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  • Daily Photos and Happy Birthdays

    While shooting at a conference earlier this week, one of the attendees sat next to me at lunch and asked, “How long have you been doing photography?”

    This question usually comes up at least once or twice when photographing a multiple-day event, and my standard explanation is pretty simple: When I was working in newspapers and school communications, I had to know my way around a camera, but I became really interested in it about a decade ago. After getting laid off in 2013, I turned it into a business to supplement freelance writing income and it’s taken off from there.

    The attendee, like me a middle-aged man, nodded and asked several more questions about the subjects I like to shoot, the types of equipment I use, etc. As the conversation wound down, he asked, “What was the one thing that really spurred your interest in this type of work?

    That answer, too, is relatively simple: My dad.

    My father was a middle school art and history teacher for most of his career, but his first love — besides my mom — was visual arts. Drawing, painting, sculpture — he could do it all and make it look easy.

    Conversely, I can’t draw a straight line while using a ruler. My painting skills are such that I usually have to bring in a hazmat team to clean up while I go buy new clothes. And my sculptures all look like the mashed potatoes that Richard Dreyfuss used to visualize the mountain in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” (If you want that visual, I’m sure it’s on YouTube.)

    Nine years ago this month, I was spending several days a week in New York with our youngest son, who was in rehearsals for a show, and found myself navigating a series of two and three-hour gaps. Sometimes I’d go back to the apartment or find a Starbucks to work, but two or three times a week there just wouldn’t be enough time to get back or to be truly productive, so I picked up my camera and explored.

    I had never taken “fine art” pictures before, but soon found myself looking for the types of things that would attract my dad’s eye. A year-plus after his death, I thought it would be a neat way to pay tribute to him and found that it kept him closer to me. Soon I posted photos online and folks said I had a good eye for it, so I pursued it further.

    Why tell this story now? Consider it a late birthday present.

    As I returned to the task of editing conference photos this morning and realized how it’s been some time since I’ve updated the blog, I went to my “Daily Photos” folder from this month to assemble the picture you see here.

    On almost every photo, I see my dad’s influence, whether it was in capturing something he would like, or in photographing the lines I cannot draw or the paintings I can’t paint.

    In those times, I realize my eye is his and through my eyes (and others) he lives on.

    My father would have turned 78 yesterday. Happy belated, Dad.

  • Daily Photo: December 6, 2015

    It's December (aka "birthday month") at our house, so here's a flashback to one of my favorite photos of the four kids holding hands in a brief moment of solidarity. By year's end, these four will be 18, 19, and 23, respectively. Sigh...

    Four kids in a row — Wentworth, N.C., August 2000

  • A Birth-Day Shout Out

    Given that we had three kids in a year and somehow survived that. And given that all of them now are age 18 (for the next 16 days at least), I think it's time to give a shout out to Jill, who has unfailingly given all of them her love, support (in times good and bad), and ultimately, their gentle and kind souls...

  • Happy Holidays (and Birthdays, Too!)

    With Kate home from Florida and Ben in briefly on a Newsies break, we celebrated Christmas and birthday month at home in Lorton. Jill made a lovely dinner on Thursday and after opening presents on Christmas Day, we followed our annual holiday tradition and saw a movie. The title pretty much summed up the time together: Joy.

  • Christmas Memories Through the Years

    Christmas memories from over the years. Happy holidays to all...

  • Belated 14 Celebration

    For the first time in their lives, Emma and Ben weren't able to celebrate their actual birthday together. But tonight, when Ben returned to D.C., they more than made up for it with mom, dad, Brian and Ginno. And they gave Ginno his Christmas present early to boot.

  • Parenting: The Imperfect Process

    Sometimes when I can't sleep, I write... So here goes.

    As much as I love my children, parenting has to be the hardest job in the world.

    December, as anyone who has read this knows, is birthday month at our house.  Nicholas, Ben and Emma have birthdays within three days of each other, and the twins are the same age as Katharine for two weeks and two days, until her birthday on Dec. 27.

    As a result, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas — that never-too-stressful time the rest of you call the holiday season — is no picnic for us.

    I don’t mean to complain. It also is a time of tremendous joy and pride, to see that they have made it through another year on this earth with 12 more months of life experience under their belts. And that holds true even if the months and days haven’t always been the easiest.

    When people hear the story about having three kids in a single calendar year, they often shake their heads and say how tough that period must have been. And there’s no denying that it was hard on the body (and sometimes spirit) because of the sheer amount of work required.

