A Moment Matters

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And So Does Kindness


 

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

It’s morning and I’m waking up rough after some really painful dental work. I’m running late for work but I’m trying to stay calm and just get there.

I’m traversing a road that is something of an unofficial border. On one side is a series of slightly rough neighborhoods where gentrification is coming hard and fast. And painfully.

The other side is the “good” side of the road (scare quotes used intentionally). Gentrification has already arrived to this side of the road, for both better and for worse.

I stop at a red light at a major intersection. I am first in line and there is a long line of cars behind me.

“Who Can It Be Now,” plays from the oldies station on my radio. A popular song from my high school years is now an oldie. Don’t get me started.

I tap my thumb on the steering wheel and hum along when to my left, a local denizen, a gentleman who has seen better days, enters the crosswalk taking something of a slanting route over the white lines.

In his hand he’s carrying an open tall boy and holding it close to his chest. He’s smiling, though his face and his skin looks like he’s seen some things.

I am alternately like “right on!” because why not beer at almost nine in in the morning? Then “oooh, damn” because beer at nine in the morning possibly means chasing a few demons somewhere around nine o’clock the night before.

But I don’t know this guy’s story, so I don’t judge.

As he ambles amiably in front of the grill of my very old and very tired car in the center lane, in the right lane an oblivious driver in a black Mercedes whips right into the crosswalk, intent on turning right and doing it right now, and damn near hits the guy.

Our beer drinking friend pulls up short, steps back and slightly bows, waving the Mercedes along. It pulls out in a huff, if I can attribute huffiness to a car.

Then the man in the crosswalk turns to me and smiles a lopsided smile and waves. I do what any decent member of the human race should do, I wave back. I briefly entertain a “I should not have done that” thought because I have learned through enough years living near and in big cities that sometimes it’s just better not to engage.

But I was wrong for thinking that. As I wave, he smiles a little wider, peers around the corner of my car to be sure the coast is clear, then makes his way safely to the other side of the road.

My light turns green and I drive on, thinking about the guy, this city where I now live, the ever growing division between rich and poor, and the implications of gentrification. I also think about how delicious the lemon scone sitting in the passenger seat is going to be when I get to work and gobble it up.

I get to the place of my employment, find a parking spot, quick yank the parking break and start my day. Something about the man with the tall boy sticks with me and I can’t quite figure out why.

One thing I know for sure is that I have to write about it, to capture the fleeting moment and memorialize it for myself as much as for anyone else.

And so I have.

This item first appeared on Medium, find more of my work @karenfayeth over there.

Ginkgo

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A Literal Metaphor

 

Photo by Xiaolong Wong on Unsplash

It’s a gray, cold winter morning. I open the front door and gale force winds push me back. I try to believe it’s a sign that I shouldn’t go to work today, that Mother Nature needs me to stay home, but even I don’t buy that story.

I turn to lock the door behind me while sideways rain pelts my back. Once the tumblers fall into place, I turn into the wind and face it head on, squinting at the horizon as fog rolls and swirls in the street. This is winter in Northern California. This is what it does. I remind myself that as a Californian I am supposed to be thankful for the rain. I am thankful in an existential way. But I am not thankful, not today.

Holding the handrail with both hands, I make my way down one, two, eight steps to street level. Slow progress, necessary due to the slick wet palm and maple leaves stacked up on each riser.

At the sidewalk I stand up straight again, and realize my car is not where I left it. Sleep addled brain has something to tell me. Wait for it. Oh right, I got home late last night and had to park well down the street. This should be fun.

The best word to describe what I do is trudge. I trudge down the block and find my car where I left it, parked in front of a neighbor’s house. The neighbor with the adorable corgi dog.

Also the neighbor with the small ginkgo tree growing on the berm between the sidewalk and the street. I’ve left my tired and faded black Jeep safely under the branches of this little tree. The wind and rain have assisted in the removal of leaves from branches and deposited them on my car.

