The Seed of Creativity

I’ve always had this independent streak… those who know me will tell you. I don’t like people telling me what I “have’ to do. I’ve found in my life that it is very seldom the case that I “have” to do anything and have always quite resented those who would impose their will upon me.

This did not bode well for gainful employment. Oh yes, my internet friend, i have been fired a time or two. What is it about people who pay you that makes them think they are the boss of you? Seriously.

So as I started to discover my creative side, started to understand that it might be the ticket to a place where I could “be my own boss” (a term that I will riff on further at another time to be sure) I realized that I needed a portfolio to start showing people my capability. Sadly I didn’t have any paying clients at the time, so no projects to show to others so I could get work… talk about a Catch 22. I felt like I was kind of stuck. I wasn’t sure how to proceed.

Fred and I talked about that very thing – having a problem and not quite knowing what the solution is.

In fact he and I talked about the Bangerter Highway here in the Salt Lake Valley quite a bit. As his occupation, Fred would purchase the land needed to build roads, Bangerter Highway was one of the biggest of his career. He smiled as we talked about the first time he knocked on people’s doors to explain that a highway would run right through their driveway in a few years…

We talked about the huge construction project that Bangerter Highway is going through right now – Fred knew quite a bit about why they were converting each intersection to be a “continuous flow intersection”.

As a driver I have wondered about these new intersections. Ok, I’ve sworn artfully as I’ve missed the left hand turn lanes that are now about a hundred yards before the intersection. Fred laughed at that – he said lots of people have described their first experience with the CFI (as he called them) the same way. They do take some getting used to.

But here’s the part that interested me. He said that the state was really having a hard time because the highway has so much volume that the streets intersecting it were backing up significantly waiting for the light to change. Then the light would have to be short to keep traffic from building on the highway… it turned into a long wait sometimes to cross the highway. People were complaining. (that is SO unlike people isn’t it?)

He said the state found the same solution that I did as a new artist. They started looking around to see what other people had done to solve the same problem. The state’s solution was found in Mexico City, and they used that model, adjusting it slightly to meet Utah’s needs, and the result has increased traffic flow significantly.

That’s what I found worked for me. A friend told me to simply pretend I was getting paid and do a few projects that I could show around.

So I watched TV a lot (it was “work” you see, research, yeah, that’s it), and I simply would find something on TV that interested me, and I’d work very hard to replicate it on my own computer. I found my creativity always crept in and altered the project so the result ended up being something of my own creation. I got my beginning demo reel, but more important I learned a great strategy…

I learned I could take a seed of creativity from someone else, but the soil of my mind always altered it and made it my own. That was a great lesson to learn early on in my career, and a strategy I still use a lot many years later.

Find a model that’s worked for someone else in a similar situation.

Adapt it to your situation.

Liberally apply your own creativity–and you have your own unique creation that solves your problem in a way that perfectly suits you.

It works for highways.

It works for careers.

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Hidden Strength

You know what they say about when you “assume”? I hope I’m not the only person on this planet that slips into assumption mode from time to time…

For example, I had some pretty major assumptions when it came to “carbon fiber”. That term just conjured up invincibility to me. I swear I thought if something is made out of carbon fiber it’s bullet proof – nearly indesctrucible.

So imagine my glee when I finally bought a carbon fiber tripod! Now my camera could rest securely on the toughest material known to man! Well, that’s what I told myself, that’s how I justified the outrageous price tag. At the time I was shooting lots of architectural images for a great client, so I looked forward to the day I’d actually be able to put it to use.

The day came and it was a glorious day – I opted to ride my motorcycle. I strapped the camera bag and tripod to the back of the bike and headed out onto a freeway that was very packed and moving fast. An hour later I stopped at my destination and the tripod was gone. I was mad because I would be missing the good light as I went back to find it, would have to return on another day, but I had to have a tripod. So I turned around and started scouring the roadway for my discarded tripod.

