Cat-ching Up

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I only titled this post as I did because I have a few new cat pictures. Here’s one of them:

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I have a few other pictures to share that aren’t of cats, and lots of random things to discuss, so I’ll just throw it all into the mix and see how things come out. Sound good? Let’s get to it.

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First of all, on the home front: we’ve spent the last 2-3 weeks dealing with contractors and literally getting our house in order. Last week, all the damaged drywall in the house was being fixed, and having workers in the house every day from 9 AM to 6 PM put a serious damper on my schedule. I ended up doing a lot of nothing but babysitting nervous cats and dogs while all the banging was going on, and I didn’t do much of anything else but read books and watch Netflix while trying to avoid all the parts of the house that were under construction. That said, all the leaks and water damage is fixed, finally, and everything we had to move and store in other parts of the house has been returned to it’s original location, OR has been tossed out/donated.

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Doug and I did have a conversation, at some point in all of this, about how little TLC we’ve given to this house over the years, much as I mentioned in one of my earlier Harvey posts, and we both agreed that some of the problems we had during the storm were our own fault for not fixing house issues properly as soon as they arise, choosing instead to ignore things until they reach the critical. We also discussed how we should really go ahead and put some real money into the house and settle in a stay awhile, so that when/if we really do decide to move we can actually sell it for a decent price. And we’ve both decided that staying on for at least the discernible future might be the best thing, after all – in fact, since our house is almost paid off, it might be wise to stay a good, long while. So, to that end, we’ve been getting bids for other repairs and cleaning out, well, everything, in an attempt to start treating our home more, shall we say, respectfully.

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Sadly, I will admit to being a bit of a slob, as is my husband, and while the truth is we are not averse to cleaning up after ourselves, or paying a service to come in and do deeper cleaning every other week, neither one of us has ever been meticulous about much of anything else, and as such, we have a lot of work to do just to get things up to snuff (in fact, we just had a vacuum cleaner delivered today because we didn’t even own one). For example, last week I decided just to clean out our kitchen pantry, and that task alone generated FIVE BAGS of trash. Our worst habit is probably taking things that are broken or serve no purpose for us and just kind of stashing them somewhere, then leaving them there for 20 years. As such, the pantry was full of old broken coffee pots, toasters, boxes of unneeded dishes, and other ridiculous items that haven’t been touched in decades as well as canned foods that expired in 2008 and spices on a rack that had completely lost all color and smell. I know, it’s a horrible thing to admit, but there it is. I also actually changed out the light bulb, which hadn’t been done in so long I still keep forgetting to actually turn it on when I go in there.

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It took me about four hours to clean all that out, and y’all, that was just a PANTRY. Literally every closet and cabinet in this house is in a similar state (except for the expired food part – that was strictly a pantry issue). In fact, we actually have an upstairs bathroom that at some point came to be treated like a closet and was full almost to the ceiling with boxes of stuff that needed to either be thrown away or put in the attic. I am proud to say we’ve cleaned that out now, and can actually use our bathroom as, well, a bathroom. Go figure. But it probably goes without saying that I have my work cut out for me as far as getting this house in order; I don’t mind, as I have the time now to do this, and I figure it’s good exercise as well as being necessary work I need to do. But clearly my aversion to behaving like an actual adult runs DEEP, y’all.

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Health-wise, I mentioned in a previous post how much anxiety I’ve been having lately, and I did meet met with my psychiatrist and was taken off Wellbutrin and put on Lexapro instead, which addresses the anxiety as well as the depression that Wellbutrin was prescribed for originally. And I am happy to report that the results have been tremendous. From the first day of taking it, I’ve had exactly zero panic attacks, and zero anxiety. The only issue has been how sleepy it makes me, but recently I switched from taking it in the morning to taking it at night, and that seems to be helping. For now, I’m thrilled with this solution, and having the anxiety lifted helps me realize both how bad it had gotten and how long it’s been building up. I probably should have been put on Lexapro the first time I went to a doctor for my depression, but I wasn’t even able to articulate that part of what I was feeling was anxiety until recently.

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I don’t know how much I mentioned here about my other health issues I’ve been handling lately; I went to a doctor over the summer to deal with my right wrist, which felt fractured but ended up just being inflammation that, surprisingly for how much it was hurting, healed up completely in about six weeks. I was totally expecting to need a surgical solution to that problem, but while I was talking to that doctor, I mentioned how basically my entire right arm gives me trouble constantly, and that the second-most pressing issue I was having (next to the wrist that I thought was broken) was my rotator cuff, which has troubled me for, oh, let’s say at least seven years. Seriously. It’s hurt for so long I just got used to it, and for some reason have always considered it just some weird thing about me that I have this one shoulder that sucks, and never considered it something I should see a doctor about. I am not even sure where I got this idea, but obviously it stuck, because I barely even thought to mention it to the wrist doc.

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When I did though, he made me an appointment to see a shoulder specialist at the same location, who ordered an MRI (an awful, awful experience that I will never go through again without some serious Xanax, but I’m not going to talk it about it any more than this because I do not want to relive that nightmare) and discovered I have not one, but TWO tears in my shoulder. My rotator cuff has a partial tear, and I have a lateral tear on the back side of my shoulder, so between the two of them it’s no wonder my right arm gives me serious grief from time to time. Still, the doctor felt like rushing into surgery wasn’t the best idea, and I totally agree – I’ve heard that rotator cuff surgery is no joke, and I want to avoid that shit if at all possible. So for now, I’ve been given an injection that did reduce the pain for now, although it does still hurt when I try to do certain things, and I am schedule to start some physical therapy this week to try and strengthen the muscles around the tears enough to make the shoulder functional, and see if that is enough for now. I am really regretting not getting to a doctor sooner about this issue, since if I had done so it could have resolved on its own like my wrist did without ever developing into being torn, but I can’t bust myself up too much over something that seriously just never ever occurred to me to be a problem. Still baffles me why I decided that, but nothing can be done about it now.

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Due mostly to my ongoing arm issues, I haven’t been blogging or editing pictures much at all, as too much computer work is a primary pain culprit. Before the injection, just thinking about getting online and commenting on people’s blog posts just felt like more than I could handle, but for now at least I can do it. Who knows how long that will hold up. I’m hoping that the ease with which my wrist healed up is a sign that I can get to a similar place with my shoulder. We’ll see.

Anxiety Society

That title sucks, but hey, it does rhyme. Moving on.

I’ve taken some new shots with the intention to continue working with the curves tool when editing my photos, so I was sure to use some backgrounds, costumes, lighting, and poses that I thought would work for that purpose. So far, so good, and I’m having fun playing around with these new techniques.

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I also bought these two feather collars from Free People a while back when they went on sale (honestly, is there no end to the over-priced cool stuff that store carries?) and was finally able to use them.

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I also broke out a flashbender I can attach to my external flash and used that in some shots, like the one above. When I first got it I used it a lot, but over time I found I didn’t care for the harsh light I got when using it and that it was much more difficult to edit those photos and achieve the look I wanted. But I wanted to see how the photos would turn out if I used it and then edited them with the curves tool, so I strapped the flashbender onto the camera and gave it a go. I’m glad I did because I did get some nice pictures as a result. Although, right out of the camera they looked awful.

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The flashbender directs the light from the flash into a narrow beam, so it gives the photos a spotlight effect, which makes for some really interesting shots, although I barely know how to use it so they need a lot of work when processing to make them look right. So anyway, yeah, on the photography front things are pretty cool, but in other ways, things are a bit tricky right now.

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The big problem I’m having right now is anxiety. I’ve actually starting having anxiety attacks, and they’re really fucking annoying. It starts with some random body ache or pain, which sends me into a panic thinking I’m going to get sick, which leads to this awful lightheadedness that starts in my gut and radiates upwards into my head as if I’m going to pass out; I sometimes also feel hot and nauseous, and like I can’t catch my breath even though I’m breathing fine. I had my first attack like this over a year ago; I thought I was having a heart attack until I realized I wasn’t, and that by calming down with self-talk and walking around to get myself moving, I could make it stop – even though I felt jumpy for some time afterwards. After that first bout, I didn’t have another one for almost a year, but in the past 3 months or so I’ve been getting them regularly. Several attacks have come at night, and twice they’ve been bad enough to keep me up for hours (two other times I just talked myself through it and feel asleep in spite of it). I haven’t had an attack in public since the first one a year ago – until today.

