Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Getting To Know My Grandmother

She's 83, I'm 41, and I feel like I hardly know her.  Marilyn Pacheco, my paternal grandmother, came to visit us this Christmas and I'm saddened by the fact that I don't really know much about her life, and there is so much fascinating stuff to know.

According to my dad, she moved 35 times over the years, much of that for work, whether in the dairy industry or the real estate industry.  We were firmly planted in Colorado and so we would see each other periodically, a Christmas here, a summer time vacation there.  Prior to this Christmas, I have only three firmly entrenched memories of times that we spent together:  Christmas in Lake of the Ozarks, Summer Vacation in Myrtle Beach, and a summer visit to Texas.  There are probably others, but those three are the longest and most enduring memories I have.  There was never any malice or dislike on either side, the logistics of life simply conspired to keep our families apart.  When I heard she was coming I knew I would ask her to sit for some photographs, which she gladly did.

She's always been playful, I remember that.  When I sat her down for the shots, she immediately began playing with her arm positions and she wasn't shy at all.   I thought it might be work to photograph her, but it was easy.  She gave me what  I wanted and I was struck by the color of her eyes.  I have often joked with Nikki that I look like the hockey player Peter Forsberg because of the color of his eyes.  I said this because he is Swedish, and much of the family heritage on my mother's side comes from Sweden.  The more I looked in her eyes, though, the more I realized it comes from her, to my dad, to me.   She is Irish, among other things, and her maiden name was Maluy (mail-you).  As it turns out, my eyes are Irish, and they are smiling (hey-o).

While she was here, she wanted to see the mast of the U.S.S Oakland, which is currently sitting at the entrance of the Middle Harbor Shoreline Park in Oakland.  I vaguely remembered it being there, but I had never taken the opportunity to visit the site.  Her husband of 59 years, Chuck Pacheco, served aboard the U.S.S Oakland in the Pacific Theater as a signalman and stood on the platform at the top of the mast giving and taking signals from other ships in the carrier group.  We stood there and she and my dad told stories of that time and it all came alive in my mind.  Most striking of all is that the U.S.S Oakland was berthed several thousand yards away from the Missouri at the signing of the treaty to end the war,  close enough to provide prime seating for the crew to watch the events unfold.

During the war she worked at Mare Island Naval Station in Vallejo, taking the ferry daily across the small channel to work.  Gasoline was at a premium in those days because of the war effort so she walked and took the ferry.  While the Oakland was docked for repairs, she and my grandfather would communicate via semaphore , he from the ship and she from the small apartment she lived in across the channel.

Before she left, we talked a little about family history and where her side of the family comes from.  There is some speculation that somebody in the family may be a bastard child of a royal.  Who knows if this is true, but it's fascinating to talk about.  And that's the thing: people of this age have so much to talk about and so many great stories to tell.   If you haven't already, talk to them before it's too late, listen to their stories, write them down, and definitely take photos.   Theirs has been called "The Greatest Generation".  Now I have a much better understanding of why.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

DIY'ers Rejoice!!

No Sanding!  No Priming!  No Kidding!

Anyone who has followed this blog a bit knows I find everything to be a pain in the ass.  That's why when I saw those glorious words above I was more than a little interested.  When I find things that are easy to use, I feel an obligation to bring them forward as well.  With that in mind, it brings me great pleasure to talk about the Annie Sloan Chalk Paint system.  It is definitely not a pain in the ass.

Tami Fandrei is one of the Northern California stockists (that's what they call them) and we had heard great things about the paint from friends and family.   Tami and I had long been talking about exchanging photographic services for her painting expertise, so we finally decided to get together and make it happen.  She got some photos for her website and I got a product that's not a pain in the ass.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Am I Dying?

That was my first thought when I woke up last Friday morning with this meth user staring back at me.   The good news is that  I can't look any worse if I happen to get pulled over and arrested for beating my wife with a crack pipe while slamming a Pabst Blue ribbon and then fleeing in my 1976 black Trans-Am.  I"ll just hand the arresting office my model release form allowing him use of the photograph for my mugshot.  If only I still had my mullet.

