Damion and Garrett at Starkey Park Yashica-12 Kodak Ektachrome E100G 2018
It should be obvious why this image didn’t make it into my new book, Square Photographs.
This was my last roll of the late, lamented E100G, and six of the 12 images were marred by light leaks. I wondered at first if I hadn’t wound the roll tightly enough when I removed it from the camera. But that would have affected all of the images where an edge was outside the spool ends. This happened randomly through the roll.
I worried that my Yashica-12 had developed a light leak, but when I used it again this problem didn’t recur. The Y-12 has worked flawlessly ever since.
On this day, my sons had come to visit. I drove them over to Starkey Park here in Zionsville, where we hiked the trails. Here, one trail ends in this ramp, which leads up to the Zionsville Rail Trail.
My new book, Square Photographs, is available now!
About once a week I wish I could forward Dad an article I found on Hacker News. Dad and I enjoyed many of the same nerdy math and science topics. We especially shared in interest in the history of mathematics. I gave him those textbooks from college, which he kept until he died.
I wish my relationship with my father could have been closer. We never figured it out while he lived. We had the best relationship we were capable of, usually cordial and sometimes warm. I guess that’s not too bad, but it was a disappointment to me. I would not be surprised if it was a disappointment to him, too. I think both of us wanted something from our relationship that the other couldn’t give.
I sometimes think that if I could go back, I’d have a heart-to-heart with him about it. But then I remember that I tried more than once, and he would never go there. Maybe he didn’t know how. I give him the benefit of that doubt. It helps me accept.
I wanted us to share more experiences together so we could have good memories with each other. It’s why when I was 22 I convinced him to make a trip with me to his West Virginia childhood home, a place I’d never been. It was a good trip, but it didn’t bring that closeness I wished for. Nothing did, not enough. Perhaps that’s why I now look back through childhood for moments I can claim.
When I was small, once in a while when Dad needed to buy something he’d take me along. Not usually — I think he rather liked running his errands alone. I’m just like that myself. I love the feeling of freedom and autonomy. But when Dad brought me along I knew the deal: I had to keep up with him, stay quiet, not touch the merchandise — and never pester him to buy me anything.
Dad went to two stores in particular: Cook’s, a cut-rate department store in a strip mall, and Brite-Way, a hardware store, more or less. Both are long gone. Brite-Way in particular was an institution on South Bend’s south side and longtime residents still miss it though it went out of business more than 30 years ago. But I have clear memories of both stores from the trips with Dad, even though our trips there were short. Typical of men, he didn’t shop. He went straight for what he was there to buy, and then we were out.
Even as a small boy I wished Dad were warmer on those trips, and that he would do something small and special just for me — buy me a candy bar, or carry me on his shoulders, or even just talk to me about the thing he was buying and why he needed it. That wasn’t my father.
But I can still hear his voice in my head: “C’mon, Jimbo! Let’s run up to Brite-Way.” I still remember my mind and body filling with feel-good vibes when he said it. It was just us men on the trip! I watched Dad closely to take in his behavior. This must be how men behave when they’re out in the world by themselves! I noticed how he moved through the store and how he evaluated this brand versus that. He was unfailingly pleasant and engaging with the checkout clerk. I paid close attention and emulated it the minute I was old enough to go to the corner drug store by myself. I still do it.
There are other memories. Dad started making custom cabinetry and furniture in the 80s. It was a side business when the plant was running and his primary work when he was laid off. He usually had me help unload lumber or load a finished piece, and sometimes he’d need me to hold a piece in place while he cut or joined it. Mostly, he pressed me into service sanding his assembled pieces. I hated sanding! But it was time together in his basement workshop, building something that mattered. Many of his pieces went to the University of Notre Dame, where they are still used. He had learned classic joinery, techniques to connect wood without fasteners like screws or nails, and he frequently showed me the techniques. He was clearly trying to teach me something in case I could ever use it. I think that this was the only way he knew how to be close to me.
Several times a year our family drove up into Michigan to the little lake my grandparents lived on. We had no money for vacations, making these trips the closest thing to unstructured family downtime we had. I saw a different side of Dad at the lake, one of some relaxation and leisure. He rose before dawn to fish for bass, and would be gone for hours. He usually went alone, but sometimes my uncle Jack went with him. Dad came back in a good mood even when the fish didn’t bite. In his good mood there was an ease, a permissiveness, that let me settle into the good times there.
