Tag Archives: Nebraska

Of the Blue Colour of the Sky

That title’s a nod to my oldest daughter . . . and her favorite record. (see, I do know music from this century!)

This week I grew more than a little jealous of my kids.  Not because of their youth, or their exuberance, or their innocence or even the fact that, even today, after losing their mother two years ago, they think they’re immortal…invincible.  Those are all good, but I’ve been there.

And there’s still part of me that’s like a little kid.  I pick up a guitar and the world changes around me.  I see the notes, I hear the music and feel it all around me.  I’m a little kid who thinks someday when he grows up he’s going to be a musician, even though I’ve grown up and have a day job.

But my jealousy stems from their location.  Today all four kids are in Nebraska, my home state.

I know people on the left and ride sides of the continent are scoffing now, laughing, derision in their eyes.  Liberals see only red states.  Conservatives see honor.

I see home.

It’s not just that my family is all in that state, though.  There is just something about where I grew up that is nothing like anywhere else.

Joel Sartore pic of Holmes Lake Park.
Joel Sartore pic of Holmes Lake Park.

The skies in that state are gorgeous.  The blue is electric, and after a thunderstorm . . . the sky is alight with colors that you thought would never hit your retinas in nature.  I’ve lived in Denver, Dallas, Sacramento, and others.  I’ve visited places around the world.  I’ve seen amazing sights and felt wondrous emotions.

But sunset where I grew up is like nothing else.  Violet and blue, melding into each other.  After a thunderstorm, the violence of nature crashing into itself, with flashes of brilliant forks dancing across the clouds, the sky gives itself to the release of the storm.  A shelf of grey and black will ride away as the sun dips below the clouds.  The orange of the sunlight reflecting off the bottom of the shelf, creating a dance of red, pink, electric and royal blues . . . and hues that bounce off the green of the grass below them.  The fence posts stick up in shadow as the wire between them lines a road and you lead to the sun, crawling down like it cannot leave behind the beauty it’s seeing in itself . . . until tomorrow when it crawls up for a similar, but different show.

I had a window that looked out the the North just the other side of my bed.  I used to stay up at night, looking out at the electric storms and marvel at the crash of thunder after each flash.  It bothered me the, and does to this day, how movies would show lightning and the thunder would boom with the light.  The delay helped you time how far the storm was from where you stood.

The last month the kids have seen a myriad of storms and they all marvel at them.  My wife, who grew up on the West coast never liked them.  She was scared of the sounds.  She hated the lightning and it all frightened her.  But my kids get to see and hear them and they don’t fear mother nature, they respect her.

Under a Big Red Sky by Joel Sartore
Under a Big Red Sky by Joel Sartore

They also get to see that bright blue color of the sky, even in the summer.  There’s no temperature inversion, like Denver gets.  There’s no “brown cloud” like both Denver and Sacramento have.  There’s no dusky grey haze on the grass like Texas of “golden” brown like California.

My friend Joel Sartore, a Geographic fellow and creator of the photo ark project still lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.  He won’t leave, says he never would move.  He says the same thing . . . the skies are just different there.  The land and the people and the colour of the sky are worth every minute.  He calls it “Under a Big Red Sky.”

I just call it home…and I’m glad my kids can see it that way, too.

(If you can, please check out Joel Sartore’s work, he’s brilliant, his pictures capture Nebraska and the world in intimate and important ways and he’s one of the nicest, funniest, most interesting people it’s my privilege to know!)

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The Middle is a Good Place to be

I wrote this week’s column for Rene Syler’s Good Enough Mother

Click on the linkback up there and you get a scary young photo from my childhood and even a wedding photo.

More importantly, though, it shows how there’s a misconception that the middle – religiously, geographically and politically are bad.  I grew up in the middle . . . and I wouldn’t change a thing.

DM

When Summer Comes

My extended family…in our last NE trip

Summertime Blues (Live) by the Who from the LP Live at Leeds

In my poor planning and idiotic reliance on a tax refund, I hadn’t realized that I’m only weeks away from the end of the school year.  Less than a week and Abbi’s out, moving onto Senior year . . . just like that.  Hannah will head to her final year of middle school.  I let it slip by, ignored the dates, and my father hit me with the question he’d asked over and over again: “when do the kids get out of school?”

The girls were the first to visit their grandparents.  It started the year we moved to Sacramento.  My folks missed the kids horribly and wanted to spend time with them.  When my folks wanted the time to get longer and longer it weighed heavier and heavier on my wife.  She didn’t like being away from the kids.  I think part of her really didn’t like my parents having any influence over her kids, which I believed then – and firmly believe now – was a foolish thing.  My Mom is definitely a take-charge kind of woman and my Dad has his opinions.  They might very well take over and run things if you let them . . . but that’s the key: if you let them.

