I Am Not A Filmmaker

I Am Not A Filmmaker « Photofocus


The anti Santa

Did you know there’s an evil Santa in some Germanic countries? Via Krampus.com:

Krampus is the dark counterpart of Saint Nicholas, the traditional European gift-bringer who visits on his holy day of December 6th, a few weeks earlier than his offshoot Mr. Claus. Like his American descendant, the bishop-garbed St. Nicholas rewards good kids with gifts and treats; unlike the archetypal Santa, however, St. Nicholas never punishes naughty children, parceling out this task to a ghastly helper from below.

I mean, Jesus, think about that. Santa’s tag-along buddy is a tongue-waving demon who puts kids in his basket and drags them to hell.

How cool is that?

It all makes sense, of course. It’s not enough that Santa have an anti-Santa – like some Bizzarro version of Superman – but that the anti-Santa would balance him out. Think of it more like the Batman and Joker combo: order and chaos. Reward and punishment.

No, to the Deutsch, it’s not enough that kids get a lump of coal or, worse, nothing at all for Christmas when they misbehave. No, they have to be dragged screaming to the fires of Hell, lashed at with whips, and looked after by some clawed demonic exile.

Why isn’t there a horror movie about Krampus? Or, hell, a Rammstein song?


I Bought A Fancy Camera

People that know me know I’m a bit of a shutterbug. Always have been – ever since those cheap-o disposable cameras hit the scene. As bad as those cameras were, they were inexpensive and put a camera in my hands.

They also sparked something. It’s evident in the thousands of photos I’ve taken over the years – mostly hobbyist portraits and travelogue photo diaries. Taking photos has been a way for me to document life. I’m the guy with the camera at social functions and family gatherings and work events. I’ve taken this distinction with pride, and a grain of salt (because mostly people don’t like to have their picture taken, especially if they’re not looking directly at the camera, posing, and smiling).

Over the past few years, as I’ve learned more about photography, and especially since my last trip out West, I’ve wanted more. Or better. I’ve craved the top-notch (but still affordable) tools to take pictures, and develop it into something beyond a casual hobby. I’ve wanted to get beyond the advanced beginners stage and into the realm of know-how and expertise.

That takes time and practice, but even with a great point and shoot I feel like you can only get so far. The drawbacks of consumer cameras, issues like slow shutter speed and poor low-light shooting, provide a brick wall. To climb that, I need to use what the pros use. And learn what the pros know.

So I bought a nice camera – a Canon Rebel T1i. It’s not a high-end professional setup, but it’s a step just below the best hobbyists DSLR camera. In terms of price, features, and approachability, it was just what I needed.

And get this: thanks to Canon’s holiday season rebates and discounts, I ended up with $200 off a $210 telephoto zoom lense, a free memory card, and a free UV lense filter. It all came with the Rebel T1i, which was on sale too, and not with the T2i. With all that, I pulled the trigger on the T1i last Wednesday. It was too good of a deal not to.

Over the next month I’ll invest in some sort of fancy camera bag – because man, this stuff is delicate. It’s not like a simple point and shoot that I throw into my jacket pocket on the way out the door. This stuff takes preparation.

Also, a prime lense. Just a simple, affordable version, something to take great potrait-type shots with. The idea of the prime lense excites me because there’s no zoom. If you want a closer shot, you have to move closer. The thinking is it trains you to be a better photographer – to think in terms of composing the shot and developing an eye for a good photo.

There’s a lot to learn. But that’s always the exciting part, right?


Return to Route 66

Route 66 - wallpaper

This last trip out west brought me back to a turning point in my life. More specifically, a simple pavement-and-paint road: Route 66.

Leaving the Kaibab Plateau on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and crossing the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, I entered New Mexico by way of I-40 and Gallup. The last time I was in Gallup was four years ago on a life-changing trip across country – the first of my great big adventures.

But I didn’t enter Gallup by Interstate; that was just the destination. Instead, I drove into Gallup like I did last time – by a smaller two-lane highway coming out of Arizona. Driving down Main Street, seeing the old Sante Fe Line railroad cars, being in Gallup brought back a lot of good memories.

So I thought, “What the heck? Why not?” I decided to hit the route again for old time’s sake. The only problem was that I came unprepared. No maps, no directions, no idea where, exactly, to jump on and start driving.

