Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ditching My Son in the Amazon

Most sixteen-year-old boys should be sent off to military school until they’ve reached eighteen and are a little more mature. Sixteen is that awkward age between childhood and manhood; a time when their hormones are bubbling up and yet their brain hasn’t quite grasped its significance in their young lives.

Now send a sixteen-year-old down to South America on his own (actually part of a school field trip) and the equation changes even more. Leave him there for two weeks before joining him and you’ve got a stranger on your hands. He’s having a blast until you become his reality check back to the real world. It can be a hard adjustment for both of you.

Two weeks alone with a wealthy and lax family in Quito, Ecuador was enough to turn my son Brian into Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Tom Clancy all wrapped up behind the disguise of a high school sophomore, varsity wrestler, chess captain, honor student and overall macho man.

By the time I got to Quito, Brian had morphed into a self-reliant, somewhat self-centered young man. Probably very typical of any sixteen-year-old boy ‘literally’ on his own for the first time in his life.

Loosely organized by one of the teachers, the trip was supposed to introduce these sophomores from several area high schools to the cultural and geographical wonders of Ecuador and the Amazon. Yeah, not so much. But they did have a lot of fun.

Quito, formally known as San Francisco de Quito, is the capital city of Ecuador. At an elevation of 9,350, it is the highest capital city in the world. It’s a strange mixture of new buildings and old. New wealth mingling with extreme poverty. All of this surrounded by the magnificent Andes Mountains.

Once I arrived in Quito with several other chaperones, we were dispersed to various hotels until our bus left for the Amazon several days later. Brian became my city tour guide and all-knowing advisor whether I wanted it or not.

I’m not about to wax poetic about both my two kids. They were normal, healthy, active kids who acted like normal teenagers…much to my chagrin at times. This trip provided the perfect storm for this young man on the loose…until Dad came into town.

Attitude is a strange thing. Adults can sometimes hide it but kids usually don’t do so well. Brian was feeling very independent and not sure how to express it. So he did what a lot of other kids would do in a similar situation at home; ignore their parents and play the independent role.

At first I was amused by his new persona but after a couple of days it got very old.

By the time we got to some frontier town bordering the Amazon rain basin, Brian had shunned entirely me for his buddies and hanging out with them. He ignored me on the bus. He did all the typical, normal things most self-centered, self-absorbed young men do, especially in the company of young, amorous girls on the hunt.

At that point in the trip, I was ready to swap my little munchkin to some headhunter for three chickens and a goat. But frankly, what other parent hasn’t had to deal with an incident or two when their good kid was just acting like a little shit? No difference here.

An adjustment was needed. So I convened a ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting. The three of us sat down and discussed his attitude and lack of sensitivity. After all three of us had our say, Brian got his act together and it was never an issue after that.

Once we were out of Quito our transportation was quickly reduced to using the local long-range bus system. Built for stamina and very rough roads, these transportation dinosaurs could do the distance. But creature comforts were left back at the station. The buses were built for the locals, which meant that if you were over five feet tall, your head would bounce up against the roof every time the bus hit a pothole or rut in the road. It happened a lot!

The seats weren’t much better. They may have worked for high schoolers but not grown adults. Stationary crunches became the norm once we found our seats. We were cramped and close together. Some of the boys weren’t complaining, especially if they landed next to a pretty girl. As an adult, I sucked in my gut and put on my happy face. There was no room for our luggage inside so it all went on top of the bus. If it rained, everything got wet. Our luggage got wet…a lot.

Traveling down to the Amazon rain basin from mountainous Quito entailed harrowing bus rides on dirt roads that simultaneously hugged mountainous cliffs on one side of the road and sheer drop-offs on the other. Not for the faint of heart or those with altitude problems. Fortunately our attitude issues were long since forgotten and Brian and I spent a fair amount of time, hanging our heads out the windows for the view.

River crossings were always interesting, especially since this was the rainy season. If the bus driver wasn’t sure about the depth of the river crossing, we’d hop a pickup truck along with the locals and try to cross that way. We were like the proverbial canary in the mineshaft. If we made it across, the bus should be able to make it too.

The Amazon River, according to many accounts, was named by Spanish explorer Fransisco de Orellana in 1541. The name was in honor of the female warriors he encountered on his voyage through the territory previously called Maranon. The Amazon rain forest is the drainage basin for the Amazon River and its 15,000 tributaries and covers 2,722,000 square miles. The river itself is 4,195 miles long. We got just a small taste of river life.

