Bully Pulpit

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Photography in the Singular


It was only a few years ago I finally bought a decent camera and started to pursue my interest in photography.

Still a novice, I’ve got a flickr page and find that I can lose myself for hours looking at other photographers’ art.  I’m delighted and inspired by the images my flickr contacts share, and encouraged every time one of my photos gets a comment or a ‘favorite’.

I’ve taken some workshops, dabbled a bit in a camera club and am now attending a meetup group.  The monthly meetup group is pretty informal, with some good discussions about creativity, originality and the like.  The meetup’s goals group, which I also attend, is more structured and serious.  The group leader is also a proponent of the ‘buddy system’, where you go out and take pictures together.

If there’s anything that will put a stopper on my well of creativity it’s making it a social event.  I’m baffled by photographers who go out in groups or pairs and come back with an inspired shot. Actually, I don’t think it’s all that common.  In order to tap into creative inspiration, I need to go inside myself, and not come to a consensus with a group about what’s photo-worthy.   I’ve even been out on a nature trail with fellow photographers and the yakking scared off some beautiful birds.

Reading Susan Cain’s wonderful book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”,  my preference in this creative process is affirmed.  Most of the world’s greatest art, as well as scientific and technical discoveries, are not the product of group collaboration.  Sure, there are mural artist groups,  screenwriting duos and scientific research teams that have all made their mark on society. But I’m guessing that if Henri  Cartier-Bresson had been distracted by a photo-buddy’s chatter, he would have missed too many of those ‘decisive moments’.

When I’m taking photos, the only relationship that matters is the one between me, my camera, and the subject.  Trying to maintain social ties at the same time usually ends up in my being present neither to my photo nor to my companion.  It’s even worse if it’s a ‘date’.  After all, would you go on a date to write poetry or throw pottery together?

Creating art is, for the most part, a process that generally requires a bit of an inward journey.  Although I’m influenced by a lot of other photographers, developing as an artist is really about uncovering – and sharing – my own particular vision.

Tonight is goals group…a challenge for this introvert, but maybe also an opportunity. Both to articulate what works for me, and to learn more from the extroverts among us what inspires their best work.  While I may not be converted to the ‘buddy system’, I expect the  extroverted artists in the group might offer some new perspectives.

Posted in creativity, Introversion, photography, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

To Age With Sass

Beach concert with Ruth

I met woman on the beach last week.  She was one of the few actually swimming in the cold Maine water.  As you do sometimes with strangers, we talked pretty frankly about ourselves and life.                                                                                                                   She was 87, as it turns out, and enjoying a great vacation with friends, one of whom just celebrated her 90th birthday the day before.  My new acquaintance shared that she’d been a ‘widow’ twice; although in longstanding relationships, she never married. “Some of us just aren’t meant to,” she said simply, and ran off into the waves, laughing.

Ruth is another woman I look forward to seeing every year in Maine.  She takes the bus each morning to the YMCA and swims laps, after which she walks on the beach for nearly an hour.  Ruth is fascinated by the life and work of Leonard Cohen, and has seen I’m Your Man several times.  She’s also a fan of Stephen Hawking, and can converse on any topic from physics to marketing strategies.  Ruth’s in her early 90’s.

Mary, who owns and operates the Inn, is probably around 80, and likely older.  She and her late husband bought the Inn as a retirement career,  and she’s been the engine behind its restoration and great success.  Day and night, Mary’s on duty – greeting guests,  planning upgrades, and baking breakfast treats shared in the Inn’s Gathering Room.   In the slower season, Mary’s off traveling the world or visiting one of her many children or grandchildren.

Carla was a client I had the privelege of working with many years ago.  In her seventies, she  started her last – and most successful career – as an antique dealer. A widow, she also found a lover who enjoyed life as much as she did, up until she died of ALS.

One of the departments I oversee at my workplace is Healthy Aging.  We offer evidence-based programs like A Matter of Balance, and Chronic Disease Self-Management. Fine programs, for sure, but that’s not what leaps to my mind when I think of healthy aging.

I want to be like Carla, or Ruth, or the woman who rushed into the waves of the cold Atlantic.  Full of curiosity and openness to life, honest about the joys and the painful losses.  Sexy, adventurous, and self-confident.

Sure, these women have had some advantages and resources that no doubt contribute to their longevity.  They’ve had the means to afford education and travel.                               They haven’t been spared life’s disappointments, though, nor have they all been blessed with the best health.

It just seems that they chose – and keep choosing –  to live in life’s possibility rather than in fear or regret.  They laugh easily, at the world and themselves, and march to the beat of their own drummer.

Ready for a date? A concert on the beach?  I plan to age with sass!

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Water, No Ice

A cab driver named Kojo gave me some advice on the trip from Bethesda to the airport. He said the answer to most of life’s problems lies in water. Only his pronunciation was cooler: “wotah”
If ever you feel yourself getting worked up about something, pause and drink a glass of water. Water has the potential to bring clarity to a clouded mind. It certainly can’t hurt.

One recent hot summer day, kids from a local church were handing out bottled water at a downtown crosswalk. I wasn’t converted, but I was refreshed.

When I interviewed at my last job, the director asked me if I would like some water. It helped, because it was a hot day and because my nervousness gave me a dry mouth. Fourteen years later, whenever I interview someone, I offer water. Most people accept.

Back in the late 60’s, my father brought us fishing off some old pilings on the Boston waterfront. A neighbor cleaned and cooked the fish for us, and I remember it tasted delicious.
This was long before the big clean-up, before we even knew how polluted the harbor was.

A cop once told me that weirdos seemed to hang out near water. This was after I came across a naked man pleasuring himself in the woods by the reservoir. Today I was walking with my camera by the ocean, and a man asked me if I wanted to take some ‘wild and crazy photos’ of him. I told him I only photograph landscapes and walked away.

I love flowers, but don’t believe in using so much water on lawn and garden, especially during times of draught. Maybe I should plant some hardy (and dramatic) grasses instead.

My aunt had Sjogren’s Syndrome, which inhibits your ability to produce saliva and tears. She didn’t complain, but I imagine it would be uncomfortable to feel so parched all the time.

Sometimes, we need the softening that comes with fog and snow.

My brother and I once drove up Mt Washington, and a cloud bank near the top blocked our view of everything, even the road we were on. We opened the windows in the hope that it might improve visibility. The cloud moved through the car, and we waited in stillness as it moved away at its own pace.

Favorite sounds…rain against the window, the kayak paddle as it dips in and out of the lake, echoes of laughter carried across the beach.

Water, no ice.

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Bridging the Family Political Divide

With three brothers, I’m the only female in my family. Also the only democrat.

Back in the 80’s, my brother Mark served for a time as the Chairman of the Young Republican Club of New England. He’s not the most conservative, though. That would be Paul, who my father used to describe as being ‘somewhere to the right of Pat Robertson.’ My oldest brother Doug is also of the Republican persuasion, but is probably the least political in the family.

Our differences are reflected in some of our life choices and interests. Two of my brothers are accountants, and the other is a successful small business owner. I, on the other hand, am employed as a social worker in a nonprofit organization.

My brother Paul was aghast at the dumpy rent-controlled apartment I lived in outside Harvard Square (in the Republic of Cambridge) for several years. His Christmas cards from George Bush horrified me. He took target practice, I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity.

When we were younger, my brothers and I would occasionally goad each other by making provocative political comments. The purpose was probably more to vent old sibling resentments, and we succeeded only in strengthening our positions as rivals.

Over time, though, an unspoken truce developed, as we began to focus more on what we share than on the things that divide us. As is often the case with families, children became a great bridge; our shared devotion to my nieces and nephews continues to sustain us. Celebrating the birth of a grand-niece and nephew this year sweetened the glue that binds us together as family.

Politics aside, it’s clear we have more in common than we used to believe. A trait we all share is a keen and irreverent sense of humor, and an eye for the absurd. We are dancing fools, and weddings are a guaranteed blast as we tear up the dance floor all night with the twenty-somethings. Doug and I compare notes on movies and music, Paul and I discuss our latest nonfiction reads, and Mark and I share a real appreciation for visual art.

Maybe the fact that there are just four of us remaining of an original family of eight makes us inclined to avoid arguments that can only create strained distance. We’re survivors, after all, suffering more challenges than most in our youth, including the sudden deaths of two siblings in our teens. Coming from working class origins, we’ve earned post-graduate educations and become accomplished professionals. We each provide community service, whether through Rotary, PTO, or church leadership.

Getting older may mean we’re a little wiser, but maybe we’re too tired to waste energy trying to prove something to one another. We have plenty of friends and groups we can complain to about the sadly misguided other party. We can support our respective candidates, rally, and vote. But our party allegiances aren’t really what define us as individuals, and certainly not what make us family.

No doubt, we’re still baffled by each other’s political convictions. (how could someone so smart actually believe that crap?) There’s still an occasional Facebook comment or random tweet from one of us that reveals our political stripes, but they just pass by without comment.

When we get together for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, I’m planning not to gloat over my candidates having won the election. My brothers are probably planning the same.

Posted in family, Personal, Politics | 2 Comments

The Limits of Memory

My brother and I agree that the last two years of my father’s life were among his best. At least, those are the two years we most enjoyed with him.

