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Spinning Beach Ball of Digital Death

By Tim Hayes

You’ve seen it.  Hanging there, suspended in space and time.  Rotating, revolving, silently mocking you and your foolish plans.  Ha-ha!  Bathed in the primary colors of the rainbow, seemingly full of fun and mirth.  As if.

But you know better.  Oh, yes.  You understand.  This is nothing to toy with, even though it looks like a toy.  This mute little circle has come to hijack your day, locking up your laptop, never telling why, striking without warning, a silent assassin.  Worse, it will stay there as long as it damn well pleases.  And there’s not a blessed thing you can do about it, you Bill Gates Wanna-Be.

Computerized condolences, my friend.  You have been visited, violated, and victimized by The Spinning Beach Ball of Digital Death.

The most frustrating part of these episodes comes in the fact that they happen seemingly out of the blue.  You’re buzzing along, getting stuff done, working away, feeling good about life – and then, everything comes to a full stop.  Noooo!  Then starts the waiting for whatever circuitry or software to reconnect or repair itself.

And all you can do is stare at The Spinning Beach Ball of Digital Death.  Open another tab?  Nope.  Get out of that program while things sort themselves out?  Uh-uh.  Take a ball-peen hammer to the keyboard, or perhaps run screaming out into the street?  Maybe.

Or just shut the stupid thing completely off and start over, hoping against hope that whatever you’d been working on will miraculously reappear in a fully formed and pristine state?  Yeah, that’s probably the way to go.  Although you really don’t expect your work to come back so cleanly, do you?  Nah, didn’t think so.

Hopelessness and helplessness never make for a fun pairing.  Even so, there is much we can learn from The Spinning Beach Ball of Digital Death.

For example, life can be an unending process of handling crap you never expected, considered, deserved, or prepared for.  But you still have to think and pray and act and fake and maneuver your way through it.  Try getting fired, with a young family and a mortgage in tow.  You find out pretty fast what you’re made of in that scenario, trust me.

Some people discover peace in patience.  I have never counted myself among that lot.  But the older I get, the value of this practice becomes more apparent.  When technical interruptions occur, the temptation to fly into a rage at an inanimate object with no sentient feelings to be hurt has lessened greatly.  Now I go make a sandwich and just wait it out instead.

Stupid stuff happens.  Life isn’t fair.  Little aggravations shouldn’t blow up into big problems.  Everything works out eventually.  Everything gets done.  Let’s all just relax, okay?

It helps to think that it had been somebody’s job, somebody got paid, to invent that little ball of chromatic torture.  He or she spent days, hours, weeks, figuring out a way to let users know that something funky just happened inside their laptop – and that they would be in for a wait.

Is that icon meant to hypnotize?  To lull you into a state of dreamy nonchalance?  To have you flip the switch in your brain onto auto-pilot, so that the irritating situation becomes less irritating?  If so, it’s rarely worked that way for me.

It’s happened twice already today, and I know it will happen again.  That little jagoff on my screen, slowing me down, speed-bumping my train of thought, having a good laugh at my expense.

But that’s okay.  You do your thing, Spinning Beach Ball of Digital Death.  We have plenty of fresh bread and lunch meat in the kitchen.  Time for a sandwich.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

I Don’t Think So

By Tim Hayes

“Is this really necessary?” I asked my boss over the phone, one Sunday morning.

“Yes, I expect you in here this afternoon,” came the unmistakably unsympathetic reply.

“How about after dinner?  We’re having people over this afternoon,” I pleaded.

“The pitch is tomorrow.  We’re not ready.  Get in here as soon as you can.”  And with that the call abruptly ended.

So that evening around 5, I walked out of a house full of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighborhood friends, to drive into the office downtown – and miss most of my first child’s first birthday party.

Twenty-six years later, and it still makes me angry.  When it doesn’t fill me with shame and heartache, that is.

And the best part?  The agency I worked at back then didn’t even win the business the next day anyway.  What a waste.  What a crock.  What a mess.

At the age of 30, a young father and a brand-new member of the agency team at the time, a stinging sense of powerlessness pervaded every corner of my professional life.  Low man on the totem pole, and all that.  I was certainly on the ladder and slowly climbing, one hard-earned rung at a time, but instances like missing that special milestone birthday party really hurt.  I didn’t yet have the confidence, the track record, or the guts to say “No” to such unreasonable demands, I suppose.

But I do now.  And, damn, does that feel good.

A few weeks shy of 57 today, with nearly four decades of ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies behind me, I know that turning down unfair or time-wasting requests won’t be the end of the world.  I lost my Panic Button a long time ago.  Even as a self-employed professional for the past 18 years, I know that dry spells don’t last, not every engagement will be perfect, and good work done at a fair price always wins.

Jerry Seinfeld once said on a late-night talk show something to the effect of, “It’s so nice getting to a certain age, and just being able to say no to things you used to feel obligated to say yes to when you were younger.”  Amen, Jerry.

None of this means that I have, in any way, changed my approach to client service.  Sometimes an inconvenient obligation simply can’t be worked around, and that’s okay.  But it does mean that I’m much more confident about talking things over to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution about scheduling or deadlines or any other variable.

And people typically understand.  We’re all flexible and accommodating.  We’re all professionals who deserve to give and receive respect.  When a bump in the road comes up, being honest and asking for a fresh take on the situation has proven pretty successful, at least in my experience.  There’s always a way between people of goodwill.

