My new documentary film, “The Story Quilter’s Threads,” ends with this moving story about a 40-year romance between a dairy farmer and Kent State University professional.
The Crescent Farm barn in Rome Township has a beautiful barn quilt that hints at the farm’s clandestine past.
In the fall of 2016 I embarked upon the most ambitious writing project of my life, crafting a history of Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio.
Why? For more than two decades, The Harbor was the greatest iron ore receiving port in the world. More iron ore flowed through this port and to the mills of Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pa., than through any other port. Immigrants built the railroads that linked the lake to the Ohio River and steel mills, and then worked on the docks unloading the vessels with shovels and wheelbarrows.
“Lively times” reported the Ashtabula Telegraph in July 1873, when the first ore boat arrived in The Harbor. Thousands more, each year progressively larger, would arrive at The Harbor. Brown Hoists replaced shovels, Huletts replaced Brown Hoists, and eventually the self-unloaders and demise of the domestic steel industry ended it all.
And before ore there were schooners and passengers steamers and a curse on ships built at Ashtabula Harbor. And during the ore boom there were saloons, murders, brothels, drownings and beachfront resorts. Lighthouses came and went, as did bridges and tugs and hundreds of Bridge Street businesses.
And they are all in this hefty volume, available for order from this site.
Complain we must about the rain, the clouds, the odd weather that tinkers with our plans for a picnic, wedding, campfire and fishing. The fact remains that the clouds are good for sunsets, and sunsets are good for the heart.
A sunset well executed can stop you in your tracks, make you want to pull over and point the cell phone toward the horizon in hopes of capturing sol’s soul. Even better if you happen to be at the beach. He slips behind the deck of dark clouds and thrusts the beach into premature dusk. Then, like the bride emerging from shadows and marching down the aisle, the solar ball dashes through a break in the deck and dazzles with brilliant beauty, rays and all.
Sun for light, sand for texture, water for waves and clouds for scale. We love a sunset over the city or countryside, but adore and romanticize it when day collapses on the beach, exhausted, panting, exhaling orange and red like a marathon runner gasping at the finish line as the crowd cheers the time warrior for besting the record. So it is against the thunder of applause that the sun as it sets with fingers tapping, shutters clicking, jpgs writing, lips touching …
Wind is the unseen ingredient in all this drama. It moves the clouds in place like stagehands rolling backgrounds between acts. It stirs the water into unpredictable contortions that roll and squirm and roar like tortured molecules. If you look carefully, you will see thin strands of glass pulled from the droplets; the strands last but a fraction of a second and then dissipate into froth.
All of this occurs because we are spinning and don’t even know it, because hot and cold air we can only feel are clashing and oddly enough the ball that casts light on the whole process determines what is night and what is day. It takes a bit of imagination to believe that there is significance to any of it other than another day is over, but poets find metaphor aplenty in the seeming perpetual motion of waves, mystery of sunset and landscape’s plunge into darkness.
We are not ancients pondering these enigmas, for our generation has gone far above the waves and clouds to discover the mechanism by which these things occur and developed formulae that succinctly reduce poetry and mystery to predictable events. We state to the minute when the light will depart from our gaze, but we cannot predict if the passing will be pleasant, prosaic, stunning or stupefying. Such is death. These things are up to the wind, clouds and waves. Heaven can shed its light upon Earth, but Earth ultimately decides if molten sunlight and molten water will tango, sit out the dance or even bother to play a tune. Some nights, the best we can hope for is a long sigh.
The strange thing amid all this is that when it is noon somewhere and midnight somewhere else, it is sunset yet some other place. And if I stare at a sunset in Geneva there is a throng to the east placing heads upon pillows in fledgling darkness, while those to my west are walking Pacific beaches in hope of seeing what I have already consumed. Strange thing the way stuff happens on this sphere. What if the world were really flat? Then would all of us see the same sunset at the same time, or would sunset even exist? Would sun have only two states, like a simple switch, or be more complex, like a dimmer control?
