hard for Dad to accept.

But when I talked to Dad about Garrett he was always able to help me find a calm place. His advice sometimes helped.

When I called, Dad always answered the phone. “Hey Dad, it’s Jimbo,” I’d always say. He always replied, “Jimbo! Let me get your mom.” But if I needed to talk about Garrett, I’d say, “wait, no, I need to talk to just you.”

It was obvious that this pleased Dad. Dad really, really, really wanted to be a source of wisdom and advice to his two sons. When it came to Garrett, he could be. I’d talk to him about what I was experiencing, and Dad had an uncanny way of giving a rationale, an explanation, or a perspective that fit.

I called Dad over and over and over.

And then one day after Garrett had started high school, I wrung my hands to Dad over Garrett one more time. One last time. Because then Dad said something that probably changed Garrett’s life: “Son, you can’t save them all.”

It hit me like a brick. I had been trying to save Garrett through helping him find success in life as I defined it. My dad tried to do that to me and I hated it, resisted it hard, even occasionally rebelled against it. I was determined to find my own way. I was smart, and I was capable, and even though in many ways I was like my dad, in many key ways I was not like him. His way would not be a perfect pattern for my life. I needed to find my own pattern.

So did Garrett. I finally saw it.

I immediately radically changed my relationship with my son. It had largely been characterized by me riding his ass about getting his homework done, about staying organized, about achieving.

I put all of that away. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just enjoyed my time with my son. I made my home and our time together into a quiet and safe space. No matter what was going on in his life, he could come to my house and find peace and, if he wanted it, connection.

I backed off and let him fail or succeed on his own merits.

Garrett and I began to connect on a level we had not before. He started letting me in through sharing his interests. We built a lot of Lego sets alongside each other. We played Minecraft (on computers in separate rooms) and he taught me how to build all sorts of things in that virtual world. He introduced me to Rick and Morty and other strange and funny cartoons.

As he became a junior in high school he suddenly started earning decent grades. He had been a C-D student, but out of the blue was a solid B student.

We talked about it. “You really seem to be getting it at school now. Do you know what changed in you?”

“Two words,” he said. “Stereotype threat.”

I didn’t know what that was, so I asked. “Well, we learned about it my psychology class. Basically, it means that I was seen as the screwup in the family and so I naturally tended to meet those expectations. But then Damion went off to college at the beginning of the year and it changed things around the house. I don’t know how to describe it. But I realized somehow that I could be what I wanted to be. I wanted to be someone who did well in high school.”

I knew just what he meant about Damion leaving. He had been the family’s dominant personality, and we didn’t see it until he was gone. If nobody else was talking, Damion was happy to. We did things together that were Damion’s idea or aligned to his interests. Damion’s absence gave Garrett room to be himself and to express himself.

Me getting off Garrett’s back and Damion going away to college gave Garrett the space to figure himself out.

It was a triumph for Garrett, and Dad played an important role. I wonder if Dad was also not neurotypical, and that’s why he understood Garrett so well. I’m no diagnostician, but I do see some patterns in Dad’s behavior that align. He was undiagnosed, of course. During Dad’s World War II childhood, Hans Asperger had only recently written the first papers describing the condition that would later bear his name. Asperger’s work was largely ignored until the 1980s. It was a decade or more after that before autism would be diagnosed unless it was profound.

For that matter, I see some neurodivergent patterns in my thinking and behavior, too. I’ve written before about what a geek I was growing up, how poor my social skills were. I have some mild sensory issues — noise can be problematic for me, and I cut tags out of my shirts because they can feel like needles poking into my skin. I was even a precocious reader, figuring out words largely on my own as early as age 3. I’ve read that’s sometimes a marker for high-functioning autism.

To make it as an adult I’ve had to learn a lot of skills to fit in and get by. I started with social skills. I realized at about age 25 that I was missing out on experiences I wanted to have because I was so reticent. It was too hard to say hello to people I passed in the hallway at work, so I looked at my shoes everywhere I walked. But I wanted those new experiences, and so I worked to connect with others. I started with just saying hello to my co-workers. Later I added their name if I knew it. From there, I identified other behaviors I wanted to learn. I studied people and started to recognize social patterns. I practiced sets of responses to those patterns so I could participate with them. Now that I’m in my early 50s I pass for someone with good social skills. But even now there are still moments when I can’t recognize what’s going on socially and don’t know what to do.

I have built good executive function — that is, I handle the day-to-day stuff of life with flexibility and self-control. Many neurodivergent people struggle with this. But I learned as a teenager how important it is for me to have strong routines. They keep me from forgetting important things and let me feel in control in my life. If I abandon even one of them for more than a couple days I feel considerable stress and run out of energy long before the day is over.