Because some things should always come first, like family.  The busyness of business will always be there.  But it all seems to get done, even amid the pressures, both real and imagined.  If you need space, ask for space.  If someone you’re working with needs space, let him or her have it.  Even Christ had to get away by himself every now and then, for heaven’s sake.  Literally.

You shouldn’t have to short-change the important people in your life, in pursuit of an unreasonable, unfair, or unattainable workplace objective.  The power to stake that claim increases with age and reputation, no doubt.  But even for younger professionals, the best supervisors understand this concept and try to make it real among their teams.  And believe me, those teams will value and remember that consideration for a long time.  I wish my boss from long ago had lived by that rule.

Because I’ll be damned if I’m going to (someday) miss my first grandchild’s birthday party.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Stencils No More

By Tim Hayes

From behind the louvered doors of an inset bookcase in our dining room, my sisters and I would occasionally pull out a reference book.  Not to look up anything of interest, mind you, but instead to draw all over it.

Actually, that’s not right.  We wouldn’t draw on the book itself.  First, we’d rip a piece of notebook paper out of our school bags, place it over the cover of that book, and lightly rub a pencil point back and forth.  The book cover featured raised images, you see, and it yielded some really great stencils.

The flag raising at Iwo Jima.  An astronaut.  Abraham Lincoln.  A cowboy riding the range.  I’ll be damned if any of us can remember just what that book was called or what it contained inside, but the cover was absolute dynamite!

The stenciled images looked great.  Nice clear lines, easy to decipher and appreciate, a basic framework of a fuller picture.  If we had anything longer than the attention span of a flea, we would have colored in those stencils and finished the job.  We would have created some terrific, fully fledged, full-color portraits.

But we were grade-school kids, so it soon was on to other things.  And the stencils, impressive as they may have been, remained stencils.

This memory came crashing onto the shoreline of my consciousness about a week ago, as I attended the first-ever reunion of my college’s Journalism Department – the launchpad of my career some 35 years back.

I got to tour the new offices of the student newspaper.  Pretty plush, compared with the basement cinderblock gulag we had to work with – and within – all those years ago.  Large bound binders containing copies of every issue ever published of that newspaper lined the conference room in the new office, and a couple of us old-timers dug in to see how green our initial forays into actual journalism had been.

Pretty damn green, as it turns out.  Fluorescent lime green.  Greener than Ireland in springtime.  But we were college kids.  We were learning the craft.  And at that point in time, we had a long way to go, trust me.  I can show you the evidence, now that I know where it can be found.

As more alumni gathered at happy hour, then at the football game, and finally at a special dinner that reunion weekend, it became clear that our alma mater had done a fine job.  We had turned into accomplished professionals, some still in pure journalism, others in public relations, some in corporate leadership, others with non-profits or government, and even a handful like me as independent consultants.

But we all came from that same place.  We all had the same professors in that department, pushing, cajoling, frustrating, encouraging, molding us into capable, confident writers and thinkers.  It was those skills that enabled each of us to leave that campus and make our marks, even as all of my fellow alumni’s paths may have gotten tricky, complicated, and unpredictable along the way.

It reminds me of sitting in church during a wedding.  The reason folks get teary as they watch two young people make those incredible promises to each other, I’ve come to believe, is not because the bride’s dress shines like an angel, or because the sight of the couple’s devotion is so inspiring.

It’s because people in the congregation, especially those who’ve been married for a while, know that the two moony-eyed individuals sharing those rings and repeating those promises have absolutely no clue about what life will throw at them in the years to come.  People cry at weddings because they care, because they want to believe that the love they witness will be enough to handle the joys and heartaches sure to arrive down the road.

The wedding is the stencil.  The marriage is the full picture.

In much the same way, as we worked those long production nights at the newspaper, and struggled through classes and projects as 20-something college students in journalism, we made friends and formed the basic foundation to start a career.  We were still in stencil form, in other words.

As jobs materialized and vaporized, career paths opened up, spouses and children came along, obligations of all sorts expanded, and illness and issues arose and were overcome, the color and shading got filled in.  So much so, that by the time we all met up again decades later, we each had a much fuller, richer, more interesting portrait to share and enjoy together.

I still love my school.  I still love my Journalism Department.  And I still love my college friends.  The only difference now is that they’re so much more fascinating.  We are stencils no more.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Have We Met?

By Tim Hayes

In the late ‘90s, December posed a special challenge.  Three kids under the age of 10 and Christmas on everyone’s radar.  My wife and I would make at least one, usually two, trips to the only store that to this day can wrench me from a dream state into wide-eyed alertness at 3 a.m.

Toys R Us.  I shudder even as I type the name.

Frantic, frazzled parents and grandparents clogging every aisle.  Unwieldy plastic shopping carts slamming against display racks.  That stupid giraffe smiling at you from every direction.  Waiting for bicycles to be assembled and hoping they’d been done properly for the extra charge.  That freakishly pink Barbie section.  And the checkout lines!  Dear God, the place was a circus, a zoo, a test of character.  But we went.  Over and over again.  Every year, every Christmas, every birthday.

And now, Toys R Us teeters on the razor’s edge of bankruptcy, along with that other uniquely American retail legend, the Sears, Roebuck Company.  The Amazon effect rolls on unabated.

When you can make a few taps on a cell phone and have just about anything you want brought to your door, what could be easier?  Faster?  Better?  But, wait a minute.  Let’s think about this a little more.  Hmmm, I wonder.

