Photography 101

Great Horned OwlMy husband recently gave me a Canon Rebel T6 camera as a late birthday gift. I’d been asking for one since I learned birds come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I was thrilled. Now, instead of slinking around my yard to snap grainy photos of birds using my phone, I would try my hand at some half-way decent photos.

The last camera I bought was a Kodak Easy Share C180. Judging by the photos I found on the SD card, I bought it in 2008 to take photos of a family trip I took back to Wisconsin. It was the last time all of my sisters and my mom were together. Before that, my high school sweetie had given me a Kodak Tele-instamatic (circa 1981) with a pack of flip flash bulbs that blinded my unsuspecting kodak tele-instamaticsubjects. My point here is that I am not a photographer. So imagine my surprise when this beautiful Canon camera showed up with all its buttons and lenses. I was more than a little intimidated. But the migratory birds were flocking to our feeders and would disappear soon. There wasn’t time to go through the manual or look online for tips. Instead I attached the zoom lens and parked my butt in a lawn chair I strategically hid under a plum tree to camouflage myself.

Lazuli Bunting 3 (2)Generally this isn’t how I approach projects or hobbies. I am more of a by-the-book kind of gal. I like to know what I’m getting myself into. I prefer having a plan and instructions to follow when I am trying something new. If it wasn’t for the urgency the migratory birds provided, the camera would still be in its box. After taking at least 1,00 photos, I still feel I have no idea what it is I’m doing, but that’s not true. I’ve learned a bit about composition in that I need to focus the center red dot in the camera at the eye of my subject. Shadows cause havoc when photographing birds, so it’s important to make sure the subject is not surrounded by foliage no matter how pretty it might be. Taking photos in the early morning and as the sun is setting creates such beautiful lighting, some of my photographs are lovely. I’ve learned unlike people or objects, birds do not sit still for long. Sometimes it’s best to take an awful photo to identify a bird rather than no photo at all. I’ve also decided I’m more interested in taking photos of wildlife than of people. There’s too much self-consciousness going on there for everyone involved.

My mother has accused me of suffering from Patty Perfect syndrome. Messes and making mistakes have always bothered me, but as I get older, I have a keen sense that I’m running out of time. Leaving the camera in the box until I knew exactly what do with it would have accomplished nothing. All the time I’ve spent in the Huachuca and Chiricahua Mountains, at the San Pedro River, and in my backyard just to photograph birds would have been gobbled up by the mundane chores in my everyday life. Sure maybe I would have tackled spring house cleaning and changed out my wardrobe for the summer, but for what?

I like this new me. A middle-aged woman armed with a camera around her neck hoping and praying to get a glimpse of a rare bird that might only be here for a day or two. Let the dust settle on my coffee table and the cobwebs stretch across the beams in my living room. I don’t care. Life really is too short. I only wish my older self could meet up for coffee with my younger self. I have so much I would like to share with her.

She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy

TractorI haven’t been blogging much these last couple of months. Even though I’d like to write about the migratory birds, the orchard, and the honey harvest, we’ve been too busy this spring. Most days I feel overwhelmed with springtime chores and worry I am not going to get everything done.

In an interview with Jesse Thorn on Bullseye, musician and singer/songwriter Neko Case talked about living on a farm in Vermont. When host, Jesse asked her, “Are you comfortable with the kind of like quiet and relative loneliness of living on a farm?” Neko responded, “Oh yeah, I love it. Farms are not quiet, peaceful places at all.”

She went on to mention the constant maintenance and the emergencies that pop up. But she also said living on a farm is exciting. That she notices the first night of fire flies and seeing Jupiter in the night sky.

I resent Jesse Thorn’s choice of words to describe farm life. Though quiet is influenced by our environment, loneliness in some sense connotes sadness and, at its core, desperation—a need for things to change, to get better. I don’t have room for loneliness living this close to the land. And I don’t think nature does either. The quail and coyotes travel in family groups. The migratory birds often show up in pairs or small flocks as they make the harsh trip together to their northern nesting grounds. There is order and dependency, the sense that we are all in this together. It’s a frenzied time of year. I feel it in my bones. I have the energy of a hummingbird right now and find it hard to sit still for any length of time. I am energized by the long days and the constant cacophony of birds.

I agree with Neko’s thoughts on farm life. She admitted that there is always something that demands attention, but she also mentioned the fireflies and clear night skies. There is harmony to country living if you learn not to push too hard. There is also joy, wonder, frustration, and even anger when a pipe breaks or the tractor doesn’t start. But loneliness? No, I haven’t experienced that.

