Category Archives: Memories

Kansas City

Kansas City skyline at dusk

Kansas City has some amazing views.

When I was growing up, going to Kansas City was a Big Deal™.

I was raised in a small town in southeast Kansas called Baxter Springs. With a population of around 5,000 then, it was a typical small town. I did a lot of my early exploring in the city on my bicycle. If you had a car (and a driver’s license), you would cruise the main street on the weekends. “Dragging main” entailed driving up and down and then back again until you got tired of doing it. I’m not even sure kids do that anymore.

I remember coming to Kansas City for my senior trip, where the high school seniors came up and stayed in a hotel. We went to a Royals game and did … what else, I can’t remember. I do remember a couple of my fellow classmates getting high/drunk (called Roba-dosing) by drinking a large amount of Robitussin cough syrup. Sadly, the trip did not end well for me. I had fun, but while at the Royals game people were asking this one girl to borrow some sunscreen, not realizing we were actually applying sun tan accelerator instead. I turned my Irish-blood legs beat red; for days I could only sleep on my back.

Good times.

In July of 2015, I said goodbye to Lawrence, Kansas, my home of 16 years. It seemed like the logical thing to do. I had been commuting to Kansas City since the end of 2012, and commuting 50 minutes each way was sucking the life out of my soul.

It has turned out to be an excellent decision. I love the pulse of a big city. There are ebbs and flows of activity, not unlike the rise and fall of an ocean tide. The mornings and evenings are blissfully quiet, but the daytime activity in the downtown area where I work brings great satisfaction to me. I love seeing the different types of people, the large buildings as they reflect the sun’s magnificent rays, and the culture of art and style that weaves through the city.

I am certainly a long way from my small Kansas hometown.

When we lived in Lawrence, coming to Kansas City for the day was still quite an event. I live on the Missouri side, in an area called the Northland, and I’m around 20 minutes from anything I would want to do. As I drive to work each morning, my first automotive hurdle is to crest the top of a hill. When I pass over, I can see downtown Kansas City’s skyscrapers looking like mountains in the distance. As I draw near, my eyes tend to fixate on these wonderful buildings. Kansas City has a lot of character, and I love almost everything I see (even the parts that need some love and attention).

There once was some artwork in the gallery at my work that said, “I love KC well so far.”

I think that sums it up perfectly.

Kansas City and art go well together.

A photo posted by Eric J Gruber (@ericjgruber) on

When you realize you may be lying to yourself

In the last few years, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of moving back to my home (or close to it) in southeast Kansas/southwest Missouri. Every time I go home, there’s this strange siren song that calls to me: “Come back! You can make a difference here! You can share your vision to help rebuild and people will follow you! Come back, Eric! Come back!”

The thing is, we live far away from most of our family. Sometimes I think I’m doing my children a disservice by being so far away from our relatives. The kids are always talking about going for a visit, but it’s such a huge undertaking to get a family of five out the front door — let alone packed for an extended visit — that it doesn’t happen nearly as much as I’d like. When I was growing up, I was no more than 60 minutes (give or take) away from my furthest grandparents. I got to know my maternal and paternal grandparents very well. As an adult, our family is spread all over the state of Kansas. Currently, it is impossible to think my children will have the same type of relationship with their grandparents (and other family members) as I did with mine, and I find that unsettling.

My 20-year high school class reunion was last year. I took my family and we had a good time. At some point, the conversation turned to how the area really wasn’t like it was when we were growing up. It’s not just the fog of nostalgia; long-term data shows the area I grew up in is one of the poorest in the state. The county I grew up in often lands on the top five of least healthy counties in Kansas. Jobs are scare, cities are dying, and to really put the icing on the cake: the Walmart in my hometown closed this year. When even Walmart can’t do business there anymore, then you know things are bad.

Or as one of my former classmates who lives in nearby Kansas City said, “I’d love to move back here, but I like making money, too.”

trampolineTo put things in context, outside the True Value hardware store in the city of my birth (the hospital there closed decades ago), hangs a trampoline. Rather, it’s half of a trampoline weathered from years of exposure to the elements.

There was a time when it had a sign on it with a price. I presumed they didn’t want to take the whole thing down because it was at least showing they had the item in stock if someone wanted one in a box (you definitely didn’t want the “floor model”). During one visit, my wife and I were discussing the trampoline, and she said it had been in that condition for at least the entirety of our marriage — to date, 12 years. She even believes it looked like this when we were dating.