River transportation in that part of the Amazon consists of mainly dugout canoes. Enormous tree trunks were hollowed out and a motor placed in back. Since it was the wet season, our pilot was always on the lookout for washed out tree trunks floating in the river. A collision with one of those battering rams could have easily turned our dugout over on its side and put bodies into the water.

The other word of caution was for us to watch out for snakes hanging from low-lying tree branches or snakes in the water. And, of course, the proverbial crocodiles, which loved to shadow our dugout canoe hoping to find a hand or two dragging alongside in the water.

Sleeping accommodations ranged from sleeping platforms in the middle of the jungle (Fortunately there were age limitations because I know where my son would have been) to sparse cabins. The only rule was to check your bedding every night for spiders, frogs and snakes. Then the next morning, check your clothes, boots, etc. before you put them on

The climate was warm and humid in the river basin, with an average temperature of 79 degrees and an average yearly rainfall of over 80 inches. In other words, it was hot and humid and nothing nor anyone ever dried out there. Wet, damp or moldy was the order of the day. Every day.

Brian and I agreed that the most memorable experience of the entire trip was our vision quest in a the pouring rainstorm. Each of us, student and adult alike, was marched into the jungle and then left alone (totally separated from one another) for a period of an hour or longer with only the sounds and smells and humidity of the jungle to assault your senses. It just so happened that our incubation period occurred during a very heavy rainstorm. I mean sheets of rain and visibility of about ten feet, if that, for hours on end.

The idea was to experience the Amazon rain forest in its entirety without the distractions of other people and outside influences. There was no way any one of us could have found our way out of there. We had to trust that our guide would come back and find us and lead us back to camp. It was awesome.

Brian and I both thought we’d died and gone to heaven. Hard to explain if you haven’t been there but it was a very thought-provoking experience.

The theme of torrential downpours continued with what could have been a very serious bus accident not long afterwards. Our bus was traversing some mountainous pass, climbing its way back out of the river basin toward Quito. In the early morning hours, our bus missed a small avalanche by mere seconds. Rocks and boulders plunged down the mountainside and crashed into a nearby stream. A torrent of water came roaring past our bus, rocking it on its springs. If we’d been broad sided by that mudflow of rock and debris, I’m sure our bus could have been swept off the road and into that stream. Kind of like, Ice Road Truckers.

Brian tried out a blowgun. He got pretty good at it. Fortunately you can’t buy a blowgun at Fleet Farm or Walmart.

Not to be forgotten but certainly not bragged about was my watching several amorous seniors come on to Brian as I was sitting at the same table. My young bon vivant laughed at my concerns and lack of understanding of the high school mating ritual.

Apparently they start even earlier in South America. And Brian, assimilating all things native, thought it only appropriate that he too initiate or at least assume their native ways.
Father thought differently and a compromise was reached. I kept my eye on him and he kept his eye on me.

Third place in memorable experiences would have to be the pool game Brian and I played back in Quito. While Snow White wasn’t there, we did play against three Israelis who were traveling through South America, a couple of Mexican nationals and several locals. A group of young girls from the neighborhood were our audience. And again I was struck by the irony of my sixteen-year-old son playing pool in Quito, Ecuador in the back room of a Pizza Hut with such an international group of players. Naturally, he thought it was no big deal.

Our trip to the Amazon was more than just a high school field trip. Instead it became our vision quest, a journey of self-discovery for both Brian and myself. For Brian, it was his first taste of other cultures, which only wetted his appetite for greater adventures ahead and inspired him to travel around the world while still in college. For myself, it was a continuation of my desire to explore options and opportunities that might expand my own creative horizon.

So while some other fathers might regale their buddies with their father-son bonding stories of camping trips or baseball games, I came to admire and grow very proud of my son in the dangerous backwaters and jungles of the Amazon River basin.

Dancing with Blindfolds On

If I smile at you, there’s a message there. Perhaps open for interpretation but still a message.

A wink also tells you something.

And if I gave you the middle finger salute, you’d get the point.

Now if I send you a text, you’d have to be able to translate:
            FYI     (For your information)
            IDK     (I did not know) (I don’t know)
            #$        (This is the text symbol for Starbucks)
            511      (Too much information)
            AAYF (As always, your friend)

If I send you an e-mail, you might get my intended message assuming I’ve been succinct enough.

If we go face to face on Skype, we can connect real time and (to a limited degree) read facial features and body language. It’s better than e-mail but doesn’t replace real face-to-face communication.