The rash had been building for about two weeks, starting on my right temple as a bright red splotch that was slightly bumpy.  I didn't think much of until I noticed that my eye began to itch and I found myself scratching it obsessively.  In addition, right side of my neck began to turn red and splotchy.  Damn, it sort of felt like it was on fire.  The swelling began shortly thereafter, resulting in the Rocky Marciano look alike you see above a few days later.  By that time, my arms had begun to turn red and the rash grew slowly each day, snaking down my arm incrementally by the hour.   Only then did I have an ingenious idea, one that occurs to most men only after the symptoms and pain have become overwhelmingly ridiculous and death seems imminent:  I should go to the doctor!   Before I went, however, I asked Nikki if it looked bad. I just needed to be sure.  I was hoping I could convince her and myself that it wasn't really bad.  She laughed.  I went.

I have found that as I get older, every pain, in my mind, seems to be pointing towards certain death.  Lower back pain: degenerative disks.  Stomach ache: cancer.  Itchy rash: AIDS.   None of it is rational, and I can convince myself either way depending on the time of day and my mood.  Either way, I typically don't want to go to the doctor because it will certainly be bad news. With my frame of mind in the right place, I left for the doctor to see how long I had to live.

The nurse checked my vital signs, all seemed normal,  but I knew differently.  The doctor came in, asked my questions, I showed him the rashes and watched him type intently on the computer in the room.  He looked serious, this can't be good I thought.  This guy has been through 10 years of schooling, he's seen it all, he knows the gravity of my situation.  I kind of feel sorry for the guy that he must break the news to me.  Slowly he turned back to me.  I looked at the floor and quietly asked, "How long do I have doc"?  "Nobody can answer that question with any certainty", he said, "but go to the grocery store and get some Benadryl and this rash should clear up in about a week or so".   "That's it?", I asked.  "Yep, you have a skin irriation, that's all".  Sufficiently humiliated, I quickly walked out and left.

I knew there had to more to it than this, so I set about doing my own research.  Nikki and I tried to pinpoint all the things that were different in our household over the last several weeks.  All we could come up with was as a possible option was the scented dryer sheets.   It made sense, I had a rash on my neck from my shirt collars and and the rash on my arms started about the same point where short sleeves end.  Although that didn't turn out to be the case, I encourage you to google "scented dryer sheets" and look at the nastiness of the ingredients contained therein.   I think it might surprise you.

The real answer came during Nikki's holiday party for work.   I was sitting at the poker table (casino night) after dinner, and ran my right hand down my left forearm and I could feel the blisters through my long sleeve shirt.  I pressed slightly harder and I could see some fluid on my shirt.  There it was, the answer I had been searching for:  Weeping blisters, a classic case of poison oak.

It should have been obvious, I take Bella walking through the hills nearly every day and there is plenty of shrubbery and tall weeds and grass.  Either I touched it directly or it transmitted from her fur to my hands.   According to my research, I can look forward to the rashes being with me for another 3-6 weeks or so.

At least I'm not dying, but I can confirm one thing without a doubt: Poison Oak is some bad shit and the itching at 2 AM may make you wish you were dead.

Monday, November 28, 2011


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Like everybody else over the weekend, I took stock of what I'm thankful for and resolved to be less petty about the mundane things, the things that don't matter in life.  I eat on a regular schedule, I have a roof over my head, and I have all the basic necessities one requires to be generally fulfilled.  Sure, I complain and I say things are a pain in the ass, and I have a few laughs about it.  After spending some time thinking about all the things I'm thankful for, I still didn't feel like I had it nailed down, like I was missing something very basic that still wasn't articulated.   Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks as Nikki and I were enjoying a walk with Bella, and I knew exactly what I was thankful for.

We often go for walk in Sorich park in San Anselmo on the weekends when we want to do something different.   The air is always cool and it has the heavenly smell of damp eucalyptus trees most days.  It must be pure sensual ecstasy for a dog to sniff the area, and Bella did so with urgency.   You can choose an easy path or you can choose to head straight uphill for a more difficult climb and workout.  We climbed first and got some nice shots from up high, then headed back down to the footpath for some easier walking.  We've been to the park several times so we knew that we would eventually run into Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery if we followed the path far enough.  

