Insomnia and Ducks

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Insomnia is awful.  I have been having trouble sleeping, even before I was sent off to self-quarantine upstairs last week (a lovely little coronavirus scare to keep me on my toes), and so I couldn’t employ my go-to coping mechanism of going into work at 2:30 in the morning and writing, whether it be one of these posts—which I know have been few and far between—or any of the panoply of novels, short stories, or legal articles that I begin only to get distracted by another idea or topic like a young racoon chancing upon his first shiny bauble.  (Apologies for the Faulkner-length sentence.)  It sucks.  (There, some Hemingway to balance it out.)

As a consequence of my insomnia, I got out of bed, perfunctorily showered, and dressed for work.  I must have been feeling a bit plucky, because I chose a golf shirt rather than a button down and a tie.  (Mind you, I haven’t seen an actual client in months, but I like to keep up appearances.)  My office is both a greenhouse (on account of all of the plants) and a meat locker (on account of the schizophrenic/bipolar air conditioning in the building).  I throw on a sweatshirt, thinking nothing of the embroidered “University of Florida Law School” emblem just over my heart.   This, it turns out, in hindsight, and with the gift of retrospection, was somewhat of an error in judgment.

I tiptoe out of the bedroom, lest I wake Anna, get in my car, and realize that I still have the ambient music playing that was supposed to lull me to blissful sleep.  (Lies.)  Let me tell you what—if you have never experienced cellos and formerly-soft synthesizers decibel levels higher than front row at a Kiss concert, because the last music you played was Social Distortion unnaturally loudly, because you were at the office until 9:30 working on an appellate brief, because the boss is a procrastinator.  But I digress.

I arrived at the gas station to get my coffee, as I am wont to do.  I always enjoy getting to the gas station before 3:00, because that is, apparently, when the shift change for the sheriff’s office happens.  So here I am, likely with a caked line of drool down my chin, at 2:45 in the morning, in the company of seven large deputies.

“Morning guys,” I say, recognizing some of them from my previous pre-3:00 AM trips.  In unison, almost as if they had trained for this exact moment, they all nod at me slightly, in sort of an acknowledgment that yes, I may pass without incident.

Unfortunately, they were bogarting the coffee station, and I did not feel like further disturbing them (the nods were enough), and so I made my way to my old crutch—the energy drink.  I bought one (read three) and before the door to the cooler even shut, one of the employees, who is a bit slow on the uptick, approaches me, rather sheepishly, I might add.  I think nothing of it until Carl opens his stubbly lips.

“Do I remember you saying you were a lawyer?”

Shit.  Why am I my mother’s son, who must make friends with everyone?  Damn you cordiality.

“That’s right,” I say with a smile on my face, which was 67% genuine, which counts for something.

Carl proceeds to tell me that he inherited a bar from his mother.  (Let me tell you, this context made Carl’s character a whole lot rounder and believable in the pantomime that was my pre-dawn frolic and detour to get coffee.)  We go through the steps of recording of a promissory note (there’s really only one step…you hand it to the clerk and pay $5), and I thank God I took the Virginia Bar as well as Florida’s, because in Virginia, the sadists they are, the Bar examiners test secured transactions.  Without that knowledge, I would have been lost.

Carl shakes my hand, genuinely appreciative, and I feel a bit schmucky for my inner monologue being so glib.  With Carl satisfied I make my way up to the counter with my one (read three) energy drink, and that is where I meet Kyle.  Kyle is about seven and a half feet tall and not narrow.  (I happen to be a subject matter expert in want of narrowness.)  I hand my drinks to Kyle, he scans them, but before the kindly, pasty young ogre hands them back to me, I apparently must pay a toll or solve a riddle.

“You went to UF Law?” he asks, staring at my chest.

I look down and see that this, indeed, is my post-grad sweatshirt.  Shit again.

“Yep.”  Ok, now give me the drink, I think to myself.  Transaction complete.  I don’t need my receipt.  I don’t need to show ID (or empathy).  Give. Me. The. Drink.  And then Kyle says the single most unexpected thing I have heard in some time.

“Is it illegal to steal ducks from the park?”

“What’s that?” I ask genuinely.  Yep, wasn’t ready for that one.  Hell, perhaps the ambient music worked, and I am dreaming.

“Ducks.  From the county park.  Is it illegal to take them?  I mean, they’re just sitting right there.”  They’re just sitting right there.  That sentence will be etched in my brain until I take my last breath.

I crane my neck to look Kyle straight in his duck-thieving eyes, and I tell him that if he has to use the word “steal” it’s probably not a good idea.  In my most judicious voice, I tell him that I would advise against it.

In the back of my mind, though, I’m thinking to myself.  Well, hell, if your lumbering butt can catch a duck, it’s yours.  Abscond with the sucker.  I guarantee you that no one’s going to believe the provenance of that duck when you tell them the story of how you, with agility and aplomb, caught a duck with your bare hands at the park.

And then I think to myself, is it really any less conceivable than what has happened to me in the last seven minutes?

But seriously, insomnia.

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.

