Saturday, August 24, 2013


If you have read my blog recently, You can see that I have been using my phone camera.  I posted about the signs at the Trayvon Martin rally in downtown Columbia and different bumper stickers from around our area.  I don't don't claim that they are examples of good photography.  Not at all.  But it is now a simple process to capture little images quickly.

Recently I have been interested in the little signs around us, especially the text that gives directions about the obvious.  I realize that we live in a very litigious society, and that if you didn't put a CAUTION!  CONTENTS MAY BE HOT! reminder on a styrofome cup, you might be sued if someone spilled the contents of said cup into their crotch.   I guess it's happened.

Here are some interesting pictures from a public restroom.

I appreciate the reminder that we should stay with our babies when changing them.  Because if we weren't warned with this notice, we might just leave them there.  Some people might continue their shopping, perhaps go buy diapers if they found themselves in a sticky situation without any in the diaper bag.  And it's a friendly enough notice.  It has a smaller font, no exclamation point.  It has the (...) to sort of soften the message, as in...  Just a reminder... you may have thought it was OK to walk away and leave your infant on this table... where he/she could roll off onto the filthy cement floor... or be taken by a stranger, but, just a reminder... don't be an idiot... 

I like this one because I only like to use a PROFESSIONAL paper towel dispenser.  None of those amateur paper towels for me.  After all, I went to college.  I am a professional.  It's good to know that I am respected as such, even in the restroom.  I appreciate there are no written directions here.  They respect us professionals enough to realize that you just push the little lever down to receive the paper towel below.  It seems to me that by offering no less than the PROFESSIONAL model, it shows that they really care for their patrons.

I'm not sure that this one demonstrates the same respect.  The Piggly Wiggly Risk Management folks went to a lot of trouble to break down and explain all of the complicated steps of hand washing.  I wonder who wrote this.  Who edited it?  How much did they get paid to craft this fine set of directions?  Not only do they have extremely clear written directions, there are simple but effective diagrams of the entire process, followed by the various activities, after which one should wash their hands.  I'm pretty sure that this sign is read by an average of 0 citizens per day.  I mean who DOESN'T know how to wash their hands?

Sadly, I am not sure it is very effective since about half of the guys I share restrooms with don't wash their hands before exiting.  And I am left there wondering how many have touched the door handle before me who haven't washed their hands.  I usually try to get a towel from one of the professional dispensers and use that to open the door.  Then I'm left with the towel when I am outside the restroom.  Do I put it in my pocket? (Yuck.)  Leave it in the shopping cart?  (That would be yucky for someone else.)  Carry it around until I see a trash can?  It's complex, you know?  I just want to be a good citizen.  But at least the management has done their part with the directions and all.  Maybe they should have one of those loud beepers that signal the management when someone hasn't followed the proper hand washing directions.  You know, like the ones that are used to deter shop lifters.

Warning signs and stickers are important too.  Like this one on the back of a boat near where the gas goes in.  Seems to me that this one is particularly effective.  It has the FIRE/EXPLOSION icon along with the universal symbol of a guy running for his life.  It has the WARNING in caps along with the exclamation point within the triangle.  It contains lots of important DANGER words, words that should elicit a visceral safety response.  Any action that could cause DEATH is likely to get the user's attention.

Here is a common one, helpful to those who don't realize that you can't mail a letter or (much more likely) a bill payment, without putting a stamp in the corner.  But if you think about it, everyone has a first time mailing something, right?  Maybe he or she hasn't ever had the proper instruction about the mail service.  The more I consider it, the more I am glad of that little reminder that there is a charge for mailing my check in to the power company.

This one fits into the same category of - Duh, do you really think I need to be told that?  This little screen comes on every time we start up our van.  Do they think that the drivers of this van will obey traffic laws and pay attention to the road more conscientiously if this flashes on?  There is even a little place to press (ACCEPT) indicating that you pledge to follow this sage advice.  And do people ever read the navigation manuals?  And what if I don't ACCEPT?  What if I stubbornly refuse to make the pledge?  What if I never ever read the manual?  Nothing.  It shuts off after a few seconds even if you don't accept your responsibility to obey traffic laws.

