Friday, January 16, 2015

Paying Bills with Cat Treats

It has been too long. I haven’t written and then when I think about writing I become overwhelmed by everything that I have to catch up on…and put it off again. So, no more catching up. I mean, I suppose eventually I will because surely there will be days when nothing new is happening, but even if I don’t, I can’t start where I left off or I simply never will. I’ll start…right about here.
Over New Years we got to spend time with my parents, my brother and his wife, and to meet their beautiful little girl for the first time. The last time I saw my sister-in-law she was feeling that not-so-great-early-pregnancy feeling. This whole morning sickness thing strikes me as a rather silly system for nature to have developed. I’m sure there is some elaborate evolutionary explanation, but it still seems unnecessary. In any case, she was feeling much better and we all had a really nice visit.

I stalked the baby and took an ungodly number of pictures. I can’t help it, babies (and kids) are so genuine even in the presence of a camera that it makes photographing them as close to nature photography with people as you can really get. It’s not until they get older and learn to think about what they might look like in the photo that they get stiff and awkward.
My niece also has such different coloring than my kids and so I found it more challenging to take pictures of them together where they would both be appropriately exposed. I think that I would really like to be a portrait photographer specializing in children and babies.

I am sure no one else has ever wanted to do that. Ever.

Okay, probably the only more sought after gig would be to find a salaried position photographing kittens all day.

The thing is that I love to photograph children because of that natural attitude but it gets a bit awkward just to go around taking pictures of other people’s kids. I don’t know why they wouldn’t want a stranger taking a staring kind of interest in their children…how could that be unnerving?

On the other hand, at least half the fun of photographing children is sharing the photos with the parents. As a mother, I know that we all see something incredibly precious in our own children and it’s hard to record that. It’s also something we desperately want to record because, even though it seems like the waking up at midnight feeding lasts for an eternity, they are grown up so soon. I love my 10 year old as he is…but I still miss the baby he was.

There’s also just a pride in the beauty of the creature you’ve produced and love so much and seeing a photograph that catches that is such a pleasurable experience.

It helps that the kids aren’t really critiquing their own photos either. Everybody hates their own portrait (to a certain degree, and Kim Kardashian excepted.) Any picture taken of an adult is impacted by that person’s self consciousness and internal dissatisfaction and so the experience is clouded by ego and low self esteem.

I guess that starts happening even before adult hood. My son, who is 10, looked at a photo that I had taken of him – the one with him and my niece – and asked if I could get rid of the spots on his face. He was talking about his freckles which I think are adorable and it made me sad to realize that he’s already developing small dissatisfactions with his appearance. He’s holding himself up to some sort of standard, probably whatever pre-teen magazine, heart throb, teeny-bopper kind of idol is currently hip, and finding that he doesn’t like the things that make him look like himself rather than an airbrushed mannequin.

Maybe pet portraiture is the way to go though…after all, my rat has never asked me if a photo makes his butt look fat. And I have yet to need to re-shoot because my chinchillas’ whiskers were in disarray.

The problem there is that they pay in kibble and I’m pretty sure my electric company won’t accept an envelope filled with cat treats.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Trying Not to Panic

The lone surviving photo from my collection.
I am trying not to panic.

Panicking is something that I can do with such exquisite ease that it is almost a shame to try and stop. 

To rephrase Sylvia Plath:


Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I’ve a call.

Three days ago my computer shutdown while I was in the middle of editing photos. It then refused to turn on again. The first snakes of panic began to slither through my stomach, but I exterminated them with the thought of my trusty external hard drive upon which all of my work was safely stored. Sure, I would lose today's edits, but given my short attention span I wasn't even sure I could remember what they were in order to grieve their loss.

Yesterday, new computer up and running I foolishly tried to turn it on. I was lured further down the thorny path to distraction when, full of hubris, I also attempted to connect my printer, tablet, keyboard, and hard drive. When I had not realized, was that the AC adapter for my lovely little Canon Selphy printer was masquerading as the power supply to my hard drive.

The moment I put the power cord into the hard drive I heard a sickening sizzle. I pulled out the cord immediately, but alas it was too late.  My printer uses 24 volts, while my poor, electrocuted hard drive was only set up to survive at 12 volts. I have since become a jungle for the animals of anxiety. I cannot yet enumerate what will have been lost should the geek squad gods be unable to work their special brand of magic.

We shall see.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Cobbling Together a Living: No Caviar...but I do Have Shelter!