If you find yourself in need of a break from your crazy world, check out Neko Case. While listening to her, take a mini break—a mind vacation to someplace quiet where you can spend a few moments alone. And if you are experiencing loneliness, call a friend or a family member. Believe me, they will be thrilled to hear from you.

Border Talk 6

Illegal Warning SignMy friend Kirsten Allen and I drove up to the Huachuca Mountains, which butt up against Mexico in the Coronado National Forest in southeast Arizona. It was eleven o’clock when we parked at the Brown Canyon trailhead, gathered our gear, and headed out on a day hike. I’d forgotten to bring a hat and felt a bit ill-prepared when Kirsten produced a snazzy, purple boonie hat from her pack. Binoculars at the ready, we spotted our first bird just a few minutes into the hike. It was going to be a good day.

Kirsten is the publisher and editorial director at Torrey House Press in Utah. She was in town as a guest presenter at the annual Cochise Creative Writing Celebration in Sierra Vista. We were taking the day to unwind after the event. The weather was perfect, the conversation easy, and we were excited to explore the area.

The Brown Canyon trail is both hilly and rocky, and though I wouldn’t try it on a mountain bike, it makes for a great hike. At a water trough where the trail splits, we continued on rather than head back to the truck. About three hours into the hike we came to the Hamburg Trail and Brown Canyon Trail intersection where new trail signs had recently been posted. Up until then I had felt confident of where we were, but now we were faced with several choices. We were down in a canyon where it was difficult to determine cardinal directions. The path to our left was narrow and crossed a dry riverbed of rocks. The trail heading right was wide and well-maintained. I hadn’t been up that way in a couple of years and told Kirsten that my gut said we should take the groomed trail.

We started off and were soon climbing. The grade increased every few hundred yards then descended and crossed the stream. I thought as long as we followed the river, we would find our way out. The sun dipped, filling the canyon with moving shadows. At some point I realized my gut had betrayed me. I was in unfamiliar territory. Kirsten and I stopped and discussed our options. We’d been hiking for hours. To go back the way we came meant spending a great deal of time navigating the trail in the dark. There was also the matter of returning to a spot where I knew we might run into illegal crossers from Mexico. We checked our phones. Kirsten didn’t have a signal. The little hiker on her Google map hadn’t moved. My phone had service, but was low on battery. I called my husband to see if he could text us a map. It was hard to describe exactly where we were. We both had spotty service. “Face the setting sun,” he said. “Stick your right arm straight out from your side. Hike in that direction.” I was grateful to hear his voice and for the instructions.

Canyon walls surrounded us. Looking up, trees glowed from the cliffs, and we assumed the sun was behind them. We each stuck out our right arm and continued uphill in the direction we had been going. When we had climbed high enough to nearly reach the tree line, we stopped again to take in our surroundings. This time we saw the last bit of sun hanging in the sky. Facing the sun, I again stuck out my right arm. Kirsten and I knew instantly we had been hiking in the wrong direction—and had been for two and a half hours. Kirsten was out of water, and I only had enough to ration. We were no longer interested in bird calls or the trees that had previously caught our attention. It was time to get the hell out of there.

Something happens to the psyche when the sun goes down. Vulnerability bubbles to the surface clouding rational thoughts and the ability to make good decisions. Checking my watch against the setting sun, I knew we would be faced with new challenges when we reached the trail intersection, the place where I had made the mistake of taking us in the wrong direction hours before.

Heading north down the trail, we noticed an open backpack and a camouflage shirt turned inside out. I told Kirsten to keep moving. She isn’t from the borderlands, but she understood the danger. We were not afraid of the dark, lions, or bears, rather the two-legged creatures who travel the mountains at night carrying dope on their backs. I texted Ron, Found evidence of smugglers. Get us out of here! However, I didn’t send it. On one hand it seemed ridiculous to be so afraid. On the other, I imagined someone jumping out in front of us and me hitting send before my phone and backpack were taken at gunpoint. I imagined helicopters flying overhead with spotlights shining down on us and Border Patrol agents calling out our names. I imagined a stranger’s hand over my mouth, a deep voice whispering, “cállate.”

