Pass me a storm, please

One Sunday, the bright sun was vanquished by fast approaching storm clouds, and thunder rumbled in the distance.

George glanced my way, grinning broadly. “Want to grab the cameras and head out?” he asked.

Well, of course I did. The worse the weather, the better the photos.

Most people make the mistake of thinking that “blue bird days,”

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

the kind with sunny skies and bright sun, are the best times for shooting. That kind of weather may lift the spirits, but it doesn’t always produce photos to brag about later on.

The biggest culprit: reflection. You might not think so, but if you’re shooting nature, petals, grasses and leaves reflect sunlight right back at you. The resulting photos look contrasty and sometimes lack depth. It helps to use a polarizer, but they usually work best when the sun is 90 degrees to the subject—and subjects tend not to always be in that correct location.

Another problem is most people laze away the mornings, have a nice lunch, and then decide to go shooting. When the sun’s out, right after lunch is a horrible time for photography. The flat glare, the lack of shadows, the washed-out color—it’s all there, guaranteed to make a potentially beautiful photo a disaster—and makes polarizers nearly useless.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

I had that proven to me when, through no fault of my own, I had to shoot South Dakota’s Badlands at noon. The results were sepia-toned images that lacked all of the colorful vibrancy that lurked in that desolate land when the light conditions were right.

Sunny days also bring the Murphy’s Law challenge: whatever you want to shoot will very likely be in front of the sun, where everything is thrown into silhouette. That’s one of the frustrations of shooting along Lake Superior’s North Shore in Minnesota, where I once lived.  Everything is “into the sun.” Shooting the breakwater in Two Harbors, the ore docks, the boats on the horizon, the ducks along the shore—it all means facing the sun. Although the sun still has its silhouetting effect on cloudy days, it’s not quite so drastic.

Here in Sturgeon Bay, shooting on Lake Michigan in the morning means looking into the sun, too. It can be dramatic–or it can be a real challenge.

When it’s cloudy, colors pop. They sometimes appear almost neon. There are no harsh shadows to create metering dilemmas. It’s like the subjects are immersed in a layer of color disbursement, and they look good from any direction. Believe it or not, I prefer shooting fall leaves on cloudy days.

I recently visited a park along Lake Michigan, one filled with flower beds full of every shade of color imaginable. It was a very gray day. The sky and its clouds looked like fractured slate, and a fine mist was precursor to the rain that was imminent. I glanced about, and saw that people were reluctant to take their cameras out. They felt gloomy.

I just smiled to myself, then put the long lens on for some far-away close-ups (a necessity when you don’t have a macro lens) and indulged myself for nearly an hour. The result: vivid photos that gave no clue to the roiling clouds overhead.

Take a step beyond that to stormy days, the kind where thunder rumbles and lightning shimmers behind your eyelids; when day looks like dusk, and storms loom like Tolkien characters, riding the winds of drama.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

I rode through some farmland in weather like that. I boosted the ISO and focused on the dark, swirling clouds that camouflaged the even darker heart of the storm. Farmers’ fields crouched, bracing themselves for the onslaught. Big barns were dwarfed by a sky where the imagination can see monsters. The wind flattened my t-shirt against my body, and forced a spread-eagle stance for stability. Rain drops the size of half dollars splatted onto the dirt road, where little poofs of dry dust exploded into the air.

But I metered and snapped and reveled in the weather, and the photos that emerged were full of power. If nature reflects God, then I was seeing his might.

What a welcome, dramatic diversion from a light and sunny day.

Posted in Photography | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Saying goodbye to a little brown dog

“Love you forever, my little brown dog.”

I read that line on Facebook and lost it. Today is the day my daughter

The little brown puppy.

The little brown puppy.

Maria had to put her dog Nader to sleep. Two humans could hardly have been better friends than they were, from the time Nader was a little brown puppy until, 14 years later, she had faded a bit in color and matured into Miss Independence who, nevertheless,  relied fiercely and determinedly on Maria.

The two of them lived their lives together in a little red cabin on the shores of Lake Superior. As a puppy, Nader cried down below when Maria left her to climb to her bedroom loft at night. So, she carried that little puppy up with her–and continued to do so as the puppy grew into a much larger dog. As a puppy, Nader–yes, named for THE Ralph Nader, whom they both met in person–sometimes vented her

Nap time together.

