Thursday, July 29, 2021

On Lessons Learned

 Nineteen sixty-eight was a big year for me. I graduated from college, married my sweetheart, and accepted a position to teach speech, drama, and English at Kelso High School. At twenty-one, I was so dewy-eyed I couldn’t leave class without a hall pass—portending why I bonded so readily with my students.

This weekend, I shared a barbeque dinner with three of my former scholars: Pat, Mike, and Hud. As stars salted the firmament, our conversation drifted to more serious subjects.

“It’s been fifty years since you graduated from high school,” I said. “When you think about your experiences and what is yet to come, what lessons would you offer your classmates?”

It was a heavy-duty question, which is my style. I can only tolerate so much blather about Seattle Seahawks, physical decline, and grandbabies destined for fame and fortune. I’m intrigued by existential insights, which is not everyone’s groove.

The boys squirmed, then, out of loyalty or common courtesy, began to unwind.

Hud, who is the director of a recovery center for those struggling with addiction or mental malaise, broke the ice. “Take nothing for granted,” he said. “I lost my Fran three years ago. Her death was so sudden and unexpected, I’m still shaken. And when I left that awful morning for work, I’m not sure I told her I loved her. That still haunts me.” He paused. “Never underprize the people you love.”

After we all took a long breath, I turned to Pat, a former wrestling and football coach. In gridiron fashion, he said, “Never give up. Keep growing, keep learning, keep paying back.”

We nodded in agreement.

I then looked to Mike, the funniest man I know, a taste of which can be found in his semi-autobiographical novel. His career highlight was counseling high school seniors and garnering well over a million dollars in scholarships for the young men and women he loved. “Find your passion,” he said.

It was my turn. “The more we observe the more we see; the more we listen, the more we hear. And when we do—when we truly see and listen—we expand our treasury of empathy and compassion.”

I saw Hud rock in approval.

“It’s like this,” I continued. “When we listen and observe wholeheartedly, we come to know the other, not as a director, a coach, or a counselor, but as a human being with both vices and virtues. We throw off judgment in favor of understanding. Only then we become kindred spirits—where class, import, and one-upmanship vanish.”

The conversation continued late into the night: an evening rife with laughter, goodwill, and love for one another—and, invariably, one more round of stories about crackerjack grandchildren.

THE IMAGE: The next morning, Pat and I cycled twenty-two miles from Issaquah to Bothell and back along a bucolic bike trail that followed the Sammamish River. It was a glorious day. At one point, we spotted a blue heron fishing on the opposite river bank. I quickly reached for my camera and eased forward, knowing the wading bird would eventually take flight. When he did, Pat shouted, “Get him!” And I did. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

What Happens After Death?

 In Senegal, the polite expression to mark someone’s death is “his or her library has burned.” That is to say, all the knowledge and experiences of the departed have gone up in smoke.

But not so fast. If you think about it, each slender act of kindness may endure beyond the grave.

In 1964, I was a freshman at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Washington. The course was English composition 101. While waiting for class to begin, a classmate asked me to explain the secret to writing well (as if I knew). He must have ignited my ego because I cleared my voice to speak.

“I think it has to do with rhythm,” I said. “Does it feel right in your mouth when you read your words aloud?”

Overhearing our conversation, the professor looked at me, nodded, smiled, and said, “Yes.” That was all. A single word.

Although my idea struck me as commonplace, the instructor’s grin made me think I might become a writer after all. That spark was the beginning of my quest.

These days, my ongoing mission is to share a paragraph of knowledge from my library of words and pictures. If I’m lucky, a seed may take root in someone’s heart and thereby preserve a snippet of reason or folly from my museum of experiences. Although meager, what a joy to give, especially in light of the fortune received.

THE IMAGE: The winter photograph taken at the Yakima Delta carries a treasury of knowledge: the play of darkness and light, the tribal behavior of species, the wonderment of nature. This (and nearly every image I capture), enriches my library.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The Secret to a Long and Happy Marriage

 I’ve been wondering how it’s possible my wife, Nita, and I have remained married for over fifty-two years. Especially, given our conspicuous differences. Then it hit me. Together we make a dynamite team.