    But when they ask if it’s easier now, I can’t say that it is. It’s just, as I may have mentioned before, different. The physical demands are nothing compared to the psychological stamina that raising three teenagers (with a fourth, Jeremiah, as a value add) requires. 

    I hated being a teenager, and I’ve never understood why people look back nostalgically on their those years and refer to them as the best time ever. In many respects, life didn’t really start for me until I was in my 30s, even though there were some memorable events and occurrences that took place before then.

    What I’ve learned, although I’m not always good at practicing what I preach, is that letting them find their own way is more difficult than I imagined it would be when I was a teen. And as anyone who knows us knows, we’ve raised a brood that is choosing paths that are taking them in many different, divergent directions.

    The natural, almost innate trust that you have in your children (and vice versa) is chipped at as they grow up and push boundaries in directions no one anticipated or came fully equipped to deal with. Accompanying that is a sense of — and I’m not sure this is the right word — fear. 

    Fear, as you know, is something that constantly nibbles at trust. It sits there whispering in a voice that hasn’t been that steady or persistent since your spouse was carrying the child (or children) in the womb, or the (literal) birth day. Recently, I mentioned that I used to say that 99 times out of 100, nothing would go wrong. Pretty good odds, except when you become a parent, you worry about the 1.

    Parenting is not linear or autocratic, although it requires a form of upper management skills that can and should out earn even the highest-paid CEOs. It is a form of shared responsibility that is far messier than democracy. As parents, Jill and I have done our best to raise our kids in the best way we know how, but it is by no means a perfect process. And — at least in my case — no amount of effort will earn an “A.”

    If you’ve taken the time to read this far, don’t be alarmed. Writing is how I process, and there’s a lot of that to do every year around this time. We’ve been so busy this fall that our vacation in St. Thomas feels like it was six years — not six months — ago.

    All in all, things have been good. They could always be better (and as I struggle to remind myself at times, will be), but I would not trade my family and this time with my kids for anything.

    Not even a regular, full-time job, but if that comes along, I’m game. Compared to parenting, anything else is bound to be a piece of cake.

  • The Evolution of a Parent

    If, as I’ve said before, writing is a way for me to process emotions, it’s no wonder I write a lot in November and December.

    In addition to the holidays, December is birthday month in our house. During an 18-day period from the 9th to the 27th, all four kids advance another year. So as Ben and Emma mark their milestone 16th birthday today, Jill and I find ourselves with a 21-year-old and three teenagers. And those teenagers are all the same age for 16 days.

    Remarkably, we’re all still standing.

    ••••••

    Yesterday, I spent most of the morning and all afternoon at our neighborhood Starbucks, aka my remote office these days when I have to get out of the house. Since the federal government was closed due to icy conditions, I saw people — mostly dads and school-age children — who normally would not be there in the late morning or middle of the day.

    But the one who caught my eye was the laughing toddler who thought his father’s quadriceps and genitals were the perfect places to practice for his future in marching band. The dad endured a couple of stomps before passing the child back to his mom, taking a sip of his latte, and likely wishing he’d remembered to bring a flask on the journey.

    As our kids have gotten older, I’ve found myself watching things like this and feeling nostalgic pangs for those early days. There is something magical about the way a child clings to a parent when he/she is taken to a strange place. It also can be fun to watch parents become entertainers as they attempt to keep the fragile peace that comes on a frigid day with nothing else to do.

    The nostalgia comes easily, but it’s wrapped safely in the knowledge that I don’t have to become a street performer, take on diaper detail, or wipe mysterious food stains appearing out of nowhere.

    Now I can sit back, watch, reminisce, and smile.

    ••••••

    Funny thing, growing up I never dreamed I’d be a parent, let alone one with four kids. I saw what my mom and dad went through, dealing with my father’s illness while raising two children of their own, and thought I wanted no part of it.

    Instead, I dove into work head first, moving from place to place and job to job. When Nicholas was born, I was five weeks shy of turning 28 and completely unqualified for the task at hand. The fact that it further exposed the fissures in my relationship with his mom did not help matters.

    Nicholas was just 2 when we divorced, and I was still years removed from achieving a reasonable work/life balance when Jill and I married in 1996. With four days left in that year, Katharine was born, followed 11½ months later by Ben and Emma.