That stupid trampoline reminds me every time I come home of the siren’s call. I could show these people how to regain a sense of pride in their hometown. “I could bring my plan (yes, I have a detailed plan in my headabout how to fix a broken small town and restore it to some sort of greatness. I could people find the dignity they lost in a world that has forgotten them.”

I can hear my speech in my head: “True Value, tear down this trampoline!”

For years, I’ve had job search websites looking for openings around the Joplin, Mo., area with the thought that I would pack up the family and move back home. Those searches have mostly come back empty, a testament to how few jobs in the tech industry there are down there (at least any that I would be competent at). For a time, I thought that I would try another approach: I would get a job somewhere that would allow me to work remotely, and then make the move. But I found problems with that plan. “If that job didn’t work out, could I find another remote job? What if I couldn’t find another remote job in a reasonable timeframe? With not many tech jobs in that area, what would I have to do in order to make a living?”

And yet, it was a recent conversation that made me realize a hard truth: perhaps I had been lying to myself. I was talking about most of everything said in this post to a friend. The reply? “If you really wanted to move back home you would have found a way to do it by now.”

Wow. Smack me upside the head with a shovel.

I have been thinking about this a lot, and I still haven’t came to any conclusions. But the question is starting to eat at me: Have I been lying to myself?

I’m reaching a point in my life where I want to make some long-term plans for my future. I have dreams and ambitions and goals, or so I think I do. Maybe my ideas aren’t really legitimate. Maybe what I think are dreams, are instead me pining for a past that is long gone causing delusional visions of what could be.

Maybe it’s time to really re-examine a few things. This would be the week to do it. Soon we’ll pack up the kids and a minivan full of clothes for a visit to home once again during the holiday break. We’ll eat too much food. We’ll spend time with some of our extended family. I’ll even go to yet another funeral for the dad of a friend from the area (this will be the second “funeral for the dad of a friend from back home” this year). After it’s all over, I’ll think about all these things yet again during the three hour drive to where I live now.

And I would bet a crisp Benjamin that stupid trampoline will be waiting for me when I get there.

Just wanted to say thanks

When I was just a young pup, I grew up in a town that loved baseball.

I got my start in the local Little League, but a problem with my knees forced me to sit out all of middle school from playing any sports. Then, as a sophomore, I was granted a clean bill of health.

By that time I was too late in the game to be good at any sport, but I did still enjoy watching baseball. That is, until the strike. Then my taste soured for baseball for a very long time.

How long? Until this year, when the Royals rallied and got all of nearby Kansas City fired up. I have really enjoyed watching the games and was heartbroken when they lost last night. But, they did well. They should be proud of their accomplishments.

And so, Royals, I just wanted to say thanks. You made baseball fun to watch. I look forward to next season.

Cobwebs

A few years ago, my grandfather passed away.

He died from all the horrible complications associated with dementia, and it was incredibly painful to watch him deteriorate.

My grandfather was a master craftsman. He was a builder, spending most of his life building houses all around Kansas. My uncle has said he could frame a house taking only a couple of measurements.

My memories of him and his big red Ford pickup include a camper filled with tools. One time I got to drive the truck, and he had me drive a little faster than normal on the backroads of Montgomery County to “blow out the cobwebs.” It wasn’t until after he passed that, upon telling my father this, dad told me blowing out a supposed accumulation of cobwebs from a truck’s exhaust wasn’t really a thing. My grandfather gave me an excuse to speed with a little help of plausible deniability.

He intentionally sent me out thrill-seeking and I didn’t even realize it.

That big red Ford came with all sorts of memories. He would take my sister and I fishing in it, and we’d sit forever (to a kid that probably 45 minutes) and hope for the big catch. I remember the sound of those tools rattling around in the back, his glasses that would get dark in the sun, and his cowboy boots pressing on the gas pedal.

I miss my grandpa (thankfully his wife – Grandmama as my girls know her – is still alive). I miss my other grandparents, too. I pull such sweet memories from my 36-year-old brain sometimes. At times I can’t help it – a certain smell, or a stroll through an antique store might bring back memories of the past. Sometimes it seems like those I’ve lost are right beside me; like I could reach out and talk to them.

But of course, I cannot. Those days are past.

Now I delight in my responsibility to provide wonderful experiences, so my children will have something to take with them on their journey. While gifts and things can be fun, those things fade and become faint in the mind. But experiences and everyday little things can become etched in stone. That is my duty; ensure the good memories overcome the bad ones.

And someday, when the time comes, I’ll make sure my girls get the chance to blow out the cobwebs … just like I did.

Thank you, Steve Jobs

My backyard lawn has become the bane of my homeownership.

