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.

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.

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.

Kemp & Brynn

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My sister and I were close as kids.  We lived across the river (literally) from our school friends, and we were often the only playmates the other had.  Nevertheless, I knew which buttons to push to get a rise from her, and I was like a churlish child on an elevator for the first time pressing all of them at once, at times, just to see them light up.  To my memory, she only paid me back once, when I was six or seven and learning to rollerblade.  I fell, and she tried to help me up with her foot…on my back…twice…  If this is the worst that I can remember, then I suppose we had a pretty good relationship.

Since we had kids (Claire’s daughter, Brynn on the left, and my son, Kemper on the right), however, we have grown much closer.  It may be the newfound maturity on both our parts, but I would like to think that we are just in a better place to be even closer than we were growing up.  She is a single parent, and a damn fine one.  My dad and I have both taken on the male figure in Brynn’s life, and in many ways I think that this has made me grow up even faster than just having two kids of my own.

I love seeing Kemp, Brynn, and now my daughter Nora, all playing together.  Kemp is gentle and kind with both girls, and very protective.  Brynn mothers Nora, and Nora adores them both.  We had the chance to spend a good chunk of time together in North Carolina over the New Year, and it is the best family vacation that I can remember.  Everyone was on their best behavior – even me – and the kids played constantly together.  This photograph was taken on a short hike on the property to an amphitheatre that was built for the boys’ camp that existed on the property in its earlier life.

Although I was trying to get Kemp and Brynn to pose for a shot, this one is candid.  It perfectly captures Brynn’s childish pleasure at being with the whole family (especially Kemper), and Kemper’s sly amusement at the world itself.  I love this shot, and I smile every time it comes up on my photo album that I have playing in my office at all times.  Claire and I were close, but I know that we want our kids to be even closer.  I think that is, ultimately, what we worked towards growing up without even knowing it.

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Steve at the Falls

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My family became the subject of a number of portraits during our post-Christmas vacation in Brevard, North Carolina.  On the whole, the portraiture was done mostly willingly (except my mother, who loathes having her picture taken – much like me).  I did not push her, except for one photograph with the grand-kids and one family portrait, which even I deigned to sit for.  This photograph was a candid of my father admiring Schoolhouse Falls in Panthertown Valley.

Although the falls were admittedly beautiful from the front, the view from behind the falls was something else entirely.  We had met a sweet older lady on the hike, just as we were about to turn around, who advised us to take ten minutes and hike to the falls that were running more strongly than she had ever seen due to the rain and snow melt.  She said that if we were careful, we could even hike behind the falls, which piqued my curiosity.  As soon as we turned the corner onto the side path, we heard the crashing of the falls.  The hike was easy to the falls itself, and I took a number of photographs of the falls that I have added to my portfolio “Falls.”

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Climbing

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My parents have identical photographs of me at Kemper’s age climbing amongst the rocky shores of Maine and up to the narrowest branches in the trees in our yard, which in hindsight (now as a parent) was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad practice.  Kemper is a bit more grounded than me, less of a risk-taker, which is why in his almost six years, he has not yet broken a bone.  By his age I had already broken both of my wrists (at the same time), a few ribs, and a number of toes.  I look back at this period of my life and laugh, though as a parent, I cannot imagine what I put my own through.

Kemper found the supine trees on Boneyard Beach at Big Talbot Island, which have been the subject of many posts in the past, and though they were only feet off the ground, he was still tentative in climbing them.  I urged him, almost begged him, to overcome his fears and climb.  As you can see by the wry smile on his face, it was a worthwhile pursuit.  Of course, once I got him to climb one without incident, every new one we came upon needed to be ascended, which made for a fitful photography session of the trees, but was great fodder for capturing him candidly enjoying his boyhood.  When we were in North Carolina last week, he had shed his fear of climbing somewhat, and mounted the rocks on the property with great aplomb.  Still, he was more keen to slosh in the creeks and melted snow puddles with his wellingtons.  He is grounded, and this will undoubtedly bode well for him in the future.  Breaks are a part of childhood, a part of life, but his caution may let him escape the many breaks of bone and heart that I experienced.  This is my hope, perhaps a naive one, but my hope no less.

