Monday, December 30, 2019

When boy meets his dad, their road trips together shape the rest of his life

Dan and his Dodge.
My friend Nathan lives to explore with his camera, taking gorgeous photos everywhere he goes. It's a passion he said was sparked when he met his father and they began taking summer road trips together.

That was cool.

When eight-year-old Nathan became withdrawn and depressed, his mother became worried and frustrated. So when her son asked to meet his father, she agreed to try and find him.

Nathan at 8.
Soon Dan was driving across two states to meet Nathan, who doesn't remember ever being angry at his father for not contacting him earlier. "I think I always understood he was in a lot of pain."

That summer when Nathan got out of school, his father came back to take him on a road trip, first driving him to Utah to meet his grandmother, uncles and some cousins. And for the next several summers he returned to pick up Nathan, driving him to all the remote spots where he sought solitude. "He loved to find the places where others didn't go, and he taught me to appreciate nature, and the outdoors."
To keep Nathan entertained during all those hours in the car, his father bought him a disposable camera, "probably just to give me something to do. I really liked drawing, but I couldn't easily do that on the road. So taking pictures was my way of drawing, of engaging with the scenery and capturing images. "

They stopped taking road trips together when Nathan became a teenager, and as men now they have few things in common and even fewer things to talk about. But taking pictures will always bring Nathan back to those days in the car with his dad, "finding those roads no one else was on. And thirty years later, I'm still doing the same thing I did during those summers -- exploring and taking pictures."

Nathan's dad said he doesn't remember buying him that first camera, but I would still like to thank him for the pictures his son takes now, both on our newspaper assignments and hiking adventures with my dog. Because I think photographs are one of the best gifts we can give others: they are the closest humans can ever come to freezing time, forever saving a moment we'd like to live again and again. 

And Nathan has taken some of my favorite photographs, including one that captures the joy I feel being with my dog. To me this photo is magical, and I can't thank Nathan enough for freezing this moment for me.

Dodging the waves on Black Sands Beach. Photo by Nathan DeHart

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Betty was my first tough boss. But also one of the best.

My best friend bought this dancer for the first tree I bought.
Betty was my first tough boss. But she also gave me my first Christmas bonus, which I used to buy my first tree.

That was cool. Especially since Betty didn't always like me. 

She was a short-but-formidable New Yorker who opened a pizza place in my California hometown using her husband's family recipes and her keen business sense. A no-nonsense woman who rarely smiled, Betty had strict rules for her employees and I respected all but one when I started working there my last year of high school. I understood why we had to weigh toppings, why we couldn't give pizzas to our friends and could only give ourselves one free slice per shift. But I never understood why she wouldn't let girls work the ovens.

Working the ovens meant you were in charge of cooking all the pizzas: putting them in, then pulling them out and slicing them when they were done. It was hot, dirty work that Betty thought girls weren't strong enough to do, and most didn't want to do. But I did.

I liked that it was a mental and physical puzzle, starting with deciding where to place each pie and remembering which one would be ready first. I loved that it was a job you did alone, and that freed you from helping customers, because you never knew when the last 17 seconds between done and burnt would come. And I loved watching the muscles on my arms growing from lifting pizzas, even smiling at all the burn scars that joined them.

But no matter how good everyone else knew I was at working the ovens, I could never do it when Betty was around. Fortunately, I did get her approval to do a job I ended up loving even more: stretching out dough.

“I hear Phil taught you how to stretch dough,” Betty said one day. "He says you could fill in for him on the weekends, so he doesn't have to get up early after playing with his band. Though God knows who pays to hear that music."

"Yes, I'd like to," I said.

“Right. But first you need to make me a dough.”
When I came back from the fridge with a dough canister, Betty stopped me from opening it.
“Wait, show me your hands,” she said. “Good. No nails. Keep them short."

To calm my nerves I pretended Betty wasn't there, focusing on everything I loved about working with a dough. Taking it out and getting that first whiff of the earthy, moist mix of yeast and olive oil. Then swirling a handful of flour on the board before dropping the dough, still perfectly round and full of possibility -- no tears or even thin spots yet.  And how each dough looked different, with its own moon surface of air bubbles, but felt the same: deliciously soft and squishy as I pushed out the air bubbles out and flattened the dough into a disc dusted with flour.

Then I lifted the dough up, and with just two fingers of each hand began to pinch a lip onto the edges, forming what would become a nice, bubbly crust. Once it had an edge all around and I was sure it was warm enough, I began to spread the dough very carefully with my thumbs, letting it drop down the backs of my hands and gently stretch itself. I never threw the dough like Phil did, and while my method took longer and was less flashy, I thought mine were always more circular and had less thin spots. By the time I laid down the finished dough, I had forgotten Betty was there because I jumped when she said, “OK. You can stretch the dough. Just don’t start tossing them like Phil does."

That Thanksgiving, I knew Betty had thoroughly warmed up to me because the night before she asked if I wanted to go home early and help my mother with the cooking.  
"No, it's just me and my dad," I said, forgetting to lie.
"Oh. Why?"
I always hated this part. Not matter how straight the words sounded in my head, they always came out crooked. "My mother was killed in a car accident a couple of years ago."
Betty sucked in her breath as I turned to tidy the bins of toppings, hoping she wouldn't hug me. If that hard little woman turned soft and wrapped her arms around me, I would have melted into a puddle. But she didn't. Just made a few sympathetic noises that sounded like "you poor thing," and I didn't turn around until the bell on the front door told me she left.

Then a few days before Christmas Betty came in early one Saturday morning when I was alone. "This is for you," she said, holding out an envelope. "But you can't tell anyone else about this. Not everyone is getting one."

I nodded and put the envelope in my apron pocket. After she left I opened it: Inside was a $100 bill, about half my two-week paycheck. And before I went home that day I knew exactly what I wanted to buy first: a Christmas tree.

My father hadn't bought one since my mother died. He never cared for American holidays, and especially didn't like how we celebrated Christmas. So with his wife gone, he decided we didn't need a tree, and we definitely didn't need to ever play that "blasted Johnny Mathis again."
So I bought a tree with Betty's bonus. And waited until my father went to bed to decorate it so I could play the Johnny Mathis Christmas album while putting on the ornaments.

Betty made my holiday that year, but she also showed me something much more important: that I was a good employee and my skills were appreciated, even if smiling on-demand wasn't one of them. At my first job I made food, too, but there it didn't seem to matter how hard I tried to pour the perfect ice cream cone or shape the perfect stick of cotton candy if I couldn't smile while handing it over. It took me decades to find the strings on my smiles, and they're still hard to pull.

But Betty didn't care that I wasn't sweet and friendly like most girls. She cared that I showed up when I was supposed to, made good pizza that I charged the right price for, and didn't pull money out of the cash register on my way home. And she liked that I didn't dress like a girl, either, because I was happy to just wear a plain white T-shirt and jeans under my apron, didn't have jewelry getting in the way and didn't need all those extra bathroom breaks to check on my make-up.

"You'll always have a job here," Betty told me when I left, adding that she was sad to lose such a "sensible" worker like me. I'll never forget how good that made me feel, knowing that even if I never learned to pull out my smiles at will, I could still be a valuable employee to the right bosses.
And that meant more to me than any Christmas bonus could.