I ran out this morning to shoot in a nearby arboretum, ostensibly to "look for the light" -- there will be many light-filled images in the new book, so on beautiful days, I go on a light quest.
I didn't find much light this morning, but I did find this really interesting clump of mushrooms, so I took the shot.
And so it goes: you look for the light, and sometimes you don't find it. But even then, there's usually something lovely to see.
Soundtrack: In your arms by Johnnyswim. We're seeing them in concert tonight, and I love the old-school jazz-classic vibe of this song so much.
When I was writing The Beauty of Different, whenever I had a bit of writer's block, I'd back away from Microsoft Word and grab my camera and go shoot something -- anything -- just to give my mind a break from trying to string words together. Often the images would end up in the book, but often they wouldn't. It was more of an exercise to get my head in the right (write?) space.
I've mentioned before that I've been working on my second book, but my friends, it has been slow going. I started putting it together a year ago, and yet, I've completed an embarrassingly small percentage of it. And yesterday, because I've apparently lost my mind, I promised my publisher I'd have a final manuscript to them by the end of the year. And I meant it, too.
Because I've decided to motivate myself with sheer, unadulterated panic.
All this to say that it's time to put my head down and get at it, because by God, I'm gonna make this deadline. While I do this, I'll still be sharing photographs and quick stories here, but while I've no doubt I'll still be enjoying many good weeks, and I'm sure that when I see a cool link I'll be moved to share it with you, my This Was A Good Week post will be more ad hoc (that is, spread out over a few days instead of all on one single Friday). But if the past year is any indication, it means that I'll be shooting a lot. You know, to get in the write space. So some of the overflow will very likely show up here.
So. More pics. Shorter posts. But always looking for the light (while I shoot and write like the wind).
Wish me luck, folks.
(Pssst .... while I was at my publisher's, I picked up a few copies of the brand-spanking new third reprint of The Beauty of Different. If you'd like to purchase some signed copies for end-of-year gifts, they're now available in the shop, until they're gone. Unsigned copies will remain available at Amazon or your favourite bookseller.)
Soundtrack: Black dog by Led Zeppelin. Because this is what Alex was playing with Leland while I was typing this post.
I've been thinking a lot about the story of the deaf singer-songwriter that I shared on Friday. I can't get her out of my mind. I mean, there she was, on her way to a fine music education and presumably a career in music -- and bam! she loses her hearing. And yet, my impression from her story is that even though she mourned the loss of her hearing, she didn't even consider doing something else. She just figured out a way to keep making music. Like, there wasn't even a question about that.
I suspect we all have something like that. It might not be what we do to make our living -- in fact, it might be something that we have no intention of ever using as a way to make our living -- but I think we all of something that we are compelled to do, until we literally physically can't do it anymore. And even then, we might find a way.
For that singer-songwriter, it's making music. Same for my daughter. For me, it's definitely photography. But it's also experimenting with hand-lettering (something I've been doing since I was kid). And there's probably writing, too.
So I'm curious: what's your I'll-do-it-until-I-absolutely-can't-anymore thing? That thing you do 100% for you, and no one else. The thing that helps you settle your mind.
I can't wait to read what you share.
I'm not gonna lie: the last 6 or so weeks have been really tough. Alex began seventh grade this fall, which is the first year of junior high at her school, and the change in curriculum was a difficult adjustment for her -- and therefore, for us. Add on top of this the fact that for the first time she was a member of a team sport (volleyball, she loved it) and all the responsibilities that entails (practice, away games, etc.), late nights for Marcus at work, and still adjusting to my relatively new job and travel days for personal work on top of that, and we've had a tumultuous few weeks.
And because of this, my recent radio silence. Sorry about that.
But now, volleyball season is over, and Alex is getting the hang of 7th grade, my last big work-related trip has passed, and we're returning to a manageable routine. And while I'm a person who is generally comfortable with change -- the result of a childhood where we made an international move every 2 years, I suppose -- it's nice to return to a somewhat familiar rhythm. It's comforting. So I'm back.
And, my friends, this was a good week:
• Between darkness and light. I so love Steve McCurry's work.
• Amazing portraits shot in a busy stairwell. Gorgeous.
• An about-to-be-a-husband gets his first look at his about-to-be-a-wife. I love spontaneous joy.
• I've become mesmerized by this beautiful new blog. I suspect you will, too.
• The temperature still hasn't quite broken here in Houston, and yet ... it's time for pumpkin bread, is it not? This looks like a good recipe.
• The key to living a long, thriving life? Not exercise, not a vegan lifestyle ... it's actually social connection.
• And speaking of social connection, check out these relationships between inmates and stray dogs. Beautiful.
