Quicksand

Last Monday, my course veered undetectably by me. Until the moment my body slammed to the ground–rudely snapped against a boardwalk much like a rag doll without consideration of human bones, ligaments, tendons, organs, and blood–I thought I was simply out riding my bike.

A simple swerve to the right–or was it to the left?–over mist-covered algae growing on a wood boardwalk changed the course of my wheels, my day, and perhaps even my life. The loss of traction was immediate. There was no skid, no slow motion fall, no time to realize I was under attack by the forces of physics that remain as undeniable as death and taxes. I found myself on the ground, shocked.

A tiny version of myself stepped outside my body and tried to make a video of all it could see, but my tiny self’s view was obstructed by the giant helmet on my banged-up head, the bars and shafts that made up my bicycle, my Gulliver-sized legs, and the shadows cast by all. Yet my tiny self was amazed to watch my big self rise up to a seated position and do its best to be sociable with a woman who had stopped to help.

Smiling, making a joke even, denying any serious injury. Above all else, protecting self by refusing to admit any vulnerability to a stranger–even a lone mother walking her infant in a stroller.

All pain was pushed aside. The knot of confusion was barely hinted at in the statement, “I hit my head.” I stood. I walked. She rolled my bike along. I sat on a bench, she parked my bike next to me, assured me she would be back shortly to check on me and disappeared both visually and in my memory until hours later when I suspected I’d dreamt her. Then, later still, the video my tiny self made was unlocked from some deep archive and returned to my big self for viewing.

Yet, I remembered I had a phone. I remembered where it was. I remembered the password to unlock it. I remembered how to call my husband. I asked him to come and get me. My tiny self was fully back onboard with my big self at this point–there was no video for me to return to later.

I still cannot recall the conversation with my husband. Nor can I recall the quarter-mile walk I undertook to meet him at the nearest street–I had fallen on a pedestrian-only portion of the Tennessee Riverwalk.

What I do recall is a moment of utter panic. Of being uncertain that I was going in the right direction, uncertain of where I was, uncertain as to what was happening. I choked down an urge to sob. I gave up crying long ago, after my mother’s funeral. My mother was the only person I ever knew with a healthy respect for a stranger’s tears–the only person I knew who was comfortable to just allow them. For everyone else, they are at least a source of discomfort if not disgust.

I keep mine close. Occasionally, I allow moisture in deep empathy for someone else’s pain. But if you see a tear for my own pain, it’s either a once in a decade occurrence or you’re someone I trust with my life.

To be standing on a street corner lost and confused and blubbering would be the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt in my life. Standing on a street corner lost and confused was close enough. I swallowed hard, choked once, blinked away any tear that had dared to form, and recalled my phone.

I scoured my muddled mind for a memory of having spoken to my husband recently. A vague impression of having had a conversation formed much like a shape bubbling up briefly from under quicksand, then sinking and disappearing again. I wanted to reach for the memory, but feared grabbing it would mire me in muck so deep I might not surface again. I let it go.

I dialed my husband again. The words that came were, “Are you coming to get me? I’m so confused.” And I choked back a sob for a second time.

He talked to me from that moment until he arrived to pick me up. His voice my lifeline through the quicksand of my mind. Then, he scooped me safely into our van where a wet muzzle reached from behind my seat to check on me, reminding me my boys will protect me and care for me when I will let them. It’s the letting them that’s always the hardest part.

In the ER, I learned I had a concussion. Nothing dangerous or permanent, just scary. I was sent home to heal with instructions not to watch TV, use any electronic devices with a screen, or read any non-fiction. Thankfully, I was allowed to sleep.

I thought I would be fine in 2 days. I was not. The more I learn, the more I realize this isn’t something you recover from at the same rate as the 24-hour flu.

I’ve also learned that bike helmets don’t offer much protection against concussions. I’ve found one that promises a novel design technology called MIPS that’s supposed to have slightly better protection than traditional bike helmets against concussions. At $219, it seems pricey. When I get the ER bill, it will seem like a bargain if it works.

I will heal and I will ride again. But the experience of temporary dementia haunts me. I find myself wondering if more than my tires veered.

Babies and Bath Water

Many years ago, when more and more corporations were putting PCs on people’s desks, opening up access to email, the internet, and (egads!) even instant messaging, multi-tasking became a hot topic in large corporations.

