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.

Social Distancing from an Expert

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It is that brief interval of time at 4:37 AM, between laconically tossing a peanut butter pretzel in my mouth and the first satisfying, ultimately ephemeral crunch, the mysteries of the world unfold themselves to me.  Sadly (for purposes of my own enlightenment), this reflectory period lasts but an instant before I nosh the pretzel into the verisimilitude of mastication and metaphor.

I wrote yesterday about my partner, my wife, an extrovert in exile during this period of revelatory self-distancing.  It is with great patience, a master’s degree in early childhood development and developmental risks, two years of teaching early childhood special ed, five years of teaching elementary ed, and two years of being at home raising the munchkin, that Anna finally reached the point of taking a razor blade to her bumper and the sticker that said “My child is an positive citizen.”  I cannot say that I blame her.

Children, on the whole, are enigmas.  Take for example, my firstborn.  Although I graduated from college, law school, and a post-doctorate program with pomp and circumstance, this little imp is smarter, by measure, then I ever was.  If and when he discovers nuclear fission, I pray that he uses it for good and not to get back at the three-year-old girl who dared to challenge his story that he discovered gold in North Carolina.

Our mayor has issued a conditional lockdown order, that those who could work from home must work from home.  Eager to initiate my obedient, pajama-clad workdays, I was soon informed by the Man that, much to my disappointment, I was not “dispensable” to the team.  Given my history with law firm politics, the fact that I am indispensable  should give me the ultimate reassurance.  Nevertheless, I found myself seeking out the hypochondriacal assistant who works at the other end of the office, in order that I might expectorate (with some gusto and propinquity to her) the post-nasal drip that has developed from all of this damn oak pollen.  Sadly, she had heeded the order, and was working from home.  My throat is tickly, and my spirit is spurred to action—which action, I might add, inevitably culminates (in my mind) victoriously, whilst I am in my pajamas.

Never one to be considered in apparatchik, I find myself in an uncomfortable situation.  On the one hand, I want to continue at work until the City shuts the power off (a threat that the Jacksonville Mayor actually voiced).  Yet, on the other hand, which hand I have carefully and diligently weighed, I want a good, long, peaceful nap.  I am not sure whether I am better served to try to sleep under the hollow in my desk at work, or in the loft at home.  Something, well, two things (children) really, tell me that the hollow was good enough for Mr. Toad and is good enough for me.

I hope everyone here in America and across the pond is doing well and are happy and healthy, albeit malcontent and ever so slightly disgruntled.  (For my Yorkshire readers, I am not quite sure of the kind antonym for “well chuffed,” but I imagine that is where you are right now.)

Good luck, Godspeed, and if you need lessons on social distancing, I am offering a master class tomorrow evening with a concentration on using biting sarcasm to establish a safe personal distance between you and your antagonist.  Attendance, as you may imagine, is severely limited.

The Extrovert in Exile

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I saw a funny Facebook post the other day about how self-quarantining and social distancing was, for introverts, the culmination of their life’s work.  I saw one today that said, “Check on your extrovert friends; we are not OK.”

For a self-described hermit, who has been practicing social distancing since at least the age of twelve, I have a lot of extroverted friends.  It’s not my fault.  I am like a magnet for social people.  I have tried valiantly to wear my scorn and antipathy on my sleeve, but they all brush it of as bluster and introverted bravado and then want to talk about how funny it is that I pretend that I am a hermit.  An hour later, when they are done talking at me, I have already crawled into my mental hole, and they tell me what a good listener I am…a vicious cycle, indeed.

I even happened to marry one – a kind, beautiful, chatty-Cathy of an extrovert.  Before amiable-Anna stayed home with the munchkin, she had been a professional extrovert, paid to talk to little people and to teach them how to become social butterflies, themselves.  She was an elementary school teacher.  If you sit down and think about it for a minute (any longer and the already impish introvert in you will get really steamed), elementary school is a not-so-subtle indoctrination into extroversion and general gregariousness.  The few of us who resist, and resist with some steadfast conviction, make it out relatively unscathed…only to be substantially scathed by middle school…

So, it comes to pass that my dearest, chatty-Cathy wife was thrust back into the teaching fray in the midst of the pandemic.  She is home, stir-crazy, with the munchkin and the minion, the dog, two cats (one of which is delightfully antisocial and crotchety and a bit of a spirit animal of mine, though I won’t readily admit it), and 17 goldfish.  Interestingly, the term “stir-crazy” likely originated as a slang term for “Start-crazy,” referring to the notorious 19th century British prison of Start Newgate in London where prisoners were isolated as a form of punishment.