Rhetorical considerations aside, closer to home, there is an ex-lover standing next to a new love on a distant beach, holding hands, looking at the same sunset by which the two of you once swooned and loved. Some 1,500 sunsets later all of that love has come unspun and now winds itself about another heart. It is a mystery, to be sure, how things as consistent as the sun and its setting can exist for eons and faithfully perform their duties, but the human heart will have nothing to do with all that, as if it operates in a different universe. It would serve itself well to be more reliable like the sun and less fickle than the sunset, dependent upon externals like clouds, waves and wind. But that is beyond its nature, and there is no more use arguing for a predictable heart than for a predictable wave. It will crash as and where it wants and destroy and erode as it sees fit. The sun sets and that is that, accept the loss and get on with life, as we trust the sun will do, come the sunrise.
But that is whole other event.
All my life I have felt weird, out of place. Like a dust bunny in an operating suite. A vegetarian at a Texas barbeque. A lifetime WCTU member at a distiller’s convention.
The rest of the world was having fun, I observing, thinking about what was going on; feeling the sound waves, but never hearing the sound; sensing the emotions of the room, but never engaged in them; watching the shadow move across the time dial, but sensing the absence of having lived under the sun that cast it.
I was labeled “shy,” “distant,” “quiet” and “aloof.” At a party – to which I am rarely invited – I’d rather be in a corner with a book or hiding behind a camera than at the center with a drink in my hand.
It’s been this way since I was old enough to remember sadness. I cried when my goldfish died and went into a serious depression when they hauled the cow away and it came back wrapped in white paper stacked in freezer. When an old man ran out of candy one Halloween night and had to give pennies, instead, I asked my mother if I could take it back to him, afraid he might need it for food.
My teachers called me “sensitive,” the kids called me “sissy.” Childhood was hard, and I spent most of it watching clouds, doing chemistry experiments and trying to remember where I’d just come from and why I was here.
As I got older, it got worse. I was the shy nerd in high school, my heart yearning for love but my nose too long and hair too short to attract it. It was the late 1960s, after all, and long hair was a sure sign of rebellion, if not outright Satanic possession. You talked to only Christian girls, and they talked to only cool Christian jocks and pastor’s sons who were heading off to Bible college to become just like Dad.
In adulthood being odd was no longer an option; to make a living, you have to fit in, even if you stick out. Words beckoned, written words. An INFJ will take an hour writing a letter that a phone call could resolve in 30 seconds. Forty-five years later, I am writing to you.
I was out of place wherever I went. The pitter patter of polite conversation was so much rain on my roof, lulling me to sleep, boredom. Last night’s ball game, the grandkids’ report card, the hunting expo … I retreated … It was not that I had nothing to say; to the contrary, there was much below the surface and poker face. But who would want to listen?
On a rare occasion, someone would listen, and it was wonderful. We would start to talk and discover were on the same page, sentence and comma, where life paused, esoteric topics were germane and questions asked with expectation of answers.
I was in my late 50s when the mystery began to unravel and discovered that my personality is INFJ.
The revelation came by taking a personality test. The result is based upon the Briggs-Myer Type Indicator (BMTI), which proposes 16 distinct personalities based upon the four criteria that Jung developed. So my type is Introvert-Intuitive-Feeling-Judge.
It is the rarest of the personalities. Less than 2 percent of the whole population have it, and it is even rarer among men.
I want to be clear about something: I do not consider myself “special” because of my type. At the root of it all, I’m still a sinner saved by grace, schooled by pain and soothed by love. My operating system is the righteousness of Christ imputed through his sacrifice. But the software, it is INFJ, and it determines what this human heart is capable of doing and how this human mind perceives reality.
For example, INFJ people love deeply and can be happy with just one friend, one deep relationship, whereas most people measure relationship success with the number of friends they have on Facebook.
Once an INFJ comes to trust someone, he or she is in it for life. They constantly believe the best about the other person, even if the evidence points to something else. They make dedicated, loyal and committed spouses; they find no joy in sleeping around or one-night stands. Sex transcends the physical; it is more than two bodies coming together, it is two souls.
An INFJ is glued to his or her spouse. He or she won’t let go, no matter how many times they are hurt. They are stubborn lovers and the only deal breaker is breaking up itself. They dive in with their whole heart, and if the other person can’t do that, the effect is devastating.
If the relationship breaks down, and the INFJ’s partner walks away, it is seen as an act of treason and violence against the fabric of the universe. We trust completely, and when that trust is shattered, we feel like a 10,00o-piece jigsaw puzzle tossed into outer space. The pieces, we are certain, will never come back together. All is lost.