Cemeteries always give me pause because I inherently know that's where we all end up.  Whether it's now or a year or 50 years, that's the end game, and our time on earth is so inconsequential in geological time.  Regardless of your religious beliefs about the after life, I would venture to say we all feel that claustrophobic feeling when we look at burial plots.  If there is the smallest black hole of doubt that may exist in your universe of faith and in the after life, it will certainly rush to the forefront in these moments of reflection and mock you, call you names, and laugh in your face.  In fact, I can imagine that this very moment of reflection and claustrophobia is exactly why religion exists in the first place.  We can't fathom nothing.  Despite all that deep thinking, I still couldn't help but notice the small concrete mausoleum nearby and that it would make a nice, gritty background, so I got a shot of Bella by it.  Also, the deciduous trees are strikingly similar in color to the Colorado aspen trees in the fall, something that always surprises me just a bit.

Nikki pointed out a particular headstone as we were walking back out of the park that caused me to reflect again.  The sun coming through the trees was beautiful and the headstone seemed to be isolated from the others.  I looked at the date and noticed this person was buried in 1956.  That's 55 years ago, in the ground longer than I've been alive.

And then it hit me.  The thing I'm thankful for, the thing I couldn't quite articulate earlier is this:  I'm thankful to be alive, today,now, smelling the eucalyptus, walking, thinking, writing.  I may be gone tomorrow, but right now, I'm breathing.  I'm of this world. And that's what matters.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Lasting Legacy?

I went to the Rip Curl 2011 pro surfing event at Ocean Beach this weekend and got some great action shots here of mostly young, athletic surfers at the top of their game.  My favorite shots from the day however, are of Martin the old, ragged homeless man I saw on the way out of the event.

I didn't notice him when I walked down to the beach to see the event, but he was the first thing I saw when I turned to leave.  The concrete with the old homeless man up against it was a great composition and I knew I would have to stop and ask to take his portrait.  I had my zoom lens on, I could have easily shot from a distance and moved on, but that seems like stealing, like cheating the person of their dignity somehow.

I walked up and asked him to take his photo and he gladly obliged and asked me if I wanted any "cider".  I was close enough that I could see in his grocery sack that he didn't have any cider.  He only had an opened bottle of vermouth sitting next to him in the sand.   That's a hard way to get drunk, I thought to myself.  Vermouth is very sweet and is typically used as a mixer.  We engaged in a conversation and I could tell he probably had some type of mental illness usually associated with homeless people.  He spoke very clearly, but his thoughts rambled incoherently in a stream of consciousness.  He was from Seattle and Berkeley, lived on the 13th floor of a building (freaked him out), lived in a house,had to get out of there recently because "they were eating things, it was ugly", and on and on.  He asked me if I had any marijuana (nope), then asked if I believed in Jesus.

I got around to shooting the photos and he politely engaged me in the process.  He playfully put his hands in a prayer form and bowed up and down, then he took his hat off and let me get close.  The whole process took maybe 5 minutes and then I was on my way.  Before I left, he asked if he could look at the camera's LCD screen to see the photos.  I showed him, he smiled, and I walked away.

As I was driving home I reflected on why it is that I enjoy taking photos of homeless people.  The easy answer is that homeless people have interesting faces.  That's a no brainer, but it's something else, something deeper.  Then it hit me and I had the epiphany I was searching for:  He wanted to look at the screen before I left.  The screen was tangible evidence of his existence, a homeless wanderer who is probably largely ignored in life, had proof that he was among us.  I remembered that he asked me what I was going to do with the images.  I told him I didn't know.

Then I had a second, more personal epiphany:  I take photos because that will be my legacy after I'm gone.  Just like the old homeless man who wants a voice, who wants to be remembered and leave some tangible evidence of a legacy, I also want to leave some tangible, meaningful proof that I was here.  Like the old man I'm fighting time and millions upon millions of voices struggling, clawing, scratching, to be heard.

Taking photos of homeless people satisfies two people's needs at once and lets the world know that we are, and were, here.  Now I know what I'll do with the photos, I'll post them here and hope that it gives Martin a legacy in some small, meaningful way.

