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Category Archive: Personal

  1. Jan

    TOPIC: Personal.

    Hanging up my shingle

    …um, in reverse?

    I realized in the course of a self-Google (there’s just no good way to say that) that I haven’t been to this website in a while. I was alarmed to see that I had put my cell phone number basically all over the Internet, which may explain why I get so many unsolicited phone calls offering me a free vacation if I act now. So while tidying that up, I came across this site. This beautifully designed site for a dream that I wonder if I ever really had.

    My last entry on this blog is hard to read. I wrote it during the very short window of time that my mom was considered cancer-free. We took our trip to Paris–it was weird and wonderful; not at all what we expected but full of magic that I’ll never forget. And then a month later the cancer was back, and it was all over the place. My mom went through ten more months of agony, both physical and emotional (much of that thanks to a healthcare system that forces very ill people to advocate for themselves and slams dozens of doors in their faces before finally allowing them to give up hope). She underwent biopsies, scans, and an incredibly brutal round of radiation that the doctors told us should buy her the six months she’d need to qualify for a clinical trial. Instead, she lived another five weeks. The day I realized that she was never going to be “okay” again, not even for a minute, is one I can hardly think about.

    I didn’t really intend to come here and write about my mom. I’ve done so much of that in my Project 365, year six of which was basically all sickness and sadness, all the time. I still keep that up, even though I don’t post the results on this blog anymore. It’s actually been very therapeutic. I started posting almost every day, instead of at the end of the week, which meant the project became almost more about words than photos. Words have been what I’ve needed, because I struggle to express the depth of my emotions in conversation with anyone who hasn’t experienced this kind of loss. I still worry about ruining other people’s days if I’m honest with them. I still have to self-censor occasionally, mostly out of respect to my mom, but it’s been a good outlet. I’m glad I was in the habit for so long before all this happened; it kept me going, and it allowed me to occasionally skip a day and use an old photo without feeling guilty.

    Part of what I learned while my mom was dying was that I tend to attach a lot of importance to things that ultimately don’t matter at all. One of those things was my web presence. I had effectively shuttered my photography business in 2013, but I still blogged almost everything I shot in 2014. Why? I remember sitting in my mom’s hospital room, knocking out blogs for 13 sessions. If I wasn’t trying to get business, why was I spending tedious hours resizing photos into collages? So while I do still shoot sometimes, I haven’t felt compelled to share. I crave more time spent away from the computer screen. Blogging had to fall by the wayside.

    That meant I stopped writing my bug blog, too, although not for lack of engaging in Internet entomology. (I deliberately resisted the urge to make that a portmanteau.) I just felt like there must be a more useful thing to do with my nature photos than confine them to a nigh-totally-unread blog. Luckily, I attended a session at the Urban Parks Conference last year where someone evangelized iNaturalist, so I started uploading all my photos there. This way, should an actual scientist want to track the spread of the checkered setwing dragonfly, they can search on iNat and see that I found one straying well east of its range right here in Cordova. This enormous amount of uploading is what I did during my mom’s 2015 stint in the hospital while she was sleeping. At present, this seems more worthwhile than how I spent the 2014 hospital-thon. I’m still into it, at any rate. Look! Behold the pretty dragons.

    So that’s it. There wasn’t really a point to this post, other than to acknowledge that this place is full of cobwebs and likely to remain that way. I’d like to keep it here for a while, because it reminds me of Before. Not necessarily a good Before, because this site was designed during the first few months after my mom’s diagnosis, and those were not happy times by any stretch. But if there’s anything Project 365 has taught me, it’s that I need to remember. In my tough moments, I go back and look at other tough moments I wrote about, because I obviously survived those days. This little site is a reminder that I could find beauty in the darkness, and that’s not such a bad message for a world that can sometimes seem colorless in the aftermath of loss. Au revoir for now.

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  2. Mar

    TOPIC: 365, Personal.

    Project 365-5 #2: For the Birds

    Since my last Project 365 entry was dense, lengthy, and in general kind of a bummer, it’s time to return to my favorite crutch: The List.

