There’s Always One

The following article first appeared on April 25, 2009 for my The Humor of It…Through a Different Lens column for Shades of the Departed.  footnoteMaven has graciously allowed me to reprint my Humor of It articles here on What’s Past is Prologue.  I’m currently on hiatus writing this column for Shades, but I encourage you to visit the latest edition of the digital magazine for some excellent writing and photography!

When it comes to taking a group photo, there always seems to be one – one person who completely, unequivocally messes up the shot. I don’t mean The One ruins the photo accidentally by blinking or by glancing in the wrong direction just as the shutter is pressed. No, The One is the person who intentionally seeks to spoil the shot by unscrupulously sabotaging the sacred and unwritten photo-taking rules that make us all smile politely until it’s over.

A common offense is the use of so-called bunny ears – two fingers positioned behind another’s head. Who among us does not have a perfectly lovely group photo in which One Person deviously adds appendages to an unsuspecting friend? To children, this is absolutely hysterical!

My brother is “bunnied” by his daughter, December 2006.

To big children, it’s still hysterical!

My friend Joe and I are victimized in Rocky Mountain National Park by our German friends Peter and Franz, September 1995.

I took this poorly framed photo of my “adopted” aunt and uncle on the dance floor at my brother’s wedding in 1993, but at the time I didn’t realize my mother, sheepishly grinning on the far left, was a Bunny Ear Giver. At least we know where my niece gets it from.

Mom gives Lillian some bunny ears, November 1993.

Not even celebrities are immune to the curse of the Suddenly Appearing Bunny Ears!

President G.H.W. Bush gives his wife Barbara the ears, 1997. Source Photo originally appeared in Newsweek magazine, April 1997

But Bunny Ear Givers are not the only offenders among those who seek to destroy your group photograph. There are also the Leaners. A Leaner likes to be on the far edge of a group photo. Then they wait patiently until just that right moment between “1, 2…” and “Cheese!” when they suddenly and aggressively shove themselves towards the center of the group. This naturally causes a domino effect among the other group members, and much hilarity to all but the photographer and the person at the bottom of the pile.

My brother’s hockey team gets Leaned on, circa 1976.

Sometimes Leaners are somewhat less hostile and become a Look At Me! A Look At Me! takes more initiative and doesn’t wait for that exact moment. They simply get in between the group and the photographer in the most obtrusive manner possible. As you can see, my family suffers from various forms of these illnesses.

My brother gets in the way, November 2007.

Here’s another Look At Me! The group knew the charger in the photo, and if the photographer hadn’t snapped the shutter at this exact moment, he’d have captured a Leaner event instead as Look At Me rushed towards us at extreme speed.

Mt. Vesuvius hasn’t erupted in a while, but a Look At Me was let loose at Pompeii, April 2006.

My final category to illustrate how there’s always One person seeking to spoil your group photo consists of the Funny Faces. I’m not trying to be offensive to unattractive people – I mean those who purposely make funny faces just to ruin your shot. To illustrate this category, I present the genetic carrier of the DNA in my family that causes these photo disturbances. I have very few photographs of my maternal grandmother. In the ones I do have, she is a very attractive woman in her younger years. But there are few, if any, of her as an older woman. She always said she didn’t like to have her photo taken, but I have finally uncovered the truth. After seeing this picture, I think she was banned from group photographs by her family.

My grandmother, godfather, mother, and brother, circa 1965

Yes, folks, that’s my grandma! I guess it really does run in the family.

While there’s always One, it can actually be worse…you can have multiple offenders in your group. There’s really no hope if your family contains several folks with these tendencies as you can see here:

I’m the Bunny Ear Giver, but there’s also a Leaner and more than one Funny Face in this group! March 1991.

The next time your family gathers together for a tender photo moment, ponder your choices. You can either be good, sit up straight, and smile. Or, you can be One of Them. You, too, can be a Bunny Ear Giver, a Leaner, a Look At Me, or a Funny Face. Or, if you have friends and family like mine, just have everyone unleash their inner child AT THE SAME TIME.

The Pointkouski Family, who will now formally disown me November, 2007.

Childish? Of course. But the result is priceless. And a little embarrassing. But after this, we actually got some nice, normal family photos since it was all out of our system!