It never occurred to me it would be damaged. My assumption of strength gave me false hope.

it wasn’t damaged, it was obliterated. The largest piece I found was the size of a house key. And with that, my assumption of strength was shattered like a carbon fiber tripod hitting the freeway…

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Meet Katy. I’ve known Katy for a long time – in varying degrees…

In high school she was a friend of a friend – I’d drop by her house occasionally. Small high school, small church group, we sort of ran in the same circles.

Then she showed up in my beginning photography class decades later. This lady had some chops when it came to photography, and even after the class we would talk now and again – Facebook kept us in touch.

And finally she helped me with a shoot as my photo assistant. I get a lot of people that want to tag along and see the magic unfold. I’m quite certain if there is any magic it’s all hidden very well and difficult to find, but I always appreciate the additional energy on a shoot, and the help bouncing the light around to make fun images.

So I’ve been around Katy. I know her. She’s in my phone list, I’m in hers. We’ve talked, learned, and worked together on many occasions. I assumed I knew her.

Then in a conversation I learned one fact that still amazes me. Katy was born deaf. I pride myself on being pretty observant – granted I do have my blind spots – but this one fact had completely escaped me.

As I sit here at type this I’m still having a hard time believing it. She’s so… normal. I talk, she responds, we misunderstand and restate and find common ground and it’s just… so unremarkably the same as the way I communicate and build relationships with other people in my world.

But upon further questioning I find that she started at a school for the deaf at 18 months old, that she’s completely deaf without her hearing aids, that she compensates by reading lips…

The more I learn the more I realize I’ve assumed. The admiration I have for this woman turns into awe. I’m humbled.

Another assumption shatters like a carbon fiber tripod…

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Speed Hurts

I wonder who coined the term “the dog days of summer”. I wonder what they meant by it. I know what it means to me – it’s those days in August where the mercury hovers around the 100 degree mark (37.8 celsius), those days when you can see the heat shimmer off of the asphalt, when the allure of summer has long passed and the prospects of going back to school actually seem like a good thing…

The sun was setting on one of these dog days in the summer of 1979, and I was talking my buddy into letting me try riding his motorcycle. I had never driven a clutch I had confessed, and he had me believing that it wasn’t that hard and I just might be able to do it.

The one condition was he had to go with me. Now I have to admit at this point I see no logic to him wanting to be on the back of a motorcycle the first time I ever drove one, but he did, and off we went.

How can I describe this experience to you? It was religious. A life changing, transformative experience… one that I can feel to the very core of me as I try to convey it to you. Oh man was it amazing!

The hot air blowing past my face, the blur of the weeds along that country road as we flew… yeah, that was it… it was like flying. The clutch was no problem, I had the knack in no time.

We were flying fast! In no time I realized I was going 115 mph (185 kph) and my buddy was screaming for me to slow down. I laughed as we approached the bridge over one of the many irrigation canals, drunk on the speed and magic of the moment…

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All of this came to me as I talked with Chris. He and I were talking in a parking lot, I had mentioned that his car looked faster when it was parked than mine did while it was moving. He was obviously proud of his car, and assured me it was fast–very fast.

Maybe too fast.

He bought the car, a 2006 Mustang, when he was 17 and the car was brand new. He told me with pride that he was 8 payments away from owning it. Then he smirked and laughed and said “that would be funny if I paid for my car and lost my license to drive it”.

He lives about 45 minutes away from his work, and tries to drive it in 30. Well, the tickets have piled up over the years. First his license was suspended for a month, the next time it was three. He told me that if he gets one more ticket they will suspend him for a year. Then he looked at me very seriously and assured me that wasn’t going to happen…

And I thought about that day in 1979, as we approached the bridge, me laughing out loud at my buddy screaming for some modicum of sanity…

That’s when we passed through the cloud of gnats, hovering above the road in the moist air around the canal. Millions of needle picks peppered my entire body – my t-shirt was small protection. The pain I remember most was the gnats hitting the back of my open mouth… I slowed down, I had to. Coughing and choking and sputtering I learned then what Chris is learning now…

Speed is a rush, but speed can hurt.