A group of managers in my then-organization were sent to a training class. The class proved to them that no one is more efficient multi-tasking than performing tasks in a single-threaded fashion. This has been demonstrated over and over again in many studies since.

Yet multitasking is only increasing. We wonder aloud how we got to a place where multitasking on a smartphone has now become part of our basic social interactions. Remember when it was considered the epitome of rudeness to have a cell phone in a restaurant?

For me, multi-tasking socialization started in the work place where I often carried on multiple instant message conversations, worked on an email response, and “listened” to a conference call all at the same time.

But the behavior has carried over to my personal life in rather frightening ways. A laptop, iPhone, or iPad is always handy and my face is often pointed at one of them–my attention hopping from messages, emails, posts and often forgetting completely why I picked up a “device” in the first place.

One of the things I have said I love about photography is that it is a form of meditation. I set aside my distracting devices and focus my attention as well as my lens. When I look through the viewfinder, even more distractions are removed, limiting the view of the world to just the portion I include in my frame. The mind quiets, the chatter stops, texts go unanswered. For those moments, there is only me observing something fascinating and working to capture it.

But how to carry this focused attention over to personal relationships?

I tried an accidental experiment this weekend. I put my phone on the sleep setting, meaning it would not notify me with events from the virtual world. Then, I spent some time with my spouse. Friday night, we even went to dinner without our phones. It was a scary moment, but we managed to entertain ourselves by talking to each other.

What was interesting was how awkward it felt to know we were going to have a conversation with no access to Google. No photos to look at. No funny posts on Facebook to share. Just us talking off the tops of our heads like the internet didn’t exist. But at the end of the evening, we felt like we’d actually spent time together vs spent time in the same room.

That said, I am not about to get rid of the technology in my life. But it begs the question: if technology has contributed to new detrimental behaviors negatively impacting my relationships, productivity, and enjoyment of life, how does one extract the baby from the bathwater? It is possible to use the power of technology only for good?

Mirror, Mirror

Sometimes an abrupt shift in how you see yourself occurs. Things you believed about yourself turn out to be unfounded. As my statistics professor repeated enough times that I cannot forget even 25 years later: “correlation is not causation.”

Just because we behave a certain way on a regular basis doesn’t mean this behavior is driven by our personality, character, core values, or anything that is uniquely “us”. Rather, our behavior may be driven by the particular set of variables in play at a given time that make it easy or rewarding to behave the way we behave.

This is a hopeful message for anyone who thinks people can’t change. It’s actually quite easy to change behavior. The most direct example of this I have is from working with sales people–I always knew when their compensation plan changed because they instantly behaved differently.

We are, it turns out, so easily and frequently influenced in what we do, what we believe, and even how we feel that it’s impossible to tease apart what is our “true self” and what is one of humanity’s most basic survival skills: fitting in.

Realistically, we cannot know what is part of our “core” self vs social influence until the moment we are tested–the moment we are called upon to make a choice.

These moments usually go completely unnoticed. There is no sound track with dramatic music telling us this is a pivotal moment in our lives. Often, there is not so much as an intake of breath before we go forward and do or don’t do without deciding.

Defaulting gives social influence amazing power. It’s also incredibly efficient–imagine if we consciously examined every choice we could possibly make each day and pondered all the possibilities? It would be hard to get beyond brushing our teeth in a 24 hour period.

But every once in a while, many variables in our lives shift. In this shift, a void appears. This void is either not knowing what is expected of us or suddenly having cause to reject what we feel is expected of us (such as when a loved one dies and we find ourselves wondering if what we have been doing with our lives is worth it).

These are the moments when social convention comes in handy. It gives us a framework to either fit within or to rebel against. The trick is figuring out what the rules are. And when there is no one to influence you, to find that influence.

This is, perhaps, the most surprising thing of all for me. I have seen myself as an independent thinker. A creative spirit. Someone “different.” The mirror my life is holding up right now forces me to realize that my independence, creativity, and different-ness are merely a rouse.

Without the boundaries of social expectations, there are too many choices. The greatest irony? These expectations were the product of my own imagination–this should be an easy problem to solve.

Is it Sunday?

