Blagetty Blogetty Bragitee!

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Location: United Kingdom

Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Photography: your camera can make you wiser

Photo credit: Sara Denise 
For my birthday this year I indulged and bought myself a present I had long been lusting after: a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. I learned photography some 20 years ago with an all-manual film camera, a Nikon FM2, a beauty to hold and to behold, but who takes pictures with film these days? It was time for an upgrade.

Of course the new camera wasn't cheap but since my "nirvana" moment on the dentist chair the other day (you can read about it here), I stopped being so paranoid about death by poverty and bailiffs knocking on my door and decided to liberally invest time and money on things and activities that are in sync with my dreams and goals in life. 

This week I started carrying my new Nikon D5300 in my bag wherever I go – work, shopping, taichi lessons in the park – in hope that I will come across some serendipitous photo opportunities on the way.

The beauty of digital is that you need not fear making mistakes, wasting rolls and rolls of expensive film and development fees. The sky is the limit for digital cameras; you can shoot away to your heart's content, then retouch, crop, edit or delete.

But more possibilities also mean more decisions to be made per shot. 

With my film camera, there was a combination of three things I needed to get right: the ISO sensitivity of the film, the aperture of the lens and shutter speed for the correct exposure. Of course I could attach filters to it, or a flash, but mastering the three key functions was all you needed for starters. The rest was down to your eye as a photographer, legwork (how close to the subject you want to be), your choice of lens and depth of field, a steady grip to prevent blur (or the use of a tripod), framing and composition. Some knowledge about light – types and strengths – also helped.

DSLRs are a totally different ball game. Learning to photograph with one of those is like going into a new relationship: it is all about discovering, by trial and error, which buttons to push and when. 

Whereas on going out with your new boyfriend, the only decision you may need to make is whether you want to eat Italian, French or Thai, a date with a new DSLR is equivalent to making additional decisions on: a choice of what to wear from 20 dresses and 20 pairs of shoes, going with or without lipstick, which could be one of 15 colours, gloss or matt, and would you like to reach the restaurant by private car, taxi, bus, train, tram, on foot or on horseback? 

I am dreadful at decision making at the best of times. When asking me what drink I'd like with my dinner, offer me red or white wine but please don't even mention rosé or the possibility of having champagne or Prosecco instead, or I will go into a meltdown with"over-choice". 

Faking it 
The abundance of choices and technical combinations on a DSLR camera may excite geeks and pros, but to me it feels overwhelming and unnecessary. My camera comes with a wide variety of settings I can use for the best photographic results in every imaginable situation, location, time of day or night, but how spontaneous can you possibly be if you need to adjust a dozen settings before you even point the camera at the subject?

I love the idea of using the saturated colours' setting when taking photos of autumn leaves, for example, but it seems more important to me that a photograph is saturated with sentiment, imbued with life, that it tells a story and fires up the imagination of the viewers. This is where the capabilities of a camera's mechanics end and the creativity of the photographer begins.

Browsing through Flickr I often see photographs that communicate nothing more than "here's a nice shot", one-dimensional, aesthetically pleasing, curious, even clever, but utterly soulless. Everyone can "see" what you and I can see, but the great masters of photography have the ability to move us with their images because they see through an inner eye of wisdom, which can delve beneath the apparent, understand beyond the obvious. 

The way you look at the world changes when you take up photography as a hobby. In your head, you start framing everything you see through your camera's viewfinder. Would this landscape make a good composition? How do I apply the rule of thirds here? How do I crop off an interesting micro-scene from the macro-scene it belongs to? You also start paying attention to the small things that enter your field of vision, which you may have missed if you weren't looking for things to photograph: the bee that just landed on a flower, a dewdrop on the fence, the dimple in the corner of someone's cheek.

When observing people, strangers, reading a book on a park bench, lying on the grass, walking a dog, kissing in a dark corner, you start to mentally angle your vision from high and low, right and left points of view, looking for the most dramatic shot; you start playing with possibilities. Suddenly every inanimate object, every colourful wall, every tree and flower, every distracted stranger becomes an object of camera desire and a potential work of art. 

Life lessons 
Similarly we go through life seeking friends, partners, jobs, hobbies, etc that fit the theme of our projects but how often do we break down each situation into its component parts and recognise value in them? How often do we notice the beauty of a given routine moment or life pulsating inside a leaf? How often do we look at someone's eyes and see past their irises, into a much deeper place where you might meet and connect?