In the end, face-to-face is the most effective means of communicating. Unless, of course, we’re talking gender differences, generational differences, cultural differences and a myriad of other obstacles to getting our true feelings and thoughts and emotions across to the other person.

Communicating is such an ancient art and yet we still haven’t figured it out.

Most women are better at communicating than men. For most of us men it’s usually black and white. Gray is not part of our color pallet. Yes means yes. No means no. And I don’t know means just that.

What it doesn’t mean is: I have to think about it because I might change my mind whether I want to or not…that’s my right. It’s like static on the radio that one gender can decipher and the other can’t make sense of. Perhaps I’m just the less intuitive of the species but it just doesn’t seem that hard to communicates one’s thoughts. But it can be.

Many old married couples communicate without words or gestures. They know each others' moods, likes and dislikes, preferences and myriad of benchmarks for ‘how things are going.’ Usually she understands before he does.

But some generations before us have had a real problem with basic communications.

My Mother, for example. Raised in a staunch German Catholic farm family, her idea of communication was starkly different than mine is today. Just say German Catholic and there’s a built-in excuse if ever there was one. That one factor (her German heritage) would have been enough to explain things. But then add in small rural community, overpowering Catholic guilt, sexism and lack of education. Now you have all the ingredients for poor to non-existent communications.

My Aunts and Uncles weren’t much better. Their best communicating usually took place during card games. ‘Visits’ were meant to pass the time with safe, innocuous, meaning-less platter that never revealed anything beyond assumptions about the weather, crop forecasts and the latest gossip often generated after mass on Sunday.

Grade school, high school, even college wasn’t much better at meaningful discourse. The teachers lectured. We took notes and then regurgitated back to them via blue books just what they wanted us to hear. The Army wasn’t much different. Only recently have a lot of businesses begun to recognize that employees might actually have something meaningful to say about their business.

McDonalds just spent millions in research to find out that a customer’s first impression of their company comes from the 12-year-old working behind the counter. Seriously!

Then there’s the whole generational thing. Try communicating with a teenager sometime. Good luck with that. Read ‘Ditching my Son in the Amazon’ for my tip on how to enlist the aid of others to deal with this issue.

As I mentioned in my blog (In the Company of Old Men) it’s a challenge forging connections with someone you haven’t seen for over 50 years. Some of these re-acquaintances are content with an occasional coffee every once in a while. Others carry baggage and can’t accept their past for what it was or see the future for what might lay ahead. Some are okay with more frequent meetings. Occasionally someone will come along that you can really reconnect with. 

I’ve got a couple of friends like that. We can pick up wherever we left off and go on from there. They’ve led interesting lives that have always fascinated me. They seem genuinely interested in my writing. It’s always so satisfying to be able to pick up, after an absence of so many years, and just take off with our discourse from there.

I hope I can continue to meet more old friends who are traveling light without excess baggage. Those are always the most fun.

Modern Allegories on Communication:
I once went on a pilgrimage to worship at the altar of a seer. I came for wisdom and advice from this man of letters. But the prophet offered me little more than kernels of wisdom with only a trailing substance of matter.

Yet in my dissatisfaction I realized he had given me a gift. For his words, even in their vacuous state, were nebulous enough to force me to draw my own conclusions and forge my own pathway to enlightenment. His vapid guidance was the spark needed to ignite my own fire inside.

An avatar once invited me to dance but only wanted to stroll. How strange. Why put a line in the water if you don’t want to fish? So sad, I wanted to dance.

I came to educate my grandchildren but they taught me so much more.

As much as we change, we stay the same. The essence of who we are is often masked by the distractions of everyday life.

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
                                                                           Chinese Proverb



It really means Forever Yours.


The Axman Cometh

When I was growing up the prevailing wisdom about kids was that they should be seen and not heard. As ludicrous as it sounds, many parents back then were taught from generations before them not to say anything to their children that might lift their self-confidence because it could go to their heads.

Children back then weren’t seen as little people with feelings and emotions and ideas of their own. They were simply an addition to the family, good for chores until they proved their worth. Then at some point, the girls were good for caring for elderly parents. That and getting married and having children and starting the cycle all over again.

In my case, it was a typical German Catholic rural farming family thinking. Pathetic!

So we never talked about feelings, emotions or any kind of oral history. They never spoke. I never asked.

Such a shame.