    Here’s what I’ve been up to since last time:

    1. Let’s start with the obvious: this website looks a whole lot different.  For the past few months, I’ve been slowly rolling out my new branding, which is bug-themed (of course!).  This website is the culmination of all that.  I hope you’ll take a minute to look around!  Here’s the story of how it came to be, if you’re interested.  Oh, and I’ve probably blogged about 15 different sessions since your last visit, which I finally knocked out…

    2. During one of my mom’s several hospital stays since starting chemo.  This has obviously been the toughest part about the last few months.  The doctors had her on two kinds of drugs, one to target the adenocarcinoma, and one to target the squamous carcinoma.  The squamous-targeting drugs both caused horrific attacks of pancreatitis that landed her in the hospital within 24 hours of receiving them.  The first time, we didn’t know what was happening, so that was even scarier.  Long story short, she and the doctors decided it was best to stick to just one kind of chemo drug, and since then she’s been feeling a whole lot better.  Well enough to occasionally go and cheer loudly for…

    3. The Tigers, who have been so Jekyll and Hyde-like this season.  I’m going to choose to remember the way FedExForum was physically shaking during the Gonzaga and Louisville victories, Joe Jackson shot-blocking a giant, Big Dom and his ballet steps across the court for dunks, Shaq Goodwin’s smile, Trey Draper’s dance moves, etc. rather than the atrocious UConn game that was the last home appearance by the seniors.  And maybe we’ll have something good to remember from this week’s NCAA tournament, too, which I plan to once again take off work and enjoy.  The most excellent part of work lately has been…

    4. Spending a good portion of the winter learning about birds while wandering through the Old Forest.  This was the first year I have really paid attention to the birds, and let me tell you: It sounds very corny, but I can’t underestimate how having something capture my fancy like this has helped me through a rough winter.  It’s definitely a theme that runs through this set of photos, and I’m pleased at the variety it adds to what is usually my least favorite part of the year.  (There are lots more bird photos, and more goopy meditations, over on ::crickets::.)  The birds led me on a quick trip to…

    5. Sanibel Island, a fine oasis in the dead of winter if there ever was one.  I also escaped briefly to Pittsburgh in January after a terribly sad week at home left me craving a little time with my other family (and, okay…a little time at Casbah).  And then I made an even quicker trip to Boston last weekend to see Throwing Muses for the fifth time.  So much has changed since that first show, back in May 2000 before I had even graduated high school, but not how essential that music is to my story.  I know it’s a great concert experience when I laugh AND cry in the middle of songs, and this one certainly accomplished that.  (Plus, this venue had a mezzanine.  For an old lady like myself who loves watching live music in tiny venues but hates standing in a sweaty mob for three hours, this was revelatory.  I made like Jordan Catalano and I LEANED on that rail!)  That night was the very best kind of blast from the past…the kind that’s just as vital in the present.  This winter’s other blast from the past was…

    6. My “Proto 365” project, which is a book I put together of photos from the pre-Project 365 phase.  I didn’t get a digital camera until 2006, when I started working at the Parks Conservancy and quickly realized that taking photos was going to make my job WAY easier, because I was constantly fielding requests for them from various publications.  I started Project 365 in September 2009, so there were about three and a half years of photos to pull from for Proto 365.  I didn’t take a photo every day (in one case, there’s a gap of a month), but I did pull one from all the days that I did, which was about 470 in all.  To caption them, I tried to pull from primary sources as much as possible–captions I’d hand-written in my printed photo albums at the time (which I stopped doing circa Christmas 2007), e-mails, my journal, the old MySpace blog, Facebook posts, etc.  I especially enjoyed going through my e-mails with my friend Joanna, because they’re peppered with references to all the colorful characters at the hospital where we worked about ten years ago now.  To Ms. Sczerbiak, Mr. Matassa, and of course the guy our boss referred to as Toothless Groggins…I have a special place in my heart for you all.