The longest the kids ever stayed with my folks when Andrea was alive was a month.  Andrea hated it.  Even 2 weeks was too much for her.  You have to understand as well that when we got to California she had a very unrealistic view that her Mom would take care of the kids while she worked . . . and I think she believed her Mom would take care of her when she got home.  The hardest thing in the world is to grow up and see the weaknesses and flaws in your parents.  To you, particularly in those most formative years, they are indestructible.  Andrea always fought them but secretly wanted her Mom to take care of her.  The worst thing in the world was when she realized, as an adult, that her Mom was neither willing nor able to do that work – not when she was a kid, and really not now when we had our kids.

Look, I know this sounds harsh and I’m not trying to be mean.  Four kids . . . it’s a hard number to wrap your head around.  I even told Andrea she had no expectation – nor no right – to try and make her Mom take care of bother her and the kids.  I had raised a red flag saying that the agreement her Mom would watch our kids would never come to a good end.  I had seen the reality by how many times Andrea had been disappointed in our marriage with too high expectations and I expressed my worries to both her and her parents.  I was assured they were unfounded.  In the end, they weren’t.  It led to major bouts of depression and anxiety on my wife’s part.  It also led to my having to try and calm down both Andrea AND her Mom on some days, something I was not equipped to handle.

Now, I’m faced with doing the very thing my wife hated: sending my kids away for the summer.  My dilemma isn’t whether or not they can handle it, though I have that worry.  It’s whether or not they’re bored or hurt by having to be there.  That . . . and I’m not sure can handle it.

I was in a fog when I got back to work last year.  When I changed jobs (by necessity, not choice) I probably should have taken even more time off.  When July came last year, I took a pilgrimage over 1 weekend . . . on my birthday . . . to avoid being here.  Now I hit my 2nd summer and I’m not sure what I’ll do alone in the house.

I know I could go to Nebraska and visit the kids, and I will, but it’s not the whole summer.  I could surely work my behind off, hang out downtown, do a bunch of things, but it’s not changing the fact that I’m faced with the fact that I have 2 and a half months where I’m left to face the fact that my house is empty.  It’s like looking at my future and realizing that it’s where I’m heading in the next 9 years.  I don’t know what I’m going to do from here.  I love my job, but do I love it here in California enough to stay after the kids leave?  Will I continue to be an investigative journalist?

I know it’s not easy to face these questions, and I shouldn’t.  But I’ve come to realize that I’m only just now, in this last few weeks, looking more than a day ahead.  I got through last year, last summer, all of it by looking only at each day . . . trudging through the morning, the afternoon, getting through to the night, and then starting it all over again.  It became routine.  But the routine isn’t effective when it’s having to change constantly.  I will have 5 more years with Hannah and then it’s me and the boys.  After that, what?

It’s hardest because, the weeks that the kids would spend in Nebraska I always wanted to take advantage of.  I wanted to grab Andrea and head to LA or to London or anywhere . . . I wanted to find some of that spark again, the thing that had us so amazed with each other, unable to stop holding hands or kissing in public, damn the stares.  But she wouldn’t do it.  She was obsessed with the fact the kids weren’t here, wouldn’t travel, and counted the days until they were back.

I now face those summer days alone.  I don’t have a choice.  I can’t work if they’re home alone and it’s not fair to my oldest to keep them home and make her watch them . . . that, and I’m not sure she’d do it right.  It’s easy to be coddling and attentive when you’re babysitting.  It’s easier to ignore the arguments and head to your room when it’s your siblings. To survive and pay for everything these kids need I have to work and keep them watched and cared for.  My parents volunteer to do it.  I also love the influence they have and the feeling that my childhood home, to these kids . . . is home.

It’s the one thing that gets me through the summer.  Where they are far away, they are so happy and cared for.  I’m happy they have such an amazing summer ahead of them.

And perhaps I’m a little jealous.

How to win friends and influence people . . .

Joel Sartore at Work . . . pardon the photo theft, Joel!

http://www.joelsartore.com

Whether you know it or not, every day you have an effect on people. It’s really up to you how you’re remembered. I know that sounds cheesy, very “Remember the Golden Rule” kind of a thing, but I’m hoping that what I have to recount will give you pause and make you realize, if you ever have that George Bailey moment you take into consideration just what one little interaction can mean to someone else.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you realize already I’m mentioning Andrea in this post. It’s always strange to realize that you have no idea what an impact you have until you’re gone. There’s a reason that Samuel Clemens used Tom Sawyer’s funeral as a literary device. The downside for me is that the reports of Andrea’s demise are not exaggerated.

I could mention the funeral here, it would fit. There was a myriad of people there. Sure, there was the contingent of people that were at the church simply to show support to me and the kids, that’s a given. That wasn’t the full measure of the response, though. The church, which holds a good many people (just go to any Easter or Christmas mass, you heathens) was filled. Not a scattering of people throughout the church but standing room only. It was a testament to the fact that when she was healthy and able, Andrea spent a ton of time up at the school and the church and wanted to be involved with the people there. She loved it.