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I’ve been feeling pretty confident about these attacks because I’ve been controlling them well, but today it started as I was driving around town running errands, and the anxiety just stayed with me all damn day, no matter what I did. Of course I know part of the problem was that I kept trying to “do” things to calm myself when it just wasn’t in the cards for me because not only was I having an anxiety attack, but I was also trying to run a bunch of annoying errands that I was determined to do anxiety be damned, and everything kept cycling. It was totally frustrating, and more than a little disconcerting, because in my mind I’m thinking, how long is this going to go on? Is this going to happen while I’m tutoring a student? Am I going to just feel this way forever now? What if I become one of those people who’s scared to leave the house because I’m afraid of having an attack in public? Is this going to totally ruin my life?

I don’t have answers to those questions yet. I don’t know why this is happening all of a sudden, although I’d say I’ve had low-grade anxiety my entire adult life, so perhaps I should be surprised it’s taken this long to manifest this way physically. What I do know: I talked to my gynecologist about the possibility of this being related to perimenopause, and she was pretty non-committal about whether it was or not either way. She feels that because I’m still on birth control, I shouldn’t be having any menopause-related symptoms, and that what i described to her was garden-variety panic attacks and nothing more. I went and got a physical and that doctor felt what I was describing was panic attacks as well; all my bloodwork came back normal, so I know it’s not related to my thyroid, or diabetes (a possibility since it runs in my family), or anemia or any other blood-related thing that might be causing it. After today’s fun anxiety-fest I made an appointment with the psychiatrist who prescribes my Wellbutrin to discuss this with him and see what he thinks. I know Wellbutrin can cause anxiety or exacerbate it in people who are prone to it, so perhaps that’s part of the problem too.

I also know that I grow increasingly anxious by the day about the man who currently sits (or squats, as the case may be) in the Oval Office. I feel like the anxiety level of the entire country is in overdrive right now, and the events over the weekend in Charlottesville have me good and freaked. I also know I lost a friend a few weeks ago, and that having people so close to me in age and life experience die does freak me out any time it happens. I also know that over the past year or two I’ve had other things happen that have felt so unfair as to be almost unbelievable; the sort of things I never thought would happen to me and that disappointed and distressed me to my core. I know I had shingles in January, and there’s really only one reason someone gets shingles (stress). I know my entire life schedule is still topsy-turvy and I’ve not yet gotten myself into a decent routine, and I spend way too much time still sitting around doing a bunch of nothing other than play too many video games and read/watch WAY too much CNN. I know my sleep habits are pretty awful, and let’s not even get started on my diet because that’s a total disaster. I know I still haven’t gotten myself back into a decent workout routine, which is partly due to injuring both my rotator cuff AND my wrist on the same arm – two things which also make me anxious as I fear growing older and getting fragile and sustaining injuries I can’t recover from (fears I’ve never had before – my clumsy ass has injured myself tons over the years, but NOW I fear every injury will permanently damage me for some reason).

So yeah, I guess when I write it all out I can see why I’m having panic attacks. But for anyone who’s been down this road, you know that it’s not always enough to know why they happen. Once they start to happen they seem to take on a life of their own, apart from all logic and wisdom, so getting this under control will be a challenge, but one I am willing to accept, because I refuse to just hide out in the house all day and stop living my life over something like this. Some things I’m doing to try to help: 1. Actually get involved politically instead of sitting on the sidelines. 2. Eat better and exercise more. 3. Schedule my life each day instead of just wandering from hour to hour and day-to-day without any real plans for how I should be living and what I should be doing. and 3. See if there is something medically I need to do differently, like change my medication or get off of it (which I tried once, without success).

As far as getting more involved politically, in this little town near my neighborhood yesterday a woman put together a spontaneous vigil for the people of Charlottesville, and I decided to pull my head out of my ass and go. The plan was to walk about a mile up a major road holding candles, and then walk back. It sounded a little odd, but the heart was in the right place and it was nearby, so I went and joined them. It really was a small little group of women (and one man), so honestly I felt a little silly doing it, but everyone was lovely and it was something to show which side I am on, at least, and I met some nice people in the process. Hell, one woman showed up on crutches just because she wanted to stand up for love and peace and harmony, and the man was older and had to turn around halfway because it was so damn hot and humid, so all in all it was at least nice to see some sort of light in the midst of the weekend’s darkness.

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Getting ready to walk in Fulshear. That one woman carried the mirror because she said something about Trump needing to look at himself in the mirror, or something. I didn’t really understand that part – but I was super-impressed that she carried that damn things for three miles. It was heavy! 

So I don’t know, y’all. I don’t want to be dealing with panic attacks all the time, and knowing it’s not something physical like blood pressure or low thyroid actually doesn’t help as much as I thought it would, because at least if the problem is physical that means there’s a physical process for correcting the problem, whereas when it’s mental/emotional it feels impossible to fix. Then again, the last time I remember feeling this frustrated in relation to my body was when my gluten intolerance reached the breaking point over ten years ago and I kept ending up in the emergency room, and no one could explain to me what was going on, and I eventually figured out how to deal with that problem. And in my twenties I went through a terrible phase of having awful migraines, the kind with aura and partial blindness, and I remember feeling pretty despondant at first that the situation was going to permanently ruin my life, and that didn’t happen then, either. So, I am hopeful that this too is something that’s awful right now but DOES have a solution that will work for me, and I just have to find it. But, as I already mentioned, I’m also less optimistic about shit like this than I used to be, too, so while I’m hopeful, I’m not as hopeful as I would have been ten years ago, or even five years ago, because now i realize that some problems just don’t have solutions at all, and eventually all of us get that one diagnosis that signals the start of the end of things for real, and really shitty bad luck does happen to other people all the time so why couldn’t it happen to me too. So there you go. Hopeful, kinda? But also, in a way, not entirely. Boo.

 

Ahead of the Curve

For a long time now, I’ve been admiring photographers like Miss Froggi on Flickr who create such lovely, soft, vintage-looking light in their photos, and I’ve been trying to re-create that look with my own photos with spotty results at best.

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I didn’t want to steal any of her photos, so I am posting a screenshot of her page instead. But do check it out for more loveliness!

I finally ended up searching for tutorials on how to create the soft light and vintage look of photos like this, and started learning about and working with the curves tool in Photoshop. This seems to be the key to achieving the tonality and richness that I’ve been trying to create using various photo filters; the filters work to an extent, but you don’t have to total control over the final result with presets and plugins.

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The curves tool

I certainly was familiar with this tool, but had never tried to use it because it looks intimidating. It’s generally known to be a trickier tool to use, but once I watched a few tutorials I felt I knew enough about to be able to work with it instinctively until I got the results I wanted.

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Portrait before and after using the curves tool

One thing I noticed while browsing tutorials is that most of the photos people were working with were taken outside for some reason; I’ve found it easier to use curves on outdoor shots than my studio ones, and I”m not sure if that’s because the tutorials I watched were using outside light sources or if it’s really true that people use the tool more under those conditions. I don’t think it’s that curves works better that way as it is that it works differently, so I still have lots of playing around to do to figure out how to make it work – which is fine, because noodling around and learning new things about photo editing is my favorite thing to do anyway. I did, however, try to find out shots taken outdoors to play with; since I rarely do that most of them are not great shots but were fine to use for learning purposes.

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Terrible shots, but they were good for editing practice.

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I’m actually not finished with this one, but I wanted to show it anyway.

But since most of my shots are taken in my studio, I was working with indoor lighting and backdrops for most of my practice. I started out with shots from recent sets:

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But soon I was dipping into the archives, looking for shots to work with that I thought could benefit from some “curving.” Looking at old photos through this lens (no pun intended) prompted me to work up shots from sets I’ve ignored for a long time, so that’s been fun.

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Overall I found darker portraits with dark backgrounds more fun to work with; seeing the tonal shifts in the darks and shadows of the photo is the most interesting aspect of using the curves tool to me, for some reason. Perhaps because it’s easier to see the changes in the dark spaces of the photo – who knows. But I also used the tool to edit some shots from sets I never got anything good out of before, like these:

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I still don’t really like this one, but it’s a better attempt than I’ve gotten in the past from this set. Something about it just doesn’t work – I think maybe it’s because the color of the wig doesn’t look good on me. 