The bright sunny yellow ginkgo leaves are a startling contrast to the dark clouds both hovering low in the sky and infused in my mood. I’ll allow that the yellow ginkgo leaves are kind of pretty. This bright pile of nature’s sunny hue against the black paint of my car is a delicious morsel of something joyful in an otherwise dull day.

The leaves are piled high, covering the roof and windshield. I’ve only recently returned from a work trip to a place where it gets really cold. The kind of cold that requires ice scrapers and snow sweepers. I look at the pile of leaves on my windshield and wish I had one of those small snow brooms in my car, but I don’t. And I’m glad that I don’t need one. I hate scraping windows.

I opt for the “drive very fast” methodology of leaf removal. Windshield wipers give me enough space to see out the window to drive and off I go in a bright yellow cloud of beauty, fluttering like butterflies in my rearview mirror.

Most are gone by the first mile, but a few hang on, shellacked to the windows by a sturdy winter wet. Adhered. Stuck.

When I pull into the parking lot at work, there is one particular ginkgo leaf that has become my little buddy. Right there on the left side of the windshield, we became ride or die on the commute. I drove faster and it hung on tighter. I imaged a little leafy “whoo hooo!” when we really got going on the highway.

Now at rest, I pluck the leaf from the glass and gaze at it closely, studying the lines and whorls. I can’t bear to drop it on the ground and walk away, so I don’t. Inside it goes with me. I set the leaf on my work desk and spend all day looking at it, picking it up, examining from every angle. It’s so cute. So pretty. So yellow.

A bit of cheer during another dreary work video conference call. While we pick low hanging fruit and maximize our ROI, I turn the leaf over in my hands just off camera. It makes me smile. A reminder that something beautiful exists.


Photo by the author,©2019 Karen Fayeth

But as the days will do, time passes. The sun goes down, and I pack up and go home, leaving my friend on the desk for the next day. And the next.

Then it’s the holidays and my employer shuts the doors and I slip in a few extra vacation days too. Two weeks away from work and I forget about my ginkgo friend.

When I return to work it’s a sunny day. A new year. A new outlook. The same old me. My personal clouds are a little less dark.

The leaf is still on my desk. The bright yellow has faded to a dull beige. The sides have curled in. The broad leaf is now a tight roll. And yet it is still beautiful in its now gnarled and aged way.

I can’t bear to throw it away, so I don’t.

Not yet.


Photo by the author, ©2020 Karen Fayeth

It is only after writing this true story that I remember Ginkgo leaves turn bright yellow just before they die.

This item first appeared on Medium, find more of my work @karenfayeth over there.

Do You Have To Let it Linger?

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Word Sprints for Writer’s Block, With Apologies to the Cranberries

My word of the day is linger. This word was given to me by the good folks at RandomWordGenerator.com, a place I visit when I need to do a word-based workout.

Like running sprints or doing calisthenics, allowing the fates to give me a word then writing something around the 750-word mark is how I keep the literary muscles supple and smooth. (This as my post-holiday actual muscles are quite lumpy and stiff)

Today I was in the bath, where I do all my best thinking, and realized that I hadn’t written anything in days. And days. It’s fine, I have plenty of good reasons for this, but wanting to get back in the saddle and bereft of any really good ideas, I got out, dried off, and hit the random word site.


Screenshot from RandomWordGenerator.com

The rules of my game are: I have to take the word given to me, or in the parlance of golf (a game I know nothing about) I have to play it as it lays. No repeatedly hitting the “Generate Random Words” button to find a word I like. Nope. Get the word and get to work.

So linger it is. As in…don’t linger, get to writing. Boom, done.

Well not really.

The first thing I do is Google the word to see what’s what. Read a definition, see where the word shows up, find some sort of context or concepts around the word that provide a creative spark.

Of course, one of the top hits for linger was that angsty song from the Cranberries that was everywhere and all the time in 1993. A song I once liked but was ruined for me by a coworker who told me the story of her boyfriend standing outside the bathroom singing it loudly while she was doing a number two.