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A Tiny White Elephant

I’ve been thinking about gifts that aren’t exactly welcome. Like a white elephant. I’ve heard that in India a white elephant is sacred, so if you are “blessed” with one you can’t make it work, but you have to feed and care for it. All the work, none of the pay off.

That’s a serious pet– and a perfect gift for your favorite enemy.

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Whitney came home from college this year with a little smaller gift. Somewhere along the way she had picked up a kitty. It was SO cute, she had to bring it home.

Mom was not amused.

As Whitney is telling this story to me, she keeps cupping her hands and placing one over the top of the other, her eyes softening as she remembers how cute and soft and small this cat was. It was all alone, nobody to care for it. She simply had to adopt it.

But mom was pretty adamant that the cat could not stay. So Whitney took it back to where she found it, put it down and went back home.

Soon the kitty was there again.

She tried several things, but the cat just kept following her home.

So she did what most people would do… wait a minute… she did what nobody would do!

She drove into a neighborhood and found a house. She could see the woman that lived there through the window playing the piano and singing. So Whitney went to the front door, opened it slightly, dropped the kitty inside, quietly shut the door, and drove off.

Yeah, I never would have seen that coming either…

Whitney gave a gift of something that was near and dear to her heart. I can hardly imagine the puzzlement that went through that lady’s mind as she’s sitting there playing the piano, in her secure house, and a kitty walks in…

A tiny white elephant. But a white elephant just the same.

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The Image of Fear

Isn’t the mind an interesting thing? One of my guilty pleasures in the past was a show called Fear Factor. It was always amazing to me how one contestant would be covered in rats with a facial expression like she was in the library while another contestant was freaking out just watching it. I can only pin the difference between the two to what is going on in their minds.

When I was 6 my dad brought home two cardboard refrigerator boxes and put them on the back patio for my sister and I to use as forts. My sister immediately started talking about how she would come over to my fort to have tea parties and I would come over to hers for tea parties… well the budding “man” in me was not going to have any of that.

Dad gave us each a box of crayons to decorate our forts with, so I took a preemptive strike and decorated my walls with all manner of scary things – things no girl would EVER want to have a tea party in the presence of. Ghosts, vampires, graveyards, and all manner of skeletons covered every square inch of the interior of my fort. I was sure the trauma of my terrifying images would be enough to keep my sister and her girlish parties away for good!

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Arlene had a traumatic experience at the hand of her high school biology teacher. Arlene was late for Biology just about every day – you see the class she was coming from was as far away from biology as you could get and still be on the high school grounds. So everyday she would come in late, and every day her teacher would give her a warning. He simply told her if she continued to be late she would be sorry.

Then finally the day of the undefined punishment arrived. The teacher took her to a back room, flipped on the light and took her in. There where three tarantulas in cages on a shelf in this small closet, and while she was looking at them in revulsion, the teacher stepped out, locked the door, and turned off the lights.

Arlene screamed and pounded and clawed and scratched against the wood door, but she stayed in there the entire class period–terrified of the images trapped in her mind.

When the teacher came and let her out, her hands were bloody and bruised, her face streaked with tears. She fell into a sobbing heap on the floor and was sent home from school to recover.

I’m not sure she has recovered yet. As she told me the story I could see the strain in her hands. She clenched and unclenched her fists and the emotion coming from her told me this was still a very alive emotional memory in Arlene’s life.

In my mind, of course, I was sure this experience wouldn’t reduce me to a jumbled mess. The spiders were in covered cages, they weren’t going to get her. I was sure it wouldn’t have the same effect on me. Surely not. Surely my calm analytical mind would carry the day…

Of course I never went into my fort again. I was terrified of that place.

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Hot Wheels and Ph.D’s

You know, sometimes life just hands you something good. Right out of the blue… SMACK… something so amazing that you can’t even imagine it until it happens.