INFJs are intensely empathetic; as weird as this seems to most people, we feel other people’s emotions. Sometimes, when I walk in my neighborhood, I sense what is going on in a stranger’s house and have to stop and pray about it.
We are old souls, we feel like we have been around this block one too many times. We’ve felt every grief and joy known to mankind, and we are so tired of the pain. We long for love’s balm and sacrifice everything when we feel connection finally occurred. My daily prayer is “Dear God, do not let me die until I have fully lived and really loved.” And I mean it.
When the connection longed for all those years and decades turns out to be but a crossed wire, our confidence in our intuition, as well as all humanity, implodes. Yet another reason that healing from a broken relationship is so very difficult for an INFJ.
Everything about us is a paradox. We want to love but are scared to death of love because we hurt so deeply when it goes wrong. We want to be with other people, but the introvert keeps us from reaching out. And when we are with people who engage in idle chit-chit, we just want to retreat into that corner with a book and our thoughts.
The empathy in us makes it impossible to understand how a person who we trusted and loved can break a commitment and walk away. Competing emotions well up – anger for the pain inflicted even as we feel empathy for the person who is walking away from the riches of human love that could have been theirs.
We linger in the shadows far too long, and the shadows often becomes our graves. We relive every failure and keep a ledger of the mistakes that killed the relationship. We step back and see a long row of words, phrases and dates under our name.
Everything is our fault. And that makes us a perfect target for those who are perfect, who have no sense of accountability to a partner. Our favorite expression is “I’m sorry.”
We are quick to take the blame and fix the ills of the relationship, as well as the world.
We are dreamers, artists and visionaries. We are passionate about human and animal rights; we can’t stand to see an injustice occur, unless it is to ourselves, and then we think it is O.K. because, after all, we are at fault and we are sorry.
We think all the time. Even when we sleep. I never wake up rested. I wake up probably 50 times a night, and each time I wake up, a thought is there. Usually about loss, pain or a concern; seldom about a blessing. My first wife always said my mind never shut down. If I was quiet, which I usually was, she knew something was being created inside my head, and I could not wait until whatever we were doing to be over so I could act on those thoughts.
We are never satisfied with what we create, however. We can never step back and see the beauty or grace in it. We see only the speck of dirt in the paint, the misspelled word in the book, the misplaced comma. We expect perfection and find only our imperfect selves.
Accordingly, God frustrates us. We can’t understand why the rest of the church equates experiencing God to emotions. Isn’t there some factual perfection that we ought to be able to discover in him? Why does an eternal God who is said to be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow act with such serendipity, saving one relationship or life here, allowing another to wither or die there, despite fervent prayer? Our favorite word in just about any discussion is “why,” but especially so in things theological, probably the worst possible venue in which to ask “why?”
Like answers to theological riddles, the things we long for more than anything else elude us: deep conversation that goes late into the night and a loving relationship that grows more loving and deeper with each passing day. The INFJ would trade his soul, and often does, for those two things. And when the tradeoff turns out to have been as phony as free healthcare, we grieve deeply. Not just for our loss, but for that of the person who could not see the value in what was being offered.
We retreat to our books, our thoughts, our private space that we cherish so deeply. Chances are, there is not a lot of stuff in that space, but what there is of it is very, very special to us. It tells our story, and typically exudes craftsmanship, quality and beauty. We’d rather have one high-quality thing than 20 mediocre objects, unless they are books, records, stones, sea shells, driftwood, dogs or cats. Then we are hoarders.
In my life, I have felt great unrest in my relationship with things. My parents and first wife found great comfort in collecting. I followed in their steps, but found it so exhausting. I was minimalist living in a big box version of Goodwill, Salvation Army and the neighborhood thrift store rolled into one.
That is changing.
As I write this, my kitchen floor is covered with stuff I’ve collected. I’m sorting it, selling it, letting it go. My spirit is soaring as I do. That piece of concrete I’ve carried on my back for decades is getting lighter. Perhaps, if I am fortunate enough, it will turn to sand and roll off and I will fly away to that perfect place that every INFJ dreams about, where it is just me, nature, beauty, space to create and that one incredible person love ever so deeply – soulmate.
