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.

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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The Anecdote of the Jar

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Boneyard Beach on Big Talbot Island is one of my absolute favorite places to photograph in Northeast Florida.  I often lament how uninspiring North Florida is for photography, because there are very few changes in topography.  I think my feelings on the subject are driven in large part due to the mosquitoes and ever-present danger of an alligator or water moccasin deciding that this is the day to make me a statistic or a cautionary tale.  Although I have seen an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake in the surf before, he was as confused (if not more) than I was as to how he found himself there, and though he was quite large, he posed no threat to me.  Thus, the beach is safe.

Having grown up near the beach, I take it for granted.  I also take for granted the incredible wildlife we have from wild roseate spoonbills and butterflies of every variation, to even the bobcat and Florida panther.  (I have seen my share of bobcats, but thankfully I have never had a run-in with panther.)  Yet there is something so unique about walking through scrub oak woods, hearing the crash of waves, and finding yourself not on an empty beach, but on a beach filled with old, weathered live oaks lying there like skeletons strewn about by hurricanes.

Ironically, this photograph of a driftwood oak, still tethered by its roots to the beach, was taken in Jekyll Island—another barrier island about an hour north of Big Talbot in Georgia.  This photo captures a bit of what struck me so emphatically when I came upon the tree.  Unlike Big Talbot, this was the only driftwood feature on the entire beach.  But for this tree, it would have been a perfectly ordinary, flat, featureless Florida beach, and I would not have given it a second thought.  Because of this tree, however, the beach took on meaning.

Wallace Stephen once wrote a poem about the universe taking shape around a jar he placed on a hill in rural Tennessee.  It is a perfectly beautiful little poem that has always resonated with me.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.  
It made the slovenly wilderness  
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.  
The jar was round upon the ground  
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.  
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,  
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Around the jar the world gained meaning.  What was once a wilderness was now not so wild, as it found order in relation to this jar.  In the same way, this featureless beach took shape around this tree.  The beach that was perfectly ordinary became extraordinary because of this tree, just as the wilderness became forever commended to words by Stevens and became a part of American literature because of that simple little jar.  This tree is a testament to how some otherwise ordinary object can bring meaning to an otherwise ordinary, pedestrian setting.

On Discovering an Artist’s Mind

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Salt lingers on my tongue, the shore in my nostrils, even five years later, and miles removed from the rough-hewn valley, where I tried in vain to compose the essence of the waves, the spirit of the ocean in a single exposure.  My camera pulled at me as we walked gracelessly across the rocks.  That’s where Kemper and I found her, sure-footed above the whitecaps, a small silhouette against a dense layer of mist that settled over the shoreline, whitewashing the coal-black granite.

What does it say that I, myself, framed her body against the foothills, lingering on the shadow-play of her form, as if the roil of the ocean were quotidian; yet her profile swelled in the portrait like a distant odalisque?  What draws me back to her silhouette on that promontory, at that moment–that moment that will never be forgotten, though she may not have know that we were even there.

Woodears #2

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Woodear mushrooms (genus Polypore) are some of my favorites.  As I’ve shared an earlier post, they release a protein which breaks down wood, thus any tree that you see with wood years on them are goners.  Although this is a bit depressing, it is an amazing testament to the cycle of nature.

I found these two little polypore mushrooms on a picnic bench on a friend’s property in Brevard, North Carolina, where my parents have stayed for seven years, and where we have visited numerous times.  The bench was not particularly old, but it was beginning to get weathered in these two little woodear mushrooms appeared to be a bit confused as to the medium on which they chose to grow.

In nature, as in life, it pays to be adaptable.  When I was younger, I was adaptable.  Not too much fazed me.  As I grew older my anxiety grew, and I began to be much less adaptable.  I would get grumpy when plans changed, much to the chagrin of Anna and her family.  I think this change was brought about by my extended blue period, which I am thankful to say I am on the other side of these days.  What once came so easily to me when I was younger, I now have to work for.  Adaptability as an adult is a learned skill, and once lost it is hard to relearn.

Mirrored

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My wife was under the weather for the past few days, and I took off work on Thursday and Friday to take care of her and the kids.  I cannot describe the satisfaction (and often joy) that I had being the caretaker for a change.  I take care of the family in a panoply of ways, first and foremost making a living at my job, but I lend a hand when I get home, cooking and cleaning and putting the minion to bed; but there was something so satisfying about being the caregiver over the last four days.

I took Nora to her infant swimming lessons, which were hard to watch, and I played with her for most of the day until I picked Kemp up from school.  We played, we laughed, and being a clumsy little thing, she cried every so often when she took a particularly magnificent stumble.  (Note: The only bump she received this weekend was when Anna was watching her, and so I feel pretty good about that.)

