Thicker Than Water

I became the unofficial family paparazzo five years ago, over Thanksgiving weekend. I’d just purchased my first medium-format film camera, a boxy twin-lens reflex manufactured in the late ’60s, and had become unreasonably enamored of its numerous quirks. After stuffing ourselves with turkey and pumpkin pie, I accosted various family members with it, and the resulting photos were my favorite images of the year.

I was hooked.

Each year thereafter, I continued to harass my brother and cousins, prodding them to pose for me in the hotel rooms we piled into every Thanksgiving, over the breakfast table at my grandparents’ house, and at every other celebratory occasion that brought us together. They became my muses.

When we visited Oregon in June, my brother and almost all of my cousins—by now, all located on the West Coast—descended on Portland for a reunion weekend. We found ourselves mired in a blistering heat wave; I insisted on taking their photos anyway.

All too often, I hesitate to pick up my camera when I’m busy having fun (or when everyone else is busy having fun). I don’t want to be disruptive, or ruin the simple pleasure of living inside a moment.

But without exception, I never regret photographing my family. As the years pass, and the images pile up, I go back to them again and again and count my blessings for all the people I call my own.

Camera: Mamiya 6
Film: Kodak Portra 400

Say Yes to Texas

On Spontaneity

Last time we met, I wasn’t a prime candidate for spontaneity: my weeks filled with work and class, my weekends with reading and schoolwork.

That steady drumbeat of work and school has continued relentlessly since then, but when I got wind of a flash sale on airfare about a month ago, the prospect of a commitment-free long weekend in a new-to-me city won out over the prospect of yet another Saturday and Sunday curled up with my estate planning textbook. I paid $154.20 for a round-trip ticket to Austin with a departure date less than two weeks later, and woke up the next morning with a spontaneity hangover.

If you’re familiar with Brené Brown’s work, you’ve probably heard of the concept of a vulnerability hangover: that deep feeling of shame and regret, which arrives in a wave after you’ve shared something that makes you feel emotionally exposed. And if you’re not familiar with her work, well, I’m sure you know what that feels like.

I felt something similar after purchasing my plane ticket. The blowback didn’t come from vulnerability, however, but from indulging a spontaneous and carefree urge to treat myself—something I don’t do often enough. Regretful questions flooded in: would I be neglecting my study group that weekend? Shouldn’t I wait to travel until work quieted down?

But obligations are ever-present, in one form or another, like a real-life game of whack-a-mole: you fend one off, only to find another crop up in its place. As a responsible, duty-bound person, I’m highly skilled at finding easy excuses for staying put. It is my life’s work to fight that inclination and commit myself to new adventures instead.

On Itineraries

Something else I’m highly skilled at? Overplanning my vacations.

My 9-to-5 deskbound brethren can probably relate: overplanning always starts as an innocent desire to make the most of one’s limited free time. For awhile, overstuffing the itineraries of my various weekend trips gave me a sense of accomplishment, and a heady adrenaline rush: look how many amazing experiences I can pack into 48 hours! (See: Michigan, Kentucky, Seattle.) It felt like a pleasantly subversive way of reclaiming my paltry supply of vacation days.

Over time, though, that approach has become less exhilarating and more exhausting, and I’ve begun to prefer a balance between structure and spontaneity. It’s nice to leave myself enough room to be surprised by a place, and to be gentle with myself when my mood or energy level doesn’t correspond with the next agenda item. And when I inevitably miss out on something, it’s a fun excuse to come back again soon.

On Barbecue, Bats, and Breakfast Tacos

Our reasons to return to Austin? Mount Bonnell, Texas hill country, and Jester King brewery. (And photography! I was too busy relaxing to shoot more than one roll of film.) Despite missing out on all of the above, four days was plenty of time to experience much of what Austin has to offer.

We spent ample time outside, hiking to Sculpture Falls and splashing around in the river, and beating the heat at Barton Springs Pool. At dusk, we paddled Lady Bird Lake in a double kayak, and idled beneath Congress Avenue Bridge to watch the bats emerge en masse.

We balanced our active time with plenty of fuel, of course, mostly in the form of barbecue and breakfast tacos.

And we spent plenty of time exploring Austin’s neighborhoods on foot, chatting with its ridiculously friendly residents along the way. We stayed in quirky South Austin (with the world’s nicest AirBnB host), window-shopped on South Congress, and ate and drank in colorful East Austin. And we hung out downtown—exploring the Texas State Capitol, hydrating at the unique bars on Rainey Street, and catching a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Next chance you get? You should say yes to Texas, too.

Camera: Mamiya 6
Film: Kodak Portra 160

Starved Rock, Cream City, and a New Year

I love January firsts and fresh starts. Reflecting, goal-setting, and list-making are acts that have always given me energy as I face down the next dozen months.

But this year, I didn’t bother taking the time to write New Year’s resolutions. That’s not because I’ve given up on the concept of resolutions, or because I’ve decided to lower my expectations for 2016; quite the opposite, in fact. For the first January that I can remember, resolution-making seems beside the point, because I’m already so immersed in the act of working towards big, scary goals, and so committed to the baby steps that need to happen to get me there. As far as taking action goes, I am all in, and I have been for some time.

Last March, I started working on a certificate in financial planning at Northwestern University, a series of seven courses that I’m almost halfway through. I haven’t talked about the ins and outs of my work life in this space, because for many years it seemed beside the point: I was searching for, but not quite finding, a meaningful and challenging profession that I could happily spend years mastering; one that was stable, but could someday offer an outlet for my entrepreneurial and creative energies. There are a number of fundamental struggles of identity that happen in your twenties—too many, if you ask me!—and as difficult as these challenges are to work through, they’re even more difficult to write about if you haven’t come out the other side.

In some small way, I’m on the other side now. Being on the other side may still involve night classes, weekend studies, and the inevitability of future twists and turns, but for now, it also involves clarity of purpose—and after years of searching for it, finding clarity feels like relief.

The single-minded pursuit of a big goal can sideline other aspects of your life temporarily; for me, that’s meant less time for photography, writing, travel and running, and that stings more than a little bit. But Dan and I have kept making time for weekend trips here and there, staying active and creative and never forgetting what we’re doing all this work for.

In October, we visited Starved Rock for our last camping trip of the year, on a rain-soaked Halloween weekend that emptied out the normally-crowded trails. Afterwards, we warmed up with wine by the fire at the Starved Rock Lodge and fried chicken at Rip’s Tavern.

And just before the new year, I told Dan to pack his bags for a surprise trip. We hopped the Amtrak to Milwaukee, drank plenty of Wisconsin beer and ate plenty of Wisconsin cheese, and fortified ourselves for the long, hard, rewarding winter that stretched out before us.

Camera: Fuji X100

Every Grain of Sand

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

—The Wilderness Act of 1964

Camera: Mamiya 6
Film: Kodak Portra 400