Bloganuary Day 27 Prompt: Where do you go when you need solitude?
I go to the woods. Maybe this is not true solitude as I always have my partner with me when I go hiking, but I always feel calm around him so I think it counts. I’ve been out there alone, too. I am lucky enough to live in a city called Corvallis, Oregon, just an hour and a half drive southwest of Portland, in the heart of the Willamette Valley. It has a swathe of wonderful, uncrowded hikes just a five minute drive away. It is one of the best perks of living here.
Just five minutes and I can reach world-class beauty that people travel around the world to see. One of my 2022 goals is to go on a hike somewhere new every weekend; or even if it’s a favorite trail, to just go get exercise, fresh air and be among the trees.
I get some of my best story ideas while hiking, too. Just that meditative action of walking along a trail and avoiding tripping on tree roots puts my brain in story mode. I just keep thinking “What if?” and drive my characters to impossible situations in my head, then I must race home and write it down in my process notebook so I do not forget it.
I even got new hiking shoes to make my new goal more tangible. It not only gets me out of the house in a covid-safe way, but it gives me a sense of adventure, gives me an excuse to do photography, and helps my mental health. Hiking is great on many fronts.
Following are some photos I took from a hike last weekend on a trail called Vineyard Mountain. This is a trail through a vast wilderness that is owned by the local land-grant university. Unfortunately, it is also used as an experimental forest for forestry programs so it is not entirely pristine. But it is beautiful and I am glad a small section of it has been preserved for local residents to enjoy.
Bloganuary Day 20 prompt: What is your favorite photo you’ve ever taken?
I don’t think it’s possible to pick one single favorite of the literally 10s of 1000s of photos I’ve taken over the last 10 years or so. I first ventured into photography with my first DSLR, a Nikon D5100, in 2014 or thereabouts. Prior to that I was a journalist and took photos on assignment with my work camera for small-town newspapers. My partner thought I had an eye and encouraged me to get a camera of my own, to finally abandon automatic mode and truly learn the inner workings of a proper DSLR.
At first I shot nature, landscapes and that sort of thing; then I decided I wanted to make it a side hustle, so I wanted to shoot portraits, and I needed a portfolio.
But I couldn’t get anyone to pose for me. One friend did a shoot with me that turned out great. I next turned to the Internet, to Facebook groups and later Instagram, to find models. My first foray into model photography was a Facebook post about a shoot workshop at Eugene photographer Allan Erickson’s home studio. This was a fantastic south-facing older home with wonderful natural light. I worked with a pro model and I wasn’t sure how I felt at first about art nude photography but soon I was hooked. I went back there many times in later years for future shoots.
Landscapes of the body.
Finally I was able to find more local collaborators, amateur models who did trade-for-photo arrangements (They provide modeling services, I provide shooting services and photos). This was for portfolios – some of them wanted to make it as professional models; others turned to sex work to make money and did boudoir or portraiture for the creative passion of it. Photographers usually made their money off commercial work like weddings and collaborated with models for their creative outlet. I ended up using freelance journalism to fund my photography habit, since I didn’t have it in me to hustle as a commercial photographer after all.
It was a fun scene for awhile. Thanks to an old group called ISOConnection and a now-defunct art nude site called Zivity, I was able to meet lots of models and photographers. The fun scene had a dark side, of course, as all these sorts of tight-knit communities do. Photographers taking advantage of models, and vice versa; unprofessional behavior; down to the flat out abusive kind of conduct, not just the wait six months to return any photos kind.
Did that for awhile and got burnt out on the scene, wound down my hustling and only did the occasional shoot when I felt really inspired, back in 2019. The pandemic hit in 2020, of course, and I stopped working with models for awhile but it was a long time coming. I needed a break. I thought I had quit for good; I had grown bitter about the community.
But still, I missed it. It was still a social outlet with fun, creative people, and I was feeling an itch to be creative visually again; so between outbreaks, I hired a pro art nude model and did another shoot this fall, which was great. Unfortunately, Omicron has meant I’ve suspended my portraiture work for the time being, but I’m keen to get back to it as soon as it’s safe again. I miss the light side of the culture. These are driven, creative people who love art and beauty – and often, cannabis.
