It’s been four months since I came home from holiday to find a gutted house.
At first the repairs were rapid, as the salvage and demolition crews worked side-by-side.
But in recent weeks the progress has been slow and full of surprises: Asbestos in the basement, poor plumbing in the kitchen, weird wiring in the bathroom. It’s taken time to tackle these surprises — and in that time, our house has sat quiet and empty.
Although the emptiness feels strange and unfamiliar, it’s helped me see my old house through new eyes. Stripped of its walls and floors, it reminds me of the abandoned houses my sisters and I used to explore when we were kids.
I was sad to see the antique lead-crystal doorknobs ripped from their sockets, and to think that the familiar old faucets would never again yield water.
But as a consolation prize I at least got this old window label, which had been entombed inside its white-pine sarcophagus for some 50 years.
Over the past four months, I’ve learned some lessons about (re)building a home: Everything takes longer than you expect. Everything’s more complicated than you think. Everything’s more expensive, and more frustrating.
But I’ve also learned that strangers can be kind. Insurance companies can be helpful (yes, really!). And most things can be replaced.
The new wiring and plumbing are in place now, and we’re hoping the new windows will arrive next week. I’m half-tempted to put the old window label back into the wall — a treasure-in-waiting for the next owner, 50 years hence.
Filed under: Minnesota, Photography, Psychology | 19 Comments
Tags: house construction, house demolition, water damage
I’m the first to admit it: I dressed kind of weird when my family moved to Minnesota from Peru.
My innate lack of style — and years of wearing the state-mandated gray school uniform — somehow led me to believe that green-and-white plaid pants were OK.
Of course, my pants were not OK. Neither was my affinity for cartoon-character t-shirts, nor my (still unexplained) habit of wearing sweatbands on my wrists.
Every. Single. Day.
And of course, I paid dearly for these sins. I was bullied and teased and ostracized. One classmate punched me in the back of the head; another kicked me so hard that I had a lump on my rump for two weeks.
So I bought new pants. I tried (in vain) to curl my hair. I tried to mimic the “cool” girls. But it didn’t take long to see that I didn’t belong … and that I couldn’t belong.
Perhaps that’s why the words of Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries struck such a nerve:
In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong … and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
When I expressed my outrage to my friend James, he said, “It’s just a marketing ploy. They pull a stunt like this every year. Remember those offensive tees?”
I suppose it’s possible that Mr. Jeffries is a genius at turning a few provocative sound bites into free Internet advertising. (Hey, he’s gotten my attention.)
But regardless of the motive, the message is still destructive. And whether that message comes from a small-minded bully or a huge corporation, it’s still wrong to belittle a boy because of his appearance. And it’s downright sociopathic to demean a girl — as Abercrombie & Fitch has — by telling her she’s too fat to be “cool.”
All of this said, some might still argue that a company has a right to be as “exclusionary” in its marketing practices as it wants to be. But guess what, Abercrombie & Fitch? I can be “exclusionary” too: You’ve just been excluded from my holiday shopping list. I’m guessing my nephew won’t miss you. He may be beautiful enough to wear your clothes, but he’s not a bully — or a jerk.
Filed under: Ethics, Psychology | 29 Comments
Every Mother’s Day I have not one, but three women to thank for my life.
First there is my birth mother, whom I’ve never met. The only facts I know come from a yellowed letter that describes the details of my adoption. If I could call her today, I’d thank her for the wonderful life she gave me by having the courage to give me up.
The letter is signed simply “Mommy and Daddy, your parents.”
“Mommy” was Dorothy, my father’s first wife. She was as intelligent and kind as she was intrepid. (She was a private pilot and an ombudsman in her adopted British home!) She had a natural grace, I’m told, and made friends wherever she went.
She died of asthma in Mexico when I was five. I’ll never know in how many ways Dorothy shaped me during those early years. But if I could call her today, I’d thank her for making me feel loved.
One year after Dorothy’s death, my dad remarried. The wonderful woman I now call Mamá adopted me and my youngest sister — and along with her two daughters, we formed a blended family.
