Last Man Standing

This is a photograph of me, my grandfather, my uncle, and my dog. I have no idea when it was taken, but from the house and my hair I'm guessing it was about 1982.

I almost tossed it into another stack of stuff until I realized that everyone in this photograph is dead, but me.

This was one of those moments you never plan for, because you can't. It's the kind of awareness that hits you over and over again in middle age. I wish I knew more about Buddhism, because their thinking about impermanence is so valuable, and so much clearer headed about change than my own Christian traditions. In fact, everything in that picture has moved on.

My dog went first. I wasn't there. At that time, I was living on an island in the Puget Sound at a YMCA camp. I had a message in my box to call my mother, which I did from the staff phone. I hung up after my mother told me that she found Pongo peacefully curled up in the morning after being mostly miserable for the last few weeks of his life. My step brother buried him in the back yard. 

I wept openly because no one was there. Eventually a man named Steve Spaulding, who managed the camp, saw me crying and asked what was wrong. I sniffed and wiped my face with the back of my sleeve like a little kid and told him my dog had died. He just looked into the trees, pulled me into his arms and said, "Dammit, Todd. I'm so sorry."

Poppa Bob was the next to go. I got the call two years later when I was in graduate school in northern Arizona. My mother said plainly, "Poppa Bob died today, Todd." I remember asking what happened, and she said, "It's taken a long time for him to go, but after we went to see him last Christmas it seems like he felt he could go. Nana says there was a giant double rainbow right over the house. She couldn't see it, but everyone in Chinook did, and it felt like something out of the ordinary was going on."

I felt relieved by the news. Poppa Bob had been sick for a decade or more. At one point, early on, he apparently had some kind of heart attack in his chair, and because he was a physician, he got out his own stethoscope, listened to his own heart, and said to himself, "If I call Lucia, they can get an ambulance here, and they can get me to a hospital in Havre and I'll have a 60/40 chance of surviving, but I'll be a mess for the rest of my life. If I do nothing, I'll be dead in an hour."

He decided to live out the rest of his years as an invalid. There are very few people left in this world who have the character and skills to make choices like that.

Poppa Bob and I spent a day together few months prior to his death, and he went through a lot of old stories about WW II that my mother said he'd never told anyone. He let me go through a bunch of his papers from the military. We laughed a lot. From my position now, I can tell that he knew then that his time was going to come.

On the phone, my mother said it would be really difficult to get me to the funeral, and Poppa Bob wouldn't not have wanted me to leave school. Instead I wrote a eulogy and faxed it up to Northern Montana, which my mother read at the service. I was told that there wasn't room for everyone who came. His life and career was an influential part of that section of northern Montana. Someday I need to tell it.

A few weeks ago, my Mother sent me a text message about my Uncle Steve, which came during a faculty meeting. Again, the message was plain and unadorned.

"Your Uncle Steve died this morning. Details coming." I just sat there, and the words other people were saying broke into pieces and dropped to the floor. My cousin and sister were included in the text message, and their responses buzzed in during the meeting. I don't remember what the meeting was about.

Steve had stroke a year ago, and I thought he'd had a second one, but I learned from another text that he died of diverticulitis, which basically meant he'd died from ruptured intestines, which the doctors told my mother might be one of the most painful ways to die. Instead of getting help, he just lay in bed, suffering until he died.

Steve's story is complicated and pretty messed up. It's not worth going into, but I was, quite frankly, glad to hear he'd passed. It was really better for everyone. We think he knew he would die if he did nothing, so, like my grandfather (his father-in-law) he made a conscious choice about his life. In this case, he chose to commit suicide over the course of three days. His weapon of choice was a run away infection.

All of these thoughts and more broke loose this weekend, when I hovered over this picture. I wondered who in my family would pick up this photograph at some point in the future (I hope decades from now, but who knows) and say to themselves: "Everyone in this photograph is gone." 

How long before everyone in all of the photographs is gone?



Are You My Mummy?

NOTE: this is an old post that got hung up in the draft phase for over a year. Ever since I first saw this Diane Arbus photograph, about twelve years ago, I have been enamored of it. I have also been envious of it, upset by it, even obsessed by it. It seems like this kid caught Arbus off guard. He challenged her. It lacks the ironic distancing that is so common in her work.

It's so crazy looking and off the cuff and weird and in your face. It's a pretty famous image, so I know that others have had some kind of similar response to it, maybe not the same identical one that I've had, but something that punches me in the guts.

Today at a Halloween party, I got the chance to get into that Arbus territory with a picture of my son, Ike, in his Doctor Who inspired costume.

It's from the 2005 episode "The Empty Child" The boy Ike is dressed as is named Jaime, a child who was killed during the Blitz but who was resurrected (sort of) by some alien creatures but had his gasmask genetically fused to his face. He goes around asking everyone, "Are you my mummy?" It's pretty chilling in the show.

This costume was Ike's idea. My wife, Alisa, put it all together. She made the gas mask herself, which is pretty impressive.

