2016 Election Celebration

Tomorrow is the day everyone in the United States waits for with unparalleled anticipation; the day where everything changes. The second Tuesday of November is one of the most important days of the year, no matter if you follow politics or not. It is the day when all the politicians finally shut up a little bit and leave us to get on with our lives while they either gloat in their 15 minutes of limelight behind synthetic humility, or seethe in private anguish at their unprecedented injustice. Is that flippant? Yes. It is a learned response. Perhaps it is a bit of a cynical view, but cultivated ire for politicians can hardly be among the greatest of sins, especially with the stellar crop of buffoons we’re served up year after year. 

Our local representative race is a classic example of sleazy politics at its best. We’ve had endless campaigning with focus on personal attacks over substance on television ads, endless YouTube ads, nightly phone solicitation, door to door campaigning, radio spots, and particularly annoying attack mailers sent in bulk. I started collecting the mailers early since this race was very nasty in the last cycle and I anticipated nothing less this time around. I missed a few at the beginning, but my collection of insulting, vapid drivel in snail mail was soon the envy of…well…no one. As of November 7, I had collected 85 separate pieces of attack mailers that were sent to my house in an unceasing flow. Barely a day went by in the past 45 days where we didn’t receive at least one, but sometimes up to four pieces per day. The race is so nasty, it has gotten party headquarters heavily involved and gotten national attention. A recent editorial piece by USA Today picked one of the TV/YouTube spots as one of the five worst political ads in the country. Way to show that Illinois pride ladies. As if we need more reasons to show how awful Illinois and its politics are.

Dirty Politics

Most of the time, we aren’t home during the prime door-to-door hours, so I know we missed a few choreographed visits, but I was home for one. My doorbell rang one night at about 6:45, just moments after I sat down on the couch to have my dinner and watch anything that was on TV. With an exasperated sigh, I shook off my I-just-got-home-from-work-now-leave-me-alone face, and I opened the door to what I thought would be a girl scout cookie sales pitch. To my surprise, the solicitor at the door was our state representative, Kate Cloonen, telling me how important it was to get out and talk with people in her district and find out what issues mattered to them. I’ll admit that as I held the storm door open and leaned on the door frame listening to her talk, I was at a momentary loss. Here I was expecting to be reluctantly charmed by a fumbling young entrepreneur, aided by the bewitching spell of Thin Mints, and instead I was greeted by rehearsed, superficial pandering. I tried to recover while she finished her greeting and introductory prelude. She handed me a familiar political flyer and my sourness returned in a flash. 

When dealing with rehearsed or scripted salesmen at work, I have learned an invaluable lesson in combating their manipulation; do something they don’t expect. It can be quite funny to hear the equivalent of “does not compute” in their silence or stammering. I saw my opening with the politician when she asked me “So what issues are important to you?” Her assistant held his pen and clipboard at the ready to scribble something that would likely never be read, and I held up the flyer in front of me and said, “I just want these to stop!” They both looked at me blankly for a second and then tried to get clarification on my puzzling statement. “You mean the pamphlets?” In my head I heard, “Well, allow me to retort!” I then launched into a deft soliloquy on the evils of negative smear campaigning and the long-dead virtue of honor among statesmen in an environment that crushes the common man. It would have been pretty cool if that was what actually happened, but I honestly don’t remember exactly what I said. There were words like “disgusting attacks” and “insulting oversimplifications” and “offensive volume”, but I’m not sure what order they came out of my mouth so it could have been completely incoherent. Something must have been intelligible because she hesitantly reasoned that I should check to see who sent the mailing since they don’t have control over all the mail that comes out. They could, however, make sure that nothing more came directly from her campaign. The assistant gave me an earnest nod, as if he were my buddy about to do me a solid, and they agreed with each other that they would certainly do what they can to make sure I didn’t receive any more political ads. In reality, I’m sure they were recoiling at the thought of further discussion and looking for any way out, so as they both visibly retreated, I accepted their tepid offer and they quickly left.  

Looking back, my encounter with my representation was a bit of a lost opportunity. It may have been the leftover angst of dinner interrupted, but I thought later that I could have actually discussed the problem with her, brought up tangible concerns and proposed solutions. Later that evening, I began to write an email to Kate Cloonen to express some of these thoughts, but my cynicism won out and I abandoned the email in frustration. The critic in me decided it would have made no difference if we had shared a genuine conversation or not. I have learned that politicians say anything to get elected, and I was sure my opinion would have been written off as soon as my vote was in a column…either column. Not that I think the interaction would have been much different had her opponent, Lindsay Parkhurst visited my house, but she has yet to be elected and prove my cynical theories. Judging from the volume of negative garbage I have received from her side, I expect nothing less than a politician. I’m not totally cynical I suppose, it very well could be that Cloonen and Parkhurst are both nice, decent, well-meaning ladies and it is the system or their party is to blame for the nasty demeanor. But that doesn’t represent me, and that they would allow it to happen in their name is disgusting.

My disgust in general at politicians is that they constantly underestimate us. They think we are stupid enough to believe their statements and fall for their carefully framed tricks. And you know what? It works. Americans feed this beast by consuming and believing the one-sided arguments. But I don’t think it is stupidity. Instead, confirmation bias is to blame. We only hear what we want to hear, and believe what we already think is true. If you hate Politician A and Politician B says something awful about Politician A, you tend believe Politician B, even if it is an outright lie, or if B is a disgusting person themselves. B sends out floods of negative ads confirming bias in all directions and everyone gets all fired up to vote. B wins and deduces that negative campaigning works. This is your fault! If you hate the negativity, don’t feed the cycle! Think for yourself and don’t parrot others opinions. And as much as you hate it, really listen to other opinions, you don’t have the monopoly on “right”.

A simple concept that most people seem to forget, is that when someone is elected, they are supposed represent ALL of their district, city, state or country, not just the portion of the electorate that voted for them. I think that is especially important for this year’s Presidential race. It is an idea that I am sure both major candidates will forget the moment the winner takes office, but it is equally applicable to you the voter. Accept the results, don’t threaten moving to Canada, it is all a bit silly. The great thing about our country is that if something is broken, we can try again the next cycle and someone else gets to try their ideas. Talking heads excel at whipping people up to think that their world is going to end if the opposition gets in power. That kind of thought creates fanatics. Use reason instead. Believe it or not, you can say, “That’s a fantastic idea! There is not even the slightest chance in the world I am voting for you, but…great idea!” You can actually say that sentence and not devolve into a brawl over who “won” your debate. Just once I would like to hear a reasonable discussion about Hillary and Trump without hearing about fascism or socialism or the end of America, or moving to Canada. They are nice people up North, why send our bitter, angry people there?

One terrible aspect to our elections is that the common voter feels as though they have no real choice in a two-party system. To give back some choice, wouldn’t it stir some stew to have “None of These Jokers” as an option on the ballot? Imagine how many votes that option would receive for President this year! Plus, it would be very satisfying to hear a news anchor announce a forecast: “And we can now officially call the state of New Hampshire for None of These Jokers.” Have the NoTJ vote mean a vote of no confidence, if NoTJ actually wins, the person that gets the next most votes gets to be President or Governor or Mayor, but only for a year, or in a temporary fashion until we get someone we actually want. We’d certainly avoid some of the messes we find ourselves in now. The idea worked in the movie Brewster’s Millions as “None of the Above.” And while I’m at it, why are we voting on Tuesday?! Shouldn’t this be a weekend, where it is easier for people to “rock the vote?” At the very least, make it a holiday so no one has an excuse to not vote. The old idea for voting on Tuesday was designed to accommodate a day of travel after Sunday to be able to reach polling places, how many people do you think would vote now if they had to drive for a day beforehand? I also have opinions on the electoral college, third-party candidates, term-limits and districting, but I’m tired of thinking about politics…tomorrow is a celebration day, go out and vote so they all shut up faster! 

Time for Some Brisket and Chili

Original recipes included further below.

