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By 1979 our family was already on our third video game console. We owned a standalone Pong system in 1977, sold it for a Magnavox Odyssey 2 in 1978, and upgraded to an Atari 2600 in 1979.

Grandma O’Hara visited Oklahoma the spring of 1979 as well. At least I think that was the year. I specifically remember sitting down in our living room floor with her and watching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe during (I think) that same visit. According to Wikipedia, that animated film first aired on April 1st, 1979. Of course it’s possible that we caught a re-run (and we did own a VCR…), but that date kind of feels right.

I can’t imagine most 50-year-olds who grew up during the Great Depression being all that interested in playing video games, but somehow my grandma’s five-and-a-half year old grandson (me) talked her into playing Atari with him. I don’t remember all the games we played together, but I specifically remember we played Bowling.

In Atari’s version of Bowling, players move their bowler up or down inside the lane and then press the joystick’s red fire button to send the ball rolling down the lane. At the other end of the lane are ten pins, represented by dots (tiny squares, really). There are multiple game variations built in to the game cartridge. One variation doesn’t allow the ball’s trajectory to be altered once it leaves the bowler’s hands. Another allows it to be altered after the bowler releases the ball but only once, as if the ball were thrown with a spin. The easiest variation allows the ball to be controlled all the way down the lane with the joystick. I once read a doctor’s description of performing a lobotomy. After inserting an icepick into his patient’s brain, he wiggled it all around for a few seconds in hopes of doing the most damage. This is the exact same technique (sans icepick) I used in Atari’s Bowling — wait for the ball to enter the pins and then thrash the joystick around in hopes of hitting as many pins as possible. While the intended outcome of the two actions are exact opposites (in a lobotomy you’re actually hoping for a 7-10 split…) the concepts are similar.

The difficulty switches on the Atari itself can make the game easier or harder for individual players. I don’t remember exactly how we had the game configured but since I knew what an Atari was and grandma didn’t, I can assure you the game was set up to make things as easy for me and as difficult for her as possible. One memory that leads credence to this theory was that during the game, my grandma swore. A lot. Of course she didn’t swear in English; instead, she uttered a few words in either Russian or Polish (the Irish comes from my grandpa’s side) and then told me not to repeat them.

After one game of bowling, grandma quit. And by that I mean, she quit playing video games. She blamed her loss to me on poor vision in one eye, claiming that because of it she had no depth perception. Although I too am essentially legally blind in one eye now, I’m still pretty sure I can play Atari’s Bowling with no problem. Grandma later got a computer and played Solitaire and Poker on it (both online and off), but I don’t recall her ever playing Bowling or the Atari or any other video game system again.

Grandma O’Hara, my last living grandparent, passed away over the weekend. She was 85 years old.

I could tell you a million different things and facts and stories about my grandma and will probably share a few of them with you this week, but for some reason the only one that comes to mind right now is the time my grandma sent me a shrunken head for Christmas.

I suppose a lot of older people take part time jobs after they retire and my grandma was no exception. Some grandmas work at food banks and retirement homes and hospitals. Grandma O’Hara got a job at Chuck’s House of Magic, on the corner of 183rd and Dixie Highway in Homewood, IL. My grandma also lived on the corner of 183rd and Dixie Highway, literally across the street from Chuck’s. She simply walked across the street to work every day.

This picture was taken from my grandma’s front yard. You can see Chuck’s House of Magic in the background, directly behind her.

Chuck’s House of Magic was owned by Chuck and Joyce Gruberman. They did a lot of balloon and flower deliveries, but my favorite two things about the place were the Halloween props and costumes and of course, the magic.

The Halloween props, costumes and masks were second to none. I took the following picture in 2004 the weekend before Easter.

Yes. That’s how Chuck’s House of Magic decorated the store for Easter.

Along the back wall behind all the Halloween stuff was the magic stuff. There were tricks, big and small. On most days you could catch Chuck back behind the counter, performing tricks for anyone walking by. It’s one thing to be impressed by a magic trick; it’s another to know how a trick is done and be impressed by the skill of the magician. I’ve seen the cups and balls trick performed a thousand times, but I’ll always remember the time I saw it performed at Chuck’s.

A few times while we were up visiting we would walk over and visit my grandma at Chuck’s. Grandma would always introduce us to everyone and remind us of her discount, should we want to buy any fake doggie doo or bloody hockey masks. (I did actually take her up on that offer once. Chuck had a stack of Star Wars helmets one time, four or five of which made the trip back home to Oklahoma with me.)