Do you have to let it linger? Well, when it comes to a poo, sorry, it can’t be helped. I can light a match?

Now I can’t think of that song without that memory. So let’s not linger on that to write about, eh?

Next I navigated my way over to Unsplash to see what they had to offer under the heading of linger. The pickings were, surprisingly, slim. Same with Pexels.

Pixabay didn’t have much that I thought fit my own interpretation of linger, but did offer up this very cool photo:


From Pixabay, and the license states no attribution required

I have no idea what’s going on there, but I have never seen a Zen stack made with ice, so there’s something new I learned as I lingered over the Pixabay site (a stretch there, stay with me).

Though as I look at the photo, I wonder why the photographer didn’t get behind the ice to try to get the low golden sun lighting up the slices. It’s a beautiful photo but I feel a missed opportunity.

Unsplash did offer up this one under the tag linger, which, uh…that’s not lingering. That’s walking very fast.


Photo by Chiến Phạm on Unsplash

Lovely photo, nice composition, just not my idea of a good ol’ fashioned linger. So that’s irksome.

Back to the Google, this time I navigate to Wikipedia and try my luck. It’s there I learned that there is a city in Luxembourg named Linger. The population of 577 means the Wiki entry is quite brief, in fact just a stub. So I had to linger over this idea for a moment.

I’ve always really loved towns with weird names like Hell, Michigan or Sandwich, Massachusetts. I mean, I could write a whole story on the weird town names in New Mexico, where I grew up. Actually, that’s not a bad idea, I think I will tuck that story idea away.

See, lingering over Linger, Luxembourg got the ol’ juices flowing.

This random word thing is an almost no-fail writing exercise for me. There are plenty of things that the word linger can introduce into the post-bath, post-holiday brain.

Granted, linger is a pretty good word, lots of ways to go with that. I do occasionally get words that are clunkers and try to make the best of them.

Well, if you have made it this far, I thank you for reading through my writing exercise to ease my writer’s block. Maybe this is helpful in some way? Perhaps if you also have writer’s block, you will stumble across this lingering little story and linger over your own ideas, hit the random word generator and then linger over some fresh, piping hot ideas of your own.

I’ll have you know that the word “own” was word 758.

See? Knocking out 750 words is just as easy, or rather just as difficult, as that.

The Gift of the White Elephant

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The Holiday Game that Highlights the Best and the Worst

 

Photo by James Hammond on Unsplash, and slightly modified by the author

“Okay, everybody take a number!” she chirps while walking around the room holding a small jute bag containing blue slips of paper with numbers ranging from 1 to 25 written in black Sharpie marker.

25 slips. 25 people. 25 gifts that range from boring, to gag, to “oh that’s sort of nice.”

I draw my folded slip and put it in my pocket. I’m in the middle of telling some nonsense story that gets a laugh from my coworkers, spinning a yarn in between sips of good red wine.

It’s the annual holiday party. It’s the boss of my boss. We are at her house and enjoying catered appetizers. Two weeks ago we were commanded to attend and to bring a $15 gift. Pay for play. “Remember, $15 is a ceiling and not a floor!”

The White Elephant is among us.

Some people love the White Elephant. Some people loathe the White Elephant. One thing is for sure, there are no set rules for playing the White Elephant’s dangerous game.

How many steals, how many rounds, what value, and what is proper etiquette depends on who is running the game. The Ring Master controls the Elephant.

My favorite annual White Elephant game is played with a group of salty network engineers. Instead of using slips of paper with numbers, they use two decks of playing cards. It lends a little gambler’s air to the proceedings.

Today it is slips of paper and when my story is told and the laughs die down, I head to the kitchen to refill my cup. Only then, alone with bottle and corkscrew, I allow myself a peek at the blue slip in my pocket.

I groan. There on a background of robin’s egg blue is the number I least wanted to see. A single dark slash on a pristine paper background.

