Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘work

Rip It Up and Start Over: Musing on a Summer Day.

with one comment

My son didn't realize he'd be asked to weed when he got home from the Peace Corps.

My son didn’t realize he’d be asked to weed when he got home from the Peace Corps.

As the summer simmers towards August I’ve gotten sick of seeing all the weeds in the landscaping around my house. I was gone for most of May and June’s prime growing season. This spring there was plenty of rain and everything, I mean everything was flourishing. My garden was a sea of green—green weeds that is. The plants were overwhelmed. I was feeling the same about my life.

With only a little bribery, I got my adult children and my husband to help out. I was feeling the pressures of living in suburbia. Our block was about to have a street party. I didn’t want our home to be the only one to look abandon by its human occupants.

I was on a roll. I dumped buckets of weeds into lawn bags. Sweat poured down my face and soaked my T-shirt. I didn’t even mind the aroma of bug spray. The garden started looking good, reminding me of how it looked years earlier when I planted it.

Dog Leo likes to stand guard at the end of the garden.

Dog Leo likes to stand guard at the end of the garden.

I started the garden at a low point in my career. About that time, National Geographic’s leadership changed and my photography career took a drastic downturn. Suddenly all the ideas and work that I’d done for them for over two decades were unwelcome. I had to reinvent myself. The best way to manifest that reinvention was to create a garden. I moved plants, altered textures and brought in flowering bushes.

Working on my garden made me feel like my decisions had impact.

For a while everything looked lovely. I fertilized the beds, weeded religiously and was rewarded with a beautiful array of colors, textures and shapes. My career blossomed as well. I started getting assignments and traveling again. The cost of that was ignoring the garden. The weeds soon took over. I would bribe my children once more to weed. The ups and down of my freelancing stressed my garden. My assignments were unpredictable. Often I’d have a lull and be home for months. My garden would benefit. Then I’d get another assignment and be gone again for weeks. I could practically hear the weeds rallying their forces, ready to attack as soon as my plane left the ground.

This strange intertwining of my garden and my career continued. At one point, my parents, thrifty as always, gave me a small Crepe Myrtle. Mature Crepes are lovely flowering trees found along many southern streets. The one they gave me was a thin sickly plant they got at Wal-Mart for $1.99, along with two small Japanese maples. I planted these three sad trees around a beautiful yellow maple. They struggled to survive.

I once read that monks do physical labor to force the mind into numbing nothingness. Labor supposedly calms the mind, moving it into a meditative state. Perhaps distraction is a better word. The more stressed I am the harder I work on my garden, replanting and reshaping the beds the same way I need to reshape my life.

A bright red crepe myrtle stand tall at the head of my driveway.  Flowers and azalea bushes line the other side.

A bright red crepe myrtle stand tall at the head of my driveway. Flowers and azalea bushes line the other side.

Now, years after that drastic career change, I look at my garden. The yellow maple was damaged in a storm. I took it down so my three young trees could thrive in the sun. Those once scrawny plantings have become lovely full size trees. The Crepe Myrtle with its gorgeous red flowers dominates the entrance to our driveway. The two tiny Japanese maples have grown to maturity and now shelter small families of birds.

At one point I thought I‘d surround that wonderful Crepe Myrtle with a low-lying carpet of ornamental grass. I had vision of a soft green lawn, a brilliant red flowering tree at the center. But weeding became a chore and soon I couldn’t tell what was weed and what was grass. So two weeks ago I ripped out every last blade of that grass and said farewell to my fantasy of a lovely green grass carpet. I needed to clear that space. Maybe at the same time I needed to clear my head.

Took out every bunch of ornamental grass.

Took out every bunch of ornamental grass.

Weeding gave me a sense of control. Perhaps that was misplaced, but so be it.

This is an uncertain time in media and disruptive for many. Newspapers and magazines have declined in circulation. Some have completely folded up. The proliferation of cell phone and digital cameras has automated the craft of photography. A recent ad for one of the most popular smart phones declared that everyone with a phone camera was a photojournalist. Has my profession really been reduced to something that anyone with a cell phone can do? I hope not.

But the truth is that what doesn’t work needs to be pulled out. Something that thrives in a newly created environment will replace it.

Gardens only need a bit of tender loving care. A little sun, planning, watering and everything thrives. So like my garden, maybe its time to start my career over once more.

