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.

 

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 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 Path Less Traveled By

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As an English major and a writer, I find metaphors in just about everything I do.  Just as I referenced the metaphor of Kemper on the path in yesterday’s post, this photograph of divergent paths struck me when I came upon it during a solo hike in Garrapata.  Kemper had decided that three days of strenuous hiking in a row was enough daddy-son time, and he sat that morning out—with the express condition that I bring a cinnamon (pronounced “cimminum”) roll for him on my way back through the village.

I love this photograph, not for the intrinsic compositional value of it, but because it is the literal embodiment of Frost’s poem (sans the yellow wood).  I took the one less traveled by, and indeed it did make all the difference.  It has, quite probably, scarred me for life.  Not exactly the effect that it had on Frost, but this is reality and Frost’s poem was a metaphor.

You can see in the bottom right corner, if you zoom in on the photograph, the incipient bunch of tripartite leaves of what, it turns out, is poison oak.  It was so prevalent along the paths, that certainly no one in their right mind would have traipsed through virulent shrubbery, and so I paid it no further thought until a few days post-hike.  Further, I am used to poison ivy, which grows on a vine rather than a bush of regret and sadness.  Sadly, some of the evils of the West Coast are disguised as hedgerows.

The path was, at the time, a fun little adventure.  It meandered closer to the edge of the cliffs’ edges, while keeping a respectful distance from the precipice in most spots.  There was a dodgy stretch, but some travelers, as disinclined to stride along a hare’s-breath of path juxtaposed against a sixty-foot plummet, had cut a secondary looping jaunt (through the damnable undergrowth) that avoided the cliff’s edge and certain death.  This was acceptable to me, and quite lovely, on account of the omnipresent, verdant, and then-innocuous shrub of despair.

When Anna, Nora, Kemper and I came to Garrapata later that day, I took Kemper on a small section of the secondary trail.  He was reticent to follow, but, ultimately, he did.  I told him only “big kids” could come on the path, and this was enough to carry the day.  Luckily it was chilly, and he was wearing jeans and a jacket – fully armored against the chaparral of anguish.

By Kemper’s age (6.5 years) I had already broken both of my wrists, sliced my thumb to the bone with a utility knife, and cracked a few toes; but he has, heretofore, not suffered any major bodily injuries.  He is cautious of the unbeaten paths, for which I am grateful.  In Frost’s poem, the narrator does not rush headlong down the path less traveled by.  Instead, “long I stood / and looked down one as far as I could / to where it bent in the undergrowth.”  As impulsive as he can be, this is Kemper’s general approach to life choices.  It will serve him well.

On the Journey Ahead

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I am sure that in a few years (e.g., when he hits puberty) the allure of Kemper walking away from me on a wooded path will have gone the way of Old Yeller, but for now, I cannot stop taking pictures of him doing just that.  If I ever work up the gumption to have a gallery show at my in-laws’ art gallery, I will have material for a whole wall of “Minion Marching” photos.

I love photographs of paths, and I love photographing Kemper.  Although he has the memory of an eidetic elephant, I hope that he will be able to remember the trips we took when he was younger through the pictures that I have taken.  He is walking through the path of life (sorry, I’m not sorry…I was an English major), and these photographs are as much about his journey as anything.

For now, I will walk behind making sure that he does not stray too far.  In the not so distant future, these photos of him walking in front of me will take on new, different significance.

 

Moments

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There is something so genuine about a little boy being outside, skinning his knees, sloshing in mud puddles, and engaging with nature.  I used to be that little boy.  Now I have one.

The week before Father’s Day, I woke Kemper up at midnight and we hopped in the car for a surprise trip up to Brevard, North Carolina, where my parents and sister were on vacation.  It was a spur of the minute surprise for Father’s Day for my dad, and when we walked into the cabin while he was eating his breakfast, it was clear that it had the intended effect.

I had worked a couple of long months (hence the dearth of posts), and I had mentally burned the candle at both ends until it was nearly extinguished.  I needed to check out for a couple of days, and so with Anna’s blessing, and This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby on audiobook (I’m on a Fitzgerald kick, what can I say), Kemp and I made the 7.5 hour trek to North Carolina in the dead of night.

Initially, my only thought was that it would be a great surprise for my dad.  Bringing along Kemper was secondary, and my own enjoyment of the trip was a distant tertiary consideration.  My dad was thrilled.  Kemper enjoyed himself.  But the effect the four days I spent with them in North Carolina had on me was more powerful than I could have ever anticipated.

I am, by most metrics, a very good son.  I call my mother often; I have lunch with my dad at least once a month; and we visit (though not as often as we, perhaps, should).  I thought the trip would be a nice surprise, and little more.  My dad had texted me when they arrived the week prior that he really wished that I would have been able to come up.  My mom echoed this sentiment to me on a phone call later that day.  This planted the seed, but I was too busy to even think about pulling myself away from my desk.

I cannot say precisely what it was that made me realize that surprising my dad was more important than two days of billables.  I do not remember the tipping point.  It may have been at 1:00 AM, sitting at my desk at work, having not been able to fall asleep that night because I was thinking about all that needed to be done.  Perhaps.  At some point I had an epiphanic realization that my life over the last two months had been, quite literally, all work and no play.

Fitzgerald always inspires me to imagine that there is more to the world that what I have done so far—whether this is writing the next Gatsby, or simply stepping outside my comfort zone to see what comes of it.  Shipping up to North Carolina on a whim was completely out of character for me, who needs to plan his major life choices with spreadsheets and agony.  I have not made a better personal decision in a very long time.

We are going to California, Anna, the kids, and I, in July before my in-laws sell their house in Carmel-by-the-Sea.  I am selling all of my earthly possessions including my trusty Nikon D7100 to buy a new camera so that I can take the best photos of what might be my last trip out there for quite a while.  (The D7100’s still for sale, if you’re interested!)  I have planned out an itinerary to maximize my photographic opportunities.  I am resolute about capturing every sunset while we are there.

The trip to North Carolina helped to readjust my perspective on life.  It is short.  Work is an important part of my life at this point, but providing for my family means more than just a paycheck and a bonus.  I saw that in Kemper as we took the hike along the Davidson River, where he stopped and sat for a minute on a fallen elm tree just looking over the river flowing before him.  For a moment, he understood what it took me 30+ years to understand.  (In fairness, it will have escaped him as quickly as the twigs that he threw in the quickly flowing current…)

Life is about moments, and moments are about what you make of them.

I’m going to try my very best not to forget that.  Maybe I will keep Fitzgerald on repeat to remind me.

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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