• Music is a ghost. And creators always find a way to create. Beautiful story of a deaf singer-songwriter.
• And finally, for today's soundtrack: Robo Booty by Opiuo. Because the name makes me laugh, and it's a great rhythm. And as I mentioned, these days I'm all about rhythm.
Click the arrow below to listen.
Have a great weekend, friends.
A few months ago, I was invited to be a speaker at a corporate event in ... wait for it ... Alaska. It was such an amazing opportunity that I was thrilled to accept, and for the last few weeks I've been working feverishly to put together my talk. This past Friday morning, it happened. It was a lot of fun -- the conference attendees were warm and welcoming, there was tons of really great interaction. It was a great time.
Of course, my main goal for this trip was to do a good job and give the conference attendees the talk that they were hoping for; however, if I'm honest, I had another, more personal goal for this trip. It has always been my dream to one day see and photograph the northern lights. During one of the prep calls before the event, I mentioned this to event coordinator, Ginger.
"Do you think there's a chance that I'll see them?"
"I don't know," she responded. "It might be a bit early. Let me ask a friend of mine who's a photographer. He'd know."
A few days later, I received an email from her. "There is definitely a chance the northern lights could be out while you are in town," it read, and she included a link to this site, which provides short-term forecasts of auroral activity. I contacted my friend Lola, a National Geographic photographer who lives in Sweden and who has shot beautiful photographs of the aurora, and asked her for tips, which she generously provided, including an article she once wrote on the subject. (Like a fool, I ignored some of her advice, which I came to regret, as you'll soon see.)
By the time I left on Thursday morning, I had refreshed that forecast link repeatedly over the past few weeks like I had a tic, and was thrilled to discover the site promised a high chance of seeing the lights while I was there.
The conference was held about 45 minutes outside of Anchorage, at a ski resort. When I checked in to the hotel early Thursday evening, the receptionist made friendly small-talk: yes, I'd been to Alaska before, but only for a very short visit; no, I'd never stayed at the resort before. And then she said these magic words, completely unprompted:
"You know, we provide northern lights wake-up calls. Would you like us to wake you if they appear?"
"HELL. YES," I responded, a little too loudly. Startled, she made a note on my reservation. "Once you get the call, just come down to the desk, and we can recommend the best place to view them."
I went to bed early Thursday night -- my body was feeling the effects of all-day travel, plus the 3-hour time difference -- and about 12:45 a.m., the phone in my room rang. "The northern lights have been sighted," the voice on the other end calmly intoned.
I was dressed and out the door with my camera in approximately 58.43 seconds.
I ran down to the lobby and raced to the receptionist. She wasn't the same one who checked me in.
"Where are they?!" I asked breathlessly.
"Where are who?"
"The northern lights!"
"Um. I don't know. But they've been sighted ..."
I looked at her. "Yes. I just got the call."
She smiled merrily. "Yes, I was the one who called you."
I narrowed my eyes. "Oookay ... where would you suggest I go to spot them?"
"Do you have a car?"
"What? No, I don't have a car. Can't you see them from the hotel?"
"I suppose so. Maybe ..." She thought for a minute. "Have you tried walking to the back for the property? I guess it's possible you could see them out there ..."
I blinked slowly. It was obvious she was getting a bit bored with me. I forced a smile. "No, I haven't tried that," I said, through gritted teeth. "Thank you. I'll do that."
I walked outside, and looked up. It was pitch black. I wandered a little farther down the driveway -- nothing. A man, in his 60s, I would imagine, appeared.
"Have you seen the lights?" I asked him excitedly.
"No," he sighed. British accent. "I got the call, too. I saw them last night, but not tonight."
"Damn. Do you know where the best place is to watch them?"
"No, but I'll come with you, if you'd like." He fell in step with me, and we made small talk, as we scanned the sky. He was from London, he lives on the east coast of the US now. He is retired from the American army, and is currently in university on the G.I. Bill. He had traveled to Alaska alone, as a solo vacation. And as we talked, we walked farther and farther away from the hotel.
"I think if we go behind that chapel," he said, "there'll be a lot less light pollution."
It was at this point that I realized that I'd walked away from the hotel to a secluded wooded spot. And I had done so with a strange man I'd just met, who I really knew nothing about. In the middle of the night. In the middle of a forest. In the middle of the mountains.
He started down the hill behind the chapel, toward the dark woods. "Are you coming?" he called over his shoulder. I hesitated.
"Ummm .... I'll just stay up here for a second," I called back. "Let me know if you see anything."
"I think I do! I see a blue tinge!"
I looked where he was pointing. I saw nothing.
"Yeah?" I couldn't hide the skepticism from my voice.
