Trust

Sometimes we need to trust ourselves. Sometimes we need to shut out what everyone else tells us and follow our own hearts. But other times, we have to accept that maybe our perception is dead wrong.

This is pretty terrifying really.

It’s hard to buck the system and decide no matter what anyone else says, you’re going to do the thing that makes you happy. For example, why do people who supposedly love us tell us not to follow our passion? I think it’s because they’re scared. Scared as much for themselves as for us.

Here’s an analogy: during my first marriage, my ex and I hadn’t been romantically involved for several months. I saw a romantic movie and when the couple started kissing passionately, I burst into tears. It was the pain of being reminded of what I was missing that made me cry. Having it thrown in my face broke the dam I’d built to keep all of that pain in check. Sometimes we’d rather believe something isn’t possible than to see someone else doing what we’ve dreamt of.

On the flip side, sometimes our perceptions are just wrong. Let’s take a wedding where we stress over details that no one else will notice or care about. Leading up to a wedding, many a bride (sorry to be sexist, but I have yet to meet a groom who felt similar stress about his wedding) will freak out about any one of a million minute details that no guest will ever notice.

The importance of details like how party favors are presented on the tables, the font of the invitation, or the subtle shade of blue that doesn’t quite match between the cake frosting and the napkins grow vastly out of proportion.

Yet, if you’re getting married, no one–NO ONE–cares if the blues are slightly different shades. What does matter is that you’re happy you’re getting married. That’s really the only detail you need to worry about: are you happy you’re getting married?

When we get into a state where things like matching shades of blue seem like life and death situations, we need to let go and trust in someone else’s judgment. But how do we tell the difference between when our own compass has been dropped vs when someone else’s advice is coming from their own fears?

Sometimes this is relatively easy. If we take a few deep breaths, there’s a place in most of our stomachs that will tell us that our best friend is right that the shades of blue are fine. Other times, it’s tough. Sometimes it takes a lot of soul searching to distinguish between whether what we believe is right or whether maybe, just maybe, we should accept someone else’s opinion.

Sometimes the opinions we hold with the most certainty are exactly where we need to listen to someone else. If only there were a simple test to determine when we’re off base.

Being Golden


Growing up, I was taught to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It seems simple enough. However, this rule can quickly turn an attempt at thoughtfulness into an act of egocentric selfishness.

For example, my aunt was compulsively punctual. Because she was also exceptionally nervous, continually worried about abandonment, and a complete freak to deal with when she was upset, my family went to great lengths never to be late picking her up under any circumstances.

In my aunt’s mind, making us wait even a second would be inconsiderate. At the same time, if she waited more than a few minutes, she would begin to think she was confused about what time we were picking her up and chaos would ensue. “On time” to my aunt meant about 10 minutes early. There was a 4-minute window in which you could safely arrive and retrieve my aunt without panic, chaos, guilt, or retribution: arriving 5-9 minutes early meant you had not waited on her and you were early enough to avoid triggering her panic. This resulted in many dangerous acts of driving.

All in the name of thoughtfulness.

From her I learned to watch myself. To watch when “doing unto others” takes that dangerous turn into “assuming others want what I want.” The hardest acts of thoughtfulness are when what feels thoughtful to someone else is completely different than what we would want. Removing ourselves from the equation and truly making it about the other person is actually quite a challenge.

I think of my grandfather who never wanted gifts and my mother’s desire to give a gift he would like. Every Christmas, she would give him something more and more practical trying to align her gift giving with what she thought he would enjoy. Every year she was disappointed by his reaction. In reality, what he wanted was no gifts but my mother couldn’t give up on her belief that the perfect gift would result in him expressing genuine gratitude.

As selfless and thoughtful as my mother was, here she wasn’t really being thoughtful–it was her own need for her father’s approval that drove her compulsion to find him the perfect gift rather than any need of his.

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Golden Rule. If we apply it from the perspective of our own neurotic need for approval, appreciation, or even just confirmation of what we believe about ourselves (we’re giving, thoughtful people), we usually don’t really apply it at all.

In the end, we don’t want people to do unto us exactly the way they would want us to do unto them. Rather, we want people to know us, see us, understand us, and, as a way of acknowledging that they accept us as we are, do unto us as we would have them do unto us. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” really should come with many footnotes.

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?

The Great Smoky Mountain Wildlife Shoot

Last weekend we went on a river cruise in search of Whooping Cranes (well, in honor of the Sandhills).  While there, two people advised me to go to the Cataloochee Valley to see elk.  On a complete whim, I talked Pat into spending the weekend in Asheville, North Carolina and getting up at 5:15AM on Saturday morning to go shoot some elk.