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But the best shot I’ve edited so far is from an old set I did back when I was still obsessed with full-length costume and movement shots (something I haven’t been into for quite a while); this was taken when Simon was just a kitten, and at one point while I was taking some shots sitting down he wandered onto the set and sat down on the skirt of the dress, and got into a few of the pictures while sitting there. I picked him up for one photo, and even attempted to put him on my wig (which really didn’t work because as soon as I took my hands off he started to leap down, so the shot that had him up there also had me making an awful face and holding my hands up right near where he was standing). When browsing through old photos I came across this set again, and got to thinking I could probably take all the shots with Simon in them and composite them into one shot – it was really easy to do, so I’m not sure why I never thought of it before.

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I did use the curves tool on this one too, but obviously that’s not the reason this is a new fave for me. Again, not sure why I didn’t think to do this when I originally took the shots, but that’s what’s good about going back through old sets from time to time (I save everything; every single shot I’ve ever taken is on a hard drive somewhere). Once there’s some time and distance from a set, you can go back and find pictures with value that you missed last time you looked.

Now before I close this out, I’d like to add one more picture. It’s not one I took, and it’s not a picture of me. It’s also not a ‘good’ photo in that it’s a scan of a picture that was taken in the 90s at a Halloween party – but it DOES have a costume! It’s a picture of an old friend named Jody Smith; he was best friends with another one of my friends from college, Erin, and we hung out a lot back in the day. With a name as common as Jody Smith, though, once we lost touch it was damn near impossible to find him again, until Erin found him through a mutual friend on Facebook about a year and a half ago (for a lovely write-up about Erin’s experience connecting with Jody again after so many years, go here). It was nice to hear from  him again, and see that he was doing well, but I admit after an initial catch-up conversation or two we didn’t keep in touch all that much. But we were still Facebook friends, so we could keep up with each other through that platform.

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Unfortunately, a little over a month ago Jody was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and it was too advanced, and Jody was too weak, when it was discovered for the doctors to do anything about it. He was given 3-5 months to live, but ended up in hospice care just a few weeks later. On August 1st, Jody passed away. Fortunately, I got to talk to him via Skype before he died; I shared what memories I had of him that came to mind in the moment (although I realized later I forgot a few good ones I wish I’d mentioned, like the time we went to see Forest Gump together then wandered around the neighborhood after it ended lamenting how little we’d done with our lives) as well as a dream I’d had about him the night before, wherein he, Erin, and I were in an airplane, headed nowhere in particular, just hanging out in the clouds and chit-chatting like in the old days (well, without the clouds part).  So, as I said to him on his Facebook page the day he died, I want to say another farewell to dear Jody – we will see you again in the clouds one of these days. Rest in peace, friend.

T-Shirt Alert

A few weeks ago, my husband came home from a visit with his father (who is elderly and ill – Doug is his primary caregiver but we recently hired a full-time nursing service to stay with him 24-7) with a collection of old t-shirts he’d dug out of a closet at the house. They’re mostly t-shirts he wore in high school, but there are some from as far back as elementary school. His mother (who passed away many years ago) never threw anything out, so I’m sure this is just a small sampling of what’s over there.

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So of course, the first thing I did was take pictures in them. 

I’d also ordered a few new wigs from Sam’s Beauty recently, so I immediately got to work dressing up and photographing myself in some of the shirts. A lot of them are old, original concert tees (Genesis and Rush, mostly), and even though they’re pretty cool, I didn’t feel like they would make very interesting photos so I bypassed those. But there are some rather silly ones, like the Disco’s Dead shirt above, that I just had to use – this one was made for Doug by his mom, in one of those old tee-shirt shops that were all the rage back in the 70s and 80s – does anyone else remember those shops? Most of them were in malls, and you could go in there and choose whatever type of shirt you wanted, and have the shirt say whatever you wanted it to say, in whatever style of lettering you wanted. They also had all sorts of decals and iron-on transfers you could utilize. In the days before the internet, all of those choices and options for personalization were a BIG deal. Who didn’t go into one of these shops at least once and get matching “so-and-so’s best friend” tee shirts with a buddy? I searched Google looking for a photo of one of these places, but the search terms were just too broad – but how I remember walking into those stores with their decal samples plastered all over the walls, and that acrid smell of slightly-singed iron-on-transfers from the big press-iron (not sure that’s a word, but it is descriptive) they would use to steam the letters and decals onto your tee. Ah, memories…moving on.

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The flip side of the “Disco’s Dead” shirt. Notice the apostrophe is on the wrong side of the N.

This shirt was made for Doug by his mom – and I just love it because it’s a great example of a mom trying to be cool and failing miserably. No actual teenage boy would have worn this shirt, even in the 70s, which is why it’s still in pristine condition. But hey – how could Mom have known that 30 years later her daughter-in-law would fall in love with it and use it in her photos? It’s absolutely awesome for pictures.

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This was a band shirt from when Doug played the tuba in high school. It was actually was worn repeatedly, and was pretty threadbare. This is the back side of it; the front has the school band’s logo on it, and apparently there were three tuba players who all got some phrase added onto the back that described them in a private-joke, you-had-to-be-there kind of way (those were always the best shirts back then). Unfortunately, I hated every single photo I took in this shirt; I’m not sure why, exactly, but I think it had to do with my color settings being off and wearing a wig that just didn’t work with the shirt. That’s why these are so over-edited; I kept trying to make them work when they didn’t. I hate both of them, which is sad, because this was the shirt I was most looking forward to photographing. I may try again with a different approach later, because in spite of my best efforts I never got anything out of these shots that I liked.

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I loved this one though; this is a baseball tee from a team Doug was on in fifth grade – it fit me, but just barely; I had a bitch of time getting it on, and was concerned I wouldn’t be able to get back out of it, but I managed. Isn’t it weird how some shots from the same photo session can be so good while others (the I’m Confused ones) suck so badly? I get that the outfit and hair are totally different, but the lighting was the same, as was the makeup I wore. The only difference in that regard was the aforementioned camera settings, which I know was part of the problem, but at the same time – how can it have made that much of a difference? I’ve had this happen before; since I usually do at least two major costume changes when I shoot, there will always be outfits that turn out better than others, but usually I can salvage something even from a costume change that doesn’t yield great results. But every once in a while I’ll come across something I put together that completely and utterly fails – and often when that happens, there will be other outfits from the same shoot that I think are some of my best. I go back over those ‘bad’ shots time and time again to analyze them and figure out the secret to their lack of success, but it still eludes me.

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I intended to look like a really burned-out groupie in this shot, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to make myself look good. Sue me. 

I think it might have something to do with interest on some level – most outfits I put together have some detail that takes it out of the realm of just a head shot into something more interesting; it could be a detail of the clothing, or the colors in the fabric, or the movement of either the hair or the clothing. Sometimes it’s actually the makeup that does it, if I really went out of my way to do something different, or sometimes I get all the colors working together so well that it unifies the shots.

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Interesting eye makeup and a wig with great movement saved these, for example, from being boring

In the shots that fail, I do get the sense that at least one of those elements is off, but usually it’s a combination of them that knocks something down. If the wig is short and boring and doesn’t have any movement to it, usually the clothing will, or perhaps the hair is in a really interesting color that makes it work anyway even if it’s short. But sometimes a wig is longer and just doesn’t move well, or something about the makeup is so off it ruins things (I’ve noticed some of the more pastel-colored lipsticks I wear at times tend to look ‘off’ on me, for example). Believe it or not, I can still vividly remember shoots from years ago where I didn’t get one good shot out of a costume – those shots haunt me, and I keep going back to them and trying to find some way to make them work, especially after buying new editing software, because I think maybe that new tool will be the one that makes those bad shots work in the end. But so far, that’s not happened. Oh well.

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Some older shots I’ve revisited this month, after buying some new software and thinking maybe it would make them work. It didn’t. I still don’t like any of them.

I’ve gotten a bit bored with posing for and editing portraits again, also, so I may back off of them for a while. I’ve gotten spoiled, though, by the relative ease of posing for them as opposed to full-length shots, however – so I’ve taken to trolling more old sets for movement and motion shots to play around with rather than putting myself through the motions for taking new ones.

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I’m trying to play around with processing to get more comfortable really mucking things up; in spite of all the experimenting I already do, I have fallen into a big old rut of editing photos the same old way – mostly because I have gotten so used to doing what I know ‘works’ that I don’t think outside of my own little box; for example, I love using the PortraitPro software for my portrait work, but I know that it works best when faces are looking directly into the camera, so I’ve started to limit myself to posing as dead-center as possible. This makes using the PP program easier, but it also gets boring, so at some point I need to lessen my attachment to always using it if I want to keep my photos feeling fresh.