I am suffering from an interesting phenomenon. I don’t know if it has a name. It’s the inability to keep track of the days of the week. This has led to a second phenomenon: posting my Sunday blog posts late.

Seeking to get myself back on a slightly more planned schedule, I spent some time contemplating why keeping track of the days seems so difficult. Let’s review . . .

Until 3 months ago, I was working long weeks for a large corporation. Monday-Friday, my alarm went off, I picked up my iPhone and checked my email and calendar. I answered any urgent emails from parts of the world that would be leaving work soon and then checked my calendar again to see 1) what time I needed to be ready for my first conference call, and 2) if I had any open time during the day to get anything done or if there were any conference calls I could skip to make time. Then I got ready to start my day.

Saturday and Sunday were days I didn’t set my alarm, didn’t have any conference calls (usually), and could catch up a bit on work I didn’t have time to do during the week as well as fit in some fun time.

That has a pretty definitive rhythm. It forces you to know what day of the week it is because you’re always working against deadlines and constantly looking at your calendar trying to find time to work and/or meet with people.

In comparison, I have not been setting my alarm most days unless I really think I’m going to oversleep. Generally, I wake up an hour earlier than I would set my alarm for anyway, so it hasn’t been an issue.

I have started trying to use my calendar because I do have appointments from time to time–or at least social engagements. But rather than actually looking at my calendar and figuring out what my day looks like, I am ignoring my calendar until a notification pops up reminding me that I have to do something. This does not require knowing what day it is.

There is little motivation to actually know what day it is. First, the only time it’s inconvenient is if you, for example, go to a store on a Sunday that isn’t open on Sundays. This hasn’t happened to me yet. Second, it’s depressing to realize x more days have gone by and you still haven’t gotten the things done you meant to get done, so why remind yourself by constantly knowing what day of the week it is? Finally, knowing what day of the week it is would mean having no excuse for the appointments I have missed when I didn’t get them added to my calendar.

Not knowing what day it is has not deterred my photography any, either. In fact, it may contribute to me shooting more because I am more apt to lose track of time altogether.

Getting Out

With my husband out of town for the week, I was left to my own devices.  I took the opportunity to get out and shoot a bit further from home than usual.

First there was a road trip to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, tucked in the Cherokee National Forest. To get there, I had to first see to the completion of the repair of our second car, which was in the shop after not having been driven for over a year.

I quickly realized how spoiled I am–my husband normally attends to car maintenance and repair. First I had to arrange with the shop for them to pick me up when the car was “done.” Then I had to take the car to another shop to get the battery replaced, which undid all the settings, including the computer that controls the idle speed, which resulted in the car revving the engine every time I stopped. I’m surprised no one attempted to race me off the starting line at traffic lights!

Then there was the little complication that the fan wasn’t running and I was advised not to go less than 35 mph to avoid overheating. I had visions of driving on sidewalks to avoid red lights. That took a second trip to the shop when the part arrived so I could drive to the mountains without having to take the sidewalks.

By the time I got out of the shop Saturday afternoon and drove to Joyce Kilmer, which turned out to be a 3 hour drive, I had only a half an hour to battle the mosquitos and grab a few shots before Tisen and I had to get back on the road to head home.

On Monday I pulled out my bicycle and stopped at Amnicola Marsh to discover what might have been a Great Egret. Of course, I did not have my camera with me, so back I went the next morning, when, of course, the bird did not appear.

Since the car’s idle speed didn’t reset over the weekend, I returned to the mechanic on Monday. Fortunately, they were able to greatly improve things.

Next I made the drive to the Blythe Ferry Osprey nest with a couple from the photography club who allowed me to drive, in spite of Tisen crowding the lucky passenger who got to sit in back with him. But on the way home, the coolant light came on and we discovered I was losing coolant. Fortunately, we made it home without a problem, but that put an end to my driving career (at least for a few days).

I stuck to my bicycle and made one more trip to Amnicola and Curtain Pole Road Marshes. No Great Egret, but I did meet another photographer and stayed far longer than I intended shooting at Curtain Pole–it’s amazing how much more you see when there are two of you looking.

All in all, I’d say I’m pretty good at entertaining myself.

