Putting the Performance in the Performance Tools Workshop

It is 1997.

I am in a staff meeting of the education department at FileNet Corp. in Costa Mesa. Department Manager Barbara Hubert is presenting us with our role in the upcoming user conference at the Disneyland Hotel. We will have a conference room and my supervisor, Peg Schwink, is going to do a workshop based on our performance tools course. Barb shows us posters with pictures of hammers, screwdrivers and saws. The she holds up the canvas tool belt those supporting the workshop will wear, printed with FileNet Education.

I think ‘If you’re going to do a performance tools workshop, why not go all the way and do a riff on ‘Home Improvement’ and their show-within-a-show, ‘Tool Time’. I scan the room, searching for a likely Al, the Tool Man’s pal.

Meeting over, I walk out into the hallway where I find Dale Niksch, a slightly stout and bearded course developer waiting.

“Tim?” he says.

Dale has a little theatrical background. I’m a 20-pound ham in a 10-pound can.

We race to Barbara’s office. We tell her we have an idea to enhance the performance tools workshop. She invites us to sit down.

“Before you say anything I want you to know that I already know what you’re going to say,” she tells us.

“You do?” I ask.

“You want to do ‘Tool Time’.”

“As an introduction,” I say, looking at Dale. We are making this up as we go. “Maybe do a little humorous bit to set it up.”

“Spend whatever you need to get costumes. Do you have tools?”

We haven’t gotten that far. She offers to bring a crescent wrench.

Barb’s husband, a former firefighter, has refurbished an ancient steam-powered pumper drawn by horses. The crescent wrench is huge and weighs 50 pounds. I couldn’t have asked for a better prop.

“But how did you know what we were going to say?” I ask as we get up to leave.

“Well,” she says with a big smile. “When you interviewed here, Peg came to me afterwards and said ‘Doesn’t he look just like Tim Allen?’”

I am dumbfounded.

“You must get that a lot.”

I’ve never heard that in my life.

Little Boy Blues and the Busy Box

It is 1995.

It is a warm Spring evening in Louisville. Outside, the fireflies dance in the heavenly Scratchingscent of magnolia blossoms. My brother, Scott, my young nephew, Charles, and I are in the living room of a 150-year-old Greek Revival-style mansion. The room is filled with antiques, the perimeter of the ceiling marked by dental block molding. Cardinal Hill was once the manor house of a vast plantation. Now it’s ‘just’ an amazing house.

We listen to NPR, which is playing blues music. Scott and I are talking. Charles sits in a high chair with his ‘Busy Box’, an updated version that uses computer chips containing prerecorded sounds of fire engines, animals and even a generic ‘Mommy’ saying “It’s time to go home now”.

Charles happily works the buttons, making different sounds. Scott and I listen to the music. It’s real blues, black blues from the soul of the South. It’s hypnotic. I nibble a little Blanton’s. We are, after all, in Bourbon County.

Gradually I become aware something’s happening with the music. Not the music on the radio. I’m listening to an old black blues singer turning his soul inside-out, when it dawns on me that Charles isn’t randomly hitting the buttons on his ‘toy’.

‘Scratching’ is using a recording to create a rhythm by playing just part of it, over and over. Charles is ‘playing’ the sound samples, but cutting them off in such a way that he is scratching with his Busy Box. He alternates the fire engine with the police siren in perfect time with the music as the singer tells us about his hard life.

Then Charles switches it up and Mommy takes over. As the blues riff starts again, she begins to chant.

“Time- “

He hits the button again, cutting off the sample. Then he hits it again.

“Time- “

The guitar completes its phrase and Mommy comes back around.

“Time – “

And then Charles lets it go.

“Time to go home now.”

He looks up at me, grinning. This is no accident.

He knows exactly what he is doing.

He is three.

The Most Beautiful Morning Ever

Winter of ‘78.Hasselblad

I am sleeping off last night. A quiet deliberate knock awakens me. Mom’s voice in a stage whisper: “Uncle Bill is on the phone.”

My clock says 6:15.

I get myself vertical. I make it to the kitchen and pick up.

“Steven? (He always calls me Steven) “Have you been outside yet?” He sounds like he’s twelve.


“Get dressed and get your cameras. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

He is there in five minutes. He lives around the corner and he drives a 300ZX (Uncle likes his cars). I’m half-way to the driveway when I feel thousands of ice-cold needles poking my face and hands. My lungs are crystallized. I am glad to have my trench coat. I open the door. Uncle Bill leans across the seat.

“Go look up the street.”

I do as I am told. I take shallow breaths. It is remarkably cold. My eyeballs feel cold.

As I clear the pine trees in our yard my breath catches for a different reason. To our north, above our housing tract, the San Gabriels are covered in snow. I see them so clearly – like I’ve never seen them in my life.

Something has happened overnight. It wasn’t rain or wind, but something else. The drop in temperature, the dryness of the air – both – has cleared the air in Southern California of decades of accumulated pollution.

We drive to the harbor. On the way, Uncle Bill describes what it was like growing up when the smudge pots from the orange groves used to be the problem. But following the war, the orange groves were sold and developed. The oily, sooty smoke from those grove heaters was replaced by smog.

We arrive at the harbor and drive around looking for a specific angle. When we find it, we park and unload our gear. We deploy tripods and mount our cameras. We began shooting. I use 35mm Nikkormats, he shoots with his Hasselblads. The image is striking – downtown Long Beach backed up against the snow-covered San Gabriels. You would have thought it was Seattle.

It is still the most beautiful morning I’ve ever experienced.