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The bubbles are from a fairly new editing program I purchased; it’s a kind of cheesy effect but in order to break out of my rut I’m forcing myself to be comfortable with cheesy-ness.

I also have established a sort of routine when editing, even though it’s not something I’ve done intentionally, so working with older photos like this gives me a chance to break out of that mold as well; purposely changing up my workflow to see if it gives me different results. It’s all a little uncomfortable for me, and a lot of the results I don’t particularly like, but I feel like I need to do it at this point just to shake things up.

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I also decided to work with some blurry shots for the hell of it. 

On the work front, summer has been pretty busy; as I’ve mentioned before, none of my clients stopped working with me over the summer and I picked up a few more, so my June calendar was particularly full. But one of my clients took the whole month of July off, and another one has taken a week off here and there as well; I just found out last Thursday that another client isn’t continuing with me for the coming school year, and one of my academic coaching clients finishes up his program next Monday. So, all of a sudden I am looking around and realizing my dance card has gotten thin again, and it may be time to make some noise to drum up some new business as we move into the fall semester. This doesn’t concern me as much as it did last year; I did recently hear that a client I’ve been working with for the summer is going to continue with me in the fall so that’s nice, and besides, I’m just not all that nervous about having to advertise or network a little for business like I was last year. That said, I really want to get the academic coaching aspect of my business up and running – especially now that I’ve actually done it a few times and feel confident that I can coach kids successfully – so in order to move that along, I decided to head on over to Vistaprint and create a brochure I can leave at libraries and other places I think I can generate some interest.

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This is a proof of what I’ve put together so far; Vistaprint has some really easy to work with templates and really decent prices (100 for $60); I’ve sent this to some friends to review before I place an order, but I really want to get some in-hand before I finish up my work with the coaching client I have now, so I can give some to his mom to hand out to other people if she’s willing. I also want to make up a postcard similar to this one to promote my English tutoring business and leave those at the same places I put my coaching brochures. I probably need to update my website, too, since it’s been a year since I put it together and I didn’t really know what my business was going to look like back then. It’s pretty astounding to look back at where I was a year ago with all this and how far things have come.

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I had lunch last week with one of the teachers who worked with me in the program I ran at the private school, and I admit it was validating to have it confirmed for me that things did not exactly improve after I left. In fact, the general sense is that the people who stayed behind at least realize how hard I worked and understand that I had good ideas that would have benefited the program had I been able to stay on. I don’t think anyone feels that the arrangement the school made with current director was the proper one to make, and even though it doesn’t matter to me either way now, it’s still nice to hear that there are at least a few people there who understood and supported what I wanted to do. Moving on.

That’s all I have for now – happy end of the weekend to everyone, and I hope you all have a great week!

 

Makeup Work

Before I talk about my latest portrait sessions, enjoy a random shot of Simon:

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Simon likes to sit on this teeny little cat tower we bought for Violet when she was a kitty. It only has one little ‘bridge’ at the bottom but I Photoshopped in a second one for symmetry. 

I hadn’t been much in the mood for portraits the past few months, but two weeks ago I woke with the urge to put on a full face and play around. Ever since discovering the Portrait Pro plug-in about a year ago, I’ve gotten a bit lazy with my makeup application before a shoot, just because I can add so much of it when processing that it at least feels like it saves me a lot of time (applying a full face of photography makeup can take up to two hours). But in going over many of these shoots, I found myself getting frustrated with the limitations of the software, and how my end results just weren’t as good as I wanted them to be. More specifically, I was feeling like my recent portraits were not as good as they used to be, and I looked everywhere to find the culprit, thinking it was primarily some issue with my lighting that was off.

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The primary problem I was having with these portraits was skin tone; even with the editing software I kept ending up looking kind of ruddy and ‘off’ or over-processed when trying to correct it, and the tones just weren’t very rich in the end, and it was throwing off the whole photo (in my picky opinion). But I would go back to previous shoots and clearly see how much more vivid and rich the shots looked in the end, and how much more natural the shots ended up even with a ton of processing. I didn’t really know the makeup short cuts I was taking were the culprit when I set out to do apply a full face a few weeks ago, but once those shots were done the results were obvious.

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All these shots were so much easier to edit, and I had way more flexibility in how much manipulation I could do with the tones and lighting. And a lot of that came down to not needing to edit the makeup as much as I’ve been forcing myself to do lately. A “full face” for me is no joke – I start with an orange color corrector to cut the darker blue tones I have due to sun damage on my face (drag queens use orange to help conceal their five o’clock shadows) then apply a heavy Derma-blend foundation, and three different highlighters over the forehead, nose, and cheekbones (Derma-blend, NARS Illuminator, and a MAC cream highlighter). After blending all of that out with a sponge, I contour with a powder from MAC under my cheekbones, along the sides of my nose, and heavy on my chin to try to make it look a little shorter since I have a long face. I also apply a lot of highlighter under my cheekbones just to make them look more pronounced – I think you can see the effect of that in this shot:

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This was inspired by a photo the drag queen Trinity Taylor posted on Twitter; she had on a brightly printed top, cinnamon-colored hair, and orange lipstick, and I wanted to give it a go myself. 

Because my makeup takes so long to do if I’m really going to do it properly, I’ve started applying it in shifts when prepping for a photoshoot. If I do it all at once, by the time I’m done I am already so bored that I have to re-energize myself to take the pictures, and I also start getting really sloppy by the end of the application process. So, what I now do is get all the foundation and highlight/contour applied, then take a break. I may do a few things to set up the office/studio, like set up my lights or get the backdrops unfolded and propped against the wall, or take the dogs out for a bathroom break – just something to break up the monotony of staring into a mirror and applying makeup.

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The eyes take the most work for me; I’ve always known to apply a lot of black eyeliner and shadow, and to darken my eyebrows as much as I dare (even when being lazy and not applying a full face), but one thing I hit on last month was that applying a brightly colored liquid liner to my entire eyelid makes my lids pop in a way they don’t do otherwise; since I’m approaching 50, my lids are starting to droop, and they were never very big anyway, so they tend to disappear in photos. In my first of the two shoots, I’d applied a lime green liquid liner made by Lime Crime, and you can see how it really made my eyelids stand out in a way that, in the photos, actually looks pretty natural (in reality it looked very heavy-handed and costume-y, but who cares).

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The trick is to apply it to the entire lid, and then extend it a bit higher than that, so that if your eyelids get concealed a little bit by less-than-taut skin, they will still pop on camera (obviously the Trinity Taylor-inspired pic is from a different session, where I went with a different eye makeup look and didn’t use this technique). It’s amazing how much difference such a little detail makes in a photo, but it really does help quite a bit. In fact, my Lime Crime neon liquid liners are really old, and I need to dash over to their website and pick up some more since the ones I have (a neon green, a bright eggshell blue, and two shimmer liners in gold and silver) are almost done.

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For this shoot, I also used some more of my face stickers I bought around Christmas last year; the nice thing is that you can wear them in the shoots and Photoshop them out quite easily if you decide you don’t want them in the shot later. 

Other than that, I sometimes use the tape technique of placing a piece of Scotch tape on the outside of each eye, from the outside corner of the eye up to the edge of the eyebrow, to get a nice sweep of eyeshadow that is even on each side; this works well when creating a cat-eye shape with dark liners and shadows, which I usually do. And false eyelashes are really amazing eye enhancers, but I just cannot apply them properly or tolerate the lash glue, so I do add all my lashes using Portrait Pro (I apply mascara as usual, but in photos it just doesn’t show up at all). I tried blocking my brows to create a more exaggerated eye one time, but ended up losing a lot of eyebrow hairs in the process (and I already have thin brows) so I don’t do that anymore – if I want a higher brow line, I move my natural brows up in Photoshop instead, as in this picture:

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Sweaters are tricky for photos; they’re hot, which is a challenge under studio lighting, and the fabrics can look dull and heavy. But this one had sparkle and those two great zippers that I thought would add interest. 