Returning Home

Trips to Columbus, Ohio are always confusing to me. I never know which direction should be referred to as “going home.” I once wrote that home is where your bed is. By that criteria, I guess Chattanooga is our home destination. However, having spent nearly 40 years living in Columbus, the paltry 3 we’ve lived in Chattanooga have not been enough to erase the feeling of returning home when we head North on 75.

This last trip North ended the longest stretch I’ve gone to date between trips to Columbus. It’s been long enough that I can’t actually remember when my last trip up was, but I know it wasn’t in this calendar year. With my remaining family all living elsewhere these days and many of my friends having moved away as well, it sometimes catches me off guard how much Columbus still feels like home. When I think about what makes it feel homey, here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. I know how to get to every place I want to go without using GPS. If one route has traffic, I know another route, also without GPS.
  2. I can come up with restaurants I want to eat at based on style of food, quality of adult beverages, particular favorite dishes, or outdoor ambience. (I confess, I did have to check with several restaurants on whether they allow dogs on their patio or not–Tisen came along on this trip.)
  3. I know where the “bad” parts of town are.
  4. I know where the best camera shops in town are and which ones carry Canon gear.
  5. I have a doctor and a dentist there.
  6. I know where to go for a safe pedicure without an appointment.
  7. Graeter’s Ice Cream is available just about everywhere–even Costco.
  8. The biggest problem is trying to fit everyone we want to see into a few days and realizing we’re not going to be able to get to see many of the people we’d love to catch up with.
  9. We have a place to stay where there is a room just for us and our dog is welcome (and offers from several other friends to stay with them)–I guess we do have a bed in Columbus.

This trip was timed around the Columbus Guitar Show. It was my first time working a show (although I’ve attended a couple before). Manning the booth and giving away T-shirts to people who participated in my marketing campaign turned out to be both fun and exhausting.

One of the best things about our timing was that we were in Chattanooga for the beginning and end of the Riverbend Festival, but missed the middle of the 9-day event. This means we didn’t get tired of the extra people and traffic in the downtown area. And, we were home in time for the fireworks–out of all the fireworks in Chattanooga, the Riverbend fireworks are by far the best and longest display.

Showing Up

I remember once, many years ago when I was teaching for a community college prison program, having a conversation with another instructor who was telling me about advice he’d given a student.  He’d told the student, “Just show up.  Showing up is half the battle.”

I was reminded of a student in one of the classes I taught during my teaching certification field experience.  He showed up to class, sat down, put his head down on his desk, and promptly fell asleep.  I asked him if he was feeling OK and he told me he’d been up until 2AM that morning playing video games.  When I asked him how he expected to succeed in school if he didn’t sleep at night so he could stay awake during class, he replied, “I’m here, aren’t I?”

I think this requires considering what “showing up” means in this context.  It doesn’t mean physically moving your body from one point to another and not actually being there mentally.  Showing up means paying attention, watching and listening for opportunity to present itself.  It implies both an awareness and recognition of opportunity.

Even with this revision of the definition, I don’t know if I agree that just being there is 50% of the battle.  There’s also preparedness.  It doesn’t do much good to realize you have an opportunity if you’re not in a position to take advantage of it.

For example, I walk my dog in our neighborhood park 3-4x a day.  I spend this time mostly looking for birds.  I am aware, paying attention, watching and listening for the opportunity to see interesting birds present themselves.  However, I’d really like to get great images of these birds.  Yet, in spite of this desire, 9 times out of 10, I rush out the door with the dog but not my camera.

The opportunity to photograph birds presents itself nearly every time I walk, but only 10% of the time am I prepared to actually capture an image of a bird.

Yet, oddly, I seem to be less likely to see birds when I am most prepared.  This is like seeing that the weather forecast is for rain, taking an umbrella, a raincoat, and wearing waterproof boots only to have the weather turn sunny against all odds.

If we apply statistics to this equation, I think it comes down to this:  I’m going to see birds I could photograph 90% of the time I walk.  If I carry a camera only 10% of the time I walk, the odds that I will actually capture an image of a bird drops to 9 times out of 100.

Like everything else in life, showing up, being present, and being ready have to come together with luck.  The more frequently we do our part, the more frequently our readiness will connect with good fortune.  So, I guess that means I will be carrying my camera a lot more often in the future!