Back when I first moved to college, I can remember walking down to the large communal bathroom in my robe and slippers, along with the other freshmen on our dorm floor.  There’d be a line of four or five of us, each standing at his own sink, looking into the giant mirror that ran the length of the wall, shaving before getting a shower.

The water rarely remained hot.  The windows leaked cold air into the space in winter.  It was a pretty tough way to start a day.  But guess what?  Because we had no other choice, it actually worked to our advantage in the long run.  By sharing that experience with a bunch of guys who, on Labor Day, were complete strangers, by Thanksgiving we had made some good friendships.

The secret came in being in the same place at the same time.  Going through something together.  Getting to know other people, learning how to hold a conversation, appreciating new perspectives and new points of view.  Building a society, one dormitory floor, one morning shave at a time.

I fear the value of that sort of shared experience gets more lost with each passing year.  Why go to the movies, when you can see the same picture on your pay-per-view TV at home?  Why go shopping at the mall, when you can have your heart’s desire brought to your house?  Why send your kid to school, when he or she can have a personal tutor via Skype?  Why go through the hassle and humiliation of seeking a mortgage at a bank, when you can apply on your phone and get an answer in less than a minute?  And speaking of phones, why use yours to actually call and converse live with another human being, when you can text or e-mail or tweet or post?

Why?  Because our society is forgetting how to live as human beings.  Because a generation has come of age without fully appreciating the charm and functionality and necessity of human, in-person, face-to-face interaction.

When decisions about people’s jobs or finances or education or anything else depend only on data, we’re in trouble.  Banks used to make “character” loans, based on a personal knowledge and familiarity between banker and customer.  Merchants would extend credit on nothing more than a person’s word, because people knew each other.  Do those things still happen?  Maybe, but they’re the exception now.

That impersonal veneer that seems to hang over and cling to our lives today, while convenient and easy and seemingly an advancement?  We may have to pay for it down the road in ways we can’t imagine right now.

I’m glad we fought our way through Toys R Us all those years ago.  I’m glad I shared an ice-cold shave with my dorm mates as a college freshman.  I’m glad of the hundreds and hundreds of shared experiences that have helped me and others like me learn how to survive and thrive alongside other people.

The enclosed, impersonal, online electronic life can be amazing, no doubt.  But it’s not really living.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Happy Accidents

By Tim Hayes

Dock sat, unmoving, nearly unblinking, on the spare rollout sofa bed in his sister’s cellar in Atlanta.

The ‘70s-era Sears color TV, the ones that served as a monstrous piece of furniture, complete with sharp-angled heavy wood casing and channel knobs the size of baseballs, flickered over in a corner of the semi-finished basement.  A hint of mustiness, of once and probably perpetually damp carpeting, pierced his nostrils unpleasantly.

The time was 2:30 in the afternoon.  He hadn’t budged since he woke up at 6 a.m.  Truth be told, he hadn’t slept much at all during the night either.  Nodded off for a couple of minutes at a time, maybe, then startled himself back into semi-consciousness with a jerk.  His neck hurt and the metal bar beneath that foldout mattress did a real job on his back, too.  But asleep, awake, somewhere in between – what’s the difference?  What was the point?

With no cable service connected to the talking box, Dock had his choice from a rich menu of five – count ‘em, five! – different channels.  Not that he found himself in a very discriminating mood anyway, sitting there, existing only, listening to himself breathing, wondering why.  As a result, he left the TV tuned to the channel it showed when he pulled the On button.  The local PBS station.

On the screen, some laid-back, super-mellow hippie-dippie dude with an enormous fuzzy hairdo and beard, holding a palette of paint and looking at a blank canvas before him, spoke in a soft, soothing, intensely earnest voice.  Dock heard, but barely listened…

* * * * *

>>>“Now, we take some blue and some white and maybe mix in a tiniest hint of yellow…load up your brush nice and full…and we’re going to just create a bright, sunny sky…that’s it, just let the brush become an extension of you and your positive thoughts today…”<<<

* * * * *

Jeannie never liked the cold.  She would admit that the snow might have been pretty the first time it fell each year, then it became something to dread, to have to deal with, to find ways around.  Precipitation and Jeannie never quite got along.

As she and Dock got older, the cold seemed to find its way deeper into her skin and bones each year, slowing them down, creating new aches and pains, causing them to question more and more why they still lived in upstate New York.

“You know, we ought to live someplace warmer,” she’d say every night as they slid between their crisp, chilly January sheets, with blankets, quilts, and comforters piled over themselves.  “The kids live all over the country now.  There’s no good reason for us to keep knocking around this big old house any longer, with that killer wind blowing off the lake constantly.  It was 79 degrees in Bradenton today, did you know that?”

“Hrrmmph, yeah.  G’night, Hon,” Dock would mumble, rolling onto his side, facing away from Jeannie, trying to stay non-committal about the whole thing.

* * * * *

>>>“Since we have such a beautiful sky, let’s just make some gentle hills down here…that’s it, get some brown and some red and maybe a touch of black in there, fill that brush up with color…and just swoop those hills into whatever shape you think they should be in your world…you’re in charge here…you make all the decisions…there are no mistakes in painting, just happy accidents…”<<<

* * * * *

After she slipped and fell on the ice coming out of Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, Jeannie told Dock that she’d had enough.  They needed to put the house up for sale and move to Florida that spring.  And they did.  Amazingly, the house sold in three days, but they needed time to clean the place out – you’d be staggered by how much stuff can accumulate in a house after 32 years – and find a new domicile in the Sunshine State.