It occurred to me that looking at life with the eyes, or should I say lens, of a photographer, would make me live more attentively and more wisely. The expression "look at the big picture" takes a literal meaning – the question to ask yourself is how it [whatever decision you may be contemplating] fits into the picture of what you want to create.

But if it can open my eyes to so much more, can it also make me into a better person? Can photography change anyone into a better person? Of course it is not an automatic correlation. I hear you say some photographers you know are cocky and arrogant SOBs... I've come across those too. I guess it all depends on whether your "seeing lens" is located in your head or in your heart. And on how open your "aperture" is, how much light you let in. 

Inner photographer
Whereas owning a camera may not automatically turn you into a Dalai Lama, it can teach you a thing or two about relationships. When we say we "clicked"with someone else, it is probably because our inner lenses found each other interesting enough to want to mutually record the moment in a mental photograph. 

With others, the photoshooting may be less instantaneous, require longer exposure and slower (shutter) speeds, but it still is a good exercise in experimenting with and learning about focus points, focal lengths, right distances, angles and framing – the foundation of all human connections – discovering if something or someone is worth that "click" or not.

As in digital photography, we sometimes edit the truth, enhance it, blur it, make it artificially sharp or vivid in order to create what we want to see. You can live life like an Instagram picture gallery, full of glam-up filters that make everything look good all the time. Or you can go back to basics and let your inner photographer guide you to an unadulterated masterpiece. 

At any rate it cannot be a bad thing having an extra eye to view life from, whether the world is smiling on you or not. On rainy days you can find inspiration in the rain drops on your window. You may even see a rainbow beyond. 

Time to get that camera out: be greedy with your seeking, generous with your seeing, focussed with your clicking.

Photo credit: Alison Tutton 

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Thursday, 8 May 2014

My root canal treatment enlightened me. Really...

Photo by Alen Vlahovic / CC BY-SA 3.0
If you thought meditating regularly and studying Buddhism were the only way to achieving enlightenment, you may be amused to hear I recently reached nirvana on my dentist's chair.

For dramatic effect, I could have bellowed something along the lines of "Eureka", as Archimedes did in his bathtub, except I was undergoing a root canal treatment at the time, and my tongue and the bottom part of my mouth had been muzzled by a green latex sheet called 'rubber dam', which dentists use to isolate the tooth being treated. While Hannibal Lecter would have not only chewed himself free but also swallowed the darn dam thing in a show of defiance, average mortals like myself end up looking as charming as Donald Duck being waterboarded.

The worst part of root canal treatment is not to do with pain at all. Pain management in dentistry is so advanced these days even the pinch you feel when the anaesthetic injection goes in has less of an ouch factor than the bill the receptionist presents to you upon checkout.

The worst part is really being immobilised for an hour and a half per session, with nothing but the ceiling to stare at, while your tooth is being drilled open, prodded into, filed, disinfected, then stuffed shut again. You can't even look up the dentist's nostrils for a laugh because surgical masks cover their noses, and the blinding miners' helmet-like lamps they wear round their heads ensure you are always the observed, never the observer. Isn't that why bright light is used in torture scenes in movies?

So I am lying there, like a corpse at an autopsy, legs and hands crossed for want of a more comfortable position, my upper body in rigor mortis tension, and since the situation was not really conducive to daydreaming about holidays, food or men, I decided to use those 90 minutes mindfully, for reflection, with my eyes wide open.

Whenever I am on the reclining chair at the hairdresser's with my head stuck in their hairwashing sink, I shut my eyes and blissfully enjoy the shampooing process, but closing your eyes on a dentist's chair somehow feels wrong. I did not want her to think I was so relaxed I had fallen asleep and she needed to clamp my mouth open, nor did I want her to take me for a wimp when I really am not afraid of dentists.

It was then I became a little enlightened.

It dawned on me, during my open-eye/open-mouth meditation, that the dentist treating me was, regrettably, not my original trusted dentist of many years but her temporary replacement. My dentist had gone on maternity leave, but she had warned me of the need to have a root canal treatment two years before; I had only myself to blame for having put it off for so long, and for reasons I now know were idiotic.

Had I not been so obstinately protective of my savings (the one I keep "for a rainy day") and paranoid in my visions of imagined poverty, which I came to believe the dental treatment would lead me to, I would have been in the care of a lovely dentist, who would have asked me if I was okay during treatment, would have told me to email her in case I had any questions out of hours, would have sent me home with plenty of advice on pain relief in case the treated tooth started to throb in the middle of the night, as it did.