Nap time together.

displeasure on that cabin when Maria left her alone to go to work. She eventually came to terms with being the only dog of a single parent.

They roamed the shore and the woods together, and sometimes Maria took Nader to work with her. Nader was present, I think without exception, at the annual girlfriends’ get-together at a cabin somewhere, ostensibly to celebrate Maria’s birthday, but mostly just to have a summer fling and revert back to some of the antics of high school days. Nader became official mascot there and at most of Maria’s other routine social gatherings.

Always time to cuddle.

Always time to cuddle.

Nader was a picky eater, reserving the right to choose, from an assortment of treats, the one she would deign to eat that day. And yet, I remember–oh yes I do!–when she worked very hard to help herself to food NOT designated for dog consumption at all.

People’s curiosity about Nader’s pedigree eventually became a compelling question for Maria, too, so she actually had her

Shiloh and Nader

Shiloh and Nader


Nader’s “baby.”

DNA tested. It showed what we already knew, that one parent was at least part German Shepherd. To tell you the truth, the rest of the mixture was so varied and unexpected that I can’t remember the details. I do remember that it proved, once and for all, that Nader was a breed of her own.

Sometimes I dog-sat Nader, in the days when Maria traveled for one of her jobs. Poor Nader. I couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t always a good dog about doing potty outside. It took me much too long to realize that a long stare into my eyes was her way of asking, not the bark or the scratch at the door my labs signaled with.  She must have thought Maria’s mom was an extremely slow learner. I did apologize, though.

Nader got away from me one time during a dog-sitting stint. I opened the door, and

Maria and I, with Nader and Lady, at the red cabin.

Maria and I, with Nader and Lady, at the red cabin.

she slipped out like smoke through a screen, taking off up the street as if she knew exactly where she was heading. I hoped it wasn’t back to the little red cabin, because that was 20 miles down the highway. With horrible visions in my head, I walked, drove, called and whistled up and down the streets of our little town, looking in vain for that little brown dog–only to finally see her making a bee-line on her own for our house. Miss Independence had decided, I think, that being with us without Maria was better

Keeping warm.

Keeping warm.

than being alone in a strange town with no one.

I confess, however, that it took many years before I admitted the story to Maria. I was afraid I’d be banned as dog-sitter forever.

I remember scrambling frantically for something for Nader to carry on her potty walks. Her “baby” had been left either at her house, or in mine, but she wasn’t about to trot along without something soft in her mouth. I think one of my

Visiting us--and making a Christmas card.

Visiting us–and making a Christmas card.

gloves worked as a substitute. Too bad for me if one hand got cold. Isn’t that what pockets are for?

Big as she was, Nader considered herself a lap dog. She’d crawl up into Maria’s lap and cuddle like a small child, often falling asleep, always feeling safe and loved. She also knew she was allowed on any of Maria’s furniture. Because of their size, my labs were made to stay on the floor. When Nader came to our house, she loved to rub it in–because of course, she figured her house rules applied to her in our house, too.

So, when my lab Shiloh tried getting on the couch with me and Maria and was turned down, Nader sashayed over, climbed into Maria’s lap, then

Savoring last days.

Savoring last days.

glanced over her shoulder at Shiloh. Smug hardly describes it. I could almost hear na-na-na-na-naaah-na!

And, of course, the photos. Getting Nader to look at a camera was a near impossibility. She always knew just…when…the…shutter…would…click and managed her inevitable head turn. What a dog!

Nader remained true to her my-way nature when a tumor was diagnosed and she was given two months to live. She wasn’t ready quite then, so she confounded everyone, the vet included, by staying at Maria’s side for another 19 months. Maria, I know, savored every one of those days.

My stories undoubtedly pale beside the ones Maria could tell. It helps me to tell them, though, because they make me smile, or chuckle or belly laugh as I write. As soon as I stop writing, the tears being again. What will Maria’s Christmas card be without Nader in it beside her? What will Facebook pictures look like without Maria-and-Nader selfies? Nader’s shadow will flit from room to room, along the paths in the woods and down the path to the shore for many, many years to come.

