The Value of Fuzzy Photographs

A very blurry photo of a child(?) and a tree(?) indoors My parents were not good photographers. I say this with all the love and respect my entire being can manifest. But all that love and respect cannot change the fact that they have an exceptional chance of winning awards for excessively challenged photo taking skills.

As a child, I was innocently unaware of these simple truths. I figured it was more of a factor of the one camera we had in the house, which probably was considered an antique before I was born. It resembled Fred Flintstone’s model, and I suspect our failure to feed the chisel-wielding bird inside contributed to the poor quality of the images produced.

For you youngsters out there, cameras used to require carefully rolled containers of light-sensitive cellulose known as “film” to capture an image. The mechanical nature of a roll of film itself led to handfuls of photo horrors. If you didn’t advance the roll correctly, you got a handful of pictures where the image inhabitants are calmly ignorant of the black hole hovering just inches away from them, soon to consume not only their physical bodies but probably also their souls.

Another photographic technique favored by my thrifty father, was to make sure to use both sides of the roll of film. These pictures embraced a certain flavor of absurdist avant garde, giving my baby sister the body of a cat, while she explored a living room jungle, complete with sofa waterfall and hanging lamp flowers, while the upside-down floating birthday cake hovered over the waterfall like curious moon.

The creepiest samples are the ones where something in the image was moving, or perhaps the picture taker moved the camera, resulting in ghostly heads appearing above more solid, but still fuzzy heads. And does that blobby thing(?) person(?) have two extra arms? Or are those tentacles?

As antiquated as the photo equipment in the house was, it seems unfair to blame it for loping off the heads of three of the 4 people in the picture or adding random, gigantic fuzzy digits onto the margins of every frame. Probably, it’s also unfair to blame it for filling three-quarters of an image with a spectacular lens flair.

There are times when I lament the headless and fuzzy photos created by the only Polarock camera to survive the Stone Age, and then I also realize how only two generations before, you could count the total number of photos of the entire family on fewer than five hands. And a generation before that, a single hand might do the trick.

These were taken in an age where you couldn’t instantly see the picture you’d just snapped. Each click was carefully considered, and deemed worthy of preservation. Every time the button was pressed, it was one more segment of precious film gone, with no certainty that it would come out at all. Thinking about it that way, all these photos, even the fuzzy ones, become priceless treasures.

Imperfections are Funnier

You are probably not terribly surprised to learn that I spend a good deal of time paying attention to the statistics of this mailing every week. I worry every time my “open” rate doesn’t hit my list average, and I obsess about every unsubscription. Not that there are very many of those, but, they bother me. How dare someone report my stunningly original content that isn’t even trying to sell something as being “spam?!” The nerve of those people!

Of course, I always wonder how much people like each piece, and, of course, if they still like me.

Over the years of reviewing this data every week, I wasn’t prepared to learn that the content I thought was the *best* content was often the content where the “open” rates were much lower than average, or that people seemed to be less than impressed with the content. Worse, the content that seemed to have the best reception was content I felt was not very good.

And then I realized why.

The stories I liked the best were always the ones where I was undoubtedly the hero, defeating the forces of darkness with my extreme cleverness and astonishing talents. They were tales where I was undoubtedly the master and in charge of the situation, and my awesome powers shined like a beacon of hope to all mankind.

And the stories that got the best reactions from you, my readers, were the stories where I was much less spectacular. The ones I really didn’t want to share because I was so unremarkable.

In short, these are the stories where I was vulnerable and so very disappointingly human.

I grew up learning that showing vulnerability meant that you became the limping wildebeest at the back of the herd, the one that the lions would spot immediately and target as the “easy prey.” And even if that particular wildebeest was much beloved by the herd for her quick wit and excellent cooking skills, that limp was going to get her killed. I learned to hide anything that might be interpreted as a limp.

I really hate showing my limp.

And yet, hiding the imperfections and showing only the good stuff means that I am only succeeding in surrendering to my own fear and preventing myself from doing the real work of connecting with people.

So, I’m going to try and do a better job of exploiting the vast catalog of my failures for your amusement. I figure it’s the least I can do.

My Dad Didn’t Know Ronald

A statue of Ronald McDonaldWhen I was very young, my dad had the coolest job on the planet.

