The Train to New Orleans

I woke up before there was light in the sky. I think it was 5 am, but I’m not sure. It didn’t really matter.

The train had slowed for a crossing ahead. I looked out my window and saw the reflection of the red lights on a white pickup truck waiting on a country road. The engineer sounded the horn, then we gained speed and pushed further south.

I couldn’t go back to sleep that night. Actually I didn’t want to. I could doze comfortably in a bed the next night, and the night after that into eternity. Right now, I just wanted to peer through the glass to see what came next.

We were about an hour from Memphis. I had never visited Tennessee, and I guess technically I still haven’t. When we rolled to a stop at the station, my steward stepped on to the platform and lit a cigarette, all in one motion. It had been a long stretch since the last stop.

Melvin had two young girls. They were on the Amtrak as well.

“I’m going to take them for beignets,” he said exhaling. “They love them.”

I strolled along the platform in the morning light. I watched the lines of people waiting to board their cars. At the other end of the train, a truck drove up and a worker began refueling the engine. 

Melvin had finished his smoke and was greeting new passengers.

After everyone entered, I returned and headed to my roomette. The next stop was Jackson, then the home stretch to New Orleans.

I took pictures all along the way, my camera lens pressed up against the window to prevent reflections. There were homes, shops, and abandoned cars. I studied them all.

You would have thought that I was tired when we reached New Orleans, mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. 

I wasn’t.

My head was filled with images of the South, as seen through a train they call The City of New Orleans.

-Derrick  

What if I Lose?

I have two basic goals in life: 1) stay out of jail, and 2) do everything that I can to maintain my health. Because I figure that if I have freedom and well being, any problem can be solved.

The nature of my work leads me to think about such things. There is no gold watch in my future. Retirement is something that my parents did. For me, each day is an opportunity to fail or succeed until there are no more days.

I'm also thinking about all of this because of the NBA Finals. Yes, I'm one of those guys who believes that sport mirrors life. I just watched a team, who at this time last year was in despair, win the title over a worthy opponent that has possibly the best player of all time.

But there's more to the Warriors story for me. I became a season ticket holder after the 2011-2012 season when the Warriors finished with a 23-43 record, 13th in the Western Conference. It was Klay Thompson's rookie season. Steph Curry wasn't a star yet. And there was no Draymond Green.

The Warriors actually recruited me. They noticed my pictures online, tracked me down, and invited me (and my boys) to come watch a game in a luxury box and meet some of the management team. We had free hotdogs that night, our seats were on the house, and we met the team president who explained why the future was bright for this team. Now, that's moxie.

If I put a $500 deposit down, I could reserve my seats, and I would receive an autographed Klay Thompson rookie photograph. I asked for two photos. I have twins you know. They said yes, and so did I.

I went home that night and made my own pitch to invest $9,460 for a pair of sideline club seats in row 16. It was a risk. What if I couldn't sell the tickets for the games that we couldn't attend? What if I took a big loss? There were 42 home games that year, and I had to sell 30 of them to keep the venture going.

The first season was tough. Many of the tickets went on Craig's List and sold below market value, often in a coffee shop after work. But I made enough to keep the enterprise going. And the boys and I were having a blast.

Fast forward to 2017: those seats are now worth more than $20,000. And I haven't lost a penny.

My life is full of risks. Some are serious, like starting my own business. Others are just potentially expensive. The Warriors investment happens to be top of mind because of their recent victory.

When I'm considering something new, and have done my homework, I always ask myself one final question:

What if I lose?

As long as the answer doesn't adversely affect my health or my freedom, I can live with it. So what if I have to start over, dig myself out of a hole, or heal from a major setback? I can do those things. I've done those things.

The Warriors crushing defeat in game 7 last year led to the signing of Kevin Durant, the second best basketball player on the planet, and this year's Finals MVP. Yet many were doubting the Warrior's ability to come back and realize their goal. I wasn't one of them.

I knew one important thing: the Warriors weren't afraid of losing. It's just that they'd prefer to win. And they're willing to work toward that goal. Subtle difference? Maybe.

But that's why I bought those tickets in 2012. Because I feel the same way.

-Derrick

Art Without Guilt

Most people I know, including myself, work a lot.

And the odd equation is, working more does not lead to leisure time. Ironically, the yield seems to be just the opposite: more things to do. Tasks are breeding microorganisms if left unchecked.

Sometimes we justify this behavior with the dream of retirement. This promise manifests differently among generations. Those before me believed that you work hard first, then retire. But the fly in the ointment are those pesky health issues that come with old age.

The generation behind me thinks more about integrating leisure time into their daily routines. Tomorrow is not guaranteed, so let's live a little while we can. Of the two perspectives, I prefer the Millennial view.

