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.