So here she finds herself, committed to house arrest for the greater good, in the hacienda de hoosegow, an extrovert in exile, which is, perhaps, the most apt term.  Like Napoleon in Elba, she is so close—yet so far from her social network of moms and coffee dates and general social frivolity.

I cannot understand her angst and longing for social interaction.  Apparently talking to me is not enough for her, even though talking to her is often more than enough for me…  I don’t pretend to understand how the extroverted mind works, but even though I am loath find comfort in a flock (the very root of “gregarious”), I understand that chatty-Cathy, amiable-Anna needs socialization.  Therefore, I arranged a playdate on Saturday with my assistant and paralegal, the only two people I can stand and who, likely, did not have the plague.  This playdate for Anna was a tacit understanding that I understood, and, I dare say, even condoned her socially-accepted, normative, “friendly” tendencies.

She enjoyed herself thoroughly.

It is Tuesday, and I am still recovering and recharging.

So, hug your extrovert in exile.  Let them know that this too shall pass.  And then, gird your loins, because they are going to want to talk about it…

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…

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.

On Surviving…

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We survived the first day.

No call.  No tears.  No arson.

All in all, a good start to the first grade.

Now you may think that I am being a bit melodramatic—after all, Kemp is a good kid—but I am also being realistic after the ups and downs of last year.

No child is perfect, and this is a lesson that we learned the hard way when Kemper came back from Christmas break last year.  He has matured exponentially over the summer, and I knew that he would be in a different place, with a different teacher, who has more experience and, perhaps, more patience with little boys who just want to make you laugh.

The kid has a heart of gold, as I did at his age.  He only wants to please, and I lose sight of this in the moments where he is being obstinate or so literal that it makes you want to pull the three hairs you have left on your head out (personally speaking).  I lost some of that innocence and pureness of spirit in college and law school, but I feel like I am slowly gaining it back—which just goes to show that it does not have to be lost.

I know that I need to foster this uncharacteristic empathy and softness inside of him, and make him understand that despite the sometimes-toxic masculinity that the world presents as the paradigm, it is ok to be sensitive and caring, and it is ok to embrace the empathy that is innate within him.  I hope that he is able to hold onto these characteristics for as long as he can, at least through his formative years, because it is a lot easier to go back to a learned behavior than to start from scratch.

So now we wait for the call.  Maybe it will not come this year.  Maybe he’s bled all of the angst from his system, but I don’t think so.  I see the anxiety in his great big brown eyes, and the concern for things much larger than himself, and in those concerns, I revisit my own childhood and force myself to think of how I can make it easier for him, how I can facilitate finding himself in the morass that is growing up.

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On a New Year…

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To say that it was a quiet weekend would be something of an understatement.  Anna and the kids went down to Disney with a friend, and I was left to fend for myself in utter silence.  In my defense, I had made plans to go fishing with a buddy, but his boat was in the shop, and he ended up going out of town.  My solitude, therefore, was not completely of my own choosing—but I embraced it nonetheless.

Kemper starts school tomorrow—first grade—and to have seen him grow up just this summer has been amazing.  Last year was a learning experience for all involved, and I am not naïve enough to think that the first few weeks of the new schoolyear will be without its ups and downs.  Once he settles in, though, I am hopeful that this year will be even better than the last.

Nora begins a three day-a-week program soon, as well, and she blossomed in her “class” last year.  She is social, but I am terribly curious to see what her new independent, sassy streak will mean to her previously demure behavior.  As they say, history seldom remembers well-behaved women, so her cheekiness will likely serve her well.  It is something that her brother and I can foster with great aplomb.  I knew that she wouldn’t stay the sweet little cherub forever, and I am so enjoying her personality as it comes out more and more each day.

Life is good, and I look forward to seeing how much better it gets this year.

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On Miniature Versions of Yourself

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Although I have written a fair amount about Kemper and his travels with me, I have not given Nora her due credit.  The munchkin was a trooper on the trails, much better in fact than the minion was at his age.  For anyone who knows me, you can see from Nora’s face and general baby-bulbousness, the apple did not fall far from the tree.  There is, as I am wont to say, no denying that this one belongs to me.