Let’s recap:  I looked up the Cataloochee Valley, determined how long it would take us to get there, looked up sunrise time to make sure we would get there for the best light (and at a time the elk were likely to be active), looked at the weather forecast to ensure I owned enough layers to possibly stay warm, carefully decided which gear I would carry, found a hotel that didn’t charge more to have a dog than to stay in the room, and determined where Tisen was allowed to go in the park.

Fast forwarding back to Saturday morning, we arrived at the designated intersection only to realize that was the entry to the park, not the entry to the actual valley.  We wound our way up through the mountains slowly, encountering more and more snow as the elevation increased.  Behind use, the sun started coming up.  We paused long enough for me to snap a shot with my iPhone–my “real” camera being out of reach without climbing out of the car on a 1 ½ lane mountain road with 2-way traffic.

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We made it to the Cataloochee valley gate before the light got too bright.  But alas, the gate was closed.  And locked.

Since dogs are not allowed on any trails in the Cataloochee area, we decided to take Tisen for a walk along the closed road.  Given that there was no one else there, we even cheated and let him off leash.  This may have been the first time he ever frolicked in snow.  He’s never run free in snow in the 2 years he’s been with us, at least.

Since there were no elk in sight, I practiced shooting my playful pup.

No elk appeared.  Pat was pretty sure we were still 10 miles from the prime viewing area when we turned around.  We we got back to the car, a Dark-eyed Junco was kind enough to pose for me, even in a wind strong enough to ruffle his feathers.

On the drive back down, we stopped to shoot some cattle.  They were quite curious about us.  Enough so that I found myself wondering if the feed truck happens to be a mini-van very similar to ours.  I started getting nervous when they all started walking toward me briskly–including a bull with a large ring in his nose glinting in the increasing light.  The fence between us was about 3-feet high and consisted of 3 flimsy strings of barb-wire.

With the exception of a Junco, I ended up with images of the domestic version of “wildlife.”

Lens Envy

Once again, I have celebrated a birthday.  I question the wisdom of having 4 annual milestones occur within a month of each other.  Nothing like reminding yourself you’re getting older every time you turn around.

First there was our wedding anniversary on the 21st, rapidly followed by Christmas Day, which also happens to be my older brother’s birthday (and he turned 50 this year), New Year’s immediately follows, and then there is my sister-in-law’s birthday, my friends and neighbors’ birthdays, and finally my own.

All of this serves to make me rather reflective at this time of year.  Sensing I might be getting into a bit of a funk, I decided to celebrate my birthday (a few days late) by taking a Blue Moon Cruises Eco Tour of the Hiwassee Nature Preserve.

Last year, we went to the Sandhill Crane festival in the same preserve.  However, during the festival, you have to take a bus into the refuge and there is only one area you can view birds from.  On the plus side, there are volunteers from the ornithological society who setup scopes and point out really great birds.  For this reason, last year we saw a Whooping Crane (albeit as a white dot amongst the grayer Sandhill Cranes).

I thought the Blue Moon Cruise might yield some better photographs since we would theoretically get much closer to the birds.

Armed with two cameras and my two longest lenses, after we boarded, I got out my gear and started getting everything setup.  Across from me was a man with a case containing a 600mm lens.  It’s hard not to stare at a 600mm lens.  Much like a breast-obsessed man trying to keep his eyes on a well-endowed woman’s face, I found myself struggling to just look away.  Lens envy–something Freud never wrote about.

In truth, I don’t think I could lug a 600mm lens around for long.  I tell myself that since I am unlikely to ever decide it’s worth it to spend $13,000 on a lens; it makes me feel like I’m not missing out on anything other than a sore back and tired arms.  If you have never seen a 600mm lens in person, it’s about the size of a bullhorn, but longer.  Much longer.

I did what I could with my 70-200mm and 100-400mm lenses.  The cruise did get us closer to the birds, but not quite close enough that a 600mm lens wouldn’t have come in handy.  I am still working my way through the 1500+ images I ended up with during that 3.5 hour tour, but I did grab a few to share today.

I think we saw about 20 Bald Eagles, mostly juveniles.

It’s bound to be a good day when you see 20 Bald Eagles.  Although I was slightly disappointed we didn’t see any Whooping Cranes this year, the cruise itself was wonderful.

Black, White, and Shades of Gray

The world is not black and white.  Or so we tell ourselves.  If, of course, we were not endowed with whatever particular function of our brain tells us we see colors, the world would be black and white indeed.

Today I decided to conduct an experiment in black-and-white.  I re-processed a series of color images without the color.

It’s interesting we refer to it as black-and-white.  While I suppose in the purest sense, only black ink is used on white to create the shades of gray that lurk between pure black and pure white.

I like the metaphor.  Even when we have only black and white to work with, we still end up with shades of gray.  I am convinced that the essence of life comes in shades of gray.  It’s the shadows created by what we believe to be absolute truths that hold the real truth.