To apply a metaphor coined by the American author and educator Stephen Covey, think of marriage as an iceberg with its modest tower of ice atop a tremendous mass hidden below the surface. The tower represents the personality ethic while the metropolis below depicts the character ethic. 

Personality is what everyone sees. When a couple says they fell in love on first sight, they’re talking about personality: good looks, a striking pose, a confident manner.

Character—that great mass below the surface—represents the emotional and moral qualities of the marriage. The couple’s character is measured by their depth of integrity, loyalty, and trustworthiness. Compared to the personality ethic, the character ethic is vastly more important.

Here’s the upshot: I’ve always been good at the personality ethic. I know how to charm, how to put on a show, how to create, and how to make sure everyone sees me in the best light—with my eyes shining and my smile ready to bowl them over.

But I could be better at the character ethic—a lot better. That’s where Nita shines. She is slow to anger, reluctant to vilify, quick to empathize, and loyal to the core.

So, there you have it. I won’t say together we make a single world-class human being; that would undercut our respective humanity. Consequently, I never discredit Nita for having a reserved personality ethic; nor does she discredit me for—ahem—having a shaky character ethic. What I will say is together we make a damn good marriage. And I’d like to think we’re both better for the union—I know I am.

As Consistent as a Sunrise

Think about the moment the sun nips at the horizon, diffusing its orange, yellow, and white light on the canvas we call earth. Scarfing the shadows, the slow reveal of landscape is always breathtaking.  For well over 27,000 days in a row, I’ve been greeted by the rising sun. Although her pallet of colors may vary—sometimes golden, sometimes scarlet—she’s always consistent.

But what about people? Are we consistent? The answer is . . . it depends.

Anyone can be consistent when the sun is shining. But in hard times—whether sparked by misfortune or irresponsibility—consistency requires dedication to the four human endowments. More about that in a moment. But first, let me explain how people routinely handle challenges.

Recently, I met a man who was haunted by the early death of his best friend who was killed in a drug war.

“My friend was a crackhead,” he said, “and so was I. But not anymore.”

“Although your friend’s death was a cruel ending, did it make you a better man?” I asked.

“It did. I’d be dead today if it were not for his death.”

Although he said no more, I believe the event was a “wake-up call”—one that hopefully changed his life for the better.

But living from one traumatic event to the next is like waiting for your car to die on the freeway for lack of gasoline—reactive thinking. And what happens when misfortune or stupidity strikes again? Will it take another unbearable wake-up call to overcome the assault?

We need a better strategy for managing hardships and missteps—something proactive. Enter the four human endowments: awareness, conscience, visualization, and independent will. I’ll explain through a hypothetical example.

Imagine you have a dear, though alcoholic friend, who’s been sober for the last five years. Despite his progress, you’ve stewed in silence as though you preferred to be angry.

Now, imagine firing up your four human endowments:

  1. You toss out your judgmental filters and become aware of your friend’s impressive headway.
  2. You listen to your conscience—that small voice of wisdom within us all—which tells you it’s time to praise his victory over addiction.
  3. You visualize what needs to be done—just as a springboard diver visualizes a twisting somersault before striding to the end of the board.
  4. You employ your independent will by putting one foot before the other, knocking on his door, acknowledging his commitment to sobriety, and embracing him with all your heart.

Can we be as thrilling and consistent as a sunrise? We can, but only if we put our minds to it. It’s not always easy—ego is a stubborn fellow—but when we do, the view is unforgettable. 

My Reincarnation Wish


I can’t say I believe in reincarnation. I’m happy with the life I’ve lived. But if I arrive at a heavenly front desk, and I’m invited to make my next choice in life, I might choose to be—wait for it—an American white pelican.

They seem to have an idyllic existence and not one terribly different from my life as a homo sapiens.

Take their two-fold approach to courting:  (a) circling flights on thermal drafts and (b) strutting dances at a nesting bungalow. Admittedly, I never romanced a mate by twirling in midair, although there was that girl in college who had me spinning out of control—but that’s another story. On the other hand, I have strutted. I can still see myself leaning against my 1968 lime-frosted Mercury Cougar with its optional landau vinyl top. Comparatively speaking, that has to be as sexy as a two-foot-wide nest set in the sand for a pelican mistress.

