What Ten Albums Form the Soundtrack of Your Life?

(As a holiday gift in December 2022, Chloe, Ella & Alex provided me a gift subscription to something called Storyworth. Each week in 2023, I’m being provided a writing prompt designed to get me to reflect on some moment in my life. At the end of the year, my reflections will be printed in a bound book as a family keepsake. I have the option of editing or even selecting the prompts, as do Chloe, Ella & Alex. I selected this as prompt #3.)

My 18th birthday in my bedroom in Bellevue (photo credit – Marc Burns)

A few years ago, Marc Burns, a buddy of mine from high school, challenged me on Facebook to post ten record albums that I love, a soundtrack of my life, so to speak. I was to post one album a day for ten days. Explanations weren’t necessary, just include a picture of each album cover. Being a storytelling-kind-of-guy, I couldn’t resist giving a little detail about each of my ten choices.

I recently came across the archive of my choices and thought it would be a great addition to this memoir-writing activity. So here it is with some slight edits, although I wrote this “for Marc” and have left in the cutesy references to him. Of importance, the year in parentheses is the year I first heard the record, not necessarily the year the record came out. As a soundtrack of my life, I presented the albums chronologically from when they first entered my awareness.

#1 — “Armed Forces” — Elvis Costello & the Attractions (1979)

Okay, Marc, I have to start with “Armed Forces” since it was the first album I bought with the idea that I would actually own records myself instead of listening to my brother Steve’s records (or the radio). That album led me in many important directions. From a memory and person standpoint, “Armed Forces” was not only a staple of the poker night soundtrack, I have a distinct recollection of singing along to “Oliver’s Army” with Lisa Halpern in the parking lot of the Lake Hills Community Center in Bellevue. Lisa had the kind generosity to compliment my singing.

#2 — “Cloudy, With Occasional Tears” — Skeeter Davis (1982)

So, Marc, I’m presenting these albums chronologically from when I discovered them, if that matters. And today’s album is one I discovered as a 19 year-old deejay in Seward, Alaska in 1982. Every third song we played on the radio was supposed to be a country song and I found myself drawn to the older stuff. This Skeeter Davis album quickly became my favorite, so much so that one night I played it in its entirety while waiting for the monthly meeting of the Seward City Council to start, which we broadcast live. The challenging part was flipping the record over to play Side 2 while talking about it…

#3 — “Foreign Affairs” — Tom Waits (1984)

So, Marc, I was in Tower Records on The Ave in Seattle in 1984 and spotted this album, “Foreign Affairs,” being sold for what they called a “Nice Price,” something like $3.49 for an LP, practically giving it away. It was winter time and snowing slightly. I had a date, a woman named Paula, coming to my apartment for dinner so I was out shopping for dinner food (you’ll understand why that included a stop at Tower to buy a Tom Waits record). I don’t remember what I made for the main course, but I do know I made a mint chocolate pie with an Oreo cookie crust for dessert, the recipe coming from a box of Jello pudding. So picture this. I’m back at my apartment crushing Oreo cookies to make the crust, the turntable needle on the record. On comes the Tom Waits — Bette Midler duet, “I Never Talk to Strangers.” It was a perfect moment, honestly. Snowing lightly, a date coming, Oreo cookies, Tom Waits on the hi-fi. Not even the fact that Paula stood me up could ruin the perfection of this record. I think of it every time I play it.

#4 — “The Cole Porter Songbook” — Ella Fitzgerald (1987)

Well, Marc, here is record #4, Ella Fitzgerald performing the Cole Porter songbook. The album came out in 1956 but I place it in 1987 in my chronology because that’s when I started listening to it. My copy belonged to my mom who bought it new back in the 50’s. Come 1987, she wasn’t listening to vinyl anymore so I took some of her more choice albums down to Olympia where I was living while attending The Evergreen State College. It’s a double album so it has four sides, lots of great music with Ella’s beautiful singing. I have distinct memories of sitting at my work table doing research about brain injuries and writing reports about cross cultural special education practices while listening to this record. Did you know that there is no word in the Navajo language for disability? I found that very enlightening. Still do, actually. Final note: I eventually passed the record on to Nick, my nephew, Steve & Deb’s son, who loves having vinyl. That this copy belonged to his grandmother makes it all the more special.

#5 — “Workers Playtime” — Billy Bragg (1989)

Marc, I had always appreciated Billy Bragg’s early albums, the really pared down Billy-alone-with-his-electric-guitar-post-punk-protest songs. But there is something about 1988’s “Workers Playtime” that makes it my favorite Billy Bragg album by far. It could be that I played it regularly in 1989 when I moved into the favorite of my many solo residences, a $240/mo attic in downtown Renton. But I think the bigger reason I’m crazy for this record is for the love songs on it. I had been trying my hand at songwriting (more like lyric writing, to be honest) and found out how difficult it is to write a non-sappy love song. Billy seemed to have figured it out, all while respecting women and communicating in simple terms that relationships are complex. An important romantic relationship for me ended during this time and this album is part of that soundtrack, maybe IS that soundtrack. Decades removed from the attic, that relationship, and “Workers Playtime,” I look back on it all with great fondness and appreciation.

#6 — “Diva” — Annie Lennox (1993)

I’m jumping ahead to 1993 now, Marc, the year Chloe, my oldest daughter, was born. Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe that people as youthful looking and vigorous as Melinda and me can have adults for children. Anyway… Melinda went into labor on February 27th and didn’t tell me anything about it until about 7:30pm, at which point, due to a bad cold and the comfort of Hockey Night in Canada on TV, I was dozing on the couch. She said something to the effect of, “When do you think we should start timing these contractions I’ve been having?” Let me just say, that is a question that counteracts the effects of NyQuil, Don Cherry, and comfortable couches. Four hours later we were in the birthing center at Virginia Mason, and less than four hours after that, Chloe was born. I had brought along a couple of CDs to be the first music our baby would hear as a breathing human, kd lang’s “Ingenue” and Annie Lennox’s “Diva.” As I recall, Chloe came into this world to Annie Lennox, hence its presence here.