Lean on me.

Lean on me.

I guess I will do what I know Maria is doing: grieve, shed my tears, and be glad for a little brown dog who enriched our lives for far too few years.

One last selfie.

One last selfie.

Posted in Animal antics, Living with a dog, Memories | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Shooting nature in the city

I remember the week in March a few years ago when the photo challenge wasn’t fair.

A friend and I used to do a long-distance photo project, each of us taking turns choosing the theme and posting our resulting photos online. One week he chose “signs of spring.”

Not hard, you’re thinking. In March, the signs are there no matter how far north you live. Any field, any stream, any shoreline is loaded with spring things to shoot.

Unless, like me, you happen to be temporarily city bound. Not bound FOR the city; bound IN the city. The Big City. Concrete, tall buildings, lots of traffic, miles and miles of suburbs before the tiniest trace of anything resembling a field or a stream. This was the year I lived in Chicago.

Fine thing, I thought, putting on my photographer’s thinking cap and zinging up my imagination. Wet cement and a winter’s worth of litter aren’t terribly inspiring. Dead gray snow piles here and there crusted with grime, the smell of exhaust, the rushing sound of endless traffic–I had a challenge ahead of me.

I also had an advantage–one small beagle who needed walking several times a day, who stopped to sniff and squirt every few paces, forcing me to stop and take note of what was around me. While waiting for my beagle, I began to really look, and really listen.

In February I heard a robin. I could hardly believe my ears, but there it was one day, that familiar raucous call. Later, another familiar call, and–thanks to the beagle–time to scan the tree tops for what I knew I’d find: a bright red cardinal, claiming his territory and calling his love.

Too far away for photos, though. This week’s challenge meant taking a close look nearer to the ground. I wasn’t disappointed.

I remember the exact moment I spotted the tips of daffodils poking

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

through some black earth behind a fence in a front yard, their relentless push creating little fissures in the compacted soil. What a joyful spirit lift! In the same yard, I spotted a clump of tiny snowdrops, white buds still unopened, holding spring in their tightly wrapped petals. That, I decided, would be one of my photos.

Trouble is, these cute little flowers were on the other side of a chain link fence, a foot or so from the sidewalk. I didn’t want to shoot from above because the angle would have been all wrong. That meant shooting through the fence–and THAT meant getting down low.

I’ve always figured a camera lets you get away with doing things that might normally get you committed or arrested. So, with the beagle’s leash in one hand, I hauled out the Nikon D40, attached the 55-200 zoom lens, and laid down on the sidewalk. Please, I thought to myself, let every one of the people who live in these buildings be off to work somewhere.

It’s tricky shooting through a chain link fence, but with just the right distance and just the right angle the links will never show, and no one will ever know. Unless you tell them, of course, like I just did.

The other trick thing is holding the camera still while holding on to a dog’s leash. Lucky for me, my beagle was very patient. More important, he was very still while waiting. The photo was a success.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

I spotted another photo for this assignment when I was inside the house the next day, watching the rain fall. The sidewalk out in front had a large puddle, reflecting the overhead trees, and the raindrops danced across the surface, creating rings that expanded and disappeared and showed up again with the next raindrop, like a carefully choreographed dance.

I grabbed my camera, using the same lens, and went to stand in front of the puddle. What the neighbors thought, I can only guess. There I was, aiming at the sidewalk. I hope they chalked it up to the eccentricities of a true artist. Sounds better than being thought a nut case.

I set the focus to manual, because auto focus has a hard time knowing what to do with such ever changing images. I placed the reflection of a tree trunk in the frame to anchor the photo, set the aperture number as low as it would go, and focused on the rings, allowing the reflections to blur somewhat and provide a textured canvas. The expanding rings blurred as they moved away from where I’d focused, and I set the shooting mode at continuous to raise my chances of getting rings in focus at just that spot.

Out of a couple dozen shots, I got one I liked. Then I only had to decide which of those photos would be the one I submitted for my “sign of spring.” The important thing is that I successfully met the challenge, despite what I thought was a serious handicap. That’s the fun of photography. I guess the assignment was fair after all.