I made only one photo of Dad at the lake. Here it is:
It was a hot summer day. It was probably my brother’s birthday, because he’s on a blurry photo later in the roll blowing out candles. Dad uncharacteristically needed a nap that afternoon and stretched out on my grandparents’ big green davenport. That’s what Grandma always called it, the davenport.
I also remember going to visit my dad’s Uncle William. He and Aunt Frieda lived in an old house downtown. We used to go over there to watch the city’s Fourth of July fireworks from their front porch. Sometimes Uncle Tom came over and the three men sat around William’s parlor talking about work, telling stories from their jobs past and present. When Dad was just starting out, William and Tom got Dad his first good job and they worked together for some years, so their mutual work history went way back. My brother and I were welcome in the parlor if we sat quietly, but we mostly watched TV in the room across the entryway. We could hear everything, of course. Those men obviously loved swapping their stories.
In the last couple years we had Dad, his vision deteriorated. After a minor car accident, he finally admitted he couldn’t see anymore and gave up driving. Of all the big-box hardware stores I prefer Menards. But to get to the Menards nearest my home, I had to pass a Lowe’s, a Home Depot — and Dad’s place. So anytime I went to Menards, I called Dad to see if he wanted to ride along. He always said yes, his voice unmistakably eager. We always talked a little about the home project that brought me to Menards that day; if he had any experience to share he always shared it. To the end, he hoped to teach me something. Then he’d ask me about my work and listen to my stories. Sometimes one of my stories triggered a memory of one of his, and he’d regale me with his tale.
I will always wish he had stretched himself, met me in the middle, to connect with me in the ways I wanted. But Dad connected with me in the ways he knew how. I stretched myself as far as I could to try to meet him in the middle, but it wasn’t enough.
Dad would have been 80 on Saturday. He died three years ago yesterday.
I read a monthly e-mail newsletter called The Masculinist, written for Christian men living in the modern world. Its author, Aaron Renn, has some very well-reasoned positions on men in the church and in living the Christian life. He does a great job of explaining and building upon his positions in his newsletter. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.
In his most recent newsletter, he offers advice for men whose wives decide to divorce them. He points out that women file for 70% of all US divorces, and it is therefore wise as married men to think about how it will affect us should it happen to us. He then offers solid advice and perspective. Read it here.
His advice really resonated with me. My first wife divorced me. I won’t tell the story as I’m sure my ex wouldn’t like me telling stories on her, as I don’t appreciate her telling stories on me. But she was the one who decided the marriage was over, and filed.
At that time I got two pieces of excellent advice that line up well with Renn’s perspective. The first one came from an unlikely source: my attorney. He told me to find five trusted men who would take my call and who would pray with me. Many of us men don’t have five male friends, especially ones not married to our wives’ friends. If I couldn’t find five men, find as many as I could. My attorney warned me that they would probably not be able to offer me any real counsel or help, and I should let them know I understand that. Their purpose was simply to listen when I needed to talk, and to pray with me and for me.
Second, do not date for three years. My mother gave me this advice. You are a mess, she said, and need time to recover and figure out who you are again. If you date now, you will choose a woman like the one who just rejected you, or a woman equally a mess for her own reasons. Either way, it won’t lead to a healthy relationship. That will be bad for you. But more importantly, you do not need to be that distracted from your sons, who are also hurting and need you.
I took both pieces of advice. The trusted male friends (and family members) I lined up really did take my call at any time, and really did pray for me and with me. True to my lawyer’s counsel, they seldom had any meaningful advice or material help to offer. But they did listen, and offered comforting words. Because of them I was never alone through any of what came. It was a long, dragged-out mess — after filing, my ex flatly refused to negotiate, our judge refused to order mediation, and we went to trial in a badly backlogged court. It was more than a year before we stood before the judge.
The second piece of advice was wicked hard at first. I was so starved for attention and affection! But not dating helped me keep my head in the right game: raising my two sons, with the time the court granted me to have with them. Three years became seven, with my sons in high school, before I dated at all. At ten years, I met the woman who would become my wife. Even then, we delayed until my youngest son was out of high school. We agreed that it made no sense to upend his life as he knew it with me, with a new house and stepsiblings, when he was so close to the finish line.