In my mind, I’m going to Carolina

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We head back up to North Carolina for a week tomorrow.  There is something about crossing the state line from South Carolina and feeling like I’m home.  I miss Winston-Salem, and the nostalgia sets in every time that I drive through the main entrance to Wake’s campus.  The feeling of home is much more than being at Wake, walking to classes, or spending the weekends walking with Anna to Reynolda Village through the woods.

North Carolina is where I became who I am.  Though I lost myself for a while, I have recaptured that feeling, and I long to be back in the Piedmont, or even back to the mountains.  I know I will feel the same fulfilment of longing that I feel every time I return, and I know that I will feel heartsick to leave in the new year.

For now, though, in my mind, I’m going to Carolina.

Wright

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This picture makes me feel like a phony.

Compositionally, the photograph is nearly perfect.  The sight lines of the rocks and the mountain in the back converge on Kemper.  There is strong texture and contrast between the foreground and background.  Kemp forms the apex of a natural triangle, and the rule of thirds has been followed with strict adherence.  He’s looking away from the camera, natural and insouciant.  Hell, the wildflowers are even in bloom.

Yes.  This is technically ideal, and, had I planned it, I could not have executed it much better.  But that is just the thing.  I didn’t plan it.  I snapped the picture of Kemper on a rock in Garrapata State Park because he had come with me on a cold and windy morning, and he found a rock that he wanted to climb, and far be it for me to stop him from doing what brought me such joy when I was his age.

Perhaps there was something in my subconscious that told me to stand exactly where I stood to take this picture, rather than a couple feet to the left or right.  Perhaps it wasn’t happenstance.  I still remember one of my elementary school art teachers looking at a lump of unformed clay with me and saying that we had to take what the clay gave us.  What she meant, I think, was that an artist is not always the creator (if ever), but instead is—to use an archaic, but fitting term—the wright, who makes the best of what is given to them.

Ultimately, I didn’t have to take the photograph.  I didn’t have to make the decisions I did in post-processing, to bring out the contrast between the foreground and the misty background, or to crop it as I did.  But there we are.

This photo is not going to win any prizes or be displayed in a gallery, but it will make the rotation on the slideshow in my office.  When I look up and glance at it for the moment it remains, I will appreciate the happenstance of art a bit more, understanding that as a photographer I am not so much a creator as a wright…and that is OK.

Weathered

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I love the textures of this photograph.  It was taken with a telephoto lens, not a macro, as I did not own one at this point.  Still, the detail came out perfectly, even the little snail tucked under one of the crevices in the broken trunk of the live oak.  There is a subtle, yet almost violent movement in the lines, which lead to the center, but the many fissures and cracks scatter one’s attention.

“Boneyard Beach” on Big Talbot Island just north of Jacksonville, Florida is aptly named because of the many skeletons of driftwood trees left behind by hurricanes and time.  This one must’ve fallen a number of years ago, because even the jagged edges had been smoothed, and I could run my hands over the wood without fear of splinters.  The diameter of the trunk was about 6 inches at its widest, which made it a rather small live oak.

The gradients and ribboned-patterns in the wood are beautiful, and they were what drew me to woodworking and turning bowls on the lathe (another one of my hobbies) in the first place.  Although these would have been enough to make and interesting composition, it is that little tulip snail that is almost hidden in plain sight that makes the photograph.  When I first took the photograph, I didn’t notice the little snail.  Now, however, I cannot draw my eyes away from it.  It is a subtle sign of life clinging to the underside of the long dead tree.

I can’t put my finger precisely on what feeling it evokes in me, but I sense a certain kinship with the snail.  It is a survivor amongst a powerful and rough-hewn backdrop, yet a part of it is anchored to something that was destroyed by a power greater than it can ever possibly conceive.  Perhaps, also, it is because the snail is alone, whether by choice or fate.  Whether it is a hermit or in exile, I can only venture to guess, but I cannot help anthropomorphizing the little tulip snail whatever its true reason for being there.

Verdigris

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Sometimes the loveliest composition is the most simple.  This photograph of the mossy trunk of a fallen water oak (Quercus Nigra) was taken in the Nocatee Preserve south of Jacksonville, Florida.  The day was extremely overcast, and the photographs that I came to take were not turning out as I had hoped.

I saw this tree lying astride the path, and I took a dozen or so photographs of it from various angles.  As I was leaving, I decided to put my macro lens on to see what I could capture with the lens and ring light setup that I use.  I took a few test shots of the tree, with the aperture as far open as it could go, and I did not think anything of them until I returned home to see what had turned out.

Life is often like this, recognizing the beauty only in hindsight.  This is by no means my most treasured photograph, but it is special insofar as it was a happy accident that reminds me never to dismiss even the most mundane subject.  With the right angle and eye, most anything can turn into art, even a dime-a-dozen fallen water oak in the middle of a North Florida swamp.

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Deer Moss

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This lichen (Cladonia Evansii) is a familiar one.  Known mistakenly as “deer moss” this fungus is a lichen, not moss.  As the name suggests, this fruiticose lichen is important forage for whitetail deer in the eastern states.  Though not as plentiful amongst the trees as the usnea lichen that seems to attache to the branches and trunks of even the youngest saplings, among the rocky hills, the light ash-gray clumps of lichen are visible from long distances, interspersed between the darker slate-gray stones.   The lichen grows extremely slowly, only three to ten millimeters per year.