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Kemper

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How my son has changed in the brief time since I took this candid portrait of him sitting on the parapets of his appropriated, improvised stone castle on the beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California…  This is my favorite picture of him at this age, then just four, and now about to turn six at the end of January.  I took a number of shots with him looking the camera dead to rights, but something, perhaps a wanton setter or retriever frolicking in the surf, caught his eye, and the shutter released at just the right moment to capture him as I see him often, wondering at the world, a younger version of me–for better or worse.

I have a distinct sense that he will eclipse me with photography.  His sensibilities and sensitivities are beyond his years, and he is patient and kind.  He is gregarious, unlike me, and perhaps he will be more comfortable approaching a stranger for a portrait.  Above all, he is curious.  He has not yet ceased to find awe in the smallest things, which it took me years and a good macro lens to rediscover from the bowers of my childhood.  We are going to North Carolina just after Christmas and for the New Year, and I will bring my old camera and kit lenses to see what he will be able to find through them.  His attention span is limited, but his wonder of nature will, I think, balance the scales appropriately…or it could be a quick introduction to a skill for which his maturity is not yet prepared.

Like the rock in this photograph, which he gravitated towards as if he were a satellite, he has a favorite stone perch in North Carolina, though it is not a castle there, but the great jutting precipice in the Lion King movie from which Simba was introduced to the kingdom.  The Lion King rock is on the property of a family friend where we stay, along the drive to the upper cabin, and scarcely will the wheels have stopped their revolutions before he is unbuckled and hastening towards it.  Perhaps this year he will be able to climb it by himself, a feat he has yet to master.  If so, I fear we will see little of him that first day.  I was like him as a child, happy to be within myself amongst nature and my own thoughts on any manner of subjects.  Perhaps this year, I will send him out with a camera in hand to find what he finds interesting or beautiful.  Photography has been a window into my psyche, and perhaps it will give me an even better view into his.

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Among the Ferns

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These bracken ferns on the moors in Yorkshire are substantially shorter than those in the lake district; nevertheless, they nearly engulfed my wife, Anna, as she tried to follow the path cut between the fiddleheads that popped out from the skeletons of heather, long since overcome by the dark green ferns.  This photograph was taken at dusk outside of Haworth, England, where the Brontë sisters lived and wrote.  Their stories were heavily   influenced by the moors and the hardy people who lived on them (especially Wuthering Heights).  Indeed, in this photograph, on the horizon to the left, there is a lone sycamore next to the barely perceptible ruins of a farmhouse (Top Withens), which is said to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights.  My mother-in-law grew up among the ferns on the moors, and she is closer to nature than anyone I have ever met.  Yorkshire does something indelible to a person.  The first time you walk over the top of a moor and look down into the Worth Valley at the train steaming along the tracks towards Leeds, you realize that you are in a living snapshot of a much simpler time.

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Silhouette

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The word silhouette is derived from the name of Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister who, in the mid eighteenth century, was forced by France’s credit crisis during the Seven Years’ War to impose severe economic demands upon the French people, particularly the wealthy.  Because of de Silhouette’s austere economies, his name became synonymous with anything done or made cheaply.  Prior to the advent of photography, silhouette profiles cut from black card were the cheapest way of recording a person’s appearance.  I think that this silhouette of the female photographer on the rock is one of my best black and white compositions.  The mist and morning layer in the background contrasts sharply with the wet stone in the foreground, with the tiniest break in the line of the outcropping (in perfect thirds, I might add) made by the photographer.  I cannot say that my eye was drawn to her initially, but once it caught her, my eye became curious and could not look away – and if I did, I was always drawn back.

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Stillwater Cove

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This photograph, which is part of my Solitary collection, was taken a little after sunrise on the banks of Stillwater Cove in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, just below Pebble Beach.  The photograph is hazy, as the Soberanes fire was burning uncontrolled in the highlands during our visit, casting everything in a sepia glow.  This little sailboat was bobbing amongst the bull kelp and sea otters that frequent the cove.  I was captivated by the lone person on the bow of the boat, who sat there unaffected by the world that was only a hundred yards or so from him.  I, too, was by myself this morning, lost in the beauty of the cove, though the dogs on their morning walks brought me back to reality as they rollicked in the waves.

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