I don’t remember asking for it, but one year for Christmas I got a package from my grandma in the mail. Inside there were gifts for everybody and, for me, a plastic shrunken head. I think dad had one too and perhaps I had let my admiration for his be known. Mine came with a small string affixed to the top which made it perfect for hanging from one’s rear view mirror, where it hung for a while.

Of course I still have it. It sits on my shelves of knick-knacks and random odds and ends. People seldom believe me that behind everything on those shelves there’s a story. Should anyone walk past those shelves, point to that shrunken head and ask “what’s the story behind that thing,” this is the story they would get.

On Halloween night, 2004, a small electrical spark ignited Chuck’s House of Magic. The small fire quickly turned into a five-alarm blaze according to the Chicago Tribune. Everything inside the store melted, and between the flames and the weight of the water, the roof collapsed. This is what remained of Chuck’s House of Magic:

I’ve owned that stupid shrunken head for a long time now. In one way it seems a bit ridiculous to be reminded of one’s grandma by looking at a plastic shrunken head. Then again, the fact that she mailed it to me tells me that she understood who I was… which actually kind of makes it the perfect thing to remember her by.

The introduction to Marc Allie’s eBook I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool references a few things I can relate to. He mentions Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” (I had the 45), a blue, rubber UFO from a McDonald’s Happy Meal (I’ve collected the whole set), playing Dungeons and Dragons (I still have all my old manuals) and riding around in the back of his mother’s station wagon without a seat belt (I think we all did that).

The first of Allie’s stories talks about the terror he experienced the time he thought his mother had left him behind at Sears. I can relate to that too. I’m sure all of us have a memory of “that time” that we got separated from our family, whether it was at the mall or a grocery store or out in public. That primal feeling panic that takes over in those situations leaves a lasting impression. It happened to me when I was four years old inside a TG&Y store, almost forty years ago. I can still tell you what my mom was wearing when I finally found her.

I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool contains ten stories that weave nostalgia together with Allie’s memories and experiences. Sometimes being terrified as a kid makes the strongest impressions on us, leaving unforgettable memories. When Allie accidentally shoves his foot into a wedding cake his mother has baked with no time to make another one, we can all relate to the chain of feelings that come next: terror, followed by embarrassment, followed by that pit in your stomach that arrives just before the punishment does.

Even if Allie’s interests aren’t universal, the themes in the stories are. In one story, one of his friends form the exclusive “DD Club,” a club where all members are required to listen to Duran Duran and play Dungeons and Dragons. In another story, Allie recounts his typical Saturday morning cartoon schedule. Whether you watched the same shows as the author (Superfriends, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Dungeons and Dragons, among others) is irrelevant; the core of the story, of going through the TV Guide and agonizing over which cartoon to watch, is an experience many of us remember. (Unless you were one of those kids that played league sports on Saturday morning, in which case this book almost certainly is not for you.)

While some of Allie’s stories recall the good times (like wearing Batman Underoos), in one of my favorite stories Allie recalls the first day of seventh grade. Throughout the story Allie awkwardly drags his saxophone case down the school bus aisle, from class to class, and eventually the lunchroom. That feeling of “I know this is stupid but I don’t know what else to do” resonated with me. It’s the spirit of a kid doing his best to solve a problem without a game plan. I remember doing it. I’ve seen my kids do it, too.

As someone who “grew up geeky” myself, I enjoyed Allie’s book. It has the typical rough edges that we rend to see with self-published works, but there’s an awful lot of heart there for only $2.99. Today, geeks are mainstream (if you’re reading this on a computer, be sure to thank one), but in the 70s and 80s we didn’t have it quite so easy. I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool took me back to that time, for better and for worse.

Link: I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool (Amazon Kindle, $2.99)

I’ve been working for the FAA now in one capacity or another (both as a contractor and a federal employee) for almost 20 years. I recently shared the story of my first day of work at the FAA with a co-worker and decided to capture and re-share the story here as well.

(SOURCE. Note: No one is allowed to take pictures on federal property without prior written consent. The pictures used in this article came from Google Images. I did not take them.)

