Visual Christmas

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How I See the Holidays, in Photographs

 

Photo by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

The holidays offer a fantastic time to work on photography skills as there is so much to see, from winter landscapes to Santa in the mall to glimmering photos of Christmas trees.

I belong to a photo club that establishes a monthly theme to help spur creativity all year ‘round, and December’s theme is “anything holiday.” Since my fellow photographers tend to capture pretty traditional holiday photos, each year I like to work hard to come up with something a bit more unique.

I ask myself, “What is a creative take on the holiday theme?” and see where my mind takes me.

It started with the photo in the header of this story, titled “We Three Kings.” It was shot at dusk in the parking lot where I used to live. The concrete and brick wall paired with the dried pine needles against the colorful ornaments struck the right sort of modern look I’d visualized.

So the next year, I had to up my game. Since I had made those ornaments look so pretty, it was time to clear a corner in the studio and gently apply a hammer.

Photo by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

I’m often asked how I got that photo and I say “I had a lot of fun, and it was a lot of mess to clean up.” The cheapie ornaments I bought didn’t smash as much as splinter, sending tinted glass shards skittering across the floor. It was far longer to cleanup than to set up, but smashing those ornaments was a fantastic holiday stress reliever. (Some friends have told me seeing these broken ornaments increases their stress)

This photo was well received and was hung as part of a gallery show at a local library here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The next year I felt I had said all that I wanted to say about ornaments, and I had to think a bit harder about how to show the holidays in a different way.

Since I love to photograph ordinary objects to show the beauty in the mundane, I turned to my baking drawer and pulled out some cookie cutters.

Photo by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

This photo was taken to satisfy a Flickr group’s theme of “photos by candlelight.” The yellow glow from the flame lit up the copper colored metal of the cookie cutter and produced a very satisfying warm orange glow.

In that same shoot, I also did one in black and white, still using the candle flame. This has more of a German expressionist feel to it. Or a police lineup.

Photo by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

Whereas the star is a warm glow of home, the black and white is more stark. Exploring that dark side of the holiday imagery is a lot of fun.

Last year I decided to go a bit more traditional. With the help of a theme of “stick” from my photoclub to get the gears turning in my creative mind, I looked to my spice shelf and pulled out the cinnamon sticks. I found some glitter ornaments in the box of holiday stuff and had my background.

Photo by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

It took a while to organize the cinnamon sticks in an interesting way, and as I was shooting, I was not sure I’d produced anything interesting. Then going back through the photos, I found this one to be intriguing and now I love it and feel like it perfectly captures the holidays in a new way.

And so here we are again in December and the holiday theme is upon me. Time to put some thought into how I visualize the holiday season for 2019.

My Fear of Flying

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It never goes away, it can only be managed


Photo by Lucas Ludwig on Unsplash

“I love to travel, I just don’t like what it takes to get there.” — Me, before every trip

Last week I was delighted to pack by bags and head out on a business trip on behalf of my employer. My job gives me the opportunity to travel once or twice a year and I am happy to get out of the office and on the road. I really do love to travel. Anywhere. Large, small, domestic, international, if there is travel to be done, I’m in.

Over my life I have traveled a lot, not the “gold status for a lifetime” kind of amount, more like 3–4 trips a year, sometimes more. I’ve seen quite a few countries, with a whole lot more to go.

My first plane ride was at seven years old. My mom, sister and I traveled to Oregon to visit my mom’s family. We flew to Salt Lake City, changed planes, then on to Portland. I remember the excitement, the thrill of the ride, the joy at seeing how lush and green Oregon was in comparison to Albuquerque.

I love seeing places I have never seen before, just as much as I love going back to a place I know and remembering all the things I like about it.

One thing that hasn’t changed over a lifetime of traveling: I’m moderately terrified of airplanes. Okay, to be fair, I am not a nervous flyer gripping the armrest like a life raft, but I do have trepidation every time I board a plane.

I’m usually cool as a cucumber getting to and through the airport, but once boarding is called and I am on the jetway, the reality of what I am about to do takes hold. To cope, I have to run through a well-practiced serious of thoughts to calm myself down enough so I don’t turn around and sprint back off the plane.

What I am saying is most of the time I do just fine. I’ve gotten used to your average passenger plane, three seats on each side, air safety is pretty good, all of that. But it’s still a hard thing for me to give up all control of my fate, pack my ample curves into an narrow and uncomfortable seat, accept being sealed inside a tin can, and allow one human being to pilot me and my fellow passengers high into the air.

