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.


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?

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.

Tennessee River Gorge

The height of the river testifies to the amount of rain we've had

The height of the river testifies to the amount of rain we’ve had

When you see stock images from the 4th of July other than fireworks, they all have one thing in common:  sunshine.  It’s so engrained in my memory that the 4th of July is always bright and sunny that I am unable to conjure any memories of a rainy 4th, even though I’m sure there were some.

This year, in spite of the great fortune of having 4 days mostly off work, the weather refused to cooperate.  We had nothing but rain.  Instead of spending 4 days hiking as we’d planned, I ended up working part of the first two days, rearranging the office in the afternoon of the 5th, and then spending the better part of that Saturday hanging shelves in the newly arranged office.

We watched several large logs racing down the rapidly moving water

We watched several large logs racing down the rapidly moving water

Granted, it needed to be done.  I’m very happy that we managed to get the office into some sort of order–I was tired of hunting through baskets on the floor when I needed something.  But, to be honest, it’s not quite what I had in mind when I thought about how I wanted to spend my 4-day weekend.  But, the deep gray skies that continually spouted rain day after day did make it easier to get motivated to work on the office.

On Sunday, the rain gradually eased up to a gentle mist and then evaporated.  The sun popped through the first gap in the clouds we’d seen for days sometime around noon.  When I took Tisen outside, I had no sunglasses or sunscreen on because I’d pretty given up on ever seeing the sun again.  When the sun suddenly appeared, I had to hold my hand over my eyes and squint, worried I’d perhaps turned into a vampire and I would soon turn to dust.

I was worried about Tisen falling into the river while I was shooting

I was worried about Tisen falling into the river while I was shooting

We made a quick decision to take a drive through the Tennessee River Gorge to a place  called, “The Pot House.”  I kid you not.  In fairness, it’s officially called Pot Point House or Pot Point Cabin, but everyone calls it “the pot house” for short–even the parks and recreation department refers to it in the vernacular in some of their web pages.

Even the storm sewer looked navigable via kayak

Even the storm sewer looked navigable via kayak

I have yet to find an explanation as to why the point is called “Pot Point.”  Perhaps the cabin was once the location of a clay pot maker?

Whatever the case may be, the views of the river gorge from Pot House were not quite what I was hoping for.  After snagging a few shots, the sun decided we’d had enough and was quickly replaced with yet another torrential downpour.

One of the 2 turtles we stopped to help cross the road

One of the 2 turtles we stopped to help cross the road

While it didn’t turn out to be quite the photographic opportunity I’d been hoping for, we did get some lovely views of the river gorge (unfortunately mainly at places where it was impossible to pull off the road).  We also assisted two turtles on their journey across the road, stopping to pick them up and put them where we hope they were headed.  They didn’t seem grateful, but it made us feel better.

A stream running down the hillside had turned into a waterfall

A stream running down the hillside had turned into a waterfall

Bird (and other Stuff) Walk

This dragonfly (or is it a damselfly?) appeared to be depositing eggs, but we weren't sure

This dragonfly (or is it a damselfly?) appeared to be depositing eggs, but we weren’t sure

April is primetime for birding.  The number of bird species here increases dramatically during spring migration.  For example, while only a handful of Wood Warblers nest and breed in the Tennessee area, dozens fly through Tennessee (including the Tennessee Warbler) during migration.

False garlic bloomed in the grass

False garlic bloomed in the grass

Spring migration is also easier on those of us with bad eyes.  This is for three primary reasons:

  1. They sing more, making it easier to figure out where they are and, with a bit of practice, to identify which bird it is from its song,
  2. In early spring, there are few leaves for the birds to hide behind, and
  3. The birds are in full breeding plumage, making them (especially the males) much easier to spot and recognize.
Oh how I wanted to trim the branches between me and this Brown Thrasher

Oh how I wanted to trim the branches between me and this Brown Thrasher

Therefore, it only makes sense that we would decide to have a Birdathon in the month of April.  This is a stolen idea from a friend up North who started raising money for the local Audubon chapter up there.  This friend introduced me to birding when she invited her sponsors to go on a bird walk each year as a thank you for contributing.  I guess it stuck–I think the first time I went on a bird walk with her must have been over 15 years ago now.