Just knowing who I am and why I have felt so weird and out of place all these years, why previous relationships didn’t work and why I got hurt so deeply by them, has been liberating. Why don’t they teach this stuff in junior high? Why don’t we focus on helping kids figure out who they are before we start pushing them into societal molds? If we did that, there would be fewer suicides, fewer addictions and fewer divorces. We’d have a road map to ourselves and to understanding why we do the things we do. More importantly, we’d learn that other people do not think like us or feel as intensely, and we have no right to expect them to do so. We’d learn to respect each other.
Imagine that, respecting each other’s differences without labeling them weird, sissy or nerd.
As I said, INFJs are dreamers.
My friend of many years, Betty Layport Feher, recently dug out some memorabilia from Shady Beach Hotel, one of the many relatively elegant hotels that once operated at Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio’s oldest summer resort.
Shady Beach dates back to 1897 and stood where the village’s recreation park is today. It operated until the early 1970s, when the village purchased the property with the idea of transforming the hotel into a recreation center. Someone forgot that it gets cold at GOTL in the winter and that water pipes burst when they freeze. And so they did, and the old resort was ruined by that act of negligence. Only photos remain, and a few skeleton keys.
Betty allowed me to borrow the guest-room keys, still attached to their Shady Beach leather fobs (just try to lose one of these things, or carry them about in your pocket or swimming trunks all day), so I could make some photographs for the Summer Fun Heritage Trail website and interpretive signs.
There is something solemn, almost spiritual about a key. The act of being entrusted with a key can be a pure business transaction, as when we buy a new car or house, or as intimate as being handed the key to a honeymoon suite by a grinning desk clerk.
I suspect the keys I held in my hands and studied through my lens could tell many stories of happy vacations spent on the lakeshore; of comings and goings; of expectations and disappointments; of partings for a season, partings for eternity.
Here is the key to the room that Mrs. Bowers prepared especially for the newlyweds. The nervous groom drops it several times on the way to the room, rattles it in the lock; the wood door swings into the dark chamber; he will recall on his death bed the slightly musty scent of that room, mingled with her virgin sweat, that moment they became one flesh even as Mr. and Mrs. Bowers dozed on the front porch of Shady Beach Hotel.
Here is the key that the child insisted Daddy let him try in the door. It is their first family vacation; the blue-eyed boy has not seen the lake before. “Can we see it Daddy, can we, can we before we have dinner?” The father slips the key in his pocket, they walk across the street, to the annex, descend to the beach, between the two poplars, watch the mystery of water arriving and departing for no apparent reason, toss some rocks. The Shady Beach dinner bell rings; it is Sunday, and Mrs. Bowers has prepared chicken. Fried chicken, all up and down the road, from the milk-fed chicken of Mrs. Swan at the New Inn to the no-good roosters that the Leidheisers culled from their flock, it is chicken every Sunday at the resort.
Here is the key with chicken gravy stains on the fob, or is it tobacco juice from the men sitting about the spittoon while the women folks walk to the bingo parlor. Comfortable men, men of influence in their Pittsburgh, Youngstown and New Castle. Middle-aged, their children married, their business cards bearing “vice president” and “director,” gathered about the newspapers and cigar smoke and bourbon, waiting for the women to return, waiting for the dinner bell, waiting.
Here is the key to the anniversary suite. Fifty years have passed; arthritis impairs his hands as much as nervousness did on that night in 1915. They almost didn’t come back to Shady Beach, the riots, the gangs, the week before, sent a chill up his spine. Mrs. Bowers said it would be fine, that the trouble was at the other end of The Strip. Just a bunch of college kids who’d had too much to drink down at that rowdy bar.
“Yes, please come; we’re holding your room for you. We’d love to see you again. Yes, dinner will be at 2. No, we’ve not raised rates this year. The weather has been hot, but there’s a nice breeze.”
It was their last visit.
Does a key stop being a key when its lock is gone? Or is it just a story without a piece of paper? If they have no value, why do we continue to hang onto them in junk drawers, cigar boxes and museums? Do we hope the lock will one day miraculously reappear, restoring value to the key and justifying our hoarding? Or do we hold on to them because they are keys to our imagination, unlocking stories that are just as likely to be false as true?
The tumblers in my mind rattled like the keys on the fobs. For a moment, those keys unlocked something wondrous: the past.
I love old keys.
I met him about 15 months ago, when I interviewed Elmer Backlund and two other A&B Dock employees for an Ashtabula Wave story.
Elmer brought a surprise to that meeting at Norman Millberg’s house: The log he had kept while machine foreman on the dock, 1975-1982.