He worked for McDonald’s.

Imagine it! Surrounded by those fantastic fries and hamburgers! I figured he knew Ronald McDonald personally. He was a font of insight into all the McDonaldland denizens: Mayor McCheese, the Hamburgler and Grimace. I was pretty sure, as an insider, he knew intimate details of their lives, like their birthdates and their favorite colors.

While other kids might boast their dad was a lawyer or an accountant, if pressed, they had no clue what being an “Accountant” meant. These kids might know the word, but, that did not translate into actual insight into what their parent actually did all day. Not me. I could report with confidence. My dad made hamburgers and French fries. Every kid knew what a McDonald’s employee did.

I went to exactly one birthday party at a McDonald’s during this time; in point of fact, it was the only one I ever attended. It was not at the McDonald’s that my dad worked. It was a bigger, shinier McDonald’s. The kid whose birthday it was, is a child about whom I have no recollection, not even trivial things like the tyke’s sex or name. I do remember that the child was blithely smug about his or her own importance having a McDonald’s birthday demanded we display the appropriate reverence for his or her own lofty status.

I was unimpressed. Ronald McDonald was a personal acquaintance of my father. This child may have been able to temporarily buy usage of Ronald’s business, but she (or he) did not have the cash enough to get him to appear, whereas my dad was probably having lunch with him as we played on the freakish plastic representations of McDonald’s icons.

The party was disappointing. I had secretly held out hope that my dad might actually appear as a surprise, bringing Ronald with him to the party. Maybe it was his day to drive the clown around and Ronald had heard that his loyal employee’s child was a guest at McDonald’s birthday and he *had* to meet the irresistibly cute kid. Seriously, I was adorable.

I remember that I was thoroughly uninterested in any of the other children, they seemed unworthy of a child whose father was on a first name basis with Ronald. They were clearly not the important ones in attendance, even if one of them was celebrating a natal day. I played by myself, with only half my attention on the colorful diversions, the bulk of my attention was for a glimpse of my dad and that clown, who, at any moment, would walk in the door, walk past the celebrant and straight toward the most important four-year-old in the restaurant, if not the world.

He did not come.

This was probably my first inkling that my father did not know Ronald McDonald.  I don’t remember the moment I knew for sure, but, I know that it was more devastating than learning about Santa. If I was a more melodramatic sort of person, I might even claim that was the moment my childhood ended, crumpled in a bag of McDonaldland cookies, but, I’m not that sort of person. Instead, I’m the sort that tells you she was a pretty arrogant four-year-old.  But, you probably already knew that.

Birth of a Notion

Small tablet with relief profile of King Hammurabi with cuneiform signature

A few years ago, as you might (or might not) remember, a family member sent me and my sister on a fabulous trip to Ireland to do some family history research. Our dad came with us.  I wrote a series of stories on that trip.  On the day that comes after four you will see a curious comment about a glittering thing picked up from the ground outside of Dublin Castle. And that, my friends, was the Birth of a Notion.

It didn’t really sound like much, I hear you thinking. (That’s one of my superpowers. I didn’t want you to be unaware of it.  It’s a super power of limited utility, in that, I can only hear your thoughts when you are reading something I wrote. I know. It’s a stupid power. )

And, you’d be mostly pretty right. That little bit of discovery turned into an ongoing inside joke between the three of us, and by the end of the trip we were referring to this project as “The SHUSH Museum.”

I know, now you’re wondering where the heck all of this is going and wondering “What is the SHUSH Museum, and WHY do I care? “

Think back a few weeks, and you might recall I blathered on about a new project, coming to an Internet near you. That project would be a mailing on Saturdays, starting in January.  By some extreme set of coincidences, these two seemingly disparate projects are actually THE SAME PROJECT.

For more than two years, this quirky little project wouldn’t leave me alone. Between you and me, it’s been something of a bully, and it hasn’t particularly been forthcoming with comforting statements about what anyone is getting out of letting it be born. Because, this little notion required me to pull in the talents of people who were not me. I have recruited the finest photographers I know into this bully’s plans, and, on Saturday, all that work has found itself a home.