    The next few years, raising three children born so closely together and trying to maintain a relationship with my oldest son, was a constant swirl of activity. On one hand, it fed nicely into my ADD nature, because I could never focus on the same thing for very long. On the other, I allowed it to stop me from enjoying a number of the moments — especially the hard-earned good ones — that parenting allows.

    ••••••

    Last year, in one of my “Stage Dad” columns, I noted that I became a better father when my dad died. As much as I thought and wrote about parenting before his passing, I never realized until then how fleeting those moments are when your children are just kids.

    That statement remains true, even more in light of the past year’s events. On Dec. 11, 2012, I saw Emma in the morning, bought her Starbucks, then got on a plane to Austin to meet up with Ben and my mom. Ben was performing in “Billy Elliot” on his birthday, and we had a cake in the hotel bar after the show to celebrate.

    In many respects, that was the last time life felt normal. Within days, my cousin was killed in a car accident coming to see the show and mom and I were driving to his funeral in Albany.

    Between December and March, four more relatives died (Jill’s father, paternal aunt, and maternal uncle, and my aunt), each taking pieces of our family histories with them. Ben ended his Billy run in Las Vegas in mid-May and returned home for the first time in four years; two weeks later I joined him on the unemployment line.

    The past six months have been, in many ways, some of the most unsettled of our lives. At a time when I’m unemployed, Jill has had one of her busiest periods of work in recent memory. Nicholas went to London over the summer and has been slammed since returning to school; the much-needed Thanksgiving break was our first chance to spend extended time with him in months.

    And then there are Ben, Emma, and Kate. Instead of going to work and then scrambling to pick them up somewhere, I’ve schlepped kids back and forth to school, dance, and activities while freelancing and searching for jobs. For the first time, I’m usually the one they see when they get home from school.

    Taking on the bulk of the schlepping has, I hope, eased at least some of Jill’s stress. (Of course, it would help if I could cook and was better around the house, but that’s another story.) On the whole, I know how gratifying it’s been for me, because I’m getting a rare opportunity to spend substantive, quality time with our kids. And I’m impressed with each in their own ways.

    I realize it’s also a short-term thing because, in March, the three teenagers will be able to drive on their own. At that point, another chapter in our parenting lives will come to a close.

    But I’m savoring it until it does.

  • Life Amid the Holidays, Vol. 2

    In my 20s, a car pulled out in front of me on Christmas Eve, totaling the first new vehicle I ever had. Then my second car, a used battleship that would not/could not be destroyed, was stolen the next holiday season.

    A few months later, I got married, picking a safe, middle-of-the-year month — May —  to avoid any potential mishaps. Within two years, my first child — Nicholas — was born (of course) in December, tying the fate of my parenting skill (or lack thereof) to the emotion-laden holiday season.

    Two years later, during my parents’ Christmas visit to North Carolina, my dad and I went to see two movies on the same day. Movies were one way my father and I bonded, and it didn’t hurt that I managed to escape what was an increasingly untenable situation at home.

    On the way back to Reidsville from Greensboro, I asked him: “Why, given everything you’ve been through, are you and mom still together? How have you made it work?”

    He paused for a long time, then said, “When I look at your mother, I see the same person I fell in love with. Of course, she has changed, physically, and so have I, but I still see the same person.”

    For me, there was — and is — no simpler definition of love.

    I could not say the same, and within a month, I had left the marriage. I wanted the chance to be like my dad.

    Within two years, I had divorced, remarried, changed jobs, and bought a house. As Christmas 1996 approached, Jill and I were ready to mark the birth of our first child, Katharine. She was born two days after Christmas.

    Little did we know that before the next Christmas we would have two more children. Ben and Emma were born Dec. 11, 1997, giving us three kids who are the same age for 16 days each year and four children born in a single month.

    Christmas had moved from a season of endings to a season of beginnings — albeit one that has us running around constantly and trying to hold on to our remaining shreds of sanity.

    But the spectre of loss has continued to loom.

    Last weekend, I looked around the table at a birthday celebration for Ben and Emma in New York. Earlier, Ben had performed for the second time in “Ragtime,” and we went to a restaurant with family and friends to share some cake and have a late dinner.

    My mom was there, as was Nicholas (thanks to my mother’s generosity in paying for his plane ticket). Emma and Kate watched Ben perform for the first time, and we had dear friends and family also in the audience.