"Yes! Come down here!"
Resigned to my inevitable death, I followed him down the hill. When I got to where he was standing, he pointed, and yet I still saw nothing. He showed me the back of his point-and-shoot camera. His shoulders dropped. "Well, I thought I saw something."
"Let me try," I said. I sat on the ground, and tried to use my body as a tripod, holding the camera with both hands, bracing my elbows with my knees. I set the camera ISO to 4000, and the camera settings to hold the shutter open for about 1 second. I aimed the camera to the area of the sky where he was pointing, held my breath, trying to remain as still as possible (to avoid camera shake) and clicked.
There on the image in the back of my camera, as clear as day, was a bright green stripe.
"WHOA!" Stranger Brit and I said at the same time.
And we stayed out for another 20 minutes taking photographs around the property. But because I ignored Lola's you-should-never-ignore-advice to always have a tripod with you when photographing the aurora (I decided to leave it behind because I was traveling carry-on only), I ended up with blurry images like this:
By about 2 a.m. we'd made it back to the hotel, and I said goodbye to Stranger Brit, feeling a bit guilty for suspecting any nefarious intent: he really was rather kind, and he warmly wished me luck as we parted. I returned to my room to get a few more hours' sleep before my talk in the morning.
So, here's the thing about the aurora that I saw ... I didn't actually really see it. I know that when the aurora really gets going, it can look like the sky is on fire, with reds and purples and pinks. But what I witnessed was rather faint: I mean, once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, all I could see was a vague mist. It looked like a cloud, or even steam from a hot cup of tea. But it certainly wasn't brightly-coloured. In fact, it was only because the camera's shutter was open for a while, allowing for lots of light into the sensor, that I saw any colours at all.
Anyway, my flight out of Anchorage on Friday night was just before midnight. I'd made sure to have a window seat, just in case there was a chance that I might see the aurora as we flew out. As we taxied out to the runway, I thought I saw a blue tinge on the horizon, so I got my camera ready.
Once we were airborne, I started shooting, but the blue tinge didn't look right. However, when I looked at the image in the back of my camera, I did notice that there was a very faint, greenish stripe above the horizon ...
... so I kept shooting ...
... and suddenly, the green stripe seemed to transform, and there they were.
Again, I couldn't actually see these colours with my naked eye -- when I looked outside, it appeared to be just a very faint greyish-blue mist, dancing along the side of the plane for more than an hour. It's only because the shutter was open for as long as it was that the colours were able to appear on the final images (and it's why the mountains look so bright, even though the photos were taken after midnight). If I hadn't actively been looking for them, I absolutely would have missed them altogether.
So, did I actually see the northern lights? Not exactly -- I was just there when my camera saw them. But I did get to photograph them.
Next time, though, I'll take a tripod.
(For less blurry images of my tiny Alaskan adventure, check out the new gallery here.)
UPDATED TO ADD: I just found this really interesting link that explains why my camera sees the lights better than I do. Be sure to look at the images at the top of that article, showing the difference between what your eyes might see and what your camera sees -- it shows you that "mist" I was telling you about.
“A Native American wisdom story tells of an old Cherokee who is teaching his grandson about life. 'A fight is going on inside me,' he said to the boy. 'It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.' The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, 'Which wolf will win?' The old Cherokee simply replied, 'The one you feed.'"
I'm in need of rest, so, heeding my own advice on self care, I'm taking it.
In the meantime, here's an image of mint in my garden one recent early evening.
Be kind and be brave, friends.
Well look at that: the last day of the month falls on a Friday this month, which means two posts in one! So, let's get to it.
As always, these are my five favourite images I took this month. And this month was all about home and family.
So yes, this was a good month. And now for proof of good in this week:
• A timelapse video of the micro-movements of spectacularly-coloured coral. Watch and be mesmerized.
• The story of how Instagram came to be. (Basically, right place, right time. Cool story.)
• The beauty of architecture that heals. So gorgeous.
• Ever wish you could draw? Well today's your lucky day: here's a week of drawing lessons in one post, all for free. What?
• This history of social dance in America. I ain't gonna lie: I tried some of these moves when I was alone in the house this week.
• And finally, today's soundtrack: River, by Bishop Briggs. Today's song brought to you by Alex (because she recommended it, and I love this sound.)
Have a great weekend, friends.
1978 - 2016
There's new series by NPR called "Working: Then and Now," based on interviews of working folks that author and historian Studs Terkel conducted back in the 70s, and revisiting his interview subjects today. This story was on this morning on our local public radio station -- take 7 minutes and click here or the arrow below to give it a listen, to learn how much has changed (or not) in policing in America between then and now.