Cambrian: Slice of Life

‘Pay it forward’ has been around, but never gets old

Inside Jim’s Campus Camera in San Luis Obispo during a power outage, March 2007.
Inside Jim’s Campus Camera in San Luis Obispo during a power outage, March 2007.

The phrase “pay it forward” has been around a long time, having supposedly shown up in print about a century ago. When I was young, my mom used to tell me, “We’ll just pay it forward, honey.”

I’m not sure I understood the concept then.

As demonstrated in a 1999 book written by our friend Catherine Ryan Hyde, the subsequent movie and the movement triggered by both, paying it forward is simple: Someone does something nice for you, then you in turn do something nice for somebody else. If nobody’s done anything unexpectedly considerate for you lately, then you can be the first link in your own kindness chain.

And who knows? Paying it forward might turn into good karma.

While we tend to think of karma in the negative — be a jerk and eventually you’ll regret it when your actions come back to bite you — karma also is in the kindness business. defines karma both ways, as “getting what you give. If you’re mean, you get bad karma; bad things happen. If you’re kindly and nice, you’ll get good karma; good things will happen.”

The gestures can be small or magnificent. The pay-it-forward gift you give doesn’t have to be similar to the one you received, but it’s nifty when it can happen that way.

And, when you’ve been a good-deed recipient, you don’t always have to pay that gesture forward in kind immediately. Sometimes, it takes years to find the right opportunity.

For instance, in 2000, I was on assignment to write about and photograph (inside and out) several East Coast lighthouses that aren’t open to the public. To do the best job possible, I really, really needed a new camera.

Digital compact cameras for consumers, while in their infancy, were all the rage. So, we put our name at the end of a long waiting list at Jim’s Campus Camera in SLO, hoping to snag a shiny new Nikon Coolpix 990 … a nifty, larger-than-pocket-sized digital whiz kid.

It was a nail-biter. Jim’s didn’t expect to receive many of the popular cameras anytime soon, and time was getting short.

A few days before our departure date, someone called from Jim’s. We could pick up our Nikon.


We were delighted, but astonished.

As we paid for the camera the next day, we asked how they’d managed to work so quickly all the way down the list to us.

The clerks — each of whom moonlighted as a professional photographer, often for weddings — looked at each other and blushed a bit.

Finally, one fessed up. “We didn’t,” he said quietly. “This is the first 990 we’ve gotten.”

But …. but ….

“We knew you have a deadline,” he said, “and giving you the first one is our way of saying thank you.”

“For what?” we asked incredulously. “We don’t do anything special.”

“Yes, you do,” he said, reminding us that we’d all worked together for years at many lengthy celebrations and events. We’d provided the cakes and catering, and they took the pictures.

He said, “You always bring enough food so we can eat, too. That’s uncommon, and we appreciate it.”

It was our turn to blush. We said an effusive “thank you,” grabbed our new camera and dashed home to practice.

(We still have the Coolpix, by the way. At 18 ounces, it’s an outdated dinosaur clunker, but it still works, if v-e-r-y s-l-o-o-w-l-y.)

All these years later, I’ve finally “paid forward” the photogs’ karmic kindness … digitally, which seemed appropriate.

I e-stumbled across some pictures I took in 2009. These were quickie, casual snapshots at an annual picnic, glimpses of good friends enjoying another lovely time together.

As I clicked my way through the file, I realized that several people I’d photographed there have died since then. For a moment, I was overcome again with yearning for those friends, missing them and feeling bereft because of their loss.

Then I remembered our new digital camera in 2000 and the concept of paying it forward.

I selected some pictures of those friends and emailed sets of them to their family members with a short note. I thought they’d like to have the photographic remembrances.

Paying it forward at last, even in such a little way, sure made my day. I hope it made theirs, too.