Posted in Humor, Photography | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Even older than a man’s favorite shirt

How old is the oldest piece of clothing you still wear?

I asked my hair dresser that, and told her my caftan would undoubtedly beat anything she came up with.

“Caf–tan?” she asked, struggling with the pronunciation.

“Yeah, you know, those long flowing things, unstructured…” I trailed off, realizing she hadn’t a clue. The fact that she, who’s not all that much younger than I am, doesn’t know what a caftan is, tells you how really old it is.

I’ll admit I hadn’t given it much thought over the years.

Via Bing images

Via Bing images

I wear it during the warmer months as a sort of robe. It’s loose and comfortable and–best of all–covers a multitude of bodily imperfections. Then, last week I realized I needed to fix one of its seams. That’s when I discovered the seam had already been fixed once before, with a different color thread. I found where the neckline facing was restitched. I recognized that I had mended this thing several times before.

So, I did the math. I made the caftan back in the days when a group of us were taking turns hosting ethnic parties, making food and outfits from other countries. I picked Africa, and the caftan was as close as I could get to something that might be worn somewhere on that vast continent. That was in the early ‘70s. That caftan is at least 42 years old.

My hairdresser admitted that no, she had nothing that old in her closet. I have nothing else that old, either, although I do have a dress that’s close to 20 years old and I still get compliments on it. I have a few pairs of shoes that have been around for a good long time, too. If it fits, looks nice and I like it, my naturally frugal nature says keep it.

Trouble is, I like to sew. And my weight tends to fluctuate. So the chances of having a lot of clothes builds with each passing year.

The solution came when I moved, twice in two years. That’s when you realize how much you’ve accumulated! Four years ago we downsized to a small place, and there’s just no room for endless outfits even if I could afford them. So, in the past year or two for the first time, I’ve actually donated items that were in good shape and still in style but that I didn’t like any more, so I could make room to sew something different.

Not the caftan, though. That one stays. After 42 years, it has earned its place in this family.

Posted in History, Lifestyle, sewing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

You’re cheating and I know it

At this moment, I’m enjoying a cup of coffee, with a graham cracker to dip into it. It won’t take as many bites to finish it as it once did.

I’ve been eating graham crackers since before I started school,crackers back in the days when my mother decided to protect my health by calling them “cookies.” They’re still a treat to me, plain, or smeared with something decadent, like all-natural peanut butter, or cherry-almond jam from one of our local farmers.

At some point, though, I suddenly realized that the graham crackers aren’t as big as they used to be. They look the same, they’re packed the same, but they’re smaller. What a sneaky way to raise the price without being obvious about it.

Then I started noticing other things. Old recipes call for certain sized cans of ingredients that only come in smaller sizes now. The ounces are fewer in cans of soup. Some cereal boxes have become very skinny but when you look at them head-on, they appear to be the same size. Someone is hoping we won’t pay attention to how much is inside that box.

I think what I resent most is the producers’ assumption–evidently–that we’re too stupid to notice what’s happening, or we’re too apathetic to care, or, more likely, that we’ll just accept it because there’s nothing we can do about it. To me, it’s cheating; it’s an accepted form of weighting the scales.

I could live with all of those things, though. I could avoid the blatant changes by eliminating products that just aren’t worth it. For instance, we no longer buy cold cereal. I can adjust recipes, or admit that a couple ounces less in some ingredients won’t make a difference.

But what is nearly driving me to head-banging frustration is what’s happening to bolts of fabric. The standard widths for years have been 44-45” and 58-60”. The clothing patterns give yardage requirements based on those standard widths, and their layout sheets are based on those, too. Now, some of those bolts have shrunk to only 42 inches.

