That Time When I Almost Cut Off My Finger

Thank you to everybody who read last week’s blog post. An extra thank you to everybody who reached out to me after I posted it.

I forgot a pretty major part of last week’s story about my struggle to learn about photography.

I forgot to tell you about how I almost cut off my finger.

In last week’s blog post, I mentioned that I took a course on photojournalism during my final semester of college.

I NEEDED to pass this class in order to graduate. Saint Vincent required this class to graduate with a degree in Communications. Also, Saint Vincent charged tuition by the credit back then. I purposely took the absolute bare number of credits that I needed in order to graduate in order to reduce my student debt. So, I needed the three credits from this photojournalism class just to meet the minimum credit requirements for a bachelor’s degree – any bachelor’s degree.

I had a pretty eventful final semester of college. My youngest sibling was born less than two months before I graduated from college. (March 20, so happy belated birthday, Little Sister.) Now, my parents had FIVE children, not four children. I am the oldest of their five children. I absolutely could not just move back home with my parents for the next year or two until I found a well-paying job.

I worried about the photojournalism class until it made me sick. I KNEW that I would fail the class and NOT graduate on time.

Anyway, for our final photography project, we had to crop our photos and mat them for an exhibit to be held during finals week in Saint Vincent’s student union, which we called “The Shack.”

We held at least one workshop during class time to mat our photos. We each purchased Exacto knives and photography mats ahead of time.

Now, I will out myself about what a big idiot I can be. I don’t have a very good track record with knives. When I was a kid, my dad gave me my very first Swiss Army Knife. The VERY NEXT MORNING, I watched a videotape of the musical “The Sound of Music” as I played with my new knife. I closed the knife on my hand. I cut myself. I didn’t show my parents. They would take my knife away from me. I just grabbed a paper towel from the kitchen and pressed it against my bloody hand as I continued to watch “The Sound of Music.” I quietly waited for my hand to heal.

Apparently, I didn’t get any better with knife safety after I became a legal adult. I screwed up an entire bulk foil package of ketchup when I worked at Wendy’s (next to the PA Turnpike in Somerset) the same month that I turned 18. I was supposed to cut it out of a cardboard box with a box knife. I used the box knife to slice through the bulk ketchup’s foil container instead. The manager was pissed. She had me transfer all of the ketchup to another container so that most of it could be saved. I kept my job because apparently Wendy’s Next to the Turnpike desperately needed employees.

Anyway. I know – NOW – that I must never, ever, ever cut towards myself when I cut something with a knife.

I apparently did not know this when I was a final-semester college senior.

I cut towards myself with the Exacto knife.

I sliced through the tip and side of one of my fingers.

As soon as I cut myself, I knew that it was bad. I sliced though the top of my finger and along the side a bit.

My finger bled.

I ran out of the classroom without speaking to anybody.

My dorm was connected by a walkway with the room where we held the photography mat workshop. The workshop was on the same level as the walkway, as was my dorm room.

I ran into the hallway of my dorm and showed my finger to my very good friend, “Saoirse.”

Saoirse said, “I’m driving you to the hospital.”

Saoirse drove me to the Emergency Room at the hospital in Latrobe.

We got to the ER. We arrived at pretty much the same time as a woman who came into the ER on a stretcher.

The medics said that the woman had just gotten hit by a car.

The woman said, “I can’t feel my legs.”

The ER triaged me ahead of the woman who got hit by a car.

That’s right. I cut myself. At the hospital, I got to cut the line ahead of a woman who got hit by a car.

The ER sewed my finger back together. My finger eventually healed, just like my hand eventually healed that time that I closed a Swiss Army Knife on it.

Nobody in my photography class realized that I cut myself. Not the instructor. Nobody.

I returned to the classroom later that day and picked up the rest of my stuff. It was all still there. Even all of my photography workshop stuff. It was all exactly how I left it. Including the Exacto knife.

I got a B in the photojournalism class. I don’t know how that happened, because my final project looked pretty terrible.

I will forever be greatful to Saoirse for driving me to the ER that day. Saoirse, if you are reading this, thank you.

After this incident, I dreaded ever matting anything again. So, maybe my fear and anxiety of photography actually all came from the day that I almost cut off my finger.

Years later, my husband Jonathan walked me through how to properly mount a photo – you know, how to do it without ending up in the ER. He helped me to mat a photo that I actually like for an exhibit that I actually wanted to enter.

So, maybe my key take-aways from this story is that I have a gem of a friend in Saoirse and I have a gem of a husband in Jonathan.

Also, be careful with knives.