Sometimes things come last minute, other times it takes a bit of planning. For me, I find that I manage to make it a little bit of both. Last weekend I had a Saturday full of plans. The biggest project was repairing my mower that had a bit of trouble at the end of my previous lawn care session when it somehow decided to completely rip a wheel loose from the deck! A little investigation and I found that one of the other wheels was ready to do the same. All the parts needed to be purchased for repair before I could start, so a trip to Menards or Lowes was first on the list. The repair itself would involve some steel sawing, drilling and bolting, so I figured a good couple hours for the full repair plus a blade sharpening while I had things apart.

After repairing the mower, the grass was obviously waiting to be cut, so that would take a good hour and a half or two. I had some minor fence repair that had been bugging me, so that was another half hour. Clean out of the gutters would take another hour, if I tacked on sweeping up the sidewalk afterward. A bit of raking, some tree trimming, some minor deck repair, some garage clean up, a few other odds and ends, and I was looking at a full 8 hours so I knew I needed to get started if I expected to get some laundry done too.

Of course before starting all this, there is the requisite moment where I stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open and absent-mindedly stare at the stock of food while pondering what there possibly could be to eat. I happened to open the freezer and saw several packages of meat waiting for their turn to be used, and I had the bright idea that brisket would be just the thing for later. “I’ll smoke some brisket today!” I foolishly said to myself as I threw the 2 lb package into the fridge to thaw.

Yes, I know. Did I really think that frozen brisket was going to thaw by the afternoon just by putting it in the fridge? Well, I suppose I did at the time, but I didn’t give it the required amount of thought, I had stuff to do! Needless to say, the thawing time wasn’t nearly sufficient, and I still had frozen brisket by the end of the day. Not to mention, I had a few leftover items from my to-do list that I didn’t get done as well. But, I did have a fully wheeled mower and a fully cut lawn.

Thursday came around and the brisket was still sitting in the fridge. It was getting to the point where it needed to be used, but I kept forgetting. At 7:50 am that morning I remembered, and determined it HAD to be used that day. I needed to leave for work, but how can you cook a brisket without a good rub!? I grabbed the brisket out of the fridge and tore off the packaging…meat still looked good. Time to make the rub. I threw together some ingredients and coated the meat generously before covering it back up and shoving it back in the fridge. I wouldn’t make work by 8:00 like I was supposed to, but the rub was made.

Rub Mix
Measurements are VERY approximate
1/2 c brown sugar
2 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp cocoa powder

Rub into meat vigorously and completely cover brisket on all sides. Set in fridge for 8 hours.

Now with the rub in place, the plan should be to smoke the same day right? Of course! However, I worked late and didn’t get home until about 7:00 pm. The smoker hadn’t been used for a while, so I needed to do a little setup. I finally had the flames going and heating up the box a little bit after 7:30. Usually, I like to go for low and slow, so I got the smoker up to about 220 degrees and a batch of apple wood chips in the smoker box. Brisket, in, fat side up, middle rack.

Off and on I checked in on the meat for the next couple hours. When the apple chips were used up, I added a couple helpings of peach chips until the meat reached about 140 degrees. At that point I was going to let it go smokeless until 180 degrees. But now it needed a good mopping of additional flavor.

Mid-Smoke Baste
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp black raspberry jam
2 tbsp water
1 tsp orange marmalade
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp lime juice

Melt butter, add other ingredients. Warm in microwave and stir until all ingredients mix evenly.

At this point in the process it was getting quite late. I had to leave early in the morning, but this was important to get right. I basted the brisket once and turned it fat side down for the next 45 minutes at 250 degrees. Then another basting and back to fat side up for another 45 minutes at…300, because honestly, I did need to get to bed. Once the internal temperature was 180 degrees, I took it out to rest on the kitchen counter til it was cool enough to slice, then cool enough to put in the fridge. I finally finished at 1:30 am, and had some glorious smokey goodness.

This weekend I wanted to use some of that glorious meat in another application; slow-cooked chili. Most of the time when I am cooking, I don’t use hard-set recepies and go from a general idea, then pick elements here and there that feel right to go with it. I wasn’t under pressure to get this meal completed, so I took my time and thought out the ingredients.

Slow Cook Brisket Chili
5 strips of smoked bacon
Cook up the bacon in a frying pan until it is just shy of crispy. Remove bacon and set aside.

1/2 c. chopped celery
1 c. chopped red pepper
1 1/2 c. chopped red onion
5 cloves garlic, chopped.

Sweat the vegetables minus the garlic in the hot pan with the bacon fat until onions are almost translucent. Add the chopped garlic on top and continue cooking for several minutes.

In large crock pot add:
2 tbsp olive oil
28 oz can (1) crushed tomatoes
27 oz can (1) red kidney beans
15 oz can (2) black beans
16 oz can (1) cannellini beans
12 oz can (1) tomato paste
6 oz smoked brisket, chunked or cubed
5 slices of bacon (cooked above) chopped
2 tbsp chili powder
2 tbsp oregano
1 tbsp ground black pepper
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp ground mustard
6 ground allspice berries
1/2 tsp hickory smoke flavor
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp Better Than Bouillon, Beef
2 cups water
1 cup apple juice or apple cider (optional)
Vegetables and garlic (cooked above)

If I had it available, I would have added:
1 tsp ground fennel seed

Set crock pot on high, uncovered for about an hour. Covered on high for another hour. Then covered on low for another 4-5 hours. Total of 6-7 hours in the crock pot...stirring occasionally.

So what was the end result of a messy mix of some half-baked planning and some reckless spontaneity? Hopefully a bunch of halfway decent meals. I got some positive reviews from the wife, and she had the suggestion that I share…so…here ya go! Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the process, so you will just have to imagine how tasty it looks.

Good Grief

At one time, a little boy in a yellow and black squiggly striped shirt was famous for frequently lamenting “Good Grief!” to express his dismay at his situation. No matter how amusing the scenario was for Charlie Brown to resort to his most memorable catchphrase, I always thought that the words themselves never really made much sense. Can there really be such a thing as good grief? Is there actually some variety of that horrible feeling that could be considered positive? It is rather a dark thought to be having while reading a comic strip about a little boy with a cute dog and blonde bird, but I’ve always had a bit of a morose streak in me. There are times when these kinds of random thoughts feel more pertinent to share than at others, and I have felt recently more compelled to gather a few together into some sort of a bundle that might make sense to someone.

There is no shortage of unhappy detours and rockslides for us to endure on the roughly hewn mountain trail of life, but the intense despair and emptiness of grief never seems like a path that anyone truly chooses to take and never feels anywhere close to good. When someone is assailed by the emotions and emptiness of a devastating loss, it is difficult to articulate comfort or support in any meaningful way. We stammer condolence, but words alone cannot express the depths of sympathy required to ease the pain. We reach out to hug or hold, but arms cannot replace the presence or protection that was taken away. We see the loss, we share in the loss, but no one can repair it. We feel truly helpless, but we still must assist somehow, so we try. A card, a flower, a plate of meat and cheese, none of these things actually help, but we are desperate to show we care somehow. We shuffle awkwardly through a line to ineffectually whisper some comfort-like words that are received in equal awkwardness and punctuated with a trembling handshake or embrace. We solemnly move through the line with eyes averted, internally chastising ourselves for the words not coming out quite right, for sounding trite and hollow like a glitter greeting card.

On the other side, the bereaved are struggling for composure, sometimes in shock but still trying to stand strong. They accept the words, the cards, the plates of meat and cheese with a conflicting smile that approaches gratitude, but guiltily skulks away from any emotion that feels inordinately too early or disrespectful to entertain. Nothing feels appropriate, so everything feels inappropriate and uncomfortable. All spoken and written words ring hollow out of no one’s fault but the complete inadequacy of our language to convey the breadth of emotion that builds and seeps from the corners of our eyes. No one knows what to say, no one knows how to reply.

Everyone handles sorrow in their own way and it is usually difficult for us to see our own limit and see it in the same hue of light that is seen by our friends, family and neighbors. However, one common element that remains the same under any shade of light is the feeling that grief is awful, and we would rather stay happy, or at least comfortable, rather than deal with that painful emptiness.  We block memories from our minds, bottle up our emotions and build walls around our hearts to protect ourselves at all costs from experiencing that harm. Those defenses are different for each person and they significantly alter the fragile facade of recovery. We can sometimes succeed in keeping the pain behind as we bravely attempt to stagger forward, but its creeping shadow lurks low and close, waiting for the vulnerability of solitude, biding its time to viciously clutch at our heels.

