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.

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…

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.

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 Cave Dwelling…

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Some days, I feel like a cave dweller, and others I feel like a contributing member of society.  This is true at work and in my life in general.

At work, I can get so focused on a project that I look up from lunch and its eight o’clock in the evening.  The light in my office turns off after 20 minutes or so, and it cannot see my fingers furiously typing, just my head staring at the screen—immobile and resolute.  As a consequence, I often find myself working in the dark, too.

If you were to talk to Anna, she would tell you that the cave-dweller lighting is a personal favorite of mine, and I am not going to deny that I like a dark room as much as the next hermit.

I have had a particularly social week, with lunches every day with various people, and to my utter surprise, I am not burned out by it.  As a consummate introvert, too much contact with other people used to drain me, and if they were the wrong people, I suppose it still would.  Some switch has been flipped in me, and suddenly I can find myself enjoying being out with people…in moderate doses.  Perhaps a switch flip is a bit too optimistic; it’s more like my extroversion dimmer has been turned up a few shades.

The irony is that I took this photograph on one of the mornings that Kemper did not want to come hike with me, and so I was alone.  I had a very interesting internal monologue, in which I admitted that I missed the minion being with me, but I also found that I absolutely enjoyed being able to go at my own speed, without the lamentations of a six-year-old.  I like my alone time, but I am like Goldilocks when it comes to being alone.  I like it, but on my own unreasonable terms.

When Kemper, Nora, and Anna were down in Disney, I enjoyed the first couple hours, and then I became restless.  I was, in fact, longing for human interaction.  It was so unlike me.  I ate at a barbeque restaurant in Ponte Vedra and chatted up the cook as I sat at the bar; I went to Trader Joe’s and Publix, and when I got home, I turned a baseball game on, just so the sound of voices resonated through the house in a paltry attempt at connection with people.

As I have become more comfortable with myself over the last four years, I have also become more comfortable with others.  I still like my caves every once in a while, but more often now, I am willing to come into the light.

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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 Yogi, Moe, and Poison Oak

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It is not unusual for Kemper to wake us at 6:30, or if he is feeling particularly spunky, at 5:45—rip-roaring and ready to go.  Although we thought that he would be jet lagged and might, perhaps, sleep in, this was a false hope.  What he did when he came bounding into our room fully dressed, however, took us by surprise.  Instead of asking to go watch TV, he asked me if I wanted to go “exploring” (hiking) with him and take pictures.  I couldn’t say no, nor did I want to deny him this adventure, so laconically I drifted into shorts and a fleece jacket, grabbed the rental car’s keys, and we headed to Garrapata State Reserve, about 15 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Kemp and I had never been to Garrapata, so we parked where we already saw cars at 6:45 in the morning, which proved to be brilliant on our part.  We found the trailhead and there was a fork in the path, so we took it, a-la Yogi Berra.  We went on the right-hand path the first day, which began in a heavily wooded cedar grove, thereby blocking out any inkling of the view that was to come when we emerged on the other side.  When we did make our way through the tunnel of conifers, we arrived at a coastline that was simply magnificent.

The photograph at the beginning of this post, and the one in my first post-vacation post on Monday, were some of the first I took.  Kemp and I had a few more early morning adventures which continued from Sunday through Wednesday, when the entire reserve had been weighed, measured, and found to be at least pedestrian, and at most menacingly dangerous to a six-year-old whose motor coordination, though developing age-appropriately, closely approximates the pratfalls of the Three Stooges.

Having left Moe (Kemper) at home on Thursday and Friday, I tried my hand at long-exposure photography, which I will post in the coming days.  I was quite pleasantly surprised at how even my first attempts turned out.  (God bless YouTube tutorials.)

Kemper joined me on Saturday for one last hurrah.  We went on the original right-hand trail, as he had deemed the left one to be too dangerous for prudent adventurers like we were.  He advised me of this precondition to the hike while we drove to the park, lest I form any inchoate thoughts of taking him to the cliff’s edge for a photo opportunity.  I agreed to his preconditions, and we had a lovely (albeit moderately abbreviated by a six-and-a-half-year-old walnut-sized bladder) hike through the underbrush and verdant leaves of a plant with which I was theretofore unfamiliar.  Upon some post hoc analysis, I came to determine that the entirety of Garrapata’s chaparral had been carefully seeded with poison oak to keep the riff-raff (read tourists) in their place and on the well-marked trails.

Well played, Garrapata.  Well played.

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What a trip.

Anna, the kids, and I spent the last week in California.  Although this was not the first time by any stretch that we had visited Carmel-by-the-Sea and its surrounding coves and hamlets, it was the first time that we visited just the four of us.  In point of fact, it was the first vacation that we’ve taken as a single small family unit without parents or siblings.

I cannot speak for the whole side of the country, but from the scenes I have encountered from Seattle to San Francisco (and a few points in between), the beauty of the West Coast dwarfs the Atlantic coast, just as the waves dwarf those small undulations of good humor that pass for waves in the eastern seas.

Traveling with the kids was not as thoroughly oppressive as I anticipated, which was one of the small victories of the trip.  Kemper (six-and-a-half) is at an age now that he has formed strong, concrete memories, and will continue to form them.  For him, California is no longer abstract as it was when we first brought him to Carmel when he was only a few months old.  Nora (nearly two) will have to make her memories through the photographs I took of her, which is how I remember climbing on the rocks in Bar Harbor bay when I was three or four and could fit in the narrow crevasses with little foresight or consequence.

To his credit, Kemper, who likes walking about as much as I did as a kid, woke me up each morning to go explore the coastline.  We would leave the house around 6:30 and get home before 9:00, checking out the fare of the Carmel Bakery on our way home.  He earned every cinnamon roll he received, and by the end, he was eating more than just the icing and that choice middle piece that Anna is wont to steal if I look away for a moment.

Our favorite hike was in Garrapata State Preserve, about 20 minutes south of Carmel via scenic Highway 1.  The views are comparable to those in Point Lobos State Reserve, which is closer to Carmel, but Garrapata had two distinct advantages: (1) it is free to hike, and (2) there are no gates, and so we could hike at any godforsaken hour of the morning that the minion chose to wake me.

This photograph was taken on one of the foggier days we had in California.  The sun refused to creep through the marine layer, and it gave the scene a rather Gothic aesthetic.  Just below where I set up the tripod for this photograph, there was a quaint little double waterfall that ran from the mountains to the sea.  The crashing of the waves and the low rush of the waterfall drowned out most thoughts of the job I had left behind, in the midst of trial preparation (much to the horror of my boss).  (In my defense, the federal judge took it upon herself to accelerate the trial by a month after we had bought the plane tickets.)

I took 1,800 photographs from Sunday to Friday, and I have just begun to cull through them to select the ones that might make the first cut.  I imagine that I will end up with 50-100 fully edited photographs, maybe more, and so keep your eyes peeled on the blog and (gasp) on Instagram (@stamandphotography) for more frequent updates.