But in spite of my parents’ best efforts, I had a hard time adjusting. Unsure of my place in the new household, I retreated into the shade of our back yard and into the depths of our pool.
It wasn’t until yesterday that I glimpsed how difficult that time was for my new mom, too: In a long-forgotten letter, I heard her describe a shy, aloof girl who feared loud noises and wanted little to do with other children.
Some parents might have given up. Instead, Carolina reached out to me gently and patiently. She sought to understand me. She made countless sacrifices, and taught me countless important lessons. And for that, how can I adequately say, “thank you”?
Desde el fondo de mi corazón: Gracias. Feliz Día de las Madres, Mamá.
Filed under: Friends and family, On this day in history | 16 Comments
Tags: adopted, adoption, happy mothers day, Mother's Day
Because I love travel and photography, friends often ask for travel-photography advice. I’m always happy to help, even if I feel like a fraud: I’ve never taken a formal photography class, nor have I mastered even the basics. Still, here are some ideas I’ve picked up along the way — with a special shout out to my friends Darren and Laurice. Have fun in Prague!
1. Fill your frame … and vice versa
What is your photo about? Fill the frame with your subject — or use other elements to “frame” the subject.
2. Tilt your camera
One of the first tips I got was to pay attention to my horizons — and it’s indeed critical for landscape photography. But tilting your camera every so often can make your shots more dynamic. Plus, it can help squeeze in the monumental architecture!
3. Meet Geometry, your new friend
Experiment with looking beyond nature and architecture, and making geometry the subject of your photo.
4. Focus on the foreground
When we’re traveling, we usually focus on our mid- to far-range vision. Add interest to your images by focusing on elements in the foreground instead.
5. The devil is in the details
Our instinct as travel photographers is often to try to capture sweeping vistas, but the “feeling” you get from a place often comes from the small details.
6. Shoot in the morning — and in the rain
Many photographers especially like working during the morning “golden hour.” But don’t discount cloudy or rainy days. When you’re traveling, try to make the most of whatever light you get.
7. Emphasize texture
Weathered wood, cobbled streets, peeling paint … all of these can add an element of tactile interest to your images.
8. Play with repetition
Play with repetition. Play with repetition.
9. Shoot through something
Shooting through a window can add texture and context to your images. (But shooting through a car window just makes things blurry.)
10. Include people
A lot of photographers wait (im)patiently for people to leave the frame. But do you really want your shots to look like a post-apocalyptic ghost town? Plus, it’s the people and the everyday moments that give a city its character.
Bonus tip: Be here now!
A wise friend once told me that “expectations are the killers of good travel,” and the same is true of good photography. Yes, Flickr is a great source of inspiration. But don’t waste your trip trying to merely duplicate others’ images. Find your own beauty in the world. Be open to the moment, and to the unique experience of being there at that moment.
Safe travels, and happy shooting!
Filed under: Friends and family, On being creative, Paris, Photography, Travel | 37 Comments
Tags: better photographs, Eiffel Tower, Laurice, Paris, Paris photography, photo tutorial, photographing people, photography tips, Prague photography, Rome, travel photo tips, travel photography, Venice
Since 1970, Americans have celebrated April 22 as “Earth Day.” It seems fitting to mark this year’s anniversary with the words of one of the original Americans, Chief Seattle.
Filed under: On this day in history, Psychology | 2 Comments
Tags: April 22, Chief Seattle, Earth Day 1970, Earth Day 2013, Earth Day quote, Man did not weave, web of life
One of the things I most love about blogging is “meeting” other bloggers around the world. It’s wonderful to see that the flowers are blooming in Scotland, or to momentarily mistake Paris for Marrakesh.
But this far-flung news can also be depressing. I live in Minnesota, you see. Tucked up against Canada — in the northern U.S. — there are parts of my state that are wild and beautiful. But there are other parts I can’t stand. Like winter, for instance.
Winter in Minnesota can be long, dark, and harsh. I was reminded of this fact last Thursday when it started to snow … again.
The wet, heavy slush made for difficult driving.