#7 — “Songs From Einstein’s Violin” — Frank Tedesso (1998)

Hey Marc — I don’t remember how I found this album although I do know I kind of stumbled upon it. It might have been on CD Baby or some other seller of independent music. What I do know is that the songs on the album have touched me like few others I’ve heard in the last 30 years, which is why I’m including it here. It always makes my top 10 list. I’m placing my awareness of the album as being 1998, the year we moved into our Seattle house, although I know it came out in 1996. I was able to track down the performer, Frank Tedesso, and we even had a short email exchange 25 years or so ago. I bought some of his other songs from him, along with a book of his poetry. It’s all good, but this record, for me, is great. It may be of interest that it was produced by William Ackerman, the founder of Windham Hill Records whose most famous performer is probably the pianist George Winston. Oh, one more thing about this record, Melinda can’t stand Tedesso’s singing voice so when I play it, I have to do so when she’s not around.

#8 — “Rabbit Songs” — Hem (2005)

So, Marc, back in 2005 or 2006 I made a mixed tape for Melinda (okay, it was a mixed CD but that just doesn’t sound right) called “Songs I Wish I’d Written for Melinda.” To be clear, the idea wasn’t to make a mix for Melinda of songs I wish I’d written, although technically that would have been true. The idea was to make a mix of songs I wish I had the brilliance to have written FOR Melinda. Like with her in mind, you know, and coming from her husband/best friend… On that CD, err mixed tape, I placed a song from this album by Hem, “Stupid Mouth Shut.” The brilliance of the song comes from the singer knowing she should tell her partner that she loves him (her? them?) but when the opportunity comes she just keeps, you know, her stupid mouth shut. Why I wish I had written this song for Melinda is because she thinks I should tell her I love her more often than I do. Go figure. Do note that the album didn’t make this list of 10 because of this song alone, though. It’s packed full of lovely songs, including “Half Acre” which was used in a Liberty Mutual TV commercial.

#9 — “The Reluctant Graveyard” — Jeremy Messersmith (2011)

Back in 2011 while living in France, Marc, I discovered the music of Jeremy Messersmith via Paste Magazine, to which I had an online subscription. That spring, his album “The Reluctant Graveyard” was played more than any other in my iTunes library, so much so that it still ranks as the most-played album in my listening history as recorded by last.fm, and by quite a bit. We returned to Seattle that summer and in 2012 Jeremy launched what he called his Supper Club Tour. He’d find someone to host a potluck dinner in their home and after eating together with the attendees, he’d play an intimate show. I bought two tickets for his Seattle engagement which took place in a pretty small house in Wallingford, perhaps 25 of us packed into the living room. I tried to get Melinda, Chloe, or Ella, my other daughter, to go with me, but they weren’t interested so I went by myself, squandering one ticket. It was so much fun and I had a great time talking to Jeremy about his music. Since then, Ella has become a fan and regrets not going. The lesson here, children? Listen to your parents.

#10 — “Tree of Forgiveness” — John Prine (2018)

We’ve come to the end of my 10 albums, Marc, and I’m wrapping it up by presenting John Prine’s “Tree of Forgiveness.” In making John Prine my last entry, I’m doing so with a nod to his career which is as impressive as any as far as I’m concerned. I bought my first John Prine record in 1984, even though his first album came out in 1971. I don’t recall really knowing who he was until 1984 and I try not to beat myself up about that. But those 13 years seem kind of wasted and I’ve spent the subsequent nearly four decades trying to make up for it. I’ve followed everything he’s done since then and regularly get in my musical time machine to go back to listen to what I’ve missed. If anyone has ever been able to sum up what it means to be an ordinary human, it’s John Prine. Like everything John Prine does, this record is really good. Some time, Marc, if you want, let’s go out for a beer and I’ll tell you about taking my mom to see John Prine in concert. It may be the best concert experience of my life.

Marc Burns on my 18th birthday in my bedroom in Bellevue (photo credit – me!)

What Were You Like as a Teenager?

(As a holiday gift in December 2022, Chloe, Ella & Alex provided me a gift subscription to something called Storyworth. Each week in 2023, I’m being provided a writing prompt designed to get me to reflect on some moment in my life. At the end of the year, my reflections will be printed in a bound book as a family keepsake. I have the option of editing or even selecting the prompts, as do Chloe, Ella & Alex. This is prompt #2.)

As a teacher, I often tell my students that if they could know everything about a topic they’d be seeing it with a 360 degree perspective. They could see inside and all around it, from every angle and with everything known.

On top of that, I say, we all know 100% of what we know. When you stop and think about it, that’s obvious, right? We know 100% of what we know. But we don’t stop to think about it and that’s a problem. Much of today’s divisiveness comes down to us thinking the 100% of what we know is a 360 degree perspective.

I make this point to try to help my students understand it’s important to be open to the perspectives of others.

Senior Year – I wish you could see the vest. It’s pink.

This all came to mind when I started thinking about the prompt, “What were you like as teenager?” I read it aloud to Melinda, my wife, who responded quickly with, “According to whom?”

Indeed, how many of the 360 degrees can I present in this essay about what I was like as a teenager? In other words, read the following with a grain of salt, knowing it was written by a near 60-year-old looking back.

Overall, I see my teen self as a loner. This isn’t to say I didn’t have friends. I did. And they were really good friends, too. I just look back and see myself standing away from my closest friends. Having to hustle away from school to get to my job as a bookstore clerk at Hunter’s Books was a regular part of my high school experience. In fact, my senior year I was working a 40 hour week and had configured my school schedule so I only had classes in the mornings.