This one is my favorite.  This little sign represents some serious paranoia.  Especially when you consider that it is in front of an empty lot.  There is nothing to steal, nothing to break into, nothing to vandalize.  Nope, just grass and trees and weeds and rocks.  There are no cameras there.  That's a bluff.  NIGHT VISION VIDEO SURVELANCE [sic].  Yeah, right.  This guy (I must assume it was a guy, although I guess I shouldn't be sexist... It could have been a woman I suppose) went to great lengths to craft this sign.  He used CAPS, RED COLORED TEXT for emphasis, bold lettering, underlining for effect, he laminated it to keep it fresh (although that doesn't seem to be working well).  And the use of the word Survivors in the last line?  Well played.  He should have paid attention to his spell check though.

What's interesting is that a couple weeks ago, when Heidi and I were out for our walk, we saw the owners of this property with their truck and trailer.  They were unloading their tractor getting ready to mow.  All of their gear was parked on their neighbor's lot!  Lucky for them the neighbor's don't have the same attitude about private property.  Otherwise they might have been detected with SURVELANCE [sic] and would have been lucky to count themselves among the Survivors.  

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dear Colin

We moved our youngest son Colin into his new apartment last week.  He wasn't feeling well at all, so we pretty much did it for him.  It's is a great set up.  We love his roomie.  Devin will be close by - in the same set of apartments.  It's all good.  He'll be back from time to time, but he'll also probably always have an apartment of his own now to call his home.  He is literally between two worlds.

We left his room upstairs a bit of a mess when we moved him out.  The door is off the hinges so we could move out the couch, the usual grunge that builds up under the bed was there.  He had quickly sifted through some of his stuff from the many years of living at home and took some with him.  I was up there today doing some of my own sorting and cleaning and dusting.

Getting into the corners, going through the bookshelves, sweeping and making piles of things to store, things to give away, I came across some artifacts of Colin's life, the little stuff left behind.  There were marbles and paper clips, mechanical pencils - his writing tool of choice.  There was a three or four year stack of MAD Magazines along with some Guitar Player mags.  There was loose change, a die, one of those Barrel of Monkeys monkeys.  There was a guitar pick that had been chewed, an old GameBoy game.  There was his stash of Yughio cards in a little wooden box.  He LOVED those when he was a kid.  There were notebooks he had written in and lots of old high school notes.  There was a Buzz Lightyear ship and a Valentine letter from an old flame.  All of these were small mementos of his life here with us.  Music.  Games.  Toys.  Correspondence.  School.  His stuff, you know?

Of course there are a ton of pictures on the hall walls going up the stairs to his room.  Pictures of Colin and Devin from the time they were little babies to fairly recent ones.  There was this one that stood out to me.  It wasn't in a frame, just out there on the shelves among the other detritus and memories.  It is a big black and white image.  Colin is about 4 or 5.  He has his arms around the neck of Sasha, our lab.  They were both such young puppies then.

Now Sasha is quite old.  She has dodged the bullet a couple of times and her time left with us is short.  She limps and doesn't have the energy to take a walk more than to the corner and back.  But she is happy.  Old.  But happy.  But in that picture they both were so very young and full of energy and their lives were stretched out far before them.  And looking into Colin's young sweet face, his sincere smile, his loving energy - made me miss him something fierce.  There was an ache in my chest I hadn't felt in a while.  He'll be back.  I know.  But it won't be the same.  Not for him.  Not for us.

Another artifact I fond was a letter I wrote to him when he was a senior in high school.  At that time he was looking college square in the face.  The letter was for a cool church project his youth pastor Trevor Miller asked us to pull together.  I got a little teary reading that little time capsule of my thoughts.  It was just another reminder of how lucky I am to be the dad to these wonderful boys (young men).