A sudden strike upsets the delicately constructed balance and we crumble to the floor amidst the dusty rubble of our carefully fashioned defenses. A storm of tearful memories rises up from the cloudy blue into a swirling rage, releasing its fury at gale force and battering our soul with relentless blows. When the storm finally subsides, we’re left alone and defeated in a gloomy puddle of brokenness and despair. At that darkest moment, in that full devastation, is it possible to feel anything but completely helpless and shattered? It is a strange thing to feel not mourning but to feel comfort in the midst of unspeakable pain, but that pain should confirm what you already know…this matters to me. Feel the good that is now amplified from the mourning of its absence. Feel the calm privilege of having had the opportunity of holding anyone or anything so dearly that it matters to you so. Feel not the loss, but feel the beautiful fullness of all that you were given for a time.

One day you will reluctantly find yourself on a hill of cold stones in the crisp winter air as the wind flutters coats and crunchy leaves and distant notes of Taps. Time will be a dark and murky bog, and your heart will hang heavy in your chest. Though it doesn’t seem possible, don’t feel alone. Stand close in those moments as the final words of the final memorials are shared. Feel peace in stillness of the final prayer. This pain, this loss, shows what you’ve already gained.

Hold close…to what you have and were given.

Hold close…how much this matters to you.

Tech Support Blues

Most everyone has had to call a tech support phone line at some point. No matter who I have conversed with on this topic, they usually feel roughly the same way about it.  They’d rather have their eyes poked with rusty forks then have to go through a call to a technical support line. I understand their pain. Perhaps more than they might realize since I have actually been stabbed by a rusty fork…not in the eye, but it still really hurt! And sometimes even I would rather be stabbed again by that fork then call a support line. Too bad it’s part of my job.

Tech Support Blues

Generally, I don’t really like to talk about my job, much less write about it. I’ve always been warned…don’t ever cross the streams, that would be bad. But it’s a little bit unavoidable in this topic, so there’s that. I understand the pain more than a fork in the eye, I’ve spent a great deal of time on both sides of those types of calls. There is the side where I’ve been the tech support person on the phone trying to impart some sort of arcane wisdom from the dark reaches of cyberspace to help solve why a mouse pointer keeps changing into an hourglass. Those conversations can be left for another time. This little anecdote is about the other side, my own calls into tech support.

Over the years I’ve been through it all on IT support calls. Quick and painless ones or long drawn-out multiple hour-long affairs. Some conversations that proved very helpful, others that you wonder if they have ever even seen a computer. And I have heard hold music, far, far more than my fair share of hold music. Minutes, hours, days and weeks of hold music. Hold while they talk to their boss, hold while they look up your question, hold before anyone will actually even start talking to you. I’ve even been put on hold for an hour and a half to wait for the next available technician with 23 other calls ahead of me, only to be disconnected when finally reaching the very end of the queue.

When most people complain about their experience on a tech support call, they inevitably mention they were connected to someone in India that didn’t know what they were talking about. My experience with off-shore tech support is a bit different. First of all, on some topics, I’ve found some of the Indian tech support agents to be the most knowledgeable that I’ve come across. I’ve spoken to engineering agents and teams of agents from India that write and explain code that would make the heads of their US counterparts just spin in bewilderment. I’ve also spoken with agents from Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia, France, and Italy, as well as others from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head and were just the ones I had bothered to ask about location. I am sure that if I dug deeper, there would be many other countries represented in my pool of experience as well. No matter where the agent is from, there is one thing I have found in common with all of the techs of all nationalities. The good ones make sure that you both understand each other.

There is a Kilimanjaro of vital information that can be lost in translation and it doesn’t matter if the language is nationality-based, or jargon-based. Whether someone is speaking in Urdu or in tech acronyms, they first must make sure that the person listening actually comprehends the words being said. This concept can get tricky when one is speaking a language that is actually their second language. This is also where your internal translator can get a workout when trying to filter what you hear into what you understand.

Most of the time, I am fine with comprehending accented English. It can be kinda fun to guess where a person is from based on the inflections and words they pronounce. Even though I find the conversation still works, I do find myself having to work a little harder at comprehending the words I am hearing.  My brain chugs a little as it spends time re-verifying that I heard correctly, and I can see where that would be mental tripping hazard for a lot of people. I can also see how that trip up could cause instant frustrations and bias when encountering the same sounds again. This whole idea became very clear to me one day after I had a particularly challenging hour long troubleshooting conference call with four pretty smart people all working to solve a problem together. All four people just happened to be from different continents speaking with their own accented English. I honestly had a little bit of a headache when I hung up, it was exhausting, and all I was really doing was internally translating variations of English!

A stunning illustration of how much extra work your brain is forced through when processing accented English comes when you see how an automatic message transcription service translates a technical call from a person speaking English as a second language.  I just so happen to have some great exhibits where the results speak for themselves.  There shouldn’t be much background needed on the problem being solved, and I won’t say which country the tech was from.

After working for several hours on some ongoing issues one day in the relatively recent past, we took a break from our phone call for my helper to do some research.  He called back some time later and left a message for me.  My messaging service translated the following:

Call #1

Eric Riley from the social and support team calling in regards to an incident so that it really sure what this means. So hoping … that there will be a you that the hotel H A … you can come home and is for candy supposed to supposed to be so please it’s urgent … I wanted to confirm this notification press onto any means of a little bit. Thank you have a nice day

It seemed to start off pretty well there at first, but you can see that it quickly went downhill. I knew in great detail what he was supposed to be calling about but I couldn’t even come close to figuring out what that text implied he was saying. It really didn’t get much better than that either. The issues continued and I received several more calls from the same company. The next message I got on this problem was from a different agent…

Call #2

Yeah hi Denise this is louis from Microsoft in supposed been calling in regards to in case the last week we will be sleeping so hopefully … I e of the do this via the Internet and phone is giving us the just wondered who is about on this case you do because I am suspended pending snow storm … please let us know how you wanted to close to do this is thank you.

At least we got a company name out of that one! Over the next couple of days I received a few more messages on the same support issue from 2 different support agents, with varying degrees of translation success.

Call #3

Hey hi this is louise from Microsoft into for the call is in regards to a new this severely sure we will … you just been tied off all food inc. if you know the proposal template in this case. Thank you any line is that nobody.

Call #4

Yeah hi could … I was hoping this is for this … So hopefully just wanted to discuss this issue … selfish and wondered were doing on this is … for the defer those belts that is listed you as part of the dentist office there but if you do the whole beach and wonderful to this message. So Beach … she’s on the Fulton. Please take me to work with me please two donation’s love..

Call #5

Hey how you please visit with from Microsoft me supposed to be this is in regards to Juanita supposed to be open the same we have received a non issue will continue to investigate and I will be do that you had it in time and open each of Alan and … I was hoping for me to just … that she said he’s only do it and send the other two phone calls from your side as want to the city to make it sounds good? But I have been off so please let me know how you wanted to thank you this is Willy.

Call #6

Yeah hi liz this is Lee from Microsoft beautiful in this call is in regards to an interest in either insurable. If anything’s couple of days … you had … ovations from the back and say they can support those for sex and the city. So just wanted to check over the issues is what I did know talk. I was not any minute not want anything just wanted to call and thank you in advanced.

By the way, at no point were these conversations ever actually interacting with anyone named Louise, Liz, Lee, Juanita, Denise, Fulton or Willy.  I’ve known more than a few techs that shortened their given name so that it would seem more pronounceable for Americans, but the name Willy was never one of them.

I was able to call these agents back and we eventually worked through our technical difficulties, but I did find myself amazed that we were able to collaborate at all through our linguistic difficulties. It helped me be more appreciative of what the human brain can comprehend and interpret. Think of your brain doing those same translations the next time you call in and get Raj from India. I would bet you are translating his instructions a lot better than the hopeless text above! Think of what Raj’s brain is having to sift through as well, I bet his is doing more work than yours, never mind the cultural differences.  Sure, both your brains will make some mistakes, it will be frustrating, and you might get a bit of a headache.  But think about how cool it is that you can even communicate with each other at all…and remember, Raj probably has a headache from listening to you too!