Dock would do anything for Jeannie, and he knew she made a lot of sense about this warm-weather preference, so he agreed and really didn’t put up much of a fuss about any of it.

But something gnawed at Dock about the whole move.  He couldn’t pin it down.  He couldn’t even legitimately award this misgiving of his much credence.  But still, something just didn’t sit right.

* * * * *

>>>“I think this little scene we’re painting should have some water in it, so get some blue and green on that magic brush of yours, and let’s make a little shoreline across the bottom…yes, that looks terrific…now get your fan brush and some bright white on there, and just feather in some foam as the waves gently roll up onto the shoreline…there you go…what a soothing sound at the water’s edge, isn’t it?”<<<

* * * * *

They found a small, one-floor carriage home near the ocean outside of Sarasota, and moved in with their greatly reduced collection of items.  Dock had to admit, it sure beat shoveling snow and wearing three layers of clothes to go outside.  Jeannie looked so happy, and that made Dock happy too.

The two of them made friends with the neighbors, enjoyed the ocean, hosted their married children along with their spouses and kids for vacations.  They went to as many spring training baseball games as they could when March rolled around.  Their expenses seemed to go down as their enjoyment of life increased.  They became true Floridians in no time flat.  Jeannie even became an accomplished gardener, raising beautiful rows of purple coneflowers, a special flower indigenous to Florida’s climate.

That unsettling feeling he had as they made the move from New York State hadn’t crossed Dock’s mind for three full years, he thought, as he lazily cooked up some fresh salmon on the backyard grill for himself and Jeannie that Labor Day.

* * * * *

>>>“Right about here, set back a bit, we need a little house…you get the edge of your painting knife into the paint on your palette, then scrape it across to get just a line of paint along the edge, then slide the edge across the canvas to make the outline of a house…don’t worry, we’ll add some detail later…we’re just building the house now…oh, that’s a good, sturdy looking house, isn’t it?…you can create anything in the world with paint…a perfect world, just for you…”<<<

* * * * *

The local news had been talking about a storm forming out in the Atlantic for about four days now.  The “American model” said it would move just below Miami into the Gulf, maybe making landfall in southern Texas or northern Mexico.  The “European model,” however, differed greatly, with the storm – building rapidly into a Category 4 hurricane – twisting north and raking the Gulf coast of Florida.  Including Sarasota.

With three years of hurricane preparation under their belts, Dock and Jeannie knew what to do.  Up went the plywood over the windows, water and dry food got stockpiled, emergency lanterns checked and supplied with fresh batteries.  They’d hunker down and ride this one out like the other two that blew through since they’d arrived.

* * * * *

>>>”And right along the ridge, let’s put some happy little trees…get some dark green on your brush, and just let it dance downward, creating branches as you go…and let’s make a nice big tree beside our little house…”<<<

* * * * *

Night had fallen when it approached.  That cliché about a hurricane sounding like a freight train?  That’s entirely accurate.  An immense, powerful, impressive, frightening freight train.  One that wouldn’t slow down, much less stop, for two straight hours.

And the rain!  Dock learned later that more than a foot of rain – 12 inches of water – fell in a little over an hour.  That’s an inch every five minutes.  The street in front of their little carriage house filled rapidly, then began behaving like a river.  Water will always seek the lowest point, and water dumped onto a neighborhood behaves the same way.

Dock and Jeannie stayed in a central spot, trying to remain calm amid the crashing, splashing mayhem occurring just outside their front door.

“My purple coneflowers!” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.  “Don’t worry about those,” Dock responded, putting his arm around her.  “We can get some more, and your garden will look just as beautiful.”

“But I was just out there this afternoon, doing a little work around the edges of the garden, Dock.  How can things change so quickly?  So mercilessly?” Jeannie cried, as the wind and rain continued to batter away outside.

After about 45 minutes into the hurricane’s arrival, Dock actually fell asleep.  The man could nod off in the middle of a marching band.  That was one of the things Jeannie loved about him – his absolute calm, no matter the situation.  He even fell asleep as their third child was being born.  Some coach, she recalled, softly chuckling to herself.

Suddenly, Jeannie’s head snapped up.  “Oh my dear lord,” she thought to herself.  “I took my wedding ring off before I got into my gardening today.  It’s still out there – unless it’s been blown away, and who knows where it might end up.”

It was the original ring Dock presented to her on their wedding day, almost 40 years ago.  He scraped and saved for a year, working in the neighborhood hardware store near where they went to college, to pay it off.  That ring meant everything to her, because she knew that she meant everything to him.

* * * * *

>>>”So grab one of your small brushes now…we’re going to add some detail to our little tableau…it’s fun to use those big brush strokes to set the stage, but a painting only comes to real life when you get down to the details…here’s where you can tell what the picture is really saying…it’s all up to you…”<<<

* * * * *

As Dock slumbered on, Jeannie carefully stood up, walked gingerly through the living room, carefully and slowly opened the front door, saw the chaos transpiring outside, took a deep breath, and stepped out past her garden to look for her wedding ring.

It wasn’t on the lawn chair where she thought she had left it.  As violent wind buffeted her about and sheets of stinging rain lashed at her face and hands, Jeannie took another few cautious steps further away from the house.  Maybe the ring was just a few more feet toward the street.