The stability I provided for my sons in my home became foundational for them — the oldest has acknowledged this openly without my prompting — as their mom went on to marry two more times, moving our sons with them each time.
The other thing that I did on my own was double down on my faith. I was furious with God for the failure of my marriage. I’d prayed daily, on my knees and in tears, that he intervene and save us. I felt that God had not kept his promises to me, the ones I felt he had made all through his Word. I could have easily walked away at that point.
But there was something in me that insisted on holding God to his promises, and I let him know it in no uncertain terms. I spent a lot of time searching the Scriptures like a lawyer poring over legal texts trying to find where God had made those promises. Instead, through this study I learned how my understanding of God’s nature was thin and inaccurate. I came to understand him far better — and built a feeling of closeness with him that I didn’t know was possible.
Even though the divorce has been final for 14 years, recalling it still brings up residual pain. That’s the other piece of advice I wish I had been given: this is a very serious loss, and you will find a new normal, a new peace, and hopefully a new happiness. You will eventually no longer think about your loss every day. But it will remain a sad, difficult memory for the rest of your life.
My wife and I drove to Bloomington a couple Saturdays ago to see my older son, who had just moved into his first apartment.
It was a milestone day. My goal for my sons all along has been for them to begin independent lives of their choosing. They have owned their choices and through them appear to be seeking meaning, connection, and happiness.
And here’s my firstborn, working a job with a future in an industry of his choosing, settling into his first home.
My son and I share a common trait: home is very important to us. We spend a lot of time there and we want to make it reflect the best of who we are. I look forward to seeing what he makes of his home.
Here’s a photo of me in my first apartment. I was so happy there. I had real life challenges to figure out, and I was frequently not happy with my life overall. So it goes for pretty much everyone. But I knew that I could go home and recenter myself and just enjoy my time. Whenever I haven’t had a home like that, my mental health has suffered.
Read the story of my first apartment, and how I grew into adulthood in it, here.
I’m not a gamer. I grow frustrated trying to keep up in any game more complicated than Monopoly. And while I was a teen at the dawn of the video-game era, I played pinball instead.
My life feels full and complete without games. But my son Damion is a serious gamer who finds deep and legitimate meaning and satisfaction in gaming both online and in person with others.
A feature of my relationship with Damion since he was old enough to speak has been him telling me of his gaming exploits at length, and me having no idea what he is talking about.
I was happy to listen, though, because I loved hearing the joy in his voice.
When he was four, he spent hours trying to teach me Yu-Gi-Oh, an adventure card game. It was too complicated for me and I couldn’t get it. I eventually gave up.
My lack of ability to connect with him through gaming sharply limits our ability to connect as whole people. I wonder how much disappointment he feels. I’m still disappointed I couldn’t manage it with my dad. But I can see that there are just limits. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but we are still different people. There will always be parts of each of us the other will never truly know.
I tried a few times to connect with my dad through his interests. Dad wanted for years to teach me to sharpen knives, something he took pride in. I let him try a few times, but he was so unpleasant when I didn’t pick it up perfectly from the start that we never got past the opening lesson. I thought for a while we might connect over hitting balls together at the driving range, something he enjoyed. But even there he felt the need to teach me to be perfect at it, which robbed it of all its fun and pushed me away.
Then last fall Damion tried the same thing, asking me if I’d lend him an old camera and show him how to use it. Aw hell yes! I showed him how to spool film into my Pentax KM, taught him how to match the needle to set exposure, and gave him a couple composition tips.
Then I backed off and let him explore on his own. That was hard. Just like my dad, I wanted to hover, and guide, and teach. I resisted with all my might because I didn’t want to suck all the fun out of it for Damion and squander this golden opportunity.
Damion enjoyed the experience and asked to keep a camera. So I gave him two, a Pentax K1000 like his mom used to own and a Pentax ME because I love mine and shoot it most often. When we see each other now we often go for photo walks together.
I feel like I’m atoning for my father’s sins by doing this better with my sons. It’s helping me let go of my bitter disappointment that my dad and I could never manage it.
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