Today was the last day of summer vacation -- Alex returns to school tomorrow. I'm sort of stunned by how quickly the summer has gone by, especially considering that it was a pretty quiet one, at that. Still, Alex managed to take a creative writing course, fly with me to San Francisco, and spend time with her cousins.
Tomorrow, she's off to 5th grade -- and I'm back to my usual work schedule. (I'm going to miss having her around all day!)
But today, we squeezed in one last swim in the pool.
update, monday august 25th
Behold, the official 1st-day-of-5th-grade portrait:
Before I begin, let me just say something about getting really comfortable with using an SLR camera: you inevitably become very skeptical about point-and-shoots. Once you're used to adjusting things like apertures and shutters speeds, cameras that don't allow you to manage these aspects of your camera start to be really frustrating. Of course, Instagram and other photo app filters help; nonetheless, the fact is that when you allow a camera to do all of the adjusting automatically for you, it limits how creative you can be when you're composing a shot.
It's for this reason that for many years I haven't had a point-and-shoot camera (and honestly, the reason that I came late to Instagram) -- I've always found the inability to adjust all camera settings in a point-and-shoot incredibly frustrating. A few years ago, I was given one to review, one that purported to let you adjust all the sorts of things that you would adjust on an SLR camera. While the image quality was fine, I found it really unwieldy: using it manually required opening up menus, changing things, exiting menus and then opening up different menus ... and by the time I had everything set, the lighting had changed on me, or I looked up to find my subject had lost interest and walked away.
You think I'm kidding.
Anyway, the point is that for the most part, I've been using my dSLR to shoot everything. Admittedly, about 10 months ago I did go ahead and open up an Instagram account to use with my iPad Mini (and have been having fun looking for the light, as you know), but even so, while my little iPad Mini camera shoots well enough for what it is, I've found the disparity between the quality of images between the iPad and my Nikon frustrating. So as I mentioned last week, I told Marcus that I wanted a new point-and-shoot. My only requirements were:
1. I wanted the image quality to be strong, so that I could occasionally leave my hefty dSLR at home if I were going on a quick personal trip (or simply have the point-and-shoot constantly in my bag, so that if I stumble across a great shot during my day, I wouldn't lament the fact that I didn't have my big Nikon on me); and
2. I wanted the camera make it easy for me to post images to the internet on the fly -- but I preferred that it not be a Samsung (to date, the only camera I know of that actually allows you to install the Instagram app on it), mostly because Marcus already has the Samsung Galaxy camera.
So Marcus, the ultimate Gadget Guy, went off to do some research, and returned with his favourite: enter the Sony CyberShot RX100 III.
First of all, let me just start by saying that if you're someone who doesn't care a whit about apertures and ISOs and shutter speeds, and you just want a point-and-shoot that automatically takes great shots without having to adjust anything, this little Sony definitely is able to do that beautifully. To wit:
Even better, it allows you to wirelessly connect to your smart phone or tablet so you can transfer your photographs there, and process and upload your photographs to Instagram or Facebook or Flickr or your photo sharing site of choice -- except now, the technical quality of your images will greatly exceed whatever you've been taking on your phone or tablet.
(Admission: while getting the photos to my iPad mini is dead simple once it's all set up, the extra step of having to do that before going to Instagram is a tad cumbersome. But I'm nitpicking here, and the fact that it's even able to transfer the shots wirelessly to the iPad is more than a lot of point-and-shoots do. Besides, when I'm on assignment, like traveling internationally for a commissioned gig, it will be handy to have the Sony to update Instagram on the road to keep you apprised of what I've been up to while I'm gone, and not have to worry about downloading and processing any shots from my Nikon until I get back in front of my big desktop screen.)
So yes, great, easy point-and-shoot.
But here's the best part.