Just then a 100-year-old, 70-foot-tall, majestic, mammoth palm tree came loose from its dead and dying root system, falling into the street and carried along on the rushing current.  Jeannie turned at the sound, her eyes wide, her voice choked, her legs frozen, her heart seized in waves of pure panic…

* * * * *

>>>”It’s so important, when painting a landscape like this, to decide what should be seen in the light and what needs to be placed in darkness, in shadow…”<<<

* * * * *

When Dock blinked his eyes open, the house felt eerily quiet.  Not a sound, anywhere.  He couldn’t believe he’d slept through a hurricane.  What a story this will make at the next block party!

He rubbed any lingering sleep from his eyes, stood up and called for Jeannie.  If he knew his wife, she was probably taking the plywood down and stacking it in the garage already.  Dock checked every room twice, but no Jeannie.  He called out her name repeatedly, thinking maybe she had gone to check on the neighbors, but didn’t get any response.

Since the landline and cell service both had yet to return, he walked next door to see if Jeannie had gone over there.  But, no.  In fact, no one had seen her since everyone headed inside prior to the storm.  The last the neighbors had seen Jeannie had been that afternoon, in her garden.

* * * * *

>>>”The best paintings have some drama to them…they make you wonder about why things look and feel and happen the way they do…they draw you in, if even for a moment…see the power you have?…doesn’t it make you feel great to know that you can control your own world, when you create?…you bet it does…”<<<

* * * * *

Dock called every police station, every hospital, every morgue in Manatee and surrounding counties.  He couldn’t believe Jeannie was gone.  Literally, gone.  Without a trace, without a clue.  The only evidence of her Dock found when the sun came up the next day was her wedding ring.  She’d placed it in their mailbox.

What did that mean?  Where was his Jeannie?  How did his life change so quickly?  So mercilessly?

His sister insisted that Dock come to stay at her place in Atlanta for a few days.  She worried that her little brother would collapse, either physically, emotionally, or both, in the aftermath of Jeannie’s loss.  And so she and her husband drove to Sarasota, brought him north, and made up the rollaway bed in the basement for him.  If Dock needed to grieve, at least he had family around to help.

* * * * *

>>>”I hope you’ve enjoyed creating this special painting with me today…keep exploring, keep trying new things, keep painting, and may God bless…”<<<

* * * * *

Dock remained in his near-catatonic state as the painting show ended on that basement TV.  He heard the telephone ring upstairs, but took no real notice of it.  His heart wasn’t ready to beat in the same way as before.  Not yet.

“Dock!  Phone call for you!” his sister shouted from the kitchen at the top of the basement stairs.  He couldn’t believe anybody of any consequence would be calling him here.  How would they even know the number?  His sister brought the cordless phone down to him.

“Is this Mr. Michael Dockerty?” asked the voice.  “Yes, that’s me.  What do you want?”  “Well, Mr. Dockerty, this is Sgt. Mills of the Florida State Police.  You’re a difficult man to track down.  I think there’s someone here who would like to talk to you.  She’s a little banged up.  She took a pretty serious bump on the head, and it took her quite a while to remember things.  Her name, for instance.”

Dock braced himself for disappointment.  He had let himself sink to an emotional depth he’d never experienced before.  He couldn’t go any lower.  Not yet, not now.

He heard the police officer hand the phone over.  His eyes closed tight, his hand anxiously gripping the receiver, he fearfully, tearfully waited for the next word.

“Dock?  Honey?  I’m okay.  I did something so stupid, Baby,” came the sweetest voice Dock had ever heard, even as he could tell she was crying a little.

He collapsed onto a kitchen chair, sobbing with relief and exploding with joy.  Jeannie.  Jeannie was alive.  “Honey, you could never do anything stupid.  Where are you?  I love you, Jeannie!”

“Oh, Dock.  I love you too.  But Dock – you won’t believe this.  I’m so sorry, Honey, but I think I lost my wedding ring.”

Dock knew that his reunion with his bride just became even more special.  They renewed their wedding vows two months later.  Jeannie can be found today back in her garden, tending to her purple coneflowers.

And Dock, for some odd reason that no one saw coming, has taken up painting.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Bell & Howell & History

By Tim Hayes

It must have been a birthday party.  Whether one of mine, or that of one of my sisters, it really didn’t matter.  We all had the same experience.

Staring into a set of blazing, blaring, iridescent super-bright white lights – eyes watering, squinting, pleading for help that remained an eternity away – we got the command from off-camera to smile and wave and pretend that this familial torture happened every day.

As if staring into a car’s high-beam headlights from three feet away was a daily occurrence.  What about lights so intensely hot that I could feel my rayon polyester shirt melting, bonding to my flesh, as the icing on the birthday cake slid onto the tablecloth from sitting too close to the solar-like temperature?  Oh, ha-ha, just another day in the living room, everybody!  Happens all the time.  Nothing off-kilter here, gang.  Not to worry!  All is well!

My folks had a great old Bell & Howell 8mm camera, way back when.  The thing weighed a ton, encased in a metal housing that could withstand a nuclear blast.  In those early days of home movies, unless you happened to be outside on a sunny day, it required a bank of heat-probe bulbs to properly illuminate the subjects, as described above.  Lucky us.

Now that I think of it, Dad usually operated the camera, positioned safely back where the temperature and foot-candle count could sustain human life.  Hmmm.  I always knew he was really smart.