After applying my eyes, I’m usually ready for another break, so I eat some lunch or maybe start some laundry and finish setting up my camera and props for the shoot. For some reason, working in shifts like this keeps me from getting impatient and frustrated, and it sets a more relaxed mood for the whole shoot (I can start to feel rushed if I don’t pace myself, and I’ve learned the hard way that bad things happen when the photographer AND the model get rushed. At the best, you just end up with  bad pictures, but at the worst you end up getting sloppy when moving about or handling equipment, and something expensive gets broken).

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This top was a fun discovery; in Goodwill I just liked the look of the polka dotted top peeking out from under the black sweater, but when I got home and put it on I was pleasantly surprised by the sleeves! They’re actually quite puffy and it creates an interesting shape; I had to get really creative with my posing to show them off, which happens sometimes when interesting sleeves are involved. Honestly, if this top wasn’t already worn out I’d add to my wardrobe – the sweater is dingy and pilled, though. 

For final makeup touches, I apply one of Laura Mercier’s sparkly powders in all the highlighted areas (you really can’t get enough highlighter, it’s true), apply some blush in both cream and powder form, do my best to contour my nose and jaw line, and apply my lips as best as possible – I’m not good with drawing on bigger lips, and I usually use a liquid long-wearing lipstick for photo sessions, so I just use the wand to apply a line right outside my lip line, then fill that in. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but even when it works I usually end up having to fix some sloppy lipstick work later. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to fix. Then – and this is really important – I apply Derma-blend to my neck, chest, and arms; I have a lot of sun damage that, if it shows up in photos, is very hard to work with. There’s a million different tones to it, and dark spots, and all that skin ends up not matching my face or even some other part of the neck or chest. The Derma-blend is so high coverage, though, that it evens things out nicely, and makes those sun damaged areas much easier to work with later.

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The wig is actually a magenta color; had to use Photoshop to turn it red. I did a better job with that in the second shot; it’s actually tricky to do without also turning the background a different color around all the little flyaway hairs. 

The second shoot – the one these two photos right above came from – was a bit tricky because I got half of my makeup on, then remembered I needed to pick up some medications from the vet before they closed (it was a Saturday, so the vet’s office closed at noon). I only had my foundation on at that point, so even though it irritated me to do it, I put everything on pause to zoom up there and get Penny’s meds. Then, since I was out already, I figured I’d stop by our local Goodwill to see if they had any tops I could snag; I woke up inspired to play in makeup and take pictures, but I was running a little low on new things to wear in them, which is another thing that always ends up frustrating. Sometimes I’ll think, oh I can just throw on any old thing for these photos, since it’s only my head and shoulders showing anyway, but that rarely works out.

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Overalls are great, though. As are pom-pom headbands. 

The truth is, interesting tops are super-helpful for portrait shots, and way more important than you might think. A t-shirt doesn’t have a nice drape to it, and that material isn’t particularly attractive in a photo, so a sloppy top really can bring down an otherwise nice shot. When I hit up Goodwill, I’m always looking for tops with interest – high necks, textured materials, interesting details, flowy fabrics, vibrant prints, anything I know will add pizzazz – and on this trip I scored some real winners. The Hotrod Angel photo has to be the best acquisition, though; if you notice in those two shots above, one side is the front of the top, and the other one I have on backwards where there was another awesome logo (wearing tops backwards is a trick I employ often, if the back has more interest than the front). I didn’t even realize the back of that top had anything on it until I got home; as soon as I saw the front of it I knew I had to have it. It was a junior’s size small, though, and I barely got it on, and I even thought I might have to cut myself out of it, but it stretched just enough for me to save it.

So much more to process from these two shoots, but that’s all I have for now. So what have I learned? Patience, and planning, and proper preparation make for better photos. Seems I should have known that already, but shortcuts are always so tempting…more to come!

 

June Landing

I mentioned in my last post that I was headed out for my yearly visit to the Villa de Matel Ruah Center in Houston. I’ve written a lot about the place, so I won’t go on about it this time except to share how this most recent visit went. And to share some pictures:

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I brought along my Canon SL1 and my Sony camcorder for the hell of it – I didn’t use either one much, because I’ve taken so many photos of the place over the years I hardly needed more. However, I did spend time taking a lot of photos of the interior of the chapel, rather than just the usual quick pics I’ve done in the past. I asked my advisor if it was actually OK to go in and take a ton of pics, and she said it was – she also told me where I could find the light switches to turn all the lights on in there, since they are normally left off unless there’s an event happening. I was still too timid to turn them on myself, but I when I went in there to take photos someone was cleaning it, and they turned the lights on for me when they saw I was taking pictures, which was nice. I’d already taken a ton of photos before they turned the lights on, which also turned out to be great because taking photos of the chapel in low light turned out some nice results too – just very different ones from the photos taken with the lights on.

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A low light shot

I went to Ruah this time with a specific purpose, which was to re-focus on my tutoring job and decide whether or not to continue pursuing it or if I should just get a full-time teaching or counseling job in the public school system again. This whole past year, I was basically tutoring because it wasn’t a lot of work and it provided me a lot of time off, which was what I wanted. But lately that’s been feeling unsatisfactory. First of all, whether I like it or not I am getting more clients, and the more kids I get the more work I need to do to stay on top of all their different needs. This is something I wasn’t doing a good job of before going to Ruah, and I knew if I was going to keep tutoring I needed to really commit to it and start taking it seriously. What I decided in my time there was that yes, I do want to keep working for myself as a tutor, and that it was time for me to start putting in the work hours required to do the job properly. Once I realized that I was really on board with this whole thing, and really did want tutoring to be my ‘real job,’ I was able to come back home and attack it with the energy it needs, which has been nice.

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One of my low-light creations

I also wanted to dedicate myself once again to eating properly and being more healthy. As a result, I signed up for both yoga classes and a workout/bootcamp class. I need the yoga to stay flexible, and am not interested in anything super-challenging, but the boot camp I really need to get myself back into shape. I am taking the classes with a woman who’s been my trainer off and on for well over 10 years now, so it was nice to see her again and catch up. And as an added bonus, the yoga teacher at the class I attended last week was a former teacher at one of the public schools where I used to work, so I got to catch with her as well.

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I really hit the ground running the week I returned; summer tutoring is a lot different from the work I do during the school year, because my students are all off for the summer (with one exception, a student who is voluntarily taking English III during the summer to free up his schedule in the fall) and therefore do not have class work for me to help them with when I tutor them. So, I am having to create lessons for everybody, and when you tutor seven different kids in seven different grades attending seven different schools, it’s kind of like being a classroom teacher and having seven different classes to prep for. Except I am only planning for one hour a week. But still, as I take on more of a workload, the more planning I need to do, and I admit I’m still getting used to doing what almost feels like a full-time job again.

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My little fifth-grade student, however, failed her state exam again, and after working with me since February and failing the test twice, I told the mom I felt it was time for her to work with a different tutor, since clearly I was not helping her. I found her a reading specialist, and now that girl is working with her to get her caught up. The lesson I needed to learn there was to be much more cognizant of how my students are faring during our sessions, and speak up if I feel I’m not much help rather than sucking it up and trying to keep improving things. I don’t like to admit defeat, and it feels terrible to have to say to someone, sorry, but I don’t think I can help your child, but to not say it is worse in the end. I didn’t intentionally hang onto her too long, I just didn’t know any better than to keep trying, but still, I should have bowed out sooner than I did. Lesson learned.
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For a lot of time while I was at Ruah, I felt restless and unfocused, so in the end it’s surprising I got as much out of the visit as I did. There were plenty of distractions – the constant political news on Twitter, the knowledge of how much work I had to do after I left, and concern over another student who didn’t end the school year on a good note, just to name a few. And on top of that, my room this time was one of those  really creaky old rooms that makes a lot of noise, which kept my up my first night there; every time I was about to fall asleep a window would pop or a board would creak and I’d be awake again; after the first night I was used to it, but a creaky room in a 150-year-old building can be pretty freaky at 3 AM when one isn’t prepared for that. And I wasn’t, because usually I sleep like a baby when I’m there.  But by the time I left, I really did feel like I’d gotten past whatever barrier was holding me back from committing to my  new job, so Ruah worked it’s magic on me once again.

I did try to take some video of the center while I was there, and one thing is for sure: I am not a videographer. Still, I tried  to capture a bit of the sights and sounds of the center, so I’ll leave it to you to decide if I accomplished that or not.

So anyway, I’m back home now, and busier than ever, which I think is a good thing, even though it’s freaking me out a bit for life to be a little hectic when it hasn’t been for so long. But I was stressed enough when I was worrying all the time that I’d never be  busy again, so I’ll take it.

