What Fishing Has to Do With Selfishness

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There is a line from the musical Wicked that goes, “Something has changed within me.  Something is not the same.”  I love the musical now, but the first time we saw it up in Richmond, Anna had to drag me to it.

Selfishness is a funny thing, and it is something that I’ve been dealing with in the latter half of my life.

When reflecting on the demise of Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West), Glinda (the good witch) wonders, “Are we born wicked, or do we have wickedness thrust upon us?”  I can safely say I wasn’t born selfish, no more than anyone else is born selfish from a purely evolutionary, survival of the fittest standpoint.  I had a generally selfless mien as a child.  I was affable and kind, funny and sweet, too smart for my own good, and generally a good kid.  Then I wasn’t.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment the shift happened, but I can recall episodes where my selflessness was chipped away.  Over indulgences, bad relationships, weight gain, stress, disappointment, guilt, shame, self-loathing—they all chipped away at this rock of selflessness that I had prided myself on possessing until it was nothing more than a pebble.

My mother-in-law wondered where her daughter’s happy-go-lucky spouse went.  My mother, who is never one to beat around the bush, told me on the phone that I had become, in a word, selfish.  I did not receive these observations well at the time, though I now see that they were completely accurate.  My distorted notions of self-preservation and keeping everyone else on the outside of the chaos within drove the selfishness like an engine.  When I began to let myself heal, however, I recognized in some small part the change that had taken place so insidiously.

Even when I emerged from my darker days, before Nora was born, I did not shed every negative habit.  I slept a lot.  I did not want to be “social.”  I hid behind my self-diagnosis of introversion with fierce conviction.  I joked about my general misanthropy.  Once again, I was using humor to defray attention from the insecurities, but this time, I was also using it to distract from my selfishness.

Then, just as quickly as it had come, it left.  No warning.  No lead up.  No working at it in earnest.  I cannot say precisely when it happened, but I can point to the exact moment that I recognized that something was awry (in a good way).  We were in North Carolina, perhaps the second day of our trip, and Kemper wanted to go fishing.  Hit wanted to go fishing the moment we stepped foot on the property, but once again, I was tired, and I promise to take him later.

I was always promising to take him fishing later.  The trouble was that later seldom came.  Finally, I had had enough of his incessant entreaties, and I knuckled under, and we went fishing.  It was cold.  It was raining.  I was grumpy.  And he was having the time of his life.  Something clicked, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, and I just went with the flow.  We fished for about two hours in the rain, because that’s what my dad would’ve done.

This post goes hand-in-hand with my gratitude post of a couple of weeks ago, because gratitude and selflessness go hand in hand.  I took for granted the time with my kids, my wife, my family, and even with Zoe.  When I found Deacon online and read his back story — about how he had been taken for granted, left out on a chain, and neglected — I thought back to Sadie, our rescued Golden retriever I had as a kid, when I wasn’t selfish, and when I didn’t take anyone or anything for granted.  She had been abused and neglected, and she was the sweetest most grateful dog I have ever known.

I know we gave Zoe a good life, and I am comforted by the fact that she was loved, despite my selfishness and ingratitude.  But I wonder what our connection would’ve been like had I had this epiphany earlier.

Anna looked at me on Monday, three days after we headed taken Deacon home, and acknowledged the change.  She didn’t say that I had been less selfish lately, or that I had been a better husband because of it.  She said that she noticed that I had taken Kemper fishing the first time he asked.  I didn’t say it do it later.  I got up from the ground, where I was petting Deacon, and I took him fishing.  Because he enjoyed it, I enjoyed it.  That, I think, is the opposite of selfishness.

 

View from the Top

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For whatever reason, I am drawn magnetically to people who have had a rough go of it, and who have come out the other side.  Some people coast through life, while others of us have traveled a bit more of a rocky road.  The same is true for animals.  Growing up, we rescued a golden retriever who was severely abused.  It took Sadie years to trust, but when she did, it was that much more rewarding.  In many ways, the love she gave was more unconditional and genuine than any other dog I have ever known, even Zoe.

When we lost Zoe six months ago, I wasn’t sure that we would ever find another dog that fit our family as well as she did.  She was great with the kids and the cats, and she was an absolute love.  Still, she hadn’t come from a bad life.  Though she was a rescue, her family gave her up because she had outgrown the apartment they lived in.  They gave her up for a better life, and we gave that life to her for ten years.

