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Gender Government History Personal Essays Politics Women

The Ginsburg Vacancy


I wrote this with my friend and author, Kathy Aspden. If you haven’t read her books, have a look. She is a great writer.

By Kathy Aspden & Christine Merser

In a speech in August 2016 in Kentucky, McConnell would say: “One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy.”

Thirty-two Republicans put out positive statements in 2016 to support Merrick Garland’s nomination.

When McConnell stamped the it’s not happening on it all, Democrats came out full force— with words. Schumer called it a travesty, and others said the sitting president should fill the empty seat. But as in most things, Democrats had no tool in the tool box to change what Mitch chose to do. So many words, so many referenceable quotes from 2016.

Mitch broke the law. Or if you are generous and sit on the outside of liberal views, he ignored his responsibility to run hearings and put the process in place—which is his fiduciary obligation as majority leader. And so here we are, four years later, and McConnell is saying the court seat will be filled by this sitting president. Everything he said last time no longer fits into his agenda. Yet, he has no shame, no qualms, no fear in reversing what was a bad decision then.

So now, all the Dems will reverse what they said four years ago, and the Republicans will follow the pied piper of corruption and change their tone as well. Lindsay Graham is interesting. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, he actually brought up this scenario in 2018 during a forum with The Atlantic, and said, “I’ll tell you this – this may make you feel better, but I really don’t care – if an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term, and the primary process has started, we’ll wait until the next election.” All lies.

But this is not the time to call our people to the streets. This election will be decided by those who are already hesitating to put their toe in our waters—fearing it might look okay, but perhaps it’s boiling after all. Law and order, as an issue, is not working well for Trump, and a full-out protest will give legs and fuel the fire. And, then there is the hypocrisy of every Democrat from 2016 changing their stand when it suits them in 2020. Do we sink to the basement level that the Republicans have renovated as the penthouse? No we do not! Not on our watch.

Let’s do this with intelligence and integrity. Let them nominate some half-qualified person. Fight it on the stage during the hearings, smartly. Ted Cruz (one of the Trump short-listers) as a Supreme? Make our day.

If we do this well, we will win this election—which takes precedence over everything else right now. Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death could surely give Trump what he needs to change the course of a conversation that’s currently not working for him. Let’s kick the legs out from under his potential unrighteous fury.

Oh and later, when the senate is won and the presidency has a reasonable, capable, semi-honest working body (which we’ve come to realize is the best we can hope for in government), we can up the Supreme Court seats to eleven and wave at Mitch McConnell across the aisle.

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Uncategorized

RBG RIP

I was 15 when I watched Ted Kennedy eulogize his brother Bobby, and I was struck to the core when he said, “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” I remember thinking that one day a woman will die, and she will mean so much to me and others of my gender that words like this will be written about her. 

And so tonight, 52 years later, it has come to pass. Ruth Bader Ginsberg has died, and one of her final acts was to send a message to her lawyer granddaughter, saying, “My most fervent wish is that I not be replaced until a new president is installed.” She always chose words carefully, our RBG, and I wonder if it was not lost on her that she might be asking for four years of not being replaced.

I have no idea what comes next. My phone is buzzing with text messages. But I’m not answering any of them tonight. For me, tonight is a moment in the midst of the chaos, fear, and loathing that make up my days of following politics, when I stop and look at my gender’s supreme of all Supremes. 

My mind is running, running, running. 

With a new baby and a husband fighting cancer, she attended Harvard Law School, doing her homework and writing research papers, taking care of her child, and typing her husband’s papers. And she still managed to get the top grades in her class. But mostly what I thought when I read about that was that she didn’t complain; she just did it. I marveled at the fact that she didn’t just give up law school and switch to writing books on time management, because she was an expert. 

Then they screwed her. If she’d been endowed like a man, she would have been sought after by the top firms, and the clerkship she applied for would have been a no brainer. She didn’t complain. Not our RBG. She stayed the course. She had to wait a long, long time before she got on the road leading to the Supreme Court of the United States.

She had a great love. Marty. A successful marriage. A love of Opera. Children. Grandchildren. She cooked Passover Seder herself. She loved movies. And, she was funny.

Her humor was often laced with verbal brilliance. Here’s an anecdote from her granddaughter, Clara Spera, as quoted on glamour.com in 2018: “Once, though, I had to email her about her opinion in a voting rights case, Evenwel v. Abbott, because I thought the strong language in her analysis did not match up with the eventual, more reserved, holding. I was frustrated that she seemed to be holding back. I won’t reveal her response here, except to report that she told me, ‘I once spoke to you about not being queen when one writes for the Court.’”

Mostly, though, I will never forget the on-screen reenactment of her closing arguments in front of the Supreme Court during Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. I wonder if she could have seen herself on that bench with nine white men who looked and acted nothing like her. I hope you will watch it, even if you have seen it before.

You see, as women, we haven’t had the opportunity to lead in a game where gender has no role. Eleanor Roosevelt was beloved, but she got her leg up from being the wife of a beloved president. Our road to greatness in this country has never been a direct line based on our own attributes. Women in other countries have managed to accomplish quite a bit without a male connection. Golda Meir comes to mind. But in this country, white men seem to have center stage, and our access to that stage has mostly been walking next to them, not in front of them.