I read an article somewhere (I'm afraid I forgot where, or I'd link to it), that this camera is "the point-and-shoot for experienced photographers." And I think that description is spot on. The lens (from Zeiss, no less!) has a dial on it that lets you easily adjust aperture, and there's a dial on the back of the camera that allows you to adjust shutter speed on the fly. This means you can shoot manually, without having to make your subject wait for eons for you to capture the image -- with a point-and-shoot, no less! It has a sexy viewfinder, so if you don't want to compose your shot using the screen on the back, you don't have to. There's barely any shutter lag -- you click and it shoots, just like a dSLR, without any perceptible delay. And this is awesome: open to its widest angle (24mm), the aperture goes to f/1.8; at its maximum telephoto (70mm) it goes to f/2.8. Which means that this point-and-shoot has a lens that has enough range to capture both decent scenery shots and decent portraits, and you can finally get some of those narrow depth-of-field shots that are so difficult with most point-and-shoots.
And ... get this ... the ISO starts at 125 and goes as high as 12,800. What? I don't know that I would recommend pushing the camera to that sort of ISO (and it does have an attached flash, if you need it), but the shot below of Rufus was taken in extremely low light: at about midnight, without a flash and with only my very dim lamp on the bedside table next to me, while he was lying at the foot of the bed.
Now, clearly, this is not the sharpest of photographs, but instead of grain or noise, notice that the image almost looks like a painting -- the camera did that, it's not a filter that I added. (Note also that the photograph of the wet leaf, 3 images above, was also shot at ISO 6400, and while there was clearly more light there, there's no noise in the image whatsoever.) Wild, right?
So yes, I can tell you that I'm loving playing with this camera -- to the point that I may not be carrying my dSLR with me as often as I used to. There are still things about my Nikon that completely outperform this little camera (as it should), and the Nikon will remain my camera of choice when shooting a commission, but I can tell you that this camera is going to live in my day bag, and will likely take many of the photographs you see on Chookooloonks going forward.
And in 10 years of sharing SLR photographs here on this site, I can't believe I'm saying that about a tiny little point-and-shoot.
So anyway, here are a few more shots that I took with the Sony on Saturday: Marcus, Alex and I walked around 19th Street in the Heights, checking out the small boutiques, the vintage stores, an art gallery or two before finally having a great lunch at the Heights General Store Restaurant.
And finally, a little bonus bit of fun that this camera offers: you know how it can be sort of hard to take a selfie with a point-and-shoot, because you can't see what the image looks like? Well, the screen on this bad boy flips out and forward 180° so you can see what you're shooting when you take a selfie -- and even counts down 3 seconds, so you can get your smiles right before the shutter squeezes.
I always let you know when I'm doing a sponsored post, and as you can see here, I didn't mention anything. That's because this isn't sponsored -- Marcus bought this camera for me for my birthday, and I was blown away enough by it that I wanted to tell you guys about it. I love it that much.
This weekend, I dropped by a local grocer's with Alex and something really lovely happened. I've already shared this on Facebook, but in case you missed it: I was standing at the butcher's counter with Alex, when suddenly the butcher, a woman I would guess is about 10 years older than I am, called out: "Hello, Ms. Karen!" Startled, I looked up, and stared into a light-filled, smiling face. She looked familiar, but I couldn't place her. After she finished helping the customer before me, she told me that she used to work at the grocery store I used to visit over 20 years ago. Then she caught me up on her life like we were old friends: telling me about where she had lived, the challenges she had faced over the past twenty years, and what she was up to now, when she wasn't working behind the counter. The whole exchange couldn't have been longer than 5 minutes or so, but when, toward the end of our conversation, she said, "Do you live around here? I hope you come see me again!" I knew there was no way I wasn't coming back to do my shopping there.
The entire episode reminded me of this article by Shawn Achor, an excerpt from his book Before Happiness, where he shares one of the secrets to the Ritz Carlton's success: the hotel has a policy called "the 10/5 Way," that states that "if a guest walks by a Ritz employee within ten feet, the employee should make eye contact and smile. If that guest walks by within five feet, the employee should say, 'Hello.'" It's such a little, minor thing, but results in huge positive impact for customer satisfaction and the hotel's bottom line.