Elmer recorded the arrival and departure times of every freighter that pulled up to the dock’s Hulett unloaders. Not only that, he noted how long it took to do the unloading, the delays that occurred due to electrical, mechanical and railroad car shortages. He even made note of how much time the crew devoted to lunch, and occasionally where they got take-out (Perkins).
One of the most interesting visits recorded in this piece of handwritten history is the entry for the Edmund Fitzgerald’s final visit to Ashtabula Harbor. Indeed, it was the last time the Fitzgerald would deliver a load of ore to any Great Lakes port. After leaving Ashtabula, the Fitzgerald took on a load of ore at Superior and disappeared in the storm of Nov. 10, just six days after its visit to Ashtabula.
Elmer says he talked to the first mate of the ship at great length the night the boat was being unloaded. The first mate had little good to say about the vessel’s condition; rivets were failing throughout, but the owner had tried to coax another season out of the freighter before sending it to dry dock for repairs.
These stories were captured on video in February, when I interviewed Elmer, Norm and “French” Lesperance for a new document about the Hulett unloaders at A&B Dock.
Why such a film, and an exhibit at The Lodge and Conference Center? First is the book, an incredible piece of Great Lakes maritime history. Second is the story of the Hulett unloaders, invented by a Conneaut man. These machines were so huge, their power demands so intense, each dock company had its own powerhouse to provide the direct current power consumed by the motors.
Further, the A&B Dock was the first installation of the third and final generation of Hulett unloaders. The A&B Dock machines also were first to use a Larry car system for weighing and transferring the ore to the cars. Further, the cars were moved by a system rarely used at other docks, where a narrow gauge railroad ran next to the standard rails and a small locomotive pushed the cars along. At Ashtabula, however, a continuous cable was used to move the cars, which were pulled onto the cable by grippers.
The dock also need shovelers, bulldozer operators, oilers, bridge operators and laborers. Their stories are preserved in this new documentary.
Before I left Elmer at his assisted living home, he presented me with the journal. I was stunned by his generosity. After using it for the filming of the documentary and exhibit at The Lodge, it will be donated to the Ashtabula Marine Museum. It belongs there, along with the patterns from the Huletts, the metal identity plates and models of these amazing machines.
Elmer has been very ill, in and out of intensive care. On Easter, I will visit his room at Saybrook Landing, and I hope to find him there and give him my gift, the story of his story, a story I am honored to commit to the Internet, hard drive and optical media. I call it “The Boat Book.”
In a nutshell:
- Marriage is the most selfless act a person can take on, aside from dying on a cross.
- And divorce is the most selfish.
- And the line between the two is as thin as a divorce decree.
That is what I have learned from two marriages and two divorces.
OK, they were dissolutions.
Call it what you will, when you take an ax to your own flesh and split the body asunder, one piece is divorced from the other.
It’s not just the one flesh that gets split into two, and don’t think that you’ll end up the person you were before you married, either. Dreams promises, plans, hopes, futures … they all get busted up in this action, performed in our courts every day as if it was an assembly-line surgery.
The offended but presumably much happier, separated components get up and on their happy way, relieved of the toxic or troublesome person in their life. And we all live happily ever after.
Yeah. Ask someone left beside the road five weeks after an ax-wielding robber cut off his leg and carried it away how he’s feeling? Has the bleeding stopped, buddy? Are you getting along OK with just one leg? Have you learned to dance yet?
Nobody would be so stupid to ask someone so injured how they are doing. But when it comes to divorce, excuse me, dissolution, we just assume that the magistrate also dispenses each party a bottle of pills for the pain and bandages for the wounds.
I was married 37 years. Through a perfect storm of circumstances, I decided I needed to be with another person and that I’d had enough trying to make myself happy in a marriage that wasn’t going to work. I struggled with the decision 38 years. The pastor kept saying, “give it time. God will give you the love you need.”
I found love elsewhere. Amazing love. My soulmate. I never felt this way before.
And I was assured that if I would just divorce, we’d live happily ever after.
After a year of anxiety and wrestling with all the spiritual, financial, emotional, familial and retirement issues that accompany divorce at the age of 58, I did it.
There was no time to heal. In less than three months, I was remarried, to my dream woman, my soulmate.
Less than four years after tying the knot, it’s over, and the pain is killing me.
