Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pete’s Home Texaco

To passing tourists driving motor coaches and towing campers, Home Texaco is another stop on the road to paradise. It's where you refill your propane bottles before continuing on to Penrose Point or Joemma Beach, or top off your tank before heading home. If Pete’s Home Texaco were in the city, it wouldn’t be a gas station. With its view out across Jones Bay to Anderson Island to the East, it would be a fancy eatery or a luxury condominium complex. But in Home such views are taken for granted.

Home Texaco is the place to borrow a tool for an auto or tractor repair. Pete doesn’t get to do as many mechanic jobs as he might if his service station were in Tacoma, but he doesn’t mind. He likes the slow pace of life here and having friends for customers and customers for friends.

To locals, Home Texaco is a social hub. While filling your tank, you find out how far down Herron Road the County is going to be chip-sealing this week and when George and Leona’s 45th anniversary celebration will be. You already know it will be at the Longbranch Improvement Club. That's a given. Pete’s knowledge about the lives of those he serves makes him a better source of news on the Key Peninsula than any newspaper you could buy.

Pete is more of an ear-witness than an eye-witness because he hears about what happens to people rather than seeing it most of the time. But he did get to watch one of the most exciting events to occur on the Key Peninsula for the entire year of '96 when Jason Barns raced his '77  Trans Am up the Key Peninsula Highway –  Pete figures he was doing about 120 – careening down the patch of road that runs through Home and past Home Texaco. Here the road makes a 30-degree turn, a few feet from Pete’s doorway. When Jason tried to make the curve, the Trans Am rocked sideways onto two wheels and flipped. The car was wrecked. Jason walked away.

We all thought that would be the end of Jason’s racing, but six months later he was back to it. We just hoped we weren’t in his way the next time he flipped. Pete said that Jason’s wildness started when his mother died the year before. This kept folks from getting too mad at him, even though he was “an endangerment to the community.” But that’s what Pete does. In his own way, he helps everyone understand everyone else.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Contrast in Photography

In my black and white photography class, we're learning how to develop and print our own film. I took the class because it's a prerequisite for most of the other classes at the school. Much to my surprise I'm loving it, notwithstanding the need to stand in a darkened room with noxious chemicals for hours on end. Go figure.

Anyway, last week's lesson was about contrast. The more contrast, the more middle gray tones move to either white or black. The following pictures were printed (enlarged or whatever the heck they call it) with different contrast filters. These are physical filters made of colored plastic gel that magically affect the contrast of the photo being printed/enlarged.

The topmost photo shows the effect of a #1 contrast filter, which reduces the contrast. The second photo was created using a #2 filter, producing normal contrast. On the last three photos I used #s 3, 4, and 5 respectively, which as you can see, increase the contrast. The result of using five different contrast filters is five different "takes" on the same picture. Pick the one you like the best. You can do the same thing for digital photos in a photo editing program.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Smoking Rock

While growing up, my opinion of houses went something like this: Houses are good places for keeping possessions warm and dry--things such as clothes, bedding, and books. Houses have conveniences such as running hot and cold water and electricity, so that you can cook food more easily and wash and dry clothes even when it’s raining. Houses also help you have successful parties. Many people won’t come to a party that is outdoors, especially if it’s cold and rainy. Houses do, however, require you to spend time indoors on upkeep tasks such as cleaning when you'd much rather be outdoors.

Not everyone shared this somewhat low opinion of houses. In fact many people, I found, actually like spending time in them even more than they like spending time outdoors. Such as my family. While I preferred the outdoors and always had a special place or two where I spent a great deal of time, the rest of the family sat around indoors, sewing, chatting, watching TV, and reading the paper.

Each day I would arrive home from school, change into outdoor clothes and head for the door. “Where are you going?” my mother would ask, as if she didn't know. I’d cringe for fear of being caught in the snare of some household task or errand.



“Just out.”

“To do what?”

“I don’t know. Maybe write.”

On a lucky day, the conversation would end here. Otherwise, I'd have to finish my chores before escaping.

If it were my sister asking where I was going, then she’d come out with me. Not that she liked the outdoors particularly, but it was a good excuse to get away and smoke.