So I never captured my stepfather’s tales of being a railroad station manager at the turn of the century in the Nebraska Territory when Indians still roamed the west and outlaws were a constant threat. Or riding the rails between Seattle and Vancouver during the great depression. Hanging bootleg whiskey bottles out the train windows on strings so the border inspectors wouldn’t find them. Working for the post office for 30 years and being retired for 33 years. Losing his daughter when she was 22, his wife when she was 50, his son when he was 45, and finding someone else when he was in his 80s (my Mother).

Or recorded tales of my mother growing up on a farm with seven siblings. Being smacked across the floor by her mother when she mentioned that the cat had just given birth to kittens.

First working as a maid to those rich people on Summit Avenue. ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ Saint Paul style. Then as a short order cook in the First National Bank Building in downtown St. Paul. Working for that nice ‘Jewish couple’ who took good care of their employees.

Or meeting my stepfather Erwin in her 70’s for companionship because she was afraid to admit maybe, just maybe, it might have been love she was feeling after all those years.

No reference or memory of my Father so I have nothing to hold on to or remember about the man who brought me into the world. Other than the fact that he smoked, liked to drink and died at age 48 of a massive heartache in some flea-bitten hotel in Montana. The story goes that he was on his way back to Minnesota, with Christmas presents, for the first time in four years after leaving us.

Fortunately that ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ frame of mind pretty well dissipated by the time it was our turn to be parents. We were smarter with my wife’s parents. Fortunately we did video tape them and have captured at least an hour and a half of their memories while both were still cognizant of their surroundings and their past life.

I guess I should have asked: At what point in your life do memories become more important than dreams? Or could you have both?

I guess I saw my own role as father a little differently. Even though I wasn’t smart enough to deliberately build memories with my kids, it just happened somehow. I was lucky.

Many Saturday mornings found us all up at about the same time. They had the routine down pad.

“What are you doing?” They’d ask.
“Got work to do.” I’d reply.
“Can we come along?” They’d ask, already knowing the answer.
And with that, we were off to breakfast and an assortment of tasks, projects and or just plain screwing around.

First stop was always some cheap diner in town. My kids like to brag that they’ve been to every cheap diner in St. Paul. (unless it’s been torn down by now.) Always a treat as much for the clientele watching as for the mediocre food.

Our Favorites:
Day by Day CafĂ©  (wait staff was heavily tattooed and most were in recovery)
Mickey’s Diner  (once saw a guy there in a buffalo headdress and full regalia-so?)
Uptowner  (locals from downtown; a very diverse and eclectic crowd)
Cossettas  (Italians from the neighborhood and tourists from downtown)

After breakfast there might be work projects for the business or properties. ($10.00 an hour isn’t bad for a grade schooler plus lunch thrown in)

But the highlight of the day was always: The Ax Man.

The last stop on our all day Saturday jaunts was always The Ax Man Surplus Store on University Avenue. That shop had more assorted crap you never knew you needed than any other junk store in the Twin Cities. Fifty cents each was their limit and that was always enough back then to fill their small shopping carts.

From nuts and bolts to assorted tools, Chinese knockoffs filled a lot of the bins. From old incubators to newer oscillators to an ancient iron lung. The store had it all. Most of it totally worthless unless you’re in grade school or middle school. Then the place was a treasure trove of wonders for any imaginative kid.

Back then half a buck used to be able to buy a handful of junk that my kids desperately wanted if only for the moment. Brennan and Charlotte will now probably cost me at least a dollar plus each for the same results.

But even before the Ax Man comes into play for the grandkids, we’ve been collecting lots of prints of the kids growing up along with VHS and DVD remembrances.

I want to start my own traditions with Brennan and Charlotte here and the twins and Maya when we’re out in Colorado. Silly, sometimes stupid, sometimes meaningless antics or forages into experiences they might otherwise never have. I have no idea what is going to stick in their little heads but if I throw enough experiences at them something will form a lasting memory without my even knowing it.

And the grandchildren will remember us. It’s called full tilt digital and we intend to capture as many memories as we can. There have already been bazillion digital images
and YouTube videos. Then (hopefully my own comic strips and stories from ‘Sweetpea and the Gang’ for them to hold on to as a memory of Papa and Nana.

There will be trips to Palm Springs and other points West. Of course, we’ll include Colorado, Minnesota and in the future, traveling abroad. Maybe we’ll explore the back roads of America and do our own Jack Kerouac thing; my little Easy Riders and me.

And in the end, we’ll leave them with a legacy in print, pixels, bytes and, oh yeah, gray matter too.