    As we lit the cake, I looked around and thought briefly of the people who weren’t there — my dad, Jill’s mom, Fran and Bill — and would have given anything to join us. Just as I had done at Thanksgiving (also a dinner in New York), I thought of the holidays we shared as a family, how the chaos of growing up amid illness had given way to the chaos of raising our own children.

    And, despite my need (and ability at times) to cling to the holiday humbug that looms over my past, I realized how truly lucky I am. 

  • A Belated Gift

    Our life together is so precious together.
    We have grown. We have grown.
    Although our love is still special,
    Let's take a chance and fly away
    Somewhere alone...

    My father and John Lennon were born 12 days apart. They had a mutual love for Elvis and married early, as adults from that generation did. Tragedy helped shape their lives — Lennon’s in his childhood, my father’s after he became an adult.

    This year, both would have turned 70 — Lennon this past weekend and my dad on October 20. Neither made it.

    The similarities stop there. We all know Lennon’s story, which is endlessly retold and reshaped every few months or years. My father’s story is more mundane, but no less important, at least to me and to other members of my family.

    This past weekend, en route on another traffic-infested trip from Northern Virginia to New York with my girls, I stuck in the “new” CD, “Double Fantasy — Stripped Down.”

    Lennon’s first album in five years, “Double Fantasy” was a long-awaited rebirth for the former Beatle, who emerged from a self-imposed period of domesticity that followed the breakup of one of the best — if not the singular — rock bands of all time. In between, he suffered through an attempted (and finally thwarted) deportation by the Nixon Administration, dealt with fans’ lingering (and, for many, ongoing) anger toward Yoko Ono, separated from her, dove into the wilderness of drugs and drink, and finally emerged, a mature man. And within two months after hitting 40, he was dead.

    While I liked “Double Fantasy,” I wasn’t thrilled by it, in part because I didn’t understand the place Lennon was at then. (And, to be honest, I was never much of a Yoko fan.)

    “Stripped Down” intrigued me, however, and as the boredom of the New Jersey Turnpike wafted past, I found myself listening in a new way to Lennon’s valedictory effort. I flashed back to the night we all found out, watching a Monday Night Football game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets when Howard Cosell broke the news. For a moment I was 15 again, a place no one in their right mind should want to revisit.

    My dad was not much of a Lennon fan; he preferred McCartney. He didn’t understand or appreciate Lennon’s politics, which were out there for someone living on the Texas Gulf Coast. In fact, if you came right down to it, he was happy to ditch the Beatles for Elvis any day of the week. Our entire family was affected far more by Elvis’ death than by Lennon’s.

    Still, on the Tuesday after we found out, I came home after school and rummaged through my dad’s records, where I found the first three Beatles albums. He skipped the psychedelic stuff but returned for “Abbey Road” — “Come Together” played over and over in our house — and he loved “Imagine” (except for the no God part).

    It's been too long since we took the time.
    No one's to blame.
    I know time flies so quickly.


    I thought about going to Central Park and visiting Strawberry Fields on the birthday anniversary, although I knew it would be filled with people playing guitars, singing, weeping, and flailing their way through the Beatles/Lennon catalogue. I've been there before, and decided I couldn't take it, especially when there were more important things to tend to: my children.

    So, I spent the weekend with my girls and Ben, running them to various things that mean something to their lives (Ben to an audition, Emma to the Cake Boss bakery in Hoboken, and Kate to every kiosk and trinket she saw). I never made the turn right to go to Central Park.

    Driving back to Virginia last night, I put the CD in again briefly and listened, thinking of my dad and the weekend. As the songs played — even Yoko sounds a little better in the “Stripped Down” incarnation — I regretted briefly not making the walk on the beautiful fall day. Then I looked at my daughters — Emma napping on the passenger’s side, Kate sitting in the back looking at the laptop — and realized I had been where I needed to be all along.

    Nobody told me there’d be days like these.
    Nobody told me there’d be days like these.
    Strange days, indeed.

  • It's Been A Little Busy Recently...

    The typicals: Family, marriage, job, photography, raising four children — one in college, one in high school, one in dance, one on the Billy Elliot tour.

    The atypicals: Four birthdays in December, which also includes Christmas, a small car wreck, a trip to the hospital (unrelated to the wreck), 10 to 20 trips to DC a week, one trip to the Billy Elliot closing in New York, major ticket brokering (with no commission) and the fact that the Cook Hostelry has been doing a thriving business for the past month.

    That’s why I haven’t been here for a while. Lots of material and no time to write about it. I hope to be back soon…