This last spring I finally was able to upgrade my camera to my long-coveted full-frame. I now shoot with a Nikon D750. Photography is an expensive hobby, and the gear is only part of the expense – one of the things I burnt out on. Renting studios, traveling to Portland all the time. I loved many aspects of it but did I love it enough to spend what was essentially a decent side hustle income on it, precluding opportunities to travel or do other things with my time?
I digress; back to the photo. Gear is only secondary compared to what you do with it, how you use it, the composition you select. This was one of my favorite shoots from my intense years. I don’t want to get as intense as I had been in it; these days I just want to do a few shoots a year and only work with the same people, forming relationships to tell a series of portraiture work over time.
The model here is Devi, an Indian model from the Bay Area who goes by the moniker “Googlymonstor” on Instagram. I think this shot perfectly captures what I love about the art of body landscapes viewed with the female gaze. It’s probably one of my top five favorites from that whole five-year period; plus Devi herself was a wonderful person and a fun model to work with. This is why I plan to hire models a couple times a year, and collaborate with a few people the rest of the time. Shoots like this inspire me. Shoots like this remind me that a community is made up of people; some will bring you down, and some will inspire you to be the best artist you can be.
A collaboration with a model and photographer who are of similar abilities, vision and sensibilities is one of the purest artistic mediums out there. It won’t pay the rent, of the studio or your house. But sometimes capitalism alone cannot feed the soul. We need more than to just pay the bills. We need to survive, and then we need to live.
All natural light. Just shadows and curves. Nothing more to say.
Bloganuary Day 16 Prompt: What’s a cause you are passionate about and why?
Freedom of speech. Voltaire is widely attributed as saying, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend, to the death, your right to say it.” In this sense, I am a classical liberal in that I see this as the foundation of civil society.
You may try to temper this statement by saying that certain kinds of speech, like hate speech, are unacceptable, and you may be right. However, I think qualifying speech with certain conditions like that does not protect marginalized people; it only leads to the slippery slope of silencing most people on topics on which ordinarily you may find allies, because they are afraid to offend someone or not pass some sort of moral purity test.
You find this scenario on both the left and the right. On the left, you must be anti-racist, believe in systemic racism, patriarchy, and the like, and prove that you do by echoing the correct talking points; on the right, you must believe that elections cannot be legitimate if you lose them, be anti-vaccination, never criticize Trump, and the like. You are banished from the party and effectively silenced if you do not speak up about any of these talking points.
Neither of these poles leads to equity or a more civil society; we’ve just become more divided and only allowed the extremes the opportunity to speak. The rest of us are too afraid of getting cancelled, to offend someone, to be seen as judgmental, or generally not listened to. The values of civil society are being consistently attacked. Maybe one side is more egregious than the other based on your ideological platform, but never before has freedom of speech been more fragile.
Ironically, this is in the era where we are more hyper-connected than ever before and can access all kinds of information and global perspectives with the swipe of our finger on these little boxes we call smart phones.
Unfortunately, by connecting us, they have not made us smart. We only block and disassociate with people who believe different things than we do. We divide further up into tribes of people who are sycophants, culturally and economically similar to us, people who won’t offend us, who get us; because the other side is demonized. The center can no longer hold.
I believe that certain kinds of speech are indeed unacceptable, in a legal sense, as well. You cannot yell fire in a crowded room. But other kinds of speech are murkier. Should Trump have been banned from Twitter? I think yes. But should social media companies be regulating what is considered acceptable speech online? I’d rather see government, which does not have a profit motive, crafting those regulations, versus social media companies self regulating. Instead, government has let the Internet become the Wild West where anything goes all in the name of freedom, because they cannot hope to keep up with the rapidly changing pace of technology.
I think speech that harms others should be marginalized. You can deplatform the worst offenders for violating terms of service, but this is inconsistently enforced. People who post links to their website to Facebook groups should not be treated the same as people who say you can cure covid by drinking pee.
In this era of information, we should have become enlightened, more educated, more open-minded. Instead we are more divided than ever into identity clubs, united by our talking points and never questioning past the acceptable line.