Monday, July 9, 2012

What I Learned From Howling Monkeys

Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica is located on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. It is a gem that I was most fortunate to discover in the early 80s, less than ten years after it was first established. National Geographic has called it “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.”

My trip to Corcovado meant three weeks of sleeping on rocks, dancing around deadly snakes, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and listening to howling monkeys every night. By the end of each day my colleagues and I were roasted and rank. About as close to paradise as one could get.

I headed up a film crew that was part of a group of photojournalists invited by the Costa Rican government to explore the park and (hopefully) write or create television programs about it.

The lessons began the first day of our arrival. It was a wonderful group of journalists, magazine editors, writers and one eccentric professor from out east. This is before the Internet. Our focus was on film, photos and note taking to capture the true beauty of the country and its park. There were two women in the group who (it quickly became apparent) could hold their own with the men.  We were all young (relatively speaking) and eager to explore town and country.

San Jose is the capitol of Costa Rica and a bustling economic driver for the country. We were anxious to see what it had to offer. But first we had to tackle three weeks in the jungle.

I chose cut offs and a t-shirt instead of the more jungle attire of cargo pants, long sleeve shirt and boots. I was cooler in the jungle and didn’t look like a field hand from the Coachella Valley. I also figured ‘what the heck.’ A snake can bite through pants as easily as it can directly to skin. If I was going to get bit, long pants wouldn’t be much of a help.

Time is What You call It
We were supposed to fly into the park that next morning. We got to the small airport early and piled up our gear for three weeks of jungle camping. Then we waited. And waited. And waited.

What I didn’t understand back then was American time vs. South American time. Foolish me thought that 9:00am meant 9:00am or maybe a few minutes late. Actually in Central and South American countries 9:00am means never before the allotted hour, of course and perhaps up to: 45 minutes or longer after the appointed time. And in their world that was perfectly Ok.

My frustration must have been apparent because one of our trip leaders pulled me aside and informed me that the pilots would arrive when they felt like it. He said that I’d better get used to that attitude or else I would be the one getting frustrated for no reason at all. I took a deep breath and toned it down from A to B to C. Very mellow from then on.

Our fly-in was simple enough. We flew into the park at treetop level. Then dropped below the tree line onto a narrow strip of grass that had been cut out of the jungle. Our pilots were like cowboys. They loved scaring the heck out of Anglo tourists with their macho landings. Some planes hadn’t made it down safely in the past. Quite a sight as we taxied by.


Don’t complain about the Accommodations
Our base camp consisted of a park rancher’s station and separate bunkhouse carved out of the surrounding jungle. The bunkhouse was full so we opted to sleep on the ground nearby. In retrospect it was the right decision. After a couple of days we all adjusted to the hard ground, the howling of monkeys, sounds of strange animals nearby and the constant drone of insects all night long. It became our white noise and certainly beat the thunderous snoring rolling out of the bunkhouse each night.

Know Your Neighbors
There are three simple rules for hiking in the jungle.

Jungle terrain is seldom flat. That only happens in Tarzan movies. It’s hilly, rugged and laced with jungle vines that can send you sprawling down a slope in nothing flat. Caution is the word.

Secondly, watch out for spider monkeys. They love to pee on you as you pass by underneath.

The third rule is also pretty simple. Watch where you step or be prepared to die.
Never step over a log or object on the ground. Never lean up against a tree. Always step on top of the log then step over to the other side. Look at the tree first before you lean against it or sit next to it.

There were many species of venomous snakes in the park. The Fer-de-Lance and Bushmaster were tops in their game. One bite…thirty minutes…hello, heaven. Even the poison dart frog could do you in.

Supposedly a snake can hear your footfalls a long distance away and will move away from that sound. Theoretically, the snake is more scared of you than you are of it. But ‘theoretically’ doesn’t really help if a snake bites you. Then you have theoretically twenty to thirty minutes before you die. Unless you have snake serum that you can inject into the puncture wound immediately.

Our guide was a wonderful, always cheerful park ranger whose grasp of the English language always left us with the question: ‘what did he say’ or ‘did he really say that’ or ‘Ok, whatever.’


On the first day of a long hike, I casually asked our guide if he had snake bite serum with him after he described the numerous poison snakes that abounded in Corcovado. He said no, he’d left it back at base camp, a four-hour hike away. I guess when your time comes, it comes. We all walked a little more gingerly back to camp that day. And made sure he had it with him every time we went out after that.