If you are the photographer in your family, just remember there’s always One. Or Many!


Off with Their Heads!

The following article first appeared on March 28, 2009, as my debut appearance writing The Humor of It…Through a Different Lens column for Shades of the Departed.  footnoteMaven has graciously allowed me to reprint my Humor of It articles here on What’s Past is Prologue.  I’m currently on hiatus writing this column for Shades, but I encourage you to visit the latest edition of the digital magazine for some excellent writing and photography!

When I was a child, I assumed that photography was an art form beyond the reach of mere mortals. It just had to be the most complicated thing in the whole world. But I didn’t think that way because of the “magical” nature of taking photos and seeing a two-dimensional image of yourself and your surroundings. No, I believed photography was a difficult endeavor because in most of our family photos we were missing our heads or other body parts.

Here is a typical photo session at the Pointkouski household, Christmas, 1968:

This is a family portrait of all four of us taken by my grandmother. The ear is my father. My brother didn’t make it at all except for the tiny hand on my shoulder. But that’s a lovely sofa, isn’t it?

Dad took this shot…we’re all almost in it!

Okay, Dad, I’m ready for my close-up! Even at not-quite-two-years-old, I was a child prodigy. You see, I had already learned the secret of how to get into a family photo – sit on the left. If you weren’t on the left, you didn’t get in!

By now, my brother has caught on. He’s slowly sliding me over on the coffee table. If he had slouched a little, he might have made it.

This photo had the borders cut off for some unknown reason, but it’s clear by our smiles that we’re elated – we just knew that by the thirtieth picture we’d both make it in the shot! Well, almost make it into the shot – my brother’s just a tad bit too tall to make it.

What’s funnier about these photos – the pictures themselves or the fact that my family actually saved them all these years? What exactly was the thought process here? “Well, it’s not too bad…look, you can see this is him by his left ear…” For families in the pre-digital age, even a bad photo became the sole remnant of a memorable event. Cameras, film, and developing were expensive! And you never saw the result until the whole roll of film was used up, taken to get developed, and picked up. So, at least in my family, these “bad” photos became as valuable as “good” ones because they were the only ones.

My mother quickly became dissatisfied with the results of her unique photographic talent for taking photos of her beheaded children. She simply gave up. I don’t think I ever saw her take another photo. “I can’t take pictures” became her personal mantra. Thereafter, Dad became the official family photographer. It was probably a good thing, too, because without mirrors in the home I would have grown up believing that I was missing an ear.

Mom was always blamed for the missing body parts, but Dad was an occasional culprit, too. Just because Dad was taking the photos, we still weren’t immune from having our heads cut off. It just happened less frequently than back when Mom was taking the photos.

This was my sixth birthday party. My guests were my friends and neighbors, the Ferguson girls. Unfortunately, Shona wasn’t as smart as her older sister, or she had yet to catch on to our family secret – stay to the left!

It’s ten years later and I’m now sixteen. I’m perfectly centered, but the view of the cake took precedence over my head.

I was used to it, though. This was me several years earlier. I was tall for my age, but not that tall! Can you notice the family resemblance between my and my half-headed brother from the earlier shots?

It took many years for me to discover that my family was not unique in this extreme photographic ability. In fact, there is even a name for it! What you see in the above photos is called parallax error. Now, to me that sounds like Star Trek plot number seven in which a transporter accident lands the crew in a parallel universe. But it really means that what you see isn’t always what you get because the viewfinder wasn’t necessarily connected to the lens. Older cameras, especially the inexpensive 126, 110, or point-and-shoot 35mm’s that my family used, had a viewfinder that was separate from the camera’s lens. So what appears to be “framed” in the viewfinder isn’t really framed at all by the camera lens itself, and it isn’t what the lens captures. See, Mom, it’s not your fault after all! It really was the camera!

Here’s another example from the never-before-published photo collection from a well-known genea-blogger who shall remain nameless to protect my new job as a columnist here at Shades. This is an attempt to capture MavenSon’s great catch. But wait – is that really him?