    As a project, it was EXHAUSTING.  Not just the physical aspect of sitting around for hours on end, poking through e-mails to find some reference to what’s occurring in a photo, or on the date of a photo, although that was challenging.  It was just tough reliving some of those emotions.  I had honestly forgotten how difficult my job at the Parks Conservancy was at the beginning, how hard it was to get my footing, and how badly I wanted to move back home.  Eventually, though, I developed a crush on a co-worker that resulted in my being outside all the time, participating in all our outdoor park-related activities (and taking LOTS of photos).  Once I started to do that, I made a lot of surprising discoveries–hey, I LIKE getting all muddy; there’s a huge natural world out here and I want to know everything about it; wait, there’s a difference between dragonflies and damselflies, and some of them come in ORANGE?  It was fun reliving that part; the ups and downs and highs and lows of said crush that set it all in motion–not so much.  I can’t say what I really would have done differently with hindsight, except to be less terrified of asking people hard questions, and to have the wisdom to accept when you’re given the wrong answer and you need to walk away.  If I could live that time over again, I’d jump that ship sooner.  Luckily, that process was made a million times better by the arrival of Laura at our office, and if there’s anything I know for certain, it’s that I will NEVER jump that ship.  :)  Anyway, I’m very glad I made the book, and I’m very glad it’s DONE.  And in other notes…

    7. Several of my friends had new babies, and I got to be among the first people in the world to hold one of them.  (Shoutout to Baby Luke!)  I briefly made my dad Twitter-famous.  The weather was terrible without ceasing.  I got to experience being in a real-life video game when my car started spinning on the freeway, but I came out with about as much damage as I would have in a video game.  (Thank goodness!)  Bike Gate went up at Overton Park, but not before the mud ate a crane for breakfast.  Copious cheese was consumed.  Also cannoli (grazie, Boston).  And Prince Mongo’s house makes an appearance.

    Now…let’s kick this miserable winter out of here and get a little sunshine brewing.

    (Don’t see any images below?  Click on the title of this post!)

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  3. Mar

    TOPIC: Personal.

    All abuzz.

    This website has been pretty quiet over the last few months, for a very happy reason that I’m sure you’ve already noticed: it’s been getting a head-to-toe makeover!

    A few months back I decided that if I wanted to get really serious about my photography, I needed to invest in professional branding.  I created my first logo several years ago, when I was first taking photos casually, because I decided it was time to move past the belly-up MySpace and get myself a real blog.  But at the time, it was intended as just that: a place to write and post the occasional photo.  I had no inkling that I would ever have a real photography business, so I chose a font for my logo just because it was named “Jane Austen” and that sounded literary.  (I’m not even a big Jane Austen fan, even!)

    I called my blog “Here’s To It,” because my grandma and I used to spend many a lazy afternoon listening to Frank Sinatra CDs and drinking sparkling grape juice, which she would toast with a “Here’s to it, and here’s for it, and here’s to it again–if you don’t do it while you’re up to it, you may never do it again!”  (Going on ten years into her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I am so, so glad that we did our afternoons with Frank while we were up to it.)  “Here’s to it” always sounded right in my head, and was probably fine for a blog, but it’s kind of a clunky business name.  And the truth is, I just kept it as the name of my business because it was convenient.  I never put too much thought into it beyond that.

    Things obviously picked WAY up with my photography, and at some point last year, I just knew it was TIME.  I wanted something that was much more “me,” and I knew after five years of slapping designs together on the fly that, ironically, the best way to find “me” was to bring in someone else.

    Enter the fabulous Renee of Ribbons of Red.

    When I was looking for someone to overhaul my business brand, I gravitated immediately toward Renee because of both her incredible work and the fact that her own business was named after her beloved grandma.  After working with her for a while, it was so obvious that she was the perfect choice.  She had me start with an inspiration board on Pinterest of things I love–colors, shoots I especially enjoyed, other logos I liked, and just general pretty things.  Along the way I became seduced by the idea of somehow using windows in my branding, which in retrospect may have been me subliminally dissing Apple.  (#nodisrespecttostevejobs)  I had originally wanted to incorporate my obsession with nature (okay, bugs) into my logo in some way, but I started to resist the concept because I wasn’t sure it was “different” enough.

    This is why it was good to have Renee, instead of playing the eternal second-guessing game with myself.

    She looked at my photos, browsed through ::crickets::, chatted with me over Skype, and concluded that there was nothing more “me” than my twin loves of nature and photography.  I knew from the beginning that I wanted to incorporate the color yellow, so she created an adorable little honeybee for my logo (which is, of course, totally appropriate since “Melissa” means “honeybee”).  She added a similarly illustrated butterfly and dragonfly, and chose a soothing color scheme that calls to mind the nurseries where I spend a lot of time photographing newborns and their families.  To tie it all together, she designed this beautiful website for me with such lovely little touches (check out the way the gallery works–genius!).

