Plane Food

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I suspect I am drunk. I am on a plane. I arrived late for my connection, meaning I didn’t have time to eat. I had skipped breakfast. So, at 30,000 feet or so, I had a glass of wine on a stomach with nothing but a tiny, quarter handful of peanuts in it. Between the altitude and the empty stomach, it’s possible my judgement is impaired.

Evidence in favor is that I discovered my salad had a clear plastic lid over it when I dispensed salad dressing on top of said lid.

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Further evidence includes that I ate every morsel of my plane food thinking it was one of the finer meals I’ve had. I chowed down on the plastic-wrapped roll (I did remove the plastic wrap first, thank-you-very-much) with what butter I could scrape out of the plastics container thinking it tasted fantastic. I even ate the iceberg lettuce salad without feeling like someone should take some nutrition classes.

What’s most alarming is that when they came back around with the drink cart, I asked for a second glass of wine!

Fortunately for me, I am sitting next to a sweet, older lady who doesn’t seem to suspect a thing. Although, I think I caught her casting a glance when half of my cracker fell into my lap due to a mis-timed bite.

Speaking of cracker, I was eating the aforementioned cracker with cheese. Not fancy, aged, unpasteurized cheese from France (as one might reasonably expect on a flight to Paris) but rather smooth, slightly plasticine Tilamook cheese from good old Oregon, USA.

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I enjoy Tillamook Cheese–I’ve even been there in person and done the factory tour–but let’s face it. Americans really have little patience when it comes to producing things that require time to ripen and age. We don’t even let our fruits and vegetables ripen before we load them on the truck and ship them off to market.

But what’s remarkable about this is that I really enjoyed the Tillamook cheese. Maybe not so remarkable–I’m an American; I can even enjoy eating Kraft American Cheese. But it’s the degree to which I’m enjoying it that’s so surprising. It tastes like something rare and remarkable.

Oh dear, I’ve forgotten all about my fireworks theme! Perhaps I’ll have some of that second glass of wine . . .

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Above Infinity

Now that the heat has returned to Chattanooga, it seems like the perfect time to re-live part of our trip to Glacier National Park a couple years ago, where it was cool enough that it even snowed.

We started in Portland, visiting my dad, jumped on a train to Seattle where we met some friends.  Then, we went on across the continent (or so it seemed) overnight until we arrived at the tiny West Glacier train station.

Deposited at the depot so early in the morning that it wasn’t open yet, we stood on the asphalt area that served as a platform. surrounded by our rolling luggage.  We looked around in wonder.

By the time we discovered our rental car hadn’t been dropped off for us, got picked up by the rental company, and were outfitted with a four-wheel drive vehicle that was twice as big as anything I’d ever driven, we’d seen enough to be reminded why we love the Rockies.

But these Rockies seemed . . . rockier.  More rugged, bigger, bolder somehow than the Rockies of Colorado or Alberta.  But then again, I think I feel that way every time I return to the Rockies, no matter which part.

Our friends were only staying a couple of nights and then they were heading back without us.  Since they weren’t hikers, we took advantage of having a couple of non-hiking days to adjust to the altitude by doing things like driving to overlooks and walking on gentle paths around lakes.  There was an amazing amount of beauty to take in without pulling any muscles.

When we drove past a helicopter tour place, we girls were determined to get the guys on the copter.  I have often skipped helicopter tours opting to spend my money on a nice dinner with a decent bottle of wine instead.   But I always regretted skipping the helicopter tour in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  This time, I wasn’t about to miss it.

I laugh as I remember how hesitant the guys were to join us.  I really think they wanted to save the money.  I don’t think either one regretted having spent it by the time we landed.

There is something so spectacular about mountains.  To see them from above, with clouds nestling below their peaks . . . I imagine scenes from Greek mythology of the gods having a meeting or perhaps playing chess.  If I were immortal, this is definitely where I would hang out.

I cannot logically explain the effect mountains have on me, but I think it’s a common experience.  That sense of awe, grandeur, amazement.  The sudden stillness that follows the feeling of inspiration.  Feeling part of something bigger than my imagination. Perhaps a sense of being part of something infinite–the world seems so endless from a mountain top.

I wish these few photos contained that feeling.  Unfortunately, these are very low resolution versions of the originals (which, I hope, are stored away in an archive somewhere).

The Musings of a Passenger

It’s our final day in the Smokies.  Checkout time is at 11:00AM and I have a massage scheduled at 11:00AM.  As it turns out, it’s the last day the lodge will be open for the season.  Having fed us all breakfast, packed us all one last lunch for the road, and checked us all out, they are closing down the lodge for the winter.  I feel a little bad about the timing of my massage, but since I didn’t pick the time, I decide not to worry about it.

Pat takes another walk out to sunrise point while I head off to the massage room with the massage therapist.  After he walks, he will sit in the lodge lobby, in front of the giant fire place, reading something from the large library accumulated there.

The massage is wonderful.  I feel like jelly afterwards, oozing back into my clothes, out into the cold, and into the car.  It’s a nice state to go for a ride in, actually.  I try to sit so I’m not hunching up my shoulders, maintaing the state of relaxation I’ve obtained.  I look out the windows and absorb the limited view with little going on in my head (for once) besides the occasional reminder to relax a muscle that’s tightened up again.  After several minutes, Pat asks me if I’m sleeping.  I laugh at this–like I must be asleep if I am this relaxed.

I rouse myself a little.  Enough to engage in conversation with Pat.  I try to keep part of my mind checking in to make sure I’m staying relaxed periodically.  This gets a little tricky as we wind our way along the Cherahola Skyway where a storm apparently went through last night.  Fallen trees and other debris surprise us around many curves.  Fortunately, any of the trees that were all the way across the road have been cut and hauled away by now.  I find myself wondering if Snowbird Mountain was not hit by the storm or if we just slept through it.

The thick fog makes the views limited today.  I’m grateful that we had a couple of days of great visibility to see the spectacular views.  While I’ve never been one to go for scenic drives unless it was on the way to somewhere else, on a clear day, this drive is one that would be well worth going out of the way for.  Even from the car, it makes you feel connected to the world around you in a spectacular way.

One of the things that has caught both Pat and me by surprise since moving to Chattanooga is how beautiful this part of the country really is.  Even though we have both been to this region many times earlier in our lives, we both sort of dismissed it.  Perhaps it’s like the way we tend to mind our manners less with people we know will continue to love us anyway–the Smokies were accessible.  You would think this would make them more desirable, but we both tended to prefer trips out West when we started planning vacations.  The Rockies and Sierra Nevadas seemed far more appealing than the Smokies.

Now, discovering another incredibly beautiful place nearly every time we turn a corner, I feel dismayed that we missed earlier opportunities to more fully explore this area of the country.  Like I’ve been a bad friend, taking the Smokies for granted, thinking they would be there waiting for me to find time for them.  As it turns out, they did.  But, to use a photography analogy, I previously saw “the Smokies” through a wide angle lens–a single scene to take in one shot.  I now see “the Smokies” through a macro lens–an infinite collection of possibilities, each with their own virtues.  I don’t have enough life left to see the things I now want to see just in this area.  Then again, I suppose even a full lifetime wouldn’t be enough time anyway.

This causes me to ponder the whole concept of being nomadic.  If the purpose is to see and experience new things, can’t that be achieved while standing in one place?  After all, when I get out my macro lens, I discover the closer I get to a subject, the more of its details that are revealed, the more magnificent my subject seems.  Each time I experience this, I am awed by the things I never noticed before.

Here is an example of a Katydid (I think), which I normally would just see as a large, green bug, but its beauty is revealed in its intricate details and varying colors when viewed up close:

I am reminded of an experience I had back in Columbus that I may have mentioned before.  I used to ride my bike to work regularly.  My favorite part of the ride was the short stretch along the Olentangy multi-use trail.  I would enter a section of the trail that was in thick woods.  Then, the woods fell away abruptly to an open field that had been turned into a prairie habitat, full of wild flowers.  I could hear the birds all around me and I felt certain there were birds all over the flowers in that field, but I could never see any.

Then, on a Sunday, I went roller blading on the same trail.  At that speed, I was able to see some song sparrows and goldfinches popping in and out among the flowers.  I was surprised I didn’t see more birds, though.

One day, on a weekend, I went for a walk and ended up strolling through the prairie.  I spotted motion and stopped and stood still to better see.  When I stopped moving, it was like a curtain lifted.  For the first time, I saw that the prairie was buzzing (literally) with life–bees, hummingbirds, several types of sparrows, chipmunks, mosquitos, so many forms of life moving all around me that I couldn’t begin to count them all.  But I had to stand still to notice they were there.

I suppose, as is true of virtually everything in life, it’s all about balance.  A balance between seeing the forest and seeing the trees means a balance between moving and standing still.  A balance between seeking and finding means a balance between dreaming and realizing.  I wonder how you know when you’ve found the balance point?

Sunny Black Friday

It’s the day after Thanksgiving.  For some people, going to the malls before dawn and waiting in lines is the best way to spend this day.  Our agenda is the extreme opposite.  We start by sleeping in.  Well, maybe not exactly sleeping.  I wake up earlier than I’d like, but I simply lay in bed and refuse to get up.  I’m not sure exactly what is so wonderful about being able to just lay in bed knowing you don’t have to go anywhere, but it is.

Of course, I eventually get hungry and start thinking about breakfast.  Pat is also awake and lounging.  We clean up enough to be presentable and then head to the dining room.  After a leisurely breakfast, we return to our room to change and pack for hiking.  We have no grand plans today.  I get out the notebook in the room provided by the lodge that has a section on nearby trails.

We overheard the innkeepers parents talking about Huckleberry Knob as a short hike with a spectacular view.  Today promises to be a clear and sunny day, so this seems like a good choice.  The hike is listed in the notebook.  Since it’s only 2 miles round trip, I select a second hike that’s 4 miles round trip that also goes to a high spot with a great view.

As we leave, we pick up our brown bag lunches from the cooler next to the lodge door.  They don’t serve lunch in their restaurant, but they pack everyone a lunch in either a brown bag or a backpack to take with them.

I decide to try my fivefingers trekking shoes on the first trail since it is short.  I want to test whether my feet will be warm enough to wear them on a longer hike or not.  If a trail isn’t very rocky, is dry, and the ground isn’t too cold, I prefer my trekking shoes.  But it is late November and my feet can get painfully cold.  I decide the first trail is a good test because it’s long enough that my feet will have time to warm up and short enough that I won’t be miserable for long if they don’t.

The trail is actually a forestry access road that’s wide and flat with ruts in it.  In many places, it’s still puddled and muddy from recent rains.  I do my best to walk around the mud, but the tiniest bit of moisture seeps into my shoes, soaking my feet.  Each time my feet get wet, they get very cold.  With movement, they warm up until I get to the next puddle.  I’m glad that I choose a short trail to try them on.

While the walk to the first “knob” is not particularly interesting, or if it is, I was so busy watching for mud that I missed it, the view from the knob is amazing.  If the mountains had snow covered peaks in the distance, I would feel like we were on the set of The Sound of Music.

The first knob has a view of the second knob, which appears far away.  A huge cross looms up on the hill and we wonder what’s up there.  We enjoy the view a bit longer and then continue up to Huckleberry Knob.  We are upon it in no time–the distance is far less than what we thought from down below.  Oddly, the giant cross turns out to be a rather small.  So much so that we walk around the knob looking for the giant cross we saw from below.  I just recently relearned that looking up at something makes it appear larger, but this seems ridiculous.  Neither one of us can believe the 3’ cross that marks the grave of a man that died by getting drunk on the mountain and dying of exposure is the same cross we saw from below, but it has to be.

We run into a couple of women we saw at breakfast who are also enjoying the view.  We take turns taking pictures of each other.  It’s an incredibly beautiful day, but it’s noon and the lighting is not good for taking pictures.

Pat and I sit on the side of the knob for a while, looking at the sky and the mountains below.  It’s nice to just relax here for a bit.  After a while, we decide to walk back and go on to our next hiking destination, Mud Gap.

While Pat drives us to the next trail head, I slip out of my shoes and prop my feet up near the defrost vents so they can dry before I switch to my socks and boots for the next hike.  We eat our brown bag lunch while we drive and finish it in the parking lot at the trailhead.  Two other vehicles are in the parking lot.  One is a small pickup truck with Sierra Club stickers on it.  The other is a big pickup truck with an older man in an orange vest in it.  He is hunting.  It’s a little nerve wracking to realize we’re out hiking in a national forest the first official day of deer season.  It occurs to me we really should be wearing orange.  Fortunately, the trail is another well known trail that’s easily identified, so hopefully that will reduce our chances of being mistaken for deer.

We pause at the sign in the parking lot before heading up the trail.  I learn that this is actually part of the Benton-MacKaye trail.  This will be the second time I’ve hiked on part of this 275-mile trail that starts at the same point as the Appalachian trail, loops around, and then reconnects with the Appalachian trail in Smoky Mountain National Park.

As we study the sign, the hunter calls out to us.  He tells us about the hike, the view, and an alternate route that allows you to drive almost to the knob.  As we thank him and start walking, he calls out loudly, “I’m 77 years old; if I can walk up there, y’all sure can!”  We laugh and agree as we continue on our way.

As we make our way up the wet and rocky first 100 yards or so of the trail, I decide switching to my waterproof hiking boots was a good idea.  Pat interrupts my thoughts with, “How would that guy get a deer out of here if he shot one?”  We continue to contemplate that question as the trail gets steeper, rockier, and wetter.  I finally say, “Maybe he’s one of those guys that really just wants an excuse to go hiking.”

As we continue, we pause every once in a while to listen.  Sometimes we hear birds or squirrels, but more often, what we hear is the wind.  It starts like a far away swell, gathering in the distance.  Then it rolls its way up the side of the mountain, rising towards us as it gradually gets louder and louder.  Finally, it crashes over us and lifts my hair off my face.  The experience is like standing on the beach as the tide rolls in without getting wet.  I could stand and listen to the rise and fall of the wind all day, but we start moving again after the current wave starts to recede.

When we arrive at the knob, we are startled to see that it is littered with trash.  Then, two piles of trash jump up and start running towards us with wagging tails and a third assimilates itself into a man sitting up suddenly after having been caught in a nap.  As it turns out, it’s a couple with two dogs who have blankets and picnic gear with them.  We assume they are the owners of the Sierra Club pick up truck.

The dogs greet us and we pet them as the owners try to call them away.  I never know what to do in these circumstances.  The owners want the dogs to listen, but we want to pet the dogs.  Since these don’t seem like people who will abuse their dogs for being friendly, we go with petting them.

After being welcomed to the knob, we settle down on the side of it, slightly downhill from the Sierra Club couple and their dogs.  I work my way around the circumference, shooting the panoramic views even though the light isn’t any better than it was at Huckleberry knob.  I’m so happy to have finally gone somewhere with a spectacular view on a day when it’s clear.  Usually we only go to high spots on cloudy or foggy days.  I guess it pays to check the weather before you pick a hiking trail.

After shooting the view, we lay in the short, dormant grass on the knob and stare at the blue sky.  It’s so blue that I have a hard time focusing on it.  Not a single trace of cloud gives my eyes something to tell what an edge is.  I feel like the lens of my camera when I point it at a solid-colored surface.  I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that before.

As we lay there, Harry the dog suddenly appears standing over Pat’s head.  Apparently he was worried about us when he saw us lay down.  Pat pets him and he wags his tail.  Convinced we’re OK, he returns to his owners.

We get up and attempt to brush the dead grass off our shirts, but it really wants to stick to us.  We make our way back to the car, pausing to see a downy woodpecker, a grasshopper, and a squirrel.  By the time we get back down to the parking lot, my knees are starting to ache and I’m wondering if I should have worn my trekking shoes after all.  My feet are warm and dry, though, so I won’t be able to decide which was better until I know how long my knees will hurt.

We return to the van, hot inside from the sun.  We strip off some of our extra layers, extraneous in this sunshine.  We climb into the warm van and I am transported to the feeling of getting into a hot car after spending a summer day at the local swimming pool.  I love that feeling.  Any part of my skin that feels chilled suddenly feels like it’s been wrapped in a blanket.

We return to the lodge before sunset–enough time to shower, change, and sit and relax before dinner.  This has been a perfect day.  No crowds.  No traffic.  Just beautiful weather and a great view.  Sometimes I think that’s all I really need.

Throwing In

It’s Monday again.  I get up early, still hurting from Saturday’s adventure on the hang gliding hills.  As I unkink my body getting out of bed, I feel grateful that it’s not a workout day.  I vow that I will take a walk, however, in the hope of loosening up my sore muscles.

Since I also discover that there is no food in the house, I talk Pat into taking a short walk through the park and then a detour to the grocery store.  As we walk through the aisles trying to decide what we need, we realize that we are leaving tomorrow.  We limit ourselves to just enough food for breakfast, hoping the last of the milk will go far enough for two bowls of cereal.

Today is full of meetings.   Meetings where I have to pay attention the whole time, if not actually run the call.  I work late trying to get the things done I couldn’t get done during the day.  As it gets later, I get more stressed, realizing that I have personal work to do to get ready to leave tomorrow, too.

For one, I need to get the photos I will use in my blog ready before I go on the road.  I ran into issues with my photos exceeding my hard drive space on my (in tech years) ancient macbook pro.  After repeatedly spending hours cleaning out extra photos trying to make more space, I finally got tired of it and bought a mac mini server with a total of 1TB of drive space.  I thought I would move everything except my pictures and still have my photos on my laptop.

That didn’t work out.  I still kept running my 120GB drive out of space.  Funny out big 120GB sounded when I bought my macbook pro.

When I downloaded Aperture, Apple’s photo editing software, it turned out to be the final domino.  Not only did Aperture motivate me to start shooting in RAW again, which increased the file size of my photos by a factor of 3, but it also had all kinds of performance problems with my laptop’s 2GB of memory.

Not wanting my mac mini to go to waste, I moved my photo library and Aperture to it and started using it for photo processing.  This, however is not the best set up for a nomad into digital photography and blogging.  It means my pictures are all on a box sitting at home.  Although the server is small enough that I have taken it with me on a couple of road trips, packing a monitor is not practical and trying to use Aperture using “share screens” from my macbook pro is just painfully slow.

I would love to hear if there are other digital-photographer-want-to-be nomads out there who struggle with their IT setup and how they cope.

Today, my tactic is to plan ahead so that the photos I want to use during my trip are already uploaded to my blog site.  It’s been dark a while and the clock is telling me I’m running out of time.  I wrap up the critical things I need to do for work as quickly as I can and then get to work on my pictures.

I cut corners on my photo processing–I make faster decisions about which pictures to use, I don’t give them meaningful titles, and I don’t do much in the way of adjusting. Then I go through the process of exporting them all to small JPEG files and uploading them to wordpress.  Viola!  All pictures for the next 6 days ready to roll.

But, having packed for my blog, I now have to pack for me.  As someone whose job used to be described as a “road warrior” job, I have taken pride in my ability to pack light and quickly.  Part of the joy of traveling for me has come from my ability to minimize the difficulty of packing and hauling crap from one place to another.  Unfortunately, this nomad thing seems to complicate my traveling requirements significantly.

First, there is the fact that we drive most places.  Having a mini-van (or even just a small car) invites me to consider everything I might possibly want to have with me vs looking at what I can fit into one small carry-on and a small backpack.  Second, I feel compelled to take my camera bag at least.  Since I have yet to shoot while on a trip back to Columbus, I talk myself into leaving my heaviest lens and tripod at home as a compromise.  Third, I plan to workout with the group in Columbus, which means I need a workout bag so I can take the stuff I need to get ready for work at the gym.  Fourth, my IT needs have to be met for both home and work, meaning two laptops, an iPad, iPhone, Verizon MiFi, and all the associated power supplies.

I look at my laptop bag, laptop backpack, camera bag, and workout bag piled on the floor and shake my head.  It looks like I’m moving.  Then, I realize I haven’t actually packed any clothes yet.

I am stumped.  What clothes do I need for this trip?  The office clothes are easy enough.  But I have to check the weather forecast to decide what else to bring.  Now I’m in a panic because it’s 11PM, I’m still packing and we’re planning to get an early start in the morning.

I start the behavior that always results in poor packing; I call it “throwing in.”  This is when you stop thinking about what you’re going to wear each day and start just throwing in whatever you see on the basis of “Oh, I might wear this.”  This is how I end up places with 5 shirts that don’t go with a single pair of pants I’ve packed or with 15 pairs of socks and no underwear.

I try to stop myself.  I pull out half of what I’ve thrown in, making sure what’s left will work together, and counting underwear.  Somehow I still end up with a bag so full I have to unzip the expansion zipper to accommodate the bulk.  I set my bag aside and start getting ready for bed.

As I get ready for bed, I keep thinking of things I’ve forgotten to pack–a headband, deodorant, lotion, a brush–basically a myriad of toiletries that I wish I didn’t think I needed, but that I really miss when I go without.  I gather up what I won’t need in the morning and stuff it into my suitcase.  Oh!  My travel makeup kit–I’d forgotten about putting on makeup.

Convinced that I have more than enough stuff to make it through the days in Columbus, I call it a night, setting the alarm for 5:00AM.  But I lay awake in bed for a while, wondering how I could simplify this process and un-clutter my life.  After all, isn’t that one of our biggest goals?  I ponder the “throwing in” response and why the thought of not having one little convenience creates panic.  It’s a little hard to simplify without giving up something.  My last thoughts as I drift off to sleep are about throwing out.

Back in Chattown

Having spent the night just outside of Lexington in a semi-frightening hotel, I am doubly surprised when the alarm jerks me out of a sound sleep.  First there is the expected surprise (sort of paradoxical, isn’t it?) of the alarm itself, but then I am also surprised to realize that I have slept through the night undisturbed.  I hop out of bed and get myself ready to roll quickly.  We have a 3 hour drive to home, today is a work day, and I have an important conference call this morning.  Fortunately, I was able to finish the presentation material last night and send it out for a quick review.  I check my mail to see if I have any responses.  Only one with no suggested changes.

We forgo the free breakfast that comes with the room (probably just cereal and bananas anyway) since it’s still a half an hour before the service starts.  We get in the car with me setting up to work from the car while Pat drives.  It’s early enough that nothing much urgent is happening and my cellular MiFi is getting sketchy reception as we get into the hills.  Deciding I’m as caught up as I’m going to get this morning, I put the work away and watch the sunrise over the mountains as we make our way from Kentucky to Tennessee.  It’s a gorgeous morning.

Pat starts nodding off at the wheel, so we stop for a break and to grab something to eat.  Then, we switch drivers.  I drive us the final stretch into Chattanooga.  It’s the first time I’ve been the one behind the wheel as we returned to our now hometown.  It’s only the 2nd time I’ve driven in Chattanooga since our move.  I get to experience some of the oddly banked curves of 27 as we round the city and cross the river to our exit.  I manage to drive us safely to our parking lot, but with the stop we made, it’s almost 9AM.  I grab all of my work related items and dash upstairs to get back online.

When I get online, nothing has happened.  My boss hasn’t sent me any comments on the slide deck.  No one in Australia responded to the replies I sent early this morning (already past their office hours).  I’ve still heard nothing from Singapore, Hong Kong, or China on any of the things I’m working on there.  And no one in any other part of the world sent me an email between 7:30AM and 9AM.  That hour and a half that I wasn’t able to check emails really wasn’t so critical after all.  I’m glad that I relieved Pat of driving rather than insisting I needed to be working.

During the day, fortunately during a break between conference calls (and after my most important call of the day was over), squealing tires and a big crash attract my attention.  Two cars have collided in the intersection below our balcony.  Since my camera is already set up, I indulge in a few quick shots from the window and then return to work.  I count the number of sirens required for this accident.  Both drivers are alone and both walk away with no apparent injuries, yet 3 fire trucks, 1 ambulance, and 6 police cars all come screaming to the scene.  This helps explain the ridiculous number of sirens that go by every day!  When I next look out the window, they are loading up one of the cars on a flatbed tow truck and sweeping the debris out of the street.  I get a few more quick shots and then forget all about the accident.

That evening, the sunset reminds me why I tolerate the sirens during the day for our view.  I talk Pat into going up on the roof with me so I can get a better shot of the sunset since there’s a building between us and the horizon to the West.  I watch the sun go down with deep breaths.  I slow down all of the anxiety-produced nervousness.  I settle into myself as I watch the sun settle into the landscape.

I think this is why I love to shoot–it creates stillness.  It stops the motion of time and pauses in a single moment.  While a photo stays in that moment forever, the photographer moves on to the next moment and repeats the process.  Between shots, I watch with an open mind and wide eyes.  I am eager to see what next will present itself.  All my senses feel alive and alert as I decide, “Is this the moment to shoot?  Is this?”  This is especially true during a sunset when I might shoot a hundred pictures of virtually the same thing–I watch for minute changes that make the scene worth shooting again.

Today, I am also working on some skills.  As much as I enjoy shooting, I am rarely really pleased with the end results.  Today I am practicing using a tripod and a remote shutter release in the hope of improving the sharpness of my images.  While I’m at it, I play with long exposures and car lights, which is always fun.  I also always try to improve composition.  Unfortunately, I’m finding the use of the tripod is making composition much more difficult.  In addition, my viewpoint makes getting the elements I want in the photo difficult to arrange around the rule-of-thirds.

Although I work on each of these things and take them into consideration as I set up for each shot, it is without anxiety.  After all, this is a low-risk activity.  If I don’t like the picture, I delete it.  Instead, I work with the tripod to figure out how to best position the camera for the composition I want.  I don’t worry so much about the rule-of-thirds for tonight.  I breathe into the sunset and push the button on my remote.  I feel calmness, serenity, and perhaps a little awe as I watch the light disappear.  This is why I shoot.

The Deserted Office, Desserts, and Death

Today is Wednesday.  No workout this morning.  No face-to-face meetings scheduled.  But my calendar is full of conference calls.  When Pat drops me off at the office, I go upstairs to discover an empty floor.  Those who were there the day before are all either off, working from home, or traveling today.  There is no one to say hello to, no one to catch up with, not even anyone to ignore.  I find this oddly distracting.  Given that I even have calls through lunch, I find myself wondering why I bothered to come in at all.  I do not rate a window office, so I sit in my empty office with no view and miss my home office with a fantastic view.

An interesting thing I have learned about myself in the age of ADD:  I need low-level distractions in order to focus.  It’s as if I need to give the “Squirrel!” part of my brain something to do so that it stops nagging at the rest of my brain when I’m trying to concentrate.  Background noise at the office helps.  Just knowing there are people outside my door helps.  When I work at home, I have an easier time remaining focused on an intense task when my husband is home doing something on his own than if I’m home alone.  I’ve found that listening to music helps in the absence of other distractions, but that’s not possible when on conference calls.  Within an hour, I am coming out of my skin.

I don’t know what exactly it is that I experience when there is not enough going on at once–is it anxiety, boredom, hyper-activeness?  I’m not sure.  All I know is that I begin to work on one thing, I think of something else and open that, then I think of something else and open that.  All while I’m on a conference call.  Before I know it, I have about 40 documents open, 8 instant message conversations going, I’m halfway through answering 9 emails, and I’m in a complete state of confusion as to whether I’ve actually accomplished anything or not.

Complicating this state of task-hopping (let’s face it, there’s no such thing as multi-tasking) is the memory factor.  Another thing I’ve learned about the scattered mind combined with a faulty memory is: when I start to do something, it often creates a memory of having done it.  Whatever the function is in my brain that checks of to-do items, starting a task can trigger that little check.  Once the item is mentally checked, I forget all about it.  So, the more task-hopping I do, the more items I’m at risk of believing I’ve completed when in fact, they are only partially done.  To combat this, before I close things, I carefully look at each window I’ve opened, figure out why I’ve opened it, and then determine if that item is complete or not.  When I have a day like today with back-to-back conference calls where I’m able to just listen for my name during the first one (giving me the opportunity to open a lot), but the rest of them I have to listen and participate (preventing me from finishing anything I opened during the first call), I will often get to the end of the day and not have time to do a graceful shutdown, so-to-speak.  Then, I put my laptop to sleep and hope it will wake up later and that I will remember where I was with all the stuff that’s still open.  Of course, the more stuff I leave open, the more likely my laptop will hang and require a reboot, which essentially reboots my memory right along with the laptop.

It’s the end of the day, we have dinner plans with friends we haven’t seen in two months, and, as predicted, I have too many things open and must put my laptop to sleep and clean up later.  Given that our friends are expecting a baby in about 2 weeks, I imagine we will not be out late and I will have time for this tonight.  But, I hate going to dinner with things hanging unfinished both on my laptop and in my mind.

After a day of isolation, getting together with friends is even more welcome.  Our friends include a little one who arrives in his mother’s arms half asleep.  I try to remember what it feels like to have to jerk yourself out of sleep, rouse yourself and be social.  He’s only 4–too young to have learned that skill set yet.  He wants to be held by his mother, tiny and nearly 9 months pregnant.  She holds him and I wonder how that’s possible.

Our small friend does come to life during dinner.  He makes it through his meal with the promise of ice cream dancing in his head.  There is a Graeter’s next door.  Even though we still have Graeter’s in the freezer at our hosts’ house, I am just as excited about going next door after dinner as the 4-year old.

Outside, there is an event for a dog rescue.  One woman has a tiny Chihuahua on a leash.  He poops toothpaste-consistency yellow poop on the patio without his owner noticing.  I think back to our Mastiffs and how I used to tell my friends that with Mastiff poop, you worry more about tripping over it than stepping in it.  The Chihuahua’s poop is about 1/40th the size, just like the dog.

I watch as first one dog steps in the soft pile, then another.  I tell a volunteer and she gets out a bag, but before she can clean it up, the Chihuahua owner steps on it, completely covering the mess with her Ugg boot.  Amazingly, when she takes another step, it’s as if the entire pile has desinegrated and been absorbed into her sole and the patio pavers, leaving only discoloration behind.  The volunteer looks at me and says, “Was it her dog who pooped?” I answer in the affirmative and she winks and says, “Retribution!”

After enjoying a scoop of pumpkin pie ice cream, watching the dogs, and watching our small friend attempt to play “Cone Hole” (Graeter’s humor–an ice cream place’s name for “Corn Hole”), we say our good-byes and head on home.  It’s barely 8:00PM.

When we arrive at our hosts’ house, we eat some more ice cream and talk about the news of Steve Jobs’ death.  Oddly, I feel more likely to buy an iPhone 4S because Steve Jobs died.  There is no logic to this and I cannot explain it.  We ponder what the impact will be on Apple and whether they can continue his legacy when he was so heavily involved in the details.

I find myself wondering what his personal life was like, if he was happy, if the legacy of Apple was worth whatever he sacrificed.  I wonder what was most important to him and if he believed, in the end, that he lived his life according to his values and his priorities or if he struggled with regrets over the things he didn’t do.  Then, I begin to wonder if building something like Apple is more or less important or valuable than building a family or anything else that someone dedicates their life to.  But, this is too deep for contemplation right before bed, so I let the thought drift away as we say our goodnights and head upstairs.

Self-Milking Cows and Wellness in Wald

Having been collected by Pat’s parents and friends at the guest house we arrived at in Wald from Berlin, we now load our stuff into their vehicle for the short drive to where we’ll be staying.

Pat’s parents and friends have been traveling together for several days already. The friends, Dieter and Gisela, have traded their car with their daughter so they have a mini-van to fit us all in for this trip. The mini is a little more mini than a typical American mini-van, but we all fit perfectly. They take us to the “wellness resort” we will be staying at for the next 3 nights. This is an interesting concept in Germany. These are guest houses equipped with pools and hot tubs and various other amenities that help restore health and sanity. They typically are quite economical, although only available in pretty, country areas outside large cities, and are often free for Germans who are suffering from illness or stress that their doctor feels warrants a break from everyday life.

This one is located on a working farm. They make most of their own foods served in their restaurant from the butter and cheese to the beer. When we have dropped our bags in our room, our group reconvenes and takes little tour of the farm. We visit the horses and donkey in one barn, and the milk cows in another. We watch as a cow milks herself–the most fascinating thing I have ever seen. When a gate is opened, a cow with a full utter walks into a pen and lines herself up in the milking station, where grain releases into a bucket so she can happily munch while being milked. A robotic milking machine starts by washing each of her teats with rollers. Then, laser beams line up the suction cups on the milking machine with the teats until all four are properly captured in the milking machine. The milk is matched to the cow using an electronic chip on her ankle. If the cow has recently calved, her milk is rerouted to her calf in a barn next door. All the milk is automatically tested to make sure the cow doesn’t have any diseases and that there isn’t dangerous bacteria in the milk before it is pumped into the milk storage container. When a teat stops producing milk, the machine releases it until all of the teats have been milked dry. A gate opens, the cow walks out, and the next cow, when ready, enters. I wish I had thought to bring my camera down, but maybe I am the only one who gets excited about cows that milk themselves?

We visit many calves next. They are at various stages of growth. Some are in large plastic huts and they stick their heads out as us as we walk by. I reach out to one and let it suckle my fingers while I rub its head. I don’t think anyone else in the group has ever seen someone do this because they were all pretty surprised. The calf holds its tongue over its teeth so it doesn’t bite, but the force that calves suckle with is pretty amazing. My fingers are covered in slim when I extract them. I do my best not to touch anything. We wander over to the building where they make cheese and beer. Nothing is currently being made, but it’s still nice to see. Pat buys some Landjaeger (something between sausage and beef jerky) that is also home made. We then wander back to the main guest house to have dinner. I scrub my hands twice before sitting down to eat.

The restaurant serves four courses, with the only choice being which of three entrees you want. They bring us a soup to start with a meaty broth and a large noodle. It’s delicious and hot. Then we have a typical German salad with lettuce on top hiding an assortment of other types of salad underneath. I have the fish. Dieter describes the fish as a “salmon trout,” which is exactly what it’s like. Flaky trout meat that’s firmer and pinker than most trout. While it’s delicious, the filet they brought me was about the size of a flattened football and I couldn’t eat it all. The dessert was warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and fresh currants. Surprisingly, I find I have just enough room for the dessert.

We sit and drink beer and swap stories in German and English. Two of us do not speak German, two of us speak German and American English, and two speak German and formal English. It makes for interesting translations–it’s amazing how many words we use in everyday conversation that don’t make it into language classes. But, we have a good time anyway. Giesala has a warm and ready laugh that is infectious and Dieter has a quiet sense of humor that catches me by surprise, making his jokes even funnier. Both are patient with those of us who don’t speak English and make a tremendous effort to speak English whenever possible so we feel included.

We discuss our plans for tomorrow and decide to make a change from the original plan. The cold and rainy weather is supposed to improve the following day, so we decide to switch days. We will all go to see some castles tomorrow and we will go to the Oktoberfest the following day. All in all, it’s been a good day.

Going to Berlin

We awake to The sound of frogs chirping at 6:00AM. I am momentarily confused and then remember that we’ve set the alarm on Pat’s phone because we are catching an morning train to Berlin today. I get up and find the phone and kill the frogs. Pat has an uncanny ability to remain untroubled by alarms–I’ve accidentally set mine on snooze from time to time and found him sleeping soundly with his head under a pillow for as long as a hour after the alarm started going off. I have an irresistible compulsion to get up when an alarm sounds–I figure it’s a good thing one of us does.

After breakfast, we take our luggage outside to wait for the cab we’ve ordered. When we step outside, a cab pulls up and a man walks up to it and gets in. It’s a few minutes early, but Pat says, I bet that’s our cab and then stands there staring. Visions of us standing there for 10 more minutes waiting for a cab that never shows and then having to wait 10 more for another on to arrive prompt me to suggest he go ask before the cab drives away. Sure enough, it is our cab. But, we are all going to the train station, so we will share.

We make it to the station with 45 minutes to spare. We sit on a bench on the track and wait for our train. I decide to use the restroom while we’re waiting. When I get there, I discover that the train station has pay toilets. They’ve upgraded from change operated door handles to a turnstile entry to the restrooms, but now they charge a euro to get in. Having no cash on me, I return to the platform and decide just to wait since the restrooms on the train are free.

The train pulls into the station 3 minutes before our departure time. We get on and find seats. We sit side-by-side with no seats across from us. We sit back and relax, me taking out my iPad and getting caught up on my blog while Pat stares out the window and points interesting sights out to me.

When we get to the next stop, we are displaced. A man has a reserved seat that I am currently occupying. I am somewhat irritated as there are plenty of open seats and I don’t quite understand why he doesn’t take one of them, but when we are displaced again at the next stop, I begin to understand the problem. Pat asks a woman how to tell if a seat is reserved and she explains that the lighted sign above each seat displays the names of the departure and arrival stations between which a seat is reserved. We quickly discover there aren’t two seats together with no reservation (since we have none). Pat spots two seats labeled “Schwerbehinderte” that face each other with a table in between. He explains that these are “handicapped” seats and that we can sit there unless someone who needs them gets on. We settle back down for the third time.

Pat looks around and notices that there are a half dozen “Schwerbehinderte” seats around us. He says, “wouldn’t it be our luck that an entire handicapped tour gets on the train at the next stop?” I almost laugh, but feel like he has just jinxed us and seriously contemplate the likelihood of that happening instead. But, we are not displaced again and we make it to Berlin around 3PM.
We take a taxi to our hotel where we are informed that they have upgraded our room for us. We don’t know why, but we’re not complaining. It’s an interesting hotel, the Gendarmes Nouveau, with hyper-modern decor and lighting throughout the lobby. When we get to the room, it’s a combination of mauve and gray, only still in the hyper-modern theme. I’ve never seen modern done in mauve and gray before–it feels vaguely middle eastern to us, but I don’t know why. Maybe just because our taxi driver was telling us about his flight from Iran on the way to the hotel and so the region is fresh in our minds. In any case, the room is quite nice, very quiet, and we can live with gray and mauve decor for two nights.

After freshening up, we head out. Pat wants to walk to Alexander Plaza, which is supposed to be the center of Berlin. We wander down the streets struck by the contrast with Freiburg. We feel like we’re in a different country. Here the streets are wide and asphalt with regular car traffic, although bikes are certainly prevalent as well. So much so that, on the way over, I noticed our taxi driver stopped on right turns to look up the sidewalk for approaching bikes before making turns. While I have been told before that Berlin is surprisingly new for a European capital and I know from history that it’s really more surprising that anything old is left standing than that most of the buildings are new, I’m unprepared for the architecture of the 60’s and 70’s. There are few buildings of interest and most of them are ancient survivors (or perhaps restored). The bleak and boring industrial look takes up the majority of the city skyline.

We walk past a museum that sparkles with gold leaf in the setting sun, a couple of old churches, and several parks with interesting sculptures that make the walk worthwhile. We go past the Fernsehturn tower, deciding to wait to go up it until the next day, and on to Alexander Plaza. We are both disappointed to find that the only thing interesting here is a fountain and the street performers. We are passed by a man dressed as a half-man, half-goat mythological creature, using stilts covered in fur to simulate goat legs. An electric rock band has found power somewhere and set up and started playing. Unfortunately, they are not so good. They compete with another band around the corner, all acoustic. In the middle of the square, a man plays the sax and, I swear, he sounds much like one would expect a new student of the sax to sound after about two weeks of lessons.

As much as we are tempted to hang out for a while and people watch, Pat notices that teenagers keep gawking at my camera and feels like we’re at risk of getting mugged. We decide to head towards the hotel and find a place for dinner. We approach a fine looking restaurant that advertises it’s been there for 100 years, but when we look through the windows, the men are all wearing jackets and no one is wearing jeans. We decide we’ll try it for lunch the next day instead. We find a more casual place a block later, but they have no indoor seats available. We opt to sit outside, although I am shivering before our entrees are served.

The food is good and hot (although not for long in the cold wind). We eat quickly, racing against heat transfer. We finish up and pay quickly when we are done eating–my lips have turned blue and I can’t stop shaking. It’s not really that cold, but I get cold easily and I am fighting a bug, which can’t help. We walk quickly to the hotel, taking the stairs to the fifth (or fourth if, you’re European) floor just to warm up. Inside, I get ready for bed quickly and snuggle under my personal comforter, but have to sneak under Pat’s to press my cold feet up against his legs to get warm. As soon as my feet thaw, I drift off into a deep sleep.

Getting to Germany

Having driven to the Atlanta airport, checked our luggage and picked up our boarding passes, we head for the MARTA station. We pause to do a time check and debate whether we’re better off spending the 3 hours until our plane starts boarding in the airport or going downtown for lunch. We want to allow plenty of time, figuring security will be tighter since it is the tenth anniversary of 9-11. I say, “Let’s go downtown–it will be more of an adventure than sitting in the airport.” Pat agrees.

Once we settle onto the MARTA train, we start calculating how long we will need to get back, get our carry-on bags out of our car and get in the security line. We have allowed ourselves 30 minutes of travel time in each direction and still have an hour and a half to get lunch. We get off at the Peachtree station since it’s an area I’m familiar with. I forgot that it’s a Sunday and the Atlanta downtown is not exactly hopping. We head towards the Olympic park once we find ourselves back above ground. It’s a beautiful day and the walk more welcome since we are about to take a 9+ hour flight.

We find a Googie’s hamburger place in the middle of the park. I order a coke float with my burger and we sit outside. There are plenty of people in the park. Some are playing a sport I can’t identify because they are downhill and all we can see is the top halves of people moving around a field. I assume it’s soccer. After relaxing in the shade of a giant old tree while we finished our meal, we head back towards the MARTA station. The walk is now uphill, the sun is higher, and the temperature is rapidly rising. Pat starts sweating through his shirt and then worrying about being all sweaty getting on the plane which probably makes him sweat even more. The platform is surprisingly warm considering how far underground we are. I think back to how long the escalator was and wonder if we are now so close to the center of the earth that the temperature is higher. 🙂 Pat, in the meantime, moves us to the center of the platform between two giant fans that circulate the air. He stands with his arms spread, trying to get his shirt to dry.

Back at the Atlanta airport, we are surprised that security does not seem any worse than usual. We get through the line in 15 minutes and neither of us is randomly scanned in the new “naked” scanners. When we amble up to the gate 45 minutes before our flight, they are all ready boarding all passengers. The boarding process for long flights is different than the short domestic hops–people take their time and settle in gradually. Yet, the entire airbus is full and everyone is ready to go well before our take off time.

The man sitting next to me (I took the middle seat) starts up a conversation. He tells me he’s on a business trip and I ask who he works for. It turns out he and I work for the same company! I wonder aloud how many people on this flight are our colleagues and what the odds are that we would end up sitting next to each other. He also was part of a smaller company acquired by our now mutual corporation. We swap stories of integration and he tells me that everything will settle down and seem normal in three more years. I was really hoping it would only be one more year.

As the plane reaches altitude and the movies become available, he reaches for his ear buds and I reach for my iPad. We do not talk again in the 9 hours that we sit next to each other until we are arriving in Frankfurt and he points out the location of the office he’s going to on the flight map. That’s OK. We’re unlikely to ever see each other again anyway.

The flight goes smoothly, although my knees start twitching when I get tired and it is impossible to get comfortable. I long for the days when I used to fly business class, but it’s hard to justify paying 4x the price for an already expensive ticket when the trip is only 9 hours. I nod off in fits and starts and wake again every 10 minutes. I think I managed to collectively get a couple hours of sleep, but I feel like I was up all night when the flight crew turns the lights back on and starts serving breakfast. Having lost 6 hours between dinner and breakfast, I’m not really sure I’m hungry, but I eat anyway.

When we deplane, there are no restrooms between the plane and immigration. The line is endless and moving slowly. We wait for over half an hour crossing our legs and trying not to think of water. A man is escorted away just before we are called to a desk. This often happens to Pat–he apparently has the same name as someone on the no-fly list. Having been detained 4 times now, we cross our fingers that this won’t be the fifth. Luck smiles on us and the agent stamps our passports. We find a restroom and our luggage and look for the train.

We take a bus to terminal 1 to get to the train. But, having done very little planning for this trip, we have to wait in another long, slow line to get our train passes. On most our trips, I take care of these arrangements, usually in advance. But here, Pat takes the lead since this is his birth country and German is his first language. I am reminded of a man who recently told me I need to learn how to follow; it doesn’t come naturally to me. I would like to think I am a natural leader, but I suspect I’m really just a control freak. While the ticket agent speaks fluent English, Pat’s command of German gets us 4 days of train travel in first class at a reduced rate, saving us about $550 Euros. Not bad for just letting him do the talking.

I have ridden the train in Germany before, but it’s more impressive to me this trip having taken the train from Portland to Glacier National Park back in the states since then. First, German trains are on time. Second, they run as efficiently as subways, often having only 3 minutes between arrival and departure. Finally, they are so quiet and smooth that you have to remind yourself you’re on a train. The first class car is an extra bonus–after being so cramped on the plane, it’s nice to lay back and stretch our of legs fully. I am always amazed at how tired sitting on a plane makes me feel.

In spite of being re-routed once on the way to Freidberg due to weather, we arrive only 10 minutes late. We find a cab and get to our hotel only to learn that our room won’t be ready for 2 1/2 more hours–it’s only 12:30PM. We check our bags and drag our tired selves around this ancient black forest town for an hour. Then we sit outside in a square by the farmer’s market and eat. Oh do we eat! I allowed Pat to order for me and he has chosen two dishes that we share. One is a “fine” bratwurst with fries and the other is some kind of dumpling stuffed with vegetables neatly ground and mixed with cheese. Both are good, but the brat particularly hits the spot today–maybe because it goes so well with the pilsner we drink?

We sit in the shadow of an enormous church that was razed to the ground during World War II and has since been reconstructed, stone by stone. They are still working on it or working on it again; scaffolding shrouds the main steeple. The courtyard below is full of vendor’s tents–it’s an open farmer’s market that apparently opens every morning and shuts down every afternoon. By the time we are done with our entrees, the tents are disappearing.

We sit a while longer, ordering meringues for dessert. They are served with ice cream, whipped cream, and carmel sauce. I resign myself to gaining weight this trip and relish the dessert. We are surrounded by locals and tourists alike. One table over, a group of Americans discuss their plans while failing at keeping their young children entertained, resulting in crying and whining. I wonder if German children expect to be entertained all the time, but none are around to watch.

We wander around the town some more, struck by the stone streets and the old architecture laden with flowers. Nearly every building has flower boxes at every window. We attempt to walk to the river, but get ourselves mixed up. At 3PM, we stop in a coffee shop to use the restroom, get directions, and buy a bottle of water. We head back to the hotel more than ready for a nap.

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