Abandoned National Road

I can hardly believe that my old friend Michael and I made this trip nine years ago along the abandoned National Road (US 40) in Illinois. I wrote about the trip on my old static-HTML site here.

It looks like I won’t get any road trips in this summer. I sometimes feel a little bummed about it, but I’ve filled my summer with so much other good and important stuff that I’m not letting myself stay bummed for long. When I started exploring the old roads in 2006, I was freshly divorced and looking for ways to escape. I needed to get away from my sadness and hitting the road worked great. I still love the road, but I don’t need to escape anymore. Life is good.

Photography, Road Trips

Captured: Contemplating the abandoned National Road

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Music

Driving and Singing: Paul McCartney, “Too Much Rain”

Friday mornings of late I’ve been sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. I love to sing! But as every song ends, so does this series, today. 

2005 might well have been the hardest year of my life. My wife was divorcing me, I got to see my sons only occasionally, I had white-knuckled grip on addiction recovery, and I lived in a one-room apartment in a bad neighborhood while still paying the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again.

I even lost my dog. I’d say I was living in a country song, except that I didn’t own a truck.

It’s easy to make light of it now because I’ve recovered and my life is on a good path. In every way, those days made me a much better man, and I’m grateful for that. But it really was an awful, crushing time. I sought every lifeline and clung desperately to each one.

ChaosAndCreation

One lifeline came from out of nowhere, thanks to Paul McCartney. I’ve written before of another time his music kept me from going over the edge, and a song he released that year did it again. The CD it is from, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, could well be that committed optimist’s most introspective and brooding work. And I was absolutely in an introspective and brooding place then, so it worked for me. But then there was the song “Too Much Rain,” which stood in counterpoint:

Laugh when your eyes are burning
Smile when your heart is filled with pain
Sigh as you brush away your sorrow
Make a vow, that it’s not gonna happen again

It’s not right, in one life
Too much rain

I’m not an optimist. But once again McCartney’s optimism reminded me that there’s a path out of every dark time. And so I looked for reasons to laugh, smile, and sigh, even though my life was a painful mess. It wasn’t easy. But soon I found myself on that path toward happier days.

Click Play to hear Paul McCartney sing “Too Much Rain.”

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Collecting Cameras, Stories Told

How 25 cents changed my life

It was a garage-sale find. It cost a quarter. It changed my life.

The summer I turned 9, my brother and I took our first annual summer trip to visit our grandparents at their home on a lake in southwest Michigan. We spent a couple weeks with them, fishing and drinking pop and watching late-night TV.

We spent one hot afternoon visiting garage sales. At one I found a little Kodak Brownie Starmite II, a plastic and aluminum fixed-focus camera from the early 1960s. I turned it over and over, very curious. Grandma saw me looking at it, noticed the 25-cent price tag, and silently handed me a quarter. And so I bought my first camera.

I played with the camera quite a bit the rest of the time I was at Grandma’s. I figured out how to wind it, how to open it. I removed the film transport,  pressed my eye to the camera’s open bottom, and pressed the shutter to see light flash into the camera. I was fascinated by how the camera functioned. I was impressed with all the thought and work that had gone into designing and building it.

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When I returned home I loaded the camera with film. The neighborhood kids made me the center of attention — they all wanted to be in a picture! I shot the roll in an afternoon. When I brought the prints home from the drug store I was the center of attention again, as everyone wanted to see themselves. I must have given most of the prints to the children in them, because I have only a few left. Here’s a scan of one, of summertime children in South Bend, Indiana, in August, 1976.

Other cameras found their way into my hands, and I enjoyed them, too. And then I started cruising more garage sales on my bicycle, buying any old camera I could find, spending many happy hours learning their intricacies. It was an inexpensive hobby: old cameras were often available for pocket change, and few cost more than five dollars.