She is a mellow little thing, until something lights her red hair on fire, and then she can throw a tantrum with the best of them.  Yes, she gets this from me, too.  She adores Kemper, and if she had her druthers, she would just follow around him the whole day keeping him company and playing with whatever toys he didn’t requisition from her (with force) because they were too small, and she might choke on them.

Because her mind is curious and wanders, she is great for candids (as this shot attests), and I look forward to using her as a subject as she grows up around me with speed that I didn’t think was possible, even though I have seen it firsthand with Kemper.

 

On the Perfect Composition

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I have taken many photographs that I am proud of, but there are some that I finish developing, set aside for a day or so, and then come back to with a sense of wonder that I actually took the shot.  This is one such picture.

Compositionally it is exactly what I was going for.  I am a disciple of the “rule of thirds,” which you can see in many of my photographs.  It is why you rarely, if ever, see my subject in the middle of the frame.  I think it distinguishes amateur photography from more advanced photography, and it was one of the first rules I ever followed.  It’s a simple trick to make the photos look more professional, and it works beautifully in this photograph.

Like the post yesterday, this one employs a long exposure to soften the movement of the water around the rocks.  It was a bit more overcast on this day, and so I was able to take an eight second exposure, which completely blurred out the individual waves.  Because I was able to manipulate the light with the neutral density filter, the sky and sunlight appear much more golden and clearer than the actual atmosphere of the day would have permitted.

Most of the other shots that I took without using a long exposure from that day were gloomy, almost gothic captures of the rocky coastline.  This one is anything but gloomy, and that in and of itself is an accomplishment.  Because I had to take my time framing the shot, focusing, putting the filter on, manually adjusting the exposure settings, and only then firing the shutter, the photograph is not accidentally great like many of mine turn out to be.  It was one of the rare shots where I saw the composition in my mind and then captured it exactly how I wanted it.  Overall, it is one of my favorite photographs from the trip.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @stamandphotos and on Instagram @stamandphotography.

On Capturing Time

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The post’s title might lead one to think that this is going to be a philosophical post, which I regret to inform you, it is not.  This is a post on process, and the ability through some doing, to capture just a bit more than an instant in time with a camera.  Ansel Adams once noted that “You don’t take a photograph; you make it.”  This spoke to his process of spending hours in the darkroom on a single photograph.  Although he captured it through his camera, the photograph was as much about what he made of it as what he took.  This is why post-processing is such an important part of photography, whether in the physical dark room, or in digital software, such as Lightroom and Photoshop, which I use.

This trip, I set out to make photographs.  On the days that Kemp did not burst into our bedroom with the drive to go hiking with daddy, I took it upon myself to go to Garrapata and try out something that I had been wanting to do for a while: long exposure photography.

The premise of long exposure photography is pretty simple.  The shutter of the camera stays open for a longer period of time, letting more light in, and capturing a much longer “exposure.”  An “average” exposure in good lighting might be 1/250th of a second, whereas my long exposures this trip ranged from 1 seconds to 30 seconds.  If I were to have taken them by simply setting the shutter speed longer, too much light would have hit the sensor, and the shot would have been overexposed and completely white.  To counteract this, I gave my lens sunglasses…basically.

A neutral density (ND) filter blocks out a substantial portion of light so that the shutter can stay open for a long time, while allowing just enough light in to correctly expose the shot.  I used a 10-stop ND filter, which is on the darker, denser end of the filters.  This allowed me to capture 1 to 30 seconds of exposure in bright morning light.  This photograph is an awesome example of what resulted.  This one is only about 2 seconds, but it captures the movement of the waves, rather than freezing them in time like some of my other photographs.  You can’t see the individual droplets of water, but you can see the curves and currents, which are absent in the others.

One long exposure shot takes about 5-10 minutes to set up, because you have to frame the shot, focus the camera, put the filter on, adjust the settings manually to account for the filter, shoot the photo, and then go back to make sure everything was exposed correctly.  As such, it was a perfect exercise to undertake whilst Kemper wasn’t around.  The chorus of “I want a cimminum roll,” or “Are you finished yet,” would have made the morning a bit less enjoyable than it was simply taking my time and capturing 10-20 photos, rather than the hundred or so every other morning.  Still, I missed the little guy’s company.  Luckily, he did not stay away for too long.

Photographs are generally about capturing an infinitely small moment forever.  Sometimes, however, you can capture a bit more, like the curves of a wave or the flow of the current over the rocks.  I have always loved long exposure shooting, and I was so excited to be able to try it out this trip.

Also, follow me on Twitter @stamandphotos.

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