There was no question that we would rescue a dog if we were to get another one.  So, when Anna told me that she was ready to start looking, I eagerly began looking for lab or golden to fill the void left by Zoe’s passing.  When I read the profile for “Smokey,” I knew he was the one.  Though he was only 18 months old, he had spent most of his life on a 2-foot-long chain, being fed every other day.  Though he was still a puppy, he already had gray on his chin, a sign of his tough life.

The amazing people at WAGS rescued him, treated him for heartworms, and saved his life.  When I spoke with Kathy, the head of WAGS, I knew immediately that he was the right fit for our family.  It wasn’t until I met him, though, that I realized that I needed him as much as he needed me.  My life has changed inexorably in the past five years, but I have a long way to go yet.  Now, I have someone to share that journey with, to heal with, and to thrive with.

By 3:30 this morning, Deacon and I had already walked 2 ½ miles.  It was dark, frigid (by Florida standards), and nothing could have compelled me to put on my sneakers and go for a walk.  When I got up from bed, I heard his tail thumping in the crate, and my mind was already made up.  For him, I would brave the 37 degree morning.

People (and dogs) come into your life for reason.  Some challenge you, while others enrich you.  I’ll always have a fondness for Zoe.  She was our baby before our real babies came.  She loved unconditionally, and was the sweetest dog that we could’ve asked for.  Like Sadie, however, Deacon is damaged goods.  Perhaps that is why, in the three days he has been in my life, I have grown so very fond of him as quickly as I have.  We’re cut from the same cloth, and I think he knows that he needs me as much as I need him.

If you’re looking for a pet, please rescue.

I cannot recommend the WAGS organization enough.  Go to https://wags-rescue.org/ to see their available animals.

Ushering in a New Era

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There is a fair bit of irony in this photograph.

With all of the money I have spent on fancy cameras and lenses, this was shot on an old Olympus point-and-shoot back before I ever took photography seriously.  This photograph is actually seven shots merged together.  I took the photograph without any knowledge of how to stitch the photos together, and I only rediscovered them about a year ago when I was going through my photographs of England in 2007.

There are very few photographs that I can point to in my collection that shaped me as a photographer.  One is The Man at Rocky Point, and the other is this one.  This one triggered my utter fascination with landscape photography.  How could it not?

This is a sweeping view of the Lake District in England, more specifically around Lake Ullswater.  The bracken ferns, which look like small hedges, were taller than I was, and the sheep roamed freely under their canopy.

I long to go back, this time with proper gear, and capture all that the Lake District has to offer.  Until then, I will always have this photograph and the memories it brings back.  That is a large part of what photography is for me—a prompt for memories—and, what good memories this brings back!

Wander/Wonder

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As I have aged, especially recently, I have found my once immitigable fuse has shortened significantly.  Patience, it seems, is wont to abandon me with greater swiftness than just about any other of my more respectable traits.  I can generally keep my composure at work, and in most instances at home, but when the screws are tightened just that extra bit by a six-year-old who has an answer to every question—especially those which have not been asked—my patience dissolves.

Patience, I am coming to find, is inextricably linked to gratitude, as I posted about last week.  Without gratitude, why even bother being patient.  Take for example, the minion.  He received a gift card for Christmas and bought a building block marble maze kit.  Anna showed him the basics of how the blocks fit together, and we told him to have at it.  Ultimately, I broke down and helped him build a towering plastic edifice that clicked and clacked as the marbles careened around the corners.

At the outset, I couldn’t be bothered to build this with him.  I wanted him to figure out how the blocks fit together.  It was a classic, teach a man to fish moment.  If I built the maze for him, he’d never learn…  In reality, I was tired, and I wanted to close my eyes for a minute or thirty.

But I realized that had I asked my dad to sit down and build with me, he wouldn’t have balked for a moment at the suggestion.  He would have been down on the ground before I finished asking him.  Why wouldn’t I do the same thing?

“Because I am tired,” means nothing to a six-year-old with unspeakable reserves of energy, and I knew that building the maze with him had the potential to be a memory that lasted for longer than I would ever think it would.  I don’t remember everything that my dad and I built in the garage, but I remember bits and pieces of being out there with him.  What if this maze building moment was one of the bits that Kemp remembers?  I don’t want him to remember me taking a nap, or never having the time to build with him.