Photography Blog Confession

Here is a photo that I took of my husband taking a photo at Phipps Conservatory

I enjoy spending significant amounts of time in pursuit of a skill that other people had already written me off as unable to learn.

I’m talking about photography here.

Just as a background, I have a strabismus. I can’t see out of both of my eyes at the same time. I don’t remember ever being able to see out of both of my eyes at the same time, so perhaps I was born this way. I don’t know. However, in kindergarten or the first grade, I had a lot of trouble learning how to read. We had to sit at tables with other kids in our class, and take turns trying to read words. Then, we all got moved to tables based on which words we could read.

I got moved to the table with all of the rest of the kids who couldn’t read any of the words.

I resented my classmates who were moved to the tables with the kids who COULD read words. I thought, “Oh, hey, I bet that they think that they are better than me!”

Then, when the teacher tried to teach me how to read, I got pounding headaches. I got sent home on more than one instance due to my headaches.

My mom took me to my very first of many eye doctor appointments. The doctor determined that I had trouble with my vision.

(One time that I was in college, I told this story to some of my friends. They told me that this was the plot of a “Little House on the Prairie” television episode. Well, that may have been the case, but it also happened to me in real life.)

At the age of six, I ended up with my first pair of bifocals. At this point in my life, my mom also drove me an hour or so on several occasions to that I could visit a specialist in regards to my strabismus. Since we lived in the middle of nowhere, these visits to the specialist were a major trip for me. During each visit, I had to do eye exercises that involved trying to focus on an object tied to a string.

(I know a lot of parents who brag that their four-year-old child can read. If you are one of those parents, good for you! I could NOT read when I was four years old. When I was six, I had to sit at the table with all of the other kids who couldn’t read. And look how I ended up. Tomorr0w – March 18 – is the third year anniversary of my blog here.)

I’ve seen it suggested on the internet that Hitler and various serial killers such as H.H. Holmes had strabismuses. (Strabismi?) Well, I have one as well, and I haven’t killed anybody yet.

(Also, in the past five years, I visited a new optometrist AND a new PCP, and they both asked me whether I could actually see out of both eyes. Then I had to explain to both of them that I visited a specialist for my strabismus when I was younger, but that I still can’t see out of both of my eyes at the same time, and I have to switch back and forth.)

I mention all of this because I still struggle with my depth perception.

I mean, I can drive a car and dress myself. However, my depth perception issues frustrate me in learning new skills such as, you know, photography.

So, I didn’t really learn much about photography when I was a kid because I’m old and there was a larger barrier to entry back then in regards to equipment and technology. Smartphone with cameras weren’t a thing. Neither were DSLR’s. We had point-and-shoot cameras that required film in our house. However, my parents had four kids at that time. (It was later five kids because my youngest sibling was born when I was in college.) Camera film was expensive, and so was the cost of having photos developed. So, for instance, if I wasted an entire roll of film trying to photograph an inanimate object in an artsy way and then my mom paid to have the film developed, she wasn’t very happy to get the photos back from the developer and discover that an entire package of newly developed photos were just of the sky or a tree or a building. If I wanted to take a photo, it should be of a person or people, and they should be photographed head-on as they posed.

I had access to ONE film camera that wasn’t a point-and-shoot when I was in high school. It was the camera that belonged to the school newspaper, and I wrote for the school newspaper in 12th grade. However, I didn’t understand how any of the settings worked on this camera, so I happily passed all of the photography duties off on a classmate who actually knew how to use the camera.

So, anyway, fast-forward to my years at Saint Vincent College. I switched my major from accounting to Communication Arts, but my heart wasn’t in it because multiple people had made it very clear to me that I was destined to work at Wal-Mart for the rest of my life. (I DID work at Wal-Mart after college – for three months! Then, I moved on to something else. I ended up finding better-paying jobs. Majoring in something “unworthy” is NOT a moral failing that automatically consigns one to a lifetime of being a Victorian chimney sweep or something.)

So, my heart wasn’t really in my Communications classes because multiple people told me that I wouldn’t be able to succeed in the field. Saint Vincent College’s poor quality video equipment also frustrated me.

Looking back, I’m sure that my history of depth perception problems also caused me trouble with the one or two college video classes that I took. This didn’t occur to me at that time, though. I got B’s in video production, and I was more than happy to just take my B’s and just forget about the shame that I felt at struggling with all of it.