But that didn’t keep a few hardy souls from braving the weather.
By that evening, the front of my house looked like a Christmas card …
… and by Friday morning, the back lot was almost impassible.
Still, there was something compelling about the wintry landscape. I decided to take a break from my work and go for a quick mid-morning walk.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a “quick” walk after a heavy snowfall. Every step requires concentration and balance — and twice the usual effort.
But it’s so worth the effort! I love the stillness of the woods under a heavy, white down blanket. The noises of the city sound distant and remote, echos of an alternate reality.
Relieved of the need to listen, my attention instead turns to seeing. Among the twigs, my mind conjures the shapes of playful rabbits.
Amid the twigs, I also see the first signs of spring.
Even last fall’s leaves bear testament to the coming thaw.
But as I slog through the snow, spring still seems so conceptual — and so improbable. Until suddenly, my ears find their purpose again. It’s a Cedar Waxwing.
I add the diminutive presage to my mental tally. The robins have arrived, too …
… the Great Horned Owl is raising her young …
… my neighbors are leaving their car windows open …
… and a few random objects are starting to peek tentatively out of the snow.
Surely, the warm sunshine and green grass must be just around the corner?
I give it one more week: If the snow’s not gone by then, I’m moving to Morocco.
Filed under: Minnesota, Photography, Psychology | 33 Comments
Tags: Lake Wobegon, Minnesnowta, Minnesota, winter
Last Saturday I had the honor of being Freshly Pressed. Many thanks are in order: to Cheri at WordPress; to everyone who read, “liked” or reblogged my post on street art; to my new subscribers (welcome!); and especially to the more than 200 readers who took the time to comment.
But what most surprised me was the amount of interaction my post inspired — and the passion many of you expressed in your comments.
I was intrigued by the guy who wrote, “They WERE pieces of art until they got ‘chained up’ in a gallery and ‘validated’ by the establishment! Surely the whole point of street art is that its OUTSIDE the galleries, scrawled across the cityscape, making a stand for the little man?”
I also heard from a few people who see it as vandalism, not art: “I don’t like it. There is a lot of really hostile crap out there. … If you are naïve and live in a nice part of town you can still find it charming. Until someone paints a vagina on your garage door.”
I’d also be angry if someone spray-painted obscenities on my home or my car, so I really can sympathize.
In fact, there was only one comment with which I couldn’t at all sympathize:
When the person who made the decision to paint onto someones private property gets caught, and then gets their ass beaten and bloodied, at that point the artist becomes the art. That’s the kind of art that I can appreciate.”
I guess there’s some comfort in knowing that only 0.5% of my readers would rather see a human being vandalized than a wall.
Still … because the idea of vandalism resonated so strongly with so many of you, I’d like to introduce you to an artist who used to create graffiti, but who has now turned to a less-destructive medium: Light.
(Note: All of the photos that follow are property of the artist.)
Twin Cities Brightest (“TCB”) works primarily in the “twin cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul, in the northern U.S. After stumbling across his work on Flickr a couple of years ago, I wrote to inquire about his background, his inspiration and his techniques. To my surprise he wrote back — and then met me for lunch.
The son of a painter and a photographer, TCB grew up steeped in the visual arts. But it wasn’t until he began skateboarding that he started “to look at the world differently.” In his quest for skating venues, he began exploring urban locations most people didn’t even notice.
He found some like-minded artists while studying at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul. “I was meeting a lot of people who were painting and doing graffiti … but I was never into the destruction that much,” he said. “You’re not going to tag on sandstone, on a 100-year-old bridge. That would be mean — and it wouldn’t look good anyway.”
He eventually abandoned graffiti. “But I still liked the locations,” he said. And that’s how he discovered light painting.
“I was exploring … this tunnel in St. Paul. We were just walking through the tunnel and I think my camera was just set on automatic. Because it was really dark it was going to take a 30-second photo. So I clicked [the shutter] and it just keeps going and someone’s walking with a flashlight. The photo [was] totally out of focus, but I looked at it and saw that my friend had sort of created this trail as we were walking, and it was really cool. That was my first light painting where I realized what I was doing — or what I could do, I guess.”