Like one day when I was walking to school – wonder if that was the third or fourth grade – and there, laying on the ground in front of me was not one, but two Hot Wheel dragsters. A white one and a blue one! Man I loved those cars. As I think back on it now I wonder if it was the cars or the completely surprising and delightful way those cars came into my life that made them so special to me.

Phyllis had a day like that a couple of years ago too.

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I met her in a place where time seems to have stopped. I swear it’s like stepping back 45 years walking into this place. The first thing I’m aware of is the 12 bowling lanes in front of me, they almost have a yellow tinge to them, like looking at a warmly nostalgic photograph. The smell of hamburgers on the grill is faintly in the air, and I’m surprised to see how many people are in the grill area at noon on this summer weekday. Behind the counter there’s two TVs. One that is the exact TV we had in my living room when I was a kid. It’s obviously dead, but a newer set sits next to it. The Cartoon Network is playing on it’s yellowed screen–a 5 or 6 year old boy sits on a stool in front of it, watching with his back to us.

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Phyllis is there, asking us what size shoes we need. We find out that the boy is one of her many great grandchildren.

Her dad bought the place back in the early 60’s, and ran it for a few years. Then he got tired of the harsh Utah winters and started heading for Arizona for half the year… he left Phyllis in charge during those times. When he got older he simply gave the bowling alley to her. She’s been here ever since. “What else would I do with myself?” she asks as she hands us our shoes.

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I notice a photo of her in graduate robes on top of the TV (the one that doesn’t work) and ask her if she’s recently graduated from college.

She smiles proudly and tells me that she did, back in 2009. I congratulate her warmly, happy to hear that she’s one of the non-traditional students working late in life to fulfill a dream.

Oh no, it’s not like that at all she tells me. One day in the spring of 2009 a man came in from UVU and asked for her by name. He told her that they wanted to give her an honorary doctorate degree. She thought that would be ok so a few months after than she attended their graduation and they gave her one, Phyllis tells me matter-of-factly.

Surely there’s some great lifetime volunteer effort she’s been a part of, some small on-going thing that the bowling alley has done to promote education, SOMETHING that would bring her to the attention of the university… they don’t just hand these things out to anybody… do they?

If she’s done something remarkable she’s not telling. I pushed and redirected and asked several times to try to get her to tell me – but she insisted that they simply had the degree that they needed to give to someone, and she was chosen. That’s all she knows. The real honor for her was she accepted it the same year they gave one to President Monson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She thought that was pretty cool.

Yep, sometimes life just drops some pretty amazing stuff on you.

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Appreciating the Fringe

It was a hot summer night in July, probably 1977, and my best friend Steve and I were laying on our sleeping bags close to the cherry tree in my backyard. We had been laying there looking at the stars and talking about deep subjects related to the universe, space travel, and girls, Silence had taken over and we were just about to drift off.

In that moment I remember suddenly being completely aware of the smell of the grass, and for a moment I lay there staring up at the universe contemplating how different my experience with that yard was from my fathers.

I knew where the holes in the lawn where that would make the mower dip and cut the grass too short. Every time I cut the lawn I had to trim the grass along the edges with hand trimmers, so I knew about the spot in the retaining wall that had been broken decades before. I would always find earwigs scurrying for cover as I cut the grass away from their hidden cave.

And I knew the smell. I loved when my friends and I would wrestle in the grass, the smell of the warmth and earth and sweat all mingled with the grass as we would struggle for momentary dominance in the scuffles of youth…

I loved the coolness of it in the evening as my friends and I would gather after a rousing game of kick-the-can, and sit around cooling off on the lawn…talking about the important things of our youth… jockeying for the attention of whatever girls happened to join us that evening…

My dad rarely left the sidewalk. To him it was a decoration for his real estate investment. It was the fringe between him and the asphalt. Or the carpet he would walk across to get to his garden….

I think a lot of things in life are like that though.

Highway 24 in Idaho slashes southwest from Minidoka to I-84. It passes through Rupert on the east side, mere blocks away from the old town center. Thousands of cars pass through that part of the highway every month, few find the town center, and I wonder how many of them appreciate Rupert the way Shelly does.