Haste saves Toes and other Body Parts
Almost everyday, we’d have to ford some river or inlet to the sea. Always at low tide since the currents were so strong at high tide that it was very easy to get swept out to sea no matter how strong a swimmer you might be.

Then there was the matter of the Bull sharks, American crocodiles, and spectacled caiman that liked to swim up those rivers from the ocean. Our guide would watch carefully for any sign of our unwelcome visitors. Then with a wave, we’d roll up our pants (usually didn’t matter) and begin wading across the river or inlet. Looking down for any sign of a snapper usually didn’t matter. The water was brown with churning sand and silt. It was a guessing game if any one of us would be toast that day. Or the next. Often times after crossing the inlet someone would spot a fin or smudge on the water. Damn, made it again.

I’m not a Nudist
It wasn’t a fear of stepping on glass, or sitting on a steel chair or swimming across a pond full of snapping turtles, I just never pictured myself a nudist. Grant it, skin is skin is skin. And there’s a plethora of  ‘Oh, my gosh’ on the Internet if you’re interested that sort of thing. I’m not. I just never pictured myself, sans. clothes, among other people.

So when we came upon that backwater pool, in the middle of the jungle, five hours into our hike, taking off our clothes for a dip seemed surprisingly logical, rational and very appealing. I can’t remember who suggested it first. Probably the eccentric one. He always had great ideas.

The men took off their clothes first…boring. Then the women…no Brazilian trims there. One kept her panties on for a short while but then decided ‘what the heck, everything was visible anyway.’ Suddenly I felt very foolish hiding behind my sunglasses. It had quickly became apparent that the soothing coolness of the water, that magical pond in the middle of the jungle, and the lively banter going on was more interesting than body parts seen or imagined. And after a few glances, seriously, who cares?

It’s true that clothes make a woman sexy. Take those away and what you’re left with is… Ok, pass the lemonade. Maybe that’s the secret nudists have discovered; that after the clothes come off, your attention is drawn to more substantial and interesting things.  Who knew? It took a cool pond in the middle of a Costa Rican rainforest to teach me one of life’s great lessons.

Seemed Logical at the Time
The end of our gallivanting in that backwater pool came with an announcement from the eccentric one. It seemed that he had a rubber raft in his backpack and was looking for someone to float with him down the river to the sea, approximately four miles away. Strangely enough he got no takers. We just stood there, putting on our clothes, wondering if he was really serious.

Undaunted by the silent stares he got, the eccentric one tossed his clothes bag into his backpack, gave the pack to someone else and proceeded to inflate his rubber raft. Then with his hat and flip-flops on, he began floating away. We all looked in astonishment as his snow-white ass got smaller and smaller in the distance. Then it was gone all together.

Somehow it all seemed perfectly logical at the time. I think we just collectively shook our shoulders, agreed that the eccentric one would find that a normal thing to do (floating down an unknown river in the middle of the jungle, in the nude), and wondered if or when we’d ever see him again. I know it’s stupid, dumb and illogical but I still wonder what it would have been like if I’d taken him up on his offer.

He showed up that evening, hat, torn flip-flops, and beet red ass. Then over warm beer, he regaled us with stories of the sights and sounds that greeted and then followed him down the river all the way to the sea.

Nectar of the Gods
I started a habit in Costa Rica that I’ve continued ever since. And supposedly it’s good for your health. We were God-knows how far into one of our early hikes when I saw a lemon tree in a clearing. Even though my canteen was full of tepid, warm water, a couple of squirts of lemon make all the difference in the world.

If I Wanted to Get Screwed

I knew I was in trouble the minute he stepped out of his shiny new van and approached my house. He was wearing pressed khaki pants, a crisp white shirt (with his logo on it) boat shoes and a clipboard.

Now what plumber wears boat shoes and carries a clipboard to the job site?

I’ve used Joe the plumber for years before he retired. He always came ready to work in work clothes. And he didn’t wear boat shoes. I thought I knew what plumbers and other trades people are suppose to look like and how they act. Not any more.

The worst boss I ever had used to say: “If I’m going to get screwed, at least I’d like to enjoy it.” What he meant was if the remedy to the problem was painful or expensive, at least there should be some satisfaction in a job well done.

There’s a new business model among a lot of trades people nowadays. And it isn’t designed to provide better or more reliable service. Blame it on the recession. Everybody else does.

