Why do you do what you do?

“When did you become a writer?”

The question, coming as it does from an artist at a gallery reception, surprises me. It’s like hearing, “when did you become a fish?”

“I always was one,” I reply, hoping for the simpatico understanding of a creative soul to bridge this non-specific-date-naming response, not an evasive conversational gambit, but a strange truth that still perplexes sometimes.  Decoding the world through language is as natural to me as skipping. One of my earliest childhood memories includes tracing the letters of words being spoken, turning them into stories and pictures with my right forefinger upon my left palm.
Meera's MehndiSounds and ideas danced upon my hand, to be released later onto the unlined light brown paper of a Mickey Mouse drawing pad.  I didn’t plan to be this way, I just was. Most writers I know say the same thing.

It’s this recognition of the magnetic power of some creative pull that frequently leads me to invent new ways to spark leaps in my technique.  Learning West African drum rhythms interrupts a rut of a cadence; reading books I don’t understand hopefully sparks new brain synapses and invites new subject matter into my writing.  Fifteen hundred pages of Critical Theory Since Plato anyone?  There’s a playfulness with these kinds of things, sure, but there’s also a dogged determination bordering on compulsive.  I laugh when I see myself in other writers and while reading Christian Wiman‘s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet  I found a mirror self in the first few pages. Wiman writes:

When I read Samuel Johnson’s comment that any young man could compensate for his poor education by reading five hours a day for five years, that’s exactly what I tried to do, practically setting a timer every afternoon to let me know when the little egg of my brain was boiled…

I’m not quite as odd a person as I was once on the verge of becoming.

Of course my weirdness waxes and wanes.  I may be tipping the balance back toward odd as I begin a new poetry writing project for the month of July.

“Why do you do what you do?” my family wonders.

Why, when it’s summer and school’s out and nothing dictates my days but my own gentle taskmaster self, why would I commit to writing and posting a poem a day for Tupelo Press?  I believe in the need for literary presses and, being the editor of dirtcakesa small press of my own, I know  it’s impossible to sustain any sort of momentum and foster good work without readers and backers and contributors. The Tupelo Press 30/30 Project is a nifty little way for writers to forge new work and for readers to discover new writers.  It’s a community of writers that opens its hands to invite in a community of readers to share the stories written on our palms.


I’ve got a few ideas of how we can work together through July. I’ll be posting them in the coming weeks. In the meantime, remember that which you love you will spend time doing. That which you spend time doing will attract your energy. That which captures your spirit will shine out from you, and ultimately reflect back upon you.  As for me and my attraction to poetry? I defer once again to Christian Wiman’s words:

…in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.

Who doesn’t want to be fully inhabit each precious moment of life?

Meerags Wedding

Stretching and spinning in anticipation of lining up a long dance with the muse,
~ Catherine

p.s. Christian Wiman is an iconic figure in the world of poetry. From 2003 – 2013 he edited Poetry magazine, “the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world.” The depth of his poetry knowledge and ability to articulate the aesthetic strengths of particular poets is precise and sharp, though do know his taste runs to the traditional which sometimes can miff a lover of more experimental verse. Ambition and Survival is a collection of essays to dip in and out of when you need a strong voice in your head to guide your writing practice.

The color of light and balancing the white

A light is a light is a light, right? Nope. Light sources can be warmer (with more reddish tones) such as a candle or an incandescent light, or they can also be cooler (with more blueish tones) such as in the shade or a cloudy day. You may have noticed that some times your pictures have certain tints to them and the color doesn’t look natural. This is where white balance comes to the rescue. The camera will add more of the missing hue in an effort to balance out the tint created by a light source and achieve more natural looking colors. I used the last blooms of the orchid on my patio as a subject. The plant is in open shade. Auto white balance will often produce a fine result but sometimes some tweaking is necessary or just fun to try.

This is the auto white balance shot:

auto WBIn this case, it is a fairly accurate color depiction but I will carry on. Different cameras have different white balance settings so you will have to get out your manual for your particular camera’s settings.

Next I used the daylight setting:

daylight WBThis adds a slight warmth to the picture.

The shade setting, symbolized by a house with diagonal lines off one side, is next:

shade WB Shade is a cooler light and the camera adds warmer tones with this setting.

The cloudy setting:

cloudy WBOnce again warmer tones are added.

Next the tungsten setting:

tungsten WBThe blue tones are strong with this setting because pictures taken under tungsten lighting will have a strong orange hue to them and the blue will balance it out. Generally, this is used indoors.

Next, fluorescent setting:

fluorescent WBThis is a cooler hue also.

Another method of white balancing is using the Kelvin scale of color temperature. The lower numbers are the warmer hues so the camera will add cooler colors. When I set my temperature at 2800K this is the result:

2800K WBInversely, the higher numbers are cooler temperature colors so the camera adds warmer tones, this is set to 10,000K:

10000K WBThen, there is a range in between these. You can also set a custom white balance by taking a picture of a white or neutral gray sheet and thus telling your camera what white is and it will adjust accordingly.