Dear Colin,
       It feels a little weird writing you a letter.  You haven't moved away and I see you every day.  Not a day goes by when we don't talk.  Even when you or I are out of town, we pretty much speak every day.
      At the same time, writing this letter is important.  You don't write that much correspondence on paper, most of your contact with people is fairly instant.  But there is something about writing letters that is, in some ways, more intensely personal than a text, or a Facebook message, or even a phone conversation.  It is so much more intentional, so careful, so crafted.  It's kind of like writing a song.  If you write something and reread it and it isn't what you really mean, you rewrite it.  Only what you really want to say is left there, if you take it seriously.  
      I don't really have a list of things to write about.  While I just said that letter writing is very careful, there is also the opportunity to let your mind wander, to simply turn from one idea to another.  So here goes.
      When your mom and I were growing up together we knew that someday we wanted kids.  Someday turned out to be a long time for us.  And, of course, by the time someday got here - we couldn't have kids.  We just assumed, you know?  How wrong we were.  So, after a couple years, Devin came our way and suddenly all was right in the world.  Figuring that we wouldn't be able to have any bio kids, and having no more sense of pressure about our own bio clocks, we loved as a triangle.  Just the three of us at the end of the day, just the three of us hanging out, playing baby games, diapers, cardboard books, stroller walks, Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers.
      The triangle worked for us too.  It was satisfying knowing that we were going to raise someone who could change the world.  We just never worried - and, of course, that is how you came to us.  While Devin came in a flurry of motion, selling our condo, moving, legal stuff, in the back of our minds worrying about his mom potentially wanting him back, the crooked attorney who might try to get him from us and arrange an adoption for a rich client - when we found out that we were pregnant with you, there was no worry, no hurry, there was this laid back feeling that, yeah, our bodies worked the way they were supposed to, that God and fate and the angels saw that we were indeed deserving and could use another mind and body to feed and to feed us.  And you have.  More than you know.
      I will not recap your life, I just want you to know how much I love you, how much pride I have in who you are and who you are becoming.  You think deeply about the world, our creation and purpose, about social justice and politics and righteousness.
      I am proud of your creativity as well as your intellect.  one is so much less without the other.  In the short time you have played guitar you have eclipsed me.  In fact I am sure that in some ways, you are twice the musician I will ever be.  You will never know how much I admire your burning desire to teach yourself music.  From drum instruction to the intense concentration on guitar, your work on keyboards, to the casual play on the ocarina and trumpet and bass.  You have a gift.
      I admire how much you think beyond your little world and your willingness to look and out at the world at large.  Many kids your age couldn't care less.  If it isn't within their sight, it doesn't exist, or if it does it is too much bother to think about.  You do care about others.  It is one more thing that makes you different.  Special.  One more reason I am proud.  
      You know me.  I can't give all these plusses without some wishes.  I write these wishes for you as a man who knows I am far from perfect.  I have made many mistakes, and will make many more.  But being this old, and having the benefit of many more years of hindsight, and being someone who loves you more than you could ever know - I hope they serve you.
      Read more, act on what is right and wrong, never stop being creative.  Everyone makes mistakes, learn from your mistakes, avoid making the same mistakes again.  Dream on.  Use your gifts to leave this world a better place.  
      I never told my dad that I loved him until he was dying.  I think we showed each other, but we never said it.  That was just our way.  But honestly, I think it was wrong.  It is good to hear those words spoken.  And it is good for the soul to say them.  We missed too many opportunities.  If I have missed many opportunities with you I am sorry.
                               Know that I love you, Colin.

As I read over my old letter to Colin, it seemed very much like a prayer.  As the years go by I hope and pray that our little guy with the Pokemon fascination and the need for precision and the desire to make beautiful music finds his place and his purpose, that he can make himself and others happy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Our Hands

We can do such wonderful things with our hands.  There is this cool memory I have of seeing two homeless folks in line waiting for food at Food Not Bombs.  A man, with a plate in each hand, was dripping sweat.  It was running in his eyes.  He looked like he might topple over.  A woman in front of him said, "Wait," and wiped off his face with her own hands and them just wiped them on her shorts.  It is one of those simple things, one of those little scenes of such simple beauty that it stayed with me.