What happened? What changed? What made something that seemed so sure, so positively inspiring and intoxicating go sour?
Everyone has their own perspective, answers. It’s over, so no sense in rehashing them. All I can do is learn from the experience, even as I watch the blood continue to spurt from the open wound.
It all comes down to this: ME instead of WE.
Marriage. The concept is two people become one entity. Even the courts and laws of Ohio recognize this simple fact that 50 percent of the couples who marry never grasp. When you get married, it is like accepting Christ as your savior, in that you become a new creature. Mom and Dad are out of the picture. You are out of the picture. It is now US, not you and me.
Love becomes an act, a decision, not a feeling. But when the feeling is gone, it is so easy to call it quits and think that if we just headed off into the sunset with the next feel-good relationship, it would all be different.
It is not. I repeat, IT IS NOT.
Different person, different baggage, different problems.
Jesus said Moses allowed divorce because of hardness of heart. The problem is not about falling out of love, not being able to agree on paint colors, how much to spend on a haircut or whether to buy a blue or green couch.
The problems are the heart and mind.
Guard the heart, guard the marriage. Guard the mind, guard the relationship.
Disregard the heart, allow it to become hard, and get an attorney.
Let your thoughts run negative about your spouse, and your marriage is going to be in trouble. Guaranteed.
Talk trash about your spouse, and come home to trash.
I’ve been to several marriage counselors, and more therapists than I care to remember. And most all of them are full of themselves. They got a good business going, and they know it. They are not about to make something simple.
I will. I am a writer. It is my job to make life easier to understand. Plus, I don’t make any money doing it, so there is no point in me keeping you on the hook week after week.
Marriage is hard work.
Divorce/dissolution/separation are not solutions.
Divorce shatters your trust in human beings. In the existence of truth itself. Everything seems like a lie. If you can’t trust the promises made by your best friend, by your spouse, who can you trust?
Nobody. Not even yourself, because you’re the fool who believed those lies in the first place.
Of course, we married to be happy.
And, ironically, we get divorced to be happy.
The therapists I went to during my first round of divorce decision making told me “You deserve to be happy. Get a divorce. Live a little.”
My balance sheet shrunk by most everything I had worked for. I am 62, broke and in debt. I have no retirement account. May I please have my $75 back so I can “live a little.” Very little, very, very little.
Happy. Oh yeah. Watching yourself bleed to death is such great fun.
So where do we get this crap? Where do we get this idea of a relationship being so toxic that the best antidote is to poison it?
Why not get rid of the toxin? Why not get rid of the stuff that turns the heart hard?
“You mean give up a bit of me? My self-esteem? My career? My time? I’m not budging on this. I have a right to be happy.”
And a right to divorce.
To break the most sacred of promises.
I read in one of the some two-dozen books on marriage that I consumed in an attempt to save the last union that every time we divorce, a part of our soul dies.
I feel like I have about one tenth of the soul I once had.
I still have a hard time looking at myself in the mirror because of the shame and disgust.
Don’t get me wrong, God forgives divorce. God even forgives hardness of heart. Perhaps in time He will soften it, as well, but I am kidding myself if for one moment I believe that God will heal it to its pristine, pre-marriage condition.
But it was not marriage that wounded this heart, it was selfishness. Mine, hers. It was my ME. Her ME. Our rights. That’s what killed the marriage.
No surprise. We destroy ourselves with food, pornography, alcohol, drugs, gambling and a plethora of other me-centric diversions. So why not our marriages, too?
So that is what I have learned. If you want to save yourself attorney fees, the cost of starting over again (I’ve done it twice now in four years and it ain’t cheap), the expense of court costs and box after box of tissues, take my advice, summarized below:
- Go back to those love letters, the ones where you listed the things you adored about that person you wanted to marry. Be honest. Has she or he really changed? Or is it just YOUR perspective that changed? Do a balance sheet. All your petty complaints on one side, all the stuff you adored on the other. What wins?
- Talk. Use words like “honey,” “babe,” “sweetie” before you say the rest of the sentence. It’s funny how hard it is to criticize another person when you start the sentence with an affectionate pronoun.
- Agree to remove the D word from your vocabularies. Write it on a piece of paper. Take it outside the property line and bury it there.
- Take a trip together and agree there will be no ME talk during it. Only WE talk.