As new homeowners we weren’t real educated on how to properly maintain a lawn and by the end of the first summer in the home last year it was looking pretty bare. In the spring of this year, we seeded, fertilized and watered, but the excessive heat this summer, coupled with tons of kids relentlessly playing in the backyard because of my wife’s home-based preschool, eventually brought the lawn to the same condition.

We read up on what we needed to do. I aerated the lawn last Saturday, covered it with seed, fertilizer, and hay, and we’ve been watering the lawn every day since then.

And so, there I was manually hosing down the backyard when I heard Tweetbot update noise emanating from my pocket. I whipped out my iPhone and at the top of my stream was an update that made my heart sink.

Apple says former CEO and founder Steve Jobs has died.

I stood there, motionless, glaring at the tiny screen. It took a minute before I realized I hadn’t moved, watering the same spot that whole time.

I knew it was coming. Everyone knew. My parents are both nurses, and after the WWDC in June when Steve gave what would become his final keynote, my dad commented on how poor his appearance was.

“It looks like he’s dying,” dad said.

When he stepped down as CEO in August, it seemed pretty clear the gig was up. As I commented today on Hacker News, “Steve Jobs needed Apple as much as Apple needed Steve Jobs.”

John Lennon, Elvis, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy – these were ghosts of history. I had heard of them, knew of their impact, but I was never personally impacted by their presence in a tangible way.

No so with Steve.

Impact

I was in the room when a kickball hit the Apple //e.

It was a freak occurance; the kickball managed to make it through the open window and hit the monitor, which then fell, hard, to the linoleum tile floor with a thud. I was sure it was broken. I didn’t even use it then – it was pretty much a teacher only device in that classroom – but the school district in my small town had made some investment in Apple’s computers, which began my love affair with that wonderfully thick beige hardware.

Someone came to check out the computer and much to my surprise, it worked perfectly.

I’ll never forget how amazed I was that it actually turned back on. I was nine years old and knew this thing was special.

Pirating

Just two years later, computing got a lot more hands on. In middle school we were allowed to go to the library and learn to use the computer. Green text, black screen, blinking cursor.

It was awesome.

In the early days of end user computing, there were few rules in play regarding the copyrighting of software, or at least the strict enforcement of it. I remember pecking away on the keyboard, typing a sentence or two at a time and then printing it on a dot matrix printer.

Kids these days have no idea how much printers used to really suck.

One of the coolest things I discovered, which our school librarian of all things educated us on, was the copying of data from one floppy disc to another. Back then it was called copying, but today they call it pirating. The librarian told me and a few other guys we could purchase blank floppies for $.25 each.

School-sanctioned pirating. Giddy up.

I only copied a few things, but one was my favorite game of all called Montezuma’s Revenge. Holy crap I loved that game. I kept that floppy disc with me for a long time. It stayed in the little white sleeve in my backback until I could get a chance to get back to the library and play some more. What fun it was.

Newton

The music teacher in middle school was really getting into digital music. He had an Ensoniq keyboard, and was all into this thing called “midi,” which I never fully understood.

But I understood the Newton. It was a handheld device that you could put notes on, store names and had basic handwriting recognition software built in that would (try to) convert handwriting to text. It’s hard to understand if you’ve grown up with touchscreen devices, but this thing was mind-blowing.

I loved the glowing green screen of the Newton and how its design almost begged you to interact with it. There was even this detail given like that of its counterpart the Macintosh where a little tiny trash can would look full with garbage until you “emptied” it, thus deleting the data you had in there.

Hiatus

I was far removed from any type of computer education in high school. There was a computer class, but it was on PCs. I wasn’t interested. It’s funny to think of that now, because apparently I was establishing myself as part of the Apple camp to the point that I wasn’t even willing to touch a Windows-based computer.

Instead I learned to type in what would come to be the last class that offered typewriting, of all things, on actual electric typewriters.

Next up was college. My mom and I went to campus, checked things out, and I liked most of what I saw. There was only one thing missing: the Macintosh. I went from building to building to see if I could find an Apple anywhere on campus.

I didn’t.

Everywhere I went, Windows was showing just how strong it had become. It was 1994. Steve Jobs wasn’t at Apple and Microsoft was kicking tail.

I was discouraged.

Performa 575

But my parents, who knew I was frustrated, gave me a new hope. They spent a large chunk of cash on an Apple Performa 575.