You’re kicking yourself for not signing up for this, aren’t you? Well, I mean, not literally. That’s physically beyond most people.  My superpower is picking up your internal monologue. I told you this whole SHUSH thing was kind of a bully.  Actually, I know this bit was more wishful thinking than superpower. Most of you aren’t that broken up about missing the debut posting of the SHUSH Museum.

The good news is that you can go take a look at things now. Get a better idea of what will be coming out on Saturdays.  If you still want to get it in your e-mail, you can also still sign-up.  If you want to just catch the items on the website each week, that’s also a good option, but, be warned. Each item will only be on exhibit for 5 weeks. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, and you’ll have missed the opportunity to explore the curious exhibits of the Society for Hoarders of the Unique, Significant and Historic (SHUSH).   Join us, won’t you? The surprises have just begun.

The Worst Part About Camp Hip Replacement

Cabin Camp 3 PRWI
A week ago, my mom got discharged from the hospital after hip replacement surgery. Since then, I’ve been living with her as she recovers. I thought I knew what to expect after Camp Cardiac a few years ago. The freezer was stocked with numerous decadent pints, a secret stash of bread, and, with work closed for the holiday, I thought I was prepared for another round of recovery.

I really didn’t expect to look back on Camp Cardiac with any sort fondness.

And yet, compared with Camp Hip Replacement, Camp Cardiac was a restful, calm, nature stroll.

All of the same basic challenges of Camp Cardiac were in play. Camp Hip Replacement added a few more wrinkles to the giant rehab elephant. First, mobility is a bigger issue, which sure, is a smack on the forehead with the “duh” stick.  I thought I had a proper appreciation for how large that truck of “duh” was, since I spent months writing about orthopedic surgeries for grants from the federal government. Turns out that my theoretical knowledge did not really translate into the practical appreciation of what all that actually means for humans who’ve undergone joint replacement. Book learnin’ loses yet another battle against reality.

Second, Camp Cardiac turns out to have been free from any of the possible complications of surgery, and Camp Hip Replacement tossed in a chapter on post-operative infection, AND an unhelpful section on the excitement of adverse drug interactions! It has been seldom a dull moment on the shores of Lake Whatsagoingtohappennextasauki.

And then the worst wrinkle, the one which has sent me to the freezer more than once, is that it’s the holiday season and my mom is addicted to the Hallmark channel.

Mom’s addiction was present in the weeks of Camp Cardiac, to be sure, but, it was not that most wonderful time of the year, and it was easily ignored. This time of year, the channel’s programming is at dialed up to maximum schmaltz. And not in the original Yiddish sense.

The Hallmark holiday recipe calls for an attractive white person to have lost a loved one/source of income/sense of purpose who then meets another attractive white person of the opposite sex who happens to have the exact solution for whatever the other person has lost. There’s usually some sort of “Christmas Magic” or “Convenient Miracle,” in which all Scrooges are reformed, the money to save the beloved and benevolent church/school/business/main character magically appears, and the attractive white people fall in love, remember the true meaning of the holiday, have all of their dreams come true and everyone has the Best. Christmas. Ever.

At the risk of being cast as the Scrooge, bah humbug.

I am tired of hearing the message that one day, someone will magically appear in your life and have the perfect solution to all your problems *and* be your own personal soul mate *and* make all your dreams come true. Nothing turns me into a cynic faster than fantasies filled with pat answers and magical solutions.  And there is not enough insulin in the world to successfully metabolize the toxic levels of glucose in my system from a week’s 24-hour a day diet of these confections.

I feel like Camp Hip Replacement is about the perfect set-up for a Hallmark movie – Long-suffering single lady comes to take care of her mom during the holidays while mom recovers from surgery. Soon she meets the guy who recognizes her hidden talents and not only gives her some time away from Camp Hip Replacement, but he has need of a talented writer to head-up a new fiction division in his large, successful publishing house. Not only does he really think she’s hilarious and enchanting and worth knowing, but, he’s brilliant and kind and he gets along with her whole family, including everyone’s dogs, so, naturally, within a few days, they’re in love and all of their problems are solved and the two of them live happily ever after.   nbsp;

That this never happened, nor is it likely to ever happen, well, that might give you some insight into my less than charitable feelings toward the Hallmark Channel. It might be time for another trip to the freezer.