I am an assistant professor in interior architecture at a state university and I am coming up on my sixth year. I got my first job as a tenure-track faculty member at West Virginia University 10 years ago. I have dedicated a decade of my life to teaching, collecting information, creating course materials, publishing articles, presenting at conferences, and educating students.

But this part of my life is coming to a close. This past spring, I decided not to apply for tenure. This means that I have two more years on my contract that I can work and then I have to leave. I made this decision because despite the fact that being a professor is what I have always known I should be doing, what it is to be a professor has changed. Less of my time is spent on striving to make education better and more on just trying to stop things from becoming damaging. A better day is when things can be prevented from slipping away rather than actually becoming harmful.

This has been a gut-wrenching decision for me. I hate that I had to make it, but I don't think I made the wrong decision. To a lot of people it looks like a pretty foolish thing to have done. After all, one of the ultimate goals of a faculty member is to get tenure, it feels like recognition for a job well done. It signals your success to other faculty and I have spent a decade preparing myself for the review. I made it to within sight of the finish line and then decided not to go for it. I could have had it, but I was actually afraid I would get it.

It also looks foolish because I have a steady salary, health insurance, and retirement benefits. I make $60,000 a year before taxes and health premiums, I bring home about $3,500 a month afterwards. I have classes for 30 weeks a year - that's 22 weeks when I'm not teaching. I don't have to come in on weekends and in fact, some semesters I have only had classes on two or three days of the week.

Obviously there is a lot more to my job than teaching. In fact, my job has been all consuming for the last decade. I have pushed myself and worked countless hours to do what I thought was important - push the frontiers of thought. I could keep my job, do the minimum, and still get paid what I earn now. So, why not do that?

It's devastating, that's why. Tenure is a hollow victory only indicating that I played well with others. I care too much about thinking and about education to do them poorly. When you are a professor, it isn't a job, it's an identity. It's not enough to win - I want to succeed. I'm thinking about the World Cup a lot recently and it gave me a way to think about my career. When Arjen Robbens threw himself to the ground to fake a penalty that won their qualification match or when Louis Suarez bit Chiellini to take Uruguay through, the games were won for those who cheated. They won, but they failed and it leaves a bitter taste underneath the sweetness of victory. Maybe not now and maybe they will never realize it, but it is corrosive.

I don't want to win something that isn't worth having and that was based not on merit but on compliance.

On the other hand, I want to eat. I don't do well with authority, I am easily bored, I don't have a lot of actual skills, and I'm too snotty to work for minimum wage. I come from a reasonably well off background, so I have no memories of hunger to make me fear letting go of my steady income. This doesn't mean that it's brilliant - it means I am impetuous and angry.

Photography, especially fine art photography (I'll deal with the term 'fine art' later...) isn't the road to riches. It isn't the road to the middle-class. It might not be the road to dignified poverty. It's something I love though and that I can't stop doing. Sometimes, I try to - I remind myself that it's not earning me money (just like this blog isn't...) and that I should do something useful. I can't.

Instead, I have been doing freelance writing and it is beginning to look like I might be able to make a way for myself. I don't know that I will replace the salary I was earning at the university. I do know that I don't hate myself while I'm doing it. I've only been doing it for a couple of months, so who knows what it will be like long term, but I've managed to get a couple of clients who like what I do and I am thoroughly enjoying the hyperactive nature of it.

I write an article, 500 - 800 words about one topic and then, generally, I don't really have to think about it again. I become an expert in something and then I can move on to becoming an expert in the next thing. This is what I wanted from academia; the ability to explore across connections, to know a bit about everything and see how the world is woven together. In academia they want you to go deep, to know everything there is about one thing. That's fine, but not for me - I love connections, the spaces between, the sticky threads that pull wildly different things together. It's like magic. It's as close to the feeling of religious ecstasy that I will ever get.

I'm not writing about big ideas right now. Sometimes I'm writing about liposuction and sometimes about photography and sometimes about 3D printing. The connections are mine to enjoy.

I get paid to do this. Sometimes it's $15 an article, sometimes $20, sometimes $50 but I can put these things together so that my day is varied and I can be flexible. If I want, I can push myself and on another day, I can take a nap on the hammock. So, while I won't be sharing beluga caviar on my yacht any time soon, I'll be home when my husband has a day off and I'll know things about the world and I won't have to betray my principles.

I think it will be a worthwhile tradeoff.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Addendum to Vietnamese - Soup of the gods

I have returned from another dinner at Binh Minh Vietnamese restaurant in Greensboro and I am pleased to say that it was, once again, fantastic. I think that this was the best bowl of Pho that I have ever had, and I am no stranger to the dish...that's pho sure. Okay, last pho pun, sorry, I couldn't help it.