Every once in a while, my travels throw me a curveball. A few years ago I was beyond excited to be asked to travel to Porto, Portugal. I think I said yes so fast I broke the time-space continuum and said yes before my boss even asked the question.

However, when the day of travel arrived what I found waiting at the airport gate was the largest passenger plane I had ever seen in my life. I actually started laughing out loud. “I am not getting on that thing,” I said to nobody but myself.

A plane so large it needed a special gate at the airport to load. Called an Airbus A380–800, it’s occasionally referred to as a whale. This plane has two floors. It has an actual staircase inside. I mean, come on now.

Airbus A380 on MAKS 2011. Image from Wikipedia and used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

 

I had to sit down and really, really ask myself if I was going to willingly get on that plane and ride for the eleven hours needed to get to Frankfurt. On the logical side of my brain, I reminded myself of watching loaded C-130s take off from a nearby military airfield, so I knew this plane was possible. The dimensions of the thing were just more than my brain could take.

Well, this past week, I had the opposite problem. After flying from San Francisco to Houston, I was to board a small regional plane that would get me over to Knoxville. I have flown very small planes before, including one bumpy ride on a terribly noisy turboprop, but for some reason I was not prepared for the plane that awaited me at the gate.

An Embraer Air ERJ-145, new, shiny, sleek, and terrifying. I texted my husband this photo with the caption “aw, shit.”

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

I knew I was going to be flying a small plane to Knoxville, I’d even made a joke a few weeks back about “Flying on a La Bamba plane.” When faced with the reality of the situation, the joke just wasn’t funny anymore.

When the glass door opened and I stepped out onto the tarmac, I began to run through my usual mental roll call of thoughts: “You are going to be fine, you don’t have to get on this plane if you don’t want to, these are professionals who do this every day, planes are very safe, you are safe, but you have choices.” And so on like that.

I locked up pretty good, but given my stubborn nature, I refused to let myself balk. I gamely walked up the ramp, got my stuff stowed, and crammed into the seat. I texted my husband, “I’m in my seat. I think I’m now wearing this airplane,” as it certainly felt snug about the hips.

This plane has two seats on one side and one seat on the other but is fairly comfortable. I was lucky to be on the one seat side, enjoying both a window and the aisle.

Once the doors were shut, I immersed myself in my book and did my best not to think too much about it.

If my trip to Frankfurt was riding a whale, to Knoxville I rode a sardine, and in both instances got there safely, on time, and no worse for the wear.

Look, fears and anxieties aren’t always rational, that’s kind of the point. I know flying is very safe, but my mind still has an awful lot of questions about the wisdom of being 30,000 feet above the surface of sweet, sweet Mother Earth.

One upside? The Sardine had nice big windows, all the better to capture a Tennessee sunset above the clouds.


Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

Cutting The Line

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What Cutting Mats for my Photos Taught Me About Creativity


Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

While writing is and will always be my first love, it is not my only creative outlet. I am also an avid photographer (I dabble a little with painting too). I have been doing photography for a much shorter time than I have been writing and while I’ve had some success in photography, I am still learning.

I love being at different levels of mastery for each of my creative outlets. They feed off of each other and help me stay motivated overall as an artist.

Recently, I was getting ready for an event where all photographers were to bring a portfolio of ten photographs to be shown and critiqued by a group of professional photographers who, for some reason, let me hang out with them.

This is a formal, annual event and is something I take very seriously. I had carefully curated ten good prints of my photos and needed to cut mat boards to perfectly frame each of the ten photos.

Now, I could have taken the photos to a framing shop and had them cut the mats for me, but my photography mentor is a stickler that a photographer should know how to cut their own mats and do so with a ruler and a blade, no need to use a mat cutting device.

A fifty-year professional photographer, she is very quick and efficient, zip, zip, bam a perfectly measured, perfectly cut mat.

My mat cutting is more like, zip, curse word, zoop, why god why, zap, damn! Did you know that paper has a grain, like wood? And your very sharp blade, if not well-tended, can slip into the grain and wander well off of your carefully measured and drawn pencil line?

Yeah. I’m not so good at cutting mats, but I am getting better.

This year I tried a different approach. One that I hoped would result in less shedding of tears, fewer pieces of ripped up mat board on the floor, and a happier me.