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Shelly comes from a family of nomads. She told me about her grandfather who bought a 1,000 acres of land in Canada for a penny an acre. In the summer he would move his family to Canada and plant that land, work the land and work on building a home, harvest the crops and move back to Illinois for the winter. He did that until the house in Canada was built many years later as I remember it, and then settled his family there.

Shelly was born in Canada, but her parents divorced when she was young and she went with her dad. He sold potato harvesters, a traveling salesman, so the nomadic life was the life Shelly lived.

Well it’s not too much of a stretch to see how a potato harvester salesman and his kid would wind up in Rupert, Idaho. I’ve driven through a hundred miles of potato fields to get here. When it was time for dad to move on, Rupert was the place Shelly finally decided to put down roots and grow.

My family and I went to the July 4th celebration at her invitation, she’s part of the planning committee. She laughs as she tells us about the lawnmower races she’s organized this year – she seems surprised that it’s such a hit with the local people. She laughs as she tells us the stands were packed.

She is on other planning committees too… but her love for Rupert goes beyond the “loving what you serve” that I talked about a few blog posts ago. As she and I and my family talk I can’t put my finger on it.. Honestly, a lot of that has to do with the fact that she’s a non-stop talker. Shelly’s excited about life, and has a million stories to tell, and she keeps them coming in rapid-fire succession… even my 16-year old is laughing and engaged in this conversation. We laugh and talk and get to know each other as the sun sets into the western sky. We were sure to see lots of fireworks on our drive back to Utah…

I’ve had a month to think about it now, about what is different about Shelly’s appreciation of that place. I think there might be some magic to the act of choosing. When you’ve grown up in a family that has moved constantly, and you finally choose, chose THIS place to find your lover, have kids, build a family… This is the place where no matter what you will find a way to make it work… well I think that’s a little different than “born and raised and this is where I ended up staying but it’s a pretty good place”.

Here’s what I’m sure of. Shelly loves Rupert. It’s contagious. By the time we were done with dinner and our fun conversation with her, we loved Rupert too. It had already started feeling a little more like home. We felt welcome.

We found that Rupert is much more than the place you have to slow down on highway 24, more than the fringe between Minidoka and the freeway. I’m happy that Shelly took some time to help us see Rupert for the great town that it is.

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Happy Everything!

Have you ever considered your talents? How very odd and unique and wonderful a compilation they really are?

For example, I was born to racquets. I know, odd huh? My grandma used to tell me, EVERY time I saw her, about when I was four and I’d bring her a badminton racquet and a birdie. I’d make her throw it to me and when I’d miss hitting it I’d tell her “you missed grandma!”. I know, darling huh?

In high school I played on the tennis team. I loved it. Number one seed my senior year. I know, I know. Darn impressive.

But every day after school when the weather permitted we’d be out there bashing the ball. I love the rhythm of warm up, kah-whap…. kah-whop…. start that racquet down low, accelerate the head quickly, catch that ball on the rise and end with the racquet high over my head… watch with satisfaction as it clears the net by six feet and the topspin starts to take effect bringing the ball down right into the middle of no-man’s land… kah-whop… my opponent hits it back… brings a smile to my face. That is fun.

You know, as fun as that is, it’s never really translated into a practical use in my life. I can’t tell you that I’m a master framer on a construction site because I’m so good at swinging a hammer too… nope, never could get the hang of hitting that nail with the head of a hammer… It’s just racquets and balls – I just seem to have been born with the ability to really punish an opponent with a racquet and a ball…

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However you don’t have to be around Lori for very long to see that the talent she was born with has become her life. Lori loves people. Wait, that doesn’t quite do it. Lori. LOVES. People. Hmmm, needs a bigger font.

I’m sitting in the Wayside Cafe waiting for a friend. You know when you’re driving down the freeway and you see a giant sign off of the exit that says “EAT”? Yeah, it’s one of those places.