Meditation Station

I’m on my way back to Ruah tomorrow at the Villa de Matel, and am very much looking forward to another week of solitude and reflection. My visits there are hit or miss, as some of my previous blog posts can attest, but usually when I go during the work week and at the start of summer the retreat center is pretty empty, and I can have the place more or less to myself. I’ll share a few new portraits here as I ramble – haven’t had any new ones to upload in a while.

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I’m sure that a lot of my time at Ruah this year will be spent reflecting on where I was last year at this time, when I went for my summer visit a mere few weeks after I quit my job. At the time I was so sad, and broken, and frightened about the future that it dominated all the reading, writing, and reflecting when I was there (both times – last year I went in both June and July). I plan to take the old notebooks I was writing in then to look them over and see how far I’ve come, as well as make some plans for the coming year (as a teacher, I still measure my ‘years’ in relation to the school year, so June 1st is more of a “new year” to me than January 1st is). I know I am ready to grow my business a bit more, as well as try to utilize all my free time better in various ways I’ll get into in a moment.

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But first, my business. Along with English tutoring, I decided last summer to offer my services as an Academic Coach to middle and high school students. I figured I could use my school counseling background to help kids with low motivation or organizational skills much in the manner I did when I worked as a mentor at the private school. At first, I started offering this service on my own, but I found it wasn’t going so well, so I decided to take a course to get some structure I could follow. I signed up for an Academic Coaching training class, and since I did it in haste as I was already coaching a kiddo and feeling lost, I didn’t pay too much attention to the details (bad, I know) and was shocked to find out, during the first session, that the course was six months long. Yikes. I figured it would be six weeks at the most, but nope. Six solid months of a two-hour class, online, once a week. During these sessions, we’d discuss the week’s concept for about an hour, then spend the next hour  ‘practice coaching’ each other. I admit to finding most of this boring and tedious, and at most times not very useful – but then again, I never really gave it my full attention. For the most part, I would keep the camera on my webcam turned off so I could edit photos or scan Twitter for the first hour when the discussion was going on, then wing my way through the practice coaching the best I could.

I’ve never found practice coaching other students all that useful (in grad school, we had to practice our counseling techniques on each other also) because you’re working with someone who is obviously going to totally cooperate with you every step of the way, and make things easy. This does not translate to real life very well, and sure enough, I’ve already had problems outside of class that never came up much in the training. Then, when I try to ask someone who was either in my class as a student or who is affiliated with the program as an instructor, they all act totally surprised that I’m having issues, which leads me to believe that they either a) are not actually coaching and therefore can’t help me, or b) they are totally having the same problems and just don’t want to admit it. In the case of the other students, I think most of them actually haven’t gone on to coach at all, or are working with adults or college students who have a lot more investment in following through. In the case of the instructors, I’m becoming more and more convinced that they don’t actually coach much at all, and make their money by training other coaches instead. Whatever. In short, I’m not sure how well this whole coaching aspect of my business is even going to work; it’s not going as well as I want it to right now, and I am kinda feeling like the course I took was a ripoff that I should have investigated more closely before even pursuing. Oh well, what’s done is done, and I always have the English tutoring to fall back on, which is going quite well.

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One of my other goals for the year is something I make a goal every year and have yet to actually do – I really, really need to be a healthier person. As it is, I get back pains and body aches and stiff joints regularly, sometimes to the point of needing medication or bed rest, and it’s really for no apparent reason at all, other than being stiff and out of shape and therefore pulling muscles by sneezing or walking up some stairs. I’ve always had bad knees – runs in the family – and my right one is getting worse, so much so that I have a hard time getting up off the floor when I need to and it sometimes just gives out on me out of nowhere. I have sciatica that acts up, and the ever-present right arm/wrist/shoulder pain from too much time at the computer, and on and on – you get the idea. Oh, and my diet is utter crap. So, with all the free time I now have, I really have no excuse not to take a yoga class to improve my flexibility, and perhaps some of sort strength training class to get myself back into decent shape. And I must learn how to cook some decent, healthy meals, and stop with all the processed junk I currently consume. So I am going to spend some time at Ruah reflecting on all of this also, and coming up with a plan for how to do it. As I watch my parents grow old – especially my mom, who is not healthy and (like me) never has been – it reminds me how quickly so many years of not exercising and eating right can sneak up on you and steal you of your health, and with so many people in this life who suffer from real, serious health issues, it would be a real shame for me to squander my relatively illness-free existence in my later years by refusing to get it together. The rubber has hit the road, so to speak, and it’s time for me to move forward.

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So that’s where my thoughts will be this week, then it’s back to it when I get home next Saturday to fill out my summer tutoring schedule and start planning for June and July. This will be the first summer since the year 2000 that I’ve actually continued to work, but I’m not too bothered by that, because as long as I can stay up late and sleep in I still feel like I’m on vacation, so I’ve basically been on vacation all year. But I do love my trips to Ruah, where I really and truly feel like I don’t have to do ANYTHING at all. It’s what the place is made for. I do plan to bring along a camera, although at this point there’s nothing new for me to photograph there, and I’m going to try to remember to bring my video camera too; I’ve always wanted to film a little walking tour of the grounds, but have never been able to pull it off for various reasons. We’ll see if it works this time.

Have a great week!

Mansion Mention

As I stated in a previous post, I had yet to post any photos of the 1890’s Davis Victorian Mansion from my trip to the George Ranch Historical Park – so, here they are!

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Still not sure this would qualify as a “mansion” by today’s standards, but for time period and the location, this certainly was one fancy structure. Many of the buildings on this ranch were originally located several miles away in Richmond, TX where I live, but were moved as the town started to develop and grow in the 1970’s. I can’t recall for certain if this was one of the ones that got moved, but I’m pretty sure it was. It took three days to move the buildings, because they had to wait until late at night when they could shut down the traffic on the farm roads to get it moving.

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Th city of Richmond has a historical area where our city hall is, so buildings like this are a pretty familiar site out here. But this one has been restored to it’s original floor plans and decor, which makes it unique. Some of the houses in Richmond like this are residential, but many of them have been converted into businesses like law offices or tea rooms and museums.

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As some of the international tourists who were on the first tour I followed pointed out, the US doesn’t have the sort of ancient history you’re going to see elsewhere around the globe – and Texas has even less history preserved than most states. Texas doesn’t seem to have much tolerance for old buildings, for some reason, and tends to tear them down in order to replace them with a ton of concrete and glass. Perhaps that’s why we get so excited over any building that’s over 80 years old around these parts.

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The interior of the mansion was tricky to photograph, since I couldn’t get full shots of the fairly small rooms, but I did my best. There were a lot of lovely floral arrangements and place settings around, as you can see – even if all the flowers were fake. Easier to maintain I guess when all you have to do is dust them off!

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All the rooms were roped off as well, so I could only get a few decent angles to shoot from in each room. And since I was so focused on taking pictures, I didn’t pay much attention to what the guide was saying about the house, but it was mostly the usual stuff about how people were expected to behave and how a mansion like this functioned at the time.

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While the Polly Ryon home had no air conditioning and had all the windows open to keep the place cool (which didn’t work very well), this place fortunately had been updated with AC. Otherwise it would have been sweltering – and the Ryon home made me terribly nervous to wander around in due to all the  wasps that had gotten inside and were flying around everywhere. Sadly, I am terrified of insects – unfortunate, since Texas is known for having some real doozies when it comes to critters.

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There was also a family cemetery outside; the first time I visited it was closed off, and we couldn’t get in to look at the stones. But on my second visit, there were some employees in there cleaning things up, so I got to wander in and snap some pictures. I haven’t processed any of them yet, and I may not ever do so since in the end they were kind of boring, but I did a decent shot of the entire plot that would have been perfect if there hadn’t been that one woman in the shot who was not in costume. Oh well. From this distance, you probably can’t tell that the other guy was in costume anyway.

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And lastly, here’s a lovely shot of a very old tree; I just liked how it was framed by the front porch pillars. You’re welcome.

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I know this wasn’t a very informative post, but I’ve said so much about my visits to this park already that I’m out of ideas. Hopefully the pretty pictures will be enough!

 

Park Pics Part 2

As mentioned previously, I went back to finish up my trip through the George Ranch Historical Park two weeks ago. This is in no way the extent of the photos I took during both visits, but it’s what I have processed for now.