Everybody, this is Martin.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Smart as Hell

Why am I writing about Parrots?  Why not?  What choice do I have, really, when I walk up to Peet's to get coffee and there is a guy reading the newspaper with 3 parrots resting on the bench?  African gray parrots, to be precise.

I'm not one to pass up on an opportunity such as this that presents itself randomly.  I always keep a bare minimum of kit in the vehicle with me for these type of occasions.  I would have preferred to have the birds in a studio with a little more control, but you take what you can get.

The guy (I didn't even get his name) told me he rescued these birds from various institutions, and one of them is 33 (they all look the same to me, I can't tell).  Often these rescue birds have been mistreated and they tend to be self mutilators.  You can generally notice it in the way they incessantly pick at their breast feathers or on their back like the one above.

 In general, they didn't seem to mind me taking their photos and a lot of times seemed to pose just a bit.

I told the one how pretty he/she (shim?) was and he blushed, cocked his head and said thank you.

I had heard they were very smart and very trainable birds, so I said hey Billy (I gave them my own names.  They're used to it, they've had multiple owners), lift your leg like you're taking a dump, then flap your wings.

Without hesitation, he responded and performed the tasks in the order I asked him to do them.  His friend in the background clearly enjoyed the performance as well.

 "Hey Billy", I said, "That's amazing, how did you learn that?"

He looked me straight in the eye and said, "None of your fu***ng business".

I laughed, that's just what I would say, I thought to myself.

"The detail in your feathers and on your beak is gorgeous" I told him.

He blushed again and said, "Thank You".

He gave me one last look, thanked me for stopping by, and asked me to pass on the word about African Gray Parrots.

"I will", I told him.

And with that, the guy packed up his birds and took off.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Circus Freaks

He looks dirty, somewhat sleazy, and a bit scary and dangerous.  In short, he looks like a grade A bona-fide Carnie.  However, he's the ringleader of the greatest party I've ever attended.

This is the third party of Robert's we've attended and they have all been great, but this one was over the top in every detail and in every carefully placed Kewpie doll.   This party takes a year's worth of planning, and he started placing the circus tent panels in the house in August.  I had seen the basic structure, but I hadn't seen all the fine details that would make the party a feast for the eyes and leave me amused and amazed at the same time.

 The first thing you see upon arriving at the house is that the entrance is set up like the entrance to a circus tent and there is a handmade sign at the front door announcing that we're at the "Carnivale Abnormale".   When we enter the house I'm looking around the room and I'm sort of shocked and amazed.  I should be taking photos, but my attention is constantly diverted to other incredible details in the room.  There are hand painted signs hanging up there, a gigantic clown mouth over there, and Kewpie dolls everywhere.   The thing that blows my mind is that all the graphics are created by Robert, and everything from the coasters on the table to the hand soap in the bathroom has been customized specifically for the party.   I would be proud of myself had I created just one of these things.

I walk further into the house and there are two cotton candy machines in the living room.  In my mind cotton candy is some sort of magical creation and can't be duplicated at home, it requires tons of room and  highly specialized equipment.   I turn my head to the right and there is a freaking skee ball game and now my head is about to explode.  Suddenly I'm 7 years old again and I want to win stuffed animals and cheap plastic snakes that end up costing $25 dollars at the end of the day.   Each game, from the skee ball to the wheel of fortune, to the fortune teller (made by Robert) requires tickets to play and each give raffle tickets back depending on your score.  At the end of the night, we all entered our raffle tickets and numbers were drawn and prizes given.  It was actually like being at a carnival.  Amazing.

In addition to the carnival games there was carnival food:  Cotton candy, popcorn, corn-dogs, onion rings,  and 20 other battered, deep fried, delicacies, all home-made.  The place even smelled like a carnival.

Because Robert's parties have gained such renown with his friends, the party-goers tend to go all out in their costumes and he now buildst a studio in the garage to take shots of the guests, which makes me euphoric.  Drunk, uninhibited party-goers wearing crazy colors and outlandish costumes against a themedl backdrop is a photographer's dream.   I just show up and say "stand over there" and they begin posing, and when I'm done they don't want me to stop, they want more.    It's a dream job and I volunteer every year now.  I took shots of all the attendees, and while it's impossible to show every one, these are some of my favorites.  All can be seen here .