This story begins as many of my stories from the 80s and 90s begin, with a phone call from my buddy Jeff. It was the spring of 1995 and Jeff had been working on an FAA helpdesk for about a year. When news leaked that the company that staffed the helpdesk was set to lose the contract later that year, people began to bail and the company needed to fill those positions as soon as possible. I considered myself an expert when it came to personal computers but didn’t know anything about networks at the time, so Jeff got me a set of Novell 3.1 manuals and showed me how to set up config.sys and autoexec.bat files to get machines to connect to an IPX network in DOS.

During this time I was working at Best Buy making $6.50/hour, and the helpdesk job was offering $12/hour. My plan was to take the helpdesk job for six months and then return to Best Buy when the job ended. I dropped my resume off with the company and waited for a call. They did not call. Years later I was told by another co-worker that I had submitted a resume so horrible and tacky that it was literally legendary. (Note to self: even if the guy at Kinko’s assures you that purple paper with lighting printed on it is guaranteed to get a potential employer’s attention, stick with white.) Eventually Jeff poked the right person and an interview was scheduled.

I arrived at the interview looking slightly less tacky than my resume. The interview consisted of three parts: a general interview, a set of technical questions, and a typing test.

The interview began normally. I answered some questions about my work history and about my general computer experience. Then it was on to the technical portion. The manager slid across a piece of paper with an autoexec.bat and config.sys printed out on it. He asked me to identify what the file did. I immediately started pointing things out. “Well, this is allocating extended memory,” I said. “This loads the mouse driver.” “Here’s your network drivers. Oh, an IPX network, interesting…” I said. After three or four comments he took the papers back, tossed them in the trash, and asked me when I could start.


Now throughout the interview, the manager had been scratching himself the entire time as if he had just taken a bath in poison ivy. His face, neck and arms were red from all the scratching, but he also scratched his chest and armpits throughout the interview as well. Abruptly, the man stood up and said, “I’m sorry but I’m going to have to excuse myself. My wife bought a new brand of detergent and I think I’m having an allergic reaction. Get with the secretary for your typing test.” He then quickly exited his office, leaving me alone to go find the secretary.

The secretary had a computer waiting for me with Microsoft Word already running. Next to the computer was a magazine. “What you’re going to do is just pick a paragraph from here,” she said, pointing at the magazine, “and type it a few times over here,” she said, pointing at the monitor. “Just type it over and over, as many times as you can.” She then noted the time and left. I typed the paragraph once, made sure nobody was looking, ran spell check, copied it, and pasted it about 40 times. Two minutes later the secretary came back in the room and told me the test was over. She then clicked on “word count” in the menu bar. I realized I had pasted the paragraph too many times when she did the math and told me I had typed roughly 400 words a minute. She either didn’t know what I had done, didn’t care, or figured if a guy knew how to run spell check and copy and paste, he knew enough to do the job.

My interview took place on Monday, April 17th, 1995, and I was told to report to work one week later at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center (MMAC) FAA campus on Monday, 24th, 1995. He said he and his partner would meet me outside one of the buildings. I said I’d be there.

Two days after my interview on April 19th, 1995, Timothy McVeigh set off a truck bomb and blew up the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people including 19 children and 99 federal employees.

All federal facilities understandably, including the MMAC, went on high alert.

On Monday 24th, 1995, I showed up for work at a federal building in a federal campus with no idea whether or not I was in the right place. At exactly that same time, someone phoned in a bomb threat. Hundreds of people spilled out of the building I was heading to and into the parking lot. As I approaching the building in my car, I was stopped by security.

“Who are you?”
“I’m Rob.”
“Where’s your badge?”
“I don’t have one.”
“What do you mean you don’t have a badge?”
“Today’s my first day.”
“Where are you supposed to be?”
“I’m not sure. Here, I think. I’m meeting two guys.”
“What are their names?”
“Bill and… some other guy?”
“Bill who?”
“I have no idea.”

Right about the time the guard was about to shoot me, the all clear was given and people returned to work. The parking lot cleared and eventually the only people left in the parking lot were Bill, his partner, myself, and the security guard. Eventually I was shown to my office, and my new desk.

For the record, my first official business as a helpdesk analyst to was to go with a different Bill and move a refrigerator. “Other duties as assigned,” and all that. I’ll save that story for a different day.


My parents owned and operated a small computer store in the mid-80s, Yukon Software. I didn’t get to bring a lot of software home from the store, but one program I ended up with was Trivia Fever.