That’s the thing about Route 66: there are parts that remain in a straight line, but out west the road remains broken and jumps around in fits and starts. You don’t hop on and keep riding. You have to navigate the Mother Road, crossing the interstate, zipping down frontage roads, and then watch as the “Road Ends” sign signals a change of plans.

Doing the best I could, I tried it anyway. And let me tell you, it was great.

I flicked through my iPod playlists and hit “Play” on my Route 66 Mix. U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Boston’s “Foreplay Long Time,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” The Eagle’s “Take It Easy,” Chuck Berry’s version of “Route 66” – it’s hard not to get emotional when those songs start playing while I’m driving on the road they were organized for.

There was only one wrong turn the whole way from Gallup to Albuquerque. It’s like my brain snapped into place and my hands become automatic sextants, guiding the rental car down a defunct highway.

Even though, for many miles, the route runs alongside the Interstate, I found (then, as now) that the mind occupies a totally different space when driving on Route 66. On the highway, you pay attention to your destination and the car around you, speeding and passing and watching for exits. On the Route, you pay attention to the Route: the scenery, the little towns you pass, the way the road meanders around rock formations and railroad tracks. You think differently driving at 55 miles per hour.

Of course, for me, there was a lot to think about. I couldn’t help but remember what was going on with my life four years ago, and how it mirrored today. Same stress, same heartache, same need to hit the road. It was only appropriate that I returned to the road that had given me so much comfort and respite back then.

For some parts, it was like waking up out of the slumber I’ve been in – both sobering and exciting to realize that, here I was, back in the desert, on my own again. I looked out at the landscape and thought, “I’m back.”

And it was good to see sections of the Route I missed in 2006. For that section of western New Mexico, I had traveled a lot of path in the dark. I remember pulling out of Albuquerque at sunset, sneaking into the Acoma Pueblo at twighlight (long past closing hours), and crawling into Gallup at night to sleep in my car. When it’s dark in the desert, it’s dark. So I missed large sections of the Route.

This time, it was pretty cool to see the parts I did remember again. There’s a little section an hour or two west of Albuquerque that winds through sandstone cliffs, and “Route 66” is painted on the asphalt along the way. I’d forgotten about that section of road through the years, but driving through those formations brought everything back. It could be that last time I didn’t grab a picture. This time I did:

Route 66 - Main St. of America

Most of all, it was tons of fun to drive. Changes in altitude, taking corners at 15 or 25 miles per hour – it makes steering the car along the road a true joy.

On returning to Albuquerque, I made a special point to take a snapshot of the sign I saw when I left town in 2006. It felt like Gen. MacArthur’s vow to return to the Philippines: I came into town the same way I left it:

Route 66 - A Return to Albuquerque

On the way back home, during my shotgun trip across Arizona back to Las Vegas, I picked up bits and pieces of the Route – mostly because that’s all that’s left in Arizona. There’s a long section, between Seligman and Kingman, that was my favorite driving experience the last time I was out there. Past Kingman, the Route heads toward the Black Mountains, on the border with California, and snakes through Sitgreaves Pass – practically a religious experience for a young man from mid Michigan.

So I went back to that place. It’s a 10 minute drive outside of Kingman to the entrance of the Pass, and last time those mountains loomed at me. I remember my palms sweating, getting nervous, for no good reason except I felt something ominous about those mountains. Turns out I was right, because a winding, narrow, sheer-cliffed road facing the setting sun in a desolate landscape will put the fear of God into you. That road changes things. It broadens your horizons, and teaches you a bit about the unpredictable nature of the world. Plus it’s a pretty fun drive.

Last time, I came down the other side of those mountains – changed, sweating – and pulled over in Oatman just to get my bearings. A pair of the locals, probably feeling sorry for me, invited me to dinner and told me about guys who sat at the entrance of the pass and got paid to drive out-of-towners through Sitgreaves. Many who didn’t have help died falling down those rocky cliffs.

Route 66 - Sitgraves Pass

This time, it was nice just to see it again, and remember the dread I felt approaching that mountain pass as the sun was setting in May 2006. I only went part-way up because I had a plane to catch, but I came back down with some new resolutions and fond memories of my younger self. It was worth the return trip.

Plus, while in Albuquerque, I took a day’s drive up to Sante Fe and caught an old section of the Route, dating from 1938, that I didn’t catch last time. The Route changed, and straightened, to include Albuquerque after 1939. What I did see in Sante Fe wasn’t all that impressive, though – mainly a long commercial section with three lanes each way and many, many stoplights. Really, I was glad to be done with it when I hopped back on south-bound I-25.