But which came first, the wanting to be alone or accepting these shifts at the bookstore?

Outside Sammamish High School, 1980/81
Related, my most influential friend when I was a teen turned out to be someone in his mid-30’s, a man named Hank who came to work at Hunter’s during the summer of 1980, right before the beginning of my senior year. Hank and his wife Donna were in the process of walking from Alaska to Arizona as a way to bring attention to the Baha’i Faith, of which they were members. They ran out of money upon reaching the Seattle area and since Hank’s most recent job had been in a bookstore in Anchorage, he walked into Hunter’s and talked himself into a job.

There was something right away that drew Hank and me to each other. In Hank, I found a supporter for both my sensitive and rebellious sides. He read my sappy short stories and gave me feedback that resonated rather than insulted. He listened to my choice in records and pointed out deeper meanings in lyrics. My interest in thrift store clothes aligned with his and we often took his Thunderbird to Seattle’s seedier stores to tease out the best 75 cent shirts and jackets with half-used tubes of Preparation H in their pockets (true story). Looking back, I think Hank saw something in me that he could nurture, perhaps as a way to heal the nurturing he missed out on when he was a teen.

In December, Hank returned to Alaska to spend a month bussing tables for pipeline workers in the city of Barrow. Barrow, being at the northern-most point of Alaska, basically gets no sun for 30 days around the solstice, meaning it’s not a place many people choose to live in December. For working that month in a cafeteria, Hank made $10,000. And while the money made an impression on me, the independence and somewhat Bohemian lifestyle Hank demonstrated in going had a more significant impact. It stated that I didn’t have to follow my brothers, as I had to Hunter’s Books, to the University of Washington.

Hank and me in Alaska, 1982.

As a quick aside, I moved to Alaska, specifically the city of Seward, just over a year later to join Hank and Donna as a deejay at a tiny AM radio station where Hank had talked himself into another job, this time that of station manager. While I was a teen the entire time I was in Alaska, even celebrating my 19th birthday there during an airshift by blowing out candles on a birthday cake sent by mother inside a Tupperware container, I’ll leave that experience for another time.

Returning to my high school years and looking back on being a loner, I’m reminded how much I felt like myself when delivering The Seattle Times when I was 14, how my favorite hours at the bookstore were when I was working alone, and how I chose not to apply to college despite good grades and a high SAT score while all my school friends were signing up. Considering this now, I have this impression of not wanting to be unduly influenced by others. Keeping my distance, or whatever it is I did, may have been a way to retain my authenticity.

On the topic of authenticity, the whole concept of alcohol and drugs is probably worth mentioning. My first experience with alcohol was drinking vodka, I think, poured into half-consumed cans of Cragmont soda on a family outing to the coast. My brother Steve had smuggled in the booze in his suitcase. What I remember most about that night is laying in bed watching the overhead light spin. When I closed my eyes, I did the spinning. I was 15.

Over the next year, poker games that had taken place on Friday nights after my bookstore shift at my parents’ house moved to Pat Stull’s house a couple blocks away. His parents basically ignored us and he had a basement that was perfect for mixing poker, Canadian Mist whiskey, and occasionally some marijuana. While I indulged in the whiskey, I steadfastly avoided pot out of respect for my grandmother. When she quit smoking, cold turkey no less, after decades of cigarettes, I promised her I’d never take it up. Not deterred by my continued refusals, my best friend from 7th grade, Mike Simon, insisted he was going to get me high before we graduated. As it happened, one night at Pat’s, after drinking way too much Canadian Mist, I took 12 hits on Mike’s bong. I woke up at around 4am at the bottom of the basement stairs in a pool of my own vomit and with a bruise on my chin. Thank goodness I landed face down.

Smallman Family 1980

That morning, I had to open the bookstore at 9:30am. I managed to do that although I was white as a ghost, probably still a bit inebriated, and more than a little sick. Later that day, I took a longer-than-usual break to join the rest of my family at a photographer’s studio. We were having our family photo taken for my parents’ church directory, a photo I digitized and am including here. I was 16 when this happened, probably March of 1980.

That night, I called up my buddy Kevin Seal who was also at that party and who had a similar experience to mine. We went for a walk and I told him I was done with the drinking and high school partying. From that night, other than being paid several hundred dollars to down a shot glass of beer inside a trailer in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1983 (that’s another story), I didn’t touch alcohol again until I was a 22-year-old undergraduate at The Evergreen State College in 1985. That was well over five years.

Being a senior in high school in 1980-81 who didn’t drink both reduced and expanded my social opportunities. It reduced them because I think I sometimes didn’t get invited to get-togethers. More often, though, I didn’t want to go. It expanded them because people began to realize my value as a designated driver. Having had some stupid/scary experiences in cars in which the driver had been drinking, I was pleased to help my friends stay safe although I will say I didn’t see it as my responsibility.

Hmmm, what else… Ah, one more story comes to mind.

A stereotypical experience for an American high schooler involves football and my experience certainly echoes this. What stands out was how rabid we were encouraged to be as high schoolers when our football team, Sammamish, was facing our nearest neighbor, Interlake’s team. Classes would be cut short for the pep assembly the day of the game. The assembly involved the coach introducing the players who jogged out onto the gym floor in their letterman jackets through the pom-pom waving cheerleaders and our expected thunderous applause. I remember thinking how messed up these priorities were, what a mixed message the school was teaching us. Football and rooting for our side was more important than our classes (which, believe me, I didn’t think much of, either). These football players, these boys, were presented as more important than the rest of us.