Yes, I was tired.  I still am.  In a sense, though, I am far more energized by the bond that the thirty minutes it took to build that unstable tower of marble glory instilled.  I am energized by the thought that when he’s my age, writing a blog, or thinking about building something with his own children, he might—just might—look back on that Sunday afternoon to the example that I set, just as I looked back at the example my dad set for me.

I would not have reached this point if I had not reminded myself to be grateful for what I have been given—a family who loves me, whom I love in return.  If I keep that gratitude in mind, the choice between building and napping becomes a no brainer.

Schoolhouse Falls

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I generally dislike hiking a day or two after a strong rainstorm.  The mud, while most enjoyable to Kemper in his rainboots, is cold and insipid, and no matter how much I go out of my way to avoid it, the muck and mire always seem to find their way into my socks at the very beginning of the hike.  This hike in Panthertown Valley to Schoolhouse Falls was no different.

The beginning of the hike was pleasant, as the mud puddles had frozen over.  As we descended into the valley, and the sun rose higher into the sky, the puddles thawed and into my sneakers they migrated.  Nonetheless, when we reached the falls, my madid socks became an afterthought.  The falls were running as strong as I had ever seen them after the deluge of the prior days.

I also had the first real opportunity to try out my new wide-angle lens, a Rokinon 12mm f/2.  I kicked myself for not bringing my neutral density filter.  We were in a hurry as we left, and I had misplaced it somewhere in the cabin.  Next time, perhaps, I will remember it, and I can picturesquely blur the water.  This panorama was about as artistic as I could get in the stark, mid-morning light.  The sun is just outside of the frame, and I cropped out a huge sunspot from the foreground rocks.  Still, given the less than optimal conditions, I was pleased with the composition and the photograph.

Short of a small adjustment to the exposure of the top half of the photograph, this shot is straight out of the camera with little post processing.  The new lens is tack sharp, and though manual focus is a new adventure for me, I rather enjoyed playing with the focus peaking and zooming in on the touchscreen to see that everything was in focus.  In reality, the field of view is so shallow, that everything past a couple of meters is in focus at infinity.

I’m looking forward to trying my hand at night photography with the lens.  There were a few cloudless nights that would have been good candidates, but it was cold, I was tired, and slogging the tripod up to the fields on the property did not seem appealing at the time.  Also, my remote release that I bought for my old Nikon did not work for my new Fujifilm.  Sure, I could have used a timer to avoid camera shake, but like I said…it was cold, and I was tired.

Until next time, then…

Sampling Deity

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This photograph was taken during a morning hike in Garrapata State Park, Carmel, California.  I bought a 10-stop neutral density filter for just this purpose, and I was so pleased with the result.  For those less photographically inclined, a neutral density (ND) filter is basically like a pair of sunglasses for the camera.  You screw it on to the lens and it blocks out a certain portion of light.  A 10-stop ND filter blocks out, you may have guessed, ten times the light that would ordinarily hit the sensor.  By doing this, you can reduce the shutter speed and anything that moves—such as waves and water—becomes blurred.  Many photographers use ND filters to achieve this “softness” in waterfalls, waves, etc.

This was one of my first attempts at using a ND filter, and I was thoroughly impressed by the effect.  The waves were crashing on these two rocks off the coast of Garrapata, but in this photograph, they look calm and soft.  The smoothness of the water belies the strong, fierce waves.  The ND filter also allows much more saturated colors, which can be artificially boosted in post processing, but here occurred straight out of camera.

I love the sharp contrast between the jagged rocks and the smoothness of the waves.  It is completely unnatural in light of what was actually happening while this exposure was being captured, but it appears completely organic.  I am not usually one to manipulate nature in my photographs.  Generally, I take what is given to me, capturing a moment of nature and editing the photograph only to enhance the natural effect, perhaps to capture the melancholy of how I felt when I pressed the shutter button.

Here, however, I sampled a bit of deity and fiddled with the elements.  The effect is completely different than what I saw; the photograph, in this way, is far closer to a piece of art than simply my effort to capture the art of nature which was presented to me.  There is something to be said for the artistic quality, though I must admit that I am a bit uncomfortable determining how the elements should be portrayed.  It is a departure from my more documentary nature photography, but this is, perhaps, not a bad thing…

Token of Winter

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I have not seen native snow since 1989.