……………….Digression………………

Ok, seriously folks. How many times can you eat at a national chain before your mouth just gets so bored that it wants to die. Sure you know that sandwich is going to be EXACTLY like the sandwich you had back home and it’s going to be delicious… but seriously… how fun is that?

When I travel, when I want to meet the real people that make a place special, I go to the place one of the local people owns. Not only do I make amazing friends in these places, but I eat amazing food! My mouth is NEVER bored.

So I know you drive past an exit and see the “EAT” sign in the distance and snigger and turn the other direction to eat at the Wendy’s that’s also part of a gas station. I’m telling you, as your trusted blogger friend, you’re missing out. Oh sure, there’s probably a great person working at Wendy’s with a great story… but the food! This digression is about your mouth and it’s happiness.

Ok, sometimes the food isn’t that great. But LIVE a little! The whole point of travel is to do something different, to enjoy the journey. Eat at places owned by the local people, and talk to them while you’re there. It always makes the journey better.

…………………………………………………

Lori brings me a lovely beverage to enjoy while I wait. I’m cool, I’m relaxed, I have my favorite beverage, I’m set. What I witness is… hmmm, kind of at a loss for words here…

Have you gone to a symphony where the featured artist does things with a violin that goes right to your heart? Leaves you with tears in your eyes?

Have you watched an amazing athlete rise from the foul line, flying over the traffic of the key, to hammer a dunk home?

Have you looked at a painting and felt that you understood exactly what the artist was feeling when she created it?

Watching Lori is kind of like that.

You think I’ve overstated, but I haven’t.

Lori is an artist.

First there’s the way she moves. It’s effortless. Refilling drinks, wiping a spill, gliding through the door with five plates balanced and a customers check in one of her hands…

But on top of that, on top of the physical motion that reveals decades of experience, there’s her caring.

She knows the older couple sitting by the window are on their way back to Oregon – she knows their kid lives there and she knows his name. She hands them the check and tells them to travel safely. I believe she means it because she hands them a little treat for the road, something in a box that they must have said they loved.

She glides over to the next table, a coffee pot has appeared in her hand, as she refills the two men’s cups she talks to the four year old girl that is with them. She compliments the girl on her hair, and finds that one of the men did it for her this morning. She is genuinely touched by this and as she glides away from the table there is a little girl who loves her dad more for making her hair pretty, and there’s a man who is slightly blushing as he feels pride for caring for his daughter…

And it’s repeated over and over. Every table she knows just what needs to be said to make the people glad they are here, glad they are alive! I know, it sounds fabulous and over the top, but I’m telling you it was like watching an master performance of skill and grace and absolute caring.

A man walks in and kind of stands there, grinning and bashful. Lori sees him and glides over and gives him a huge hug. She wipes tears from her eyes and exclaims “what has it been? Ten years? More?”. The man mumbles that it’s been eleven, and Lori welcomes him home. She knows his name, she knows where he likes to sit, she remembers how he likes his coffee. It’s been ELEVEN years since he was in last!! I’m witnessing amazingness on a level I haven’t seen.

My friend comes, we eat and talk and I enjoy her company, but I keep my eye on Lori. It never stops. She is a graceful whirlwind of charm and service and food. She glides by my table and drops a check – she winks at me and says “don’t touch that yet!”. She’s back in seconds with a stamp and a stamp pad. She stamps the back of my check and says “I used to wish people happy birthday, but why just limit it to one day?” She lifts the stamp and I have to smile.

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I’m lucky I stopped by the Wayside. I’m lucky to have met Lori. I talked with her, I know her story. She’s been a waitress at Wayside for 27 years, she left for a while to run a convenience store, but the owners begged her to come back. Made her a partner. Yep, they know she’s cool too.

To me, her actions speak for themselves. Lori is an amazing person.

For what it’s worth – I’d go back just for the food, in fact I did! Wayside Cafe off of the Rupert Exit under the EAT sign. If you get a chance, go meet Lori. You’ll be glad you did.