An Anniversary of Gratitude

An old fashioned station calendar


This mailing marks the end of the fifth year of this “whatever this is,” which also means it’s the start of the six year of “whatever this is.”

You would think that after five years of “whatever this is” I would have a better name for this than “whatever this is.” You have a very good point.

I’m now wishing I’d not mentioned that this was the anniversary and we didn’t have to have this awkward conversation about “whatever this is” and I could go on pretending that I have a clue about, well, anything at all.

What is it about anniversaries that prompts introspection and reflection and all that bologna that is decidedly serious and painful and not at all conducive to punchlines? It really makes it so I’m stuck with undercutting honesty with awkward rambling. At least it increases my word count.

Where was I?

Right. I was trying to avoid schmaltzy anniversary-prompted introspection with a bunch of obfuscation.

That reminds me! This is the holiday season!

In the spirit of the holidays, I want to share with you one of the things that makes me particularly thankful.

That would be YOU.

I know, it’s a bit schmaltzy in a different way, but, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. I am grateful for all of you who have stuck beside me, through good jokes and bad, through recycled content and episodes of nonsensical rambling, you are still here.

You are still here, right? You didn’t maybe check out after the part where I confessed that I have no clue about “whatever this is” or the part where I might’ve said something about being thankful for you, and that was slightly awkward, so you stopped reading and started looking for the “unsubscribe” link…

…If you ARE still here, thank you. Without you, not only would I have given this “whatever this is” up years ago, but, a third of the content of this particular mailing would be much more pathetic than it already is. You have yourselves to thank for giving me something to not only be thankful for, but for giving me something with which to fill this space.

That means, if you’re tired of reading this, you only have yourselves to blame.

In this season of giving, however, I will let you off the hook, and go back to simply being grateful for you. I will also wish you a season of joy and laughter, and hope you are as grateful for yourselves as I am, and that you are feeling warm and happy and full of gratitude for all that you have. Maybe, just maybe, there’s still a tiny spot within your generous soul that’s also a tiny bit grateful that you are still reading this “whatever it is.”

Holiday Form Letter

Dearest Loved Ones (that’s you, my loyal readers),

It is time yet again when I sit down and write the annual Christmas letter. You are possibly wondering why, in the era of Facebook, why I would resort to such a quaint and antiquated tradition as sending you a holiday card with a long info-dump of my fabulous year, copied onto a sheet of common copy paper. Afterall, nobody saves the amazing milestones and accomplishments of their storybook lives for a year-end round-up any more. They just post them in real-time.

Me, I prefer the only slightly less impersonal approach of a physical form letter (we’re pretending that you got this in an actual letter, instead of via e-mail. Work with me here.)  mailed in a festive card which arrived in your mail, to the status update that will probably get buried in your newsfeed, because, let’s face it, Facebook thinks we don’t really like each other all that much and has decided you don’t really want to see my updates.

A feature of the form letter is an overly exhaustive review of all the things the letter writer and their family has accomplished since the last letter. You force yourself to read it even though you are thinking to yourself that the writer is a complete narcissist, and you wish you were done reading it already so you can throw it in the trash. There aren’t even any cute baby pictures in here to make it more palatable.

One of the highlights of my year came in March, where my sister and her family came in from out of state to visit. We did some of the usual touristy things, and you’ve probably already tuned this part out because you don’t know them and I have, yet again, failed to give you cute pictures.

After this was Denver Comic Con, at which I was again a volunteer, and I had the usual adventures in customer service, got involved in a pitched light saber battle with my sister, and had random encounters with celebrities who will not remember them. You might’ve seen the pictures on Facebook.

Then there was the big drama of the year, which was the infamous car accident, which set-off the fight with the insurance company, and the adventure of the rental car. The conclusion of that adventure was that my car was fixed, and is doing great.

(Of course, since we are pretending this came to you in print, you’re probably scratching your head about the randomly underlined bits of text, which are making you wonder if I’ve abandoned my good sense of typography and taken up bad habits from some creator of fanatical propaganda pamphlets. Instead, this is looking like an awkward highlights reel clipshow.)