My father was 80 when he had a stroke.  Up until then, he was pretty physically fit, maintaining a daily regimen that included walking and about 100 sit-ups.  He spent summers at his apartment outside Boston, and wintered at his girlfriend’s place in Louisiana. Not a bad arrangement.

The day it happened, I got a call from a somewhat puzzled emergency room doctor.  In his exam room was a strong, seemingly healthy older man who insisted he was living in 1920’s New Orleans.  “Have you noticed your father being confused lately?” he suggested rather than asked.  No, I told him. It had to have been a stroke. In a phone conversation just the evening before my father had been railing about the moral and economic failings of George W’s military policy.  In fact, I said, making a lame attempt at humor, that could have been what gave him the stroke. The doctor wasn’t amused.

He did have bleeding in the brain, as it happened, and despite weeks of rehab, it became clear that my father had suffered significant cognitive impairment. His short-term memory was all but gone, he had no safety awareness, and most frustrating for him, he had expressive aphasia. Although he knew what he wanted to say, he was literally at a loss for words.

Up until he had the stroke, my brother and I had known our father to be angry and fearful, plagued throughout his adult life by worry and regret. He could perseverate about a slight or a perceived injustice for months or even years. His brooding and preoccupation often obscured his more positive qualities, and it was hard for my brothers and me to spend time with him.

And then, with the stroke, it changed. Untroubled by burdens of the past, my father was able to actually live in the moment.  He smiled readily, gratefully received contact in whatever form it was offered, and relaxed enough to enjoy moments of pleasure. When I asked him how he was in my daily calls, he nearly always answered, “wonderful!” and meant it.  He developed a craving for doughnuts, and because he forgot he’d asked, was always pleasantly surprised when we showed up with the little white bag on our visits.  He sat on my brother’s front porch and helped hand out candy to kids on Halloween, and sat on a stone wall and threw snowballs with me at Christmas.

Despite his aphasia, my father sometimes managed to say it just right. After an impromptu pizza party with my niece and me (highlighted by the three of us mangling the song Bad Boys), my father struggled to express himself. “I…had…such…joy!”

Not long after, as I told him about a work dilemma, he waved his hand. “You put in front of you …what should go behind you.”   When I find myself fretting nowadays, I remember his words.

In Neil Young’s concert film “Heart of Gold”, he refers to his father having Alzheimer’s Disease at the end of his life. What he says next is surprising: “You know how it is when you get to see your family member finally living in the moment”.  We typically think of losing memory as only a bad thing, but it can be a release of sorts, and a settling into the present.

This photo above was taken on a day my father and I were feeding ducks at the pond down the street from his nursing home. His teeth had gone missing, but not his sense of humor, and try as I might to get him to strike a ‘serious’ pose, he couldn’t stop laughing about his toothless state.  I laugh every time I see the picture, and am happy I have a visual reminder of the more carefree person my father became.

If you’re interested in other perspectives on memory loss, you might want to read “Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words”  a lovely memoir by Kate Whouley.    I also recommend a wonderful short film, “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter.”

Posted in caregiving, family, Health, Medical, Personal, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Kick the Bucket List

Okay, I know this is counter to the grab-all-you-can, live out- loud ethos so popular right now. It just seems that the ‘bucket list’ approach to life is as much about consumerism as  as it is about life fulfillment.  Instead of competing over what things we collect, we’re  competing over how many experiences we’ve had.  And generally, the more dramatic (expensive) and risky the experience, the more desirable it seems.

Bucket lists typically include things like jumping out of planes, deep sea diving, bagging Tibetan peaks or going on safari in Africa. Not so common are things like  learning to grow tomatoes, entering a watercolor in the local art exhibit, or teaching an ESL class.

I’ve heard people talking about their bucket lists, but rarely hear what happens after they’ve had the experience.  Which makes me wonder whether crossing something off the list ends up being as satisfying as expected.  Maybe it is, and the more sensitive among us don’t want to gloat! Or does a new goal automatically replace what’s been crossed off?

I don’t know if I what I have could be called a list.  I do have some aspirations, among them learning to be a better photographer and writer.  I’d like  to be less distracted by constant activity, and more present to my loved ones.  I intend to spend more of my time living in the moment, and less time worrying.  If it works out, maybe I’ll learn to play the drums.

This doesn’t mean I advocate inertia.  I still love adventures and want to make the most of the time I have left in this too-short life.  It’s just that I don’t want to approach life with a business plan.  Who knows – taking an unplanned detour might lead to a fascinating hobby or new love.  Or I may find that helping someone else reach one of their life goals will be as satisfying as checking something off my own list.

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