And I got the shot.



Childhood is Awesome

Being a kid rules. Being a parent of kids like this rules.

I mean, seriously, when did we all decide that it's not cool to wear a construction paper headband with kangaroo ears stapled to the sides?

Alisa and I are (obviously) awaiting the arrival of another little boy. Could be any day now. We've both been thinking a lot about what it means to be a parent, and what it means to get these kids raised in such a way that they can (a) function, (b) succeed, and (c) rock this world. It takes time and it takes patience and it takes a willingness to make all kinds of mistakes, but it is really the coolest thing I've ever done, which is why we want to do it again.

Sure, there will be lots of crying and sleeplessness, and poop, but there are also moments you get when your shy daughter gets on stage to sing and dance and when your son says, "Wait, let's stop and clean my room, Zoë. If we don't, I won't be able to have any screens tomorrow."

I have more to say on my style of fathering (cheeseburger + Marvel Comics iPad app), but suffice it to say, I've been feeling kind of glowy and happy about being a dad lately.

My Doctor is Five

I will be the first to admit that this kid is a little obsessed right now with Doctor Who, but given all the possible things in this world a little boy could become obsessed about, I am okay with a hero who doesn't like guns or things military, who gives every creature in the universe a choice and a chance, who thinks that human beings are "brilliant." And, he could totally be the Doctor if they ever needed a five-year-old blonde version.

The thing is, this stuff (hair, screwdriver, etc.) is pretty much all his idea. Even the pose here was 100% his. He got all set up like this and marched off to church, gaining all kinds of attention, mostly from old ladies who wanted to gobble him up and lick the sweetness off their fingers.

More photos from the shoot at Facebook.

Three Dimensions

This could easily be one of my favorite photos of Ike. Can you like one of your own photos that way? Don't care. It breaks lots of rules. Don't care. It makes our house look so space opera-y. And that's a bad thing?

Now that the holidays are here, I'm going to attempt a few posts. Are blogs still something? Don't know. I am growing tired of Facebook, a little. Twitter is so scattered. Perhaps the focus of the blog will feel, I don't know...kind of retro.

Finally Got the Zoë Portrait

It took a while, but we finally have a full set of portraits, now to send off for printing, then matte, frame, and hang in the house. I was shooting for naturalistic, informal portraits that focus more on what the family feels like. It think it all worked out.

Add One of Ike, Too

What started with a lens and camera calibration check is turning out to be a full fledged family portrait project. I think these photographs really capture personality as well as the look of each person at this point in our lives. Here's the five-year-old, Ike. Next will be to catch the elusive critter, Zoë Ingrid.

A New Look

I've been toying with making some changes to the beard, which has gone basically unaltered for more than a decade, actually for almost twenty years. So, after buying some Doobie Brothers vinyl yesterday, I decided to grab my clippers and carve a little 70s out of my face.

I went about my business today, and a really curious thing happened. Tons of people in town and up at the reservoir and all over started talking to me about fishing and cars and guy stuff. It's like this new look is professor camo. I might keep it.

Zion National Park, Zhang Yimou-Style

For those of you who haven't been following my recent exploits, early summer is when I start doing my Partners in the Parks projects. Partners is a program I run with my colleague Matt Nickerson, the Southern Utah University honors director. The gist of it is this: we take college honors students to national parks for a week at a time. They hike, learn from professors and rangers about park management and resources, and really get a deep experience instead of a four hour drive through, which is common for most Americans. We're funded through a National Parks Service grant, and we get some pretty amazing access. This summer I'll be leading or advising projects in Zion National Park, Grand Canyon-Parashant (in the remote NW section of the Grand Canyon, and Denali National Park in Alaska. We'll also be exploring new possibilities for projects in Olympic National Park in Washington, Great Basin, King's Canyon, and Sequoia. We also have projects that I am not directly overseeing in Cape Hatteras and Manhattan (many are unaware of the many, many urban NPS sites).

For the last two days I've been hiking through an upper section of Zion National Park, called Kolob Canyons. This morning we awoke to snow. We knew it was coming, but we sort of hoped we'd be wrong about that. It made for a miserable slog: lots of mud and being cold, but it was spellbindingly beautiful.

I kept expecting to see Chinese warriors flying overhead with spears and flowing silk robes, engaging in silent battle between the sandstone ramparts and the mist.

Today was hard going, but it was very beautiful. It was a good day, all in all, because I had good gear, I was in pretty good shape, and I was at work.

Anything Goes

Cole Porter was right. "In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked at as something shocking, now heaven knows...Anything Goes." More than that marketing seems to know everything and nothing at the same time. They haven't a shred of decency at all. That we know, that we know.

So, today I was in the Wal-Mart, getting chewable Tylenol and two things of photocopy paper, and I walk past a candy display, seemingly innoccuous. Upon closer inspection, I noticed a product that was at once so, absolutely hip to popular culture, and so utterly without shame that I felt what I can only call the Postmodern Sublime.

Elvis Peanut Butter Cups