This is the part where I tell you about my exciting new projects for 2017. I am mostly hoping you ignore this part of the letter.

The good news is that I’m coming to the end of a standard sheet of letter copy paper, and have no wish to spend the money to make these letters double-sided, so, I’ll let you off the hook early, and let you get to the “put the letter in the trash” part of this exercise.

I wish you and yours a wonderful holiday season, filled with light and love, and joy and laughter. Thanks for reading through to the end.

Why Weird is Relative

Grandpa carving the turkey on ThanksgivingEvery family has its own Thanksgiving traditions. For some it’s a weird gelatin with hot dogs and cabbage in it. These are the dishes that are made exactly once a year, the ones that half the family hates, but, no one can imagine having Thanksgiving without it sitting on the table.

Ours is butterball and noodle soup, which is not at all weird.

Ok, maybe it is. But it’s our weird. We all prefer our own flavors of weird.

Butterball and noodle soup is one of those classic “leftover” meals our ancestors made to use every bit of the resources available on the farm. Dry bread, chicken stock, cream, butter and eggs. At one time, I suspect, (putting on my know-it-all hat to cover the fact that I’ve no actual evidence for these statements) my ancestors had this dish more than once a year, maybe even a couple of times a month!

Now we’re city folk, and the dish that came from things “on hand” is now a shopping trip, where we purchase bread to dry it, and we don’t know the cow(s) that provide the dairy, nor do we stick our hands under a chicken to get eggs. The noodles will also be purchased, not made.

The stock will be provided by the other star of Thanksgiving, the turkey.

All that’s left to do? Try and remember the recipe.

You see, like any good “family recipe” there are hundreds of variations. Most of them have the ingredients listed above. Some mention sweetened condensed milk (avoid those, you’ll thank me). Others, probably in a misguided attempt to “reduce the fat content,” substitute margarine and half and half for the butter and cream. WRONG. This is not just from a flavor standpoint. This is from a “do you want your butterballs to hold together, or do you want to eat watery mush?” perspective.

Getting the right ingredients is only part of the equation. They need to be prepared “just so.” If not, the butterballs will fall apart. And everyone knows (well, everyone who’s our flavor of weird knows) that the true test of any cook is: “Can you make butterballs that don’t fall apart?” The second test, is “Do the butterballs taste like Grandma Kathryn’s?”

Everyone agrees that my great-grandmother made it best. Her butterballs always stayed together and always tasted wonderful.

It has been 20 years since I was given the sacred duty of making the butterballs, a test of cookery and a rite of passage. It hardly mattered that I had never made them, or that I’d never tasted anything my great-grandmother had cooked, my mother was rumored to have the recipe.

Could I live up to my namesake?

My grandfather, who loved this soup but had struggled for decades to reclaim the food memory of eating the soup at grandma’s table, was so hopeful, he offered to make the breadcrumbs. No one remembered him ever doing that.

I was feeling the pressure.

After two days work, butterballs came out of the fridge and slid into the hot soup. When we sat down to eat, the balls were still intact, a hopeful sign. Grandpa took a bite, but held a poker face. Everyone watched him, not even breathing, waiting for his verdict.

“You done good, Katie,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. And everyone set to eating it, and was thankful.

So, before I leave you for a long weekend and time to be thankful, I have a few reminders.

First, a reminder that I’ve started posting a to my website on Thursdays, and to read it, well, you’ll have to click the link, or, hey, you could bookmark the page, and take a peep whenever you like.

Second: a reminder that, starting in January, I will be revealing a THIRD weekly posting, the content of which promises to be a unique surprise. This content will be released every Saturday. If you want to get that content sent to you every week, you can add your name by subscribing here. When you sign up to get that new weekly content, you’ll get a teaser of what lies ahead.

A Coward’s Confession










I did not complete my novel this July. I can tell by the shocked silence this is terribly astonishing to each and everyone of you.

More likely that silence is something very different from surprise.

I could list dozens of well-crafted excuses, all of which sound remarkably convincing.  I’ve been telling them to myself for weeks, and they did a great job reassuring me that they were valid and true. It’s also true that I am a really, really good at telling stories. I’m certain that these astoundingly compelling tales would be more than sufficient for my kind and generous readers to not only wholeheartedly agree with their legitimacy, but that they would gently “let me off the hook.” Except, I am here to assure you, these are all lies. The truth boils down to one thing: I am a lazy coward.

