Stories Told

A lifetime of hobbies

Fellow photoblogger JR Smith recently posted about the hobbies he’s pursued through his life. It made me think about mine.

Home of Vintage Treasures photo

I collected things. Cameras probably came first, starting at age eight. I started collecting coins at about the same time. Mom brought me an old “wheat ears” penny and explained how the mint had changed the design on the back at some point (1959, it turns out). That was all it took to hook me. I went after pennies first, then nickels, dimes, and quarters. I got into the habit of always checking my change for old coins, and that’s how I filled most of my collection. In the late 1970s and through the 80s it was still fairly common to find coins in your pocket that dated back to World War II. I had one of every penny from 1941 through about 1985. I pressed each coin into Whitman cardboard albums.

The summer I worked at the Dairy Queen, my cash drawer was a goldmine of old coins. Once I found an 1898 Indian head penny in there. I always had a dollar or so of replacement change in my pocket to swap for the treasures in the cash drawer. I quit actively collecting coins during college. But I still have all the coins from childhood in a box, and I still habitually look through my change. Sometimes I’ll still find a “wheat ears” penny in there.

I also collected stamps for a while, laying them into giant albums. I thought the most beautiful stamps came from Hungary. I remember a series of Hungarian stamps about lace doilies. They’d printed the stamps so the lace pattern was raised. I’d never had such a tactile experience with a tiny piece of paper! Yet I gave up stamps after just a few years because I felt like I could never collect them all, as I could coins. I liked completing the coin albums (all of the Washington quarters! all of the Roosevelt dimes!), and stamps just never ended.

Collectors Weekly photo

I also collected Coca-Cola stuff: bottles, glasses, advertising signs. I liked the bottles the best. I learned how to read the codes stamped into the sides to determine when they were made, and I loved how the older ones had the original bottling company pressed into the glass on the bottom. I sought bottles embossed with Indiana cities. Fun fact: the iconic Coca-Cola bottle was designed by the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana.

For several of my teenage years I assembled plastic model cars. I spent hours and hours at a work table in our basement rec room with the special model glue and endless little bottles of paint. Here’s a fuzzy 1981 photo of some of my model cars on my bookshelf in my childhood room.

By my teenage years my introversion had bloomed. I had just a couple friends, but that was all I really wanted or needed. I liked doing things alone! I was making a little money mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and delivering papers, enough to keep laying down the $5 that a model kit cost. I enjoyed the assembly and the fine painting of the details. I always bought models where the plastic was colored as I didn’t enjoy spray painting the bodies. I didn’t have a good place to do it anyway.

Putting these kits together in the basement, I came to thoroughly enjoy radio as a companion. I’d turn to 92.9 FM to listen to U93, our city’s Top 40 station. (Unbelievably, that station is still going and celebrated 40 years in 2019.) I quietly put together my kits while listening to the day’s top hits, sometimes singing along, always stopping to listen to whatever the DJ had to say. Knowing that a real person was at the station playing music for everyone helped me feel connected to my city. I was too nervous to call in requests. I tried to win a few contests, but we still had rotary phones and they were too slow. By the time I got a ring, they’d already have their winner.

I’d always been charmed by the voices I heard coming out of the radio and TV speaker. But my time in the basement cemented my interest in radio, and made me wish I could be that companion for many others. I got my chance in college, which I parlayed into four years part-time in professional radio. I’ve been out of radio since 1994, but even today I can’t believe I got to do it and am grateful.

During my difficult first marriage, I let all of my hobbies slip away. I thought I had to devote myself to my family. What I did was utterly lose myself. When that marriage ended, I picked up a camera as a form of recovery. I took cameras onto the open road and photographed whatever I found. Soon I started writing about my cameras and the photos I make with them. Today, photography and blogging are my hobbies. Thanks for coming along!

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Stories Told

Christmas spaghetti

I worked very hard to build good family traditions for my sons after their mom and I split up. But now those sons are in their early 20s; one has his first career job, which requires he work Christmas Day. It’s proving surprisingly challenging to get my whole family together at once this year to enjoy Christmas together. We are in a time of tradition transition, and I admit that I’m not entirely happy about it. I loved the traditions we built. But I do know that this is the natural order of things as children fly the nest.