I’ve posted this picture before. That’s me in the mid-80s, wearing a Miami Vice knock-off jacket with a Footloose-esque spike hairdo. That’s my original Commodore 64 I’m posing with, the one I still have and use today. Right behind my Commodore computer is a blue box that reads Trivia Fever.

Trivial Pursuit debuted in 1979 and, according to Wikipedia, peaked in 1984. By then there were tons of knock-off trivia games and all of them worked essentially the same way. Players moved around a board and answered trivia questions from different categories gaining pieces to represent those categories. Trivia Fever was just one of many Trivial Pursuit clones of the day.

The only uniqueness to Trivial Fever, if it had any, was that it was a computer game that could be played with or without a computer. Not only did the rather large box contain a floppy disk, but it also came with a book full of trivia questions, score cards, a rule book and a spinner. Essentially you got two games for the price of one with your purchase.

I have no idea what happened to my original copy of Trivia Fever.

Many years ago — at least ten, maybe more — I found a copy of Trivia Fever in a thrift store. This copy is for Apple II computers, as you can see on the round foil sticker. It seems to be that the game retailed for $30, so that $5 rebate was substantial. When I bought this copy the box was taped shut and I’ve never opened it. I have no interest in playing Trivia Fever. I just wanted the box to put next to my Commodore computer. I just wish it were the Commodore version.

A couple of weeks ago, I found a second copy.

A Commodore version! And the best I can tell, this copy was never played.

The disk, book, scorecards, and everything else appear to be untouched. It all has that new game feel and smell. The spine of the book isn’t creased or cracked. None of the scorecards have been used or peeled off and the floppy disk doesn’t appear to have ever been removed from its sleeve. It’s as if whoever ended up with this copy of Trivia Fever did not have a case of trivia fever.

My favorite item from inside the box is that pink slip of paper, labelled “Important Customer Note”.

In a time of lawn darts it seems overkill to warn people about the dangers of passing a small piece of cardboard between friends. I do like the addition of the phrase “as with any other materials,” so players know that along with the small cardboard spinner, the book, disk, and box itself should also not be thrown at your friends. Unless you’re losing… then all bets are off.

Ask me why I need to own two copies of this game and I’ll ask you why you think I need to own one. When I suggested the kids might like to try this version I was reminded that the kids have Trivial Pursuit on their iPads.

I’ll bet that version doesn’t come with a small piece of paper reminding gamers not to throw their iPads at one another.

When we bought our current home back in 2011 we also bought a new washer and dryer. I don’t remember why we bought a new washer and dryer. I don’t even remember being dissatisfied with our old ones. I guess Susan just wanted new appliances for the new house.

We bought our new washer and dryer from Hahn’s. I consider Hahn’s to be the Aldi’s of appliance stores. I don’t mean that negatively. Hahn’s sells things inexpensively because they don’t spend money on superfluous things in their showroom, like carpet. Also if I recall our Hahn’s was having a grand opening sale at the time.

When it comes to purchasing a particular make, model or style of washer, dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator, oven, stove, or any other appliance, I believe the person who will be using it most often should make the choice. Susan had her heart set on owning a front loading washer and dryer, so that’s what we bought.

I don’t remember much about the salesman at Hahn’s who sold us the washer and dryer, and that’s probably a good thing. I really only remember three things about the purchase. I remember that the display units were sitting on small plastic drawers, which we were told at the time of sale were not included in the purchase of the washer and dryer. The cost of the plastic pedestals was $400. When I threatened to leave, they found us a pair with scratches on the side for half that price. My vote was vetoed (milk crates) and we bought the stands. The second thing I remember is that the paperwork and sale took far longer than I thought it should have. The biggest television on display was showing Avatar on Blu-Ray, and the kids and I spent at least half an hour watching it. The last thing I remember is that it rained on us the whole way home with the washer and dryer in the back of my truck. We stopped and ate dinner at Whataburger and I stared out the window the whole time to make sure nobody stole the washer and dryer from the bed of my truck as we ate. Nobody did.

Including the cost of the pedestals, we paid nearly $1,500 for the washer and dryer.

Last year, the washer began “pausing” itself. The washer has a pause button. I’m not sure who starts a load of laundry and then decides to pause it, but the option’s there. Anyway, our washer now pauses itself. You press “play” to start washing a load (I don’t know why the washer has VCR-like controls on it) and three minutes later, the washer pauses itself. This seems like an entire problem that could have been avoided by not even putting a pause button on the washer, but there it is and that’s what it does.