Christmas 1980, the jumpsuit I wore to my high school graduation.
What also stood out was the divisiveness being encouraged by these assemblies and games. I understand now and even understood on some level then that it was supposed to be in good fun and designed to have us identify as part of our school. But in many ways we were taught to believe that we were better than the students at Interlake, that those students were our enemy. Is it any wonder that Interlake students defaced our mural while students from Sammamish stole Interlake’s sign? How does this play out with Conservatives hating Liberals and vice versa, with countries hating countries?

Where does peace on Earth actually begin?

My senior year, I didn’t attend any football games, I tried to graduate at the end of the first semester, I didn’t attend senior prom, and I reluctantly attended our graduation ceremony (in a camouflage jumpsuit, red shoes, and red bow tie)…

How Did You Get Your First Job?

(As a holiday gift in December 2022, Chloe, Ella & Alex provided me a gift subscription to something called Storyworth. Each week in 2023, I’m being provided a writing prompt designed to get me to reflect on some moment in my life. At the end of the year, my reflections will be printed in a bound book as a family keepsake. So nice! I have the option of editing or even selecting the prompts, as do Chloe, Ella & Alex. I chose this first one, “How Did You Get Your First Job?”)

Commonly, when telling people about my first job, what comes to mind is from 1979 when I started as a clerk at Hunter’s Books, a small bookstore in the Crossroads Shopping Center in Bellevue, WA. Hunter’s was a small chain with headquarters in California. There were two branches in Bellevue, a larger one in Bellevue Square and our quaint shop at Crossroads, not far from our house on the edge of Lake Hills.

How I got the job is pretty straightforward but does require some explanation. The manager of the Crossroads store was the mother of one of Scott’s high school friends, Scott being my eldest brother. Since Scott turned 16 in August of 1975 and you had to be 16 to have a job, he probably got the job soon after that although it may have been in 1976 or even 1977.

Scott at Hunter’s Books, late 1970’s
Jobs for high schoolers back then were mostly restricted to restaurant work, bussing tables or washing dishes. And I have a recollection of Scott doing that. But at some point, he started working at Hunter’s. I assume the manager liked his work ethic so when an opening came up, Steve, my other brother, got a job at Hunter’s, likely around the time he turned 16 in 1978.

History repeated itself when a clerk left Hunter’s soon before my 16th birthday, which was in May of 1979, and I was hired. Steve and I sometimes worked together but mostly we worked opposite shifts. Weekday shifts would be after school, beginning around 3pm and ending at 9pm when the store closed. Weekend shifts would be all day on Saturdays, 9-5pm, and Sundays from 12-5pm, the hours the store was open. On the weekday shifts, we would work with the day crew, middle age women whose work seemed as much a social gathering as selling books, until they left at 5pm.

Smallman Family, 1980
From 5-9pm we worked by ourselves, which was a great thing. We’d change the radio station from the classical music preferred by the manager to the “new wave” station, KZAM, that had rocketed into our consciousness in 1979. Working by ourselves in the early evening also allowed us to get our homework done at the store. Other than a “movie rush” (there was a theater next door), it would be pretty quiet. To close up, we’d clear the cash register of the day’s receipts, enter them into a simple ledger, and make the night deposit at the bank around the corner.

Steve and I alternated working on Saturdays and Sundays. Saturdays, we had a co-worker, Magda, who was probably in her mid to late 20’s but seemed much older than that to me. All things considered, she was pleasant and reliable. I remember telling her about the police scanner I’d received for Christmas in 1979 and then the fancier one I saved up to buy a year later. She was interested so I brought it in and when it was quiet in the store we listened to local police and fire department calls behind the counter. On Sundays, Steve and I worked by ourselves, opening and closing the store on our own.

At the time, the amount of responsibility we were afforded didn’t really occur to me. But we had a key to the store, handled the cash, did the bookkeeping, and made bank deposits. By the time I was a senior in high school and Steve had left Hunter’s to attend the University of Washington, I was working a 40 hour week and had acquired the unofficial title of Night & Weekend Manager. I was able to craft my school schedule around my shifts at the bookstore. I don’t recall my exact hourly rate but it started at something like $2.10/hour. Not having other expenses, I saved up what I earned and sometime in 1980 used it to buy a component stereo system to the tune of around $1000. All in all, it was a great high school job.

Okay, so I began this essay by saying that I commonly refer to working at Hunter’s as my first job. Indeed, it was the first job I had in which I received an actual paycheck and had taxes withheld. But one of the most formative experiences I had as a young teen was the nine months I worked as paperboy when I was in 9th grade.

Andy, 9th grade
One of my best friends at the time, Pat Stull, was the “shack manager” in our neighborhood for The Seattle Times. A “shack manager” was a kid who received the daily papers at the shack, a tiny structure quickly constructed in neighborhoods throughout the region for The Seattle Times to drop off home delivery papers, and divided them into piles for the neighborhood paperboys to pick up based on the size of their routes. Pat told me that a route was opening up so I pursued it.

I took the offered job almost on a whim, not really realizing how much being a paperboy interfered with one’s daily routine. You worked every day, right after school on the weekdays so no hanging out with friends, and got up before the dawn on weekends (my alarm woke me up at 4:52am). You also had to collect the subscription fees directly from the customers on your route and then pay The Seattle Times for the papers you’d received that month. Whatever was left over, including if anyone was kind enough to tip you, you’d get to keep. When all was said and done, I made about $1/day so probably less than $300 for those nine months.

The experience was formative because once I picked up the papers and started walking to my route, it became almost meditative for me. The neighborhood had a serene feel on the weekdays, a time of day just before day workers were getting home. And while the darkness of the weekend mornings initially scared me, I came to enjoy the stillness of this time of day. The quiet, broken only by the sounds of my walking or, on Sundays, the sound of the paper cart (Sunday papers were too heavy to carry so paperboys pulled them in a cart), made it easy for me to imagine I was the only person alive. I made a point of putting every paper on the doorstep and on rainy days putting them inside the storm door if there was one. To this day, when I see a newspaper far from someone’s porch I get a little smile at the thoughtfulness of my 14-year-old self.