But no matter where I was, the world changed on Route 66. It could be part sentimentality and part psychological need, but my heart needed a little trip down one of the best memories of my life. A return voyage to a great adventure, if only in small sections.


On starting a blog for fun and (hopefully) profit

A friend, Britt, wants to start a blog after getting laid off at her teaching job.

She wrote:

So, I have some questions about blogging. You seem to know what you’re doing in this arena and I like what I’ve seen from your work. I outlined my Blog Plan below the questions so you can get an idea of what I am going for.

Some questions:

1. Preferred blog host? Blogger vs. WordPress vs. TypePad? Most book blogs use Blogger, but I don’t like the look of most of them. I think that I’ll go with Typepad because Andrew said that it was the best (but what does he know anyway?)

2. Do you have an editorial calendar? How far in advance do you plan blog postings?

3. Do you have any advice for community building?

4. Any advice on a good name?

5. Any advice in general?

How fun. And I must say, it’s great that you’ve put a lot of thought into this.

To answer your questions:

1.) I’m more adept at WordPress, and I love its flexibility. Chances are there’s a theme you’ll like and they’re all hackable, so you can tweak it to your exact liking. But something like Tumblr is worth looking at. It depends on how much upkeep you want to do. If you’re geeky and want to dig into some HTML, then WordPress or Typepad will be good. If you want a no-frills, just-let-me-write-and-post blogging tool, something like Tumblr, or Posterous, will work well. There’s also a question of cost: Tumblr/Posterous are free, but WordPress/Typepad may cost you – even if you only buy the domain name (like www.loblawlaw.com or something).

2.) My editorial calendar depends on the blog. For Newton Poetry, I try to do two or three posts a week, and at least one longer one every few weeks – posts where I really get down, dirty, and detailed. My personal blog is whenever I get an idea or see something I think it worth commenting on. But I do type up posts ahead of time, sometimes weeks in advance, and just sit on them until I have a slow idea week, and then I can reach in the grab bag and fill in a pre-made post. But two to three a week is good, with maybe little “here’s something interesting” posts as you find them.

3.) Your community building starts with the people you know, so this could be as easy as posting your blog on Facebook, e-mailing all your friends and family (this is no time to be shy), maybe starting a Twitter account – that kind of thing. My community was built from classic Mac nerds, so I went to where they were, delved into the culture, made posts on other’s blogs, and made myself known. Most importantly? Write good stuff. When someone finds it, your audience will build itself.

4.) Short and sweet – so loblawlawblog.com or something. Head to 1and1.com, type in some domain name ideas into their little input box, and see if someone has it already.

5.) Yes. Before anything, you need to listen to John Gruber (of Daring Fireball) and Merlin Mann’s (of 43 Folders) podcast/talk from South by Southwest on finding your voice, and finding the point of your blog. It’s a must-listen for anyone who wants to bootstrap a blog.

Also, just start writing – even though you don’t have the darned thing set up yet. Get a few draft posts in the hopper, ready to go. Show them to Andrew. Then kick him in the pants.

You’re right about those book blogs being too cluttered. You want a unique style without all the crap. If, hey, you get popular enough that advertisers want to put ads on your site – that’s gravy. But you don’t have to make it look like crap with ads and links and little “POST TO DELICIOUS!” boxes everywhere. Again, my philosophy is minimalism. Let the content speak for itself.

The cost thing again: It’s about $10/year to buy a domain name. A lot of the blogging platforms have free hosting and setup, and then you buy the domain name and point it at yourblogname.wordpress.com or whatever, but to the reader it’ll appear as yourblogname.com – so that’ll be the minimal cost, the $10. From there, if you want to do your own hosting (read: super geeky and technical), then the cost goes up.

Most of my blogs, with the exception of Newton Poetry, I let the blogging platform host, and I point my purchased domain name at it and no one knows the difference.

You’ve thought a lot about what kinds of posts to write, who your audience is, and what you want to focus on – that’s the tough part, really. Now you just need to write, find a voice, and make it all look pretty.

Easy enough, right?


On scratching the itch

Route 66 - A glimpse over the top.

So here’s the plan: fly into Vegas on Friday, Sept. 10 around 9:30 at night, grab my compact rental car, and start driving. Leave the Sin City behind and hit the road.