To say I was elated would understate what this meant to me. It wasn’t technically mine, but they really didn’t touch it. I did, though. I learned about something called email from a company called AOL. I used the encyclopedia from a CD-ROM. I began my college career as a music major, and wrote sheet music for class using that Mac. I got really, really hooked on a beautiful game called Myst.

That machine was a huge chunk of my life until I switched majors three years into college. I decided that I liked playing music, but didn’t want to teach it. I almost got into radio, but a required news writing course led me into journalism instead.

That led me to walk through the doors of the student publication The Chart, and I instantly knew I was home.

There were Macs everywhere.

Since that Apple Performa 575, I’ve not been without an Apple computer in my life.

The Store

In 2004, Apple opened a store on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. I was one of the employees that opened that store. The experience was great: the people were fun, the environment was a well-oiled machine and the products were spectacular.

Country Club Plaza Store Opening

In this image from ifoAppleStore.com, the back of my (then slightly balding) head can be seen to the left of the guy with the blue ballcap on the left of the image.

From day one, it was clear Apple knew what it was doing in the retail market. All the computers worked like they would at your home. I had been to plenty of computer stores where the displays were crippled. Apple realized that flaw, and made it so every computer worked without the typical paranoid restrictions.

You could actually try before you buy and ask questions from people who truly loved the products they were selling.

I only lasted six months. I ended up quitting because I liked being a fan of Apple and using Apple’s stuff, but working there took a lot of that away. I wanted my kid-like love back (and the commute was getting to me, plus it was a part-time job after my full-time job was done during the day).

It was the right choice for me to make. But oh, how I would have loved to have been there when the iPhone came out.

Changes

When I decided to learn about the web, I would read HTML books in my car during my lunch break while working for The Ottawa Herald, then come home and work on my Mac to apply what I had read.

Eventually, that led me to a full-time gig, and I’ve kept freelancing and building side projects on my Mac ever since.

The Macintosh and Apple’s other products have been with me through a lot of major events. I recorded music with friends with my iBook, which also served as disc jokey at my wedding reception. I’ve edited home movies and pictures of my wife and kids, enlightened myself with audiobooks on my iPod on long commutes, took some of the first pictures and video of my youngest with my iPhone, and my wife and I each have businesses and projects we run on the Mac.

Apple is part of my existence. It’s part of my history.

One more thing …

As anyone who knows me is aware, I started riding motorcycles last year and have fallen in love with it.
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this picture of a young Steve Jobs, riding a motorcycle. It’s easily one of my top favorite pictures of him.
Steve Jobs on a BMW Motorcycle

Thanks, Steve

The man who co-founded the company that made such an impact on my life is dead. For that, I’m incredibly sad.

And I’m also eternally grateful for his gifts.

It almost seems silly to become so attached to these machines. But these machines are more than bits, bytes, plastic and silicon. These machines have helped catalog my progress. These machines have helped me create. These machines have helped me learn. These machines have helped me love.

I think that’s what Steve Jobs was after all along. He help bring a spiritual quality to an industry that could be as soulless as we’d let it. But Steve Jobs wouldn’t have it. He had ideas. He had vision. He had passion.

And like the seeds in my backyard, he watered those ideas to help lead a company of incredible people to bring incredible products to the world and in turn, change lives.

So with that, I celebrate the life of Steve Jobs.

“I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

– Steve Jobs, 2005 Standford Commencement Address

Sent from my MacBook Pro

On Borders

Borders bookstore has hit hard times. On Wednesday it was announced the company was filing for bankruptcy, and in turn will close its Lawrence store at 700 New Hampshire Street.

Despite my growing distain for corporations, Borders has held a special place in my heart for a couple of sentimental reasons.

March 21, 2003: It was a Friday night and I and my lady friend were out on a date. We stopped for some coffee (I’m sure she had cocoa) at whatever shop was at 745 New Hampshire (it’s now Mirth of this writing) and stopped to see the show on our way to Borders to peruse the stacks.

The show? Oh, did I not mention? Some girl had planted herself atop a lone tree in the lot south of Borders and was protesting its imminent chainsaw dismemberment.  The tree was the last thing to be removed before construction of the Hobbs Taylor Lofts could begin, but this is Lawrence, and we do things differently around here, so of course there was a protest. (Related video)

I love Lawrence.

We left Borders … yadda, yadda, yadda … a few hours later we were engaged.

2003 to present: Borders was the place I went to get books to learn about web design and development. I tried the library, but the books were out of date and terrible, so I invested a little cash and taught myself enough to leave journalism and begin working on the web instead of print. When asked how I learned web design, I would tell people I “graduated from Borders University,” my supposed witty way of saying I got my educational materials through the local bookstore.