My number is 1.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

(I’d have shown you a photo of the actual slip if I hadn’t washed it in the pocket of my jeans in the weekend’s laundry run.)

I have been chosen to start the game. Fate has determined that I select the first gift. How the game opens sets the tone for the entire White Elephant event, and that responsibility now lies with me.

I nervously gulp red wine from the plastic cup, tannins bitter on my dry tongue.

I recalled a day several years ago when I — a confused, jet lagged, and nervous American — rode a busy commuter train between Reading, UK and London. No seats available, I stood in the packed rail car near one of two doors. At each train stop the other door provided egress onto the platform, so I felt safe by the door across the aisle.

But as the train slowed, making its approach and then stop into Paddington Station, a train car filled with intense British commuters turned to look at me. I was unprepared for my moment, which demanded that I quickly and without delay lower the window, reach outside, turn the handle to open the door and usher these good people on their way.

It was a terrifying yet exhilarating event. I’m glad to say that day in London I executed the door as well as any foreign traveler could be expected to.

I drew from that memory to find my confidence on a rainy holiday evening in Northern California. My coworkers now turned to me to open the door to a successful White Elephant gift exchange.

I doubted myself in that moment just as I had doubted myself in Paddington Station. I knew I needed to stay grounded. I needed to visualize my way through the process. I needed to control the speed of the game.

And I needed to smile genially and do my best.

When the time was right and all were seated around the tree, my number was called. I raised my hand, saying “right here” and the crowd roared “oooooooooooh! Karen has number one! This should be good.”

I slugged back the last of my cup of wine and allowed the game’s host to refill it with champagne. The bubbles were too festive for such a solemn task, and I carefully set the newly full cup down on a coaster and stepped up to the tree.

Its genuine pine boughs welcomed me under its skirts. Salt and flour dough ornaments with a child’s paint job gave me a true horizon to focus on while I got my sea legs. I paced the half circle around the tree, side to side, like a caged panther scanning my holiday wrapped prey.

“Let’s see, what present looks good?” I said aloud, encouraging suggestions from the audience in the style of Price is Right.

Finally, when I felt I’d eyeballed every present under the tree, I made my selection. A long narrow box tightly wrapped in red and gold paper. It was crisp, clean, and inviting.

Quickly I skinned the paper from the gift and found an Amazon box. Cue a round of jokes about “Does anyone shop in the stores anymore?” and “Why would we? Amazon has everything!”

I pulled at the clear packing tape sealing the box and with no small amount of trepidation parted the flaps and peered inside. Would a pearl lay inside the cardboard oyster? Or only rotten sand?

My eyes landed on the treasure that lay within and my shoulders fell. Hope died when I saw clearly the item that began our game of chance.

I withdrew it from the box and said:

“I believe I have found the gift that will be coming home with me.”

With left hand firmly on hip, I took a solid stance and raised my right hand high above my head in the style of Lady Liberty, then announced to the overhyped crowd:

“It is a Donald Trump toilet brush.”

The crowd roared and the White Elephant smiled, for it was the perfect holiday gag gift.

“And with that,” I say,

“We are game on.”

 

 

The Serendipity Of Nature Photography

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One little camera. One little bird

 

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

This weekend I found myself at the UC Botanical Garden and marveled again at how rich it is with subjects to photograph. Gorgeous trees and plants, winding walkways, seasonal flowers in bloom, epic views of Strawberry Canyon.

I have taken many photos here and find endless new things to photograph on each visit.

Plants are easy, but photographing wildlife is a bit more difficult. For me, at least.

I know the old adages, one that patience is required in shooting wildlife, another that one should expect to take a lot of shots to get to one good image.

I’ve been shooting long enough to know better. But I’ve also been me long enough to know that patience isn’t always my virtue.