First, I can't imagine retiring and moving to Florida. I'd be bored out of my skull. So my goal as a photographer and writer is to create now, and let the future take care of itself.

"Well, that's reckless," you may be thinking.

It's not like I don't have a plan. I've got a business, I've bought some real estate, and there's money in the bank. The rest of it I will figure out. To be honest, I've had lots of practice at that... like every month.

The art needs to happen now. Step one, move away from the computer. Step two, pick up a camera. Step three, go somewhere, anywhere. Step four, look at the world around me.

It's not hard. What's stopping us? I sometimes think that we work too much because we're afraid of the future. We want to be secure.

But long hours of tedious toil guarantees nothing. Eight years ago, when I was laid off from my full time job, I didn't know where the next month's mortgage check was going to come from. Today, I still don't know. Yet, every month for those eight years I've paid on time. 

And during those months, I've created thousands of images, explored the world around me, written more words than I can count, and watched my boys grow into young men. Yes, I was there for that. It's a show you don't want to miss.

My secret? When I feel a twinge of guilt while stepping away from the ToDo list, I acknowledge it, then I take another step, and another, and another, until it goes away. And it will.

Unwarranted guilt and fear are temporary emotions when we pursue what we know to be important. 

So, I'm taking part of my retirement today. I want to make something beautiful, breath fresh air, and exercise my body.

Then I'll get back to work.

-Derrick

It's Not Your Fault (But You Didn't Help Either)

Over the last couple week's I've been watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix. It's a tragic tale of a high school student who takes her own life after a series of insensitive, and sometimes criminal, acts by those around her. 

Anyone who has kids will most likely be saddened and disturbed by this drama. When I was a teenager I saw some pretty mean stuff, but nothing that compares to what the students at Liberty High inflict on one another.

Two of the themes that snake their way through the episodes are that of accountably and blame. "Was it your behavior that pushed her over the edge?" 
"I don't think so. Others did far worse things."
"Did you help her when presented the opportunity?"
"Well, maybe not."

The issues presented in 13 Reasons Why crystalize my most difficult moral dilemma: Is it good enough just not to be at fault? 

At this moment, I'm not talking about global issues. I can barely get my head around the interactions that I encounter in my daily life, both personal and professional.

Most of the problems experienced by those around me are not of my doing. Yet, some of them end up at my doorstep. And I've decided, as often as I have the energy to do so, that regardless if I'm the cause or not, I'm involved. And I should try to help.

13 Reasons Why is good filmmaking. I can recommend it based on technique alone. After all, we focus on photography and storytelling here, right?

But those reasons would only be partial truths. What I really want to say is that we need to pay closer attention to one another and try to imagine what the other person is experiencing. And when we can, expend some energy on them even when it's not our problem.

You see, I've finally realized that technical skill alone will never make me a great artist, or even a good friend. There's more to it than that. There always has been.

-Derrick

Beyond the Specs

Sometimes I think that the true artists in photography are the designers and engineers who create our cameras.

I've been working with two new additions lately: the Olympus PEN-F and Pentax KP. As part of my self-education about them, I've been reading reviews and user reports to help me better understand each device.

In general, I think many reviews miss the point.

Comparisons often focus on a few key specifications such as sensor size, high ISO rating, megapixels, frame rate, focusing speed, and a few words about usability. If these cameras were cars, we'd hear about horsepower, tire size, transmission gears, and something about the seats.

But cars aren't promoted that way. And neither should cameras.

The journey that I've been on with the Pentax KP has been filled with delights and surprises. There are so many thoughtful nuances in its bones. I would love to have dinner with the engineers just to hear about their thinking process during the design phase. I would buy the beer.

There are so many little things that I appreciate, like a green reset button that takes your settings back to square one, the ability to choose the image characteristics for program mode, and the creative library of digital filters that I can apply long after the shot has been captured. 

I've spent hours with this camera learning about the gems that I never read in a review.

Then I picked up the Olympus PEN-F, and I was transported to a completely different place. It had nothing to do with megapixels or ISO. But it had everything to do with how this camera can be used to create an image that looks completely different than the one captured by the guy standing next to me. It's a magical paint brush for photographers.

And beyond that, how this camera makes me feel as an artist when it's hanging around my neck. I  believe that I can create something beautiful at any moment. The PEN-F borders on the metaphysical.

As I read forum comments and stock reviews, I feel like there's a lack of appreciation for the designers and engineers who create these devices. I wish that I could be so talented to make a Pentax KP or Olympus PEN-F.

But I can't. So I will happily settle with using them to paint the moments of my life, as artistically and beautifully as possible.. and enjoy every fraction of a second along the way.

-Derrick