We had our fair share in Winston-Salem, and more than our share during the blizzard in law school in Richmond.  Still, there is something about the chill of the air and the stark beauty of fresh snow that will always be a part of me.  I do not miss it like Anna does.  In her mind, no amount of snow would be enough.  I have learned not to challenge this desire with practical thoughts such as getting out of the driveway or being stuck in a snow drift on the highway.  I don’t want to ruin the Narnian illusion.

It did not snow when we were in North Carolina, though David did message us to let us know that it snowed the very day after we returned.  Anna was, in a word, displeased.  It was cold enough in Panthertown Valley, however, to throw some icicles off of Schoolhouse Falls.  The mud puddles had frozen solid, which made hiking a bit more of an adventure than usual, but it was a sweet reminder that winter does come in parts.

Perhaps next year we will have the opportunity to show the kids snow in North Carolina.  Kemper loves it, and I know that Nora will adore it as well.  (There are few things in which she doesn’t derive some pleasure.)  Nevertheless, this picture will have to serve as a reminder of winter to those of us who nary see icicles or snow.

And for anyone who is wondering, yes, we did crack it off for the kids to eat.

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Roots, Radical.

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If you have read any number of my posts, it would not be an overstatement to say that I enjoy metaphors.  This lonely tree on the beach at Jekyll Island just begs for one, and who am I to deny what nature has so freely given.

I took this photograph on our “babymoon” just before Nora was born.  By “just before” I mean that Anna went into labor shortly after this photograph was taken.  We got back to the house just in time to turn around and go to the hospital, where Nora was born a brief time later.  I did not have time to process this photography until quite a while later, and here it is two and a half years later before I am posting it.

I was this lonely tree for longer than I would care to admit.  I had come out of that phase of my life by the time I came upon this tree, roots bare, and stark against the cloudless sky, but it is no less significant.  It represents many of the days that I walked on the beach at Big Talbot or nearer to our house in Ponte Vedra searching for soil into which I could sink my roots.  The irony of looking for this in the shifting sands of beaches is not, now, lost on me.  Nor is it lost on me that this tree took root on those sands, or that it continues to stand there despite hurricanes and erosion that would have felled weaker trees.

In fact, this tree stands because it is small, and its roots are proportionally giant and deep.  It would not surprise me if the root system was as large and deep as the tree is tall and wide.  As I look at it now, I imagine that the roots are a mirror image of the branches above the gray sand.  They are gnarled and strong, irregular and radical.  Radical is a favorite word of mine.  It literally comes from the Latin word radix, which means root.  To be radical is to affect the fundamental, root nature of something.  Conversely, a radical is someone who advocates a departure from the fundamental, root nature of a thought or idea.  I love the derivations, the roots of words.  They give words that we take for granted so many more layers, more strata, which, if you were wondering, means layers of things strewn about…I could go on and on…ad infinitum.

And they wonder why I was a Latin and English major…

On Gratitude

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When I write these posts, I often just start typing and what comes, comes.  I thought about this post a fair bit driving into work this morning at 2:45 AM.  I reflected on the days that I spent in North Carolina with my family, and how I would have far preferred to be there to just about anywhere else.  I also thought about how lucky we are to be able to spend that time in the mountains with family that loves us and whom we can tolerate—even enjoy—being with for a week.

Being grateful is one thing, and a good thing, but gratitude is something different.  Gratitude is active.  You can be grateful, but you show gratitude.  I don’t think I ever reflected on the difference, but as I sat down to write this post, I was struck by the distinction.  I was grateful to have been in North Carolina, but did I show gratitude for being there?  I thanked my parents, and David, who graciously allowed us to stay on his property, and, perhaps, this was enough.  Still, I am nagged by the thought that I could have done more.

It is a new year, and in this new year I will make a concerted effort to actively show gratitude for what I have been given.  I have worked incredibly hard for the life I have, but in many ways, I have been blessed with things that I could never have received without a great deal of grace.  I am slowly recognizing this, and I am grateful for all of the blessings in my life.  Gratitude, like faith, without action is nothing.

So, thank you, one and all, for all that I have been given, and all that I am able to give.  As I start this new year, the first of a new decade, I will continue to reflect on these thoughts of gratitude.  Perhaps they will nag at me even in the times where I want to be anything but grateful.  Life is a journey, not a destination, and like this forest path, I will try my heartfelt best to walk it with gratitude.