One other “job” I’d like to mention came when I was in the 3rd grade, I think. I don’t recall all of the details but the feelings are pretty clear. What I remember is sitting at our kitchen table with my family and talking about door-to-door salespeople. My paternal grandfather worked for a company called Mason Shoes and one way their shoes were sold was by salespeople going door-to-door. For some reason, this really appealed to me so I decided right then and there to become a door-to-door Mason Shoes salesperson!

Andy the Shoe Salesman, early 1970’s
My family didn’t dissuade me, at least not by my recollection, so the next thing I remember is putting on a suit and tie, affixing a pocket protector in my suit jacket pocket and putting in some pens, grabbing a briefcase and a Mason Shoes catalogue, and getting ready to head out the door. While I don’t have pictures of me as a paperboy or at Hunter’s Books, my appearance must have been either humorous or adorable enough for my parents to have snapped the accompanying photo.

My final recollection of this experience is more of the feeling variety. I’m pretty sure I started out the door but got cold feet and never managed to knock on any doors or ring any doorbells despite what I now think was mock encouragement from my brothers. Who knows, maybe a nifty career as a shoe salesperson got thwarted that day.

So now here at the end of this essay, what do you think was my first job – bookstore clerk, newspaper boy, or shoe salesman?

Hearts Expand By Expressing Gratitude

Each interaction we have with people opens a metaphorical circle. Simple interactions, like those we have passing a stranger on the street, cause the circles to open and close quickly without much work on our parts. But those interactions we have with people in which something significant takes place create larger circles with larger openings. To close these requires more mindful awareness of our responsibilities in the relationship.

If we move through life learning to open and close our circles with mindful awareness we live happier, more fulfilled lives. Those of us with lots of unclosed circles experience a “cluttered” feeling in our interactions because we have so much unfinished business with others.

With this explanation, I introduced my kindness class to their new assignment – to do something kind for someone who at some point in their lives had helped them. At its core, the assignment was intended to help my students identify circles that were left open in their lives and to try to close one.

“If more people did this the world would be a better place.” So said Elizabeth at our next class session. She was actually quoting what was said to her by the wife of one of her college professors, the person she chose to be the recipient of her kind action.

Elizabeth explained, “In college, I was in my senior year and paying my own way. I got a notification that my bill was unpaid and I wasn’t going to graduate. My professor and his family suggested I stay with them to save on room and board. After all these years, I was able to thank him for his kindness. Without it, I don’t think I could have gone on in my schooling, met my fabulous spouse and got my wonderful job, also teaching. I think we will correspond for a long time, a kindness for both of us.”

People who have helped us, been generous toward us, or have served as a source of inspiration for us are our benefactors. These folks come into our lives to help light our way on our own unique paths.

And they often come into our lives in a way and at a time in which we may not fully appreciate them. This can be, perhaps, for reasons having to do with our youth, how hectic our lives are at the time, or for a number of other reasons. We often best recognize their influence in hindsight.

Other students shared their experiences, including:

  • “When I suddenly found myself alone with five small children and very little money, a friend offered help without unsolicited advice or criticism, including organizing a painting party for my dilapidated house. Today, ten years after her untimely death, I placed flowers on her grave. Her widower and (now) grown children were surprised and touched to find me there…”
  • “I called my cousin this evening to more fully express my gratitude and why I sent her the mum plant. We both had tears and laughter as we talked. A full 35 minutes of deep connecting and appreciating of each other. Yes, we’ve said it and we say it often, but decidedly acknowledging and honoring that gratitude more fully makes it come alive in my own being, and my heart expands from the activity of expressing this gratitude.”

This assignment required Elizabeth and the rest of the students to think about the past, to bring something positive from their lives into the present to both relive and more fully appreciate it. Bringing these stories into the present helped the students acknowledge their importance.

Expressing their gratitude for their benefactors then helped them close the “circle of the story” and feel a profound sense of satisfaction. In closing a circle left open, some of them also were excited to open a new one.

Also of importance, the kindness extended to the benefactors included a solid kindness for the students, too. The statement, “my heart expands from the activity of expressing this gratitude” summarizes this concept perfectly and poetically.

Personal Memoir From My Mom #4

(Here’s the next in a series of memoirs my 89-year-old mother is writing as she looks back on her life. She’s been taking a memoir writing class at my parents’ retirement community. If you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section below. To see the other memoirs I’ve posted so far, visit these quick links: Memoir #1 || Memoir #2 || Memoir #3 –Andy)

Short Stay

by Carib Smallman

When I finished fifth grade at Lynnbrook Elementary School, Bethesda, Maryland, I took my big train trip to spend the summer with Gom and Pop. Dad was recovering from his surgery and learning what he was able to do and not do. His boss at the Geological Survey brought several pages of work to our house to determine whether Dad could return to the office. Dad realized that would not be an option, at least not at that point.

Gom & Pop’s house. Carib’s room is the one in the upper right.
My grandparents were terribly concerned and wanted to help. They convinced my parents that a move to Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a good solution. We could move into their three-bedroom house comfortably. Mother and Dad would have Dad’s room when he was in high school, I had the ‘guest bedroom’ that I considered mine and of course Gom and Pop had theirs. I was already there; Mother rented our Bethesda house and she and Dad joined us at the end of the summer.