By the time I was a young adult I had more than 100 cameras. Most them were common snapshot cameras; some didn’t even work. But I did own a few gems — a Stereo Realist that took 3D photos, a Minolta 16-II subminiature camera, a Polaroid Model 95 that had belonged to my dad’s father, a Polaroid Super Shooter my grandparents gave me one Christmas (read that story), and a Kodak Automatic 35F that took some great photos on a trip to the Tennessee hills.

As an adult, I displayed my favorite cameras in my home. My young sons were curious about my cameras, and we spent many pleasant hours on the living room floor playing with them. When I loaded film into one, they clamored to be in the photos just like the children in my old neighborhood.

Then my marriage fell apart. During the months of separation and divorce, I ended up selling or giving away a great number of things. Many other things were simply lost. My entire first collection is gone.

As I got back on my feet, one of the first things I did was buy a few old cameras. Collecting and shooting vintage gear helped me feel like myself again. I was thrilled to find that even after 30 years I had not lost lost my fascination with things that require careful design and construction. Prices are naturally higher now, but this hobby remains affordable with many interesting and capable cameras available for no more than $50.

No. 3A Autographic Kodak

I buy most of my cameras online at auction, and occasionally I find one in an antique store. Once in a while, one of my readers sends me an old camera! Some of those have become my very favorites, including my enormous No. 3A Autographic Kodak (pictured at left), which took postcard-sized photographs on film that is unfortunately no longer available. It’s on permanent display on a vintage Kodak tripod in my home office. I also love shooting with the Nikon F2 and Nikon F3 that a reader sent me — they are arguably the finest 35mm SLRs ever manufactured.

Once again the fireplace mantle and many spare shelves in my home are lined with cameras. But this time, instead of collecting whatever cameras I find, I generally limit myself to working cameras that use film that can still be purchased. I favor 35mm SLRs, but have a smattering of 35mm rangefinders and a few medium-format cameras, too. I shoot at least one roll of film with each of them, writing about the experience and sharing some of the results here. I enjoy this hobby even more this second time around.

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Stories Told

On blogging and privacy

I have three sons. None of them feature on my blog.

While most of this blog’s posts are about photography and history, sometimes I tell stories from my life. I try to lay myself bare in them, to go right to the places where I struggle and am scared, because I think that’s interesting. I like to read stuff like that, and based on the comments you leave, so do you. And so I’ve told you about deep depression and a time I contemplated suicide, about resentment and pain after my divorce, about struggling to let go as my sons grow up and prepare to leave home, and even about the time I got fired.

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Penelope Trunk

I model these posts after the blogs of Penelope Trunk and James Altucher, who tell startling things about themselves and the people close to them as a means of giving life and career advice. It’s usually interesting — and sometimes as compelling as a train wreck. Both hold radical positions that privacy is outmoded. Because all of us have broken places and messy lives, their thinking goes, to improve our lives we must first embrace who and where we are. We’re all bozos on this bus; we are only as sick as our secrets.

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James Altucher

I have a lower need for privacy than the average person. But I can’t go as far as Trunk or Altucher. I have stories I won’t tell here, no matter how interesting.

I’ve told you a little bit about my sons and even my ex-wife, such as hereherehere, and here. But I never name them, never give details about them, never show photos of them. Well, you have seen the backs of my sons’ heads a few times in photos. But you know nothing important about these people from me.

Calling my older son a chip off the old block is no exaggeration. His personality is startlingly similar to mine. But there’s one crucial exception: he is deeply private. He recently cancelled his Facebook account because mom kept posting photos with him in them. Seems harmless to me, but he is clear: that’s over the line. So’s this paragraph, probably; I beg his pardon. Point is, my sons have a right to their privacy. So does my ex.

I wrote several times last year about the brutal time in my life after my wife said it was over. (Here, here, here, and here.) I deliberately framed those stories to focus on me and experiences only I had. There are so many more interesting, even shocking, stories to tell of some breathtakingly destructive things my ex … and I … did to bring our marriage down. I learned so much from those times in my life, and I could write some really compelling posts that would really reach you. But this is tricky territory, for three reasons.