If you’re not a sewer, or if you only make crafts or quilts, you may not have noticed or it might not matter. But when you’re an apparel sewer, as I am, you know that those two or three inches can make a big difference. Most garment pieces are cut out on a width of fabric folded in half, but when a sleeve suddenly won’t fit, so that you have to open the fabric up to get only one sleeve, it means having to add to the total yardage at least the length of a second sleeve in order to have enough to go around. The trouble is not knowing ahead of time what kind of trouble you’re facing, or having to guess at how much extra is needed, with the possibility of wasting some of it.

boltsIt would be so much more straightforward–and honest–to simply raise the price of the fabric (which they’ve already done anyway, of course) and leave the widths as they’ve always been so we know exactly how to plan our projects. When we have to buy extra fabric to accommodate the narrower widths, we’re already paying more, and we’re well aware of that. But now we have the added aggravation of trying to adjust our patterns in some willy-nilly fashion.

The frustrating part is having no real way to complain about it. The fabric stores have little or nothing to do with it, and the poor clerks in the fabric stores have no control at all. Who do I write a letter to? I have no idea where this fabric is woven, but it’s probably somewhere in China, where most of our U.S. goods seem to originate these days.

So far, my answer has been to avoid the skinny bolts. Maybe, if enough of us do that, someone out there in textile land will figure it out. Or, if the fabric-skimping practice continues to grow, maybe the new patterns will begin to draw their layouts based on 42 inches instead of 44-45.

Until then, I’ll growl and gripe at the fabric stores and write blogs. None of that will do any good, but at least I’ll feel like I’ve shown I’m not as naive as they hope I am. I know you’re cheating me, even if I can’t do anything about it.

Posted in Current issues, sewing, Social commentary | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Photography and my life of crime

As a former newspaper reporter/photographer, I’m used to going where I want to for a story. I’ve come to expect that if I look official enough, or if my motives are sincere enough, my camera and notebook will be the open-sesame to just about any situation or scene that appeals to me—whether I’m on the job or out on my own.

I’ve also learned that that kind of thinking can get me arrested.

I remember the time when I screeched to a halt alongside a farmer’s field full of those amusing round hay bales. Or, maybe they’re straw. There’s been some debate about that when I’ve talked with others, but “hay bale” rolls off my tongue more easily, and the term is good enough for me as a non-farm girl.

These particular bales were quite close to the road,

Monica Sawyn photo

Monica Sawyn photo

with more scattered across the field like toasted marshmallows. Finally, I figured, I’d be able to get close enough to capture their charm. However, I decided to wait until I returned later in the day to shoot them, to take advantage of nice, long shadows.

When I got back there, it became obvious that standing on the side of the road and shooting wasn’t going to work. I never hesitated. I sidestepped my way down the embankment and then up the other side, into the field.
I immediately discovered two things: the stubble that’s left in the field is as lethal as bamboo spikes, threatening to poke its way through the thickest of athletic shoe soles; and trying to compose a pleasing shot of objects left randomly here and there on the landscape, with wide spaces in between, is not as easy as I had anticipated.

I began to walk. And walk. And walk. No matter where I stood, I could get close to only one bale at a time, while the rest remained too distant to have much impact. I was getting frustrated until I took a good look at the rows of stubble I’d been cussing as I maneuvered. They were laid out in precise rows, which took on interesting arrangements depending on whether I viewed them straight on or obliquely.

I quickly rearranged my thinking. It wasn’t just the bales that were interesting, it was the stubble itself. Placing the rows perpendicular to the late-day shadows, I looked through the viewfinder and had one of those aha! moments every photographer loves.

That’s when the cop arrived.

He pulled up to the side of the road and got out. I ignored him, figuring that what you don’t acknowledge will eventually go away. He didn’t.

“What are you doing?” he yelled, keeping a safe distance. I waved my camera in the air, thinking it was pretty obvious what I was doing. But I could feel doom approaching, so I quickly snapped a few more photos—while I still could.

Now he was climbing the embankment and heading in my direction. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable with my back turned towards an armed man, I finally lowered the camera and turned around.

“I’m photographing these hay bales,” I said, flashing my most winning smile. “Aren’t they gorgeous? I just couldn’t resist. It’s harder than I thought, though. And this stubble is terrible to walk in, and…”

I was babbling. It’s a lawbreaker’s favorite slight-of-hand trick. It’s certainly one I’ve used any number of times. Keep talking about innocent things, I figure, and my innocence will be apparent.