The solution is to simply press play again, at which point the washer resumes and you eventually end up with a load of clean laundry. This was semi-annoying when it did it once per load. Now it does it three or four times per load. Every load. That means when you put the clothes in the washer and hit play, the timer reads “60 minutes.” If you come back in 60 minutes the timer will be flashing “57 minutes” and be paused, at which point you must press play again and come back in 57 minutes. Then it’ll say 40 minutes, and be paused. And so on and so forth. Like I said, it now stops three or four times per load. Everyone in the house has been trained to check the front of the washer when passing by the laundry room and press the button if it is flashing.

A few weeks ago, Susan called a repairman to come out and look at the washer. Based on some internet troubleshooting, we thought there was a problem with the water filter. We were wrong.

Turns out, the washer’s motherboard is “going out” according to the repairman. It’s not dead yet, but eventually it will die. The problem will continue to get worse until eventually the washer simply won’t unpause again and our clothes will be stuck in the washer while it’s full of water. The repairman showed us how to manually open the front of the washer should this happen.

“You’ll probably want a bucket to catch the water,” he offered.

The cost to replace the motherboard is $900, plus $70 for this last service call and $70 for the next one. I’m not sure if the $900 includes labor, but the washer new cost $600 so it’s a moot point. The manufacturer’s warranty was only good for a year. The extended warranty, which we did not purchase, would have covered the washer for three years. We have owned the washer for three years, three months.

We’re going to keep unpausing the washer for as long as that trick works. When it dies, we’ll replace it — probably with a top loader, and hopefully with one that doesn’t contain a motherboard.

I’ve been following the Tiny House movement, also known as the Small Home movement, for several years now. While technically any home less than 1,000 square feet is considered to be a tiny house, most of these new tiny homes are less than 500 square feet. A few of them are less than 100 square feet.

The houses come in two flavors: mobile, and stationary. The mobile ones are built for the most part on top of tandem axle trailers. An 8×16 will net you 128 square feet; a 24 foot one will get you 192. The immobile ones are often a bit larger in size. Both are often taller than you would expect. The tall ceilings give both the illusion of being larger then they are, and are often home to lofts and additional storage. Permanent tiny houses often contain traditional plumbing and electrical solutions, while the mobile kind more closely resemble camper trailers and often utilize things like composting toilets and solar panels.

Of course there’s no rules when it comes to tiny homes there are no rules, no right or wrong. There are plans and suggestions, but that’s it. Some people buy these things pre-made. Some people buy kits. Some people buy plans. Some people buy a trailer, some wood, a hammer and some nails and start building.

One of my friends who grew up in Texas moved to New York City. While discussing the lifestyle differences he told me “in Texas, we had a swimming pool. Here [in New York City] I have the YMCA. There, I had a huge backyard. Here, I have Central Park. There, I had a huge DVD collection. Here, I have Netflix.”

To say that one must make concessions when living in a small home is not a small statement. I currently have a six-foot-tall arcade cabinet standing in my dining room, “just because.” I have a closet lined with 1,000 DVDs I never watch. When you live in a 300 square foot home, you make to make choices like how many spoons do you really need to survive. It’s all about deciding what you need to live, and what you can live without. I suppose at its core, that’s what living in a small home is all about. It is not unusual in a tiny house for the bedroom, the living room, and the office to all be the same small room.

You would think people would embrace small homes, but this does not seem to be the case. Most neighborhoods have a minimum amount of square feet for a home; unsurprisingly, tiny homes rarely meet these requirements. Some cities and neighborhoods fear what affect these small, inexpensive homes will have on property values. Many mobile home parks refuse to let tiny homes park there if they weren’t built by a certified builder. Zoning issues and permits, it turns out, can be a nightmare.

While my heart adores the tiny house movement, my collecting tendencies are in direct conflict with them. My “Star Wars Room,” a spare bedroom in our house lined with shelves full of Star Wars collectibles, is roughly the size of some of these homes. To say we would need to downsize is an understatement. I could write a book of all the things I would need to get rid of first. And then I would need to get rid of the book, because it wouldn’t fit in the tiny home either.

As far as electronic entertainment goes, you would have room for a laptop and a flat screen television and that’s about it. Everything’s a concession. It’s about getting down to a single pair of shoes. Six extra inches of closet space could mean a bathroom that’s six inches narrower. Sometimes, the bathrooms don’t have doors. Everything in the house has multiple uses: couches have storage underneath, kitchen counters become kitchen tables, desks fold into walls, and stairs hide cabinet drawers.