Every now and then, I got sent upstairs to pull the projection screen out of the hall closet and get it ready for a show.  Dad would spool the little reel of developed film through the sprockets of the projector – another steel-encased piece of indestructible equipment – flip the switch, and away we went.

In between extended shots of little kids – girls in frilly dresses, boys in white shirts, each child squinting and trying not to go blind from the eclipse-like visual assault – we got treated to extended shots of adults gathered in our living room, waving off the camera, mouthing things like, “Oh, get out of here,” or “No, not me!”  You had to lip-read, since the camera had no way to record sound.  The colors came through nice and bright, though, thanks to those unforgiving lights, no doubt.

Nowadays, everyone has a video camera in his or her pocket or purse.  It weighs mere ounces.  It records sound and creates an amazingly rich picture.  You can edit it however you want, while walking down the street, riding a bus, playing bridge, whatever.  And then you can touch a button and anyone on planet earth with a smartphone can see it within seconds.

Such a video competes with the 1 billion-plus videos already on YouTube, and the 300,000 new videos posted every day.  So there’s no way your little masterpiece could possibly be missed or lost in the crowd, right?  Ain’t technology something?

As a father to my own family, I took plenty of videos as the kids grew up.  But my era as a cameraman still preceded the smartphone, so our memories remain locked on VHS tapes of various sizes.  We’ll have to get them transferred onto a digital platform someday, when we have the considerable funds required.  Maybe I can knock over a 7-Eleven or two and pick up some quick cash.  Barring that, the tapes sit in our basement, awaiting the day when they can spring back to Technicolor life.

Recalling the old 8mm days, though, for all the discomfort endured in creating those old movies of birthdays and vacations and picnics and Sunday dinners at Grandma’s, they sure age well.  Technology’s great, but 300,000 videos created each day seems to suck a lot of the romance out of recorded family history.  Give me the old steel-plated Bell & Howell days.

I’d love to pull that old screen out of the closet one more time, load the film into the projector, flip the switch, and share some funny moments of when I was a kid with my kids today.  My guess is, they’d get a kick out of watching a rayon shirt molecularly bond to their squinting, fake-smiling, perspiration-soaked old man when he was seven or eight.

All is well.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Eugene

By Tim Hayes

On a scorching late August morning, our high school marching band’s drum section, yours truly included, gathered under the limited shade of a withering tree at band camp, to work on our cadences – the drum patterns that the entire band marched to during parades and when coming onto or off of the football field.

Our section had a new member that year, Eugene, a happy and pleasantly plump freshman kid, eager and thrilled to have been brought into the band.  The section leader said Eugene would be playing the bass drum.  Having been in the band for a while already, I knew this would happen for two reasons.  First, Eugene was a freshman, and the big bass drum was the heaviest drum of all to carry, so this became a way for the greenhorn to earn his stripes.

But mostly, Eugene got saddled – literally – with the bass simply because he could not keep time.  The kid had absolutely no sense of rhythm.  And when the very raison d’etre for the drum section is to keep the rest of the band playing in rhythm, this might present a problem.

So we started rehearsing, and the boom!-booms! from Eugene’s corner began coming in all over the place, as he whacked away with an enthusiastic verve, like a toddler on the kitchen floor banging on Mommy’s pots with a ladle.  And with about as much skill and musicianship.

The section leader tried to guide Eugene, telling him that the bass drum had the easiest part of anybody in the whole band.  Just smack the thing for each beat, one-two-three-four.  Got it, Eugene?  Eugene said he’d gotten it.  So we started again, but ran into the same problem.  After a half-hour of this, with the section leader getting more and more angry and frustrated, and Eugene getting more and more embarrassed and anxious, we decided to take a 15-minute break.

Eugene had started walking alone, dejected, off toward a faraway bench.  I caught up with him and asked if I could walk along.  As we trod toward that bench, I suggested that we walk in step.  One-two-three-four, left-right-left-right.

“Hey, Eugene, see how we’re walking?  See how our feet are moving in rhythm?  That’s the same way you play the bass drum.  Just pretend you’re walking to the music, and play the drum along with your steps.  If you can walk, you can play.  I know it’s really frustrating, just starting out in the band, but you’re gonna be fine.  You can do this.”

In time, Eugene got better.  Or at least good enough to not be a distraction.  And the rest of the drummers took that as a victory.

Fast-forward two years.  Back at band camp on a broiling late August morning.  A senior, I had risen to become student director, standing high up on a ladder, waving my arms and leading the entire band.  This was a Saturday, the last full day of camp.  Everyone’s parents and families would be arriving that afternoon to see the main halftime show we’d been working on all week, before heading home.

As the sun slowly burned the morning mist from the expanse of grass that had been lined like a football field, it came time to rehearse the show from top to bottom just a time or two more.  I climbed up my ladder, whistle around my neck and megaphone within reach.  The band’s musicians, majorettes, flag team, and rifle squad – a 200-plus-strong collection of high schoolers – waited for my cue to start, so I blew the whistle and the show began.

Within seconds, it became painfully obvious that this was not to be our morning.  The music sounded horrible — out of tune and out of synch, entire sections missed their positions on the field, kids looked at each other like this was the first time we’d even tried to pull this off – even though we had been working on this show for six days already!

Not five minutes into this debacle, I decided I’d seen enough.  Now, this might be chalked up to one of those situations where a person becomes so enraged and emotional, so full of anger and adrenaline, that he abandons all pretense and turns into something completely counter to his normal behavior.  I like to think so, anyway, because to this day I cannot recall what happened next.