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The prospector telling tales outside his shack

The first time I went, I piggybacked onto a decent-sized group of tourists through as much of the tour as I had to time to attend; on my second trip, there were two elementary schools holding field trips, but no big groups of visitors for me to follow around. This didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but it did make parts of the tour a bit awkward.

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In theory I like this photo of a gardener sweeping up around these benched statue-people, but the composition itself annoys me. But you can see, in the upper left side of the shot, the edge of a really nice tree house that looks over this part of the property. 

At every stop of the tour, there are employees on site, dressed in the attire of the times, ready and waiting to tell stories and answer questions. When I wandered from site to site with a fairly large group of people, there was always a crowd willing to sit and listen to all of this, which left me free to wander around and snap photos without being bothered. The question and answer sessions also slowed the whole tour down, so I had plenty of time to snap all the pictures I wanted.

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Kitchen scene from the 1930s Ranch House, one of two large houses on the property you can only walk through on a guided tour. 

It was a different scene when I went back the second time and was the only person showing up on the employees’ doorstep. Especially in the two big houses, the guides were really rushed, and even seemed a bit put out at having to stop whatever else it was they were doing to walk this one person through the rooms and rattle off their well-memorized spiel. When there’s only one of you, and you’re clearly not interested in asking questions, the tour moves along at a fast, awkward clip, I don’t mind telling you.

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Chandelier at the 1930s Ranch House

Also awkward to me, for some reason: probably due to the lack of distractions, I was able to notice this time around that there weren’t really that many employees monitoring and working the sites; therefore, someone you encountered at one location might also pop up somewhere else an hour later, to walk and talk you through some other park site. I’m not sure why this felt weird to me; perhaps because I wasn’t in the mood to be chatty so running into the same person you’d been fairly disinterested in talking to an hour before somewhere else, and having to pretend to want to talk to them again, made the whole experience a little awkward.

GR26

For example, the cowgirl in the blue shirt here was rounding up cattle for the elementary schools to watch at 10 AM, and at noon she was my tour guide through the 1930s mansion. For some reason, this dampened some of the magic for me. It didn’t help that I was sitting on the porch of the mansion, patiently waiting for the next tour to start at 12:30, but she rather hurriedly busted open the door at 12:15 and asked if I want to view the house. I felt a bit like a nosy neighbor showing up uninvited on her doorstep and looking for gossip.

GR30

I’m not sure what this little house is for; it has window units on the side so the park uses it for something, but it wasn’t a part of the tour. Maintenance shed, probably. I peeked in the windows as best I could, but I couldn’t see much.

Then again, it could be they were short of tour guides on this day due to the elementary school kids that were galloping their way around the park. I saw one of the women who’d been sitting in a chair telling stories inside the Ryon Prairie Home on my last visit leading a huge group of fifth-graders up the walk to the Davis Victorian Complex; she was wearing the same long skirt and bonnet she’d had on the previous Tuesday, and it was pretty warm and humid outside – she looked hot, and grumpy, and I can’t much say I blame her for that!

GR8

Remember her? She was not smiling this time. 

There were also alligators everywhere.  There are several creeks that run through the park, some of them quite wide and full, and gators were all in the water and even sunning themselves on the shore. I started out walking the tour this time instead of riding the tram, but I admit I got pretty nervous crossing the first creek bridge and seeing a huge, fat gator hanging out right at the edge of where the creek met the bridge. Alligators do not hunt humans and don’t see us as food; they hunt creatures that walk on all fours, so unless you bring yourself down to their level by crouching down, or for some reason decide to start crawling in their presence, you’re generally safe (your kids or your pets might be a different story, though, and of course this is all assuming that you are going to walk past them when you see them and not actually approach the hungry bastards). However, generally safe doesn’t mean entirely safe, so after my first close encounter I decided I would be riding the tram across the creeks from that point forward. As such, I got no photos of the gators: I tried, but I was too intimidated (i.e., terrified) to really stop and get a good shot, and they came out blurry.

GR27

Windows inside the prospector’s shack; the sky and airplane in the distance are totally fake. In reality, they were just dirty windows looking out over some brush. 

I also tried to take some video of the park while riding the tram, but the roads are gravel and the tram is pulled by a tractor, so it was all way too shaky to be of any use. My videographer skills, once again, were lacking.

GR28

Post and pans in the prospector’s shack. Another fake sky.

As it turned out, I hadn’t missed as much of the park the first time as I’d thought anyway. There was the other big house to tour, and in the end it wasn’t all that thrilling. It was amusing to hear the guide try to make the details sound like something awesome though; the house was built in the 1930s, so it wasn’t all that unique from loads of other old houses in the area, except for the fact that it’s a lot bigger than most. So, the tour guide kept having to point out things like all the Texas-themed ceramic doodads and geegaws  the owner of the house loved to collect – wee little cowboy boots and longhorns and shit you could go into any antique or resale store in Texas and buy by the boatload for five bucks each (although I’m sure the ones in the house were more expensive). Again, the guide on this part of the tour was rushed, and probably tired from roping cattle all morning in front of squealing sixth graders, and who knows, maybe she was either messing with me or making things up because she actually never gave the tour and didn’t know any of the interesting stories. But whatever – hey, look at that ceramic goat! Isn’t that cool?

GR31

A scene from the stables; I don’t actually have any photos of ceramic goats.

There was one stop I really enjoyed though; the blacksmith’s shop. There was one kid working inside when I wandered over, and he was not only knowledgeable about what he was doing, I could tell he really enjoyed doing it and loved talking about it, so I didn’t at all feel like I was intruding upon his time. Not only that, but I didn’t feel much need to ask questions or struggle to make conversation; he just kept happily talking away about the history of the blacksmith shop and how they used to make things vs. how they make them now (they try to do everything as authentically as possible, but some of that authenticity would be either dangerous or cruel in the Texas heat, so adjustments have been made).

GR22

This guy’s hands caught my attention right away; they were perfectly grimy and he had really long fingers that he kept using to point at this and touch that; I took a ton of shots of his hands while he yammered on, but the one above was my favorite.

GR23

See what I mean? Great hands!

Here he was explaining something to me about this anvil that I no longer remember. The chalk line is important for some reason. That’s all I’ve got for you, sorry. It was something to do with the weight of it; there were three anvils on the site and he was explaining to me what was unique about each one. I’d be a terrible tour guide, wouldn’t I? Where are the ceramic goats again?

GR24

This is metal and it is hot. Now give me ten bucks for the tour!

Although these two posts have at least touched on each part of the park I visited – except, I just realized, for the 1830s Victorian Mansion, which is probably the biggest stop on the whole tour, oops – I still have a ton more to process when I have the time. But I think I’ve covered everything now (sans mansion), even if only briefly.

To be honest, my favorite parts of the tour were riding around in the tram just watching the park roll by, and sitting on the big wrap-around porch of the Victorian mansion, waiting for the tour to start and feeling the breeze while looking out over these huge, hundred-year-old oak trees and listening to the cows and cicadas. I didn’t grow up on a mansion, but growing up in Texas I’ve still spent a fair amount of time riding around in tractors (even though they weren’t doing tractor-stuff at the time) or sitting on old front porches listening to the sounds of cows and bugs and begging for a breeze; I don’t think anyone else on the tour with me (the day I had company) was able to just sit there and feel nostalgic like I was, but also, when it comes to what constitutes a nice day for me it always has more to do with sitting and listening and being still than it does touring things and talking to people. It left me with a feeling of wanting to go back just to sit on the porch and stare for a while, but in the end this isn’t that sort of place; you can’t sit on a porch there too long without someone coming along and either shuffling you inside or sending you on your way. And although I did have a nice long chat about alligators with the tram driver when I hopped on and told him I just wanted to ride with him while he made his rounds, I felt I would have worn out my welcome had I asked to be a passenger a second time.

So, this was a cool enough place to visit once, and I got a lot of nice photos to work with while I was there, but it’s not somewhere I’ll be going back to anytime soon. Speaking of going back, it is time for my yearly summer visit to the Ruah Center at the Villa de Matel, which I am very much looking forward to; perhaps it is that impending visit that is making me long for a place I can just stop and sit and be still and listen; I do always start to crave that this time of year.

Ranch Dressing

First of all, thanks to everyone who offered feedback on my previous post about dealing with asshole neighbors. I decided to take down the post, though, since our situation with them is ongoing and well, you never know. So for anyone wondering what happened to it, that’s what happened. Moving on.