- Avoid counselors and therapists, friends and co-workers, moms and dads, sisters and brothers. You ain’t married to them, this is none of their business. You know damned well they are going to take your side and end up encouraging divorce. After all, they want you to be happy.
- Being happy is not the goal here. Being ONE is the goal. If you can’t buy into that, don’t even bother talking marriage. And to do anything otherwise, to go into it with the idea of being able to get out, is pure deception. And don’t deceive yourself to think otherwise, or deceive the other person.
- That said, if either of you decide this is about ME, get an ax. A dull one, so it would cause a lot of pain in order to make it cut through flesh, bone, muscle and heart. Park it by the door. Every time you walk out in anger or in the middle of an argument, think about how good it will feel to have that sucker come down on your leg while you sit in a courtroom. “That’s a horrible idea,” you say. “In anger the couple may be tempted to grab the ax and use it in a crime of passion.” My point exactly. Except the ax is called divorce.
Reach for reason. Reach for emotion. Reach for the long term. Reach for God.
Not the ax. Not divorce. Not dissolution.
Send contributions that otherwise would go to the aforementioned professionals to my PayPal account. And to those who would say I have no right to make these declarations about something so personal as divorce, I would say that likewise that people of high character have no right to break promises. And that includes my sick, sinful self, ME.
My brother-in-law from my first marriage died early this morning. Robert N. College.
Most people just called him “Joe College.”
Joe came into the family shortly after I and Barb married. Her older sister had met him while working in the Beltway. He was quite a bit older than Jane, I’m guessing something like 20 years, and the family was aghast. He’d been married a couple of times before, and that didn’t fly so well with the straight-laced Yankees, either.
Joe was a character. He’d been in the Air Force Band and seen the world. After retiring from the military, he got into banquet management. I think he managed an officer’s club in the D.C. area.
Whenever we went out to eat with Joe, he critiqued the operation, the staff, the food, ambiance. Of course, in most cases he was certain he could do a better job.
Fact is, he probably could have.
He dabbled in the ownership of a liquor store for a while, then settled into retirement. He and his wife had one child, Stacy, just a year younger than my son. They grew up together in Conneaut. He was a good father, very protective. When she got cancer, he became angry with God and his faith seemed to end. Some people say that its wrong to get mad at God because he allows bad things to happen to us. Maybe Joe was saying how much he loved his daughter, who suffered through a year of chemotherapy. It is human to hurt when someone we cherish is suffering; each of us expresses that disappointment with life, or God, in our own way.
And so God answered the prayers of the rest of the family. And Joe, well, he just became more Joe with each passing day.
Always one to have an opinion about any subject, Joe probably went through a few barrels of printers’ ink in his lifetime as the presses churned out his letters to the editorsof the Conneaut News Herald and Ashtabula Star Beacon. Always signed them “Robert N. College.”
He reminded me of Jack Benny, he didn’t walk, he sauntered with dignity. And the way he stood with his arm across his chest, well, Joe even looked like Jack Benny, come to think of it.
He grew up in the era when people listened to old-time radio, and I always chatting about OTR and big band music with him. He had a bunch of open reel tapes he’d recorded, and we always talked about putting them on CDs. I guess that was in another life.
I always tried to get Joe’s name for the family gift exchange. He was easy to buy for. There was this certain brand of pants, with the elastic waistline, that he liked. And so I’d get him a pair or two of those, and a CD or DVD of some obscure program. I always looked for the Air Force Band broadcasts, hoping that I’d hit upon a recording of a performance in which he played.
Did I mention that he played trumpet? He did. He loved the trumpet, and as his years grew to a close he found purpose in being a volunteer who played Taps at the funerals of veterans. I wonder if there will be someone to play for him?
Joe liked Cadillacs. He had one that must have been 25 years old. It was a money pit. But he loved the thing. I don’t know if it was a status symbol or he just liked big, solid, American-made vehicles. None of that matters now, except it is one of those things likely to trigger a memory of him.
Joe and Jane were married more than 35 years, I’m guessing. It took him a few troubled marriages to find one that would stick, but when he found it, they made it work. I remember him saying, and there was a plaque that hung in their kitchen to this effect, “If a man has enough horse sense to treat his wife like a thoroughbred, she’ll never turn into an old nag.”