    It finally feels like my photos have a proper home.  I am so grateful to Renee for all her incredible work, and for being such a delightful person to go through this process is.  It can be hard to get to the core of someone you’ve never met and somehow make a visual representation of that, but I think she gets an A+.   I hope you all like it as much as I do!

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  4. Dec

    TOPIC: 365, Personal.

    Project 365-5 #1: Deal or No Deal


    There are times I love Project 365 (almost all the time), and times when I enjoy it a little less.  We happen to be at the intersection of the two times I really struggle with it: the gray doldrums of winter, and the midst of a crisis.  The photos themselves haven’t been the problem, but right now, the very last thing I feel like doing is trying to sum up the last three months in words.  But here we are.

    At the beginning of November, my mom had an x-ray that showed a mass on her pancreas.  The doctor said it was most likely cancer.  We read the Internet; we freaked out; we stopped sleeping; we started revising last wills and testaments.  A few days later, the gastro specialist and the pancreatic surgeon advised us to back down from the panic, that it looked like a cystic mass to them rather than a tumor.  We calmed down for a couple of days.  The doctors got her scheduled for surgery one week after detecting the mass, because they are amazing.  They were able to completely remove it and saw no evidence that anything had spread beyond the pancreas.  We exhaled.

    Then they ran a pathology report and discovered that not only was it cancer after all, it was an incredibly rare adenosquamous tumor, which basically means two types of cancer got together and decided to have a party.  We read the Internet; we freaked out; we stopped sleeping again.  We assumed we had maybe six months left with her, so aggressive are these tumors.  Then we met with her cancer doctor, who said they were going to recommend chemo and give it their best shot given the amazingly early diagnosis, the complete removal of the tumor, and her otherwise good health.  She will start chemo this week, with the hope of besting or at least staving off the cancer for a significant period of time.  It is better than it could be, that’s for sure–but knowing that she has to go through chemo again, given how low it laid her the last time, is upsetting.  I hope it’s less terrible this time.  Hope hope hope.

    So that’s where we are.  We have been up and down on an emotional roller coaster so many times over the past five weeks that I barely have a concept of space and time right now.  (I think the full-throttle resurgence of my insomnia has something to do with that, but melatonin has started giving me aggressive spider dreams, so I’m at a loss.)  I sometimes think I’m dealing with it well; other times I wonder if I’m dealing with it at all.  At first, I was crying all the time.  Now, I’m trying to keep from thinking all the dark thoughts whenever possible.  But at the same time, I don’t want to get too comfortable because I don’t want the shock to be as horrible if and when we get bad news again.  I don’t think anything could really make this easier, the idea of losing the most important person in my life.  But carrying around a sense of imminent doom every day is no way to function, so we just soldier on.  I think we’re mostly doing okay, most of the time.

    Here is the other thing.

    It’s time for a major change in my photography business.  I had an incredible year with photography.  When I decided to try my hand at shooting something besides trees in 2008, I never expected that I would be regularly photographing families, couples, babies who are less than a week old, and most significantly, the milestones in the lives of people I just adore.  It is a gift to be able to do this, and when I take a step back, as I have over the past month, I realize the magnitude of it.  I’ve loved telling stories since I was five years old and my kindergarten teacher gave me a fuzzy rainbow sticker for a book I drew.  Now I am taking photos of my kindergarten teacher’s five grandchildren and helping her capture her own story.  That’s the warmest, fuzziest thing ever!  I want to keep doing this so, so much.

    But…I can’t keep going on the path I have been.  The other side to the coin is that I shot so many sessions in 2013 that I spent the majority of the year in a state of near-total burnout.  I just don’t have spare time, because I’m editing photos around the clock.  (I haven’t even blogged my last fifteen sessions.  Crikey!)  This means I haven’t been as present as a friend or family member as I want to be; I haven’t been able to serve like I want to (I would dearly love to be a Big Sister again, and it’s just not possible); I don’t exercise and I eat my feelings (my feelings are conveniently loaded with sugar!); when on Earth would I ever have time to go on a date?; etc.  It took the idea of having only a few months left with my mom to get me to start taking better care of myself, and that just shouldn’t be.