Under the auspices of “the best camera is the one you have with you” I tend to shoot a lot on my iPhone. There is hot debate on the topic in the various photo clubs I belong to. Some of my fellow photographers see iPhoneography as a perfectly acceptable medium and encourage the ease and accessibility of on-the-fly photos.

Others of my peers scoff and say they will never accept iPhone photos as legitimate (really, seriously, in 2019 they say this). In that particular photo club I strip the exif data off of my photos before posting to our monthly theme review. They won’t look at my photos if they know for sure it’s an iPhone photo.

So while I shoot a lot on my iPhone (the header image, for example), I also feel the limitations of the hardware. The light has to be good to get anything worthwhile. The image quality, even in good light, is not always the best. And zoom? Forget it, the pixelation from the software zoom is more than I want to deal with.

About a year ago I decided I wanted a camera that was a little less than my big boy camera and a little more than my iPhone. After some research, many reviews read, and lots of waffling, I finally settled on a Sony Cybershot. It’s cute, fits into my pocket or purse, and has a real optical zoom versus a software zoom.

It’s a neat little camera and does a whole lot more than point-and-shoot devices used to do. In fact it’s scary how good simple pocket cameras have become.

I’m still learning the Sony and it surprises me every time I give it a try.

Like, for example, this photo:

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

I was enchanted by this little bird at the botanical garden. I have no idea what type of bird that is, I’m not that good at identifying species. My husband and I watched it flit from branch to branch, often coming quite close to us. The light was good, but the movement was way too fast for an iPhone. (though my husband used Live Photo and that worked pretty well)

I tried pulling out the Cybershot and fiddled with settings. I found one I hadn’t used before called “reduce motion blur” and gave it a go. I tracked the little bird, zoomed in and quick took a snap expecting very little.

No planning the shot. No endless patience waiting for the bird to turn in the right direction. No one hundred shots to get one good one.

One snap, one photo. Got it.

Because I’m naturally superstitious when shooting, I took another photo. I did so thinking I knew more than I did with the first photo, so I must be able to take a better photo, right?

Truth is, I had much less luck on the second shot (note the bird butt in the top left corner):

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

And with that, I gave up. Yes, I took only two shots and got one worth keeping. How often does that happen? For me, not very often. It was a good reminder lesson in allowing serendipity in my photography.

Maybe knowing a bit more when taking the second shot turned out to be a hindrance? Maybe on the second photo I was trying too hard?

In photography, I can get rigid about the shot I want to make. I have been known to see a shot evolving in real time and then pressing too hard when trying to take the perfect version of it.

I can get obsessive and fire off image after image and come back with nothing worth looking at. In those moments I wanted the photo to be something I was not capable of producing.

Sort of the divine struggle of photography, right? To produce an image that is how you saw it in real time.

What have I learned from this serendipitous nature photography moment?

  1. Right place, right time. Meaning let the image happen the way it wants to evolve.
  2. Don’t press, just let it flow and let it go. If I don’t get the shot I wanted, okay to try again, also okay to move on.
  3. It helps to know your camera. In this case, I tried a new setting, but knew pretty well how to use the features of the camera including zoom, focus and settings.

It is not hyperbole when I say that little bird is among the best wildlife shots I’ve ever taken (the first one, not the bird butt one) in that it comes very close to how I saw that beautiful late afternoon winter sun on the green and yellow and brown botanical garden.

True, wildlife photography isn’t my main focus, and practice would certainly improve my images, but dang if I’m not pleased with that photo of one little bird taken with one little point-and-shoot camera.

Does it have less value since it wasn’t taken with a “real” camera? (scare quotes used on purpose. Isn’t any camera a real camera?) I don’t think so. Others might disagree.

But I like it, and that is what matters the most. Trying to shoot something I think will please someone else is always going to be hard road with no destination.

One of the things I love about photography is that it is both so easy (just get the exposure triangle right!) and so very difficult.


Note: I have done no post processing on any of the photos in this story. I could certainly fiddle with all three of them, but that was less important for me and not quite the point of this story.

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