In September I started sixth grade at Dickenson Elementary School, across the street from my grandparents’ house. The school was very different from what I was used to. Most of the students started in September, but others in the same classroom started mid-year. I felt unsettled. I wasn’t happy that I was made to change the way I learned to write cursive. Everyone in Grand Rapids used the Palmer Method. We spent an hour each day writing aaaaa or eeeee or ooooo across a lined sheet of paper. Boring! I had been learning Maryland history. Here history, naturally, was about Michigan. I found it difficult to change.

I was managing in Grand Rapids, but Mother was really unhappy. She didn’t have much to do since Gom had her routine and stuck to it. Pop was still working so was gone most weekdays. While I was out of the house schooldays and with other kids, Mother and Dad were stuck in the house, except for the walk they took daily.

Carib’s family in Grand Rapids, Michigan – L-R: Mother, Gom, Pop, Dad
Mother had never admitted to Gom that she smoked. When my parents visited she never smoked in front of Gom and Pop. Pop probably would have been fine with it, but not Gom. Obviously, Mother had to ‘fess up. I’m sure that Gom was not happy to have Mother smoking in her house. I can remember walking to the nearby drug store and standing in line with Mother so she could buy a pack of cigarettes. She sometimes bought loose tobacco and paper. She had a strange gismo to roll the cigarettes. I thought it was fun when she let me do it.

Mother and Dad must have had long talks about the future. I am sure neither of them expected to live like this for long. Mother needed a paying job. As the semester was ending, I was told that we were returning to Bethesda. I was more than happy to return to my house, school and friends.

Dad’s friends and former fellow workers assured Mother that she could have a job with them. Not my independent mother! She would find her own job. Mother landed a position as an editor with the US Information Agency, the publishing branch of the Voice of America. She started as a GS-3, what I was years later when I worked summers for the government. After twenty plus years she retired as a GS-11. Quite an accomplishment!

Carib in the driveway next to Pop’s car.
Mother loved that job! She had always been a reader, whatever was available, from cereal boxes to the dictionary. Now she was reading and being paid to do it. She was assigned the Christian Science Monitor Newspaper and several magazines to read. From them she chose articles that put the USA in a good light. She edited the pieces, sent them to the translators after which they were distributed around the world as ‘propaganda’, during the war and thereafter.

As Dad learned to compensate for his lack of vision, he became chief cook and grocery shopper. He would walk the mile to Safeway and carry two full bags of necessities home. During the summer and holidays from school I often walked with him so we could purchase more rationed items. Our small family settled into a new routine that worked to the satisfaction of us all. I never felt that we were less well off than our neighbors and friends. I just loved us all being together again. Just us.

Appreciate Your Mundane Tasks

We all have repetitious tasks that may seem tedious, even boring to do, so much so that we might complete them on auto-pilot. But these are often the tasks that need to get to done to ensure the bigger projects get done.

If it helps, think about what happens to your teeth if you don’t brush them every day.

This also holds true in our relationships with others, be they personal or professional. In the relationship dynamic, we all have tedious jobs to complete in order for the relationship to work.

For a little exercise, get out a pen and piece of paper and write down at least five tedious tasks you do that enhance one of your personal relationships.

If you’ve chosen a home relationship and you live with others, your list might include grocery shopping, doing the laundry and/or the dishes, making the bed, cleaning the bathrooms, changing the toilet paper roll…

In all likelihood, your list quickly grew to more than five tasks.

Next, consider what kind of breakdown would occur if you didn’t do one of the tasks. For instance, if your list includes grocery shopping and you don’t do it, there won’t be food in the house. And if there isn’t food in the house, what would happen next?

People would be hungry?

You’d have to eat out, which might mean you wouldn’t be eating healthy food, and you might go over your budget, thus impacting your plans for an upcoming vacation?

Again, you can likely extend this pretty far and pretty quickly, including the lack of food having a negative impact on your relationships.

As I said earlier, the point here is that the little tasks getting done is what leads to the bigger projects happening. When you do the grocery shopping, for instance, you are saving toward the family’s summer vacation.

Now it’s all well and good to simply think about the little tasks that WE, ourselves, do. It’s a more challenging exercise to identify the little tasks others do and from which we derive benefit.

In other words, who else in your relationship dynamic is doing the little things in a way that helps ensure your family will get to go on its summer vacation?

On your paper, try to write down five tedious tasks that are done by someone else in a personal relationship with you. You’ll likely find this to be more difficult to do than creating your list of tasks, the reason being that we tend to take for granted the tasks completed by others.

We are even more likely to take them for granted when they are done consistently, for the simple reason that we don’t notice them being done. For instance, if doing the laundry isn’t on your list, the fact that you have clean underwear in your drawer is due to the efforts of someone else.

With these things in mind, consider the word “synergy,” which, at its root, means “working together.” In practice, the word has come to mean working together WELL.

When there is food in the house and underwear in the drawers, and hundreds of other things are completed and/or available, there is synergy at play. This synergy allows for smooth functioning in the home, which stabilizes the home lives of everyone.

So think again about those little tasks you do, but do so with this awareness of synergy. You are contributing to the smooth working of your home.

Further, we all have had times in which we are functioning so well with others that we feel we are part of a whole. It is at these times that we gain glimpses of the concept that we are part of something greater than ourselves. This form of synergy awareness is warming and provides us energy.

Here’s another way to think about the ideas of synergy and that we all are part of something bigger than ourselves:

Holographic images can be recorded on glass. Looking at them, they appear 3-D despite being in 2-D form, and seen from different angles give you the look of seeing the image from different perspectives. Further, if the glass that holds the image is broken, each piece contains the whole image. It’s not like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that have to be reassembled to form a whole.

Each piece CONTAINS the whole (learn more here).

With that in mind, consider the value each member of a team plays in making the whole team function, like the five basketball players on the floor during a game, that have to work together well in order for any one of them to excel.