But that’s an obvious simile. My story goes back farther, and as always, was an example of how she went above and beyond just because she was doing something nice for me.

A good many years ago I had been a member of the National Press Photographers Association, or NPPA. It helped me learn, gave me opportunities to steal ideas from other shooters, just was a good organization for storytelling. In their monthly magazine they’d run a profile of a National Geographic photographer by the name of Joel Sartore. I was already familiar with Joel’s work, and if you’re not, you should be. I had always wanted to be a Geographic shooter, but I didn’t take that path, I went into television. With kids, a family, travelling most the year and waiting in a tree canopy for a week for a single shot of a pig isn’t in the cards any more, but it would have to be an amazing career. (If you roll your eyes and wonder why I’d be excited, if you can watch Joel’s segment on shooting Grizzlies on Geographic Explorer, talking about the “bear bells” he finds at REI and NOT laugh, well, you’re made of stone) He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska . . . because he wants to. He loves the state, the people, and thinks the Midwest is an amazing place, so I obviously had a soft spot for his work. Just a couple days later our consumer help line – the unit I was now producing and shooting for – got a call from, of all people, Joel. He was having trouble with directory assistance. He had lost dozens of clients because when freelance hires would call to get his number they’d be given a twelve-year-old number. He’d run into people who told him “I had a job that had you written all over it, but . . . just couldn’t find you. Have you moved?”

His wife forced him to call. He thought she was nuts. I, however, jumped at the chance to talk with him and already had contacts with one of the phone companies. I was new to the consumer thing, had a little cockiness, probably came across a bit too confident, and talked with Joel and his son on-camera, talking with his wife off-camera. I won’t bore you with details, but we got the Lincoln phone company’s competition to fix the national database and his phone was his phone number again.

So where my wife comes in is some months later. Joel had done a profile of Nebraska for Nat Geo. The magazine let him use all his unused photos and create an amazing book called “Under a Big Red Sky” for publication by the University Press. It was all I could talk about because a lot of the Northern Nebraska cities I frequented were featured in the book. I kept trying to buy it and Andrea kept blocking me asking me to wait.

What I didn’t know was that Andrea had wandered into the Barnes and Noble in the Crossroads Mall in Omaha specifically to buy the book. They had a few left – it sold well – and noticed that she had missed, by about an hour, a signing by the author. She looked, though, and in a corner of the store, packing books and paperwork up, was Joel, cleaning up after a very long afternoon. She walked over, apologetically asking him if he’d sign her book. She told Joel it was for her husband, someone he’d met awhile back. She wasn’t sure he’d remember me, but Joel’s book was all I would talk about and she was hoping she might convince him to sign it. When she told Joel who her husband was, he lit up. He signed the book, put “my phone is still ringing!” in the inscription and talked with Andrea for a long time inside the store. When I opened it she told me about meeting him in the store, talking with him for a long time, listening to his regaling tales of the pictures in the book. She thought he was funny, intelligent and talented. That was the only contact Joel had with her.

Every year or so, when something changes, I send Joel a note letting him know where I am and asking how he’s doing. As I was getting ready to send out Christmas cards I realized I hadn’t spoken with Joel in over a year. It’s always odd sending a note and starting off with the fact that your life has taken an odd sort of tragic turn. But I told him where our lives had gone, that my wife had passed (remember this, and notice I didn’t use her name) and that we’d moved. I did mention that he’d met her once and that she’d talked about how much she’d liked him.

Joel is busy, mind you. He’s either on assignment or off with his family, both of which are insanely important. But he got right back to me, and indicated that he “remembered Andrea”. The woman who’d found him in the store and asked him to sign, and I know from her description that she wouldn’t have left until he did, he remembered meeting her. She’d had an impact. I may seem a little thing to you, but it’s a big deal to me. It verifies what I keep saying: she was just an amazing, memorable, brilliant woman. A man who I know, but my wife had met only once and gave him pause.

You can meet someone once, simply once, so what impression do you want to give? Andrea met this person, a man who travels the world and sees those amazing people, places and creatures you can only read about, and she made an impact. This man, with his own story, 3 kids, a wife who is battling cancer, and he took the time to talk with this woman who made it a point to show how much she loved me. Did I push as much for her? What impact did I have on someone hoping to get her a present? There is part of me that hopes in the end my thoughts of her go far beyond this simple writing. She met and impacted people everywhere, from a church full of people, to a world-renowned photographer, and the influences pop up in the most amazing places.

What impact to you want to be remembered for? I see and hear stories about this amazing woman, this beautiful person, and I am saddened by the fact that I am no longer part of our story. But when I hear people who met her only briefly speak of her with fondness and I can’t help but be uplifted. I can only hope I have half the impression she did.

Joel Sartore, Photographing your Family