Pho with Chicken and Shrimp
We went with our friends Barbara and Pawel who were in town for the evening and, in fact, it was Pawel who told us about the place. I may have to invent some kind of award just to be able to give it to him. I will have to do it when I am not as full as I am right now though. Now, it's just about all I can do to keep from exploding.

But back to the food...

Barbara ordered Sesame chicken which was perfectly crunchy with this wonderful garlicky spicy sesame sauce. When it came to the table, it had the kind of smell that lets you know that you are willing to burn your tongue because you can't wait long enough for it to cool down, you have to eat it right then.
Sesame Chicken

But the pho...oh my. I put two slices of jalapeno peppers in it and let them sit and it got just a bit spicy, but not too much. It has a tinge of sweetness to it and, of course, comes in a bowl large enough to lose a cat in.

My daughter, once again, refrained from letting any actual food enter her mouth (she survives, I think, entirely by absorbing vitamins through her skin) and contented herself with drinking lemonade and asking if we were done eating yet. I answered her in the spirit of John Paul Jones, by saying "I have not yet begun to eat!" And followed with "I regret that I have but one stomach to give for this food!" She did not think either reply was funny and I am greatly looking forward to her teenage years when she will have the good sense to be embarrassed by me.

My son had the clear broth soup the he had ordered last time. There is this delicious sweetness in the broth, almost a hint of licorice, most likely anise. It is so simple but absolutely divine. He took his bowl to another table so that he could watch a replay of the afternoon's game of Belgium vs the US in what we convinced him was a rematch. He was certain the US would win this time. Luckily we left before his little heart was broken.

Clear Broth Soup with Scallions

I remember to take pictures this time. I have only just been able to stop licking my screen long enough to post them. Then I must go back to lying down and feeling like a glutton. Seriously though if you are within a radius of less than the earth's circumference, you should go here immediately.

If it isn't open, just sit outside with your faced pressed up against the window. It will be worth the wait.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Food Post! Binh Minh Vietnamese Restaurant Greensboro NC

Before I get distracted: This restaurant is at 5211 Market Street in Greensboro, NC
And an apology: I was so excited by the food, I ate it before I could photograph it. I will remedy this...and exercise more self discipline in the future...probably.

Now...back to my rambling:

I know that a lot of people eat fast food just because they know it. You know that it’s not going to be great but you’ll be full and you know what to expect. If you stop somewhere else, it could be awful or they could only serve things you hate…the horror!!

I know it well. I get food anxiety because I love to eat and I hate to waste an eating experience by having something gross or even just blah. However, I decided to stop eating fast food about a year ago (partly because I have an allergy to soy which my body has decided it wants to communicate to me by making my hand so itchy that the only thing I want to do is leave everything behind so that I can devote myself full time to scratching) and I have had so many more amazing experiences than not. What I mean is that if I stopped on the road – the only time I really eat out – at a fast food restaurant the mediocre experience level was 100% but the fear was 0. My fear of a new place was pretty high (plus salt and fat are weaknesses of mine and fast food has those in spades) but my positive experiences have been about 95% and the other 5% were just ‘meh’.
I think Americans are generally willing to sacrifice the possibility of something amazing to the fear of the bad. It keeps us from doing a lot of really cool stuff. The most profound regrets I have are almost always when I gave way to that fear not when I decided to hope for the best. Anyway, that’s the set up. Scene:

I love Vietnamese food…okay, I love food in general…but it is harder to be soy free with Asian food in general. It’s really, really hard to be soy free and eat outside of your own house these days, you’d be surprised at what has soy in it (Tums for example…) I also really, really don’t want to be that person who can’t eat something and makes a big deal out of it. If you have a peanut allergy that will kill you, I get it – that’s pretty intense and you can never ben too sure. Soy makes my hands incredibly itchy, that’s my burden to bear and not something I feel like explaining all the time, so I usually don’t ask about food’s contents. Is this a brilliant strategy? No. But, oh well.

Anyway, let me interrupt my digression by telling you about this restaurant. Greensboro has really high quality Vietnamese food, it’s not what you would necessarily think, but if you are passing by Greensboro and you are a traveller who doesn’t know what to try that isn’t fast food, you should give Vietnamese a try. Even if it isn’t Binh Minh.