I’m still giving all of my blogging time to the message I’ll give my church at our Christmas Eve service tonight. So indulge me as I rerun this post from December 22, 2011. This Christmas tradition ended a few years ago when I learned that I’m essentially allergic to garlic and onions. Cutting those foods out of my life has transformed my health.


We started having the big family Christmas gathering at my house when I rented my church’s parsonage after my wife and I split. You’d think that holiday hosting duties wouldn’t fall to the newly single guy, but logistically it just made sense. I was pinching pennies thanks to exorbitant lawyer bills, and that first Christmas was mighty lean. It was so lean that I fed everyone spaghetti for Christmas dinner.

Awaiting pasta

I must admit, I really like my homemade spaghetti sauce. I had perfected it through trial and error when I taught myself to cook in my early 20s in my first apartment.  But I was surprised when my Christmas spaghetti was a huge hit, and even more surprised the next year when everybody asked me to make it again. My mom has asked for it every year since. Now that money isn’t so tight, I make a bigger and more elaborate Christmas meal – but make spaghetti the night before or the night after. Here’s my recipe.

1 lb. bulk Italian sausage
1 stick pepperoni, cut into chunks
Small onion, diced
30 oz. crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
30 oz. diced tomatoes, drained
12 oz. tomato paste
5 cloves garlic, pressed
2 t basil
2 t oregano
1 t salt
1 t pepper

Brown the sausage with the onion and drain the fat. Add the tomatoes, pepperoni, and spices and simmer until the flavors come together, at least an hour.

As you can see, there’s not much to it, but it sure does taste good. I usually serve it with a salad, steamed broccoli, and warm crusty bread.

What unusual Christmas traditions does your family have?

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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, 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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Stories Told

Summer’s denouement

(originally posted 9/14/08) During my 1970s kidhood when schools started after Labor Day as God intended, my mid-August birthday always meant summer was beginning to end. By then, the afternoon sun was at its hottest and most intense, the annual August dry spell began to toughen and dry all that had been green, and the street lights switched on earlier to send everyone inside for long quiet evenings with our families and our TVs.

The dozens of children all up and down Rabbit Hill, as our parents nicknamed our prolific neighborhood, always sensed these changes. We squeezed in as much play as we could before time ran out. One fellow down the street, thinking he was Mickey Rooney in Babes in Armsalways organized and directed an end-of-summer show, an extravaganza that nobody would come and watch because everybody was in it. I would push to reach the new tree-climbing heights my brother and his best friend had mastered weeks before, heightening their schadenfreude when I would inevitably fall, have the wind knocked out of me, and make that loud but hilarious sucking noise that only sounds like death is imminent. Somebody would connive their mother into have a big running-through-the-sprinkler get together at which gallons of Kool-Aid were served. Several kids sold lemonade or toys at a family garage sale to raise money for Jerry’s Kids. The chubby fellow who lived where the street curved sang his slightly naughty rhymes more often (“In 1944/My father went to the war/He stepped on the gas/And blew out his ass/In 1944!”). And then came the telethon, which was on almost everybody’s TV, and we all knew it was over.

Summertime children on Lancaster Drive

On the day after school started, we could still play war in full army gear in the wide easement behind the houses, ride our bikes and Big Wheels up and down the hill making siren sounds as if we were a horde of ambulances and police cars (imagine 20 children doing this on your street!), play endless Red Rover in the freckled girl’s front yard, and watch the four-year-old girl next door eat sand with a spoon (oh, if her mom only knew). But we didn’t, hardly. We lost our enthusiasm. It was time to button ourselves back down and return to school-day routines.