So, on a lucky day, I’d walk out of the house into the surrounding New Hampshire woods, sister in tow. We’d both light up and walk along the path we’d made with countless foot strikes over months and years. 

The path ended in a small clearing carpeted with vinca and pine needles and surrounded by fresh-scented pines and a few white birches with peeling bark that you could write on. In the center of the clearing sat a large pock-marked granite rock, discarded long ago by a glacier. The rock was big enough for both of us to sit on. In fact, it would have been big enough for several people to sit on, if anyone had cared to join us.

After a time, cigarettes smoked and butts carefully buried, my sister would stand up. “Well, I’m going back. You staying here?” Not waiting for an answer, she’d head back to the house. 

I’d pull some fresh air deep into my chest and then sigh it back out, expelling the last few molecules of cigarette smoke and indoor air. Then I’d settle down on the pine needle carpet and lean back against the cool rock, waiting quietly. If no one appeared right away, I’d begin scratching words into my Think Book. 

The woods would be quiet at first, the silence broken by treetops applauding a passing breeze, roaring like a narrow river in spring, or the plop of a pine cone hitting the ground. Eventually my stillness would be rewarded by the sounds little creatures make when they move around in the woods. Rustlings and scritchings would grow closer. A chipmunk might  reveal his bright eyes over the top of a log. If I held very still, he might even come over and check me out. Then a slight movement of an arm or a too-noisy breath would send him racing back to safety.

Chickadees were bolder. They’d perch on branches that bent low to the ground, so close that I could reach over and touch them if I dared try. The chickadees would talk to each other. I imagined their conversations about the weather, their children, and the pine nut harvest this year. I’d talk back to them sometimes, in human language, about my school, my boyfriends, and favorite songs on the radio.

After sitting long enough, listening to enough bird talk, writing enough words, and soaking in enough of the place to sustain me until the next day, I’d slowly stand up and walk home. 

As I opened the back door, warm air laden with house smells would find its way up my nose, replacing the cool piney air of a moment ago. The mantle clock would tick loudly above the rustling of my father’s newspaper and some tinny applause and laughter on the TV. I might hear the clanging of pots in the kitchen and my mother’s voice calling me to come set the table.

On other days, if alone, I’d take a different route up the driveway, turning right onto the road’s gravel shoulder, and following its ascent to an ancient pine tree where it towered over another glacial boulder. The pine’s fat branches spread wide, inviting me to climb into their embrace. Standing tip-toe on the giant boulder, I’d stretch into my longest reach until I could work my fingers between the sharp ridges of bark on the lowest branch. Then hanging on tightly with my nails, I’d walk up the side of the tree until I could get my knee onto the top of the branch. After resting a moment, I’d gain my feet on the branch and stretch up again, following the same process to get as high in the tree as I dared. 

My reward was a broadened view of the woods sloping down to the blue lake below, the pungent smell of pine sap, the sensation of sharp bark poking through my shirt and jeans, and a slight sense of superiority. I would indulge in this sense until my body got tired of being poked, got cold, or both.

This time, even after crossing the threshold of the house, the scent of the woods would remain in my nostrils, drifting up from the pine sap on my fingers or the butt of my pants to mix with the smell of the indoors until my mother told me I had to change my clothes and wash for dinner.

Shutter Speed in Photography

I've learned that the shutter speed you choose can make a big difference in the way your  photos look. The faster the shutter speed, the better the camera is at stopping the motion in the scene. Here are some examples of photos taken with various shutter speeds.The above photo was taken at a fast, "stop action" speed of about 1/250 of a second. The photo of the two dogs below was taken at a slower speed, so the dogs are a bit blurry. Their feet are the blurriest because they are moving the fastest (and would soon take the dogs through my flower bed). The slower shutter speed gives you a good sense of the dogs' motion.
In the next picture, the shutter speed is even slower, and the guy tearing out the floor of our family room following our little flood of a few weeks ago is so blurry you almost can't tell that he's a person (except that his shoes are clear because his feet aren't moving).