After a traumatic fifty minutes, we arrived back at the Hamburg Trail and Brown Canyon Trail juncture. It would be another hour before we reached the parking lot at the Ramsey Canyon Preserve, where I hoped we could fill our water bottles before walking another two miles on a county road to my truck. The sun was long gone before we came to a spot on the trail I recognized. It was a steep climb out of the riverbed over large rocks. I’d left my glasses in the truck and still wore my prescription sunglasses along with Kirsten’s headlamp to navigate the trail. Kirsten’s sunglasses remained perched on the brim of her hat and our binoculars dangled around our necks. Our hips and legs ached as we hurried up the trail after the sound of snapping branches startled us.

A text came in from Ron. If you’re not down by 8 pm AZ time, I’m sending in troops. Seriously. RSVP receipt of this message. I hated being the damsel in distress. I hated that primal fear all women wear like a second skin. We were on the border at night in a mountain range known for illegal traffic. Feeling exposed and small, I kept my head down. Kirsten seemed lost in her thoughts as well.

FB_IMG_1524405550300It wasn’t until Kirsten and I reached the preserve around eight o’clock that something wonderful happened. Hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, our friendship transcended into new territory—a sacred place where teasing and giggles rescued us from our fear. We had weathered the storm, conquered our demons, slayed the dragons, and we had done it together. This was our war story. Depleted of any pride, we knocked on the door at Ramsey Canyon Inn where a kind gentleman from Michigan gave us a ride to my truck.

All the amazing adventures of my life have been unintentional. I prefer making plans to avoid surprises. In the desert summer heat I carry sunscreen and a cooler of ice filled with plenty of cold water in my truck. I stuff a blanket and jacket behind the seat when the weather turns cold. My hike with Kirsten may have been harrowing, but it reminded me I need to leave room for the unexpected. I would have missed out on so much had the day gone as planned.



The Night the Lights Went Out in Animas

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-11-23,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-veI was in the orchard brushing out our Great Pyrenees, Sydney, when the power went out. Covered in dog hair and in desperate need of a shower, the sun was setting, and I had yet to make dinner. I put down the brush and stood to shake off the hair. Normally I would have marveled at the sunset, but I was hungry and was in no mood to feel around in the dark for something to eat.

I peeled off my clothes in the greenhouse and found Ron at the dining room table changing the batteries in our flashlights. When he finished, he called a friend at the Columbus Electric Co-op. The news was bad. Power was out for miles and would be for hours. I grabbed a portable camping lantern and went to the kitchen.

Our kitchen stove is electric, so I piled chicken, veggies, and seasonings into a cast iron skillet, grabbed the lantern along with the comal and headed out to the greenhouse where I fired up the Camp Chef. While the fajitas sizzled, Ron made me a margarita. In the dark without music or the radio, I felt like I was back in Honduras where, years ago, I had managed to live quiet comfortably without electricity.

I sometimes complain about living so far out in the country. We must plan for everything including the unexpected. I keep a shopping list next to my computer, a month supply of toilet paper in the basement, and rely on my imagination when I run low on groceries. Ron has unwillingly become our electrician, mechanic, plumber, carpenter and all around handyman simply because there isn’t anyone to call within a hundred miles. But as I flipped tortillas, the pair of Great Horned owls who live in our pine trees called to each other, and I was reminded why I chose this lifestyle.

During dinner I admitted I had enjoyed cooking over an open flame and that it had brought back some wonderful memories. Ron said he didn’t mind the interruption either. Wrapped in a cocoon of quiet darkness, we talked about building a fire pit in the clearing out in the orchard.

To Arm or Not to Arm

No-Gun-Drugs-School-Sign-K-4030On October 4, 2006, in the wake of school shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, Frank Lasee, R-Green Bay, state Representative, recommended teachers carry guns in schools saying, “I want to end the turkey shoots that go on in our schools … I don’t suggest [arming teachers] is the only answer or the silver bullet to solve all our school violence problems, but it’s part of the puzzle of making our schools a safer place for our children.”

Frank is my cousin and friend. The news traveled through our family like a brush fire. Most of us were shocked and so were people in law enforcement and education. The idea seemed foolish.

Fast forward a few years, and in a textbook I ordered for my creative writing class, I found an editorial piece by Warren J. Bowe called, “Guns for Teachers.” It was in response to Frank’s proposal. Here is what Bowe wrote:

Finally the Republicans have found a meaningful way to support teachers. As both a teacher and a citizen, I spotted the win-win logic of Representative Frank Lasee’s proposal immediately. Not only would schools be safer, but the billions added to Wisconsin’s economy by a new school gun industry would be a great windfall for the state.

With more than 60,000 teachers in Wisconsin’s public schools alone, such a law would help both mom-and-pop gun shops and the big retailers. Specialty products could include guns manufactured in school colors or engraved with school logos. Gun accessories will bring in additional revenue. I would need an everyday holster as well as one for such special occasions as parent-teacher conferences, concerts, athletic events, etc.