The patch that Kemper and I found on our walk down the driveway was decades old and thick with a radius of lichen stretching out ten feet from the center in all directions.  The thalli (branches) are interwoven, and the result is a springy, spongy mass.   This type of lichen (Cladonia) can be found all over the world, and its name varies as the animals that forage on it change.  In the northernmost reaches, it is known as reindeer moss, and further south it is known as caribou moss.  Kemper and I even found some in a Jacksonville swamp during a hike, and sure enough, cast in the mud was a hoof print of a small whitetail deer.

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Framed

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Life is a kaleidoscope of perspectives.

I have had many perspectives in my relatively short life.  I have seen the world from the top and from about as low a bottom as anyone could imagine.  I have begged for forgiveness, often undeserved, and I have forgiven.  I have now even seen the world through my own children’s eyes.

Photography allows me to manipulate perspectives, to frame them in ways that you may have never thought to look at a particular scene.  This photograph was taken at Big Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville, Florida.  It was a hot summer day, and in my infinite foresight, I arrived around noon, just as the sun was reaching its apex in the sky.  The shadows played on the driftwood as it began its slow descent to the West.  I came upon a particularly large live oak (Quercus Virginiana), which had two large branches reaching towards the sky.  One was perfectly vertical, and the other was at about thirty degrees.  I took a number of photographs of the geometry of the branches, but none were particularly aesthetically pleasing.  Although mathematics often make photographs interesting, when it is particularly complex like a fractal in a snail’s shell, when the shapes are so simple, they sometimes do not lend themselves to a pleasing composition.

Determined to use them for a shot, I evaluated what struck me about them.  I zoomed into one of the closer shots I took, which approximately resembled this final photograph, and I loved the contrast between the dark, shadowed wood, and the brightly lit ocean and clear blue sky.  I reframed the photograph, itself a frame, and captured this scene.  The fact that the wave rolled in at the exact right time with a sandy color to complete the triangle was a bonus that I only realized when I was touching the photo up later that day.

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Growth

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Christmas break was supposed to be a reset.

Kemper had begun showing out at school, becoming increasingly obstinate to the teachers.  It had not fully made its way home, but we received emails every night or notes home in his folder that he had refused to do work or told the teacher he did not want to do something she asked.  He was five, and she was a brand new teacher, so we thought he might just be going through a phase and feeling out her boundaries.  Little did we realize that it was just the beginning of a truly rough patch.  But Christmas break was going to be a reset.  We would go to North Carolina, and all of the energy that he longed to let loose could be released in the mountain air.

We started the year with high hopes for Kemper.  We had begun to see a child psychologist before we left for North Carolina, and Kemper seemed to react well to him.  He showed none of the behavior that had been plaguing him at school, and we thought that he might have moved past the obstinance that he had begun to show.  The first day back was a disaster.  He yelled at the teacher, swatted at her, and flatly refused to do his math work.  He was sent to the principal, and Anna was called in to pick him up.  We disciplined him as we then thought appropriate, taking away his beloved stuffed animals, and this seemed to affect a change in his temperament.  The next day was as bad, if not worse.  The day after that he barely made it into the classroom before he had an outburst that sent him to the principal’s office.

We had him tested, and he proved to be off-the-charts gifted (which came as no surprise to us), and we thought he was just bored.  After many tears and gritted words, we walked away with a diagnosis of severe AD/HD.  The poor little guy could not physically sit still long enough to focus on his work, which he was being forced to do and then being scolded for not doing appropriately.  The psychiatrist suggested medication, which we very reticently put him on.  The change was immediate. Saturday was his sixth birthday, and we saw for the first time in a while the true Kemper coming back to us.

I took this photograph of a small patch of crustose lichen growing on the fallen trunk of a large red oak (Quercus Rubrum) in passing while on one of the many hikes that Kemper enjoyed (though he lamented his boredom along the way).  It did not mean much to me at the time, but in context it illustrates to me the rebirth of a new year.  Christmas break was not the reset we expected.  The fallen oak did not immediately sprout new leaves.  But in the darkness, there was a hint of life anew.  I may come upon this tree when we go back to North Carolina in June, and the lichen may cover the trunk by that point…or, it may just remain there in that little patch, growing slowly but steadily.  And that progress, as small as it might be, is enough.

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Cypress Sunset

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I have observed many sunsets in California over the past three years.  The view west from my in-laws’ house peeks through the greenery to a patch of ocean and sky.  There was nothing particularly special about this night’s sunset.  The sky was a bit hazy, which somewhat amplified the corona, but there were no pinks or purples to speak of just above the horizon, as I had seen on a number of occasions.  Still, I managed to wrestle myself away from the others and stroll down to the path that runs along the ocean on Scenic Drive in Carmel-by-the-Sea.  I took a number of shots of the setting sun, but this one, framed by two yin and yang Monterey cypresses, was my favorite of the lot.

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