Anyway, for my final semester in college, I took my only still photography college class, which was called “Photojournalism” and was cross listed in the course catalogue for both Communications and English. It was required for my degree program. I had to pass this course in order to graduate. I didn’t have any background in still photography and the only camera that I owned at that time was a point-and-shoot. I didn’t understand still photography or camera use very well. I felt that the instructor was frustrated with me the entire time. I honestly worried all semester that I would fail the class and that I would not be allowed to graduate or walk at the end of the semester.

I finished this photography class with a B. I’m not at all sure how I got a B in the class. My final project was total crap. I think that the instructor just wanted to get me out of his hair.

So, as a result of these college experiences, I left school with a very bad taste in my mouth for video and still photography.

I ended up working in the financial services industry instead. I didn’t do anything creative for several years after college because I was made to understand that creativity didn’t pay the bills. And the people who told me this were right to tell me this. I still work in financial services. I can afford camera and blogging equipment now because I work in financial services.

I eventually met and married Jonathan Woytek. Jonathan enjoyed photography when he was in high school and college. He took photos for his high school yearbook. He drifted away from it. Then, on the way to our honeymoon in South Carolina, we drove off of the interstate at a very specific shopping center in North Carolina because Jonathan had learned that this shopping center included a very specific camera store. You see, Jonathan’s Best Man gave him wedding gift money specifically to use for the purchase of a new camera. Jonathan bought that camera on the way to our honeymoon.

Jonathan restarted his own love for photography.

A few years after this, I became interested in blogging. I told Jonathan that one of the things that I didn’t like about other people’s blogs were poor quality photos. Jonathan told me that if I wanted to create a decent blog myself, then I would have to learn how to create my own photos for it.

Then, Jonathan spent hours giving me photography lessons. We had to start pretty much from scratch because I had such a bad taste in my mouth with my prior experience trying to do photography. I cried more than once when Jonathan tried to get me to understand such concepts as Depth of Field.

Now, I might not be the best photographer in New Kensington or even in my own household. However, I consider it to be a very big accomplishment for me to go from “I don’t think that I am going to graduate from college because I can’t figure out this photography thing and I can tell that the instructor hates having to explain things to me,” to this: Last summer, my dad’s neighbor got socially-distanced married, and I took a photo of the bridal party’s socially-distanced car parade as it drove through my rural hometown. I emailed the photo to my aunt because she went to the same church as the bride, and a few weeks after this, I learned that MY photo had appeared in my childhood home county’s only daily newspaper as a “Photo of the Week.” Somebody had decided that MY photo was good enough to forward on to my childhood hometown newspaper.

Now, I mentioned that in the past, one of my barriers to entry to photography was my lack of equipment and technology. I have a lot more resources now. Heck, I use a program called Lightroom to straighten every single photo that I take because all of my photos are crooked when they come off of my camera’s memory card. (See above re: strabismus.) But I would argue that it’s pretty snobby to suggest that I shouldn’t enjoy or work on a discipline just because I need specific equipment in order to do it now. Ever since the 1800’s, photographers have taken advantage of the most high tech equipment to which they personally had access at that time.

I say all this, because I was thinking about all of the times in my life when I have observed people shutting other people down in particular disciplines. I thought about all of the times when somebody told me that I “wasn’t any good” at a skill, so I stopped trying to be good at the skill. I thought of the times when I observed the same thing happening to other people.

Heck, I STILL remember that time when I was six years and I had to go sit at the table with all of the other kids who couldn’t read. This ceased to be a problem shortly after I got my first pair of glasses. So, now I feel terrible if I ever made any of my classmates feel this same way. I hope that I didn’t shut down any of my classmates for trying to get better at school themselves.

I wrote this post because I wanted to share my experience about how I believed for YEARS that I was really terrible at a particular discipline, and that I would never improve at it, but now that I have fewer barriers to entry, I really enjoy this discipline as a hobby. I will probably never make a living doing photography. However, photography and blogging (and going on long walks to find things to blog and write about) significantly helped me get through my mom’s death in 2018 and also the past year of Covid-19 stress.

Happy third-year blog anniversary to me.

My Very First Haunted House

The Allegheny Mountains. Simon Girty crossed the Alleghenies as a child in the 1700’s. I crossed them as a child in the 1900’s.

I’ve blogged in the past about Simon Girty. I don’t feel like linking everything that I’ve ever wrote about him. I created “Girty” as a new category on this blog tonight, so you can just click on this to see what I wrote.

So, I mentioned before that the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission installed a marker along the Susquehanna River to note Girty’s birthplace near Harrisburg. I actually Googled the distance between Girty’s birthplace and my very first childhood home in Perry County, Pennsylvania. Turns out that I spent the first seven years of my life only ten or twenty miles from Girty’s birthplace. We both started out in Central PA and then went on to have new adventures on the OTHER side of the Allegheny Mountains.