And that real truth is a paradox:  there is no real truth.

Someone recently asked me what a RAW image file looks like.  We cannot view the true RAW file as an image.  We can only view the subset of the RAW file indicated by the camera settings recorded along with the rest of the data or the version we create when we change those settings in software.

This is because the file contains the data for many possibilities and we have to choose which possibilities we want rendered into an actual image in order to view it.  The truth of the file is greater than what we are able to perceive at any given point in time.  I think this is exactly how all truth works.

Take, for example, the old story of the 3 blind men, each touching a different part of an elephant.  Each accurately describes the part they are touching, but each describes an elephant completely differently.  Each is correct, yet they are also wrong.

Today, we have more data available with less effort than anyone imagined possible just a few decades ago.  But we can only extract a small set of information based on our personal settings.  Our internal filters tell us what to notice, what to agree with and what to reject.  Ultimately, we come away mostly with what is consistent with everything we already believe or want to believe.

This is like using the camera settings to decide how to render an image.  It’s automatic and easy.  Peeking into the shadows and looking at what other possibilities we might be missing takes energy and intention.

What fascinates me is that even when I know I am uninformed, under-informed, misinformed, I rarely fail to form an opinion–usually a passionate one.  And I am not alone.  Without this human tendency, we would have nothing to argue about–we would all be too busy realizing we can never know who is really right.

Is it possible to decide what we think is best without believing we are right?

Bright Whites

Tiny flowers looking fresh in the shade

Tiny flowers looking fresh in the shade

Sunday was one of those days when I woke up feeling like I’d rather spend the entire day in bed than getting anything productive done.  However, since Tisen ate a very late dinner, he needed to go out early.  I rolled out of bed and threw something semi-presentable on and took him for an early morning walk.

Then, I went back to bed for 3 hours.  All together, I got 8 ½ hours of sleep–the most sleep I’ve gotten in years.  Unfortunately, I still woke up feeling like I needed to sleep another 8 ½ hours.  But, it was a start.

I managed to rally and get a few things done that I’ve been procrastinating.  But by the time I was done, the day was gone and I realized I hadn’t been out shooting all weekend.  I also realized that Tisen was more than ready for his 3rd walk of the day.  So, I did what I keep trying to get away from doing:  shooting while I’m doing something else and not really taking my time setting up each shot.  The speed at which I shot was greatly increased by the ridiculous number of mosquitos who have hatched in the area following all the rains that we had earlier in the month.  I came home with a collection I might call “Shot While Swatting.”  These are blurred images of mostly grass and sidewalk that resulted when I got bit in the middle of taking a shot.  On the plus side, I probably have immunity to West Nile Virus by now.

Tisen was not any more patient.  He was getting bit by both flies and mosquitos while I was trying to capture mushrooms and flowers and various bugs.  Perhaps I should have tried to get a macro shot of a mosquito sucking my blood.  I think I would have needed a tripod for that.

From this whirlwind shoot, I have culled some of the images of white things.  There’s the mushroom that has started melting away as it degrades, but created a rich bed of nutrients for the clover and flowers growing through it.

Melting mushroom

Melting mushroom

Then there are the tiny white flowers I don’t recognize growing right next to the mushroom.  They are looking fresh and new for a late July bloom, hanging out in the shade of the stump of a tree.

Neighboring flowers

Neighboring flowers

There’s also the queen anne’s lace, which is undaunted by the summer even when it’s much hotter.  I used to love this flower when I was a child.  It seemed so sophisticated next to the dandelion.

Queen Anne's Lace looking regal

Queen Anne’s Lace looking regal

Finally, there’s my boy, Tisen.  Recovering from his walk.

Tisen chillin'

Tisen chillin’

Bright whites are something we seek when it comes to laundry and teeth.  But one of the photographic challenges is exposing something white, especially in a dark setting, so that the white doesn’t loose all of its detail.  I didn’t succeed in all cases–especially not with Tisen (shot with the iPhone). But, I got some practice in.

High Water

It's hard to tell if there is any separation between the wetland and the river

It’s hard to tell if there is any separation between the wetland and the river

The other day, the water levels reached a new high.  I decided to go grab a few shots from the common room balcony where I had shot the landscape in times of normal water levels for comparison.

Taken last June before the drought dropped the water levels

Taken last June before the drought dropped the water levels–previously the highest I’d seen it

Two things distracted me.  First, I started experimenting with the in-camera HDR feature since there was a lot of contrast between the wetland (in the shadows) and the sky.  Second, the clouds were interesting.  They never got really colorful–I watched until the sun was well below the horizon–but they were making some pretty interesting shapes.