Trillium was just starting to bloom along the trail

Trillium was just starting to bloom along the trail

In any case, as part of the Birdathon, we are trying to raise money for the Audubon by taking pledges for the number of bird species we identify over a 3 week period.  I am not doing so well.  I don’t think I’ve even gotten up to 50 yet.

Much easier to shoot, this turtle basked in the sun

Much easier to shoot, this turtle basked in the sun

One of the rules is that if a bird is not commonly found in the area, you have to either have a second person who agrees with the ID or a photo of the bird.  This has led to me carrying my DSLR with the 100-400mm lens on it every time I go walking through the park or on an official bird walk.

Evidence that someone got only half a meal--we discovered the back half of a 5-striped skink

Evidence that someone got only half a meal–we discovered the back half of a 5-striped skink

I so want to get some great photos of song birds.  But every time I carry the camera, I end up with tiny shots of song birds up in tree tops.  I need a tree house with a blind to sit behind so I can get up closer to the birds.  Since I don’t think Park and Recreation will approve of me building a birdhouse, I guess I will have to stick to cropping the heck out of my images.

A muskrat surprised us while we looked for birds--I like how it is actually just under the surface of the water

A muskrat surprised us while we looked for birds–I like how it is actually just under the surface of the water

The photos in this post are from 2 bird walks, 2 locations.  One at the park near me and one at Audubon Acres.  I am slightly proud of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s photo–that sucker is a 4 ½” bird and I was not that close–the fact that it’s as sharp as it is even though I cropped it a lot is what I’m proud of.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher busy hunting among the tree tops

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher busy hunting among the tree tops

What strikes me as funny is that I only came back from 3 hours of looking at birds with images of 2 birds–I hope bird photographers are well paid.

These turtles looked like they were in the middle of some sort of dating ritual

These turtles looked like they were in the middle of some sort of dating ritual

Visitors at the Visitor’s Center

Last Saturday, I watched the visitor’s center at Audubon Acres from 9AM-1PM.  It’s one of those volunteer jobs I don’t mind doing, but the visitor’s center isn’t often a busy place.

I guess it’s helpful for a volunteer to be there to deal with visitors who stop by so the various other folks who might be there can work on projects uninterrupted.  The property manager was off running an activity, which was a tour of a wetland at the local VW factory.  I was covered the front desk until he got back.

After taking advantage of the quiet to finish up some work of my own, I got out my camera.  I took the cordless phone with me, staying close enough that I could get back inside before a visitor could pull in, park, and walk in.

Someone had spent quite a bit of time decorating the front of the center for halloween.  They had found or grown giant pumpkins and strategically placed them in front of the center to make it look like a pumpkin patch.  I’ve never seen such large pumpkins.  I thought they were fake until I knocked on them.

A Brown Thrasher perched in the open across the parking lot from the center.  I, of course, couldn’t resist crossing to the other side to see if I could get a shot of him.  Brown Thrashers are amazing teases.  I believe they instinctively recognize a camera even if they’ve never seen one before.  They perch where they can be seen clearly with no obstructions just until the moment when the camera achieves sharp focus.  Then, they hop behind a bunch of leaves, disappearing completely out of the frame and forcing the photographer to take her eye away from the camera to locate said bird again.

Now, this kind of hide-and-seek is expected when you’re shooting a hummingbird or a warbler.  Tiny little birds that move quickly can disappear completely behind a single leaf.  But a Brown Thrasher is a big bird.  It’s bigger than a Robin and has a much longer tail.  It should NOT be able to evade my lens so effectively.  Yet, there it is and there it isn’t.  I rarely get a shot of a thrasher even though I see them almost daily here.  I hear their loud clicking and know they are making fun of me from their favorite hiding spots.

Fortunately for me, although I had no luck getting a shot of a thrasher, I did get to spend a few minutes walking around the property before I left for home.  Within minutes I’d spotted some warblers flitting around in the trees.  The first one I got several shots of was a Magnolia Warbler in fall colors.  The second was a Wilson’s Warbler–one I’ve never seen before.  I love it when I get to add a bird to my life list!  Unfortunately, 400mm is not enough for warblers, so the photos are heavily cropped.

Jumping the Moat

Continued from Lost and Found.

Christmas morning we woke up early and laid there in the dark, realizing we could no longer hear the Gulf slapping the banks of our tiny island.  Even when we held our breath, we couldn’t hear the waves.

When at last dawn lightened the sky, we decided to get up and get an early start in our canoe.  We had about 8 miles of paddling in store for us and we were already sore from paddling yesterday.

When we stepped out of the tent, we discovered our tiny island had become a giant island at low tide.  Actually, it was still a tiny island, but now it was surrounded by a giant moat.  The Gulf was suddenly so far away, it was almost unbelievable last night we were worried our canoe would get washed away by high tide.

We ate breakfast slowly.  We walked around the island and watched the sunrise.  We packed up our campsite.  We loaded up the canoe.  All the while, the water was slowly rising, coming closer, but it still looked hopelessly far away.

Having nothing left to do, we sat and waited.  But then, the wind died and we were sitting ducks for biting insects.  We were suddenly motivated to find a way across the moat, dragon or not.

We slid our canoe along the murky shore while we walked as far as we could on dry land.  We found that the opposite end of the island was closer to deep water than our end, so we edged our way through thick mangroves until we finally stepped into the muck and pushed our canoe and gear through the shallows until there was enough water that we could get in and paddle away.  We were itchy with drying muck as we paddled off into the sun.

We hadn’t been out too long when we saw a strange line of evenly spaced white dots stretched across the horizon.  As the dots got larger, we realized it was a large group of American White Pelicans flying in precise formation, sweeping the surface in search of prey.  They flew to a shoal where a huge conglomeration of pelicans gathered.  That might have been the best Christmas present ever.

When we stopped for lunch somewhere between Rabbit Key and Tiger Key, we discovered a family of Osprey.  The young were nearly the size of their parents and angrily demanded to be fed while their parents seemed to argue that it was time for them to leave their nest.

We arrived at Tiger Key without any navigational hiccups.  But the wind soon died and we discovered “no-see-ums.”  I tried a trick someone told us–smearing baby oil on my exposed skin.  I ended up looking like human fly paper and they still bit me–my skin looked like a basketball.

Thankfully, we managed to keep the bugs out of the tent and fell asleep with smiles on our faces, dreaming of Osprey and Pelicans.

Lost and Found

The first day of our canoeing adventure along the Gulf Coast in the Everglades, I discovered a key difference between canoeing in the Everglades and canoeing down a river.  There’s only one way to get lost when you canoe downstream on a small river:  failure to stop at the pick up point.

Canoeing in the Everglades was a completely different story.  We had a permit to camp on a particular Key each night of our trip.  Our first day, we were supposed to paddle about 7 miles to Rabbit Key.  Unfortunately, we started out heading down the wrong channel through the mangroves.  As we paddled around trying to identify openings between tiny mangrove islands that matched shapes on our map, I realized how little a map drawn from an aerial perspective reflects what land looks like from the water.

As the navigator, I eventually gave up on the map all together, picked a channel that pointed generally Southwest, and took us through the maze of mangroves until we hit the Gulf.  Assuming we were West of our destination, we paddled East.

Paddling along the Gulf Coast through swells of salt water in a canoe identical to the canoes we’d paddled as children was a completely surreal experience in and of itself.  Then, we spotted a dolphin about 50 yards from our canoe.  It was a joyful sort of strange.

After having paddled long and hard in the Gulf (which is not at all like paddling down a river) we decided to break for food and try to locate ourselves on the map.  We figured we might just stay where we were.  We were rapidly running out of daylight and we really wanted to have our campsite setup before dark.

We took a walk around the island we’d stopped on, trying to get a sense of what it might look like on our map.  Fortunately, we stumbled across a sign that identified the Key we had landed on.  It was Rabbit Key, the key we were supposed to spend the night on.  While this was mostly pure luck, Pat was still impressed by my sense of direction (too bad it doesn’t seem to work in the Chattanooga area).

Taking some advice someone had given us, we found a suitable spot to pitch our tent where there was plenty of wind.  Then, we pulled our canoe well up out of the water so it wouldn’t float away at high tide.  We ate quickly and went to bed, exhausted.

In the middle of the night, I woke up and went out to heed the call of nature.  When I looked up at the night sky, I’d never felt so close to the stars.  I’ve been to the top of Maunakea, which is supposed to be one of the best places in the world to see the stars, but here at sea level on a tiny key in the Everglades, it seemed like the stars were within arms reach.  It was astonishing.

Mimosa Anyone?

For those of us who appreciate an excuse to drink champagne for breakfast, a mimosa is a tasty beverage that someone invented most likely because they spent too much money on a bad bottle of champagne (my apologies to any French readers, I really mean sparkling white wine that may or may not be from the Champagne region of France) and didn’t want to waste it.  Sweetening up sparkling wine with orange juice was a stroke of genius in my opinion.

But it does not explain how it got its name.  For that, I am forced to google.  Apparently, I have never had a mimosa that was made correctly–they are supposed to have a foamy head that resembles the flower on the mimosa tree.

In Ohio, the crabapple trees bloom fantastically in the early spring.  But I can’t remember ever being over powered by their smell.  And they burst into blossoms that seem to disappear within a week.

This is my first spring where mimosa’s are common.  In Ohio, you might discover this strange tree tucked into a protected corner of someone’s garden, but I can’t recall ever seeing one in the wild.  Here in Tennessee, they start a sneak attack with their sweet scent.  I walked through the park smelling the perfume in the air for days before I finally figured out what it was.  That was at least 2 weeks ago–they are still blooming like mad.

Unlike the crabapples, the mimosa trees tend to be tall, keeping their blooms out of reach.  This makes them a bit of a photographic challenge.  And, as you may know by now, I seem to gravitate towards challenges.  But it’s not the challenge of capturing them from a distance that attracts me, it’s the way the light hits them in the evening, suddenly spotlighting their pink foam flowers in golden light.

I may have to get a ladder and go back for some close-ups.  I wonder what the maintenance crew would do if they saw me carrying a step ladder?

I spotted a small mimosa tree down by the river.  The best time to shoot it would be around 8AM when the sun is still low but high enough above the Eastern horizon to send a few rays over the steep bank above the tree.  But, I decided evening would be a good time to experiment with my flash outdoors.

I set up my flash on a stand so I could put it as close to the tree as possible while I shot further back and to the side enough to keep the flash out of my frame.  However, if there is any light on the mimosa, it’s because I lightened it in post-processing, not because the flash threw so much as a single random shiny spot on it.  A disappointing experiment.

The good news is that the mimosas seem to just keep on blooming.  Maybe I’ll get a chance for that close up over the weekend.

New Camera, Same Photographer

I love amazing shots of lightening. Perhaps because I’ve never managed to capture one? I have tried many times, but I always miss. At one of the workshops I attended recently, they mentioned a few tips on how to capture lightening, and then, not having any opportunities, I forgot about it.

But, at last, as I was sitting on the couch reading the instructions for my new 5D Mark III the other evening, a brilliant flash lit up the sky. I grabbed the tripod and set my camera up on the balcony, attempting to remember those tips.

I tried a low ISO with a small aperture and a very long shutter speed. I tried a high ISO with a small aperture and a fast shutter speed. Then I remembered the suggestion to set the shutter on bulb (stays open until you close it). Of course, I hadn’t gotten that far in the instructions yet and the bulb setting isn’t where it was on my 40D, so I went with 30 seconds.

This led to several images that looked like it was daylight out except for the streaks of the car lights.
You may have noticed by now that none of the photos in the gallery actually contain any lightening. At least not obvious lightening. I think part of the problem was that the lightening was so far behind cloud cover that it wasn’t bright enough to make a huge difference in the exposure. While the clouds lit up like paper lanterns to my eye, the difference in light over a 30 second exposure was too subtle for my camera.

This theory led to me remembering another tip.

The tip was to cover the lens with a piece of paper or your hand and uncover it only when the lightening flashes. In case you were wondering what the dark shadow is over some of my shots, that’s my hand. Apparently, I didn’t actually cover the entire lens, so I have some fun finger shadows. I can see this turning into a whole new style of shooting. Look forward to many photos with animal shadows cast over them in the future!

I thought if I could block all light until the moment when the lightening was flashing, maybe the difference would be great enough to capture the flickering clouds.
I think I need to try this again with a different way of covering the lens to see if my theory has any merit.

Another thing I would like to try is shooting lightening from out in the country where there is little ambient light. The street lights in my neighborhood contribute to the problem, I believe.

I googled shooting lightening to see what other tips I could find. The biggest one I hadn’t considered before–and perhaps the skill I most lack–is to be patient.

I guess I was secretly hoping my new camera would magically solve these kinds of difficulties for me. Next time, I’ll upgrade the photographer instead of the camera.