The big birds are a gregarious lot, often traveling and foraging in large flocks. And, get this, pelicans sometimes form a column on the water, dip their bills, and flap their wings to drive fish toward shore. It’s their way of corralling their prey for dinner. People have used a similar technique with the added benefit of a net since the beginning of recorded time. And I’ve certainly shared a small boat with a friend or two with a fishing pole in hand. That said, unlike pelicans, I have not tasted tadpoles or crayfish or salamanders, but I have eaten snails, oysters, and sushi of unknown ancestry, so being pelicanized in my next life does not seem like a giant leap.

Mostly, I’m captivated by the bird’s nine-foot wingspan and aeronautical prowess. Pelicans can fly 40
mph at heights of 25,000 feet and water-ski onto a water’s surface by virtue of their webbed feet. In comparison, I can jump one foot off the ground and maybe walk a twenty-minute mile (recalculations required after the first lap).

So, yes, the possibility of being a strutting, sushi-eating, soaring flyboy does appeal to me, which may account for my love for photographing the bucket-beaked wonders.

These two images were taken on the Yakima Delta Habitat near Richland, Washington. The photograph that looks like five birds in flight was actually a timelapse image of a single pelican who was peeved by my proximity. I called him “Sam.” I like to think he and I could become fast feathered friends in my next life, soaring over Mount Rainier and back again to the Yakima Delta. On the other hand, I could return as a frog, be scooped up by Sam, and swallow in a single slurp. Now that’s just rude.

The Meaning of Integrity


I’ve got a bad refrigerator. That’s not a reflection of its morality but a condemnation of its mechanics. To protect the guilty, I’ll call the international frig maker “Bad Boy Appliances.”

The refrigerator just doesn’t work; sometimes the freezer will heat up to plus forty degrees. But happily, the icebox is still under warranty. So, I called the Bad Boy customer service number for assistance.

A pleasant female voice said, “Thank you for your patience. We recognize your time is valuable, and we’re working hard to personally respond to your call as soon as we can.” I know the words by heart because she repeated the pitch at the end of the same galling 30-second music loop—over and over again. Thirty minutes later, after 60 repetitions of her message, after 60 reruns of the same damn jingle, I was ready to strangle . . . anyone.

That was only the beginning. Over the next three months, I kept calling with the same vexing problem. Each time I was told someone would call me in five to seven business days to resolve the issue. And each time, no one called. Not once. I’m still stuck with a very nasty $3,000 refrigerator.

So that got me thinking about a simple concept: integrity. There are scholarly versions of the word, but I prefer my definition. Integrity is doing what you say you’ll do. Simple isn’t it. And, yet, for many seemingly impossible to achieve.

If the makers of Bad Boy Appliances had any integrity, their mission would not be “We’re the best” or “You’ll love us as much as we love you” or any other such nonsense. If they were a company of integrity their mission would be “The company who lies—constantly—and doesn’t care one tinker’s damn about you—or your precious time.”

I’m one little person backtalking to a very big company. But I’ve heard the same fiction from some of my dubious friends. “Hey, Allen, good to see you. I’ll drop by soon to catch up.” At first, I was happy to hear that friendly promise but not anymore. Because I’ve learned my dishonest pal will not drop by—ever. Why? Because apparently integrity is not important to him.

Here’s the zinger I would never dare to speak. “No, my feckless friend, you will not drop by. Why? Because you’re not a person of integrity. Oh, you smile, you tease, you caper about, but you will not do what you say you’ll do.”

If I did say that, imagine the consequences. My short-sighted friend would say to himself, “Allen is high maintenance. Way too much trouble. Too demanding. Just not worth my time.”

To be fair, I understand that response. In today’s culture, we live in a world of instant gratification. The only thing people seem to want now is a thousand likes, without breaking a sweat. If we’re bored by what we see on our screen, we click to the next channel or scroll to the next post, which requires no time, no effort, and no integrity.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. All we have to do is remember and apply what we learned in kindergarten. Three little words: “Tell the truth.” It needs to be imprinted in our brains. Because if we don’t tell the truth, we become people without shame, people who will do anything—lie, steal, attack—for the sake of greed or convenience.

I’d like to rip into Bad Boy Appliances, but it wouldn’t do any good. So, I’m taking this out on you in the hope you may agree and make the principle—to tell the truth—real for yourself . . . and the people you love.