I believe it. Many years ago, when I was just getting to know my dear friend Mark, we were sitting at a bar one afternoon and he remarked, "you know, you flirt with everyone." That's not exactly accurate -- I mean, I wasn't that girl. But it is true that when it comes to strangers -- like waiters, baristas, bartenders, people I pass on the street -- I am very mindful to look folks in the eye and smile. A lot. In fact, I've been this way for decades. I'd love to say I do it for altruistic reasons, like it's entirely about the fact that I care that people are having a good day (and of course I do); but to be absolutely honest, I do it for very selfish reasons, as well: after all, it's very difficult to greet a smile without smiling back. And when people smile back at me, I feel better. It helps make my day.
The fact is, I've been a staunch believer that happiness is contagious from way back.
So, go out and smile at a stranger today.
Have a great week, friends.
Song: This version of Every Little Thing She Does is Magic made me smile this weekend. And not just because of Sting's arms, either (click here or the image below to watch).
Back in May 2004, when Alex was a mere 2 months old, Marcus took me to Kemah for my first Mother's Day lunch. Back then, Kemah was a scrappy little Texas town on the coast, with a small pier supporting 2 or 3 restaurants looking out on the bay. It was nothing fancy, but the restaurant we visited had good seafood and refreshing drinks and was family-friendly enough (all critically important for two brand-new parents, as we were), so it was a great time.
Fast-forward to this weekend, when on Saturday, we had our final meeting with Alex's teachers for the year, to get her final results. She did really great, and is raring to go for 5th grade, so the rest of the weekend felt pretty celebratory. And since, having had our last parent-teacher conference, Alex's summer holiday could finally begin, I told Marcus yesterday afternoon that we should go visit somewhere to make it official.
"Galveston?" I suggested. Marcus wrinkled his nose.
"Nah, it's too late to go down there," he responded. "How about Brazos Bend State Park?"
"Where the alligators are?" I looked at him like he was crazy.
"Oh, they won't bother you," retorted my British husband with staggering confidence (this from a man who, last I checked, is from a country completely devoid of alligators, so I'm not entirely certain where his comfort in his alligator knowledge comes from. In any event, he was missing my point).
"I'm not worried about the alligators," I answered, with (perhaps too enthusiastically) a huff. "I'm simply pointing out that it's 90 degrees outside, with crazy humidity, and alligators live in swamps. You know, where the mosquitos are. Sweating and getting eaten alive by insects is not my idea of fun. At least the beach will have a breeze."
"Fine," he said, resigned. But as we started packing up to leave, I suddenly remembered that first Mother's Day.
"Dude, what about Kemah?"
His face lit up. "That's an idea," he said slowly. "I hear it has built up quite a bit since we were last there. Let's try that."
And so we did. And to say that Kemah "has been built up quite a bit" is the understatement of the century -- this place is a bona fide town and amusement park now (albeit a very cute and compact one):
It was breezy and relaxing and low key and it looks like we might have rediscovered a lovely little day-trip getaway. And it was the perfect way to launch Alex's summer holidays.
In the United States, Memorial Day is sort of the unofficial first day of summer. In our house, the Saturday-before-Memorial-Day is the actual unofficial first day of summer.
And we know this from the indisputable evidence: the annual appearance of the slip-n-slide.
Early last week, I received an email from my friend Gayla Trail, the author and stunningly creative mind behind You Grow Girl, the website (and series of books) that promotes "gardening for the people." Gayla has written several books encouraging folks to take the plunge and garden, regardless of where they might be -- in a rural home with a huge plot of land, or a tiny city apartment with a fire escape full of pots. For many years I've watched her site for the evolution of her garden, particularly her stunning back yard in Toronto, and in a lot of ways she's sort of been my gardening "oracle," even though until a few weeks ago, I'd never actually planted my own.