But others – including the band director and a chaperone or two – couldn’t wait to tell me.  They wanted to make sure I hadn’t blown a gasket permanently.

After screeching my whistle about 10 times, stopping everyone on the field cold in their tracks, I picked up the megaphone and went off on a full-rage diatribe, using language that sailors on shore leave might have had to look up, violently disparaging the intelligence and character and probably the families of my fellow band-mates, shocking them into silence, and warning them about the dangers of embarrassing me the next day in front of my folks.  I mean, this must have been a screed for the ages.  I almost wish I could remember it.  Perhaps it survives, hidden and forbidden, in some dark corner of my subconscious, ready to flare up and shock the crap out of me someday in the far-off future.  Can’t wait.

After emerging from that little Mr. Hyde-like mental diversion, I yelled to the assembled throng on the field that we were starting over from the top of the show, and that it had damn well better be better this time.  And it was.

Well, you can bet my meltdown dominated the conversation in the mess hall a little later.  I wasn’t sure whether I should have been mortified at myself or encouraged.  Walking back to my cabin, I heard someone coming up from behind me.  Eugene.

“Hey, Tim, that was something else today.  You sure got our attention.  But the show looks pretty good now.  We just needed to get our butts kicked, I guess.

“I bet it can be really frustrating being the student director, but you’re gonna be fine.  You can do this.”

That Eugene.  Funny how good advice can come around again at just the right moment.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

West View Days

By Tim Hayes

It came around every late May or early June.  A day of deliverance.  A day when school took a backseat, even though it fell on a school day.  The annual school picnic.

In Pittsburgh during the 1960s and ‘70s, the public school districts held their annual picnics at Kennywood Park, an amusement park that survives today.  But as for us heartier Catholic school kids, we got to go to West View Park – considered by some an inferior venue for rides and excitement, but those people were dead wrong.

West View Park admittedly did not have the size and scope of Kennywood, but for daredevil grade schoolers accustomed to dodging the 12-inch-ruler-powered knucklesmacks of passing nuns, West View had the much better roller coasters.

The Dips, for one.  An ancient wooden coaster on a simple straight down-and-back route, the Dips had a first hill that set you up for a hair-raising ride that included at least eight more high-speed, up-and-down mini-hills.  Maybe it was 10.  Or 30.  All I know is that the line to get on the Dips was worth every second.

Then you had the Racing Whippet, a double-track coaster that lived up to its name.  Taunts got lobbed over to the kids on the other train before the ride began.  Trash-talk before anybody knew what trash-talk was.  When one side pulled into the station before the other, dares and double-dares for rematches became fierce.

This was the school picnic, buddy.  Bragging rights in class the next day up for grabs, you understand.

My many years of going to West View for the picnic as a kid created some interesting memories.  Some really fun, others not so much.  Like the time riding the enclosed Ferris Wheel.

I sat in one of those egg-shaped cars that you could make spin head-over-heels as the ride itself rotated in a giant circle.  Please forgive my scientific shortcomings, but whether this was centripetal or centrifugal force at work, all I knew was that the kid across from me felt this would be a great time to toss his cookies all over that enclosed space.

As if being scrambled around like eggs in a blender hadn’t been enough of a rousing good time.  Dodging semi-digested (and suddenly airborne) cotton candy and fried chicken, while simultaneously hanging on for dear life inside a revolving steel cage?  Man, that is really living.

Of course, we had the year when my sister, bless her trusting and benevolent heart, left the day’s worth of ride tickets on a bench while she used the restroom.  Now, you might think that in an amusement park crawling with hundreds of Catholic school pupils, those tickets would have remained undisturbed.

Well, you would be gravely mistaken.  Some little thief grabbed those tickets and had him- or herself quite a day.  They ain’t all altar boys out there, Father.  As a result, I had to share some of my tickets with my sibling that day.  Ah, the vicissitudes of the school picnic.

West View Park also marks the spot where I first held a girl’s hand.  We were walking up to Boot Hill, a haunted house ride.  Trying to maintain a sweaty and awkward rookie grip, I smoothly talked her out of going on that ride and picking something better – like the Caterpillar, where the big canvas covering came over you as you rode around and around the track.  I never liked haunted houses anyway.

If you drive past the entrance of West View Park today, you’ll see a shopping center and some apartments.  The place closed down in 1977, and Catholic kids felt a troubling disturbance in the Force.  A huge pillar of our childhoods, gone.

But close your eyes, gang, and remember.  There’s our teacher over there in her civilian clothes, walking with some guy and a couple little kids.  Does she have a life away from our classroom?  Look at Sister on the merry-go-round.  Wow, she really can smile after all!

And put your hands up in the air as we hear the cars hook onto that chain, click-click-click-click, taking us up that huge hill, seconds from diving downward for the ride of our lives on those amazing Dips.  Thanks, West View.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Jack

By Tim Hayes

My parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents gathered in the modest home that Friday evening – ostensibly to celebrate a cousins’ second birthday, but really just to be together after such a shattering day.  November 22, 1963.

John F. Kennedy was murdered just after I had turned three.  Obviously, I have no personal recollection of him, his presidency, his assassination, or the national grief it caused.  JFK Jr. had turned three the very day he so famously saluted his father’s casket as it processed to the cemetery, and said later in life that he couldn’t really remember those shocking and devastating days either.