While this proposed legislation is way better than that supporting the shooting of feral cats, a few kinks would need to be worked out. For example, would the state taxpayers fund the law, or would teachers have to pay for the heat they pack? Would there be a special ammunition budget? Would we be given extra in-service time for range practice? Could we implement merit pay for those of us who are crack shots?

And more important, how threatening would a student need to be before we get to shoot them? In the interim, maybe we could just start hitting them again.

Bowe’s essay may poke fun at Frank’s idea, but there is also merit in what he writes. Like Bowe, I am a teacher and can no more imagine guns in schools than I can armed guards in churches. But unfortunately that is the course we are on, and it won’t solve the problem. Since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, there have been over seventy mass school shootings.

The shooter is often characterized as someone with mental health and behavioral issues. Others have been bullied in school or have come from broken homes. Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were described as geeks and nerds. The Sandy Hook shooter, twenty-year-old Adam Lanza had emotional problems and violent tendencies. The police had been called to Nikolas Cruz’s house twenty-three times. Cruz is the most, recent school shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He had been terrorizing neighbors and classmates for years.

Having guns in schools is an example of fighting fire with fire, and though this might work in a controlled burn, this one-size-fits-all approach to a complicated problem is not only impractical, it is dangerous. Joking aside, Bowe’s questions merit consideration. Would taxpayers pay for guns in schools? Would teachers willing to carry guns receive compensation? After that, the questions turn to more serious matters. Are teachers fired for refusing to work in schools where there are guns on campus? Do parents have a say in whether or not they want guns in their children’s schools? What are the consequences for teachers if, in a gun related situation, they kill an innocent child or school employee? What is protocol if a student assaults an armed teacher and takes possession of a gun?

Still there are other things to consider before arming teachers. If every school in the nation is armed against potential shooters, how does this prevent mass shootings? On October 2, 2017 sixty-four-year-old Stephan Paddock  shot fifty-nine people at a concert in Las Vegas wounding 500 others. Twenty-six-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire inside a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 5, 2017. Are all public spaces to provide armed guards before we feel safe?

With character profiles of mass shooters being as varied as their targets, bringing about social change seems a more reasonable solution than a teacher strapping on a Colt .45. When I was a kid, we were taught in school that littering was wrong. A commercial ran on television where an American Indian paddled a canoe through a polluted river with the slogan, “Keep America Beautiful.” When I was in the fifth grade our teachers taught us the health risks of smoking. Kids got the message and begged their parents to give up cigarettes. Had we started a gun reform program in schools after Columbine, we would have a generation of people in their twenties with very different views regarding gun ownership and gun laws. Some may argue educating kids would take too long, and that something needs to be done now. I agree. Schools can be made safer without guns. It is time that school boards and administration, teachers, parent, kids, law enforcement agencies, mental health professionals, and lawmakers come together to create safe schools. It is also time that we educate our children about the dangers and proper use of firearms.

It is twelve years since Frank Lasee caused quite a stir with his support for guns in schools and now we have a President who is in favor of this short-sighted idea. Earlier this week, big businesses like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart  agreed to no longer sell high-powered rifles and have raised the age of gun buyers to twenty-one. Money talks and corporations like Enterprise Rent-A-Car, MetLife, and United Airlines have cut ties with the NRA. It is time for change. It is time for well-informed conversations and new gun laws.





You’re not my Valentine

cupid2This morning I presented my husband with a Valentine’s Day card and a box of chocolates. He looked at me and shrugged. “Sorry, I forgot,” he said.

I got on with my day until he eventually offered to take me to lunch at a local joint. They serve a mean chili cheeseburger, so all was forgiven.

I believed in it all as a little girl. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White—my prince was out there, all I had to do was wait until I was old enough to go in to the world and find him. In the meantime, grade school was awful. I was too tall and too skinny. The girls called me names and the boys laughed at me. But I waited, and by high school things were looking up.

My high school boyfriend gave me a watch for Valentine’s Day and took me to a fancy restaurant where I nearly froze to death in a little black dress while he pulled at his necktie and fidgeted in a sports jacket. I ordered trout on the waiter’s recommendation and when it came to the table with its dead eye gazing up at me, I covered the poor thing with a linen napkin and ate my mashed potatoes. My boyfriend drank two beers, and I had a brandy old fashioned. We were just kids acting like grownups. The whole night was an expensive disappointment.