A tiny home is definitely not in the cards for us anytime soon, but maybe someday as a summer home.

Or a writer’s cabin.

Susan being away from home for a week isn’t anything new. In her last position at work she was visiting Washington DC up to one week each month. We have a pretty good system for when this happens. Before she leaves, Susan cleans the house and stocks the refrigerator with easy-to-prepare frozen meals. Then the kids and I spent the entire week eating out for every meal and leaving trash everywhere. A few hours before Susan is set to arrive home, I wheel in one of the big outside trash dumpsters into the entry hallway and spend a few minutes throwing away sacks of trash and leftovers.

Next week Susan will be in Canada (Montreal) for work. Last night, Morgan came down with a fever and was diagnosed with the flu. Sadly, this is also not new. I remember the time Susan was out of town and Mason came into my room and announced “I’m spitting!” shortly before throwing up in my face. I never know what to do when the kids are sick. I pretty much rotate giving them Pepto, cough syrup, DayQuil and Advil until either they feel better or they’re drunk. Or maybe I get drunk and they drink the cough syrup? I forget. I’m pretty sure I get drunk at some point though.

With Susan being out of the country she won’t be able to call home like she normally does. We’re hoping to use the hotel’s WiFi for Facetime. We’ll see how that works. Fortunately Montreal, despite being pretty far away, is only one time zone away.

I’m really not worried about Morgan being sick; she got her Tamiflu last night and will be better in a couple of days. I’m not even worried about myself getting sick. (I’ve been hungover before from drinking four bottles of Strawberry Hill Boones Farm — how bad can the flu be?) I’m more worried about Mason getting sick, because I know that’ll mean time off of work for a doctor visit and time off of school (and a potentially miserable couple of days) for him. Fortunately thirteen-year-old boys are known for their sanitary habits and there’s no possible way he could catch the flu from his sister. I’m also a little worried that Susan’s been exposed. Nothing says fun like flying all day while sick.

I don’t remember life before this toybox.

My dad made this toybox for me for Christmas in 1974, when I was still a year old. As far as toyboxes go it was quite large, especially considering the size of my room at the time. Our house at the time was 983 square feet. According to my mom, my bedroom was 8×10 (my sister’s was 8×9 and the master bedroom was 9×11). I distinctly remember being able to do a complete lap around my room — starting on the bed, crossing over to the dresser, climbing over to the toybox and leaping back onto the bed — without ever touching the floor.

The toybox was painted blue before it was moved into my bedroom. The top had two solid shelves, three if you included the top. I don’t remember ever climbing all the way up to the top. but I’m sure I must have tried. The bottom contained seemingly endless storage space. There were no tubs or any other types of organization down there, just one giant container for storing toys with two separate lids. For what it’s worth I don’t remember any of the toys in this photograph.

On occasion, when I was feeling lonely or sad or bored, I would climb inside those storage bins and sit and be alone. Sometimes I would hide from people in there and sometimes I wouldn’t be hiding from anybody. If I twisted and wiggled around long enough all my toys would fill in around me and I could sit there, inside a dark wooden box, surrounded by all my stuff, all alone.

I was four-years-old when we moved to the home I grew up in and (of course) the toybox came with me. This picture was taken in 1982, specifically to show off my Star Wars collection. The toybox did not always look this neat and organized. Most of the time, Star Wars toys filled the shelves while the cubbies below stored everything else, sometimes to the point where the lids wouldn’t even shut. Mostly the bins held toys, although occasionally they held books and dirty underwear and whatever else I tossed in there.

Eventually boys outgrow their toyboxes. This one was replaced by a set of floor-to-ceiling shelves. The toybox was moved out to the garage where my dad used it for storing tools for a while. I don’t remember what happened to it after that.

I wish I still had it.

There are days I would like to climb inside it again, wiggle around until my toys were all around me, and close the lid for just a little while.

It’s a new year, and I know a lot of you (like myself) made resolutions to get organized. One of the things I want to get a better hold of this year is my digital photo collection. I have a lot of digital pictures. Like, a lot a lot. Like, 50,000+ pictures. I have very few physical photographs around the house (the ones I have are old). All of the pictures I’ve taken during vacations and holidays and of the kids are all digital. I read once that owning a tool but not being able to find it is the same as not owning the tool. I feel like this could also apply to pictures as well.