Or is that two things?

Telling you I am coward sounds like a punchline. At least it does when it’s outside my head, and appearing in the context of a humor column. Inside my head, it’s a punchline of a different sort. Making things is hard.

Every time I sit at the computer to put some words down, there is dread. It’s dread fueled by fear, and it wants me to stop. It begs me to “just take a nap,” or “check Facebook one last time,” or “just look up one more thing,” and 20 minutes later, I’ve not made any progress.

My cowardly mind tells me, in soothing tones, “It’s too hard. You’ve done enough. It was a busy week. You need to go to bed, you have work tomorrow. Rest is more important than meeting some arbitrary deadline that only really exists in your mind. No one will even notice if you miss it.

More lies. *I* notice.

In a month where I was again attempting to re-establish the discipline of a nightly writing, and meet the challenging goal of 1700 words per day, I actually wrote less than I have in months. Behold the irony.

My own internal propaganda had much more powerful ammunition for this round. It had the gall to supplement its lies with a bit of the truth. It’s a small truth, in which I did manage to progress just about every project I’m working on *except* the novel. Sure, any progress is good.. But, it’s also a convenient, comforting appeasement for my failure.

This isn’t a shamelessly transparent attempt to solicit encouraging feedback reminding me how awesome I am. I totally know that already. I also know when I’m falling short.

By telling you all that I’ve fallen short lately, I’m trying to confront that coward. I’m hoping that a breath of honesty might make it harder for me to fool myself. Stranger things have happened.

We came this far, and all I was able to do was talk about the “coward” part of the equation. I’ve not even touched on the “lazy” part. Which means, this is a good place to stop for now. I’ll get around to dealing with that some other time.

Searching for Stories


Uragh Stone Circle, Ireland, by mozzercork, creative commons licenseI had never considered myself to be remotely Irish, even though my mother’s maiden name practically screams its origins with an unsubtle brogue and a fanfare of haunting pipe music blasting from across the Atlantic carrying the tune straight from Éirinn’s green hills.  Her family has been here for generations, and not even the oldest in her family is likely to remember any ancestor cooking a traditional Irish dish, or chasing leprechauns, or muttering in Gaelic when someone tracked mud into the house.

I used to complain to her that she couldn’t understand the misery of having a surname that kids found easy to turn into insults, and she quickly corrected my ignorance by telling me that kids in her day rhymed her surname with “baloney.”  I still thought I had drawn the shorter straw, because my pain affected me, and her long ago pain was not mine.

To be certain, I had no idea about the origins of “Barnes.” The children on the playground, however, were very certain they knew where the name had originated, and it was not a country. Frankly, I was afraid that their guesses might end up being more correct than I was willing to admit on the mean streets of the playground. While it was easy to refute the implications of “being born in a barn,”  and the suggestions that my heritage might not be entirely human, I had uneasy feelings about the humble origins of the ultimate derivation of my last name, and I really didn’t want to offer any additional ammunition to those merciless monsters of mockery.

And here I am many <mumblecoughyears> later, learning that my Barnes ancestor likely came here from Ireland. Like my mother’s ancestors, the Barnes family has been here for centuries, and if there was a family recipe for colcannon or boxty, well, it’s been lost. Possibly on purpose. 

While I always had hoped that I might go and see Ireland, I never expected to have any sorts of actual roots there. Any kinship I have felt with the land has been with those crafters of stories and words that have come from that far away place. I often think about how “the snow was general all over Ireland,” and how it fell “upon all the living and the dead.”

I have thought about the legends that have inspired me in my formative years, of a place where magic and mystery lingered in the very rocks and trees of an ancient land where children might find a snowy wood and a lamppost in the back of a wardrobe. 

In short order, I will see those “dark mutinous Shannon waves,” and lonely churchyards with “crooked crosses and headstones,” and perhaps see upon them names that look like my own. I will wonder about their stories and what they knew of the mysteries that lurked in these places they called home. Perhaps they will share some of their stories. I just hope they don’t feel the need to leave the churchyard.