Lawrence’s workers are really taking it on the chin. Most recently it was Knology’s “rightsizing,” then the shutting down of Jefferson’s Restaurant, and now, Borders. That’s a good chunk of jobs being lost in the last three months alone. I feel deeply – to my core – for the employees of those businesses. And there have been others that have closed, too.

I’m thankful for the memories something as seemingly inconsequential as a chain bookstore has been to me. I’ve enjoyed going there, my daughters have enjoyed picking out books and Christmas shopping there, and now it seems the final pages are being written for Borders, at least locally.

My heart aches.

Are you killing time or is time killing you?

In the spring of this year I was in my parents’ backyard when I suddenly smelled cigar smoke wafting over the fence.

I knew that smell meant Mr. Miller was out on his porch again. Mr. Miller and his wife had, for most of my life, been the next-door neighbor. About equally as long – 25 or 30 years, I don’t know – he would head out to his porch in the evening to smoke his cigar.

These days he gets to smoke a few more.

“Hello” I called out. “How’s retirement treating you?”

“Not very well,” he said.

A little taken back by his answer, I probed some more. Things hadn’t been going well since he had recently retired. He was having a few health problems. A scary thing happened the week before when he temporarily lost his eyesight. Yeah, one day he was out with his wife and then he couldn’t see. He told me that everything was really dark and blurry. It got better, but not without giving him quite a jolt.

Me too.

There were countless times I’d see Mr. Miller leaving for work and returning later in the day. He commuted as far as my dad does so there was nothing really that striking about his work.

What got to me that day was this: Mr. Miller put in his hard time, working faithfully for a company for decades, commuting the whole time and then finally got to retire. Now he has all the time in the world to do whatever he wants.

But, he can’t. With failing health, his most capable physical years were spent working. This event has impacted several decisions I’ve made this year such as buying a home, supporting my wife as she started her business and learning to ride a motorcycle.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we all quit our jobs and go unbridled crazy. There’s a difference between risk and calculated risk.

I’m a big fan of calculated risk. Isn’t there something you’ve always wanted to do?

  • Weren’t you going to start that business and give it a go?
  • Was there someplace you’ve wanted to go or something to learn?
  • Do you need to resolve a friendship or forgive a family member?
  • Weren’t you going to have that one book read (or written) by now?
  • Didn’t you always want to get a pet?

Whatever it is – start making plans, now, for how you’re going to make it happen and follow those steps to make it reality.

Because one day you’re going to realize you’ve let time kill you slowly, or you’ve owned it.

So, which is it? Are you killing time or is time killing you?

Priorities

I was just going to throw my smoke away so I could use the restroom, but since they've got this fancy ashtray ...

A few years ago I worked for the Mid-America Regional Council. Its building was older and had this classy feature I discovered in the bathroom one day.

I found it hilarious and simply had to take a picture. I found this today while doing TONS of cleaning, both in my physical world and in my digital one.

Audio post: The Last Five Minutes

On Friday, I mentioned my  song writing experiences with my old roommate, Alex Kissel.

Today I have another recording that Alex and I did, with one twist: this recording was done open air using only the built-in microphone on my Apple iBook.

As with I Build Airplanes, I wrote the guitar parts and sang background vocals, while Alex wrote the lyrics and sang the lead vocal part.

The recording of the this song, The Last Five Minutes, is in mp3 format. Right click to save to your computer if you like, or play it in your browser depending on your connection.

The Last Five Minutes (mp3, 5.39 MB)

Audio post: I Build Airplanes

Before I got married, I lived with three incredible guys from 2001 until 2003.

We were all musicians, so the opportunity often arose to write and play music in our rental house at 2215 Ohio (which, at this writing, is for sale). The main room had a hardwood floor that had the most incredible reverb that we loved to play and record in.

My “brother from another mother,” Alex Kissel, wrote songs with me on occasion. I don’t play much anymore, but Alex went on to get married and move to Massachusetts. He plays in a band there called The Resurrectionists.

One of the songs we wrote and recorded was called I Build Airplanes (taken from a line in the movie, Singles). I wrote the guitar parts and did some background vocals, while Alex wrote the lyrics and did the main vocal track. The recording isn’t perfect – I certainly could have mixed it better – but I was pleased with how it came out. I look back at that time of my life with incredible fondness, which makes a recording from that era even more special to me.

The recording of the aforementioned song is linked below. It’s in mp3 format. Right click to save to your computer if you like, or play it in your browser depending on your connection.

I Build Airplanes (mp3, 4.4 MB)