We have become bereft of the ability to think critically, to question authority, to challenge each other. We have forgotten how to truly debate one another without personally attacking the other, or finding excuses to call the other person wrong instead of fielding a legitimate argument. We seek to push our agenda at all costs, slamming our talking points over any chance at real discourse.
The Internet has exacerbated this, too, by putting screens between us, leading to the same kind of impersonal realm as road rage. When you can shake someone’s hand you are much less likely to spew vitriol at them. The pandemic, too, has deepened our isolation and closed down traditional community gathering places. Instead we remain stuck at home, glued to the glow of our screens, doomscrolling for that chemical reward of the hunt.
Is this what civil society is built on? I would argue not.
So I am for freedom of speech. I am for letting the Nazis march and counter-protesting. I am for allowing speech but also marginalizing it and holding people accountable. I am against cancel culture, bullying, silencing people. I think people deserve the right to explain themselves and to change, to admit mistakes and grow.
Freedom of speech is what leads to equitable outcomes, in the end. And that’s because I believe those with a moral obligation to society are those who uphold the ideals of the society. You cannot achieve that, a free, equitable, civil society, when you’re afraid.
Not in the same way that you used to think about death, as if it were an existential threat. Those times that you do not tell anyone about when you would sit in traffic waiting for the red light to change to green and you think about what it would be like to be involved in a car accident and you want, for a brief moment of absolute and startling clarity, to die. You blink. You have never thought this before. (Maybe you should see a counselor, you consider in a moment of panic.) You wonder if you would feel pain. You wonder which of your friends and family would come to your funeral. You wonder which songs your family would choose to play at your funeral and who would provide the eulogy; if they would organize a religious service, or a secular one.
You’ve never been particularly religious, but you like to think of yourself as a spiritual person. Sometimes, however, you think God is dead and magic is just for fairy stories. You wonder if you would go to heaven. You wonder if there is an afterlife. You think that you would still keep going day after day even if there is no afterlife, because the alternative is ashes and rot and dust motes swirling in the sun. Then the light changes to green, and someone honks at you from the car behind, and you step on the gas and the car lurches forward and you forget about the moment when you wanted to die. What a silly thought. You like your life.
Those were the Times Before. The times when you could brush against someone in a public space and not feel your heart climb into your throat and squeeze like someone had their fingers wrapped around your larynx.
Now you think about death in a different way.
You think about your mother. If your mother is not alive you think about her when she was alive. If you are estranged from your mother you think about someone else who plays that role in your life. You think about your mother on a ventilator and nurses in their scrubs and their sheer plastic visors and their hodgepodge makeshift masks like something out of a sci-fi movie. You think about your mother dying alone. You wonder if your mother picked up COVID-19 when she was out on a walk in her neighborhood and she says she stayed six feet away from everyone but maybe she touched the button to go across a crosswalk because she didn’t want to jaywalk but that button has been pushed by hundreds of people and the virus can live on surfaces for 72 hours.
The virus is like a living, breathing thing, an alien, an invasion, a menace, a parasite. Are they bacteria? You don’t think so. You don’t think the yeast in the sourdough culture you are starting because you are bored is bacteria, either, but you can’t be sure. You didn’t pay that close attention to that part of biology class in high school. All you know is that viruses spread. You think about death and sourdough bread in the same thought because that is what your brain does when you are alone for a period of time.
You don’t want to think about your mother dying. You don’t want to think about anyone dying. So you tell yourself it is just like the flu. Only a 3 percent death rate. Nothing, really. Only high-risk groups need to worry about it. Why do you need to stay inside, cooped up like a prisoner, afraid of your own shadow? You want a haircut. You want a hot meal at a restaurant and you want an iced tea on a summers’ day and you want to make small talk with a server even if you can’t stand small talk. You want to talk about the weather with someone you don’t know. “Hey, man, what are you up to today?” they would say, back in the Times Before.
Before, you would mumble something nonsensical to get out of the conversation and mold your face into the impassive look of someone who does not want to talk. Or you would be chatty and tell them a lie. Just like when people would ask you “How are you?” And you would say you were fine but not really mean it. No one wants to hear that you are anything but happy every day of your life. Now you want to be fine. You want to be fine so badly it feels like when you were 12 and wanted a puppy, a real live one, with all your heart, and your parents got you a stuffed dog instead and you were so disappointed you put it in your closet and didn’t look at it for a year.