The experience sparked an idea. “I went to AxMan Surplus on Snelling and picked up a tripod, which I realized I needed. … And the next day I realize that the camera only takes 30-second exposures, and I need a cable release. And then I’m picking up all these weird lights from AxMan and waving them around with friends.”
“But the funny thing was that you’re doing it in the middle of the day in these tunnels, which are dark. It was just perfect because I wasn’t doing graffiti anymore, but I was still in these locations. And it was even more fun. I’d never seen anything like it … it was all new. All of the colors were super-vivid, and … it doesn’t run out. It’s not like you have six cans and you come with two scraps. And then it lives there, you know?”
Since I met him a year ago July, TCB has created a couple of tutorials. Here’s how you can make a spirograph like the one below, for starters.
He’s also branched out to develop what he calls “light art performance photography.” Check out the extensive gallery of images, like this one, on his website.
When I meet people like TCB, I feel grateful to live in a community that gives artists the freedom to explore and push their creative boundaries. And I feel lucky to live in an age when we can use a platform like WordPress to build a global community of curious, engaged, and truly engaging people.
If you’re still reading at this point, you are a true die-hard. Please consider “liking” HeatherBlog on Facebook. You’ll get advance notice (warning?!) of upcoming posts — and also extra content that’s not published on my blog. Like an entire gallery of street art photos, for instance!
Filed under: Minnesota, On being creative, Photography, Psychology | 28 Comments
Tags: digital photography, Freshly Pressed, graffiti, light painting, Minneapolis, street art, TCB, Twin Cities Brightest
Ten days ago, a truck pulled up to Steve’s and my rented home and disgorged a pile of boxes into the garage. Boxes full of books, boots, clothes, VHS tapes … boxes full of memories, and the possessions we’ve amassed together over the past 27 years.
But as I stood in front of the pile last weekend, I had an epiphany: “I don’t want it back,” I said to Steve.
Like most true epiphanies, mine was a big surprise. I’ve been an avid collector of things since childhood, beginning with a cigar box full of dead bugs I gathered while my family was living in Peru. I was outraged when my parents first threw away my dessicated bees and beetles, but now I understand. (Well, sort of.)
Then I moved on to collecting letters from my grandma in Mexico City and my paternal grandparents in Florida. I still have those ribbon-bound stacks of letters — somewhere among the stacks of boxes in my garage.
Soon I was saving not only the letters, but also the stamps that purchased their conveyance. This marked the beginning of a brief — but torrid — love affair with philately.
I learned a lot by collecting stamps, actually. For instance: Did you know that Yemen was once a world leader in winter sports? It’s true. And I have the stamps to prove it!
I also have fond memories of going to the stamp swaps in Peru. I’d save up my allowance — and then beg my parents for a bit extra — in anticipation of these events. I’m sure I got swindled a few times (I was only eight or nine) but I still managed to amass an impressive stable of dead presidents.
In high school I collected fossils. And in college, I began collecting stemware and china — in preparation, I think, for a bunch of fancy parties that never happened.
After graduation I began my Earth Mother Phase. I have no idea how many birds and furry critters I repaired and released back into the wild. But I still have a few vestiges of my years as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
Box by box, these possessions are emerging. But box by box, I’m discovering that it’s not the possessions I treasure; it’s the memories they invoke.
It may sound silly, but it’s been a gift to be involuntarily separated from my possessions. It’s forced me to examine my relationship with all the stuff I’ve accumulated. And it’s shown me how little I need to be happy — that, in fact, I’m actually happier with only the essentials.
That’s why I’ve been shedding stuff like mad over the past few days: clothes I never wear, books I’ve never read, fancy dishes and stemware I’ll never use. I didn’t miss them for two months, so clearly I didn’t need them.
I’ve also decided to carefully photograph most of my collections and donate those, too. Who knows? Maybe one of my feathers will inspire a young visitor at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary to become a naturalist.
As for the letters from my grandparents … well, those I’ll keep. Because now I understand that our loved ones and our treasured memories are the only stuff that really matters.