The crazy psycho clown is amazing by itself because that costume was put together in literally 15 minutes.  Due to a cancellation, Christina got a phone call about an hour before the party and put that together, but that's what she does.  She has more energy than any other person I've ever met.

Note from Nikki, those are not fat rolls, it is the costume!

The task of hosting a more elaborate, creative party for next year is daunting indeed.  I hope Robert hasn't reached his creative zenith with this one, but I do feel sorry for him because expectations will be quite high.  No pressure Robert, we'll be watching, waiting, anticipating.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Am I Complaining About?

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I ask myself that question a lot of times as I sit and eat my turkey sandwich while overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.  Millions of people make vacation plans and spend a lot of money to come and see the bridge, one of the most iconic architectural monuments in the U.S.  I come here to eat my fritos when I'm bored.

It's easy to find things to complain about in our jobs.  I do it every day to the point of ridiculousness.  A sales job can be a lonely existence and it certainly has some drawbacks, but my sales territory includes Marin County up to the bridge.  Hell, I was literally required to be there as we had a big erosion control project going on in the steep sloped hills for the past year.   I have taken great shots of the bridge from the driver's seat, while dialing in sports radio.  It's a fact of life,  I just see it all the time.

From the bridge I can be at the beach in 10 minutes to watch the surfers do their thing while I finish up my sandwich.  I do it often, it helps break up the day and it only takes 30 minutes.    Many times I try to tell myself how lucky I am to have the job I have in the area I have it.  It works for awhile, but I think the American suburbanite is programmed to complain.  Relatively speaking, (especially when compared to, say, a child struggling in Africa) everything is easy.   The fight for survival is so much less than it was 100 or 200 years ago.  Imagine the pioneers and the Westward migration.  That, my friends, was a struggle.

So I sit and watch the surfers and I think about how easy I have it and I begin to feel a sense of tranquility, and I vow to stop complaining about ridiculous things.  Inevitably my reverie is broken by the sound of my phone, the 3"x5" miracle that allows me to communicate instantaneously with nearly any part of the world, and I reach down to grab it and it falls between the space in the seat where I can't reach it.

SON OF A B*%*@!!!  Everything is a pain in the ass!!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Do You Believe in Pataphysics?

I still don't know what it means and I looked up the word Pataphysics.  Wikipedia defines it like this:

The term was coined and the concept created by French writer Alfred Jarry (1873–1907), who defined 'pataphysics as "the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments."  (WTF?)

I doubt I ever would have known this word if I hadn't asked Eric to pose for me, and that's the beauty of photography.  Everybody always has something interesting to say or I learn about something new and interesting by interacting.   I think it's part of the human condition, we all want to give our opinion or tell our story.  In short, we want to be heard.   I approach any given subject because I find something about them interesting, and the interaction always reveals more, gives me something I didn't have before.   Now I have Pataphysics, but I'm not sure what to do with it. 

"Imaginary Solutions".  Isn't that what 5 year olds come up with when they are caught doing wrong, or when they don't understand something?Parents, now you can really throw them for a loop next time they mess up.  Instead of screaming "don't lie to me" you can simply say "(Insert Name), stop being Pataphysical. In an earlier blog about the Greer family, I'm pretty sure Dylan gave me a Pataphysical answer about the lemons and limes.  I think the Mormons have Pataphysical answers to many things (OK, that was gratuitous, but I grew up Mormon so I get to say stuff like that.  Mormon family, please don't be offended, it's not personal, just poking fun).

I have found that the surfing crowd at Cronkhite Beach is largely a professional crowd.  Many of them put their suits on after surfing and head to the law offices for a dissertation.  That really surprised me as I assumed they were much more like Eric, who definitely fits the prototypical stereotype of a surfer.  Alfred Jerry, who coined the term must have surfed and smoked weed, right?  Regardless of what he believes, or how he thinks, Eric was courteous to me and allowed me some time to do what I wanted to do.  He didn't have an obligation, but he allowed the interaction to happen and I know I'm a little bit richer for the encounter.