Forests, Trees and Peeling Paint

How do people see you and the world around you? There was an interesting day recently when I was pondering that very thing due to several interactions I had with people in different contexts, all of them related to photography. The right combination of moments all conspired together all in one day to give me a different appreciation of just how differently people can see the same world. Not only how they see what is around them, but how it is sometimes difficult to see it outside their own perspective

A thing I have learned after years of attempted photography is that people perceive you differently when you are holding what they consider a “real” camera and related equipment. I suppose it is one of those collectively learned reactions that is spawned from generations of ingrained association of big cameras with some sort of media outlet. But even without a “PRESS” card tucked under the band of your rumpled, felt fedora, there is an undeniable reaction that a lot of people have to seeing someone carrying a big hunk of photographic equipment. Sometimes that reaction is simply an extra glance or two your way, other times it is a cautious stare. Whether the thought going across their mind at the time is, “Ooo, I wonder who he is photographing for!” or, “Who does this guy think he is?!”, is a little hard to tell. Quite often though,  people tend to feel the need to acknowledge further.

“Gettin’ some good shots?” is by far the number one friendly ice breaker. I never really know what to say to this question. Do they really want to hear me discuss the how the glare right now is messing with my ability to see the correct focal point quickly, causing me to delay every shot a moment or two while I compensate, thus missing the perfect shot by a couple milliseconds? And, on top of that, did they also want to know that I forgot my extra battery so right now I’m not even checking the display, which means I am rationing my shutter clicks because I know at any moment, nothing will happen when I press the button?  I am quite sure that is not what they want. What is a good shot anyway? I could scroll with you through the 300 I just took and say “I guess I like this one … so yes I got one good shot”. But that isn’t really what they are looking for either.  Most of the time, I think people just want to acknowledge that they see you, and see what you are doing. Sometimes, even want to feel a part of it. They just don’t know how to express that feeling. I have yet to hear “Camera huh? Is it yours?” But I don’t think I would be surprised if I do sometime. I feel as though I understand that feeling of wanting to be involved, so as much as possible I try to respond in kind, but be brief. My typical response to the “good shots” question is as much of a warm smile as I can manage and “Oh, I’m tryin’!” followed by a comment on the weather, or the event, or how many people there are around, or how pretty the sunset is tonight. At that point both parties are usually satisfied with their level of involvement, and I go on about my business.

So that brings up another thing I have learned. If you want to meet new people, walk around carrying a big camera. I don’t care if you don’t even know how to use it, people will talk to you out of the blue and assume you really know what you are doing, or at least are doing something really important. For an extreme introvert like myself, this can be a little bit terrifying, and for the highly self-critical amateur photographer in me, this can be, well … even more terrifying. It would be rather nice to be paid by the number of times I heard “Are you with the paper?”. It wouldn’t make me rich, but I could probably buy a fairly decent lens! I have never said, “Yes” to those questions, but I’m sure people would be quite chatty if I did.

If there isn’t a connection to the paper or to National Geographic, I think that occasionally people have a hard time computing what you could possibly be spending time taking pictures of.  Sometimes I imagine the thought process of someone trying to work out the object of my camera’s attention. There is nothing obvious that indicates the cave-man-ish “I was here” in your shot, you aren’t pointing at people, that certainly isn’t food and you are focusing way too intently. What could possibly be that cool?

My wife and I were exploring some towns and sights in Northern Michigan when I had my full day of illuminating interactions. For the first encounter on my interesting day I found myself standing along the edge of a quiet street, looking at how the sand from the beach of nearby Lake Michigan glistened in the sun as it laid in stark contrast against the slowly melting black asphalt.  I followed the edge of the street looking at the different formations of the grains of sand and I came upon a iron manhole cover. The sand had piled up a little along its edge and I thought this was the perfect setup for a black and white photo.  I swung my camera around and moved in to find the perfect angle, adjusting my height up and down, focusing, snapping a few shots.  While I was snapping away, out of the corner of my ear I heard footsteps crunching the gravel on the asphalt as a man crossed the street a dozen yards away. I glanced up and he bellowed “Did you lose your keys?” Sandy Grate It was a bit comical, but I really didn’t know how to reply with anything other than the obvious. “No,” I chuckled, “just taking some pictures.”  Did I really look like I was looking for my keys? I wondered a moment or two just how I might be conveying that scenario since I wasn’t standing near a car and had a camera pressed up to my face. Perhaps this was something he had experienced in the past. Maybe I did drop my keys and not notice, I actually even checked to see if there was a hole in my pocket that might have made it look like I dropped my keys. Nope … keys still there. He smiled and shuffled on, and I went back to my sandy manhole.

A couple hours later, I was walking through an area of the sleepy town that was adorned with several quaint shops, the kind that have been standing since your grandfather was born. Over the years their different owners have come and gone, and they used to sell grain or lumber, until people stopped buying those things and wanted T-shirts and coffee mugs instead. I found one shop that stood two stories tall near a giant shade tree.  A small flower garden nearby was being tended by a thin, greying lady who was arranging some petunias closer to the store entrance. An electronic ding-dong sounded from a device clipped to her pants pocket and she hustled from the garden to greet the new customers just walking into the front door.  As she passed by me I smiled at her and she cheerfully said, “Hello, nice day today!”

I wandered the flower garden for a minute or two, camera at the ready. But, I kept looking at the shop itself and how majestically old it appeared. The recent coat of yellow paint glinted brightly in the sun, but there were areas where you could see decades of paint jobs chipped away down to the siding.  Standing at the right angle, you could see small sections of the paint peeling away and hanging down in gentle curls away from the straight lines of clapboard. Zooming in with my lens, I focused on finding curly rinds of yellow paint and I started snapping a few shots.  Peel AwayThe shopkeeper came back out of the store to tend the garden again, but she stopped nearby and tried to focus on what I was photographing. “What kind of pictures are you taking?” she asked, seeming a bit bewildered. “Oh, I’m taking a few shots of the paint peels up on the siding.” As soon as I said that, I thought that it sounded a bit odd. “Oh,” she said shaking her head a little bit, “they’re supposed to be scraping that all away and painting it right.” She commented as she walked towards the garden “It was supposed be done this spring, but they didn’t do it again. Who knows, maybe it costs too much, I don’t think they’ll be painting again this year.”  Clearly she got the wrong idea of why I was taking the picture. I thought what I saw was beauty, but that seemed too difficult to explain successfully in the moment.

In another town, we made our way to the beach as the sun was starting to hang low in the western sky.  Scores of people were standing and watching the sun slowly slip between the clouds and behind a silvery, glistening Distant Shadowsstretch of Lake Michigan. I started hauling my gear out of the car and made my way down to the water to capture the silhouettes of figures walking across the concrete breakwater at the mouth of the harbor. I snapped dozens of shots, attempting to catch the intense orange glow beaming from behind the dark figures.  The sun was setting quickly, so I did not linger. I slung my camera bag over my back, propped my tripod on my shoulder and started briskly walking down the deserted, thin strip of beach between the tall beach grass and the cool lake waves.

Glancing up a few minutes into my walk, I saw a couple sitting in beach chairs at the edge of the beach grass ahead of me that I had not noticed previously. They were facing towards the disappearing sun with its orange aura happily reflecting off their skin. There were barely three feet of sand between the waves and their beach chairs, and I’d be walking right in front of their glowy entertainment … interaction was inevitable! I scrolled through a few things that might be said, but I didn’t have much time until I was right in front of them. “‘Scuse me,” I tried to say in a way that implied an attempt at being as unobtrusive as possible, as if somehow on command my body suddenly became a bit more transparent. “Gettin’ some good shots?!” came the familiar greeting. “Oh, I’m tryin’!”, I replied to the man without even thinking, “it’s a great night isn’t it?” I glanced over without breaking my stride. I saw him point enthusiastically at the sinking sun, “I’m guessing you saw that?!” I chuckled a little and replied “It’s a little hard to miss tonight eh? Very pretty!”