The hardest part about organizing your digital photos is coming up with an system. The second hardest part is sticking with it; if you do, things will get easier. Shortly after the New Year I pulled the pictures off of Susan’s phone and computer onto my server; the result was 15 GB worth of pictures, with names ranging from “s5000184.jpg” to “Photo_012906_007.jpg”. Ugh!

I’ll tell you up front — I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think my system necessarily works best for everyone. The key is finding a way to organize things that works for you and (again) sticking with it. While working on organizing Susan’s photos and incorporating them into my own collection, I wrote down some hints and tips on how I organize things. I also asked my friend Melissa Karlberg of Mel Karlberg Photography for any advice she might have to add. Melissa is a great photographer with great organizational skills. I’ve added her comments to this list as well.

Without further adieu and in no particular order…

Put your photos all in one place.

You will never be able to reliably search, sort, organize, or backup your photos until you have them all together in one place. For me, that’s a folder on my server named “Digital”. (It gets backed up nightly; more on that later.) I have a lot of folders underneath that one of course, but getting everything underneath that single folder makes it simple to backup your photos and search through them. If you have programs that are constantly putting things in different directories, you need to pick one and point everything else to it, whether that’s the “My Photos” folder in Windows or some other directory you’ve designated as being home to your digital photos.

Pick an organizational system and stick with it.

Let me start off by saying that there are two schools of thought when it comes to organizing digital photos: you can either organize your photo collection through file and folder names alone, or you can use software to help you organize your photos. Even if you use software, you’ll still want to do some organization of the files and folders (like getting them all in one place, as mentioned above).

Organizing using Files and Folders

I personally manage my photo collection through file and folder names for two reasons. One, because that’s the system I started with and I’m in too deep to start over without a really compelling reason to do so. The other reason is because I’m always afraid that whatever program I use to organize my photos might become incompatible or obsolete in the future. There are lots of free options out there and I’ll mentioning them, but… buyer beware.

If you’re going to use file and folder names to organize your photos, the key is to create a system that mentally makes sense to you. There’s nothing more frustrating than looking for that “one” photo you took five years ago and not being able to find it. My “Digital” folder has 592 sub-folders. Some of them are pretty specific: “4th of July Cookout (07.04.2006)”, for example. Others are less so: “Mason”, for example, has 250 random photos of my son. That’s not very helpful when you’re looking for a specific photo.

I have three types of folders: events, people, and things. Events, like the 4th of July example I listed above, are pretty specific. In the folder name, I try and include the event, the location, and the date. For people, I simply list the person’s name. These are more like “junk drawers” and it’s where things like selfies and random shots end up. The last folder type, “things,” are used when I’m shooting pictures of something specific. Many of these have sub-folders as well. I have a folder called “Cars” — underneath it I have folders for each car I’ve owned.

Some people prefer a date-based hierarchy for their folders. These people tend to make a folder for each year (“2015″), twelve folders underneath that folder representing each month (“01″, “02”, etc) and then folders underneath each of those folders. For some people, this works really well. For me personally, if I’m looking for pictures from that time the kids and I went to the zoo, I’d rather scroll down to “Z” than start clicking through random years. Again, there’s no right or wrong way to do any of this. The key is coming up with a system and sticking with it.

Whatever you do, do NOT rely on the builtiin Windows date and time stamps to track the age of your photos. Moving, editing, and restoring photos has a way of inadvertently changing those dates. Those dates also depend on having the date and time set correctly on your camera. When I sort my photos by date, the largest folder by far is the one for 01/01/2000…

Two bad habits I picked up over time are sorting photos by who took them, and sorting photos by what device took them. In my folder for our Alaska cruise, I have four sub-folders: Rob’s Camera, Rob’s Phone, Susan’s Camera, and Susan’s Phone. This made sense at the time when I was moving them over the PC. Two years later when I’m searching for a picture of an iceberg or a whale, it doesn’t much matter to me who took the picture or with what. I’m going to try and avoid doing this in the future and I might go back to some of my old folders and recombined them.

Organizing using Software

The other way to organize your digital photo collection is through the use of software. There are many programs designed to assist you with this, many of them free. Many of these programs actually modify your photos by adding what is called metadata to them. Using metadata, for example, you can add tags or names or locations to your photos, and that data is physically stored directly inside the file. In theory, other programs would also later be able to read that data. Other programs use an external database in which to store your data. This leaves the photos unmodified, but locks you in to that specific program to view your data. And if the author of that program goes out of business, or the program refuses to work with a future version of Windows… you’re screwed.