Written by kasmauski

July 29, 2015 at 7:46 pm

To my Polish Grandmother (I knew I’d turn out just like her.)

with 2 comments

Genevieve as a young woman in 1926 with my year-old father Steve.

Genevieve as a young woman in 1926 with my year-old father Steve.

I’ve worked in some exotic areas this past year, including Myanmar, Mexico, Honduras and Jerusalem. Soon I’m leaving for Ghana and Nigeria. But recently I took a hiatus from my blog.

The reason is that I found myself obsessing about something quite personal—the shape of my Polish grandmother Genevieve! I was in my 30’s when she died, after a long coma resulting from a fall.

We weren’t friends.

When my family would visit her, she would often get drunk. When I was little, she tried to beat me with a belt if she thought I had done something wrong. I always outran her. Not the grandmother Norman Rockwell might have painted.

My father was a sailor. A good son, he often visited her when he wasn’t at sea. Our family had to come along–my brothers, my sister and my mother, a Japanese war bride. These stressful visits often ended with my grandmother crying into her beer  about the misery of her life and the hardships of her daughters, one of whom seemed to collect abusive boyfriends the way some women collect shoes.

Genevieve had seven children. My father was the oldest. Her husband—my grandfather—drowned in a boating accident in Michigan before my father had even met my mother. The details of the accident were vague and mysterious. He was fishing with his son-in-law, my uncle Einer. Somehow the boat turned over. Einer, who wasn’t a swimmer, survived. My grandfather, who was a swimmer, drowned.

After that my grandmother started to fall apart. To relieve her pain she began frequenting a local tavern for beer and conversation. She met George, who eventually became my step-granddad. George left his wife and five children for her. But his inability to control his drinking eventually damaged his business and their marriage. They separated and he later died in a poor house.

In time I came to like her, though I always wished for a more traditional grandmother. I don’t know if it is vanity or narcissism that now leads my thoughts to dwell on her body shape rather than on the hardships that she endured. But her body is the one that I am growing into.

I have a clear picture of my grandmother as my father drove us away from her home after another strained visit. I was sitting in the front seat of our Chrysler station wagon. I looked back to see her standing on the crumbling porch of her small white wooden house. She waved goodbye. Her strong hand was connected to her unexpectedly delicate wrist and muscular arm. Her sturdy wide body was wrapped in a cheap cotton print dress. She wore stretch stockings to help with the varicose veins bulging on her legs. Her feet were secured in sensible thrift store slippers. Her only income was Social Security.

I still remember the chill that ran down my back that moment as I looked at her. Somehow I knew that I was seeing myself in 30 or 40 years. I was quite thin in my twenties. Yet as I age, I appear to be turning into my grandmother—at least in appearance. She had the wide peasant face and the sturdy middle of many older eastern European women of a certain age. Hers was a body built to work. Now, when I look in the mirror, I can glimpse echoes of my grandmother.

My grandmother Genevieve   at a hunting trailer in Michigan in 1954.

My grandmother Genevieve at a hunting trailer in Michigan in 1954.

Like her, I have a body built to work. Oddly, we both ended up in jobs involving heavy lifting. As a photographer I lug cases of camera gear around the planet. My grandmother’s final job was bussing tables at the country club in Spring Lake, Michigan. She lugged piles of dirty dishes back to the kitchen. She was amazed at how much food was wasted and left on plates. Fried shrimp was one of the more expensive items on the menu. “How could they leave the shrimp?” she would ask to no one in particular. Then in an almost smug tone, she confided that she would eat the fried shrimps left on the customer’s plates. “They hadn’t even touched those shrimps,” she would say to my frowning 15-year-old face. In fact, her bold move fascinated me. I wanted to eat some that shrimp. Even today, whenever I think of that story I crave fried shrimp.

Now, other ancestors seem to be passing on their traits to me. My joints are starting to creak like my father’s and my night vision is deteriorating just as his did. Driving at night has become terrifying, unless I wear glasses that give me better than 20/20 vision. Like my father, I also turned gray at a young age. If I’m lucky to live as long as he did, my hair will doubtless be the same snow white as his was. And though my face reflects the Asian heritage of my Japanese mother, my body belongs to the eastern European stock of my father.

My girlfriends who, like me, are half Asian all inherited the thin delicate bodies of their mothers. I have the study structure of my grandmother. A woman born to work. And to this day, no matter what else is on the menu, I always chose shrimp.

Written by kasmauski

June 7, 2014 at 10:02 pm