My destination was a small beacon structure on the very end of the concrete breakwater at the mouth of the harbor. From this point I could frame the distant lighthouse against the backdrop of the sunset and maybe catch some passing boat traffic at the same time. I set up my tripod and framed the scene, then just waited for the sun to set a little further and hopefully not be obscured by the thick, stormy clouds at the edge of the horizon. As I waited, I could hear the low rumble of slow-trolling boats coming up the narrow waterway to make their way onto the lake. They are required to move very slowly in this section of the harbor, so slowly that I was picking up on the conversation that two boat owners were having as they converged, heading in the same direction. They amicably quizzed each other on their vitals for the few minutes they had in each other’s relative company. “What year is yours?”, “What’s her horsepower?” and “When did you first get the bug?” Questions and answers that I couldn’t relate to, but both captains used as shorthand to become fast friends in passing. They parted ways after a few moments with a “Good Luck” and a friendly wave.

One of the boats was turning towards my camera’s field of view fifty yards out. The captain was barely visible on the deck through the dusk of evening as he floated by, but I could see we made something akin to eye contact. He waved to me cheerfully and I waved back. “Am I going to ruin your shot?” he hollered to me across the water. As the Sun Goes DownThis was new! I have had people do all sorts of strange things to get out of my way, or completely ignore me and get in my way, when they see me shooting (usually, they do the exact opposite of what you hope they will, but that is another story). I had never actually had a vehicle of any sort offer to literally change course for one of my shots. “No not at all,” I hollered back. “Go right on ahead!”  The boat glided beautifully into frame between the lighthouse and the horizon, as he floated by I fired off several “ruined” shots.

Earlier the same day, we were driving through a vast park with gorgeous open spaces punctuated by majestic expanses of trees. I was driving, but still watching the sides of the road to soak in as much of the scenery as I could. We passed by a large stretch of pine trees and I slowed the car suddenly, coming to a stop on the gravel-strewn shoulder as I flipped on the hazards. I checked the rearview and saw no cars, so I hopped out and grabbed my camera gear. I tossed a casual “I’ll just be a couple minutes” to my wife and I waded into the waist-high grass at the side of the road. I stood a few yards off the road, assessing the view. I took a few shots, crouched down and took a few more.  I could hear a car approaching, slowing down, slowing more and passing by our car at a crawl. Glancing over my shoulder I could clearly see the passenger’s curiosity as to what I had found.  Another two cars repeated the maneuver as I snapped away.

Another car approached and slowed noticeably, coming to a stop right behind me. Taking another look over my shoulder I was greeted by four curious faces. The passenger window rolled down and a young man hanging over the side. “What do you see?!” He asked in somewhat of a shouted whisper of excitement.  “Oh! Just trees!” I replied enthusiastically. The look on his face was a bit hard to describe. A combination of  disappointed, bewilderment and a dash of annoyance.  He sat back in his seat a little as he said, “Oh, OK”.  For some reason, when I saw that reaction, I felt the need to say, “Sorry.” They hesitated a moment or two, then the window rolled up, the car drove away, and I went back to my treeful forest.

Although the chronology is ever so slightly skewed via artistic license, this See Through the Forestepisode completed my interesting day full of perspectives on the world. I don’t quite know how to most effectively bend the “forest for the trees” cliche to fit my experience that day, but I think if I tried, it wouldn’t quite match the uniqueness of what actually happened. Why did I say sorry to that young man? Part of me was sad about his disappointment in not experiencing the exciting thing that he imagined was out there. Part was also sad that I assumed that he wouldn’t have the same level of excitement or appreciation for the beauty I saw in the trees just standing against the light. Later, I was mostly sad because I assumed correctly, he couldn’t see it, at least not in the moment. I like to think that as they drove away, maybe from a different angle, he saw what I saw.

The beauty in those trees, that boat, that paint, that sand, it is there for everyone to see, they just need to be seen differently.

The Thirteenth Option

The other day my wife and I decided to go out for a dinner at the local Lone Star Steakhouse. This was the first time in quite a while we had been tempted to go to that particular place. There were several reasons for our absence, but since the recent revamping of their menu, and quasi-update to the decor, we decided to give it another shot.  There were quite a few very interesting new things to try, the prices were better and overall it was a very enjoyable meal out on the town.  We were finishing our dinner and the glasses of tea were getting very nearly empty when something happened that I found completely derailing to my inane dinnertime banter. It kicked off a bit of self psychoanalysis that completely preempted our crucial discussion of whatever our cat was doing just prior to leaving the house.

A waitress (not our own) was passing by, carrying a stainless steel pitcher. She stopped by our table, gesturing with the pitcher towards my one-third filled glass of tea in the universal gesture of “would you like a refill?”. She supplemented her motion with the fairly simple question “you had regular tea, right?” 
Believe it or not, I froze for a moment while I had to process her question. I verbally stumbled for a moment, and then replied in a way that she didn’t understand at all.  But before I get into that, I need to supply a little back-story.

Unbeknown to me previous to this fated evening, Lone Star had augmented their menu of drinks to include several fancy flavored iced teas.  As our waiter was running through the list of flavors, I practically pounced when his list reached “Blackberry”. I didn’t really care what else was on the list, I would float away on a river of blackberry iced tea and would be unnaturally happy for doing so. On hearing the list of flavors, my wife, also pleased by the options, changed her drink order from water to Prickly Pear Iced Tea. I will freely admit, prickly pear cactus as a flavor was quite intriguing to me, but not enough for me to change my order. Besides, it would be very simple just to try a little of my dinner-mate’s drink without losing any precious blackberry.

As dinner went on, I was provided with an additional glass of my chosen beverage before even half of my wife’s was gone. By the time the meal arrived, hers was also ready for a refill. A manager that brought the meal noticed the empty prickly pear glass and said she’d get it filled right away. However, our waiter efficiently noticed the same thing as well and in no time at all, my wife had two new glasses of prickly pear iced tea that she could never possibly finish. Being the chivalrous gentleman that I am, I kindly offered to help with one glass and we both spent the remainder of the meal happily sipping on the cactus flavored goodness. 

This brings us back to my moment of mental incapacitation. When the kind waitress stopped by to pose her question and fill my glass with tea, my brain tried to determine what the correct answer was and it had an hour-glass moment. The simple question of “you had regular tea, right?” shouldn’t really be that difficult to answer, but I might as well have had a “Loading…” sign over my head like a lagging computer.
Ahhh, Vacation! by Chris O'Brien - Ellipsis-Imagery, on Flickr
I ordered blackberry tea, so that is technically what I had. But, I switched and was now drinking my wife’s extra prickly pear tea. I never really ordered it and our waiter didn’t know I switched, and she wasn’t our waitress. How were either of them to know? On the other hand, I could have just had her fill it up with regular tea at this point and drank that instead.  In reality, this girl didn’t really care what I ordered, she saw an empty glass and thought she had the right stuff, so she was going to fill it.
Why was I hesitating?
Trying to pick the “correct answer” was more difficult than I anticipated. So what were my options here?

  1. Answer directly: “No, thanks though!”

  2. Answer directly but tell her what I actually had ordered: “No thanks, I ordered blackberry tea””

  3. Answer directly but tell her what was in my glass: “No thanks, I have prickly pear tea””

  4. Answer her implied question of “do you want me to pour this in your glass?”: “Yes thanks!””

  5. Answer her implied question, but explain anyway: “Yes! I had a different flavor, but regular is fine.””

  6. Answer the larger question if I actually wanted any more to drink: “No thanks, I’ve had enough””

So there are six options…and each one could have led with a positive or a negative response, so that’s twelve.  The way my brain works, I had to pick the “correct” one. I had to pick the one answer that was the most precise.  The problem was, they were all fairly similar, if spoken correctly.
She stood there patiently as the gears of my mental engine clicked, sputtered and coughed. I turned the key and cranked the cranial starter again and again as the minutes ticked by, the poor girl’s arm weakening and lowering from the weight of holding the full pitcher as I stumbled through my intellectual stall.   Ok. It wasn’t really that bad, but it is pretty crazy how long a couple seconds can feel in that kind of scenario.