All in all, I kept my family fed, clothed, and where they needed to be.  Kemper hit the ball on his first try at t-ball (thought he swung before he was supposed to, and I missed the video), and he seems to be enjoying it.  (If he could remember which hand his glove goes on, he could be an all star…)

This photograph was taken in Panthertown Creek, just outside of Cashiers, North Carolina, close to Brevard.  I gave Kemper my old digital camera, and he thoroughly enjoyed snapping pictures of leaves and sticks and other miscellany.  He especially enjoyed taking pictures of other people, including this one, in which he took a picture of me taking a picture of him.  Something about this photograph struck at my heartstrings, and it is even the background to my phone now.

I work very hard, long hours (I am posting this at 3:15 AM), but it is all worth it when I come home and Nora comes running up to me, arms wide open, and screaming “Dada, up please.”  When she buries her face in my neck, or gives me an unsolicited kiss, my heart melts, and I know that outside of its meaning to the clients, my work has meaning to my family.  Although I am not there as much as I would like, I provide, and I am there as much as I can be.  I was sad to see Anna at less than 100%, but I appreciated the opportunity to pick up the slack and play the role of both parents as Anna often does.  I am so fortunate to have the life I do, and these four days were a welcome reminder of that life.

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School #3

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This photograph of a school of moon jellies (Aurelia Labiata) was taken at the Monterey Aquarium a couple of years ago.  The transparent jellies were fascinating, but what really struck me about the whole day at the aquarium was Kemper’s wonder at each new thing he saw.  I’ve spoke about my renewed fascination with nature in many earlier posts, but it is seeing his attitude towards the same that really excites me.

I took a number of pictures of the jellyfish with him by my side, but the most enjoyment I had was watching him follow the jellyfish in the huge tanks.  It was obvious that he would fixate on one and try to follow it amongst the school, and then he would just stand back a bit and watch the school as a whole.  He didn’t say anything, and he certainly didn’t have to.  I recognized the look in his eyes and appreciated his wonder, because I had felt it before.  In fact, I was feeling it once more, but this time through his eyes.

I cammot explain what it is to experience something through your child’s eyes.  I felt deeply grateful that you are able to provide him with the experience and to see him enjoying life.   I don’t know of the word in the English language to describe that sense of fulfillment, peace, satisfaction, and pleasure that comes from the enjoyment of something so pure and simple as watching a school of jellyfish float around an aquarium.  Whatever it is, when I see his huge brown eyes widen and light up, I know that feeling firsthand.

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.

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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Quest

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In the end, we are all searching for something.

The quote I chose for my yearbook junior year of high school was “Life’s a journey, not a destination, and I just can’t tell just what tomorrow will bring.”  This was from Aerosmith’s Amazing, which hit so many chords with me even then.  The quote is hackneyed and attributable to dozens of people, most commonly Ralph Waldo Emerson (though he does not appear to have written the exact quote, just the sentiment).  Some days I regret choosing it instead of Faulker’s quote from the Unvanquished: “I realized then the immitigable chasm between life and print – that those who can do, and those who cannot, and suffer enough because they cannot, write about it.”  That, I think, would have been more appropriate for that time in my life.

Kemper has inherited many things from me, but at his core he does not know what it is to deceive.  We often joke that he acts the same for Anna and me as he does for his teachers, and as he would for a stranger; what you see is what you get.  It is a brilliant, albeit foreign, trait to me.  As he has matured, I have waited for the introversion to take over, but he must have received a recessive gene from Anna.  Though he cedes to quietness after a long day of entertaining people – and not as a defense mechanism – he is not like me, like who I was.

In my earlier years, if you saw me, casually, on the street, to you I looked happy.  I was the greatest liar that ever lived.  That did not seem like hyperbole at the time, and when I look back on the years between college and where I am today, I can still say that without any reservation or apprehension (which, perhaps, is a testament to how often I convinced myself of my own deception).  But then I recovered.

I am different now, too.   I remain introverted, but the life I lead is no longer a duality of darkness and feigned brightness.  Hawthorne once wrote “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”  I read this quote (from The Scarlett Letter) in high school, and I still remember it to this day.  I lived the quote, not as much then as in my later years, but even at sixteen, I recognized my ability to con and fool others (and even myself) into believing I was capable of feeling joy.  But then I recovered.

I have found that capability, and I experience joy every day.  I am cautious though.  The joy is always tinged at the corners with a fear of free-falling back to a time and place I can now barely remember.  I do not regret my past, nor do I wish to shut the door on it.  Instead, it has made me who I am at this moment, and this moment is all I have until the next one passes.  For now, I have joy and contentment and knowledge and peace that there are things both within and without my control.  Honestly.  Because I recovered.

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