Like our family, which learned to scoot to the left to be seen in photos, the Maven’s learned a technique to keep their heads on – aim for the face only and hold that catch up high! See the result:

Nowadays, you rarely see the beheaded shots anymore. It’s a shame really, because they can be quite amusing. Today, most cameras have a single lens reflex that eliminates the parallax problem because what you see really is what you get. Many digital cameras don’t even have a viewfinder at all and instead use a screen to show you what the lens ‘sees’. When my mother first saw the 3 inch screen on my tiny digital camera, she exclaimed, “Wow – even I can take a picture with that!” And it’s true – my 3-year-old niece is able to take a well-focused, well-balanced photograph (obviously a child prodigy like her aunt). The only time her brother is missing a limb is when she tries to do that the old-fashioned way – by jumping on him to beat him up.

In the modern digital age, it’s time to say good-bye to our beheaded family photos. But, of course, there’s still a chance your family might see one. For even without viewfinder errors, there are still simply bad photographers. Here’s hoping we’ll see you in your next family photo session!

A Killer Chair

You can’t deny laughter; when it comes, it plops down in your favorite chair and stays as long as it wants. ~ Stephen King

When it comes to family pictures, we rarely look at the “rest” of the photograph – that is, other objects appearing in the background with our smiling faces.  But sometimes when my family looks at photographs from our younger days, we’ll comment on a particular piece of furniture, or the wallpaper, or some appliance that brings back memories.  Just as unlabeled photos don’t tell the whole story to future photo viewers about who’s who in the picture, those objects in the background often have stories behind them that are not usually told.

One object that appears in our family photos over the last several years is a chair.  It looks like a nice chair: leather, wingback, regal-looking.   But, if you know the whole story, it’s more than a chair.  I’d describe it to my nieces and nephews as The Chair that Almost Killed Your Mother and Me.

My brother originally bought The Chair.  When he moved in with his then-fiancée, the chair moved with him.  But their condo was rather small, and their new house was in the process of being built.  Since I had just purchased a house, lived alone, and owned little furniture, I had some room to spare.  Could I hold the chair at my place until the house was ready?  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  After all, it was a nice chair and not ugly, and I had the space.

But what do I know?

My brother is tall, fit, and muscular, but he must have been busy that day, so he sends my future sister-in-law over to my house with the chair.  She’s 5’2″.  I’m taller, but probably weaker.  It was up to us ladies to get the chair settled into its temporary home.  Getting in the door wasn’t a problem, but it overwhelmed my living room and the other rooms on the first floor still had unpacked boxes.  But then I had an idea.  We’ll call this the Critical Error.  Where I really wanted the chair was up in the bedroom – we can get it upstairs, right?

Yeah, right.

In order to adequately describe the events that followed, I have to digress from the story with a description of the layout of my home.  The upstairs – a master bedroom, bathroom, hall, and some closets – used to be the attic of the house.  The former homeowner renovated and added a stairway in the best place possible, which wasn’t necessarily the most convenient place possible.  The stairs are narrow, and there is no banister on the “open” side.

Lacking all sense of reason, my future sister-in-law Alleah and I decide to carry the chair upstairs.  I grabbed the top end and backed up the stairs, while Alleah lifted the up the other end from the lower stairs.

This worked well…for about five steps.  The chair didn’t fit up the stairs.  Let’s ignore the fact that neither Alleah nor I owned or heard about a thing called a “tape measure”.  We were stuck.

I tried to maneuver around the stuck chair to help from the bottom end, but in the process I lost my grip.  In what would have scored a 10.0 in the Olympic Comedic Stupidity Event, I performed an amazing partially controlled falling leap over the side of the staircase, rolling over and landing on my back in the middle of the living room floor.  Even a Russian judge would have given me a high score for that spiral leap.  Even though it hurt, I was laughing hysterically.

Meanwhile, back on the stairs…the Killer Chair followed gravity in the proper downward direction.  Unfortunately, Alleah was in that direction still trying to hold on to the chair.  As I lay laughing, her own laughter at my predicament quickly turned into the realization that the Chair had pinned her to the wall at the bottom of the stairs.

Naturally, as I also realized this, it made me laugh even harder, still laying on the floor.  To this day, Alleah remembers that I had a photograph of Pope John Paul II on the stairway that, in her teary-eyed state of laughter, appeared to be staring at her mockingly from the safety of the wall.