Next, make it to Springdale, Utah, just south of Zion National Park, check into a room at some low-rate motel, and hit the park. Hiking and picture taking. A day, maybe two, then hit the road again, southeast this time, toward the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. Find a spot to sleep, maybe with the rental car as my tent, build a fire in the desert, and wake up to do some more hiking – to the bottom of the Earth.

Last time I was in the neighborhood, I passed up on the Grand Canyon only because of time constraints. By the time Route 66 wound through Arizona, there was too much left to see along the actual route – and when I got to California, I had to turn around and drive all the way back home.

But I always knew I’d be back, and it only took four years. So it’s time to do the largest gorge on Earth justice and explore it righteously.

My only concern is gear: since I’ll be flying and not driving West, it’s not like I can fill the car with tents and pots and backpacks. In fact, I want to travel as lightly as possible. One option is to pick up everything I’ll need there, use it, and ship it home. I’m still working this one out.

After all the parks, it’s on to New Mexico, and to Albuquerque to see Cowboy and Sarah and Kita, their nice, skittish dog. The last time I was in town I had a burger and malt at a ‘50s-style diner, and became a member of the Albuquerque Public Library System to use the Internet. That was only an hour or two, but this time I’ll have days to explore: visit the Route again, maybe do some hiking, definitely go swimming in the Myers’s apartment complex pool.

That’s until Friday night. Saturday morning has me hauling ass across the desert to make it back to Vegas and take a red eye flight back home.

It’s an adventure like the old days, when time and money were no object. My last big trip was New England, and that seems so long ago that I get experiences from that trip mixed with the others. Which trip had my knee hurting? (New England) Which trip had fears of car trouble? (Route 66 and Pennsylvania/Columbus) Which trip was I hit on by a gay guy? (All of them)

This is how I get my head straightened out. Me, sitting in a car, blaring the radio, windows down (yes, even – and especially – in the desert), seeing things I’ve never seen before. It’s cathartic and therapeutic and fun all at once. It’s the “me” that I’ve gotten to know so well, and it’s time to revisit that feeling.

There was a story in Ken Burns’s “The National Parks” documentary about the head of the national parks, Stephen Mather, going bat-shit insane if he didn’t get out and explore the country on a periodic basis. He spent so much time in Washington that he would up in a mental ward for 18 months until his family took him out West and – lo and behold – his soul and sanity were restored. I can relate.

After a certain amount of time, I get The Itch – the feeling that there’s adventure out there somewhere. Really, it’s because there’s not much room to sit and think around these parts. Sitting and doing nothing but thinking, with some hiking and picture-taking mixed in, allows for time and space totally dedicated to reflection. What have I done? Where am I going next? Why didn’t I stop at that last rest area? These are questions that need to be answered.

So I’ll answer them at the bottom of the Earth, and in between tunnels of rock and dirt, and in the middle of nowhere – amongst my best friends.


Charting the Frozen Continent

Boing Boing special feature: Charting the Frozen Continent:

This year, Morin and his crew were preparing to camp in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleysóa place that serves as an analog for Mars on Earth. As the name implies, there’s little snow in the dry valleys. There’s also very little life, just cyanobacteria and the occasional seal that wandered in and died.

We all have a mental image of what Antarctica must be like (maybe from “The Thing”), but it’s more diverse than most imagine.

Call it a mental exercise, but lately I wonder what other parts of the Earth look like. These images from Boing Boing help paint a more detailed picture of Antartica’s landscape – and help dispel any continental stereotypes we have.

Part of the pleasures of travel is that, when someone mentions a place you’ve been, you can retrieve a reliable picture of it in your brain. Tell me about Arizona, for instance, and I can pull up a few images: broken Route 66 running parallel to the interstate, alpine Flagstaff and its snowy ridges, the Black Mountains and the doom they inspired. It’s all in my head because I’ve been there.

But there are far more places I haven’t been than have. It’s a logistical fact of life that, unless you’re some modern-day Magellan, a trip around the world is impractical. We do the best we can to get out and see the world.

So what does Siberia look like? Or inland China? Or the Eastern coast of Africa? How about those islands smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic? Or the herding plains of Argentina?

That’s why I can get lost in a map. It’s so easy to spend time imagining what those topographical grooves look like in real life, or what high-tailing down this or that highway would feel. Dots connecting to dots, with so much along the way – what is life like from point to point? What is there to see? Is it worth the trip.