First: I don’t want professional colleagues or someone who might want to hire me to read these stories. My co-workers sometimes find my blog and say something to me about what they read. Some things that happened don’t need to be part of any at-work conversation. Penelope Trunk and James Altucher arrange their lives and careers around their blogs, which I think frees them. That’s not where I am.

Second: I don’t want my sons to read these stories. I’ve told them what I feel is appropriate for them to know. I’ve been pretty open about my part in it, actually, but I’ve done little more than vaguely wave my hands past “bad stuff” their mom did. Those are her stories to tell. Regardless, the first place they hear these stories should not be from their dad’s blog.

Third, and most importantly: No matter how balanced I would be in telling these stories, they would be from my perspective. My ex’s reality was probably different. The truth probably lies in the middle more often than I’d like to admit. And I’m not going to drag anybody through the mud here, even if it is the truth from my perspective, no matter how interesting it might be to read.

Maybe one day, when we’re all a lot older and these stories are of antiquity, I’ll change my mind and tell them. I’d like to tell them. But not now.

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Personal, Stories Told

The Christmas bellwether

This is the third in a short series of stories from 10 years ago. A sad story for Christmas Eve, but with a hopeful ending. Just one more story to go after this, next week.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, having Christmas as a family. It was our last.

I couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, that my marriage was over. How did I miss it? She wanted me out; I had holed up near our home in a one-room apartment. My wife was lighter, happier without me. She changed churches, she made new friends — this was what moving on looked like. It frightened me.

What did I say that convinced her to do Christmas together in our home? I can’t remember. Perhaps she wanted a show of normalcy for our sons. Maybe she wanted one last memory with my mother; they had been close. I can’t believe my parents were willing to come. They had to convince my brother. They did it for me, they did it for my sons, even though they knew, even though it would be anything but comfortable.

I recall only random details. There was dinner: not elaborate and overflowing as in years past, but a routine Sunday pork roast. Decorations were sparse, with no tree, but gifts were piled up for our boys. I bought my wife a gift, pajamas, something I knew she needed, the kind she liked; “I told you not to buy me a gift.” I slept on the couch, my parents on the futon. There must have been breakfast; there had to have been. I don’t remember everybody leaving.

But I remember being back in my apartment that morning, alone, the whole day after Christmas before me. I sat on my bed for hours, pain and loneliness pinching my face, loss pressing into my shoulders, grief crushing my chest.

Divorce hurts. Have you been through it? I can’t speak to yours, but mine was so destructive that it took me years to recover from it. I’m not ready to tell those stories yet. But I am ready to say that I remember that Christmas, the one that foreshadowed a terrible year to come, a year of loss after loss, of anger, of agony, of tears.

Opening a Christmas gift in my childhood home
Opening a Christmas gift in my childhood home

I remember better the Christmases that followed. My sons and I spent the next one in South Bend, comforted to be with family in my childhood home. That next year, stability crept in and I found solace; the grief and pain eased some.

By the next Christmas my church had invited me to live in its parsonage. I invited my parents and my brother to share Christmas there; it is where our family’s Christmas spaghetti tradition began. A year of rebuilding followed, of figuring out our new family ways, of making new traditions.

By the next year I had bought the little house in which I still live. We’ve had seven Christmases here, my parents, my brother, my sons, and I, and we will enjoy our eighth tomorrow. For a few years, each Christmas was better than the last, foretelling a better year to come.

But three or four years ago, I felt it: we had a routine Christmas — wonderfully good, full of food and family and closeness. But that had become the norm. And I knew our lives had recovered, and we were just living again.

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Personal, Stories Told

Three hundred square feet

This is the second in a short series about the most difficult time of my life, ten years ago right now. I told this story once before, in November of 2009, but rewrote it for today.

She wanted me out, just for a month, just to clear our heads. Ten days later, the double-cross: don’t come back.