First there’s the trip charge. Some will take it off the repair bill. Some won’t. A friend of mine recently paid $150.00 for an appliance guy to walk into his kitchen to fix his frig. Instead the guy took one look at the appliance, pronounced it DOA, and then stuck out his hand to collect his trip check before he turned and walked out.

Other trades folks want to charge you a lot of money to tell you what the problem is. Somehow they always seem to find more issues than you expected. I guess they see it as part of their job. Their intention doesn’t seem to be to fix the aforementioned problem but rather to find new (and more expensive ones) in the process.

If there was a guarantee that their work would be done well or that they took pride in their repair skills that might be some compensation. But sadly that often isn’t even a part of the solution equation. 

The aforementioned plumber marched through my house and found over two thousand dollars worth of repairs. I guess my first hint at (“Seriously, you’ve got to be kidding”) was $350.00 for a shut off valve and another $300 for an outside faucet. I politely demurred and reluctantly paid him his protection money so he would leave our home. The only good thing that came out of his visit was finding several potential issues for the future, which we intend to address – without him.

Then there was our lawn man. At my wife’s insistence, we got another lawn service company this year. I dropped the last one because I observed their lawn technician sit in his truck, fill out the paperwork then take all of a couple of minutes to spray my lawn before he stuck the bill in my front door and left for his next rip-off.

When I complained about the lack of service, I was informed that he probably didn’t feel the lawn needed much work at that particular visit. I insisted he return and do the job properly. He came back the following and by accident I was in my office writing when he arrived. He did the exact same thing and that was the end of that contract.

This time it took the lawn service company two applications before I was informed there was a big problem in my back yard. I had bugs and insects back there. ‘Oh, heavens, insects in my back yard, what shall I do?’

They, of course, had the solution. They would inject my trees with a solution to stop the bugs and prevent oak wilt if it should ever happen (or at least for the next three months).
When said technician insisted on coming over and showing me the disaster that was my back yard, I acquiesced and agreed to meet him the next day. He never showed up. I guess my bugs and insects are safe for another season.

A friend of mine wrote a number of books on customer service back in the 80s. What a concept? Treat the customer fairly and with respect. Tom Peters had it right.

Peter Drucker has stated that there are two things a business needs to survive. To make a profit and to treat the customer fairly so they will continue to buy your products or services. Now that’s a concept.

Dusty the doorman was what I expected in a tradesperson.

My garage door began opening and closing only on an intermittent basis. Sometimes it would work and other times, it refused to open or close.

Dusty came over, examined my door structure and the operating mechanism. In his opinion, it was the electronic eyes that were failing on an intermittent basis. He replaced them, examined the rest of the bearings, oil all the moving parts and moved on. Quick, efficient, and done properly.

Dusty got paid on the spot. I appreciated his professionalism and even sent an e-mail to his company to praise his work. What a concept, a happy customer.

I guess the lesson here is simple enough. Let the buyer beware. It’s a new ballgame out there and you’ve got to be more than a spectator if you don’t want to get screwed. Know whom you’re dealing with and do your homework.

There is a whole generation of skilled professional tradespersons who have retired and left the business. Their successors don’t always live up to the legacy those folks left behind. Now you have to be part of the solution and not just calling up the problem.

Joe wouldn’t be coming back. I no longer expect to see his grubby overhauls coming up my driveway again. And with it the confidence that my problem was about to be fixed.

I don’t have the same feeling with the freshly starched imitators I see today in their shiny new vans.

So buyer beware and watch out for those boat shoes under plumbers pants.

The Best Job That Never Was

I had to give my son the bad news. His perfect job wasn’t.

He’d recently graduated from Notre Dame. He was working at Arthur Anderson in Chicago. His girlfriend (soon to be wife) was living not that far away. He loved his job, all the traveling, his boss and the company itself. What was not to like?

Trying hard to straddle the line between being realistic and yet supportive, I could only remind him that while everything was great at the time, things do change. While ‘Father doesn’t always know best’, I’d been down that path before, several times. He laughed at me. We laughed at me. But my prediction did prove correct.

Not too much later, Brian’s firm imploded and he was hired on by KPMG, a company that was not even close to the culture of Arthur Anderson.

My daughter interned at the law firm her last year in law school. So it wasn’t surprising when they hired her upon graduation. She found that corporate law wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.

Two perfectly wonderful jobs that turned out not to be so wonderful.

No job is ever perfect. Even if all the stars and moon and sun are in alignment, eventually something usually happens that changes the equation.

Brian moved on to Colorado, got his masters in Entrepreneurship and found a job with a new startup called Triple Creek. He’s still there and thriving.