Of course what really happened is that I paused thoughtfully for a moment, selected the right answer and calmly replied.
Nope. I panicked.
“Uhmmm……” I eloquently replied, “I had the cactus one”
“The what?!”
At that moment, I realized that it was very possible that this poor girl probably had no idea that prickly pear was supposed to be a cactus flavor instead of some sweet tree fruit.
I had fumbled, but I tried to recover.
“The prickly cactus tea…”
Blank stare. Another fumble.
“Err…the prickly pear cactus tea”
She paused, very bewildered, clearly wondering what I was really drinking.
“Um…I don’t know what that is…”
She sheepishly shuffled away.

If I hadn’t been a complete socially inept buffoon and had I selected any of the other twelve answers, we could have avoided some unpleasant awkwardness, and we both could have gone on happily with our respective days.  Somehow though, I had managed to pick the thirteenth option from the list…the one that makes practically no sense at all. A mild case of internal panic kept me from just being conversational and answering a simple question.

I know others can relate to that feeling as well, but I seem to have a close personal relationship with the awkward, paralytic pause over the inconsequential. 
I need time to process! 
Is it a matter of being slow? 
Is my cpu missing a core or duo? 
Or am I just getting old?
Actually I know it’s not age since I have been this way ever since I can remember. I remember thoughtfully filling out long essay questions on tests with simply six or seven words.  Each word carefully chosen to say exactly enough to be correct, but not an extra word more. 
Precision should be efficient! 

Precision in conversation though can be quite annoying. The pause for thought breaks up the flow and can be awkward. For some reason, I feel the need to divine exactly the correct words. Typically I don’t find them, so it comes out awkward anyway! You’d think at some point I’d try to give up on precision and just say stuff. You might think that is what I’m doing here by writing this, but, no. You’d actually be laughing at how long ago “the other day” (from the start of this story) has turned into….so, I won’t tell you. I’ll give you a hint though, it wasn’t this week.

One day I hope to master this thing you humans call “conversation”. 
Clearly I still have a bit to learn. 
Latest lesson: when someone offers to refill your tea, just say “yes”.

The Ebb of Autumn

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the end of summer and the sudden onset of the heart of fall… at least in Illinois weather.  It is a bit of melancholy amongst the beauty of the colorful, falling leaves.  This is a bit of an ode to summertime in the heart of everyone.

I kicked the leaves along the path today
The morning cool and crispy air
Filled my chest and chased my breath away
Faded gleams of warm and fair

The sun hung low inside the darkened sky
Shadows sighed of trees soon bare
The fog of frost soon filled my eyes
Longing for the loss of care

The Fallacy of Fruit

Certainly you’ve heard the expression about comparing apples to apples, and perhaps also the one about comparing them ineffectually to oranges. What I have to share instead is a fruit-based illustration involving a completely different citrus altogether.
Let me explain…


My family and I were hypothetically standing around in an open field, discussing our upcoming theoretic existence together…a metaphysical plain of sorts. It was a bright and sunny day and fairly early on in things, as I recall. We had a lovely time being with each other but had come to a lull in our conversation because we were at a bit of a loss as to what should come next. It was at that point we were joined by another who looked every bit the part of one that might have the answers – quite possibly all of them – but not likely to share.  The newcomer to our group appeared to have news.


     “Hi there!”
     “That’s Life,” one of the more knowledgeable of us said to the rest of the group.
     “Say, I’m just going around providing a bundle of some basic things for folks out here and I have some other stuff with me that I’m going to just give away,” Life announced casually while reaching out to hand us something. “I’ve got a whole bunch of these,” Life continued, “and you were all just hanging out right here, so…here ya go!”

I looked down at what was in my hands. A small pile of Lemons.

     “What are we supposed to do with these?” said one. His query came quickly but was far too late; Life had already moved on. Some other souls in different parts of the field were even now looking into their hands, wondering what to make of their own existential handout.
We looked around at each other, holding our little piles of yellow and befuddlement, wondering what were possibly supposed to do.
Clearly they were meant as a gift, but what kind of a gift are Lemons?
Most of us were thinking much the same thing;  “I’m pretty sure I didn’t really want to have Lemons, ever.”  That sentiment played on mentally for some time before anyone spoke.
     “I bet we could probably pass them off to somebody,” some body said.
     “We should try to figure out what to do with them. We are kinda stuck with them…” I said to everyone, and no one in particular.
     Others said, “Screw that! I don’t want Lemons, I want Apples!”Apples and Lemons by Ellipsis-Imagery on Flickr
     “I do too!” I replied. “That would be very nice, but we don’t have any, so we’ll need to make the best of it. You do have Lemons right there in your hands!”
     “No. I don’t think so.  I want Apples and I’m going to go get some. I think I see an Apple tree way down in that valley. You coming with?”
     “I really don’t think that’s an Apple tree.   What if you get out there and it’s just a small Oak?”
     “Well, then we will have Acorns. We’re going!” they said, dropping a few of their Lemons on the ground, but somewhat incongruously keeping the rest.


I watched them stride away towards the indeterminate speck of a tree while others stayed with me.  I spent some time looking over my Lemons.  None of the citrus were in great shape.  They were small, a little soft, and a couple appeared to have bruises.  I was still pondering my situation when I noticed a big chunk of the remaining souls had wandered off aimlessly, practically tripping over Lemons spilled all over the ground. They appeared to be quite optically bothered. They were sniffling and mumbling to themselves incoherently, but they could barely be heard over their petulance.
No time to worry about them.
The others who kept their Lemons were already trying to find a way to relieve them of their tart juices.  I watched for a while to evaluate their process, but didn’t really learn a great deal.  There wasn’t much of a process. Just smash the things and collect the juice.  Before I knew it, there were other people coming by to offer suggestions, and containers full of the stuff were everywhere in no time at all. They were madly mixing and shaking and stirring, and spilling a little here or there. It all seemed quite promising, but it looked like that method was pretty well covered.  There had to be a better way.


Going off on my own a ways, I put my Lemons in a little pile and sat there evaluating them and the most precise way to create something worthwhile. I was setting my mind to extracting the most glorious possible thing that could come from this sour pile.  Who knows how much time passed, but after several promising, albeit ultimately faulty ideas, I finally had a plan, and it was a good one.   I kept to myself, took my time and very carefully manipulated the fruit, using only the most precise tools I could locate. I kept my focus on the task in front of me. I was very careful to not spill a drop as I collected flawless, pulp-free juice in crystal carafes.  After painstakingly collecting, I experimented with the extract to create the most perfect Lemonade possible.  It was far from easy, but in time, I had a stunning nectar with the perfect balance of sweet versus tart, a hint of blackberry essence, a whiff of fresh mint and perfect wedge of Lemon on the frosted glass with just a sprinkle of coarse sugar.  I was so proud and couldn’t wait to share my creation with any soul that I came across.


When I looked up from my creations, so much had changed. Everything was very different.
On one side, I saw a large industrial warehouse bustling with activity.  People were serving customers and stacking crates. Trucks were loaded and unloaded and new ones were arriving every few minutes.  A huge sign along the path to the warehouse advertised Lemon flavored drink mix and Lemon juice by the barrel.
To the other side I saw a massive orchard covering the whole valley, with a stream of people coming and going, picking Apples, making Applesauce and happily eating fresh Apple pie.


I watched for a while, marveling at the industries that were sprouting in the field around me, but I started to feel like I was missing out. I had this beautiful drink that I created and I was sure people would love it, but instead, they were flocking everywhere except to where I was.  Standing there with my pretty Lemonade in my hand, I wondered  why I hadn’t done something different with my Lemons or hunted down Apples when I had the chance.  I didn’t understand where I could have missed these other, clearly superior, options.  Who knows how much time passed as I pondered the people, the paths, the future and the fruit.  Well after the “right” time, I looked down at the drink in my hand and I made a decision.  The weather had changed by the time this decision came, but it arrived nonetheless.