Instead of trying to go faster, to push quickly to complete the essential cuts in the board, I went slower. Much slower, using both deep breathing and intent. I kept my eye on the pencil line and my hand firmly on the blade, I watched the slow progress as I cut, making micro adjustments as needed. I didn’t let up on the pressure to the blade until I hit the end of the pencil line, and stayed focused on finishing each mat and not thinking about how many more I had left to do, just on making the one in front of me the best it could be.

The result? Instead of using up 2 to 3 pieces of mat board to get one good matted photo, I ended up spoiling only three boards total over ten photos.

This is significant.

Which caused me to think about what lessons I could apply from this experiment to the rest of my creative work.

Here’s what I learned:

1. In any creative work, errors will be made. There is a one-hundred percent chance you will make errors if you are doing creative work. Own that and learn to love the serendipity now.

Mistakes are what Bob Ross used to call “happy accidents.” It’s not whether or not you will make a mistake, you will, it’s how you recover from it that makes all the difference.

Fear of making mistakes, or giving up once a mistake is made is the number one obstacle I see limiting my fellow creatives.

2. Don’t let mistakes keep you from creating new work. How are you ever going to get any better if you don’t dive in, make mistakes, and learn what not to do next time?

Doing the work and continuing to create is how you start to make fewer mistakes.

3. Keep the end in mind but don’t make it your only focus. Finishing your project matters, but not at the expense of quality in the progress needed to get there.

Don’t get cocky, don’t take shortcuts, and stay focused at all stages as they each need different attention and they all matter in the finished product. People can tell when an artist takes a shortcut. It shows in the final product and is the difference between good and great work.

Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

4. Know your tools and know your medium. Being in the flow is so cool and when that creativity flows through you like an electric charge, there can be no better feeling. And there can be no quicker way to kill your flow than having to fiddle with your tools or finding the medium you work in doesn’t respond the way you thought.

Take a little time to experiment, play around a bit before you get serious in order to see what your tools and medium can do before jumping in there with ambitious plans.

5. Be willing to change your approach if something isn’t working. You may see another artist do something (in person, via YouTube, etc.) and wonder why you can’t make it work that way. You might try and try, following the exact instructions and still not get there.

What I am saying is: Don’t give up too soon, but don’t be afraid to make changes in your approach to see if it helps.

And finally…

6. Stay centered. It’s easy as an artistic type to go off on fun flights of fancy. To get in your head thinking “look at me being an artist!” and “where should I post photos of this thing when I’m done?” All of that takes you away from the work in front of you.

Allow yourself that fun dream time after you are done. While in the act of creating, stay in the now and stay purpose-driven in your work.

I know we are all writers here on Medium, so this may not seem like a story about cutting mat boards is for you, but rest assured, this applies to all creative endeavors, no matter the medium or the Medium (see what I did there?) you work in.

 

Affirmation Phrases are as Emotionally Nutritious as Cotton Candy

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Now that is a good click bait title, right?


“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me” — Stuart Smally

For those of us of a certain age, we remember the Stuart Smally pseudo-self -help skits by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live.

The catchphrase became an oft quoted in regular conversation, both joking and more than a bit serious.

In reality, there are an awful lot of resources out there that tell us about self-talk, about taking a strong stance, about giving ourselves positive affirmation phrases to bolster our courage and bring us to great heights.

Good words are all well and good, but do they actually work?

Here’s the thing, all the pretty words in the world are not a replacement for the discipline needed to actually take that first step.

Mohammad Ali told himself and the world that he was the greatest fighter that ever lived, then he went out there in the ring and proved it.

He did that not because of his hype words, but by putting in the training work well before the fight. The kind of work that’s less pretty words and all the more necessary.

What I’m saying is: The road less traveled doesn’t get traveled until you strap on your boots and walk it.

Self-care and self-discipline matter a whole lot more to your success than the perfect laser cut vinyl words stickered to your wall.

Live, laugh, love is all well and good, but you have to live by taking care of yourself, drinking enough water and for god’s sake eat a salad now and again.

You have to laugh, even when you are in such a dark place that laugher feels hollow. Sometimes it takes work to find anything funny, but once it’s there, the laugher soars.