Rabbit Hill conditioned me well; I still recognize and lament the signs of summer’s end. Kids have been back in school for weeks already. The grass hasn’t grown much lately because of the annual dry spell. My air conditioner has been off more days than it’s been on; it was even too chilly the other morning to drive to work with the window down. I’ve crammed as much outside time as I can into these days to enjoy their freedom, but the end is in sight. Shorts will soon give way to long pants and short sleeves will give way to long sleeves. I’ll be in a windbreaker with a rake in my hands, collecting my trees’ deposits. The snow will fly and I’ll be hunkered down at home. I still feel restricted, buttoned down, in fall and winter.

Here’s hoping for a long, warm Indian summer first!

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Essay, Personal, Stories Told

The secret to adulting is routines and systems

My older son Damion graduates from college on Sunday. I’m sad to admit that I’m primarily relieved that I no longer have to write big tuition checks. These college years have been financially stressful! One graduate down, two more to go (in 2021 and 2022).

Still, I’m happy for my son, and deeply pleased with his accomplishment. I might even shed a tear on graduation day.

He made it through in four years with relatively light student-loan debt, no small feat these days. He hasn’t lined up a job yet, but he’s working on it. It will come. And then his adult life begins.

I remember when mine began — and how challenging I found the adjustment. I think many of us experience this. I’d run out of things to graduate from and had to find my way. It was bewildering.

So I aped what I saw my parents do: make routines and systems out of everything I could.

Leaving for work, 1989

I organized my life around my job. It’s what my dad always did. He worked from 7 to 3:30 in the factory, and by God he made sure he was at work not just on time but early and ready to work hard. I didn’t have to be to work until 8, so I adjusted my timing accordingly, but otherwise I followed his pattern. I went to bed every night by 11 and rose at 6. I showered and dressed, and then went into the kitchen where I turned on the radio and made eggs and toast. I read the newspaper over breakfast until it was time to go. I got to my desk by 7:45 most days. When I got home, I made a simple dinner and watched the nightly news. I did simple chores around the house or ran routine errands, and when that was done I watched TV until bedtime.

I set aside Thursday evening to go to the laundromat and afterward iron my dress shirts, and Monday evening to shop for groceries and supplies.

I adapted my mom’s system for not running out of items at home. Every week I put a fresh sticky note on a kitchen cabinet and another on the bathroom medicine chest. As I got close to running out of items I’d write them down on the nearest sticky note. Then on shopping day I’d transfer those items to my shopping list and set out fresh sticky notes. For critical items like toilet paper I always kept a spare in the closet. It cut way back on emergency trips to the store. Whenever I needed to use one of my spares it went onto the nearest sticky note so I could get a new spare on my next shopping trip.

I paid my bills on Saturday morning. As they came in the mail I’d stack them on a table next to my desk. On Saturday I’d figure out which ones were due soonest and pay the ones I had money for. The rest went back onto the stack. I didn’t make very much money. but there was enough to pay for everything if I timed it all right.

Those were my normal routines and systems, but I could shift them around when adventure came my way. For a while I had a Thursday-night airshift at my alma mater’s radio station. Sometimes a friend would call and want to go get a beer. Every now and again I had to work late. Sometimes I went away for the weekend. I kept enough of everything on hand so that if I needed to, I could move laundry or shopping a night or two and be all right. My Saturday bill-paying routine could always be done the preceding Friday over breakfast.

My routines and systems provided structure and resiliency to my life. I always had clean clothes, so I never had to worry about what I was going to wear to work. I always had food in the house, so I never had to spend big money on a meal out (unless I wanted to) or go hungry. My bills were always paid, so nothing ever went past due and collection agencies never called.

My routines and systems let me live a pretty good life. I was able to focus on my job and enjoying my free time.

Easy like a Sunday morning, 1989

I still keep these routines and systems, except today shopping is Sunday after church and laundry is Saturday morning. I still pay bills on Saturday, although there’s enough money now I just pay every bill every week. I still have enough slack in the plan that I can move things around a day or two without running out of underwear or finding nothing in the house for breakfast.

I suppose I come from a family that naturally builds routines and systems. I know not all people do. But I know everybody can build habits, like brushing your teeth. With deliberate practice I think anyone can enjoy the lowered stress and increased effectiveness this brings.

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