    But throwing myself into doing photography full-time isn’t something I can do immediately.  It’s a process.  Part of that is so awesome it makes me want to do a happy dance (that’s the rebranding part that I’ve been doing with a wonderful designer I’ll introduce you to…on my new, improved website debuting this winter!).  I’ve been thinking through all the nifty things I can do with my new logo and packaging, my shiny new website, and all the cool little gifts and fun things I can do for my clients.  I went to a workshop this summer with the incredible Michele Anderson of Pinkle Toes Photography (shockingly, I never got around to blogging about that either, but she did!).  I came away feeling so inspired and full of ideas.  It opened up windows I can’t wait to peek through with my own work.

    It also splashed a cold dose of reality on the part of this process that’s not so fun: reconfiguring my pricing.  (I hatehatehate talking about money, so this is probably the one and only time I’m gonna do it.  Buckle up!)  When we were talking about prices, Michele called out a number that you should be charging only if you’re shooting your images and then immediately burning them to a disc: no sorting through to choose the best ones, no color-correcting, no blemish removal, no fixing flyaway hairs or bruises or stained shirts, or doing any of the million things I do to make a photo “sing.”  She said “If you’re doing all those things and this is what you’re charging, chances are you’re headed straight for a burnout, and you won’t be able to shoot for much longer, period.”  I raised my hand and admitted that was my exact pricing and my exact experience.  It’s now the end of 2013, and for many months I shot just as many sessions as Michele shoots–I’ve secretly been working two full-time jobs!  That is sort of a weird thing to discover.  Ha!

    And so when I looked at the possibility of concentrating solely on photography, I did the math on what it would cost–what taxes I would have to charge and pay, what insurance I would need to carry, the cost of backup cameras, software, professional memberships, office supplies, memory cards, repairs, web hosting, and a metric ton of postage.  I’ve been paying for a lot of those things already, of course–but not with the money I make from photography.  Because for the year 2013, I lost $6,500 on my photography business.  At my current prices, I can’t finance taking photos without my day job.  Which means I definitely don’t come close to being able to live off photography.

    That meant I had to make the difficult decision to increase my prices for 2014.  It’s been almost 3 years since my last price hike, during which time I’ve invested considerable time and money into becoming a better photographer.  Even with the new rates, I’m still at the low end of what I mathematically should be charging to be sustainable full-time according to my Handy Excel Spreadsheet, but I want there to be at least some chance that my wonderful, amazing clients will stick with me.  I’m going to do whatever I can to keep them happy, because if this weren’t a necessary change, it’s not one I’d be making.  I never want or need to get anything approaching wealthy doing photography.  I do need to be able to integrate it into my life at a level that keeps me from sitting at a desk for eight hours a day at my job, and then another four or five hours when I get home every night.  However this shakes out–if I get lucky enough to do photos full-time, or if my paying clients slow down and I have time to focus on shooting for things like the Magic Hour Foundation–it’s a move I needed to make.  I hope that everyone understands it for what it is–the very opposite of an ego- or money-driven decision.  What it is, is the only way I can keep doing this thing that I love so much.

    If you made it through this post, bless you.  It’s been a hard few months of soul-searching, and that’s not always fun to write (or read) about.  But everyone I know has been so supportive and wonderful about everything I’ve been going through.  I don’t know how I got so blessed with the people in my life, but I truly am.  I hope I can spend much more time with all of you next year, under happy circumstances.  Merry, merry Christmas, dear ones.

  5. Sep

    TOPIC: 365, Personal.

    Project 365-4: Four More Years

    Well, it’s official: my Project 365 has now completed its first presidential term.  It’s got all the hallmarks of an eventful presidency: triumph over outside obstacles, the learning of hard lessons, intense scrutiny into my life (most of it coming from myself), the occasional retreat (although in my case that never involves golfing or jogging), and of course the presence of a trusted canine advisor.  (It’s light on wars and filibusters, but I’m cool with that.)  It is especially like Nixon’s presidency in that it’s heavily characterized by the presence of bugs.  (HA!  Terrible puns!  It has a lot of those too.)