My daughter moved on to the capitol working in politics and found her passion; politics and the sometimes wondrous, confusing, mysterious manner in which bills are made and passed.

Now she has the most important job of her life; being Mom to Brennan and Charlotte.

Welcome to the real world, guys. No job is perfect but you can make the best of any situation.

My first job as a paperboy
On Sundays, I had my little red wagon to haul my 143 Sunday newspapers. Their weight was so great that the front axle bent every Sunday morning. And I had to untwist it before I could proceed. No wonder I can still lift small boulders with ease.

It meant getting up at 4:30am each morning, even if it was twenty below zero and delivering newspapers to my unappreciative vociferous readers. It meant getting short-changed by apartment dwellers, who moved away without paying their newspaper bills. It meant trudging back to some home when the owner couldn’t find the newspaper that hadn’t landed in exactly the same spot every day. Pulling it out of the weeds without even a thank you. It meant listening to the smart-ass district manager haranguing me because I wasn’t making his quota of new customers each month. It meant watching out for the big kids who loved to threaten me when I was ‘collecting’ and had cash on hand.

Yet despite those irritating nuisances associated with the job, it meant I was an independent businessman. I learned to save money and not spend all of it before the end of the month. To a great degree, it meant I was mostly self-supporting from 7th grade on. I got a musical education with my tiny transistor radio that I wore under my parka. All the best of the 50’s Pop music and crossover Country and Western. It was my musical window and fueled a lifelong love of music.

I never considered myself in the newspaper business. I was just a kid, willing to freeze his tush, for a shot at a savings account and the education it might buy. And despite the cold, deadbeats, high-strung district managers, and sometimes-grumpy customers, it was a great first job.

I changed. It didn’t. After high school, it was time to move on.

KTCA Television
My start in television started inauspiciously enough. They didn’t have an opening for a writer so I offered my services for free. I volunteered there for over six months with a great group of people, all of who were much older than I was. There was an atmosphere back then that was electric with interest and excitement for the business of public television. We were all part of the gradual transition from educational television to public television, a huge shift in demographics, in programming philosophy, and production techniques.

Once hired on as a producer-director, my crew and I experimented with all kinds of new production techniques. Field recordings and videotape were introduced during that period. And we marveled at the creative new ways we could tell a story on television. It was another education for me. And I got paid for learning.

Of course, over the years, management changed. My boss moved away and the atmosphere got more corporate and not as much fun. The bottom line superseded the creative aspects of the job and the staff grew stale on repetitive programming and production.

It was time to move on. Again.

Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting
Without a doubt the best boss I ever had was General Manager of the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting back in the 70’s. He was brilliant, generous with his support in every way. He let me run my department without outside interference. He welcomed new ideas and self-motivation.

He gathered around him a wonderful group of people to work with. It was a blast for almost five glorious years.

But then, of course, over the years things gradually started to change. Eventually the GM got a job offer in Philadelphia that he couldn’t turn down. He left and with him, the creative energy that defined the place for so long. The disease was slow in coming but over time it managed to turn a top rated television station into a study in atrophy.

There were other jobs before and after those. Some good. Some not so good. I learned from each and every one of them. Life lessons I’ve taken with me in one capacity or another.

Even the Army brought with it some traveling, some adventures and misadventures, a host of colorful characters I’d love to meet again. And a few, I’d rather not.

Sharden Productions and other Associated Ventures
Sharden Productions, Inc. provided me an opportunity to be my own boss. Of course, you’re never your own boss. Every client, every customer, every potential contract is your boss/master/driver/nightmare/reward. That’s the nature of the business.

I made a couple of bucks.I can’t complain.
I worked long hours.I wanted to.
I had some sleepless nights.Part of the equation.
I did some very nice work.I take total credit for that.
It provided me an opportunity to travel.I appreciate that.
It provided some amenities I wouldn’t have otherwise.Ditto.

Now it’s the foundation for a gradual shift from a video production/distribution company to a publishing company.                                                Thank you Sub-S Corporation.

I guess that perfect job I never had would encompass all the best of what I did have.
Each job brought something special to my life. And my life experiences.

Imagine if they were all wrapped up into on job. The best of best. The nicest people to work with, no limit on possible earnings, no age discrimination, self-motivation as the driver, an opportunity to reconnect with some old friends, or forge relationships with new ones. Wouldn’t that be just the perfect job to have?

But wait, it is.

I’m a writer.