I’m a Central PA native because of economics. Both of my parents grew up in the Greater Pittsburgh area. (My mom grew up in Carrick.) My dad’s first teaching job out of college came from rural Perry County. So, he moved there a month before their wedding. Mom moved to Perry County the weekend that my parents got married.

I mean, if you want to get technical about it, the Girty family and all of their fellow colonial settlers of European descent lived in what became of Perry County due to economics, too. They moved into the already-occupied lands along the Susquehanna. They struggled with the indigenous people who already called dibs on that whole place. Girty grew up to see the the non-European point of view on this whole mess. If you want to get even more technical, this land around the Susquehanna wasn’t Perry County back then. The county was later named after the War of 1812 hero Oliver Hazard Perry. Girty was born in the early 1700’s. He was an old man taking refuge with the British when the War of 1812 happened. (Though, I just found out through a Google search that Simon Girty only preceded Oliver Hazard Perry in death by a year and a half. Girty died old. Perry died young. So, I guess that nobody wins in the end? Except for me. I made out well because my husband just made me fresh stove-popped popcorn to eat as I write this.)

I should have warned you about tonight’s history dump. That way, you could have closed out this post to go read a Reddit message board about vaccine shaming or about that physical fight that happened last weekend at a Bath & Body Works store.

Anyway, I spent the first seven years of my live in a pretty rural town in Perry County, near the farm where Simon Girty was born in the 1700’s. I wasn’t born in the 1700’s, but some days I feel as if I am indeed that old. “My first hometown” in Perry County was so tiny that it made my “second hometown” in Somerset County seem like a regular little city.

For instance, back in the Perry County days, we lived next to the town’s elementary school. (The high school was twenty miles away.) It was still light outside when I feel asleep each night in the summer. I fell asleep looking out of the window at cows in a field on a mountain. The other thing that I saw on that mountain each summer night were trees with no leaves or dead leaves. (The area had a gypsy moth infestation in the local forests.) The town itself was only about one mile long or so. I walked and biked the entire length of it many times before we moved away.

An Amish community farmed in the area. Some of these Amish were teenagers. Some of these Amish teenagers hung out with the teenagers who lived next to us. These teenagers all drove around in a car meant to emulate the jalopy known as the “General Lee” from the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard.” That is, the neighbor’s car played the song “Dixie” just like the car in the TV show did. Also, the neighbor’s car was orange and I think that it had Confederate battle flags on each side, just like the “General Lee” did.

We all had huge backyards. The neighbor’s teenagers allegedly grew weed in their backyard garden, according to my mom. One day, a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter flew low over our little neighborhood in our little rural town.

So, back to the house that became my first childhood home. My parents bought it shortly before I was born. It was an old house. It was a fixer-upper. (I keep ending up living in fixer-uppers in interesting neighborhoods. Story of my life.) Also, somebody was electrocuted on the power lines. Whoever this poor man was, he died right in front of the house. This happened before my parents bought the place. This was all before The Internet happened to us, by the way. Google didn’t exist. After my parents moved into their new home in their little town in Perry County, the neighbors came over and told my parents all about the terrible accident. Caveat emptor!

So, my parents told us kids this story about the electrical accident after we had moved away and we were all adults. And one of my siblings said,

“I used to hear a man’s voice calling out when we lived there. I used to call back “Dad, is that you?” I thought that it was Dad. Except, Dad was at work when this happened.”

This particular sibling was five years old when we moved away from the house.

And that’s how I found out that my first childhood home was haunted.

March Confessions

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh. March 2014. We didn’t have a piano in our high school marching band. However, I was looking for a photo that was tangentially related both to music and also the word “March.” This seemed to fit the bill. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I marched with my high school’s marching band for four years.

However, I learned about the existence of football game halftime shows on the first day of band camp in my very first season of marching band, in the ninth grade.

See, I never cared about the actual sport of football. Up until the ninth grade, I never actually watched an entire football game. Not a single pro game, college game, or high school game. None.

Then, I started to play the clarinet in the fourth grade. My parents and I planned that I would study the clarinet in school until I qualified for the elementary concert band. Then, I would play for the junior high concert band. Then, I would participate in the high school marching and concert bands. This way, I would have an extracurricular to pad my applications for college scholarship money.

By junior high school, I wanted to quit the clarinet. My parents and my music teachers always had to get on my butt to practice. I did all of my required weekly practice in one bulk, pain-filled session, the night before each weekly lesson.