    Most importantly, though, since this is a visual project, it’s worth noting that like all the presidents, I have many more gray hairs now than I did at the beginning.   Back in 2009, I was a youngster basically having a second, better college experience at my job in Pittsburgh.  I noticed my first gray hair around that time in the bathroom mirror at work, which was notorious for its grotesque lighting that put everyone’s worst features on display.  (My lady co-workers will remember their own alarming revelations in that mirror, I’m sure.)  I immediately plucked it out, only to notice in the rearview mirror of Becky’s and my rental car in Austin, Texas that it had returned, and it had brought friends.  I tried to yank it out again, but it was no use.  Becky assured me that resistance was futile and I should just embrace it, so from then on I’ve left all the silvery strands where they are.  Now I kind of like them.  I’ve never dyed my hair, or done anything more adventurous to it than the infamous sixth-grade Bang Perm, so having it change on its own is just my no-maintenance way of switching things up.

    [I’ve really lost the plot here.  That’s what happens when you know you have to write something, but you have no idea what to say.  You wind up talking about either the weather or hair.  The actual photos in Project 365 talk *constantly* about the weather, so we were bound to circle around to hair eventually.]

    Anyway.  Somehow four years of this somewhat-insane daily habit have elapsed, so it’s becoming a little harder to assess The Meaning Of It All.  It’s just a thing that I do now, like brushing my teeth or self-chastising about my peanut butter M&M habit.  (Don’t come at me with “the peanut ones are better!”  No, they are not.)  All I can tell you is that I value it so much, and the last thing I do at the end of every day is look back at the week’s photos, usually with the assessment “You need something red in these!”

    This last quarter of year four really kicked me around.  I had a complete meltdown in late June due to the potent combination of exhaustion and chigger bites, which meant that even though I was already fried, I didn’t sleep for several nights.  (Ironically, the story of that accompanies probably the most beautiful photo in this whole set.  Go figure.)  I carried that physical depletion with me to an extended-family shoot that turned into the most difficult editing job of my photographic career, then immediately hopped a plane to Pittsburgh for 36 hours for my friend Katie’s annual visit from Korea.  I would never miss that weekend for any reason, so I am so glad I went, but leaving Pittsburgh on a Monday night and then launching into Air Travel Hell three days later in an attempt to get to remote Canada was my ultimate undoing.

    My meltdown sequel happened in the backseat of a car in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where I became convinced that if I had to spend onemoresecond in a slow-moving car filled with mosquitoes that I would actually explode.  (Being in a slow-moving car is one of my more unfortunate pet peeves.)  Since I was in the middle seat of this car with five (very nice and wonderful, I hasten to add) strangers, this meltdown was a silent one.  But it meant that when I got back to the hotel, I hadn’t even showered off my layers of bugspray before I figured out a way to cut my trip short and get back to Memphis the next day.  And that, friends, is I hope what definitively teaches me that having too many things on one’s schedule, no matter how lovely those things are individually, is not the best way to give everything–and everyone–their proper due.

    (The full story of the Canadian craziness is here.  Despite the unhappy beginning and ending to the story, the middle was really pretty great, and Saskatchewan is stunningly beautiful.)

    I wound up washing away the summer scheduling hangover with a long weekend by myself in at the beach in Alabama.  Instead of plodding through endless airport delays, I drove my car on one last road trip before sending it to live in DC with my brother.  I listened to a ton of Comedy Bang! Bang! episodes, I read some magazines, I found a gem of a state park to hike, and I paid multiple visits to an outdoor restaurant I would describe as “perfect,” listening to them spin the Marshall Tucker Band on vinyl day after day.  It was the perfect quiet, unscheduled time–an introvert’s birthday gift to herself.

    And so now I feel good again.  (It doesn’t hurt that the chiggers have retired for the year and I can go into the Old Forest again without sacrificing several days’ sleep as a consequence.)  I’m going to take the lessons of the past year and try to apply them to make the coming year happier, less stressful, and focused less on the noise and more on the good stuff.  Guess we’ll see how I did now that this project has officially been re-elected for a second term!

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