Next, consider that every person on a team is one piece of glass of a broken hologram, each piece containing the whole. Seen like this, our responsibility as individuals is to contribute positively to the whole, to do our part to make sure the team functions at its best.

Now apply this same concept to those with whom you share a home.

Are you familiar with the Dr. Seuss book “Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?” Many people see this book, intended for children, as a way to focus on how to feel better about their lives by comparing them to the lives of less fortunate, albeit silly, characters.

For instance, this quote comes from page 24:

And poor Mr. Potter,
T-crosser,
I-dotter.
He has to cross t’s
and he has to dot i’s
in and I-and-T factory
out in Van Nuys.
Yes, poor Mr. Potter.

These may seem like meaningless tasks he has to do, but if Mr. Potter doesn’t do them, an attention to detail is lost that will contribute to a significant problem down the line, just like what would happen if you didn’t do the grocery shopping or someone else didn’t doing the laundry.

As such, I encourage you to appreciate when you have to be Mr. Potter and to acknowledge when others are doing their “Mr. Potter” tasks. Extended to our places of businesses, to our cities, to our country, and to the world, it’s how everything keeps functioning.

Ultimately, we’ll come to appreciate that it’s completing the repetitious tasks in our lives that move us closer to peace on earth.

Personal Memoir From My Mom #3

(My mom is continuing with her wonderful memoir writing, providing a gift of her memories in writing to the rest of the family. With this one, her third, about a train trip she took by herself when she was 10, we don’t have relevant photos. I’ve decided to include a couple from roughly that time period as I think the writing is enhanced with pictures. If you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section below. Find the first two memoirs via these quick links: Memoir #1 || Memoir #2 –Andy)

My Big Train Trip

by Carib Smallman

Each summer my parents and I drove to my father’s parents’ (Gom and Pop) home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mother and Dad would stay for a few days, before they left for Nebraska where Dad worked each summer. When they returned we would drive back to Washington. The summer after my father’s serious surgery, he was unable to work, but my parents decided I should spend the summer with my grandparents as usual. I was excited remembering all the fun I always had at the cottage.

How to get me there was a problem. To arrive in Grand Rapids from Washington D.C. by train takes a change of trains. I would turn 11 years old in July, a bit young to handle changing trains by myself. After conferring with Gom and Pop, the decision was made that I could ride the train to the Jackson, Michigan, station. Gom and Pop would drive to Jackson and be at the station to meet me. I was a bit hesitant at first: I would be all by myself. Mother and Dad assured me I could do it. They gave me the confidence to trust myself.

Carib’s paternal grandparents – Gom & Pop.
Soon after school dismissed for the summer, Mother and I packed a suitcase with my clothes. A carry-on had food, pajamas and books. Mother explained I would board the train after lunch and arrive in Michigan after breakfast. Gom and Pop would be there to meet me. My memory is of excitement . . . not worry or fear.

Friends drove Mother and me to the station, and Mother walked me to the Pullman car. “Take good care of her,” I heard Mother say to the Porter as she handed him a tip and walked toward the station’s exit. It makes my heart hurt when I think how she must have felt as she watched me disappear into the train. I felt the same way the first time each of our sons left on his own.

I learned a lot about trains on that trip. Passengers with upper berths, as I had, sat facing the end of the train watching where we had been. The upper berth pulled down from above the seats. The two seats made up the lower berth. For privacy there were curtains for each berth that snapped closed. The Porter prepared the beds while passengers were at dinner. I remember travelling with Al when we rode the train from Salt Lake City to Denver. It made me smile as I discovered all was the same as I had first experienced it years before.

Many of the passengers in my train car were travelling because of the war. A U.S. Army Major sat down across from me. (I felt proud to know he was a major because my friend, a Lieutenant Colonel, had taught me that a silver maple leaf insignia was a Lt. Colonel and a golden maple leaf was a major.) The Major was very nice to me. I am sure that we talked, but the exciting happening was that he took me to the dining car for dinner. We had to walk through several cars to reach the dinning car. I learned that as you walk between cars you are ‘outside’. You can see the coupling holding the car to the rest of the train. I have no idea what I ate but I was impressed that the waiters wore white shirts and black bow ties. After dinner the Major walked me back to our car. The beds were ready. The Major suggested I take my toothbrush to the bathroom at the end of the car and get ready for bed. The Porter told me if I needed anything to call him. Then he put a ladder up to my berth and up I went. It was like a hidey hole, snug and comfy. I changed into my pjs, got out my book and read until I fell asleep.

Carib & her parents, Christmas time.
Morning came and I quickly dressed and ate some of the snacks that Mother had packed for me. The Porter came and showed me where to sit while he put the seats and upper berth back together. Shortly after returning to my seat he was telling me that next time the train stopped we would be at my destination. The train slowed to a stop. The porter had my things ready by the exit. How happy I was to see Gom and Pop waiting as I got off the train! I felt very proud of myself and pleased that I had acted very grown up and able to be alone.

It was a different world in wartime America. I recall the musketeer attitude: “All for one and one for all.” As I look back I realize how much I benefitted from the kindness of strangers. Today I wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing a 10 year old, especially a girl, to travel alone anywhere, much less on an overnight train trip.

Focusing Our Attention on the Profound

(I’m reviewing articles I’ve written for my professional website, narrowing them down to some favorites. Here’s the first, which focuses on a life lesson I received from a respected teacher and try to pass along to some of my students who I think might appreciate it.)

I’ve often told my students an allegory that was told to me by one of my most important teachers when I was a young adult, the story of two people walking at dawn one morning, the rising sun at their backs. One paused and turned to look at the beautiful sunrise, awed by its beauty. Wanting to share it, he tapped the shoulder of his friend, who turned to look and was equally awed.