One of my current routines is to spend an hour or more each morning writing and processing photos. It somehow sets my mind right for the day. If I skip it for more than a day or two, I start to come unraveled. I also have built several strong habits and follow a number of strict rules to keep myself organized. For example, my car keys are either in my pocket, on top of my dresser, or in the car’s ignition — period, or I will lose them. And thank God for Google Calendar, which reminds me when to pay the mortgage and when to change the furnace filter. It takes a lot of work to keep all of this up, but it’s far easier than the life chaos that follows when I don’t.

I’ve also had to learn how to cope with overwhelm. Too much input still blows me away. In my early 20s a good therapist taught me how to identify and label my emotions. Sometimes just knowing I’m overwhelmed is enough for me to get a handle on myself. In my late 30s another therapist helped me learn to soothe myself and tolerate distress. I also taught myself to meditate, which lets me use my breath to find calm.

All of this may or may not make me neurodivergent. I’ve thought about seeking a diagnosis, but I’m not sure it would let me access any therapies or treatments that would help me more. I am who I am, I’m reasonably happy, and I’m reasonably successful in the way I define success.

Was my dad? I don’t know. I fear not, especially late in his life. But Garrett looks to be on track for it. I’m grateful. He has his own journey ahead to figure out his life. If his journey is anything like mine, it will be a grand adventure.

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Fasting from caffeine

Coffee out
Pentax ME, 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M, Agfa APX 100 (expired 7/98)

I stopped drinking anything with caffeine in it on Saturday, February 22.

I have been a coffee drinker my entire adult life. I started in college, where instant Taster’s Choice fueled many a late-night homework session. When I entered the work world I took a cup in the office every morning. Later I added a couple of cups at home with breakfast. When I started having insomnia during my divorce I drank more coffee to push through sleep-deprived days. By about 10 years ago I was drinking a pot a day.

Last year my doctor suggested that all that caffeine was probably making it harder to nod off at night, so I started drinking half-caff in the morning at home. Later I cut out my after-lunch cup. I had a little less trouble falling asleep.

Early in February I read this article in which food writer Michael Pollan described a three-month caffeine fast he took. He said that after he went through very real withdrawals, his sleep started to improve. When I read that soon he was “sleeping like a teenager” I knew I wanted to try a caffeine fast, too.

My sleep has been so-so for several years. The stress of the last few years has added frequent insomnia to the mix. I’m tired most of the time. I’d very much like to sleep better.

I tried to wean myself off caffeine a little more over the next couple weeks by drinking quarter-caff in the morning and cutting out coffee in the office altogether. Then on that February Saturday, I quit entirely. I drink herbal tea now. Bigelow’s orange-spice tea satisfies me best.

This fast also means no Diet Coke or iced tea. Drinking water at a restaurant saves me a couple bucks on lunch, which was nice until the coronavirus ended restaurant lunches.

The Saturday I quit, I fell into in such a low mood that I lay around in bed half the day watching dumb TV. It didn’t help that I’d experienced a heavy disappointment that morning. I hadn’t had such a low day in years and years.

Sunday the headache came. It lasted three days, pulsing right at the base of my skull. Aspirin and ibuprofen dulled it but did not quell it.

For about a week I kept wanting …something. I couldn’t figure out what. I tried chocolate, I tried salty snacks, I drank extra herbal tea. Of course, my body was asking for caffeine. These heavy cravings subsided by the end of the first week. I guess that was the end of withdrawal.

Then I noticed a general lack of tension in my body. If you’ve been reading here for a while, you know I’m a generally anxious man. My mind still worries about stuff, but my body doesn’t carry it very much anymore. The feeling of physical calm feels both odd and wonderful.

I feel tired more easily and more often. Even the way tired feels has changed. I used to go, go, go, and then suddenly crash, feeling hollowed out. Now my body runs down more slowly and I am more aware of when it’s time to start wrapping up and getting ready for bed.

My sleep has not improved so far. I still have trouble nodding off, and I still frequently wake in the middle of the night for an hour or two. I hope better sleep comes.

I also notice I don’t feel as sharp. There’s just an edge that’s gone. I can’t decide whether I miss it or not.

Even without that edge, I function fine without caffeine. I’m as productive as I ever was. It turns out caffeine wasn’t helping me very much, even after a night of bad sleep.

I miss coffee, though. I like how it tastes.

I plan to fast entirely from caffeine until June 1. Then I’ll have a single cup of coffee and see what it feels like. If my sleep doesn’t improve, I’ll return to drinking coffee — just far less of it, one or two cups a day. Either way, I believe I’ll drink Diet Coke and iced tea again at restaurants.

So far, life is fine without caffeine.

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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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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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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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