There is no rule that you must use a certain setting in a certain condition. You can decide what you prefer as the photographer. Maybe you like warmer tones in your photos or cooler. It is fun to play around with them and see what you like; just one more creativity tool!

Performing a balancing act,

~ Susan

What do you bring to the table?

Which way will the creek
run when time ends?
Don’t ask me until
this wine bottle is empty.

~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser

“What did you notice that was beautiful today?” When J asked me this last night, just as we sat down to dinner, I cracked up.


It’s not a funny question, but rather an example of his dear effort to honor a request I made after breakfast.

“Please don’t ask me at dinner what I did today, or how my day went, ask where I found beauty.” I implored him in the morning as I hustled to my office.

“And what do you want me to ask you tonight?” I called over my shoulder.

“You can ask how my day went. I like to remember what I got done.”

Life has always yelled at me,
“Get your work done.” At least
that’s what I think she says.
~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser

What we focus upon comes to light. My request was part self defense – I always give myself more to do in any given day than I can ever accomplish and then feel bad when I don’t finish. And it was part new strategy; I want to pay more attention to life’s surprises of  grace and grandeur hiding in plain sight rather than concentrating only on how I try to unruffle its challenges.  I’m trying to adjust the outlook I bring to my day and our dinner table.

smooth coral

What do you talk about at dinner?

I’ve begun asking friends without children at home this question.

We don’t talk, we watch TV.
I don’t know, nothing, what we did that day.
What’s coming up on our calendar.
Funny stuff the dog did.

What did I expect? The better question is, what do I want, what does J want?  If gathering around the table is a nightly ritual so important that we set its time, its chef and menu (we trade cooking duty), its location and literally light its candles, then doesn’t it follow that we might also guide its conversational swoops and soars?

When our kids were home we had a standard dinner starting point that inevitably opened doors to conversation that often lasted long past dessert.

What was the best part of your day?
What was the worst?

Trials and triumphs of school and sports, of work and home life and friends trickled out over roasted chicken and broccoli.  If friends joined us, they too got pulled into the daily circle, some shy at first to say, but inevitably relaxed enough to tell about a moment that set this day apart.

I eventually bought Chat Packs, those decks of cards with dozens of conversation starters. We played Brain Quest and Would you rather?  I still sometimes put little stacks of these cards next to the napkins at dinner parties or spread them around the appetizers at family gatherings.

Am I inherently nosy? Afraid of conversational lull? Maybe yes and yes. But I like to think that even more than that, I really like the idea of getting to know the people I share time with. The worst kind of dinner is one where I don’t learn a single new thing about the ones I pause with at the end of the gift of another day.


Last night I learned two truths. Each day delivers beauty; my husband remembers and honors my requests. Maybe those are really one big truth.

Where did you find beauty today?

p.s. For literary grace and grandeur, you could do worse than getting your hands on a copy of Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser.
1317_lgTreasure what you find
already in your pocket, friend.
~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser

The book is the best kind of conversation, where no one voice dominates, in fact no one poet takes individual credit for any of the short stanzas.  From the back cover:

Longtime friends, Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser always exchanged poems in their letter writing. After Kooser was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, Harrison found that his friend’s poetry became “overwhelmingly vivid,” and they began a correspondence comprised entirely of brief poems.

…When asked about attributions for the individual poems, one of them replied, “Everyone gets tired of this continuing cult of the personality…This book is an assertion in favor of poetry and against credentials.”

Maybe I’ll bring it to the dinner table tonight.

under a watchful eye

towers6Any sunny summer day at the beach, you will find them; working the shore with red bathing suits, and hanging red canisters at the ready, eyes fixed on the water. They are lifeguards and their “office” – the lifeguard tower. The towers dot the sand up and down the beach.

towers7Summer time is the busy season but they are at their posts year round.

towers11The water is too enticing, most days, for all sorts of water activity enthusiasts to be left unattended.

towers10Or, some days there are more birds than people but there is still a lifeguard somewhere on the beach keeping watch. The lifeguard tower itself is a simple structure, architecturally speaking, constructed of wood with a ramp leading up to the door and shelter. It is elevated about three feet off the ground, just enough to give the guard an unobstructed view of the beach and water. These towers remind me of many a day spent at the shore and feeling sentimental, I chose the lifeguard towers as a subject of an evening photo shoot. The sun, low in the sky, on its way to setting, giving a golden hue to the light. I decided to walk around the tower and play with different lighting situations. First, I placed the sun behind the tower thus back-lighting it.

tower1As you can see the tower is more in silhouette but the background is the ocean, which I like. Next, I walked to the side and gave it a side light.

towers5First one side, then the other. . .

towers4This creates different effects and backgrounds so keep this in mind when choosing what to photograph. Turning and facing the tower and using front lighting was next.

tower2This gives the front of the tower full exposure and allows the ramp to be visible. Another angle using front lighting is explored.