(I’ve since learned that playing the clarinet is A LOT like writing.)

My parents by that point had invested so much money and time in my music (see my post about terrible, painful Christmas concerts ) that they needed me to just power through with the band thing. They reminded me that the only way that I would be able to visit Disney World is if I visited it with the high school marching band. See, my parents had no money or interest for a family trip to Disney World. However, the school marching band traditionally visited Disney World once every four years.

So, I stayed with the clarinet. (Note that on the year that it was “my turn” to visit Disney, the decision makers determined that such a trip would be too expensive and require too much fundraising. Our marching band travelled to Hershey Park instead. We marched in a parade in Harrisburg and ate at a dinner theater.)

Our school district’s elementary and junior high school bands joined the high school band by performing at the opening ceremonies of one home football game each fall. We “helped” the high school band play “The Star Spangled Banner.” Afterward, we elementary and junior high musicians received free admission to that night’s football game. However, each year that I performed such in elementary and junior high, I headed to the concession stand as soon as my musical duties ended. As soon as I finished my hot chocolate and nachos, I went home.

So, even when I “performed” at football games during elementary and junior high school, I never saw a single football game halftime show. I didn’t know that the high school band even had to put on a show at halftime.

On my first day of band camp in ninth grade, we started learning the choreography for that year’s halftime show. I said to another musician halfway through that morning, “Do we have to practice stuff like this often?”

My band classmate said to me, “This is our halftime show!”

I said, “What’s a halftime show?”

I learned that week at band camp what a halftime show looked like. So, the very first marching band halftime show that I ever saw was one in which I personally performed.

I have another marching band confession. A few weeks ago, my husband Jonathan and I had a short discussion about school music programming and the purchase of sheet music for such programming.

I told my husband, “Mr. B. (my high school band director) had a very close friend who also taught music in schools. This friend got busted by the FBI for photocopying sheet music. He had to go to prison for it. In fact, he had to teach Monday through Friday, and then every Friday night, he had to report to prison until Monday morning.”

My husband gave me that look that he gives me when when I repeat a made-up story as if it were true.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s an urban legend, isn’t it?”

My husband confirmed that this was indeed an urban legend.

I complained above that I “stuck with” playing the clarinet for years so that I could go to Disney, and instead I went to Hershey Park. However, I’m grateful that my parents pressured me to stick with the clarinet. During the last two or three years of high school, I listed my band participation on applications for non-band-related opportunities. I “won” some of these opportunities. I have no idea if my time in the band made me a strong applicant for these. I bet that it didn’t hurt me. (See here about the award that I “helped” our band to win.)

I was a mediocre musician. The girls from my elementary school who started to play the clarinet at the same time that I did were all better at it than I was. (They practiced more than I did!) We had to compete each year for “rows” and “chairs” in concert band, just like a real orchestra. I was last row – last chair. The other girls from my grade quit the clarinet at the end of junior high so that they could be cheerleaders and majorettes. I stayed. I learned about the existence of halftime shows.

So, I have another confession. For the past month or so, when my husband leaves the house, I sometimes put together my old clarinet and I play it. I don’t actually play songs, unless you count “When the Saints Go Marching In.” (That’s one of the first songs in one of the first lessons in the instruction book that I had in the fourth grade.) No. I pretty much just warm up, and then try to hit a bunch of high notes that I struggled to play in high school. I stop when I get tired or when my husband gets home. (I don’t want to torture Jonathan.)

On that Saturday back in January when I first picked up the clarinet, I had to take a two hour nap after trying to hit high notes. I had forgotten how to breath!

It’s actually pretty freeing to play a musical instrument for which I never excelled. I can sound like crap and not let anybody down. Present Jenny doesn’t disappoint Past Jenny.

Back in the pre-Covid days, I worked in downtown Pittsburgh. (I guess that I still do. The City still taxes me for Emergency Services as if I still do.) I worked directly across the river from PNC Park. On the days of Pirates home games, this one busker always stood on the Roberto Clemente bridge and played the theme song from “The Flintstones” on his saxophone, over and over. I listened and missed my clarinet.

Now, I miss the saxophone guy.

I could busk when this Covid mess is all over. I carried my clarinet to school for a decade, and I marched with it for four years. I can take it downtown on a PAT bus. I know how to play “The Flinstones.” I know how to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I am learning how to hit the high notes in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” that I couldn’t hit very well in high school. I would give any money that landed in my case to the saxophone guy. I just think that it would be funny if I went from playing “last row – last chair” in a school band to busking downtown.

I wonder how many ex-marching band kids miss it the way that I do now?