Filed under: Minnesota, Psychology | 32 Comments
Tags: American materialism, consumerism, decluttering, spring cleaning
I’ve been a bit overwhelmed in the aftermath of my personal Noah’s Flood, so I haven’t blogged much lately. In spite of this fact, I’ve still managed to pick up a couple of new subscribers — including former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan!
I’m tremendously honored that he’s read my humble mumblings. But I was astounded that he actually took the time to comment:
I found your blog through a search for “[omitted to protect privacy]” and also read some of your other postings. One thing I noted was the diversity of your thoughts. I believe you would have a more loyal readership if you were to treat a single topic. I would encourage you to find the one subject for which you truly have a passion and give it the singular attention it merits.
At first I didn’t know what to make of the comment. I truly do have a passion for Paris, photography and writing. But upon further reflection, I realized that Mr. Annan had a point: In writing about so many topics, I’ve all but forgotten the single, driving passion of my life.
I’ve been obsessed with aardvarks since about the second grade, when I first learned how to spell aardvark. I was smitten with the sound of those first two, twin letters — aaaah — the sound I might make as I sip a cup of cocoa. Or plummet off a cliff to my death.
And then there’s “vark.” What other animal can claim “vark” as its second syllable? Go ahead, rack your brain. If you’re like me, you’ll only get the image of a dachshund barking with a thick German accent.
Over the years my appreciation for the aardvark has only deepened, as I’ve come to realize how much I have in common with this strange nocturnal animal. To paraphrase enchantedlearning.com, the aardvark and I:
• are both hairy, burrowing mammals,
• measure about 5 feet (including the tail),
• have a long snout and a sleek, brown coat,
• possess poor eyesight but have a keen sense of smell,
• have teeth made of cement (mine are mostly fillings),
• grow bristles around our small mouths, and
• look extremely goofy when we walk.
We’re also both great lovers of nature …
… and of mankind.
So I hope you’ll join me as I say goodbye to HeatherBlog and devote my blogging energy to AardvarkBlog.
I also hope you’ll — eventually — forgive me for pulling the wool over your eyes. To my knowledge, Kofi Annan has never read my blog. But I really do love aardvarks (and their funny name). Happy April Fools’ Day!
Filed under: Attempted humor, On this day in history | 20 Comments
Tags: aardvark, April Fools' Day
Is street art … art?
I loved Dran’s droll take on TinTin’s adventures in France. “Because of a strike, no trains will run today,” reads the sign.
I also loved seeing Invader’s mosaics up close, along with a video of him working.
I was stunned by the quality of some of the works …
… amused by their subversive humor …
… and charmed or moved by a few others.
I enjoyed seeing the next generation of street-artists-in-the-making, huddled here for a lecture about Dran’s methods and message.
But most of all I loved seeing Miss.Tic’s work in the museum …
… and then recognizing it again on the streets of Paris. “I know who painted this!” I felt like telling the oblivious passersby.
For me, that’s one of the cool things about street art: It fades into the background until you notice it. But once you notice it, you see it everywhere — like these slightly, um, enhanced “Do not enter” signs by Chet Abraham.
Soon, I was spotting fun variations, like this one in the Marais …
… and this one, just outside the Palais de Justice …
… and this one, near a row of restaurants along the Quai St. Michel …
… and these, near the Place Dauphine.
I even found a knock-off of The Vitruvian Man!
So by the time I saw Abraham’s work included in an ad paid for by the city of Paris, I wasn’t too surprised.
There are some who say street art makes the city look dirty and sloppy, that it’s vandalism of private property.
But others maintain that street art is our zeitgeist … an expression of who we are.
Regardless of how you feel about it, I hope you can at least agree that it’s art.
And if you don’t like it? Don’t worry. What’s here today …
… will be gone tomorrow.
street art. Grrrrrr!
Filed under: Paris, Photography, Psychology | 394 Comments
Tags: Banksy, Chet Abraham, Musée de la Poste, Paris, Paris. street art, street art, urban art