Now, this was truly a crucial event in my sister-in-law’s life, for the Chair was attacking her in the region that would become the womb to my three future nieces and nephews.

If we had filmed this event, we’d have more hits on YouTube than Susan Boyle.

Eventually, I was able to move, but it took the strength of both of us to move the chair, and Alleah was still laughing too hard to be of any help to herself.

We swear The Chair did it on purpose in retaliation for being moved.

Well, needless to say, it never made it to my bedroom.  After regaining our composure, the chair was unceremoniously thrown down the stairs into my basement, where it remained until their house was ready for it.

When it had to be moved again, the move was wisely handled by my brother and her father.  We had enough of The Chair, with bruises and scars to prove it.

We find it rather ironic that today the kids have another name for The Chair: Daddy’s Prayer Chair, for it is where my brother spends his prayer time.  Little do they know the history behind the chair and the other names it has been called by their mother and their aunt.

What untold stories lurk in the background of your photographs?

A family portrait around The Chair, years after it tried to kill me and my sister-in-law. She was wisely keeping her distance from it by taking the photograph instead.

Things I Learned from Terry Thornton

I haven’t been a very good blogger of late.  For months this blog has languished.  I’d like to say the reason is that I’ve been off traveling around the world, or meeting my relatives, or researching my family history.  But it isn’t any of those things…just a touch of boredom or a junior-year blogging slump.  So, it’s time to get back on the blogging horse, for better or worse.  And no one would have admonished my blogging-block more than Terry Thornton.  As most of my readers probably know, William Terrance “Terry” Thornton was a genealogy blogger who passed away this week.  Reflecting on our online relationship and Terry’s talents as a writer made me realize it is time to get back to this blog – not because of Terry’s death, but because of the things he taught me in life.  And so I present the things I learned from Terry about blogging:

1) Quantity increases authority, but quality counts. Terry once wrote a post about how important it is to post to your blog frequently in order to establish yourself as an authority.  I agreed in theory, but added that quality is more important than the sheer number of posts. Terry and I continued our disagreeing discussion via email.  He did concede that quality is important:

A constant stream of “trash” of no interest to anyone poorly written and poorly presented won’t get the job done either.  Somewhere there is middle ground and I think we each have to find it for ourselves.

While I pride myself on writing thoughtful pieces, if I don’t blog more frequently there won’t be anyone left to read them.

2) Stories work better with a good hook. No one told a story better than Terry, and time and again I’d find myself fascinated by one of his stories.  They were stories about things that I would not necessarily choose to read about on my own, but I’d read with as much anticipation as a page-turning-thriller because he’d reel me in from the very beginning.  He’d “hook” my interest with the very first line, and I wouldn’t stop until I reached the end.  He once complimented me on my “interesting opening”…maybe I subconsciously got the idea from reading his posts!

3)  Genealogy can sometimes be boring, but not if you take a HOGS approach. Terry liked to call his approach to writing about family history as the “HOGS” approach; that is, a combination of History, Observations, Genealogy, and Stories.  He later amended this as the pHOGS approach to include photography.

In this post, Terry wrote:

The digital age makes family genealogy so much more than a mere listing of names and dates and marriages and children and burials places — and the pHOGS format seems most appropriate for works which go beyond old-fashioned genealogy. Past generations deserve more than just a mere listing of names and dates.

4.  Humor is necessary in life. Terry had a great sense of humor, and most of his comments on my blog were in response to my humorous posts.  I found a great example of Terry’s Twain-like humor on his reflections on his birthday last year:

Does being seventy mean I have to “act” seventy?

A sage I’m not — nor am I sitting at the top of a mountain dispensing wisdom (although we do have some tall hills in Hill Country). Not yet anyways. And acting the part of a wise old sage — no, not me.

But I am taking lessons for becoming a genuine curmudgeon and have just completed lessons one and two. One was how to spell it and two was how to pronounce it and my mentor says that lessons three and all the others to follow are things I just do naturally.

Oh joy! The prospects of doing well with something again pleases me no end.

Thanks for the smiles, Terry!

In closing, Terry loved poetry and frequently complimented me on the title of this blog.  He always “got” any Shakespeare reference I hid in my posts.  So I offer one final farewell tribute to our friend:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, scene ii