I use these terms lawbreaker and innocent intentionally because, of course, I was trespassing on that field. Somehow I’ve developed the philosophy that trespassing laws don’t apply when I’m taking only photos and leaving only footprints—and not even leaving those on that hardscrabble hay field.

The cop wasn’t to be deflected, however.

“Is this your property?” he asked, and I had to admit it wasn’t. But, officer, how could that possibly matter when I’m just taking photos?  Who could possibly mind? What farmer could possibly resist having his produce made famous?

I didn’t exactly speak all those words, but I aw-shucksed a good intimation of them as I headed to my car, the cop keeping step right beside me. He was very nice about it, but I was definitely being escorted off that field.

Monica Sawyn photo

Monica Sawyn photo

I did accomplish two things. I got him to admit there wasn’t a “no trespassing” sign, which somehow mitigated my crime; and I managed to snap off one more shot from down in the ditch, capturing one more view of a round bale along with one of my favorite subjects, grass.

What the heck, I thought, as I climbed back into the car. A little law breaking adds zest to a photo trek, and makes for a good story afterwards.

Posted in Humor, Photography | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

This partner’s a jerk

I’ve gone on photo treks with a lot of different partners. The latest one is a real jerk.

Twice a day like clockwork we head out, walking along the bay, exploring the wooded areas, visiting the habitat park. And, like clockwork, I find something to shoot. Then, just as I’m about push that shutter button–she jerks my arm.

“Lady, can you PLEASE hold still? Wait just–one–minute…”

I suppose I shouldn’t be too impatient because Lady is, after all, a beagle. And as far as she’s concerned, those walks are for her. I figure I can accomplish two missions at once: get some photos, and get her some exercise. Serious photographers would probably roll their eyes and shake their heads–but they’ve never had to gaze into pleading beagle eyes as they put on their jackets to head out the door. Or maybe they have, but are better at saying no than I am.

Actually, it’s a very companionable time, and it’s possible

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

that without her, I wouldn’t be stalking those photos quite so often. Over the months, I’ve developed a system. When I find a photo that takes some care, I stick the handle of the retractable leash between my knees, squeeze real tight so she doesn’t get away, then shoot quickly before she gets to the end of the lead, wait for the jerk when she does, then shoot again.

From a distance, with my knees locked in place, I undoubtedly look like someone who desperately needs to use the facilities. And, if I need to move my position at all, I look like a cripple who has the use of only the lower part of my legs. It doesn’t help that when Lady realizes what’s going on, she usually sits down in the long grass and waits–out of sight. No one can see the dog, no one can fathom what on earth is wrong with me. All they say is a misshapen, jerking creature with a camera pressed to her eye.

Too bad. This system is a far better one than stuffing the leash handle under my arm. There, any movement on Lady’s part is much more quickly translated into camera blur. I used to do that, though; I knew she’d keep jerking when she realized I wasn’t following her, so I’d time my shutter clicks between jerks. Now and then I’d get a useable photo.

Even the knee-clench method has its hazards, though. If I’m clenching and stooping and she’s jerking, all at the same time, it can make getting that close-up of a bee on a flower an extremely chancy operation. I’ve been unexpectedly eyeball to eyeball with a bee countless times, to both our alarmed surprise.

If I were smart, I’d be using a tripod for those flower close-ups, but there’s no way I could handle that AND a dog on a leash. So, at least when I’m with Lady, I make do without the tripod and thank goodness for modern cameras with image stabilization.

Posted in Humor, Living with a dog, Photography | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

If your arm’s not broken, use both

I’m a two-handed photographer.

You’re thinking ALL photographers have two hands–but if that’s the case, why don’t they all use them?

I’ve spotted these one-winged shooters especially around popular scenic stops where everyone wants to capture a memory. You might call them shoot-and-run photographers. They might even still have a hand on the open car door, while the other one holds up a little point-and-shoot camera.

Nothing against those point-and-shoots. Most of them take fine photos, and even finer photos when the owner thoroughly understands the camera’s capabilities. I have one I really love and use often. But their size seems to encourage people to treat them too casually, to take less time with the photos than they might with a “good” camera.tripod

I figure if a scene is worth preserving, it’s worth doing well, and all it takes is a little two-handed attention.