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If You’ll Have Me, I’d Like To Serve

My wife and son and I are circling the parking lot. Still no parking places. People around us are getting desperate and parking in ever increasingly creative ways, but I’m sure we’ll find a parking place soon, so we circle again. Besides, I see park rangers circling the parking lot too. I’d prefer not to get a ticket on this trip…

We are at Dierkes Lake in Idaho. One of the readers of People Story Network has invited me to her family picnic. I’ve never met her, I’ve never met her family, but I’m here to eat their food and meet some great people. If I’m completely honest I have to admit it feel a little awkward as I pull into the parking space we finally find and get out of the car to walk into the mass of people that are here for the 4th of July. I’m not even sure what my hosts look like and there are a LOT of people here. But my wife and kid are with me, someone has to be brave, so I smile and tell them it’s an adventure and we walk into the park.

One of the first people we meet is the grandfather of this clan. I think I remember correctly that he and his wife have ten kids, only five are here with their spouses and kids, but it’s a mob. I’m being introduced right and left with no hope of ever keeping all the names and faces straight in my head… but there are lots of smiles, there are cute girls for my boy to talk to, and there’s lawn chairs spread in a circle under the shade of a giant tree.

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As I’m introduced to Jerry he’s hustling around trying to get the burgers ready for us. He knew we were coming, but they aren’t quite ready. He pauses for a moment to shake my hand. His clear blue eyes meet mine and he smiles easily as he shakes my hand. I’m sure he’s glad I’m here and I feel welcome. He’s tall and lanky, and the strength of his handshake tells me he’s not a stranger to hard work, although I never did hear what he does for a full-time living…

He asks if I like pineapple on my burger. I liked him plenty already, but that question makes me like him more. There’s something about the way he asked that… yep, I like this guy.

I catch up with him later and we sit under the tree and talk for a long time. He tells me lots of stories, some that broke my heart, and he hears a few of mine. It’s an easy conversation that flows from one topic to the next. It’s good to be in this place.

Right out of high school Jerry joined the Marines. He just wanted to serve his country he said. So off he went for four years to see the world, more of some of it than he’d like, but he did what he said he was going to do and four years later he was back in his home town in the general store buying some bait with a couple of his buddies…

His Mormon bishop was in the store and came up and shook Jerry’s hand. He asked Jerry what he was going to do now, and Jerry said “go fishing”. His bishop told Jerry that he’d like to talk to him about becoming a missionary for the church. Jerry pauses telling the story here, smiles and shakes his head and adds as explanation “I was standing there in my t-shirt with all of my tattoos showing, an earring in my ear, the last thing I looked like was a missionary”.

Jerry was intrigued and pursued this new opportunity. Soon he found himself in Salt Lake City talking to one of the leaders of the church. The leader asked him if he wanted to go on a mission, and Jerry replied “if you’ll have me, I’d like to serve”.

The way Jerry is telling me the story, he’s highlighting all the parts that he thinks are funny, and are amusing to him as he thinks back on his life. The line “if you’ll have me, I’d like to serve” is not one of these things. It’s really just a parenthetical detail that he skips over to get to the next big highlight in his narrative. But it sticks with me. I can feel it sink into my heart and it stays there as he continues…

He served as a missionary for his church in New England for two years, and came home. Once again he finds himself in the general store and a couple of his buddies are telling him about life in the reserves. Jerry is sure he can’t serve, but goes and talks to a recruiter and finds he has a few days left in his eligibility to sign up for the Air National Guard. He signs up and serves 17 more years before finally retiring.

There’s that word again “serves”.

I sat there and talked with Jerry for a long time, and left completely impressed with what a genuinely good guy he is.

As I’ve thought about the few hours I spent with this amazing family, I find it interesting how much that question about wanting pineapple on my burger affected me. I was so impressed by such a simple question. Was it the way he said it, was it… I just couldn’t figure it out.