Binh Minh doesn’t make any concessions to super finicky people – if you want French Fries, you aren’t going to get them. If you have an eater in your party who is fussy (like my daughter) they may have to just settle for the cut melon and orange desert…or complain (like my daughter) and then eat macaroni at home. My son is an excellent eater and he immediately found the salmon, he has a radar for it. My husband is not as adventurous in his food forays but he is also not a scaredy cat, so he ordered lemongrass chicken. A friend who came with us ordered the Pho, which I immediately envied when it arrived.

I got a Vietnamese crepe that was epic. I saw that you could order one or two and I, fool that I am, assumed that they were about the size of a spring roll or so. Nope, it’s a full oval plate omelet sized creation. It was stuffed with shrimp, tiny corn, onions, and sugar snap peas. It was topped with lettuce and cilantro and came with a clear sauce. I ate way more of this dinner than I needed and as I was nearing full, the second crepe appeared. I shared that one with the table…and then ate some more of it. It was delicious, the crepe was so light and fluffy with just a touch of crispness.

Before I knew it, my 9 year old had eaten an entire plate of salmon and was attempting to consume the rice by squishing individual grains onto the end of his chopsticks and get them to his mouth. I revealed the secret fork collection and things seemed to go much more smoothly. There was a clear broth with scallions that came out with the food and I could have made a meal out of that. It had such a delicate flavor, not just the heavy salt that a lot of broths like this have. When my son was done eating (and my daughter done trying not to have us ask her again if she was sure there wasn’t anything she wanted) the kids peeled off to stare at gold fish and watch a bit of the world cup.

It was the kind of dinner where even before we finished eating we were trying to find reasons that we needed to come back and planning what we would order. I can already taste the Pho…

For my daughter, the highlight was the paper umbrellas in the fruit, I’m hopeful that some of the fruit might have accidentally been absorbed through her skin to augment her only macaroni diet.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Men At Work, 3D Printing, Squirrels (Hint: Not a Recipe Post)

Currently, there is a squirrel hanging upside down from a baffle eating suet out of a squirrel proof feeder. Thank goodness they're so cute or I guess I'd be upset. What this has made me realize though is that if I ever get to design my own house, I don't want any window muntins, just sheet glass and screens that can be lowered only when desired. Sometimes there is cool stuff going on outside my window and if I go outside, it will stop, but if I take the picture from inside, I've got window panes and screens. This is probably the only thing standing between me and universal recognition.

In the meantime though I have gotten a cool gig writing articles for and have been learning some really interesting stuff about 3D technology. I'm still just a baby in the field (interesting visual for you) but am really enjoying the research and writing. I'm still working on liposuction stuff as well (writing not performing) and now all of the side bar advertisements on every page I visit are for cosmetic surgeons. Data mine much? I'm interested to see if it starts to combine these interests and offer me ways of 3D printing with fat. ew. sorry.

The day before yesterday I drove to my son's school to drop off a letter for the principal, and it took nearly 1/2 hour for the normally 5 minute drive. This is because I live in one of those suburban developments that has only one entrance and one exit and the city is repaving the road that goes between those two points. There's no way to get around it because every street is a cul-de-sac or only 2 blocks long and they all connect with this main road. I didn't really mind because my summer schedule is pretty relaxed but it gave me time to think as I was watching them do this work. There's so rarely anything of visual interest going on in my neighborhood. All the houses look the same, there's not much wildlife (not counting the squirrels hanging from my feeders and the chinchillas living in my house) and people aren't outside very much, so this would be a perfect opportunity to take pictures without going very far. 

So, I suited up in my new double camera holster. I really only need one camera with me most of the time, but it doesn't balance right with just one, so I wear the other too. Then I walked up and down the approximately 1/2 mile stretch of road where work was going on that day and photographed the men and machines. I got a chance to talk to everybody, even if only to ask them if I could take their picture. It was a very pleasant experience and kept me out of trouble. I did get one photobomb where two guys walking buy lifted up their shirts while I was taking a picture. Unfortunately, I missed them and I'm devastated because I'm sure it would have been the sexiest thing I had ever seen two unemployed guys do. Oh well, I guess that's the decisive moment that Bresson was talking about.

I have to admit that I sweat like an Olympic athlete. Actually, maybe more. I'm pretty sure that's my body's natural defense system because if I were living in the wild and something attacked me, it would be immediately repulsed and run away, damp, back to its hiding place to whimper. As I was working on this essay, People at Work, I realized that the next time I should do People at Work in Air Conditioned Places instead because it was just sad - I was sweating more than the workers.