I ached over losing my family, but more urgently I needed out of an awful extended-stay hotel as it racked up debt on my credit card. Most of my paycheck kept my children in the home they knew; I had to live on what little remained. Affordable apartments were few, small, broken down, in bad neighborhoods. I chose the place closest to my children, especially tiny at just three hundred square feet.

Lease signed, key in hand, door open, six steps completed the tour across stained carpet, along the worn counters, past the gouged bathroom door. I startled at an electric roar; the heater had kicked on. I sat down on the Murphy bed and felt the springs in the thin mattress. I felt dizzy, nauseated. How could I be living in a place like this? Were my sons okay? What were they doing? Did they know what was happening? I wished I could see them. I didn’t want them to see this place.

I took a breath, and then another, and purposed to accept. I took it day by day, as I couldn’t imagine still living in this hole on the last day of my six-month lease. I didn’t know then that I’d renew twice: my wife filed for divorce but then refused to negotiate. Our case went to trial in a horribly backlogged court.

Three photographs capture almost everything:

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I would come to terms with my marriage’s end here, in anguish and anger night after night. I wished I could hole up, cut out the world, let the pain rage until it was done with me. But I still had to work to pay for everything, be a father to my children, and do considerable preparation for the trial. I had never known such crippling stress. I hardly slept. I lost 20 pounds. Xanax kept me from stepping over the edge.

Thank God for friends and family who prayed for me and took my phone calls at all hours of the day. They propped me up, then built me up. I had compromised my integrity so often in the marriage, sometimes from my shortcomings and sometimes in desperation to keep my family together, that I had utterly lost myself. Slowly, inner strength returned.

I began the hard work of rebuilding. My little apartment became the safe place I needed to do the work.

That’s ironic, because the apartment complex wasn’t really a safe place. Two neighboring apartments saw a dozen visitors a day, eyes darting about nervously as they sought a fix. And it was whispered that a prostitution ring was being run out of some apartments in the back. Yet the drug dealers were respectful when we encountered each other at our cars (mine a cheap Toyota; theirs immaculate white Caddies loaded with gold trim). And one of the alleged prostitutes kept knocking on my door asking for money until I said, “Are you hungry? I’ll take you to the store and buy you whatever you need,” which chased her away for good. Word got around that I had cables, so I jump-started a bunch of hoopties. And I was awakened late one night to call an ambulance for an ailing neighbor who couldn’t afford a phone. This place knew the problems of poverty. But unless someone knocked, I never knew they were there. My room’s silence was broken only when a washing machine went off balance in the laundry room next door.

And so in that isolation I took inventory of myself. Not sleeping gave me time to do the work, and having no amenities and little money made it hard for me to distract myself or run away. I buckled down, took a hard look at how far out of true I had gone, and made slow but steady progress back to myself.

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I learned to accept the pain and let go of my marriage. I found ways to snatch a little serenity here and there. I started to manage the stress more effectively. I began to look forward to my future. And best of all, my sons and I forged tight new relationships. We used to fold up the Murphy bed and play a rough game on the floor where I’d get on my knees, the boys would try to run past me, and I’d reach out and tackle them on their way by. I can’t explain it, but that game was a tonic for us, singlehandedly building trust and good feelings.

I drive by a lot today; it’s on the way to the grocery store. My sons used to remark on our time there, about how they hated sleeping on bedrolls but loved to play our game on the floor, but the years have dimmed their memories. I thought I had left the apartment with more good memories than bad, and I felt grateful for my recovery there. Yet not long ago when I stumbled upon the photos I’ve shared here, deep echoes of pain flooded my mind and body, echoes that took days to subside. How crushing the stress. How close I came to breaking. I don’t know how I managed to function. I have no explanation other than I was in God’s hand.

I’ve shared very little here about my ten-year journey since the separation. My blog has mostly been about who I’ve become since those awful days — an expression of joy in having found myself again and regained my integrity. I hope this story provides context for the rest of what I write here.

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