The last couple of photos show VERY slow shutter speeds, of 2 or so seconds. I took these photos outdoors at night, "painting" by moving the camera around.

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Favorite Nonfiction Books

My writing teacher, Jim Molnar, wanted us to each create a list of our favorite nonfiction books. Here's mine:

John Adams by David McCullough; Simon & Schuster, 2001, paperback. ISBN: 0-7432-2313-6. This wonderful history gave me new insight into the forces and personalities that formed our nation, and a hearty admiration and respect for John Adams’ role in its founding.

Enter the Zone by Barry Sears, Ph.D with Bill Lawren; Harper Collins, 1995, hardcover. ISBN: 0-06-039150-2. Dr Spears makes a convincing argument about the need to “avoid the dangers of bad carbohydrates”to balance hormone and insulin levels and provides detailed information about a suggested diet. Following this diet has helped address of several health issues that I had been experiencing.

Freakonomics: A Rougue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner; Harper Collins, 2005, hardcover. ISBN:0-06-073132-X. This engaging book has taught me to look “under the covers” of the obvious to look for the real mechanism that may be operating in a socio-cultural situation.

Future Shock by Alvin Toffler; Bantam, 1970.ISBN-13: 978-0553277371. When I read it in the 1970s, this book helped me realize that our society was entering a phase of unprecedented change. It also helped me understand that the stresses we have subsequently experienced over the last 30 years as a result are also unprecedented in human history.

Necessary Wisdom: Meeting the Challenge of a New Cultural Maturity by Charles M. Johnston, MD; ICD Press, 1991, paperback. ISBN: 0-89087-650-9. Dr Johnston introduces a theory of social evolution and identifies our place in it as well as the vital issues we must address in our time to remain and healthy and viable society. It is a surprisingly prescient book, and accurately forecasts many of the trends we have seen play out in our society over the last19 years since the book was published.

Providence of a Sparrow: Lessons from a Life Gone to the Birds by Chris Chester; University of Utah Press, 2002, hardcover. ISBN: 0-8748; 0-742-5.This delightful memoir gave me a new appreciation for the intelligence and emotional life of birds and more generally of all living things on this planet.It has reminded me to tread lightly upon the earth for I share it with other species just as deserving of an unsullied place in it as I.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carlson; originally published in1962 - Mariner Books; Anv edition (October 22, 2002). ISBN-13:978-0618249060. Rachel Carlson investigated the strange disappearance of many birds and discovered the cause was the use of DDT, dieldrin and other pesticides.Not only were birds being poisoned, but other animals and humans as well. This book helped launch the environmental movement.

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barak Obama; Vintage, 2006, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-307-45587-1. Obama showcases considerable scholarship regarding the causes of many events and political situations around the modern world. It gave me a much better understanding of American politics.

The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace by M. Scott Peck, MD; Simon& Schuster, 1987, paperback. ISBN-13: 978-0684848587. Dr. Peck describes the process of community building, which can be used by mediators and others interested in helping resolve conflicts between individuals or groups.

The Humanization of Man by John Julian Ryan; Newman Press, 1972, paperback. Library of Congress Catalog Number: 72-79124. Written by an artist living in the woods of New Hampshire, this book became my “bible” during the years that I was involved in technical product development. It taught me that no product should be designed without careful attention to the marriage of form and function.

The Path of Least Resistance:Learning to Become a Creative Force in Your Own Life by Robert Fritz; Ballantine Books, 1989, hardcover. ISBN: 0-449-90337-0. This book has taught me how to visualize and actualize my goals. This may be the most important book I’ve ever read.

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier by Thad Carhart, Random House,2001, paperback. ISBN: 0-375-75862-3. A lovely memoir about pursuing a dream. It’s a wonderful story and teaches one a great deal about pianos.