Photo journeys like the brief one at Boing Boing help ease the craving for more landscapes. I’ll never see the majority of the Earth, but any little bit I can gather is worth it.


30 And Under – ‘Don’t Settle’

[I gave a shorter, punchier version of this essay at Jackson Magazine’s 30 And Under banquet, as a way to warn these ambitious young professionals what was in store for them. They probably already knew the second part, but the first part was 30 And Under wisdom after I was honored last year.]

There’s not much tackier than unasked for advice, so we’ll call these next two tid-bits “tips” instead of advice.

Tip one: whether anyone who is honored as a 30 And Under winner likes it or not, you’re going to become a celebrity in Jackson. The picture and profile will show up in the magazine and you’ll have strangers on the street saying “congratulations!” It happens. And grandma and grandpa and that guy you owe money to will all call and say they saw you in Jackson Magazine.

It’s a heavy burden, those first few months after winning. You’ll be famous to a group of people who have a very local sense of fame. You’re now in a select group of people that will probably make appearances on JTV or United Way billboards.

And in case you weren’t busy enough now, you’ll have community groups and committees asking for your help for their next big project. Jackson needs help, so being an up-and-coming hotshot means groups are pointing their volunteer laser beam right at you. Be prepared.

Tip two: listen for what people say about Jackson, especially when they pipe up about an idea, project, or event being “too good” for this town.

I heard it even before I was honored, but now I pay more attention. Too often, someone will claim an idea will never go over, never be attended, never be supported – because Jackson just isn’t that classy of a town.

Don’t think about that wild project you want to tackle, because it’s too good of an idea. And don’t even attempt to tackle some barrier in town, because they’ve been there and tried that and it doesn’t work around here.

Jackson has a crisis of confidence – a low self-esteem that rates somewhere between Chelsea and Hillsdale. Maybe it’s too much bad news in the past generation, or maybe it’s something in the water. Whatever. It’s very real.

It’s also true that good ideas have died on the vine in this town. But I’d rather have too many good ideas than a hum-drum philosophy that accept mediocrity and doesn’t break a sweat.

So don’t settle. Don’t let “good enough” be good enough, or think that something exciting is too exciting for Jackson.

I often think about AKA Sushi, the little boutique eatery up by Starbucks on West Ave. A business owner could have played it safe and threw in another McDonald’s, or Tim Horton’s, and offer another chain restaurant. Those are good enough for Jackson. Anything fancier would never make it, right?

Instead, there’s a hip sushi joint that draws a crowd on a Friday night. Not settling has been good for business.

Jackson’s chapter of the American Red Cross took a chance on a pop-up art gallery. With real art! And people had to pay to get in! The result was a smash success. The RED committee didn’t settle.

But many of my 30 And Under compatriots understand this already. They don’t go to work and go home and flip on the TV, day in and day out. They don’t settle for a life lived as usual – if they did, they wouldn’t be honored by Jackson Magazine.

The way we make Jackson raise its chin is by doing what we’re doing: not settling. Experimenting. Taking chances.

It’s tough, and it draws attention to your efforts, but the payoffs are pretty cool.


The weird go pro

Seth Godin:

Laying out the design of a page or a flyer so it looks like a pro did it takes about ten times as much work as merely using the template Microsoft builds in for free, and the message is almost the same…

Except it’s not. Of course not. The message is not the same.

The last ten percent is the signal we look for, the way we communicate care and expertise and professionalism. If all you’re doing is the standard amount, all you’re going to get is the standard compensation. The hard part is the last ten percent, sure, or even the last one percent, but it’s the hard part because everyone is busy doing the easy part already.

This is what makes what I do paradoxically enjoyable and frustrating. I love concentrating on the stuff that no one else cares about because I care intensely about it. Things, little things, do matter.

On the flip side, I encounter people who are template humpers and think good enough is good enough. They have no respect for, or are totally ignorant of, that last 10 percent – and have no interest in it. It’s the interest part that’s frustrating.

For some, Microsoft Word is good enough, and Times New Roman is good enough, and an photo stolen from Google Images is good enough. For me, the fun is in tackling the good enough and making it even a tiny bit better.

Even if I never approach something a tiny bit better (and often times I don’t), the pursuit is, in of itself, a worthy goal.