Growth, Stories told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

mymug

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. And in its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

And then I found it necessary to sell almost everything I owned. It was not easy. But after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug escaped being sold was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This reflection from seven years ago absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

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Stories told, Ten Years of Down the Road

The Electric Breakfast

Blogging today is like radio was for me 30 years ago, when I was a disk jockey.

Does anybody listen to the radio anymore? Even for the listeners who hang on, it’s not like it was even 20 years ago. Stations increasingly automate everything. A computer runs the show, playing both songs and commercials. The disk jockey in Denver might actually have been recorded yesterday in Albuquerque. The computer knows when to make the recorded disk jockey speak, too. It’s driven the feeling of connection out of the medium.

mewmhd1989aI got my start in radio long before all that, at my college’s station. Our biggest audience tuned in weeknights after 6 pm, which was when students settled in for a long night of homework. It was an engineering school, an they worked us hard.

Sometimes I’d break from my own homework and walk through the residence halls. I’d hear our station coming from dozens of rooms. Or I’d visit the broadcast studio, where the phone rang off the hook with students and townies calling to request their favorite music.

Radio was still live and local everywhere then, not just at college stations like ours. We engaged with our listeners, and they responded. It made the evening shows so much fun! Our best jocks lined up to take them. Afternoon shows were next most popular, but shows before noon were hard to fill. The morning show was nearly impossible to staff, as it meant being on the air at 7 am.

I was station manager, the top dog, and I could have any show I wanted. But I chose the morning shift whenever my class schedule allowed. I loved it.

WMHD was in the basement of a residence hall. I lived in a room about a hundred feet away. When my alarm went off at 6:45 a.m., I’d put on my glasses and head right for the station, barefoot and in my nightclothes, stopping only to answer nature’s call. I’d pick out the first four or five songs, fire up the transmitter, and play the sign-on message. The Electric Breakfast was on the air!

mewmhd1989bOur station’s hallmark was that each disk jockey got to play whatever he wanted. For the morning show, I chose mellow acoustic music to gently ease listeners into the morning. It really stood out against the station’s regular alt-rock and heavy-metal programming.

I figure that most mornings I had at most a handful of listeners. I am sure that sometimes I played music for nobody at all. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard within only about a two-mile radius, half of which was a cornfield and a horse farm.

I would have been thrilled for hundreds of people to hear my show, but I was plenty happy with the way things were. You see, I loved to match key, tempo, and mood, mixing songs so that each one seemed a natural extension of the one before. I did it all by feel, and was supremely satisfied each time I nailed it.

But more importantly, once in a while the phone would ring. It was usually a fellow from Seelyville, a nearby tiny town. He often listened to me as he got ready for work. He enjoyed the tapestries of music I wove and would call to tell me when he especially enjoyed a transition I made between songs. And once in a while someone would stop me on my way to class to say that he heard me that morning and liked it.

This occasional praise was all I needed to keep at it.

I am so glad I recorded a few Electric Breakfasts. Here is the first 45 minutes of the show from Wednesday, April 6, 1988. You can hear pops and scratches in the records I played – unlike most radio stations, we didn’t compress our audio to eliminate noise and make the music seem louder. You can also hear the sleepiness in my voice; it usually took me most of the first hour to shake it. But I was not so sleepy that I couldn’t manage a few good transitions between songs. Check it out.

My blogging experience has been very much like The Electric Breakfast. Down the Road is a mere blip in the blogosphere, barely a whisper among the Internet’s clamoring voices. This post might find 25 views today, and maybe that many more the rest of this week. Thanks to the Internet’s long tail, it might find another 50 readers in the next year.

But I love the writing process and find it supremely satisfying when my sentences flow seamlessly into powerful paragraphs, which build an engaging story. And I love it when you leave comments, sharing your experiences or challenging my assertions or just saying that you enjoyed what I wrote. This is enough to keep me blogging indefinitely.

I never thanked that guy from Seelyville for listening. But I thank you for reading!

I first published this story in 2010. I revised it significantly for this retelling.

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Photography, Stories told

Photographic holiday memories

A rerun, from 2008 and 2012, as this Christmas nears. Now with new photos.

supershooterboxes

courtesy giambarba.com

My grandparents always owned the latest Polaroid cameras, and they passed on that tradition in 1977 when they bought my brother and me Polaroid Super Shooter cameras for Christmas.

When I unwrapped the gift, I remember thinking how cool the box was. I liked the box so much that I kept my camera in it for the almost 30 years I owned it. Not long ago I learned that the box, like all Polaroid packaging of the day, was designed by Paul Giambarba, a top designer who was a pioneer of clean, strong brand identity.

polaroidtype108I remember how easy it was to spot Polaroid film on the drug store shelf because it had the same rainbow-stripes design elements as the camera’s box. Film and developing for my garage-sale Brownie cost about half what a pack of Polaroid film cost, but the colorful Polaroid boxes on the shelf always tempted me. I often decided that next time I bought film, I would save my allowance for the whole month it took to afford a pack of Polaroid.

My brother also got a guitar that Christmas morning. My new camera came with a pack of film, so I loaded it and shot this photo of him on his first day with his guitar. He played this guitar for 20 years — he looked strange as an adult playing a kid-sized guitar!

rickguitar1977

20 Christmas Days later, when my older son was not yet a full year old, my wife gave my brother her old guitar. Our boy, drawn to the music, wouldn’t leave his uncle’s side as he played that evening. Steadying himself on his uncle’s knee, he looked up with wide amazement in his eyes.

002-christmas-proc

May this holiday bring you the gift of excellent memories to share with your loved ones down the road.

When I first posted this, in 2008, Paul Giambarba himself left a comment! It was a thrill. I followed his blog for years. He discontinued it a few years ago, and thanked me in a final post for saying kind things about his work. None of this would have been possible without the Internet!

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Stories told

Goodbye, Rick, sort of

Down the Road is on hiatus. New posts resume on Monday! Here’s one last rerun, one that’s special to me. I’m happy to run it again because the first time around (July of 2008) this blog was barely a year old and had few readers.

My brother and I didn’t see eye to eye on most things when we were kids. We didn’t hate each other, we just found each other to be extremely frustrating. We could make each other really mad with very little effort. The house rule was that whoever hit first was punished, so I knew I had really pushed Rick’s buttons when he pointed to his chin and said, “Hit me. Right there. Please.”

Rick

The man in earlier days

After I left our hometown for college, I didn’t see Rick except on holidays. He moved to my town eleven years ago, but I still barely saw him except on holidays. Our holiday times together were always fine, but somehow we seldom phoned and never dropped by.

But Rick was the first person I called when my now ex-wife wanted us to separate. He let me stay with him for a month, and he was a source of real strength as I started to recover from that horrible situation.

And then a couple years ago I ended up getting a job at the small software company where he worked. Understand that I’d spent my whole career, 17 years at the time, in software development. I even got my degree in mathematics and computer science, right up my career’s alley. But Rick got a degree in psychology, then worked seven years as a preperator in a museum and four in mortgage banking before making another big career change to come here. Both our careers had led to software quality assurance, his just through a very indirect route. We even reported to the same boss. And for the first time in our lives, my younger brother preceded me, and I lived in his shadow a little bit.

It has been great. Where daily childhood life emphasized our differences, adult work life has emphasized our similarities. We both like to think things through and do a thorough job. We both actively try to solve the problems we see. We both want to build team processes that make everybody more effective. We both want our teams’ efforts to bring more value to the company. So we regularly bounced ideas off each other, discussed thorny problems, and encouraged each other through challenges. I don’t think either of us knew the other had it in him.

It has long been clear, though, that Rick has grown about as much as he can at our company and was losing his enthusiasm. He needed new challenges – to learn new technologies and software development processes – to get his fire back. And so when I come back from vacation a week from Monday his cubicle will be empty. He’ll have a new job at a place that he thinks will provide the spark.

For the first time in my life, I’m going to miss my brother. Now that we have some momentum going, maybe we’ll call each other sometimes.

I’m happy to report, eight years later, that Rick and I have become very close. We still both test software for a living and swap war stories. And he’s still one of the first people I call when I need someone to talk to.

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Stories told

Headstone’s

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.

Headstone FriendsWhen I was in college, I should have just had my work-study paycheck direct-deposited into Headstone Friends’ bank account. I spent most of it there anyway on used records and CDs.

Headstone’s is a music store in head-shop trappings. Step inside, and suddenly it’s 1969. Well, it’s 1969 after your eyes adjust to the dim light. But you smell the sweet incense right away. Heck, you hear the loud music all the way out in the parking lot. Anyway, the counter is on the left, offering jewelry and silly buttons and, at least at one time, scales and rolling papers. On the right are ceramic dragons and fabric Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix wall hangings and a rack of incense sticks. Then racks of CDs line the wall all the way to the back where a few bins of records remain. In the corner, next to the drinking fountain that has never worked, is a room aglow with black-light posters.

Things do change at Headstone’s. When I first set foot in the place twentymumble years ago it was half the size it is now, full of waist-high record bins. They expanded into the building’s back section a few years later, and slowly tall homemade CD racks crowded out most of the record bins. And every so many years, when the building’s mural and sign are faded and worn almost beyond recognition, they repaint. When I was there last Saturday, it looked pretty fresh.

Headstone Friends

Headstone’s is seriously old school. They have one location, on Poplar at 12th Street in Terre Haute. They’re not on the Web. They don’t take credit cards. The owners, aging hippies who were about the same age I am now when I first visited, work the counter. They keep inventory records on index cards in cardboard boxes. When you find a CD you want, you go to the counter and have someone come unlock the cabinet for you. Then they total your purchases on paper receipts and calculate the tax by hand.

The staff is very low key, but while I lived in Terre Haute I visited so often that they came to recognize me. One fellow named Harold became friendly and came to recognize my buying habits. One day a college friend came by my dorm room and said that I should see Harold next time I was in. He had set aside a promotional poster from a Paul McCartney album for me. The album wasn’t Paul’s best, but the the cover photo, of Paul and his wife taken with the kind of camera used for 1940s Hollywood glamor shots, was outstanding, and larger than life on the poster. “We get this junk all the time and never use it,” he said. “You buy all kinds of Beatles and McCartney so I figured you’d like to have it.” Sure enough! I had it framed. Despite generous offers from collectors, it still hangs in my house.

Tie-dye

Harold was there on Saturday. I haven’t seen him in at least ten years, but he looked just the same – long brown-and-gray hair curling halfway down his back, reading glasses at the end of his nose, and a round, tan fisherman’s hat covering his head. There was a glimmer of recognition on his face when he saw me, but it had been so long I wasn’t sure he’d remember me even if I did give him my name, so I kept to myself. I didn’t find any CDs I couldn’t live without, but just for fun I did buy a tie-dyed T-shirt. It filled my car with Headstone’s scent all the way home. I hated to wash it.

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Photography, Stories told

Camera in hand, trying to act inconspicuous

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.

I wish I had a cloak of invisibility. Whenever I grab a camera and head out to shoot, I don’t want to be bothered or even noticed.

Because I take so many pictures along the roadside, drivers frequently stop and ask me if my car has broken down. I used to try to explain, but that seemed to just confuse the good Samaritans. So now I just smile and say, “No, everything’s fine!” and turn back to what I’m doing. But I still haven’t figured out what to say to people who ask questions when I’m in town shooting with my vintage cameras.

When I was shooting with my Argus A2B last year, I stopped for a cheeseburger and noticed that the adjacent strip mall had some good photographic possibilities. I shot several photos there, including this one of a check-cashing place. A man immediately came running out and, clearly agitated, asked me what I was doing. I showed him my 60-year-old camera and briefly explained my hobby. He shook his head and said, “Don’t you think that’s a little strange?” I was gobsmacked, and I just walked away from him. When I reached my car, I turned back to look and he was still standing there, watching me. It makes me wonder what he was trying to hide.

Legal loansharking

When I was shooting with my Pentax K1000 not long ago, I burned off the last few shots on my first roll of film in the parking lot at work. I was looking for colorful cars to shoot, which isn’t easy these days given that the most popular colors are white, black, and endless shades of beige. I liked this shot of a Jeep’s headlight best.

Jeep light

The next day, the company that manages our office park sent out an e-mail saying that they had received several reports of a suspicious dark-haired Caucasian male wandering the parking lot photographing cars, and that if he is seen again to call local police. Don’t they know I’m harmless?

I did attract police attention once. I was out exploring the many old alignments of Indiana’s State Road 37 south of Indianapolis one spring day in 2007. As one old alignment curved to meet modern SR 37, I noticed a sliver of old road beyond. Naturally, I drove onto it to see where it led.

Old SR 37

I was thrilled to find an old bridge back there. It was a simple concrete affair, typical of bridges built by the Indiana highway department in the 1920s and 1930s.

Abandoned bridge

I lingered on the bridge. It was peaceful back there, though I could hear the cars whizzing by on modern SR 37. The road from the bridge ended in somebody’s driveway, and there was a little gravel path connecting it to modern SR 37. It let a police car in while I was back there. It was just before the police arrived that I noticed that “Private Property, Keep Out” sign. Now, I heed “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs when I go exploring. I don’t want any trouble, and I empathize with property owners not wanting strangers traipsing around on their land. But this sign faced the road; you wouldn’t see it unless you stopped next to it and looked right at it, as I did. I hoped that it meant only that the land behind it was private property. But when the police car arrived and hovered anxiously, I realized that this was not the case. The property owner probably called the cops on me. I turned around and hightailed it out of there. Fortunately, the officer let me be chased off.

I’m too old for this kind of excitement.

Shaken but not deterred, I kept exploring the old alignments of SR 37 that day. Where another old alignment curved to meet modern SR 37, another sliver of the old road stretched out beyond. This time, the property owners did a much better job of marking their territory.

Do you think they wanted me to stay out?

You’d better believe I didn’t drive in there.

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