The towers are a constant at the beach. They get moved back away from the water in the winter and brought closer to the shoreline in the spring but are ever present on the sand standing tall. Sometimes, they are used in perhaps unexpected ways.

towers8The blue towers are iconic representations of the beach to me and I appreciate the role they play in the dance of the shore. If you have an interest in lifeguard towers check out the fun colors and patterns they were decorated with a few years back in an earlier post: “Flashback Summer of Colors“.

Hearing the crashing surf,

~ Susan

The Young Fathers and the Sea

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us.”
~Umberto Eco

Fathers play harder than mothers. Mothers stand at the edge of the sea, snapping photos of fathers teaching the children that fun might include being roughed up by the ocean.



I suspect mothers are secretly glad the fathers take this job. Children don’t whine when the broad-shouldered fathers take them out in water well over their head. Come on. You can do it. I’m right here.


The children show off a little. Splash their dad. Swim away from him, then back. Cling to his neck.  I want to tell the children how this memory will imprint on their bodies. When they are decades older, swimming in the even deeper waters of life, they will recall a surge of power, an inner rush that feels like being a super hero, a whisper from one strong enough to hold you up. You can do this. Yes you can. Come on, I’m right here.

My father taught me, among many things, to body surf and ride waves with a bouncy rubber surf mat in the olden days before Boogie Boards. We roamed Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Newport Beach, La Jolla.  Family outings and vacations were frequently at the beach, always in the water riding waves on rubber mats.


How did my dad, a boy from upstate New York, learn enough wave riding skills to guide his four daughters through all the surf the Pacific could muster, including the most memorable session of all, riding the June, 1973 epic Newport Beach surf churned up by Hurricane Ava? When I ask my father a question, he responds.

In 1945  Richard J. (Dick) Beachman, Captain, USMC, took me, his ten year old second cousin, into the surf at  Pacific Beach, CA. He held class. “I’m going to show you  how to to swim out into the surf. How to use this piece of ‘gear’ to catch a wave and ride the wave onto the shore.” What he called “a piece of gear” was a mattress cover he had taken (his term was “I liberated it”) from the U.S. Naval Hospital, San Diego where he was being treated.  A Japanese sniper’s bullet went through his left hand as he waved his Marines forward during the battle for the island of Guam in July, 1944.
“First thing you do is wet the mattress cover in the surf so it’ll hold some air. Then, hold the open end toward the wind and let it fill up with air. At the same time tie the open end shut. Now you’ve got a big wet cloth balloon. Quick, wade out into the surf, look for a wave coming in. When you see one, turn your back toward the wave, put your arms and chest onto the cover and ride in onto the beach.”
Dick, my younger brother Kevin and I went ‘surfing’ several times. He always brought his ‘liberated’ mattress cover. But, in time he was discharged from the Marine Corp. Dick and his Navy nurse, Juna, fell in love, were married 62 years and raised six children. The mattress cover went with him, or them  —  or,  maybe, he returned it to the hospital.
Though Dick’ mattress cover disappeared I was hooked on riding waves onto the shore. it didn’t take long to learn how to body surf without artificial aid.  I enjoyed the sport for many years; a sport I shared with our four daughters.
There are no photos of the young father with his four daughters in the sea because the picture taking job would have fallen to the mother, a woman unable to swim but determined that her children would learn, love, and thrive in the water. She wouldn’t have taken her eyes off the lifeguard, making sure he was doing his job watching us.
The lessons learned in the ocean have lingered with all the Backyard Sisters, proving to be as valuable in life as in the Pacific.
like this

Respect the ocean. Never turn your back on here. That isn’t the same as being afraid. Respect and fear both have a place in life and the wise know which is which.

Walk behind your children. They learn to lead but know you always have their back.

If your daughter crashes and burns, let her cry on your shoulder for just a minute, then remind her of all the way she succeeds.

It’s OK not to know how to do something, but it’s not OK not to try it.


The thrill of learning something from your dad will linger for a lifetime.


Thanks dad for making it seem like you were just playing hard with your kids in the ocean. I see now what you were really doing.

What memory will you share with your father this weekend?
With gratitude,

night lights

June has arrived and with it comes warmer weather, longer days and temperate nights. One of the many bonuses of longer days is more time for outside photography. We are exploring light this month. Light is the most important element in photography. Without it all photos would be pure black. I am beginning with an exploration of the lights at night.

night lights3

Anticipation growing during the quiet before the show got started at the Fanfare fountain at the Gateway in San Pedro, CA.

night light5The fountains are choreographed to songs as if the water is dancing.

night lights

night light8When photographing lights, I like to expose for the light and create a silhouette of foreground subjects.

night light7

Seeing the water moving in time to the music is magical. To capture it, I chose 1600 ISO,   set the f-stop at 4 and varied the shutter speed depending on whether I was going to freeze the water,

night light2or let it blur. Getting swept up in the music and water motion and breaking into your own dance is not uncommon.

night light6

Sometimes, it can be hard to resist touching the water.

night light4A tripod is a good idea when photographing in low light situations to avoid blur from camera movement. If you don’t have one with you, placing your camera on a solid surface is an alternative (keeping your camera away from the water, of course!)


~ Susan