So imagine my astonishment when her email invited me to participate in her new podcast series, What'cha Growin'?. I'm pretty sure she could hear me burst into laughter all the way in Canada.
"Gayla," I said, "I am a gardening idiot. I only started gardening a few weeks ago. My gardening philosophy thus far has been 'Blind Luck.' I have no idea what I'm doing."
"That's exactly what I want," she assured me. "I don't want my podcast series to be full of gardening experts, I want to share the experiences of gardeners at every stage --people who have been gardening for years, as well as those who are just starting out. I want you to represent a beginner."
"Well, hell, if 'neophyte' is what you want, then I'm definitely your man," I responded. "This is going to be hysterical. I'd love to do it!"
And so, last Friday, we recorded the episode, and it's now up on her site. I'd love for you to grab a cuppa, find somewhere comfortable to sit, and give a listen -- it was so much fun to do (and there's an enormous amount of me giggling -- do I really giggle that much?), what with me being somewhat incredulous that things are actually growing in my back yard, and her amusement that I expected anything else. She's also a wonderfully gentle and encouraging teacher, so if you've ever toyed with the idea of gardening but have been afraid to take the plunge, this would be a great podcast to listen to, without fear of being overwhelmed.
And as part of putting together this podcast, Gayla asked me to share some photographs from my garden, and since it has been a while since I've updated you on its progress, I was happy to oblige. There are some of these images on her site, but here's what my little vegetable garden looks like as of a few days ago, with captions:
As far as how I'm gardening: I'm literally just watering all of these plants for about about 10 minutes in total every day it doesn't rain, pulling a weed if I see one (and I'm in the mood to bend over), and then just hoping for the best. So far this seems to be working, but it's early days, yet. I'm taking it day by day, and the brutal Houston summer that will inevitably come might just send me running for cover.
But so far, so good.
And again, more at Gayla's site.
If this weekend had a one-word theme, it would be OUTDOORS. We spent an inordinate amount of time outside -- we played around in the garden, we hung out in my parents' backyard, and we ate almost every one of our meals at home on our own patio. This might not seem unusual to many of you, but here in Houston, where the humidity is generally unbearable for most of the year, spending any time outside is a rarity.
But this weekend the humidity dropped, and it was bliss.
Though I don't know that we did less this weekend than any other weekend (in fact, we might have done more), the last 3 days felt amazingly relaxing. I had forgotten how restorative the outdoors is. Here's hoping for a few more weekends like this one, before the Houston summer comes on in earnest.
Happy Monday, friends.
This past weekend, I left Marcus and Alex to their own devices, and treated myself to a matinee of a movie I had been dying to see: Finding Vivian Maier. Have you heard the story behind this movie? In a nutshell, this 26-year-old guy, John Maloof, who was working on a personal project on the history of a particular Chicago neighbourhood, went to an auction to buy what he hoped would be negatives of Chicago in the 60s. While the negatives he purchased didn't work for his project, he realized that the images were good ... really good. He began to research who was behind the images, and found that they were taken by a prolific but unknown photographer -- Vivian Maier. Maier turned out to be a very secretive nanny who apparently didn't share any of her work with anyone. She also never had any children or family to speak of, and died alone, leaving behind her images in a locked storage building. Maloof, through his work, has ended up with a collection of over 100,000 of her negatives (many of them unexposed), and has made it his life mission to bring the work and the life of Vivian Maier to light. The result is this documentary, Finding Vivian Maier.
I won't tell you about the documentary (except to say that while it's a great film, be warned: it's not exactly a feel-good movie), but one of the biggest mysteries he's trying to solve is why someone would take so many photographs, particularly someone who, by all experts' accounts, would have been heralded as one of the greatest photographers of her time, and not share them with anyone. It's a question I've been mulling over since seeing the documentary.