That said, I have to convict myself. I do always use two hands, but there was a time when I turned my nose up at tripods. Too much bother, I told my photographer friends. Too cumbersome. I feel like a bear cub trying to fold lingerie.

Instead, I bragged about what steady hands I had, how an inhalation and held breath, elbows tucked close to my side, steadied me all I needed to get a good shot. Most often that was true, and still is. But there are some instances where a tripod is necessary if you want a shot for something other than a 3 x 5 print.

Moon shots, for instance. When it rises large and golden, flooding the sky with cool light, it’s hard to resist. If you’ve perused the weather site, and looked at the members’ photos posted there, just count the number of full-moon shots there are once a month. Even people who’ve taken them numerous times before can’t resist trying one more time.

But to have the moon look like anything more than a pin point in the sky, you need a long lens–and the longer they are, the more they magnify movement as well as distance. Steady-as-a-rock bravado won’t hold up to that. The moon will be fuzzy. You need to steady that camera the way only a tripod will do.

If you don’t have long lens, you can shoot with what you have–then crop and enlarge. But once again, that kind of enlarging will enlarge camera shake. You need that tripod.

For me, fall photos also demand a tripod. Panoramic shots are fine for hand-holding, but I prefer focusing on one leaf at a time. Leaves, hanging on those skinny little stems, are susceptible to the tiniest of little breezes. Even on days when you’d swear the air was still, a close-up of a beautiful leaf through the camera’s eye will reveal slight movements.

That problem is doubled when you take into account that one single leaf is small, and is probably well out of reach on a tall tree. In both those instances, you need that tripod.

If you’re still resisting, even though you have a tripod; if it mostly collects dust in your closet, here’s the challenge: take it with you AND USE IT the next half dozen times you try some nature photography. In that short a time, you’ll be wielding that tripod with ease. Even better than you can fold lingerie.

(This is, admittedly, a column I wrote for another site a couple years ago. Worth sharing again, I thought.)

Posted in Photography | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Blessed with good bugs

A couple nights ago I was head and shoulders deep in my bed of columbine and peonies, rooting out maple tree sproutings and dandelions. George eventually came out to water the other garden, but first stood behind me for a few minutes before speaking. The conversation went like this:

“Did you remember to spray yourself with bug spray?”


“Are the mosquitos eating you alive?”


“I hate you.”

What he really hates is that mosquitos tend to leave me alone. They might buzz around my head a bit, and occasionally one will land, but mostly they ignore me. So, when we’re walking down the street or strolling through the yard, I’m oblivious to their presence while he’s flailing like a windmill and muttering dire threats against the entire insect population.

“I guess you’re just much sweeter than I,” I told him one day, in an attempt to mollify him. He didn’t buy it.

Figuring there had to be some reason why I’m not high

Via Bing Images

Via Bing Images

on the menu list for mosquitos, I did some online searching. I learned that it doesn’t matter who is sweeter because it’s not the taste of the blood that counts with mosquitos. It’s the smell of the microbes on our skin.

The trillion or so microbes that live on skin give off different chemicals, some of which smell more attractive to mosquitos than others. It’s the microbes that work on sweat to give us body odor. While we share 99.9 percent of DNA with other humans, we only share 10 percent of the same microbes–which explains why some people have more noticeable BO, I suppose, and why some are the full-meal deal to the little blood suckers.

Even when a few mosquitos decide smell isn’t everything and try dining on me anyway, I seldom get a resulting itch. I read that mosquitos inject their hosts with saliva to keep blood from coagulating while they suck. Our bodies, recognizing the foreign substance, send out histamines to fight, and that creates the itch. Why don’t I itch? I can’t find a good answer for that. I hope it’s not because I don’t have enough histamines, since they’re part of our immune system. I prefer to think the mosquitos decide my microbe stench is so bad they can’t force themselves to hang around long enough to inject much of their saliva. Whatever works.

So now, when George and I are walking down the street and he’s swatting mosquitos and I’m not, I know the answer. His bugs smell better than mine.

Posted in Humor | Tagged , | 2 Comments

I’ll take the five for joy

Depending on who you are and where you live, the arrival of May can mean the Kentucky Derby, muddy footprints, sprouting tulips, sports banquets, proms or Mother’s Day.