Dentists are like hairdressers – once you find one you like, it's a commitment for life: you swear loyalty to them for all (your capillary and) dental needs.

Letting go
Although I do not consider myself a stingy person, I have always had a primal fear of parting with large sums of money. What if I needed the money for an emergency and had to incur debts? What if I never recouped the money spent and couldn't buy what I needed as a result? A year ago I had just moved into a new flat and needed to furnish it. Wasn't buying a dining table for my new home a more pressing issue than a weak tooth that could wait a year or two? 

The untreated tooth got infected for the third time in two years, just as London Book Fair opened this year. Sod's law. I had also lost one of my contact lenses a week before the fair, so I spent the week selling books to my customers while partially disabled  – with only one fully-functioning "eyeball" (as I call my contacts in jest) and half a mouth to masticate with. The idiocy of my indecisiveness suddenly hit me. After more than a year, I still hadn't purchased a dining table and my bad tooth was playing up again.

I let out a long sigh through my nose while the dental nurse shoved the suction tube into my mouth making a hoovering noise. What folly, I thought, then accepted that was that, and there was nothing I could do to change the fact it was not my dentist of choice who was digging down the canals of my tooth.

As a stress-control strategy, I have been practising living in a state of permanent surrender. If I work late, arrive at the station and realise I have just missed my train and have to wait another half hour for the next one, instead of becoming angry or stressed, as I would have in the past, I just accept that this is the situation right now: work is busy, my days are long, yes I am very tired, yes I may be eating dinner at 10.30pm again, or pass out on the bed straight away, without the energy to cook or eat. I accept all this without attaching any emotion. Then I look for the positives: an extra 20-30 minutes means I can go buy a snack or a coffee, check my Twitter feed, or get my Kindle out and read another chapter of whatever I happen to be reading.

Whether I stay cool or lose my rag, my train will still take 30 minutes to arrive, so I choose to be 'zen' and tell myself all is well and perfect. 

Surrendered to the moment on my dentist's chair, I realised that we save things for the future because we believe tomorrow there will be a better reason for us to do anything: spend our money, start an adventure, learn a new skill, take better care of ourselves. We tend to think the future will always be a better time to do something than the present, whereas in reality the present is always perfect as it is. The future can only become an improvement on the now when we make the best of our present. 

You must be wondering if the dentist injected me with a hallucinogen instead of anaesthetic. But that is what I instinctively realised without being aware. We carry a large amount of untapped knowledge inside ourselves, and it only takes a small trigger for us to be re-united with it again. 

In the days following my dental treatment I happened to read Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart and found her Buddhist teachings resonated with what I had been reflecting all along.   

"The real transformation takes place when we let go of our attachment and give away what we  think we can't. What we do on the outer level has the power to loosen up deep-rooted patterns of holding on to ourselves," says Pema.

"We don't experience the world fully unless we are willing to give everything away."

Realising the pointlessness of attaching oneself to money, or anything else, for a future that may not come liberated me to spend money, time and energy more freely but wisely. That camera I always wanted to buy, the training course I wanted to do, the challenge I wanted to set myself, the targets, the dreams, the truth I wanted to reveal. All good things that will enrich me as a person.

Why on earth was I in a state of permanent waiting, as if I were in a Beckett play

I understood at last it was not the actual money spending that would make me poor but my poor thoughts robbing me of much of life's opulence. No wonder I felt I never had enough of anything.

Maybe I can see this now because I've reached a stage in life when you hear about deaths almost as often as you hear about births in your inner circles. My own dearest friend passed away last year, in his early 50s. The certainty of death is sobering for the human mind; it reminds you to live and live and, not tomorrow.

I paid the dentist's hefty bill and thought no more about it. Later this week I'll be back there to have a cavity filled – child's play after what I've already been through. 

The treated tooth eventually needs to be capped with a crown, but Dentist tells me it is best to wait a couple of months in case the treatment was unsuccessful and requires a second treatment, which, apparently, can happen in 10-15% of cases.

A wave oft nausea rises in me. I feel like screaming, "WAT? I just paid you the equivalent of an entry level monthly salary in publishing and you tell me there is a chance your treatment was a failure?!" 

I don't (scream), of course. I am enlightened.

"I see," I say and leave the room with dignity. I will save the screaming for when it actually happens, for chances are it will never happen.

I will be safely 'crowned'. 

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