*   *   *


The air is cold and the rain is losing its fight against the snow.  This precipitation battle doesn’t deter the delivery trucks on one side, or the steady stream of people on the other.  The smell of spices and crackling wood is wafting now from the direction of the Apples…hot cider still brings a crowd!  Cinching my scarf up tight, I pull my hat down a little further and hunker down by my own little fire.  It’s too late to change events; it isn’t a season for Lemonade now. When was the last time you saw a Lemonade stand at Christmas?  What they want is something inviting, something comforting, something cozy. I watch the crowds of people scurry by on their way to the welcoming promise of warm pie and cider, the vision of happiness practically projecting over their heads in a soft haloic gleam.   I put my feet up to warm by the fire and I bash my straw against the minty crust of ice forming on the top of my drink every few minutes.   Now and then I take slow careful sips of my Lemony liquid, savoring the complex flavor as it melts.

Waiting patiently…
…for summer to finally return.

On Quality Work

Growing up in a big family can be tough. I feel that I can say this with a bit of authority because I am one of seven children, and I feel that this numerical resume entry grants license to call myself a somewhat qualified commentator for the Large Family Channel. And, while growing up in a large family can be difficult, providing for a large family can be a near impossibility. Even in the good times, just getting by can be tough. Survival skills are tested to the max especially in the summertime by the additional challenge of keeping all those idle, wiggly youngsters occupied and out of trouble. The solution? Find some sort of work for those young ones to do.

Since my family met the above criteria, and since we were an especially wiggly lot, work for us started at an early age. My laboring career began at the age of 11 and throughout my wonder years consisted of a wide array of different jobs and tasks, and almost all of them were outdoor manual labor. I worked for multiple employers, on an as-needed basis, and most often, on or around farms. Some jobs were not fun, some of them were…for at least the first 20 minutes. Jobs such as baling hay or straw, repairing fences, cutting, splitting and stacking firewood, mowing lots of yards, raking leaves, cleaning barns, filling the clean barn with stacked hay, emptying the barn of hay to feed to cattle, and “walking beans”.

For those of you that have not had the privilege of walking beans, I can briefly explain. “Walking beans” is basically weeding a really big garden. Of course, nobody actually likes weeds, but a farmer despises weeds. The pesky plants grow in their crops and steal nutrients, compete for sunlight and water and they just plain look ugly in a nice pretty field of row after row of neatly planted crops. After the growing season they don’t stop being a nuisance; they get tangled in the desirable plants and jam harvesting equipment, adding debris to the harvested grain and lowering the sale price. All of these features of weeds make them particularly loathsome in soybean fields. They are a pain in multiple ways and the farmer wants them out, so somehow he has to weed this huge garden.

These days there are all kinds of chemicals and treatments that can be put on the field that will kill almost all the weeds for an entire season. They are dispatched with a quick spray or two from one of those monster machines you may have found yourself stuck behind on the country back roads. But, back in my day (am I old enough to say that yet?!), most of the chemicals were just becoming popularized and they were still expensive enough to consider other, cheaper alternatives. For a time, I was that cheaper alternative.

The process of walking beans is quite simple. Start at one side of the field; count out 2, 3, or 4 rows; and start walking down that row armed with your weed killing implement of choice. My personal favorite weed slaying companion was a corn knife, an 18 inch, super-sharp machete. While walking through the field with your dangerous weapon, the idea is to cut, kill or pull all of the weeds in your set number of rows on either side (without killing any bean plants) as you walk all the way to the opposite end of the field. Count out 2, 3, or 4 rows past the ones just cleared, and walk back down the field again killing more of the dastardly weeds.


Soybeans Ready for Harvest

Soybeans Ready for Harvest

Over the years, my brothers and I walked beans in fields all over the county, racking up literally thousands of acres of soybeans cleared of weeds and miles and miles of uneven ground trodden beneath our dusty boots. All of this travel had to start with a first step, and that first step was taken in a bean field alongside a couple of my brothers and sisters when I was 11 years old.

It was an already hot morning in late June and we were trying to get to the field before it turned into an unbearable summer day. We rode in the farmer’s van up to the edge of the field and tumbled out, ready to attack the weeds. But this was the first day, so we needed some guidance from the owner of the field and provider of the work.

We gathered around while he gave us some brief words of instruction. Hank was a rather quiet but upbeat man in his late-fifties, with a slower and more deliberate demeanor, but with plenty of life left in the tank. He had thinning silvery hair and walked with a bit of a hitch in his gait. I never knew what caused his limp, but to hear him tell it, I am certain it was quite the story! And quite a storyteller he was! I always liked watching him spin a yarn, embellishing and polishing until it was perfect. He lost himself in the telling, and it never mattered if you heard the story before. Hank seemed like he was spinning a yarn now, he had a big smile on his face as he told us what fun we’d be having today. However, his words were laden with sarcasm, as we were about to find out.

Hank prepared to ration out the weed dispatching weapons to each member of my familial squad while he gave the last bits of instructions. He opened the back door of the van and there were the tools. Stacked in the back of the van were freshly sharpened corn knives, brand new weed hooks, and an awesome looking weed sickle (which was actually nothing more than a tooth from a sickle bar mower bolted to a rough cut shaft of cottonwood…you may not be able to picture that, but trust me, it looked wicked). I watched as all of the coolest, or to be more accurate, the more dangerous tools were handed out to everyone but me. No corn knife for me, no weed hook, and no weed sickle, I was handed a garden hoe. Looking back, I know this was a very smart move by Hank, but at the time I was bummed and a bit jealous.

Hank counted out rows of young bean plants for the placement of each walker and after I was ushered to my assigned spot, we started down our first wave of attack. I confidently strode out into the field seeing my first weedy victim, a pigweed, a hundred feet down the row I was walking. I hacked at the plant in front of me and it tumbled down as the hoe kicked up small clods of dirt.
This was kinda fun!
On to the next one!
It did not take long to find the next target a row over, I ran up to it and hacked at it wildly. The weed fell over and a few bean plants fell with it. I couldn’t exactly paste them back together, so I ignored the mangled bean plants and just moved on to the next intended victim.

It wasn’t long before the fun of hacking in the dirt with a garden hoe started to turn dull and quite tiresome. The glee of finding the new weeds was replaced by annoyance that there were just so many of them. If it was possible, I was getting a little more careless. I had been knocking over more than a few bean plants and was sharply critiqued by my sister at the end of one round.
“You can’t go killing all the beans like that, slow down! Weren’t you paying attention to what Hank said?”
Apparently I was not. And, it wasn’t the only thing I had missed.
I replied that I would be more careful, and I did try. But as the day wore on, I started getting preoccupied by something else entirely – finishing my row first!

There must not have been enough thrill anymore in walking back and forth on a hot, humid day whacking at some plants but not others. I had to create a game that apparently only I was playing. The rules were simple. Whoever got to the end of the field first on that round did the best job, and therefore was the winner. I wanted to do the best and I kept getting to the end of my row first, but no one seemed to celebrate my bean walking domination. I was also missing something slightly important. That’s right, weeds. My sister stopped me and scolded me…again.
“What are you doing? Hank is having clean up behind you and get all the weeds you are missing!”

At first I didn’t believe her. I was doing great, I was finishing first! But on the next round when I was ahead again, just to check, I took a look back behind me. There was Hank, leaning over and cutting down a weed fairly close to my row…was that mine? I walked on some more…another look back. This time, there was no doubt, about 100 yards back, Hank was leaning down into the very row I was walking in and cutting down a weed that I should have practically tripped over. It hit me quickly; here I was playing a game with a job I was assigned while I made this man five times my age do double the work. I was embarrassed.

To be fair, I was only 11, and I don’t believe that Hank really expected that much out of me. But that was kind of the point to my embarrassment; he did not expect much and I was living up to that low expectation. Wasn’t I taught to do the best job I could? Is it fair to play a game out of something I’m getting paid for? Am I going to hell for making an “old man” do my work for me? Ok, I didn’t really think that last one at the time, but I was feeling bad, especially when he was finishing last because of my missed weeds. I resolved to do better.

Rather than run, I slowed down. I tried not to indiscriminately demolish all plants around each weed. My goal changed from getting to the end of the row first, to getting all of my own weeds. My goal was to keep Hank from cleaning up after me. By the end of the job, I had improved markedly, and even got a compliment on how well I had done. It was a lot of work, but I really felt like I had accomplished something. Rather than be off in my own world, achieving accomplishments that existed only in my own head, I had lived up to and surpassed expectations of my ability. It felt great, and really made an impression on me.