It was good practice going around and talking to strangers too. I always want to go take pictures of people I don't know, but I'm generally too shy to ask or just take them from such a distance that people don't know. I keep reading that it is important to talk to the people you are going to photograph and then decided I will just have to either avoid taking pictures of people or that I will only be able to do it after several shots of Tequila. The problem with the latter approach being that the photos become somewhat less focused as time goes on. However, after 'screwing my courage to the sticking place' (or something of that nature) it really wasn't that hard - it was almost fun. Who knows...maybe I'll be able to do this again. 

I think I'll start by chatting up the squirrel.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Selfies, Selphy, Self

My very first selfie taken in Mexico, 2013
I cannot take selfies…I cannot tell a lie. First, it never occurs to me that I want a picture that I am in. After all, I have an image in my head of what I look like and I feel perfectly fine until faced with irrefutable proof that it is wrong. Second, it’s hard to hold a heavy camera out far enough and I still end up with more chins than are necessary. Third, I actually don’t have a smart phone. I have a cell phone that has actual individual buttons that I have to actually individually press and so there is no screen where I can see what is in the picture if what I want in the picture is in front of the lens. So, I can only guess and apparently my self image also has a very different idea of my location than reality will confirm and so I am rarely even in the photo even if I try to be.

I’m not one of those people who refuses to be in photos because my hair isn’t right or my makeup isn’t on. I just don’t want to take those pictures for myself. Other people can see very clearly what I look like and so accept a photo of me as something that actually reminds them of me, whereas I cannot see me and am perfectly happy remembering what other people look like and what I felt like while I was taking their picture. Someone, who shall remain nameless, took a picture of me while I was joking about taking selfies with a big camera and then had the nerve to post that photo on Facebook and it was exactly the photo I have in mind when I think about bad photos. It’s all upper arms and double chins combined with it looking like I actually take photos of myself with a telephoto lens.

Self Portrait in Gatewood @ UNCG
I will now spend the rest of my life indoors.

But, I won’t suffer for it because now I have the cutest little photo printer ever: the Canon Selphy. Since I only have about 10,000 more photos from Mexico that I need to print and put in my photo albums that should keep me busy roughly until the earth crashes into the sun. The only thing I can’t figure out is how to send the pictures directly from my computer to the printer. Instead, I have been putting them on a memory card and then moving that from my computer to the memory card slot on the machine. I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to fix that though because I am so excited to print that I can’t be bothered.

The printer uses a dye sublimation process for printing and the quality is fantastic. It pulls the little piece of paper through four times, the first time it prints all of the yellows, the second pass prints all of the magenta, and the third prints all of the cyan. Then it goes through a final pass where it lays down a semi-gloss clear finish that keeps the pictures from smudging or scratching…et voila! The kids are really enjoying watching it because you can see the picture after each pass so it’s like watching it appear – almost like the fun of old school developing but without the chemicals from that which cause cancer (it’s probably just a whole new batch of cancer causing chemicals…) So far I have printed 100 images and it’s still going strong – it is also super easy to load paper and ink and hardly takes up any space at all. That’s the size I needed too since I hardly have any space at all…you know because I have things to strew all over my desk.
First Photo in Self Portrait Project

I renewed my subscription to because I missed the tutorials. Yesterday I watched on of The Practicing Photographer tutorials with Ben Long. He outlined an interesting project that I would like to do if I could just come up with an idea. It’s a year long project that requires me to pick a frequency (daily, weekly, bi-weekly, etc.) a scope (anywhere, my city, my neighborhood, my yard, my chair, etc.) and a subject (an object, a color, a cliché, an emotion, etc.) Then, I would have to carry that out and at the end of the year I would have a pretty interesting collection of images…if I had any ideas. Right now, I’m drawing a blank.

Self Portrait #2: Hands
The only thing I keep coming back to are self-portraits because I hate the way I look in most photos, because I am always available to me, because people are interesting subjects, and because I will be extremely patient. I could mess around with lighting, makeup, costume, setting, etc. I think I would just like some more parameters for myself, but maybe if I just start doing it, the things I need to try will become more apparent. What I don’t want are a series of my face in the camera, filling the frame. I’m not interested in watching my face change over time like those series that some people have done (which are amazing, just not what I’m trying to focus on here). I’m more interested in the self-portrait as a subject. I found this fantastic compilation of 100 seriously cool self-portraits - there's a lot of interesting things to think about!

Hmmm…maybe I’ve just had my idea, right here.

You’re such a good listener!