A couple of years ago, one of my students had forgotten her lunch.  She was fearful about charging a lunch in the cafeteria and was just going to sit there and not eat.  Of course I wasn't going to let that happen, but I didn't need to do anything, because when her classmates saw that she was hungry and in a little distress, the children walked up to her and offered her something of theirs.  An apple, part of a sandwich, chips, carrots, a juice box... it just kept coming.  Before long there was a pile of food in front of her.

With our hands we can sew, carve, paint, write love songs.  With our hands we can invent machines, build houses and bridges.  We can pave roads, lay pipe - build cities.  With our hands we can plant tomatoes and pick oranges, cut flowers and carve jack-o-lanterns from pumpkins.  With our two hands we can love and deliver babies, we can bandage wounds and sooth hurt feelings.  Our hands are amazing gifts.  

But there is this other side of people.  

One day, a few weeks ago, I was down at our little neighborhood park and boat ramp.  It was a beautiful sunny morning - it's been a mild but rainy summer.  This day was a relief from the almost constant rain.  There was a bad smell coming from the water.  Sometimes a dead fish will wash up along the shoreline there.  Often a catfish or striped bass will drift up on the shore.  When that happens, I'll come back with a shovel and bury the dead animal deep.  

On this morning the smell was really bad.  From 50 feet away I could see a dead Canada goose, its head twisted around unnaturally.  It still looked beautiful with its black and white feathers, its black mask.  Even in death it looked graceful.  On closer examination, I could see blood on its feathered breast.  There was a bullet hole, small, neat and round.  Not a lot of blood.  But it stood out in stark contrast with the bright white breast feathers.  It had just recently been shot as its eyes were still open, clear and shining.  

The smell of death and decay were too great to come from this recently killed animal.  As I looked down the shore there were two dead fish.  I could identify a gar and a carp rolling back and forth in the small waves.  Both had been dead a long time.  The carp, a pretty big fish, had a steel barbed arrowhead protruding from its skull.  I'm sure the hunter was disappointed about losing the arrow head.  It looked expensive.  This fish was not taken for food.  It was killed for "sport".

Next I examined the garfish.  They have a long boney snout for catching and holding their prey.  Whoever had caught this fish had either cut or broken off its boney beak and released it, condemning it to a slow death through starvation.  

All three of these animals, washed up along the shore within yards of each other, were killed for the bizarre pleasure of the hunter/fishermen.  I was so sad to come back with my shovel and bury them.  I am not sure if it is legal to kill fish so unnecessarily.  Maybe torturing animals is legal.  I am fairly sure that shooting geese is not allowed in our part of the lake.  There are lots of homesteads here.  I would think that there would be danger in stray bullets.  

But even if it is legal - it's not hard to see that it is wrong.  While the geese are considered pests in some places, the gar and carp are harmless to people and all of these animals certainly serve a purpose in the ecosystem.   But if someone is capable of getting pleasure from killing defenseless animals, then what else is that person capable of?  

Last week I saw another dead gar on our little beach.  This was an old animal.  Maybe four feet long, one of the largest I've seen.  It had a zip tie pulled tightly around its middle.  Yet another person went to the trouble of capturing this animal, which could not have been easy, and making sure that it would starve to death.  

I have this new friend.  Eddie McCloud.  He is an painter.  He is a sculptor.  He is a guitarist.  He is a songwriter.  He uses his hands in his work, to be sure.  He is a custodian.  But he uses his hands the way we should all use them.  To create beauty.  To make something wonderful where before there was nothing.  I hope that someday, the folks who killed those animals, learn to use their hands for good.  For there is an artist in each of us.  A lover, a parent, a writer, a kite flyer, a mechanic and a carpenter.  Our hands are divine gifts.  And if you are not a believer in God, they are simply magic.