A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs by George Kelly, W.W. Norton & Co. (May 17, 1963) ISBN-13: 978-0393001525. Kelly theorized that we all create our own personal experience of reality via what he calls “constructs” and that we are not passive receivers of environmental or genetic influence, but rather have the ability to create our own selves to a far greater degree than previous theorists had allowed. This book is a favorite because Kelly breaks out of the corner than previous psychology theorists had painted themselves into and so allows new pathways for attaining healing and wholeness.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, University Of Chicago Press, 3rd edition (December 15, 1996). ISBN-13: 978-0226458083. If first read this book in college in 1974 and it has informed my thinking about scientific and social theory ever since. Kuhn described the process though which theories are born,mature, and supplanted by other theories. This is an essential read for anyone who is the slightest bit interested in understanding scientific thought.

The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking; Bantam Books, 2001, hardcover. ISBN: 0-553-80202-X. Stephen Hawking is so good at explaining the unexplainable. This is a good book for helping sort out some of the mysteries of modern physics, and it has great illustrations.

Thoreau on Man and Nature Arthur G Volkman, Peter Pauper Press, 1960, hardcover. No ISBN. A compilation by Volkman from the writings of Henry D. Thoreau. This is a collection if vignettes, with wonderful descriptive writing regarding various subjects. If I ever want to take brief excursion away from the urgency of the moment, I open this book and read a few lines from it.

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose;Touchstone, 1996, paperback. ISBN: 0-684-82697-6. The title says it all. A wonderful story, well told.
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Depth of Field in Photography

A couple of weeks ago we studied depth of field in my digital photography class. Depth of field is what makes things look in focus.I learned that two things affect depth of field: aperture and lens length. A smaller aperture gives you a larger depth of field. A shorter lens also gives a larger depth of field.

Large depth of field is good for shots where you want everything to be in focus. (Another trick is using hyperfocusing.) To get the largest depth of field possible with my equipment, the top photo was taken with my wide-angle lens at 17 mm, its minimum focal length, with an aperture of F22, its smallest setting. The branches in the foreground and the buildings and trees in the background are in focus.

The photo at the bottom was taken with my 50-200 zoom at a focal length of 100 mm and an aperture of F 5.6, its largest available setting at that focal length. Same shot as above, just different aperture and lens focal length. Its shallow depth of field emphasizes the arbor vitae branch that I focused on while everything else in the photo is out of focus. Shallow depth of field is particularly good for portrait shots.

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Providence of a Sparrow, A Book Review

When I saw the title of my sister’s gift, Providence of a Sparrow, Lessons from a Life Gone to the Birds, by Chris Chester, my first thought was,“Here comes another attempt to convert me into a light reader.” My sister is the self-appointed keeper of my well being and has decided, among other things, that I am way too serious a reader/thinker and that my health is somehow in jeopardy because of this, as my reading interests tend towards the philosophical and instructional. For example, the current population atop my bedside table includes titles such as Necessary Wisdom, Meeting the Challenge of a New Cultural Maturity, by Dr. Charles Johnston, The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge, by Klontz, Kahler, and Klontz and Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays by Stephen Hawking.
“Okay,” I thought, “this will be a quick read, and I can blast through it and let Winser know I read it. That should satisfy her for a while.” Little did I know that this little non-fiction gem would become one of my all-time favorite books.
In it the author, Chris Chester, tells the story of how he and his partner-to-become-wife, Rebecca, adopted a baby sparrow – who had “all the appeal of a testicle with a beak” – that had fallen from its nest under the eaves of their house and not only raised it to adulthood, but gave it the run of an entire room of their home, and provided it with a veritable flock of other rescued birds to keep it company.
Through the process of raising and caring for the sparrow, “B,” the Chesters learned important things about the science of ornithology. They also discovered some non-scientific truths that were even more important, such as how mistaken we humans can be about the intelligence and emotional capacity of the feathered co-habitants of this earth. We humans too frequently assume that birds are stupid, “feather-brained” if you will. The Chesters discovered that, on the contrary, even the much-maligned and disrespected house sparrow is capable of many surprising feats of intelligence and perception as well as affection for its own kind that can even extend to humans.
Chris Chester tells the story with sensitivity and humor. But then I don’t believe such a story could be told successfully otherwise. Nor would the circumstance that led to the story have likely occurred if the teller were not so keenly aware and observant of the unexpected in life.
I love the book because I learned in the reading, and this expanded my own awareness and appreciation of the feathered creatures I encounter. Although I’ve always been a bird lover, I pay more attention to them now, and enjoy them more than ever before.  When our yard robin “hangs out” with me while I’m gardening, I now entertain the thought that this behavior could be on purpose. And when I drag the garden hose out into the yard and every chickadee in the neighborhood arrives to take a bath in the water I deliberately spray on the tree leaves for them, I’m now inclined to believe that they’ve been watching for me to come out and perform just this service.
I also love the book because it taught me in a very enjoyable way, through fresh and engaging descriptive passages and a type of wry humor that I relish. For example:
“I felt as guilty as possible for leaving him alone. Indignant face plastered against the screen, he’d shriek minor-key laments Monday through Friday mornings when, after delivering his breakfast, I’d oil out of his room dressed in my work clothes.”
Chester keeps me engaged with the book from end to end. He never lets up on either the humor or the 
 descriptions, and he slips in factual meat between is done so deftly that I scarcely know I’ve been taught. I just want to pick up the book,and read it again.