Many years have passed since then, but I do like to think that the experience helped me grow a little, and helped shape my attitude in approaching my work. Although I don’t keep this specific memory in the front of my mind at all times, every now and then I feel myself metaphorically looking back over my shoulder…just to make sure that no one is having to get my weeds.

On Inappropriate Ingenuity

This isn’t a recent story, but even though it is just a little old, I thought it would be a good thing to share as a cautionary, yet humorous tale.

It was summer, and my wife an I traveled down to Peoria Illinois for my brother’s medical school graduation. It was a great day and I was very proud of my formerly little brother on his big day. He had worked very hard for years to get through medical school, and it was great to see him pass this significant milestone. After the graduation ceremonies, the family spent time in the hotel restaurant and lounge area talking, eating and having a generally great time. In the middle of our evening, a tornado warning interrupted our celebration and the hotel staff whisked us off to a conference room to wait out the demon wind. In the end, the storms came and passed with lots of bark, and luckily, not much bite. All the excitement from the celebration and predicted doom of storm was more than we could possibly handle, and figured it was time we adjourned for the evening to spend time with our beloved sleep.

Back in our room, we began unpacking all of the things that we pretend to be a necessity for an arduous two-day journey 110 miles from home. Creature comforts that we, never quite successfully, attempt to transport from from our home-life and inject into the fabricated reality of a hotel room. After making as much of a temporary home as possible out of 350 square feet, I turned my attention to the very practiced art of the bedtime routine. Of course, this routine relies heavily on the not-so-artful practice of packing with foresight. Very quickly, an error in the forethought process was uncovered: a missing container for my contact lenses. Normally this wouldn’t be much of an issue except for the detail that the contact container was for my Clear Care lens solution.

If you are not a contact wearer, the name of this solution may mean nothing to you, but allow me to explain. One type of contact cleaning method uses two solutions. Step number one uses a mix of chemicals that remove enzymes on the lenses, and the second step uses another solution to rinse and neutralize the harsh cleaning chemicals that you use in step one. Clear Care is a one-step hydrogen peroxide based liquid that reacts in a special container over 6 hours to clean the lenses and, in the process, break down the hydrogen peroxide into oxygen and water. I’m sure you noticed the choice of the words “special container”.

Yes, it is THAT special container that I had so brilliantly left out of my “packing with foresight”. But, being the prepared, resourceful and ingenuous Eagle Scout that I am…no hold on, that should actually be Dr. Eagle Scout…and perhaps more important, it is not actually me, but my freshly graduated brother. So to rephrase with even more accuracy: being the tired, unprepared former b-average college science major that I am, I started to formulate a plan for getting this contact solution to work without it’s so-called special container!

Step one, figure out how this solution works. Here was how my brain broke it down: Clear Care is based on a low percentage solution of hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is sensitive to exposure to light and oxygen and will break down quickly when in the presence of one or both. So, therefore if this is a low percentage solution, and it is exposed to air overnight and then sunlight in the morning, it should break down some of its potency and should have a similar effect as using the special container…right?

Let me state at this point, that I’m normally not prone to this type of dangerous experimentation, but exhaustion was creeping in quickly, and I just wanted sleep. I wasn’t really thinking about how smart this was, and I wasn’t really thinking about…well I can stop there…I wasn’t really thinking. I pondered the wisdom of my idea for only a moment or two and then spent a significantly longer amount of time than that mumbling aloud about how silly it was to forget an item so simple. No matter, on to step two. I grabbed a clean hotel glass, squirted in an eighth inch of Clear Care liquid, and dropped in my sight-saving discs. This whole process took a frighteningly short amount of time to clumsily rush through. At this point, it was easy to stumble on to step three: collapse on the bed and fall asleep to whatever fascinating, albeit mildly blurry program that was playing on the History Channel.

After sleeping in for a sufficient amount of time to clear a foggy thought process, we awoke to a bright and sunny morning. It was at this point where I began to question the wisdom of my eye care plan of the previous evening. I rehashed the logic in my mind, and I had a nagging doubt if this was going to work correctly. However, I had convinced myself the night before and I was not dissuaded so easily. I approached my contacts with only slightly hesitant confidence. I fished the first disc out of the crystal clear liquid in the drinking glass where it had been lazily floating all night. I placed the contact on the tip of my finger as I stood in front of the mirror and paused a moment. “Well, here it goes!” I placed it in my eye.

It is a little difficult to describe what happened next since the descriptive timing is very skewed compared to how much time actually elapsed. It seemed as though about 10 seconds passed as I waited for my vision to adjust to the contact, but in actuality it was more like a tenth of a second before I started to feel that something may be wrong. And when I say that I could feel that something “may” be wrong, I mean that I became very disturbed by the sort of hyena-type howl filling the hotel room, while simultaneously feeling as though I had somehow managed to place only my left eye in the path of a shooting jet of molten lava. I concede that it would be very difficult to imagine what the searing pain of a volcano vomiting directly into your eye could feel like, but I still contend that it would be about as equally comfortable as what I was feeling at that moment as I hopped up and down in front of the bathroom mirror.

I believe a total of 2 seconds of jumping and howling had passed before I started frantically clawing at my eye to attempt removal of the shard of flame sticking in my cornea. At first I could not overcome my eye’s seemingly sensible instinct to clamp the eyelid shut to protect itself, but it was too late for protecting and was now just in the way, it had to come out! I finally managed to pry my eye open through the pain, but now I had difficulty actually holding still long enough to stick my fingers in to pull out the contact. Removal attempt one failed miserably, more hopping ensued. Attempt two failed, as did attempts three through ten. It seemed as though it was not only sticking on and melting my eyeball, but was burning a hole right through my head to the back of my skull.

After many painful attempts, I was finally able to wrest the offending circle of silicone from my eye and I practically threw it onto the counter expecting some sort of relief. In more ways than one, I was sorely disappointed. I did know that one of the worst things to do was rub my eye, but the temptation was impossible to resist, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t think at the time that It’d do much more damage than a magma bath. I was conscious enough to stop rubbing and remember that the best thing to help in this case was an eye wash. A little luck! The hotel had one of those high arc faucets in the small, cramped counter space that passed for a kitchenette. This gave me just enough room to stick my head in the sink and have my eye directly under the flow of water. Although the wash provided some abatement in the pain, having my body doubled over the counter with my head under a running faucet was far from my ideal way to start the day.

After about ten minutes of running water directly on my eyeball, I felt safe to retreat from the sink. At this point I felt immensely relieved, but far from comfortable. My eye was sore and throbbing a strange combination of numbness from the cold water and menthol-like burning from the caustic liquid. I could feel the veins in my eye bulging and rubbing against my eyelids, which were tender from some twenty minutes of prying, and now the whole side of my head was wet and dripping cold water down my shirt.

Then, I looked in the mirror. What I saw looking back at me was a little frightening. There was no “white” of my eye anymore, it was now completely red. I don’t mean “ow, I got an eyelash stuck in my eye and now I need some Visene” red. I mean full-on “oh my God call a priest, we have a total Exorcist possession and I can see Satan glowing in his eyes!” red.
Really…it was freaky.

I was still hurting, but after a quick trip to Wal-mart for an eye wash kit, and some more rinsing under the handy-dandy hotel room faucet, the danger was gone. The rest of the day was spent trying to hide my eye by holding it closed, wearing a baseball hat down low, wearing dark sunglasses, anything to shield my satan-eye. I had to tell the whole story several times to the rest of the family…which fortunately for me, contains several health care professionals. A couple of examinations inevitably ensued to ensure that there was no serious damage…after which everyone was free to laugh at the situation. Other than my bruised ego, there was no long term damage.

Every now and then I look back on this experience and seriously question my sanity. The packaging of Clear Care is now a little more jarring in its warnings about how to NOT use their product, and it is possible that it may have helped me avoid that painful experience. But I have to be completely honest, it’s also possible that I would have done the exact same thing. It is a little hard to say, but my little bout of ingenuity might have even over-powered the bolder and stronger warnings of impending liquid doom.
And there is where the moral of the story arises.
Even if you’re not using a Red Ryder bb gun, be careful, you can still shoot your eye out!

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