As I get older, the fascination with Jack Kennedy has only increased and deepened.  When we travel to Boston to visit with one of our children who relocated there, typically something Kennedy-related gets included in the itinerary.  I could spend days inside the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a beautiful venue on Boston Harbor with so much history and perspective.

The last time we were up there, we toured JFK’s childhood home in Brookline.  Climbing up and down the stairs where Jack and his siblings ran, seeing his actual bassinet, imagining him reading about King Arthur in his boyhood bed – just fantastic.  The U.S. Park Service maintains the house, its rangers provide the tours, and they do a marvelous job, especially during this year’s 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth.

A bust of Jack Kennedy graces my work desk.  Photos of Jack adorn my office walls.  Stickers and magnets and even a bobblehead of Jack holding a copy of “Profiles in Courage” can be spotted in and around my workspace, too.  I’ve read every biography and have collected videotapes covering the full spectrum of his life.  I can’t get enough of Jack Kennedy.

And why?  It might be that I’m an Irish Catholic, like he was.  It might be that his time in history was so packed with monumental questions of fairness, liberty, excitement, even nuclear survival.  It might be that between Jack and Jackie, the U.S. has rarely been so taken with beauty, glamour, and a youthful energy.  Talk about a full plate.  But, while all of those elements contribute to the powerful magnetic pull, I believe it comes down to something else.  Something more.

Jack Kennedy knew how to respect, elevate, craft, refine, and convey language to a degree that no one has been able to match in more than a half-century.

JFK: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

Go onto YouTube and search “JFK speeches.”  I dare you to listen to any one of them and not get bowled over by the careful phrasing, the powerful cadence, the undeniable elegance.

JFK: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”

Nixon scolded, Carter apologized, Reagan kept it folksy, Bush (both of them) kept it awkward, Clinton empathized.  Obama might have come the closest to Jack’s unique oratorical gifts, but could not surpass them.  And the current occupant of the White House?  Well…

JFK: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

As this Kennedy preoccupation of mine continues unabated, one question clouds everything else: Why did they kill him?  Imagine the domino effect of a two-term JFK presidency.  Perhaps Vietnam would not have sunk into the death spiral it became.  Bobby survives and maybe succeeds Jack.  No Nixon or Watergate.  No Carter in reaction to Nixon, and Ford’s pardon of him.  No Reagan in reaction to Carter.  It’s a fool’s errand, I know, but a riveting mental exercise nonetheless.

JFK: “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

Jack Kennedy was no saint.  Nobody is.  And I know that he had enormous help from his speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, another hero of mine.  Don’t worry, my admiration of JFK remains grounded in a realistic, factual view.  But, having said that, even with his idiosyncrasies, there’s no other leader I would most liked to have known than Jack Kennedy.

JFK: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”

Wow, he was great.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Progress Hurts

By Tim Hayes

Walking through the storied Oak Grove of Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), my college alma mater, this past week, the inevitable came to pass.

I had known this day would arrive for more than a year, but hoped against hope that it might somehow get postponed indefinitely.  But there it was, plain as day.  The Rubicon had been crossed, and we had reached the point of no return.

One of my favorite buildings, Leonard Hall, had been doomed to demolition.  Cyclone fencing had been put up around the perimeter of the three-story structure, as crews prepared to tear the old girl down.

Now, truth be told, to the untrained eye, Leonard Hall carried no distinguishing architectural wonders.  It had been built back in the 1950s on a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania budget, and functioned for nearly seven decades as a utilitarian site where thousands of undergraduate students worked their way through English classes, with the geography and earth sciences rooms in the basement, appropriately.

But for a few golden years – coincidentally the years of my undergrad career – Leonard Hall also served as the headquarters of the newly minted Journalism Department.  And that’s what made that cinderblock and redbrick building so very special to me and the other J-school pioneers of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Leonard Hall became the place where we took our first tentative steps as writers and editors.  Where we learned how journalists needed to understand the law, how governments function and tax and get held accountable for their decisions and actions, and what a glorious and terrifying responsibility that entailed.  It’s where we forged friendships and professional associations that continue today.

Plus, it stood next to Wilson Hall, where my girlfriend (now wife of 35-plus years) had most of her classes.  How perfect, for a couple of kids in love!

And now the clock ticks down to the moment when the wrecking ball swings, and that real estate gets converted into an expanded building for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.  It’s called progress.  And it hurts.

It’s just a building, I know.  It’s fallen into some disrepair.  I get it.  The well-established Journalism Department of today resides in a brand-new structure near the Oak Grove housing multiple departments from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and that’s great.  Our son, in fact, will shortly begin his senior year as an IUP Journalism major, just like his sentimental old man.

But all that doesn’t mask the fact that I wish Leonard Hall could have been renovated and saved.  Selfish?  Yeah, a little.  Impractical?  Yeah, a lot.  Emotion will always outweigh intellect, though.

It raises the question: How much progress is too much?  When does a university cross the line in sacrificing its older, historic structures to make way for new construction?  When do those decisions – while important and necessary – cause a campus to lose too much of its personality, its character, its legacy?

Maintaining that balance can be tough, especially when one of your favorite old academic halls gets the ax.  Jane Leonard, the building’s namesake, served as one of the university’s first leaders.  When she died, the people of the town loved and respected her so much that they lined the streets to watch her casket make its way to the cemetery.

In similar fashion, I’m thinking of taking a spot in the Oak Grove to watch dear old Leonard Hall meet its end, as well.  Progress hurts.  Thanks, Leonard Hall, and goodbye.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes