The tyranny of photography

This time last year, I was sitting on my bed crying. My trip to Antarctica was a month away and I was overwhelmed. This was partly due to the preparation needed, which involved way more shopping than I was comfortable with (which is none). I also had to concern myself with my camera equipment—extra memory cards and batteries and an additional (unfamiliar) camera body and protecting all of it during Zodiac rides.

The main source of my tears, though, was the pressure to take photographs that lived up to the trip and to my expectations of myself and to my reputation among family and friends for taking good photographs. I was so stressed that I actually considered leaving the DSLRs at home and using only my smartphone for taking pictures.

It all started so innocently when I went on my first safari. I bought an SLR and a zoom lens and thanks to a friend, learned what I needed to know to use the camera in those circumstances. I practiced every weekend during the summer before the safari. When I came back, I was so used to having the camera in my hand that I continued going out with it every weekend.

Then people started complimenting my photos and suggesting I sell them. I tried various ways of doing that for a couple of years—contacting stock agencies (at just the time photos became easily available online!), making products with my photos on them, and providing prints on consignment to a local frame shop. The reality was that there were several mismatches between what I thought I could do and what was needed to do that. I had no interest in becoming a professional photographer and shooting on demand.

During this time, going on trips—vacation and business—involved taking not only the camera and lens, but a tripod so I could get ‘sell-worthy’ photos. Wherever I was, I would go out early and late to take photographs for my portfolio. When I traveled, I wasn’t finding a nice restaurant in which to eat dinner, I was picking up takeout on my way back from a sunset shoot, which, depending on time of year, didn’t end until after 9:00. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed it.

However, as I imagine is true with lots of long-term hobbies/activities, my interest waxed and waned. Instead of going out taking pictures where I lived, I’d haul out my camera mostly for trips. I’d use my tripod if I was out shooting at sunrise and sunset, but didn’t take it along for trips anymore. For a couple of trips, I didn’t even bother with the camera. For others, I’d contemplate leaving the camera behind but invariably have that ‘oh, what if I wish I had it’ thought and most times, I was glad I brought it along. Because I wasn’t shooting as frequently or as intensely, my technical skills got rusty and that would lead to frustration and ‘sheesh, what a load of crap I shot today’.

Then there’s the cataloguing of the photos. I happen to like process and organization, so I enjoyed establishing standards for filenames and figuring out a keyword hierarchy, but sometimes, I feel I will never get caught up on reviewing, assigning keywords, and editing.

So, in the last several months, photography and I have been having the relationship talk, as in ‘where is this relationship going?’

And yet…

For years, I said that photography was as close as I got to meditation. It was a flow activity, an activity in which I was totally absorbed and unconscious of time. I was ‘still’ in those moments, taking the time to look about me before I started taking pictures, experimenting with different settings, framing the image just so. I loved being out in the early morning, often near the water, catching the reflections and colors and light.

Photography reminded me to work with what I had. There were times I set out to photograph something and circumstances prevented it, like the overcast sky and snow the day I was down on the harbor to photograph the New Year’s Day sunrise. I know there was a sunrise, but it sure wasn’t visible! I was disappointed, but I captured one of my all-time favorite images that day.

I loved going on photography expeditions with my friend Phil. We’d start out in time to reach our destination at sunrise, which in the summer was pretty darn early. We’d shoot for a couple of hours, then have a cholesterol-laden breakfast. One time, we got so into what we were seeing and exploring, we stayed out until after dark. Later, we’d have fun sharing our ‘bests’.

I appreciated that my camera and lenses allowed me to make the world more interesting or beautiful. I could zoom in to show detail and pattern that weren’t obvious. People would ask where a particular image was from and be astounded that it was something they saw every day.

One of the best things to happen was to have someone walk by me as I was taking a photo and say, ‘wow, I wouldn’t have noticed that’ or ‘you made me stop and appreciate this’. That always made me feel good, as if I’d grabbed the person by the hand and said, ‘look at this—it’s beautiful’.

Most of all, using a camera taught me to see a different way. Whether I have a camera in hand or not, I notice things that I would not have noticed pre-photography, especially light. I’m sure I look quite half-witted sometimes when I stop and stare at a wall that is striped with the shadows of a window grate or the way a leaf is lit by the sun.

My sister and I had a text exchange recently that went like this:

Her: I will go through my photos and mark the ones I think are really good even though I’m not doing anything with them.
Me: As I’ve said before, does one have to do anything with them? Perhaps it’s what they do for you.

I think I might have unintentionally said something wise and pertinent to the relationship talk.

Image © Melissa Corcoran.

My other mother

Our mothers were such strong women; it is strangely quiet without them. But they are at peace and, given their respective difficult last few months, it is strangely comforting. Y’all are like siblings – thank you.

These words were part of a thank-you note for flowers my siblings and I sent to the funeral of our ‘other mother’ last year. Almost as long as I can remember, Kay was part of our lives. I think that she and my mom met when her son and my brother were classmates in grade school. As a child, I didn’t think too much about Kay’s life outside of my own field of vision, but I remember how my mom would stop by their house on our way back from somewhere and run in to chat. She would always say, “I’ll be just a minute”, but of course, it never was ‘just a minute’. They always had lots to talk about! There were dinners at their house (I still remember Kay’s scalloped potatoes), and playing in their backyard (they had a sandbox!), and our mothers going to meetings of the Catholic Daughters of America and later, singing in the church choir together. As we grew older, I realized that Kay was quite accomplished—a B.S. in Nursing, director of a school of nursing in my hometown, went back to school for a Master’s degree. Perhaps she inspired my mom to get her degree; whether she did or not, I know she supported her all the way.

There have been several older women in my life who were a voice not-my-parents, a mentor, a friend, a counselor, but Kay was my other mother. She referred to herself that way and I referred to her that way. Kay was one of the two people we called when we made the decision to petition for guardianship for our mother and again when hospice care was started for her. She remained a steadfast friend to my mom as she slipped into dementia, even as she herself dealt with serious health problems.

When my mom died, her wishes stated that she did not want visitation hours, but Kay was one of the few people who joined us at the funeral home for a private visitation. I remember her rolling herself in her wheelchair to my mom’s casket and saying “I sure am going to miss you, Beth”, and chastising my mother for going before her, saying that they had planned to go together. We heard stories that day we had never heard before, like Kay and my mom having a girls’ night out and some men at another table buying them drinks!

So, on this Mother’s Day, I feel a pang of loss for my mother, but also for my ‘other mother’ and all the older women in my life who at one time or another encouraged me, acted as a sounding board, set an example. Happy Mother’s Day to you all.

In praise of YouTube

For some months, it’s been annoying me that the clock in the car I drive is not set to the proper time. The manual is not available and my experimentation with various buttons on the dashboard has been to no avail. It occurred to me last week to search for video instructions on YouTube and what do you know? Some kind soul had explained how to do it. 

I have to admit that when YouTube first came on the scene, I didn’t understand the appeal. My impression was that the videos were mostly goofy, if not downright dumb, and I thought it was all a waste of time. Maybe both YouTube and I have evolved because while there are certainly videos I don’t care to view, there are also many that have been useful and entertaining.

Take crocheting—most of the stitches I’ve learned, I’ve learned from watching one of the many explanatory videos available. Not all the presenters are skilled at demonstrating and the quality varies, but there are several who are really helpful (a shout-out to the Bella Coco channel for so many great tutorials). The same goes for patterns—written instructions can be a challenge, but for the majority of the patterns I’ve tried, someone has made a video that makes it much easier to understand the pattern (another shout-out to The Crochet Crowd on that one).

My YouTube fandom goes beyond instructional videos, though. Read in an article that Queen’s set at the 1985 Live Aid concert is considered one of the greatest rock performances of all time? The video is on YouTube (and it is a great performance). Read after her death that Aretha Franklin sang “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” with George Michael? The music video is on YouTube. Read in an article about Jason Brown’s fantastic free skate at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships? Yep, that’s there too.

But one of my greatest pleasures with YouTube is searching for and finding videos of skits and shows I remember seeing on television when I was a child and teenager, like Tim Conway as the dentist treating Harvey Korman (and cracking him up) on The Carol Burnett Show or Danny Kaye guest-conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Then there are the movie clips. When I need a quick boost, watching Gene Kelly Singin’ in the Rain usually does it for me. I never get tired of watching the title sequence of Top Gun or Much Ado about Nothing. And did you know that you and a friend can entertain yourselves for an hour or two by watching favorite scenes from movies or filmed live performances?! 

So, YouTube, I owe you a vote of thanks for providing a platform for the information, memories, and fun.

Revising my narrative

For years, whenever I’ve driven anywhere, a internal narrative plays: do not deviate from the route you know; you’re not good at making it up as you go along; rats, I’m lost again. It originates in the fact that I am not good at reading a map (it makes so much sense on paper or screen, but I can’t make it match the real world); I find it hard to retrace my steps because a) I’m seeing navigation landmarks from the other side and b) so many times, the streets I took to get someplace were one-way so I can’t go back the same way; and my sense of direction doesn’t function if the sun isn’t shining. Even the advent of Google Maps hasn’t completely resolved the problem; my ability to screw up directions transcends the technology. Mind you, I’ve been getting lost for so long it doesn’t bother me most of the time; in fact, I (and my family and friends) find it a source of amusement. 

It occurred to me recently, though, that this narrative is somewhat inaccurate now. Coming home from a grocery store in a nearby commercial area, I realized that I don’t have to turn on Google Maps anymore, despite the fact that the way there and the way back are quite different due to one-way streets. Admittedly, it took several trips to memorize the route, but I did memorize it and have (usually) been able to cope with an ongoing series of deviations due to construction of a tramway. I’ve even learned how to get to a couple of other stores in the same area for which the route is very different.

I was thinking about this when coincidentally, I came across an article about the two kinds of stories we tell about ourselves. One of the things that struck me about the article was “the idea that we can edit, revise and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts.”* While my internal narrative about my inability to get from one place to another is fairly harmless in that it doesn’t stop me from going places, there are other stories we tell ourselves that can stand in our way—the stories that keep us from taking a chance, making a change, being at peace with our choices. It made me wonder what personal narratives need taking out, reviewing, and revising.

Now, I know that as the quote above states, we are constrained by facts. In my case, a couple of days after that revelation while driving, I got lost walking to a place I’ve been numerous times. However, the fact remains: the narrative does need to be updated because it’s no longer quite so sweeping and encompassing as I once believed.

 

* “The Two Kinds of Stories We Tell about Ourselves.” IDEAS.TED.COM, 12 January, 2017, ideas.ted.com/the-two-kinds-of-stories-we-tell-about-ourselves/.

The road

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he [Bilbo] used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Bilbo knew what he was talking about! Whether the road is literal or figurative or, as I have often thought, it’s more like leaping off a cliff and hoping you can fly, who knows where one step can lead.

Five years ago tonight, I left for France with my friend Catherine, who was moving there, and her two cats. The story of our flight has become legend since her cat Oliver cried pathetically from the time we set off from a motel near the airport in Boston to the time we arrived at her friend Kathleen’s apartment in Paris. When Oliver suddenly stopped mewing at one point, we crammed ourselves into the bathroom on the plane (and really, how people join the Mile-High Club is beyond me) to take him out of the cat carrier and make sure he was still breathing. To this day, it reminds me of a scene from an old movie in which one character tries to bring back another character from an overdose by walking them up and down a room and pouring coffee into them.

It was the start of an adventure that has led to places I didn’t even imagine at the time. When Catherine offered me a plane ticket so she could take both cats in the cabin, I was bored, frustrated, and depressed over my post-accident situation. When a car hit me as I was crossing a street, I had just resigned from a freelance project manager position. I had big plans for revamping my approach to being self-employed and was excited by the possibilities. However, the after-effects of the severe concussion I sustained left me unable to use a computer for more than a couple of hours a day, which left me unable to work in my field. I had cleaned all the closets I could clean (and there wasn’t much to do in that respect to start with since I’m compulsive that way), couldn’t work on cleaning up digital files like my photo catalog (see limited computer use above), and was bouncing off the walls.

That trip saved my sanity. What started as spending three weeks in France to help Catherine settle in morphed into going to Venice for a photography workshop, spending five weeks in Florence, and then going back to France for another six weeks. It gave me a series of projects to work on—help Catherine and cats move, try a workshop, explore Florence—that didn’t involve the computer and distracted me from my frustration.

More, it opened my eyes to a different set of possibilities. By the time I turned the corner on post-concussive syndrome and could anticipate going back to work, I realized that I didn’t want to go back to how I was working prior to the accident. A brainstorming session with a group of friends and colleagues generated career ideas for me to consider that used my skills and experience, even if they weren’t what I thought I would be doing pre-accident.

I’m not sure if, prior to all these life changes, I would have been able to follow through on my new realization that one way of having the life I envisioned was to start living it, but post-accident and with the increased risk tolerance that came with a brush with death, I found the courage. Part of that vision was to be able to work from anywhere and make long-term stays in other countries. I had a choice of doing that or keeping my apartment, so I closed my apartment and put my stuff in storage. The two years of living as a vagabond allowed me a long stay in the town in which I grew up and where my mom and sisters lived and multiple stays in Italy. That was definitely a jumping-off-the-cliff moment!

After that came the move to Florence. In my corporate America days, I had wanted an assignment overseas for the experience of living and working in another country but my job was headquarters-centric. It didn’t come about quite the way I thought it would, but I’m having the experience of living in another country.

And those were just the big bends in the road!

There have been more challenges and bumps in the road and angst-filled moments than I can remember or count since that flight. But tonight, I acknowledge my gratitude—for the friend who gave me an opportunity, for the people who helped me construct a different way of life when the old one was no more, for the opportunities that came my way. And to the people who were sitting in front of us on that plane five years ago, thank you for not only not being rude about the situation, but being kind and understanding. When we pour the celebratory champagne tonight, I’m raising a glass to you!

This sums it up!

Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (pp. 73-74). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.