Now it is a 6 percent death rate, or is it? You can’t keep track anymore. But you thought about your mom dying alone and you feel bad so you want to see her for Mother’s Day because you haven’t seen her in two months and you stand six feet apart from her and you think this is okay, you’re doing okay, you’re keeping each other safe. You wash your hands and you wear your mask even though you can’t breathe but you just really wanted to see her.
You watch the President on TV. Maybe you voted for him and you will vote for him again no matter what anyone says about him. Maybe you think he looks like a Cheeto-head and the image of him on your TV screen makes you want to vomit in your mouth. Maybe you wonder if our country will always be so divided. Maybe you blame other people, like the President. Maybe you remember marching in the Women’s March in a small town and everybody was crying and angry and there were Pussy Hats and you wanted so badly to believe then that things would get better, that things would be okay, that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. You watch him struggle with empathy, incapable of it even, and never mention death or the dying or dead people because it will make him look bad and you think maybe, maybe I can give him a little empathy, he is so in love with his own image and his ego that he cannot bring himself to grieve for the dead, and maybe there is a part of you filled with rage and grief that wants him to get it too, that wants him to know what it is like to suffer. Part of you is not ashamed for feeling that way because he is not ashamed. He never admits responsibility, never confesses his mistakes, he is never wrong. You do not want a president who is never wrong. People die when a leader is never wrong.
Then you wonder will the people who voted for him and the people who hate him ever see eye to eye on anything? They are breathing the same air to which the virus clings and the virus does not care about one’s politics or about how one feels about masks or who anyone voted for. The virus is a parasite. It just wants a host.
You wonder how many people have to die for people to take this seriously.
You wonder if perhaps people are overreacting and it’s not really so bad and you just really want to see a movie again and you miss concerts and the gym and popping over to the store when you wanted M&M’s. You miss touching things without wiping them down.
You wonder, maybe death just comes to us all and death is a part of life and we have to sacrifice a few for the many so the economy can reopen. It can’t be like this forever. People losing their jobs and their homes and the long lines snaking around streets leading to the food bank and the cloying desperation and the sad piano music in the TV commercials. You saw a TV commercial the other day in which people hugged and nobody was wearing masks and the music was peppy and they were talking about supporting small businesses. It was so bizarre to you that you felt sick. To see people hugging. You want to support small businesses but you don’t want to die. It is the uncertainty that clings to your skin like water droplets after you emerge from the pool from a long swim. You remember swimming pools. You miss swimming.
You want to go out but every time you go to the store, much less often now, there is always someone who doesn’t care, someone not wearing a mask, someone oblivious to spatial awareness who brushes against you as if with sheer belligerence in their denial of reality. It is just like H1N1, they say, were you affected by the swine flu personally? Freedom is an uncertain thing, the shape of feathers and dust, full of responsibility and thrift and also carefree joy, a small Japanese car racing in the street with its engine sounding like a rocket. You imagine most people would waste it, take it for granted. It is those people who make your heart thump in your chest hotly and angry sweat run down your armpits. It is those people you think about when you lie awake in bed at night when it is hot and muggy outside and the fan is clacking away and the neighbors next door are playing a video game and their children are yelling and you think about those people who don’t care about your mother dying alone. “Excuse me, I just needed the milk.” You try to have empathy for them because all you can control is your thoughts but you think your reserves for empathy are running so low these days. So low. Kindness shouldn’t be so difficult. You remember when kindness was easy, like relieving a stranger of the burden of how you’re really feeling when they want to know how you’re doing.
But you go on because you have to. You go on because you care about someone’s mother whom you don’t even know. You go on and on even though it feels like you can’t any more and your heart is crushing you and is that shortness of breath anxiety or COVID-19? You bake cakes and sourdough bread and drink too much alcohol at noon and you try out sobriety and you do yoga and you Zoom with your friends and you feel an overwhelming sense of despair but you keep going moment by moment because you have to.
Not because you are thinking about that moment at the stop light when you once thought about what it would be like to die.