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The Written Word and Me

Since my earliest memories, I've been an avid reader. I've  I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t – didn’t – read voraciously, insatiably, and almost constantly. Writing came as a natural offshoot of this involvement with words, and while it didn’t begin with the same intensity as reading, it became the centerpiece of my professional life as an adult.
As a child you might catch me reading anytime, anyplace: in class while Teacher was talking, at the dinner table, book hidden on my lap (I was forbidden to read at the table), in bed with a flashlight under the covers -- stories, poems, encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspapers, comic books. Two favorite books were Mother Westwind How Stories and Tanglewood Tales. By fifth grade, I’d read every book in the school library and every child’s book in my local library, and consequently began sneaking (not lying, but not telling the truth about exactly which library was my destination) on my bike to the Elliott Creek Library five miles away.
By seventh grade, every birthday and Christmas included a gift of the biggest and fattest book that a parent or sibling could find. Consequently, I read some rather “adultish” books as a young adolescent, including Hawaii by James Michener and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. As an adolescent, my habit expanded to include both literature and some not-so-literary fiction, along with books on all manner of topics such as philosophy, history, music, art, and physics. Adult fictional favorites are Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, all of Charles Dickens, and nearly all of Ivan Doig. These authors are masters of description, and I find myself reading favorite passages over and over again, in awe of the creative intellect behind the words. The Path of Least Resistance, by Hans Fritz and various historical biographies are top non-fiction choices.
Unlike reading, I do remember the arduous process of learning to form letters and words with pencil and paper, awkwardly trying to recreate Teacher’s examples with a very fat writing instrument held in a very unsteady hand. After mastering the basics of the craft, though, writing quickly became second nature. In elementary school I began writing poems and stories. By junior high school, I kept a journal of of poems and ponderous thoughts. In high school I helped found a literary magazine of students’ work. I also wrote many songs.
Then came college. It did not occur to me to major in English, and I managed to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree without having taken a single English or writing class. To my mind, the purpose of college to the study difficult and obscure things, such as philosophy and physics, not what came easily and naturally.  In the years following college I often found myself with writing assignments at work: letters; newsletters; articles; business plans, marketing pieces, and so forth. This gave me a lot of practice in the writing craft, which I turned into a career as a freelance technical writer. The attraction of this career was the freedom to accommodate the needs of my children, with a flexible schedule and the ability to work at home.
As a technical writer, I’ve turned out product documentation, book chapters, articles, white papers, technical specifications, marketing collateral, business plans and proposals, presentations, and case studies – publishing a total of two or three million words over 18 years. My favorite types of technical writing is case studies, books, and opinionated articles because these give me the most creative latitude and are the least structured. They also take the most time because I cannot just crank out the words; they require more thought and creativity.
Now I hope to spend much more time writing creatively, and not about business or technology, hence this blog.
*As a post script, Jim Molnar, the writing instructor who gave me the assignment to write this piece in my creative nonfiction writing class last year, encouraged everyone in the class to start a blog. I wrote in this for a couple of months initially, and now and committed to posting regularly.