I invite my students to stop and consider this story, to contemplate it for its meaning or meanings. One comes from recognizing the important role we have to help those in our lives be aware of meaningful things.

Related to that, however, is the truth that try as we might, we can never MAKE another person be aware of something. We may WANT to share things with others, but they still have to turn, literally and/or metaphorically, to see them. THEY have to do the physical and mental work.

If my students get to that understanding, I’m pleased.

As I’ve gotten older, interestingly, I’ve found what has become an even bigger lesson for me from this story. It’s that we all are being tapped on our shoulders all the time. Every second of every day, we are being offered the opportunity to see meaningful things.

Many of us wonder who or what does what I’m calling this shoulder-tapping. Call it Source, or Light, or Intelligence, or God, or some other name. For my purposes, though, putting a name to what taps us is not the most important thing.

What’s important is to recognize that we are being tapped and to practice focusing our attention. In other words, I have the responsibility to do the physical and mental work, to turn and look, so to speak.

As I’ve gained experience doing this, I’ve learned that there is discipline involved in the practice. Undisciplined, my attention is drawn to all sorts of things — negative news stories, certain uses of social media, drama from the sports world — each of which distracts me from what is actually meaningful.

I sometimes even fool myself into believing the distracting things are important.

Disciplined, I learn to see the difference between the distracting and the divine, between the pointless and the profound. In time, I find that I’ve started to internally filter out the things that distract me, which better enables me to gently focus on the divine and the profound.

Like a sunrise.

Personal Memoir From My Mom #2

(As I mentioned last month, my mom is taking a memoir writing class at her retirement community. I continue to encourage her to allow me to publish what she’s been writing so others have easy access to these lovely remembrances. Here’s the second one she’s agreed to release. And as I said last time, if you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section below. –Andy)

New House

by Carib Smallman

Our first family home in Omaha on 69th St – Al holding Steve. Scott in front, holding my hand. I’m pregnant with Andy.
Having outgrown our three-bedroom home on 69th Street in Omaha, we purchased a four-bedroom house in Ralston, on the edge of Omaha. The outside was a vivid yellow, as were almost all the rooms inside. We were told the former owner worked for Sears. He must have scored a terrific sale on yellow paint!

Yellow is not my favorite color. Nothing I could do about the outside but I could paint the inside. As usual Al was busy on the road, so I spent all spring hopping into my car as soon as the boys left for school, painting until time to return to greet their home- coming. Each son had chosen the color for his bedroom walls, as well as the carpeting. Scott, our oldest, picked the long narrow room and asked for the short walls to be black and the long walls to be white. He selected bright red carpet. Steve, our avid reader and night owl, chose the room with the ‘hidey place’ in the closet over the stairs. Walls and carpet for him were his favorite green. Andy, excited to have a room of his own, took the remaining bedroom, and opted for blue for his carpet and walls.

Covering up all that yellow was difficult. The horrific yellow color bled through blue, green and white but, surprise, not black. It meant three coats of paint instead of two. I was exhausted but pleased to finally finish; permitting the installation of the carpeting. This enabled us to move in as soon as the boys finished the school year. I never wanted to see another yellow room!

I was sad to leave our neighborhood friends who had become like family; Elders, Drakes, Frolios, Brooks and we had become close as we had similar experiences with our first house and kids of similar ages. Three of us were stay-at-home moms. We had celebrated many great events together over the ten years we lived on 69th Street. I told myself we weren’t moving so far away that we could never see them.

We lived on Lakeview Drive in Omaha for so short of a time that there aren’t many photos of the house. Here we are with Al’s mother. Note the yellow of the house.
How wonderful it felt to have more room. We settled into the house, met our new neighbors and found nearby shopping areas. September arrived and the boys were pleased with their new schools. Scott especially appreciated being in ninth grade in High School; he still would have been in Junior High in Omaha. Steve talked us into adopting a puppy. Gretel, a purebred, miniature longhair dachshund, with papers, became a part of our family. She was a bit too large to be a show dog so we were able to purchase her for a reasonable price.

Halloween was a week away when Al arrived home with exciting news. He was receiving a pay raise! But. . .we had to move. Move! Now? We hadn’t had time to feel at home in our newly painted house! And that meant we would really be leaving all our friends.

“We have a choice,” Al said. “Which do you think, Oklahoma City or Seattle?” To me it wasn’t a choice. Having grown up on the East Coast (Washington D. C.) and lived in the Central United States (Michigan, Colorado and Nebraska), I was ready for the West Coast. Seattle it was!

In January, Al took off to start working the Pacific Northwest territory. While in the Seattle area he checked out different neighborhoods and looked at a number of houses. By February he had discovered several areas and houses that seemed promising, so I flew out to Seattle to look at what he had found. He would be traveling a great deal and thought it would be helpful to be near the airport. His territory included Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

Our house in Bellevue on SE 17th St. This photo was taken within a few years of us moving in.
Al’s first choice was a nice house near Angle Lake and SeaTac airport. Upon investigating the local school systems we found Bellevue appeared to be the best fit for our boys. Returning to the Bellevue houses we had toured, the first one on 17th Street was sold, but the other that had been finished in the fall and was sitting empty was still available. We revisited another house a few miles away. It had possibilities. Back to 17th Street which dead ended into Phantom Lake. Each house on the north side of the street had special access to the lake. The boys would love that, and everything inside was new and clean. We bought it. I took pictures, inside and out, to show the boys.

We sold our house in Ralston more quickly than expected. Wonderful! We could join Al in Washington State as soon as possible.

When the boys saw the pictures of their new ‘home-to-be’, the first thing they said was; “Mom, you said you never would live in another yellow house!” Yes, the aluminum siding on the new house was yellow AND the kitchen appliances were all yellow! Never say never!