Free programs for organizing your photos include Google’s Picasa, Microsoft’s Windows Live Photo Gallery, and Apple’s iPhoto. A step up is Adobe Lightroom, which is not free, but very powerful.

From Melissa: “Figure out an organization system before you start editing a bunch of photos. Don’t be afraid to commit to a workflow and file system for fear you will want to change later. At least if you change later, you will be changing something organized. I import all of my photos directly into [Adobe] Lightroom. I have year and month folders already created and then I name the folder with a subject (such as “son’s first soccer game”). That works with how my brain files memories, so this system works for me.”

Limit your use of generic folders. I have two folders, one called “Incoming” and the other called “Misc” that tend to collect a lot of pictures that, for one reason or another, I don’t know where to put. These things are like the junk drawer in your kitchen that end up collecting things that don’t have a home. My rule for that incoming folder is I always empty it before I put more pictures inside it. The bad news is, often that means moving them to the “Misc” folder.

Edit and sort your photos as you copy them to your PC.

Sorting and organizing my wife’s 6,000 photos has proved to be both difficult and tiresome. Trying to figure out when and where a photo was taken 10 years prior can be difficult. It’s a lot easier to sort your pictures into folders as you’re copying them over from your phone or camera. While you’re at it, that’s also a good time to rotate the photos that need rotating. It’s also a good time to delete a few of those pictures, if you can stand to do so. If you took five pictures of a flower trying to get the perfect shot, you might consider deleting the four that didn’t turn out great.

Before moving pictures over, I try to come up with those folder names I mentioned before — “First Day of School (xx.xx.xxxx)” or something fairly logical. If the pictures lend themselves to it, I’ll rename them as well. That leads me to my next nugget.

A trick for renaming multiple files in Windows. If you want to rename a bunch of files in a series, do the following: select all the files, right-click the first file, and rename it “Whatever (1)”. Windows will automatically renumber all the files after the first one, as long as the number in parenthesis is the last thing in the file name. If you want to select all the files inside a folder, press CTRL-A. If you only want to rename some of the files, you can click on the first one and then Shift-Click on the last one. You can also hold down Control and select/deselect pictures one at a time.

To save, or not to save, your originals.

My digital camera (Pentax K-x) takes pictures at 12.4 megapixels — that’s 4,288 by 2,848 pixels. Each file is 5 megabytes. To save hard drive space, I tend to compress them. Even though the compressed file looks identical to the original on the computer, if you decide to print them out (especially a large copy), you can tell the difference. If you’re going to resize your photos for web use, you might want to make a copy first.

From Melissa: “Know how your editing program organizes and saves files. When I first started using Lightroom, I lost a huge chunk of files because I didn’t realize it was a database-driven software. Many people completely mess up their LR catalogs because they want to start playing with editing before organizing — bad idea.”

Backup, backup, backup.

I have had multiple people come to me with laptops that wouldn’t boot and hard drives that wouldn’t spin up, almost in tears over lost digital pictures. In some cases I was able to help these people and in others, I wasn’t. Don’t get in that position. Start backing up your photos today.

My suggestions, from worst to best, are: back up to DVDs, back up to a second physical hard drive, and back up to the cloud.

DVDs are cheap and hold a lot of data. I’ve personally seen them go bad, even properly stored ones, sometimes as quickly as five years. DVD-Rs are an okay backup solution but those discs will not last forever. A better solution is a second hard drive. This protects you both from file deletions and if your primary hard drive fails. In the unfortunate event that your house is destroyed, if those two hard drives are in the same physical location, chances are you’ll lose them both. A third solution is cloud backups. There are many to choose from, starting at $5/month. Even if your home were destroyed by fire, you would be able to retrieve your photos from the cloud at a later date.

Whichever method you choose, the best one is an automated scheduled task. I backup my pictures to another drive nightly in the middle of the night.

From Melissa: “Back up, back up, and then back up some more. I used to back up to DVDs and external hard drives and it seemed like every time I lost a session from a hard drive, that would be the one I didn’t back up to a DVD. Now I back up to a mirrored hard drive and then I have extra important stuff on yet another hard drive and I have an off site company called Crash Plan.”

That’s all I can think of for now. Now, go get those pictures organized (and backed up)!