And love, a lovely romantic notion but real true love takes hard work, which is, unto itself, cotton candy words. We all talk about “how hard” it is to make a marriage work, but you have to commit yourself to actually doing the work, to sticking around when everything in your brain says to run, to firmly holding that trash can while the love of your life barfs their brains out three days before the wedding.

Okay, that last one may be just a bit too personally specific.

How about this one:

Huh, really? Pretty sure that is impossible. There will ALWAYS be someone more than happy believe the bad stuff about you, even if you were the best person that ever lived.

Shouldn’t it be more like “Live in such a way that if someone spoke badly of you, it might make you sad for a little while, and then maybe you get a little drunk or eat french fries about it. Then you either hold on to that pain for a lifetime or you talk to your therapist about it and find a way to move on.”

I know talking about “doing the work” isn’t crazy cool, fun, and sexy. It doesn’t look cute on a shirt with butterflies and shooting stars. But that is how you get where you want to go, and by that I mean real, tangible results take effort.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t have some fighting words in your pocket to inspire when it is go time. I’m trying to say that catchy words are fine, but they don’t get the work done, so don’t get so lost in the memes, wallpaper or the “inspirations” aisle at the craft store that you forget to focus.

I mean, if you want to chant a phrase to get you fired up, get you off the couch and augment your inner motivation, then by all means!

I myself love to watch YouTube videos of tribal Maori doing a Haka dance. The strength and passion gets me fired UP to go out there and kick some butt.

I am not Maori so I try not to appropriate anyone’s culture, but I admit sometimes in the bathroom before a big presentation, I’ll stick my tongue out to my reflection in the mirror and make my best Haka face. AAAAGH!

Photo by Old Youth on Unsplash

Then I go out there and do the work. I stand tall and get it done. If I succeed or I fail, it wasn’t because of my affirmation phrases or my faces, but because I put in the time, dug deep, and did the work.

Please Notice

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“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

― Kurt Vonnegut Jr., from the book A Man Without a Country

Last night I ran across these bon mots from the author Kurt Vonnegut. This is not the first time I’ve seen the quote, it’s fairly well known, but for some reason this quote had a little more resonance than usual.

Miles of text have been written by people like me about their feelings on this quote and on Vonnegut himself. To be fully candid, I am not a devotee of Vonnegut only because I haven’t actually read any of his books.

I know, I know. Who didn’t get Slaughterhouse Five in High School? Me along with all my fellow students in the Albuquerque Public Schools. Saaaaalute.

My beloved is a fan of Vonnegut’s work, and has read most or all of his published writing. Let’s be honest, he had a better public education than I did. But let’s set that aside for now.

Vonnegut seems to be quite quotable. I mean who can ignore this brilliance of words like this:

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

Can’t argue with that. But back to the quote at the top, about taking the effort to notice those moments where the prevailing winds are happy.

That sentiment is a little bit different from prevalent mindset to be found online and in the media. There is a real drive to getting mad about just about anything and staying mad about it. About taking the maximum offense as often as possible. About grinding out misery. I guess perpetuating the agony keeps the eyeballs coming back, and eyeballs = ad revenue.

I really do get it.

But I just can’t thrive with that anymore. In the real world, not online, beautiful things happen every day. Happy moments exist and it’s not only good to notice them, it may be a matter of survival.

For example: There is a quirky scrub jay that inhabits my yard. I put out a bowl of peanuts and the bird picks through them like the pickiest toddler in the history of food, tossing aside the items that don’t meet exacting standards. It’s a funny moment of joy when I scold an unscoldable bird to “just take that one and stop being so picky!” The scrub jay never listens.

There’s the unscoldable rascal!

Today at work I did a nice thing for a coworker that really wasn’t that difficult, was right in my wheelhouse for the work I’ve spent a career doing, and helped my coworker out of a jam. They were so surprised and delighted I felt like I’d performed magic.

This morning I woke up next to the most wonderful man in the world. Tonight, I get to come home from work and hug him again.

See? If all of that is not nice, then I don’t know what is.

Feels good just to notice. Makes me want to keep noticing. Makes me want to pause a little when my own outrage seems to take the lead in my response to anything I read or hear or see.

Maybe I’m running too hard, reading too fast, reacting too soon.

Maybe I need to fart around a little more.

Maybe I can just remember it’s never as bad as it seems. Nor is it as good as it can be. But everything is always just a little bit better than I give it credit for. Leaning more toward the side of doing okay rather than not.

And that’s more than nice.