I guess it worked, at least I never heard much nagging. And Joe would call his wife “Babe,” I’m pretty sure I remember, that. Yeah, she’d get disgusted with his beer consumption and complaining, but she tolerated it and loved him all the same. You got to do that in order to stay married. In the end, they both got a good deal.
Joe had lung cancer decades ago. They removed a big section of the lung and he promised to stop smoking. Worked for a couple of months; I think he blamed the cancer on playing the trumpet in the band. Could be, I suppose. Who am I to say? Sometimes, what happens to us is our fault; other times, it’s just the roll of the dice. No sense giving it much thought. I just remember what a scary time that was, what with having an infant and all.
Later, he had blood clots that brought him within an hour of so of losing his leg. By golly and prayer, he survived and walked around on both legs for quite a few years after that, but had to take blood thinners, which limited him to a beer or two a day. Talk about a tough decision, mobility or beer when you are in your 60s.
So now Joe is gone, just like my first marriage and the one after that. As I am grieving the loss of loves and the loss of Joe, I realize that I never really got to say goodbye to him. I’m guessing the last time I saw him was, what, four years ago? A quick nod, I was going through a divorce then, and the family wasn’t thrilled to see my face. A quick nod. I guess sometimes that is the best way to exit this place.
The past three months I have been involved in a documentary film project about the immigration of Finnish workers and their families to Ashtabula Harbor.
It’s been a grueling task, particularly the past two weeks as I’ve edited hours of interviews and B roll down to one hour. Being a one-man production, I’ve had to shoot, record, edit and even project the film, which could have been twice as long and still just begun to scratch the surface.
There were great stories that didn’t make the cut because of the lack of supporting B roll, that is the stuff that gives viewers a break from the talking heads that we’ve all come to expect from documentaries. But overall, I feel the film does a good job of telling the big story and sharing some of the anecdotes that illuminate the corners of the massive tale.
I was particularly fortunate to connect to Sue Benedict, a fifth-generation “Finndago,” that is half Italian and half Finnish. That is a pretty common combination in Ashtabula Harbor as the Finns lived on the west side and the Italians on the east. And occasionally they crossed the bridge, fell in love and there you have it.
Back to Sue. She had wonderful photographs of her family, was a great interview on camera and assisted me in the midst of her mother’s radiation treatments. She even cranked up her late uncle’s Victrola and played one of the 78 rpm records of a Finnish song her great grandfather used to sing to her.
I also was able to get May Colling to agree to an interview. May is the official historian of Ashtabula Harbor and has lived on West 8th for most of her life, more than 90 years! She’s sharp as a Finnish knife and helped give the film a solid foundation.
I’ll never forget the evening I spent in Lauri Maki’s sauna. I filmed Lauri originally because he and his wife owns the fish market and restaurant. But when I heard he has a sauna (pronounced sow-na) in his garage, my ears really perked up. Would he allow me to film it? Yes!
The star of that section of the film is the Maki’s cat, Daisy, who has the most expressive face and movements of any cat I’ve ever met. Love it!
Making a film is incredibly hard work. I have probably put in 80 hours of comp time and holiday time from work in the past week. My computer equipment simply is not up to the task of rendering HD video, and it has been a really painful, sleepless week of getting this thing to a point I can present it publicly. So many times the rendering has crashed five hours and 55 minutes into a six-hour render.
Those things waste valuable time when you are deadline. Only someone who has slept in two-hour shifts while babying a render only to find out that there was a mistake in a title card or a misplaced clip knows what I’m talking about!
There are many things I would have done differently, if I had the time and resources. There were midnight computer crashes when I lost hours of work (never trust Premiere’s backups) and I felt like just forgetting it all. But I remembered the SISU segment, the guts and determination that the Finns had and that enabled them (with a little help from beer) to work at the docks and on the railroads and build a community, harbor and life for themselves.
I’m not Finn; mostly German, some French, Swiss, too. But thanks to self discipline and determination, “We Lived on Oak Street” will be screened on Wednesday. It is about their SISU, and mine, and the way we somehow get things done with the resources we have and make the most of life, regardless of what it hands us.
I was handed some great stories, and I hope the “Finnished” product does them justice.
You can order a copy of the video on DVD and support my purchases of hard drives, cine lenses and microphones by sending $15 for each DVD to Carl Feather, 1355 Sherman St., Geneva, OH 44041. Honestly!