All of these images are the HDR version of the image created in the camera.

My favorite cloud

My favorite cloud

On the one hand, I get better dynamic range using Photomatix.  On the other hand, I didn’t have to do any special post-processing to get these and given that I didn’t start processing photos until after midnight, I appreciate that.

I will try processing the 3 exposures using Photomatix and doing a comparison when I have some more time (like that will ever happen), but for now, I feel like the feature did improve the dynamic range of the image some and I didn’t have to do as much work.

I should also note that the clouds were moving, yet the in-camera feature managed to match them up across 3 images and then crop the image to the size that worked with the data it had.  While I wasn’t crazy about the cropping, I thought the matching worked very well.

Bed is calling . . .

Getting Rosy as the sun goes down

Getting Rosy as the sun goes down

Super Moon

Moon faintly glowing through Walnut St Bridge

Moon faintly glowing through Walnut St Bridge

I made it back from Monaco and Nice just in time for the super moon.  The super moon refers to when the moon is closer to the earth than usual, resulting in an extra large moon.  The point when the moon is full is the point when it appears the largest.  I’m not sure if this is because the moon is actually the closest to the earth at that point or just the effect of it being a full moon. In any case, I have now chalked up a couple of years of experience shooting full moons.  I remember the words of advice I got from a fellow photographer when I first started shooting full moons.  They were, “Don’t.”  He went on to explain that the full moon is too bright to make an interesting image.  It simply looks like a flat, smooth circle with some gray areas in it compared to the much more pock-marked, three-dimensional moon one can get when shooting a crescent moon.

Moon over the heads of unsuspecting lovers

Moon over the heads of unsuspecting lovers

I experimented with this advice.  I found that he was absolutely right that if you just shoot the moon, once it’s much more than half full, it becomes a very flat, uninteresting rock.  However, I also found that if you shoot the moon rising at the the horizon or going through architectural features or clouds as it rises, it’s much more interesting. Since this discovery, I have attempted to pay attention to when the moon is full (or close enough to full) and where and when it will rise in the hope of getting interesting moonrise images. I’ve gotten a few I like, although there’s always room for improvement.  The hardest part about shooting moonrise is how fast it goes.  While the moon is usually quite late appearing in the sky compared to when the official moonrise is supposed to start, once it appears, the period of time when it’s most interesting to shoot lasts only a few minutes.  The moon moves so quickly that you have to watch your shutter speeds–too slow and you start to get motion blur from the movement of the moon.

Moon over the bridge

Moon over the bridge

On this night, it was a pre-cursor to the actual full moon.  While the moon was fullest the next morning, it was still close enough to full to get a full moon effect both the night before and the night after the moment of total fullness. I decided to walk out to Market St Bridge in the hope of catching people walking in front of the moon on Walnut St bridge.  Unfortunately, low-lying clouds along the horizon prevented the moon from being visible until it was too high for people to be in front of it.  When it finally appeared, it was barely a glow through the haze with the sun still relatively high in the sky (although it was headed towards sunset). It was still beautiful, though.

Wide view of moon, bridge, water, and boats

Wide view of moon, bridge, water, and boats

Human Fireworks

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The theme of fireworks made me think of the chemical fireworks that sometimes ignite between two people. This thought reminded me of a story from my teenage years. It was about someone I didn’t know well, I just knew of her. She was a mother and wife and she went to her high school reunion, reunited with a high school sweetheart and KABOOM! Fireworks.

Fireworks so powerful that she left her husband of over 20 years to marry this man from her past. It was an incident that shocked and dismayed many of the woman’s friends. I believe it was the notion that someone could be so overpowered by a chemical response that they could lose all sense of direction and suddenly wind up on a new course that they found terrifying.

In contrast to this story, my own father was reunited with a woman he went to school with about a year after my mother died. They never dated in school, although she and her husband and my father and mother double-dated in college. The four of them maintained a long distance relationship over the years, exchanging hand-me-downs for each others’ children (I got the daughter’s clothes; her brother got my brother’s clothes), and even visiting a few times when we were children in spite of living many hundreds of miles apart.

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When both her husband and my mother died within 6 months of each other, my father and his friend found support in exchanging emails about the experience, which eventually led to a first date. I never asked if there were fireworks, but I tend to think there were. After all, they saw each other in person for the first time in 20(?) years at the end of May that year, then she came out to visit Dad for their 2nd in-person date in early July. Her second day in town, they showed up on my porch excited to announce their engagement

While I was not prepared at the time to accept that while I was still struggling emotionally with my mother’s death my father was ready to move on, I have come to really love this story. I find it incredibly romantic that two kids who grew up together in the country came together and fell in love 40 years later. I’m happy to report that my father and his wife seem to still have the fireworks going strong 13 years later.

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