For me, a product of Catholic schools of many long years ago, May will always be about Mary, May crownings, and the rosary. But when it comes to the rosary, I have a confession to make: among the decades–20 now, where there used to be 15, thanks to Saint John Paul II–I tend to play favorites.

Via Bing Images

Via Bing Images

The new ones, the Luminous, are a happy tracing of Jesus’ public life and I always like it when it’s Thursday, the day to pray those. Wednesday and Saturday are the Glorious, full of joyful triumph. I get an oh-darn feeling on Tuesdays and Fridays, the days for the Sorrowful Mysteries, because, quite frankly, I’d prefer not to dwell on those painful times in Jesus’ life. I know I owe my eternal salvation to them, I pray them with gratitude and love. But, they hurt.

I think the Joyful Mysteries, prayed on Monday, are my favorites because they’re the ones with which I can identify the most. These are about family life, about the ups and downs, the surprises, the expectations, that every family faces. They’re the ones that keep my own thoughts, fears and worries in perspective when dealing with family issues.

The Annunciation, for instance. You know the old saying, “life is what happens when you’ve made other plans”? Mary and Joseph had nice, normal plans for marriage and a family and then along comes an angel and says no, God has other plans, if you’ll agree. Mary did, and Joseph did, perhaps in the midst of confusion. They weren’t all-knowing, but they were all-trusting, and heaven knows my own life has demanded that of me over and over again.

Then comes the Visitation. Mary is always portrayed as going to visit her aging and pregnant cousin Elizabeth out of the kindness of her heart, and I’m sure that’s true. But I have to wonder if it wasn’t also a little moral support she sought. Mary, whose pregnancy was far from “normal,” may have wanted to share that with someone who surely would understand as no one else could, since her own pregnancy was a bit out of the blue. Two women both being borne along on the breath of God, part of a bigger plan like they had never imagined.

It’s that moral support all families need, that fellowship with other believers who are struggling to live in the same world, deal with the same probems, and hopefully do it guided by the same Holy Spirit, even in the face of the world’s skepticism. Oh yes, definitely a mystery for families.

The third mystery, the Birth of Our Lord, keeps me grounded in my station in life. In the midst of financial challenges, or the temptations to try to live up to all that the television commercials tell me I can be (and have), or the expectations that God will give me an easy life because I’m following him, all I have to do is look at the Bethlehem birth to adjust my sights. Somehow, I can’t see Mary and Joseph fretting because they weren’t providing good enough “things” for the son of God. I can’t see them railing at God for not taking better care of them since “Jesus is, after all, YOUR son.” No, they showed the true humility that accepted whatever came after they had done their best. They didn’t expect God to take away their troubles, but rather to help them through them.

They didn’t expect any favors when it came to practicing their faith, either. In the fourth mystery, we see them bringing Jesus to the temple to be offered as the firstborn son, accompanied by the sacrifice of two turtle doves, the poor man’s gift. They didn’t try to rationalize the rules away because they were “special.” They didn’t see themselves as having outgrown the old traditions. They accepted them as being from God, and anything from God was good enough and reason enough for their family to obey. If obedience was a virtue in the holy family’s life, it should be a virtue in mine.

Anyone with children, or who has taught children, can identify with the fifth mystery, when Jesus wanders off in big-city Jerusalem, getting distracted by what was admittedly his true calling, but frightening his parents in the process. Even Mary and Joseph didn’t always understand their child, and I won’t always understand mine. I can only pray that they will respond with the same trust and obedience Jesus did, now or eventually.

After praying the Joyful mysteries, I always feel like I’ve just been looking at a map for my own life. The Holy Family didn’t exactly have smooth sailing, but smooth sailing isn’t necessarily the guarantee for those who follow God. What he did guarantee was to always be with us, and to give us strength and courage to weather the storms and grow in virtue and holiness.

So, the Joyful mysteries are my favorites, because whatever challenges life brings me, it probably brought to them first. I figure if they can do it, I can, too.

Posted in Faith-filled living, Reflection, Traditions and customs | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments