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Observations: Cha-ch-ch-changes

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image My childhood and lifelong best friend in our hometown: He is making what he calls a “touch connection” to the town’s lake. It serves as a reminder of his past and perhaps is a way to momentarily escape from life’s many changes. Photo Mitch Traphagen

It is often said that the only constant in life is change.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

I’m becoming aware that I’m a guy who doesn’t handle change all that well.  In 1994, we moved to a little backwater town on Tampa Bay and, to me, it was overflowing in charm. And then it all changed.  Well, not all of it. Some of it is still…well, backwater, but a lot of it changed. In being honest with myself, for the most part, the changes have made it a better place.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t struggled with them.

Despite the axiom that tigers don’t change their stripes (or spots, whatever) I know that not only do towns change, people change, too.  I know of some good people who have turned bad and some bad people who have turned good. I’m sure there are a lot of people that are somewhere in the middle.

People change, but what causes a change in the heart? Mentally, I don’t feel any different than I did years ago but it has been pointed out that I’ve changed over the years. Have I gotten meaner? More cynical? More soft? More naive? Less naive? I don’t know. But apparently I’ve changed and not every change has been for the better.

I’ve known people who have drifted apart after a mere two or three years of marriage. How could that happen? I’ve met couples that have been married for seven decades who would never be apart from each other.  A few years ago I had the honor of photographing one of the last remaining World War I veterans (there are none left today). He was well over 100 years old and his wife was 98. For the entire time I was with them, they never stopped holding hands.

Surely in more than a century a person must change, right? So how does that work? Did his wife change with him or did she just accept his changes? Did they change together or did he not change at all?

When I worked for the House of Representatives I had a private joke, somewhat gently paraphrased here, about how things could change for the esteemed members of the venerable institution. Someone would decide to run for office and be absolutely committed in his heart towards working to change America for the better, to serve this nation. But not long after, he would realize that in order to make the changes needed, he would need to be re-elected and in order to do that, he would need a lot more money and in order to get it, he would need to compromise some of his principles, just a little, here and there. And then he needed to be re-elected again and that brought on a few more compromises of his principles.

That goes on for some time until one day, he excuses himself from dinner with his very nice family in his very nice townhouse in suburban DC, walks to his bathroom, turns on the light, looks in the mirror and finds himself in a cheap motel room with bloodshot eyes and a woman he doesn’t know passed out in the background. And painfully, he realizes in that one miserable instance just how far he has strayed from his original, noble intentions.

OK, so that doesn’t really happen — at least I hope not. But there have been enough scandals to suggest there is some truth to that: Senators playing footsie in airport bathrooms, Congressman hitting on young pages, and so on. Are these people bad people? Yes, on the surface it’s easy enough to say that. Were they always bad people? I don’t think so. Are they bad people today? Not necessarily. In fact, probably not.

In a state as crowded and fast growing as Florida, it is very easy to become embattled, to look at virtually everyone as the competition — competition for space on the freeway or in line in the grocery store. It is easy to look at a hardworking elected official and think of them as a crook on the take. But that is really no way to go through life. I once read a book that suggested that we try to envision people as they put their socks on in the morning. It is a wholly innocent and entirely human act. There is no malice at that moment, when we are quietly just putting on our socks. At that moment, everyone is the same, just one of us trying to get by in life.

We are all children of this earth — I believe that we are all children of God. Some of us do bad things, some of us do good things, and some of us do both.  But when it comes right down to it, we are all just struggling to make it through another day with as little pain as possible. Somebody might cut you off in traffic or appear rude in a store. But we don’t know what may have happened — did their child die? Is their child horribly ill? Has their spouse just been diagnosed with cancer? Have they just been diagnosed with cancer?

It could be any of that.  Of course it could also be that the person is just a jerk. But I prefer to believe that with the exception of a fairly well known few, we are all inherently decent. And as I get older and see more tragedy in life, I’m more willing to err on the side of caution. If someone is a jerk, I’ll try to smile and let it pass because for all I know they just lost a spouse or something equally horrible.

It is often said that the only constant in life is change. I’m just not a fan of change. And today, I’m facing changes that are unpleasant and sometimes heartbreaking. It is not always fun, but that’s life. And even in that, there are always those moments — moments that matter; moments that remind us that life is wonderful. But if you see me in line and I appear to be a jerk, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be a jerk. There’s just a lot going on right now. I think that could be true for a lot of us.

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