I dated a lot in my twenties, but couldn’t seem to find the right guy. Those years included Valentine’s Day gifts presented to me in the tell-tale pink Victoria’s Secret bags. Looking cheap in feathers and lace, I felt shy and inexperienced. One boyfriend gave me a teddy that fit like a medieval contraption. By the time he wrestled the thing off me, the mood was ruined and we turned on Saturday Night Live in hopes of putting the whole ordeal behind us.

I had all but given up on the fairy tale by my thirties. I traveled a lot and went back to school to get my Master’s degree. Slow to mature, I continued to pick men that were bad for me. Midway through the decade, I was done with the lingerie and looking for a soulmate. Someone brilliant and worldly who could challenge me. A much older man caught my eye whom I eventually discovered was married. Disillusioned and heartbroken, we spent Valentine’s Day hurling insults at one another until he told me he loved me. It took months for the spell to break, but I learned my lesson.

By my forties, I had a list of what I wanted in a man—something I’m sure I copied out of a magazine or self-help book. This caused only more hurt and regret. Then I met him. Ron invited me over to his place for our first date. When I arrived, he led me to a bonfire outside the tiny fifth-wheel trailer he was living in. We sat on straw bales and ate food we picked from his garden. I wondered if he even had a job until he told me he was an engineer. Surely this wasn’t the guy for me. But it was, and he is. The lingerie is long gone along with expensive dinners to celebrate this day for lovers. I’m thrilled I didn’t have to don the little black dress for a night out. There are more exciting things to do. Maybe we’ll sit in the hot tub for a while, or maybe we’ll watch a movie on Netflix. Either way, I’m happy. I found my Prince Charming.

Room 231

My sister Kelli’s appendix ruptured and there were complications, so I went back home to Wisconsin to be with her. I arrived Saturday night and went straight to the hospital in Green Bay. I’m a teacher by trade, not a nurse. I felt inadequate and clumsy as the nurse did her best to maneuver around me. When the she left the room, Kelli said she needed to use the bathroom. I rushed to her aid and quickly learned I wasn’t following procedure. Her IV equipment had to be unplugged from the wall, the cords had to be arranged correctly, and the IV stand needed to face Kelli in such a way that she had access to a handle to lean on. She was in tremendous pain. I worried that if I didn’t work quickly, I would add to her suffering. In the bathroom, more procedures. She needed help arranging the IV stand, sitting on the toilet, and completing personal tasks. Back in the room, I forgot several of the steps it had taken to get her out of bed. My sister’s husband and my cousin stood by looking on like bystanders at the scene of an accident. I had no idea what I was doing, but nonetheless approached each task with gusto.

Once Kelli was seated on the edge of the bed, it was my job to lift her legs and gently swing them with her body as she reclined onto the bed. Before doing this, I saw that the sheets were crumpled. I knew Kelli would be more comfortable if I smoothed them out and tucked them in. From somewhere I heard Kelli’s pained whisper, “I need to lie down.” I ignored her as I tugged on the damn sheets. Again she pleaded with me, but I was hell-bent on making her comfortable. Finally the sheets were in order, and I gently lifted her legs. When it was over, my cousin asked if I still planned to take an EMT class I had been talking about. I said that no, I had decided against it. “Good,” she said. “That’s a good decision.” I looked over at my brother-in-law who nodded in agreement.

I am the woman who gets things done, takes control, makes snap decisions, plans events, and manages a home and a career. I went out into the hall and noticed the plaque on the wall— Room 231. I am the oldest of four girls. The Colburn girls. It is my birthright to take care of my sisters, and I have done my best—doling out advice, smoothing over arguments, keeping in touch, but there wasn’t a thing I could do for Kelli. I had shown up unannounced and she had cried; thrilled to see me. That would be enough. I was there to be with her, not to do for her.

Over the next several days, I sat with my sister where the sub-zero temperatures, daily tasks, jobs, social media, and other mundane distractions were checked at the door. Sometimes she slept and sometimes she wanted to walk around the nurse’s station. We watched awful television and when she was up for it, we talked about how she was feeling. The human body is a remarkable organism. Fevers and a high white blood cell count told us she had an infection that needed to be addressed. Debilitating cramps came on without warning like sirens alerting nurses she was in pain. Bed sores were a reminder we are creatures meant for locomotion.

Kelli is at home now and doing better. I am doing better, too. Room 231 reminded me I cannot control everything. I am limited in my skills and influence, and that it is enough to just love the people in my life.