What I think is interesting is that we're learning of this story and struggling to find an answer to that particular question in a time when the concept of not sharing a photograph is almost unheard of. I know I'm guilty of this: as passionate as I am about photography, I don't know that I would've ever become so prolific if I didn't have a website to share my work. And honestly, I know very few people who have a camera -- or heck, a cameraphone -- who don't share images on Instagram or on Facebook, or at the very least email images to their families and friends. Yes, of course, I take photographs for personal reasons, and to record our family life for our daughter, no question -- but if one day, someone told me that I could only use my camera to print images that wouldn't be shared with anyone, ever, that I was to lock the images away with the intent of never sharing them with another soul, would I do it? I can't say I would. Even if Chookooloonks were to disappear, I would still intend my photographs to be seen, if only by emailing them to friends, or printing them in albums to share with my family, and passed down to my daughter's kids. To me, no matter the reason behind taking any photograph -- taken to jog a memory, or to capture a moment, or simply for posterity's sake -- photographs are meant to be seen.
But then I remind myself that she took most of her photographs during a time when there wasn't social media or the means to share photographs easily in the first place. So maybe it wasn't so much that she didn't want to share her photos, but that it would have never occurred to her to do it in the first place: after all, she had a full-time job and no family to speak of, so why would she share her images, even with her employers?
I don't know, man. What do you think? Can you imagine keeping your photographs secret from everyone? What, ultimately, is your intent and/or motivation when you shoot?
In any event, you can see some of Vivian Maier's amazing work here -- it really is stunning (and I love that many of her images are selfies -- given how the "selfie" is derided so much these days, I'm grateful that we have these images of her). And I do love that the movie makes me ask the question "why I shoot" a little deeper. I figure anything that makes me explore the motivations behind my passions has to be a good thing.
If you're interested in exploring your own motivations behind your passions, consider joining me for a 2-day retreat in October, right here in Houston, Texas! Registration for the LimeLight Sessions is now open, and filling up fast -- I'd love if you'd join me. Click here to learn more and to register at early bird pricing.
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon this video, for the second time. I'd seen it about a year ago when it first came out, and loved it then, but this time ... I dunno. It just wouldn't let go of me.
And then, Alex came home with a note from school, asking for my permission to let her join the others in her class to visit a local nursery. The fourth graders in her school have a vegetable garden, you see, and it was time for them to buy the seeds.
And then, I saw these photographs of all this gorgeous produce on Laura's blog, and later in the week when I was talking to her on the phone, she unleashed all her gardening knowledge all over me. I was awestruck by how much she's learned in the last few years she's had her garden. A regular Laura Washington Carver, she is.
And that's when I decided: it's time.
Even though my grandmother always had a huge fruit and vegetable garden in her back yard, my parents' garden has always made up primarily of flowers, with few edible crops. For this reason, I didn't grow up knowing really anything about how to grow food. And the truth is, the prospect has terrified me. But for a brief little taste of success growing zinnias a couple of years ago, green things tend to shrivel up and die if I so much as look at them. But recently, and suddenly, it has felt important for us to grow food. Ron Finley's exhortation that growing food is a revolutionary act resonated with me. That fact that food deserts even exist in a country as wealthy as the United States seemed wrong. And besides, it feels like supporting the learning Alex is getting in school with regard to growing our own vegetables is an important thing for us to do.
And so, this past weekend, Marcus built a couple of beds in our back yard (using a bit of reclaimed wood we had lying around), and we planted.
It isn't much, but if we're successful (IhopeIhope) at some point we're going to have cherry tomatoes, peppers, carrots, mint, rosemary, asparagus beans (what we Trinis call "bodi" -- I'm particularly excited about this one), and limes. And the reason I'm sharing this with you here and now is for accountability: I really don't want to give up on this, this time. And besides: as I told my friend Martha, if I actually manage to pull a tiny, dirty little carrot out of the soil, my delight will be so unlimited, I'm going to have to share a picture of it with you, anyway.
So wish me luck, friends. And if you have any good, encouraging gardening stories to share, believe me, I'm all ears.
Song: Word up, as performed by Willis