GR1

My self-portrait-taking manic phase ended as suddenly as it overtook me; one day I set up the camera to take photos and felt bored halfway through, and that was that. I also became interested in taking more shots outdoors after processing the photos from my niece’s prom and enjoying playing around with the light and color in them, but taking self-portraits outside has always been complicated for me, so last week I decided to just focus on taking pictures of things outside other than myself, and made a last-minute decision to visit the George Ranch Historical Park, which is about 10 miles from my house, and bring my camera with me.

GR2Heavily edited; I might as well just admit that the sky in all of these shots is fake. In reality it was grey and cloudy out, and also high noon

I’d never visited, even though I’ve lived out here for 17 years, and in thinking about where to go take photos I landed on this park because I knew there would be volunteers there working the farm in character, and I figured I could get some interesting portraits. Being primarily a studio shooter who doesn’t venture out much with her camera, I also figured taking photos at a park like this would be more comfortable for me than going somewhere photographers aren’t already expected to be wandering around snapping pictures of everything that moved; I still tend to get self-conscious and/or nervous street shooting because I don’t want to offend or upset anyone by taking photos. I did get some good portrait shots, but I didn’t expect to enjoy the park as much as I did, or to photograph as many other things as I did, or for the park to be as HUGE as it was (20,000 acres, to be exact). In fact, I only got halfway through the park before I had to turn around and go home, since my phone had quit working and I knew Doug would be getting worried having not heard from me for several hours, and I had errands to run later in the day.

GR6

The ranch has several historic sites on the grounds, spanning from the 1830’s through the 1930s, and focusing on several different families who were key to developing the area. At the majority of these sites, visitors can walk around freely, talk to the ‘interpreters’ who are really volunteers/actors dressing, working, and living as they would have during the time period – to walk the entire path linking all these sites together covers about a mile.

GR5

I went by myself, but there were three other groups of people who arrived around the same time I did (all three groups were, interestingly, in groups of three), so I basically wandered the park alongside this big group of people. One group was from Italy, another was from France, and the other one was from Illinois – I was the only local out and about that day. I started out walking the trail on my own, but this is Texas and it’s already getting hot outside, as well as being terribly humid on this particular day, so after the first stop I ended up riding the tram around (which is pulled by a tractor) to the other sites, along with the rest of the group. Kind of sad that I wasn’t up for just walking the mile, but I didn’t want to get too sweaty since I had errands to run later. Excuses!

GR4We had about 30 minutes at each site before the tram came back around, and most of the guests would gather around the actors and listen to them tell stories about what life was like during their time period. I didn’t do much of that, choosing to wander around the site instead and take photos without having to navigate around too many people. As such, I ended up taking all sorts of photos I didn’t intend to take. In fact, I took way more photos of ‘stuff’ than I did of the people. No real reason for that, just that there weren’t too many people around (maybe 1-3 at each site) and once I’d taken one photo of them, well, I had to move on to other things. It was funny though, because I could tell they are so used to people taking their photos that they did have a tendency to “pose” rather than just stand around – like this guy:

GR10

He just stood there until I got my shot, and I didn’t have to say a word

This was another reason I was comfortable taking so many pictures here; my subjects were expecting me to take their picture and giving me some nice setups in the process. You can tell they know how to provide people what they’re looking for! When not telling the visitors stories or posing for photos, the volunteers are doing chores around the site and basically working, for the most part, as they would have back in the day. So, someone at the site might be churning butter, or herding cattle, or – whatever the hell it is settlers would have been doing way back when.

GR3

Not sure what’s she doing here, but it involved fire. You’re welcome.

The first stop in the pictures above was a stock farm, which represented a farm that had — livestock, I guess? I dunno, I have a brochure somewhere but I never read it. The next stop was the Ryon Prairie Home, which sure looked like a mansion compared to the stock farm:

GR15

Yep, the sky is fake in this one too

At least, it looked like a mansion until the next stop, where I saw the real mansion. Still, the volunteer dressed up as Polly Ryon, the owner of the home, had a pretty interesting story to tell, at least the part I listened to – when she married her father actually made an arrangement that the family money would stay in her name instead of transferring to her husband, and throughout her life she was influential in capitalizing on the family’s considerable fortunes and preserving their legacy. It was kinda funny – one of the men in the group from Illinois was asking a ton of questions at every stop and creating this really anachronistic atmosphere, which was interesting to watch the actors navigate. He was particularly interested in this aspect of her story: “So, it was an early form of a pre-nup?” and then the woman had to acknowledge what he asked while at the same trying to stay in character. I’m sure they get that a lot, but this guy was so uber-inquisitive it made me wonder if the actors are under pressure to stay in character and might get in trouble if they do break it. I guess they are all volunteers, so the pressure can’t be too great – although, maybe I’m wrong, and they are all paid workers on the ranch. That would actually make more sense, as it sure would take one hell of a dedicated volunteer to dress up in all those layers of pioneer gear and stoke fires in 100-degree heat when she didn’t have to.

GR8

Well, if pre-nups existed, then I guess you could call it that, but since they don’t…

There were some great shots to take in the Ryon house; I’d been unsure of which lens to take on this trip and ended up choosing my 50mm, which all things considered I think was a good choice.

GR11

The 50mm has a shallow depth of field, which makes for prettier portraits and is why I chose it, but it’s also good in low light and works for most photography I might want to take in a walkabout situation. I don’t get as crisp or clear shots of architecture or landscapes, and I definitely could have used my wide-angle lens in the small interiors of these buildings, but overall I think it was the right choice. I say all this because I am going back to the ranch tomorrow to finish out the tour, and after considering different lenses I could use this time, I ended up deciding to stick with the 50mm. Of all my lenses, it’s the most versatile, even though in a lot of these shots I didn’t get the clarity I could have gotten with either my 40mm or my 17-40.

GR9I also chose to take my inexpensive Canon SL1 instead of my 7D because of how much lighter it is. I bought the SL1 several years ago for just this reason, when walking around with a camera for hours the 7D gets really heavy, and the SL1 is the smallest DSLR on the market right now. If I use my 40mm, it’s even lighter and smaller, but since I knew I wanted the DoF of the 50mm I sacrified a little of the lightness to get better shots. Still, it’s a great little camera for just this purpose, and it worked fine. It’s noisy, as is the lens, so in the one stop of the tour where we all had to follow a guide and couldn’t just wander around I did notice it was probably annoying to hear my camera going off so much. But other than that, it’s nice to get some real use out of this little camera since I haven’t used it too much since I got it. As I do more outdoor and walkabout photography, it’s likely to finally get some real use.

GR14

GR13

That pink shot is my favorite so far; obviously because of the color, although it was much more mauve in the original. Also, I didn’t actually get a good centered shot of this (one of my weaknesses when taking non-studio shots is I often forget about things like getting a subject centered in front of background stuff like a fireplace) so what I had to do is take the left side of the fireplace, copy it, and paste it over the right side to make the shot better-framed. This is why if you look at the right side, you can actually see a curtain draping into the fireplace that appears to be growing out of the wall. In the original shot, that curtain was falling over into the fireplace from a nearby window, but I covered that up when I pasted the other edge of the fireplace over it. I couldn’t figure out how to realistically correct this, so I said to hell with it and left it. There was also a small mirror hanging over the fireplace that was also off-center, so the easiest thing to do there was to cover it up with more wallpaper.

GR16

Once we left the Ryon house, we stopped off at the sharecropper’s shack shown above. The guy narrating at this site told us a family of TEN lived in this shack at one time. He had some photos of the family inside to prove it, too. I’m sure I took pictures of those pictures, but we’re about to the end of what I’ve processed from my trip so far, so it may show up in another post. I did get a few good shots of the friendly sharecropper though, because he was really embodying the spirit of the time period:

GR21

And so did his shack:

GR20

GR18

I’ll have more shots from this stop in the next post, and then it’s on to about half of the ‘real’ mansion – I ended up bailing on the tour halfway through that house. But since I am going back tomorrow, you really don’t need to worry about that, because by the time I get those shots processed I’ll have a whole new batch to add to them to fill out the rest of this set. For now, I’ll close with one of my favorite shots from the day – it’s out-of-order here; I took it when leaving the stock farm and heading over to the Ryon house (which you can see in the distance):

GR7

Another fake sky!