Taking Stock

It’s officially been 2 months since my leave of absence began. I thought it would be a good time to enumerate both the new lessons I’ve learned and the old lessons that have  resurfaced as particularly relevant to this major shift in my life.

  1. Your time will fill. No matter how much you have to do or how long you think you have to do it, time will pass more quickly than you expected and you will get less done than you planned.
  2. It doesn’t matter how much of an out-of-the-box thinker you are; if there is no box, you can’t think outside of it.
  3. When you have a mile-long list of things to do and believe you have only a fraction of the time you need to get them done, you manage your time far more judiciously than when you have a short list of things to do and believe you have all day. (See #1.)
  4. There is always more opportunity than capacity.
  5. When one thing has been your biggest time investment for a long time, when you pull it out of your schedule, everything that surrounded it collapses on top of each other and you have to scratch and claw your way through the crap to shove in something new and get all the little stuff safely held at bay.
  6. Staying busy is not the hard part. It’s staying busy doing the important things instead of the distracting things that’s hard. (See #1.)
  7. Just because something must be done urgently doesn’t mean it should be done at all.
  8. I really mind a dirty house less than I mind cleaning it.
  9. We treat people we have an intimate personal relationship with like someone we have an intimate personal relationship with even when the topics are professional–it takes effort not to hear “I don’t love you” when you disagree.
  10. Working with your spouse is an opportunity to better your overall relationship. Creating artificial lines between your personal and professional relationship is only lying to yourself. The two roles are inseparable and must feed one another, driving both a closer, more intimate relationship and more creative energy from the feeling of being on the same team working towards the same goals.
  11. Sleep helps. This is theoretical. I used reverse logic: lack of sleep makes everything harder. Therefore, I believe that if I someday get enough sleep, it will make everything easier.
  12. Every day we have the opportunity to be more focused, more productive, more playful, more creative, more effective, more attuned to our health, and to get more sleep. We probably won’t do all of these things in the same day, however.
  13. At the end of the day, it’s you. There is only you and what you did and didn’t get done, whether what you did made a difference, and whether that difference is the difference you intended. Ultimately, there is not, and really never has been, anyone else to blame.
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Fall Creek Falls


Last weekend, while Pat was working, I made a random decision to get out for a hike after far too long a hiatus from the woods. Hiking and sanity are directly correlated. Without a regular dose of time in the woods, I find myself wound too tight and forgetting what’s really important in life.

We found ourselves driving up to Fall Creek Falls, a park NE of Chattanooga (of course, practically all of Tennessee is NE of Chattanooga) in one of the many beautiful parts of Tennessee–the Cumberland Plateau. Different from the Smokies, the Cumberland Plateau has amazing gorges that catch you by surprise–one moment you’re in the woods and the next you’re standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking an enormous “gulf.” Even driving into the Cumberland Plateau area is breath-taking. There were several times when I wanted to pull off the highway to get shots of rocky cliffs and mountains surrounding the freeway.

Tisen and I headed straight to Cane Creek Falls to start our adventure. I got to make good use of my polarizer given that it was about the worst lighting of the day. But, I had fun playing with shutter speeds and rapidly moving water. I can never decide if I like frozen droplets or smooth flows of water better.

We walked to Fall Creek Falls through the woods. As is often true at crowded parks, you don’t have to get more than a ½ a mile down the trail before the crowds disappear. I don’t know where everyone disappears to, exactly, but sometimes I suspect there is a black hole somewhere between the paved, accessible path and the “unimproved” trails that take a person more than a 10 minute walk to explore.

I’m not complaining. I’m happy to have to share the trail only with Tisen. We walk together well, thinking mostly about the next footstep and what birds we hear. Although Tisen may also think about squirrels and the dogs he smells evidence of along the way.

I was surprised to discover I am out of shape. I don’t know why this would surprise me, but I guess it’s hard to remember that being in shape is not a permanent state. I found myself breathless as we made our way up a steep hill from the bottom of the Cane Creek Falls to the top of a cliff that would eventually wind around and provide a nice view of Fall Creek Falls. Even Tisen was happy to slow down and rest from time to time.

The rhythm of foot falls and crunching leaves set to a chorus of birdsongs all in the setting of a 70+ degree day of sunshine made for good medicine. Tisen and I enjoyed the views and I enjoyed shooting, but the medicinal part of being in the woods is just that: being in the woods.

If fatigue is any way to judge to a hike, I’d say this one went pretty darn well.

Play

Last weekend, Pat hauled Tisen and me up to Signal Point park for a short walk to the overlook. I figured it was a good time to do some shooting.

The trouble with overlooks is the limited options for landscape shots. I’ve shot from the Signal Point overlook so many times that I’ve run out of landscape options. When the sky doesn’t do anything spectacular, it doesn’t help.

This time, I decided to play a bit. I’ve decided that’s what I need more of: play. Not just for photography, but for life in general. When I say “play,” I don’t mean playing structured games with rules that one applies so that one “wins.” That’s not play. That’s competition.

What I mean by “play” harkens back to the feeling of getting a brand new box of crayons as a child. Or, even better, when my mother used to make up a batch of play dough (she didn’t cook much that was edible, but she sure could make play dough). These were moments when possibility presented itself and possibility seemed infinite.
With no preconceived notions about what I was supposed to draw or mold and not worried about anyone judging my creation, possibility really was infinite.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown references research by Dr. Stuart Brown on the importance of play. Brene summarizes Dr. Brown’s research as finding “play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation.” She goes on to say that one of the properties of play identified by Dr. Brown is that it is purposeless.

When is the last time you did something purposeless? I look at the long list of activities I’ve engaged in over the past 20 years and I cannot help but notice that they all came with goals. Hang gliding was the first activity I pursued goalessly since before I went to college. Even at that, I still had a goal of flying off the training hills.

But last Sunday, I managed to set aside my desire to get “great” shots and flopped down on the ground next to the first daffodils I’ve seen this year. There is something fundamentally wonderful about rolling around on the ground and not worrying about getting dirty. When I have a camera in my hands, I feel like I have permission to get dirty. Sometimes I forget I haven’t actually dressed appropriately and come home with mud on the knees of expensive jeans. I think it’s worth it.

So, there I was, lying in the dirt with a sudden sense of exploration instead of pressure. Just like pulling a new color out of a box of Crayolas and seeing what it looks like on paper for the first time, I paid attention to what happened when I did different things instead of worrying about whether my images would stand up to anyone else’s critique. It was fun. Really fun.

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?

Tail Wag

The other night,  I sat at my desk trying to wrap up a few last things.  My dog decided I had already been working too long.  He came over, tail wagging, playfully bouncing, and stuck his nose under my mouse hand, knocking it away from the mouse.  When I turned toward him, he jumped up to put his front paws in my lap and started licking my face and pushing at me with his head, clearly trying to motivate me to get out of my chair.

When I stood up, he started racing around in circles, tail going so fast I thought it might fall off. I couldn’t help but smile as we began our evening routine.

Even though I don’t leave for work physically, I leave mentally.  My dog has tuned into my work day and mostly just naps near by during the hours he’s come to expect me to be working.  But when he needs to go out or is just tired of being ignored, he won’t take no for an answer.  He’s become my alarm dog, telling me when it’s time to take a break if not put work away for the night.

I am reminded of something a friend said to me once about how people should greet each other the way dogs greet their people.  That if we would dance around with wagging tails when we were reunited with friends, we would probably all be happier.  It occurs to me that if we were all as willing to express our feelings and our needs so unambiguously, we’d probably all be a lot happier, too.

I rarely know what I need.  Even really basic stuff like needing to use the restroom.  I will be in the midst of my day hopping from one conference call to the next and have a vague notion that perhaps I should take care of one of life’s most basic and unavoidable needs and then forget until, hours later, comes a sudden moment of urgency that cannot be denied or postponed.

Not knowing what I need makes it nearly impossible to ask for it.  I am surprised and delighted every time my husband magically appears to deposit lunch in front of me.  Realizing I forget to notice when I’m hungry, my husband makes sure I have something to eat without me having to stick my nose under his mouse hand.  I think it’s the most romantic gesture there is, except maybe when he does laundry.

But since he often shows up with lunch in the middle of my work day while I’m in the middle of doing work, I don’t jump up and run around in circles wagging my tail.  He’s lucky if I make eye contact with him and smile before he returns to his own busy day.  Perhaps I will give that a try on Monday.  Note to self: jump up, wag tail, run around in circles excitedly when Pat brings me lunch.

Many Views

A common expression in corporate conversations is “taking a 30,000 foot view” or some such derivation that might also be expressed as “looking at the forest instead of the trees.”  Often, the follow up comments include something along the lines of, “but the devil is always in the details.”

When you look at a map, you can lay out a course that takes you in the most direct line to where you want to go.  But when you get on the road, street signs are missing or roads are closed and sometimes you find yourself well off-course in spite of your plan.  Even with technology, sometimes the GPS thinks a private road is a public one and advises me to drive through locked gates.  As it turns out, the most direct route is often not the easiest.

On my recent trip to Portland, we went on a little venture to the Washington coast and Astoria, Oregon.  We stopped at overlooks, visited lighthouses, and went up to the Astoria Tower.  Each of these vantage points provides a different view.  The ocean forms waves that slide smoothly up onto the beach while they batter and splash against craggy coastline cliffs only a hundred yards away.  From our thousand foot view (give or take), neither looks particularly harrowing or dangerous, but because we’ve been up close to both situations, we can readily guess which one would be the best place to, say, try to land a boat.

I am reminded of a presenter who once talked about the tendency to rely on historical information when deciding what to do next.  He said, “you can’t drive while you’re looking in your rearview mirror.”  I’d like to think we all check our mirrors every once in a while.  Without metaphorically checking our rearview mirror, we might think we could land safely amongst the rocks.  And without a map, we might not know if we went 100 yards further, we could land smoothly in the sand.

As we stood on the grounds of the Astoria Tower, I imagined Lewis and Clark for a second time that day.  I imagined being the creator of the map for previously uncharted lands.  I imagined explorers standing and staring at the river below as it makes its final turn before colliding with the Pacific Ocean.  I wondered if they were able to predict how long it would take to get from where they stood to the river shore.  I wondered how many surprises they encountered once underway.

I suppose life has not changed much if you look at it from 100,000 feet.  In spite of the myriad of gadgets that make navigation easier, we still must each create our own map for our lives.  The endless number of choices we now face can overwhelm even the most intrepid explorer.  When you come down to the 100 foot level or so, the main difference between then and now is probably that we do far more exploring from a seated position.

Dismal Nitch

This week has been another vacation week (I got a bit behind on using my vacation days this year).  This time, I left Pat and Tisen at home and travelled out to visit family in Portland, Oregon.  Portland is one of my favorite parts of the US–this is a trip I look forward to every year.

While visiting the Oregon coast, we stopped at Dismal Nitch across from Astoria, Oregon.  Dismal Nitch is an easy rest stop to access these days–a long, long bridge from Astoria to Washington makes it a really interesting drive with fantastic views.

But, when it was named by the Lewis and Clark expedition, it was no picnic.  Traveling by boat, the craggy harbor became a dangerous place for the explorers and their team.  They were stuck out in the rain for 6 days, waiting for the weather to clear so they could safely navigate the rocks and other hazards that have made this area among the most dangerous waters in the country.

I pause as we stand along the fence at the rest area, looking out at the Cormorants, Seagulls, and Pelicans.  The face of a seal suddenly pops through the surface of the water.  I stand there wishing I had my 100-400mm lens.

And then, it occurs to me, I feel mired.  I think about Lewis and Clark sitting in that same spot, cold, wet, and probably hungry.  I think about them bobbing about on rough seas and waiting out the stormy weather.  I wonder if they felt it was hopeless.  I wonder how long they were prepared to wait before making their move.  I wonder if they saw seals and pelicans and thought of them as signs of hope.  All of this flashes through my mind as I realize the difference between me and people like Lewis and Clark is that they took the safest course for the duration of a storm and then moved on.  I seem to confuse safety with long-term direction.

I took some photos of the dismal nitch.  The clouds gray and swirling above relatively still water created a nearly monochromatic scene.  I stared out over the waters, hiding the dangers of shoals and debris that had sunk more than its share of ships.  It looked so peaceful.  Tranquil.  A cormorant stood on the stump of what might once have been a pier, spreading its wings and flapping them.  He couldn’t wait for them to dry so he might fly again.

Perhaps we are all like the cormorant.  We dive in, get wet, and then have to hang out and dry out before we can jump back in.  Perhaps some of us have to hang out longer than others before we’re willing to take the next plunge.  I metaphorically flap my wings and wonder just what kind of drying time to expect.  By my count, they’ve been drying for at least 8 years.  I find myself wondering if the Cormorant ever forget how to swim.