Now as I sit here typing this I realize the two statements I remember best from Jerry are related. “Do you want pineapple on your burger” and “if you’ll have me, I’d like to serve”. This is a guy who likes to be of service. I think back on the kindness that he showed to everyone at that picnic – some where his family some where not – but he was there to make sure they enjoyed their day.

I think back on many of the stories of his life that he shared with me. The theme of “service” came up over and over. Jerry has a big heart, and he likes to help those around him. I’m sure of it.

“If you’ll have me, I’d like to serve”. I think I’ll try to work more of that into my life. I’d like to be like Jerry when I grow up.


POSTSCRIPT:

People Story Network continues to bless my life. What an amazing thing to be invited to a family picnic with a family I’ve never met, and to feel that welcomed. All three of us had such an amazing time as guests of this amazing family, and I learned so much from the people I talked to in those few hours. I started this People Story project pretty sure that people are good, that the vast majority of the world is simply people that are trying to be happy the best they know how.

People like the Wells family let me know I am right. These are great people. Thank you to you all for a great day.

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Mom’s Bed

All around me children are staring. They have been forbidden to make noise by the teacher, but still there is mocking in their eyes. The first grade teacher of my new school has reprimanded me in public for not following instructions I didn’t understand. It’s not my first day here, but I am still quite new to this school and I still feel like a stranger. I feel like I don’t belong.

My mind wanders away from this hostile environment and seeks a place of safety. A place of comfort. I return home and sit on the couch in my mind. I lay on my stomach and feel the texture of the fabric on my cheek, and I look up and watch my mom ironing. As she sprays her spray bottle I can smell the steam, the starch, the heat of the iron as she sets it down to arrange the shirt so the sleeve is ready to be pressed… I am safe. My body is still at school, but for now I am here. I am safe.

As Aisha and I were talking I asked her about the home she grew up in. Her eyes got that same look I imagine mine had all those years ago. In her mind she’s traveling back to Miami. To a tiny apartment where she grew up…

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The golden light of a fading Miami summer day is spilling into the small apartment where Aisha and her family live. To her this is no small place, it’s her palace, and she loves it here. She and her brother begin the nightly tousle, jockeying for position hoping to get to the bedroom they share with their mom first. If they are there first, they might get to sleep in her bed with her. They run down the hallway, golden in the fading light, toward the bedroom. The french doors have been left open hoping for a breeze to blow through in the hot summer evening… she loves those doors. They remind her of open airiness, a hint of the style and charm of that place she lived. Aisha loves those big open doors.

Sleeping in mom’s bed is the ultimate luxury in Aisha’s small world. Mom’s bed is near the window, and catches the slight breezes of the night. It’s cool there, and a softer bed than hers. But more than that, it’s safe. Mom is there close, breathing in the warm night air. The safety and love of this woman seems to surround Aisha when she sleeps there. The tumult of the city just outside of the open windows seems somehow to become a lullaby, safe in the protection of her mom’s bed, all is right with the world.

But this night mom wants to sleep alone. Aisha trudges back down the hallway to the kitchen. She gets a cup of ice, pours water in it from the sink, and pads back down the hallway to her room. She carefully climbs to the top bunk, her bed, and pours the cup of ice water onto her pillow. The coolness of the water will keep her comfortable so she can fall asleep.

As she drifts off she can hear the sounds of the city around her. The smells of latin food drift in, and somewhere in the distance she can hear music playing – maybe there’s a dance tonight. She thinks of the tarot readers and the people still working at the farmers market, and the noise of the city becomes a murmur as she drops off to sleep.

Aisha drifts back to me and smiles. The peace on her face fades as she comes back to the place we are. She moved to Utah when she was 11. She and her mom still miss it in Miami, miss it terribly. Both would love to return, live in that same place, go back to the way it once was.

As Aisha and I finish our chat, I walk to my car. As I get in I could swear I can smell steam coming off of a hot iron.

 

Describe your safe place.  Either now or when you were a kid – leave a comment and let us know where you go when the world is a little too rough for you.

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