So my beloved Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who I never saw in person (how could I have let that happen?), is now gone. Her white-lace-collared robes, which showed humor, femininity, and a bit of FU, have shown me the way. Her total commitment to excellence, incredible time-management skills, and brilliant mind made her our hero. She gave us (women) the map, if you will, to staying the course and committing to not giving up, no matter how far on the horizon. 

She is my Bobby Kennedy, my JFK, my MLK, and if anyone, anywhere even thinks of not erecting statues of her wherever women roam, I will finally take up arms. 

Categories
Personal Essays Women

Be Kind: I’m Over It

16710123602_81e9bfe67d_bI’ve encountered this mantra on my Instagram, Facebook, and just about everywhere:

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

At first, I embraced it. I can do more “kind.” Yep, I can be known as kind. “You know Christine Merser; she’s so kind.”

*pause*

No one says that about me. But that’s not to say I don’t do kind things. Say kind things. Bleed with empathy and reach out with kindness for those in pain or less fortunate than me. I’ve done those things. Many times in my sixty-seven years. But that is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of me. I know this because I called a few friends and asked them to quickly describe me.

Here is what I heard: “Funny.” “Smart.” “Helpful.” “Political.” One friend said, “a great driver.” Huh? No one said, “kind.”

So then I spent considerable time thinking about it. Pondering the words they used to describe me and questioning whether or not I’m a good person with those adjectives as my personality foundation. Then I second-guessed everything that I am, much of which I was born with, not that which I worked to acquire.

And, then I got angry. Defensive? Maybe, but nevertheless, I really started to look at the word “kind” and ask myself if that was a word I want in my epitaph.

Kind (adjective): Having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature: “She was a good, kind woman.”

Then it hit me. Of course I am kind. I am friendly, generous, and considerate. Actually, I am those things often.

I have someone I’m very close to. He is kind. The kind of kind that suggests that if you were to ask people to describe him, they’d probably use the word “kind.” Good for him. He has accomplished great things in his life, perhaps more than I have. But they are different things.

I watched AOC’s speech on the floor of Congress yesterday. Twice. It was many things. It was inspiring. Revealing. Articulate. Powerful. It was not kind. Kind would have been ridiculous.

Kind is a tool in the toolbox. It is not the box itself. Always being kind in all circumstances is not a goal. There is a time for kindness and a time for strident confrontation. There is not kind confrontation. There should be honest confrontation. AOC did not say anything that wasn’t true or clearly her opinion over fact. It was without bitterness. It wasn’t whiny. She did not make herself a victim. If anything, she made herself a hero, the master of her own universe.

So, it’s not the word “kind” that I have an issue with; it’s the entire message, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

I think it should read, “In a world where you can be anything, be appropriate to the moment in which you are responding.”

Categories
Gender Politics

AOC: A New Voice Inside My Head

53186874e0c62d8f8ced7457e6dd6cbfI have watched AOC’s speech around men bullying women on the floor of Congress (oh happy day!) a number of times since she delivered it. I wept the first time, became proud the second, and grew enraged during part of the second and part of the third. I’m not sure what I will feel next week when my calendar pop-up reminds me to watch it one last time.

AOC surmises that Rep. Ted Yoho spoke to her that way simply because he believed he could do so with impunity, that he believes it’s OK to speak to women that way.

I surmise that while he might have thought he could get away with it (and, in fact, might have done just that if his comment hadn’t been overheard by a member of the press), that is not why he did it.

I think he saw her, was filled with the kind of rage that doesn’t have forethought or fear of reprisal. I don’t think he thought for that split second anything other than the fact that he can’t stand that she exists, let alone that she is a sitting congresswoman. He reacted without the ability to not do so and without thought of impunity, which is what makes it a pattern in his behavior. If you can behave that way over and over again, and it works by intimating those around you, it’s a tool in your tool box that serves a purpose.

I’m not sure which is worse: The fact that childhood-learned uncontrolled behavior of men works with women, or the fact that they can do it with impunity.

Weinstein. Yoho. Epstein. Trump. Barr. Should I go on?

Here is the thing: It becomes an uncontrollable response. I assure you, Yoho has lost it with his daughters and wife as well. I know this because just as AOC is the daughter of a man who gave her an unfettered voice nurtured without fear of his reprisal, a voice that I admire and need, I am the daughter of a man like Yoho, who, when challenged or made to feel “less than” by me or someone else, responded the same way Yoho did, without restraint. They can’t control it. And they have impunity. Both things can be true.

AOC gave me so much yesterday. My dad is gone, but I will write him a letter today, with her voice inside my new voice. It’s a voice she gave me, one that she got from her father, a different voice from the one inside my head. I am a better person, a stronger person because of her speech. No one will ever intimidate me that way again.

Categories
Government Politics

Because of You

resized_99265-king-holiday-inaugura_segr_96-16666_t800During Obama’s first inauguration, he made one stop on his way to his seat. He stopped and hugged John Lewis . After he took the oath, on his way out, John Lewis went up to him with a blank piece of paper and a pen. He asked Obama to sign the paper. Obama wrote, “Because of you John. President Barack Obama”

His first signature as president. And, a recognition that he stood on the shoulders of men like John Lewis to get where he got. (Obama has said on numerous occasions that he stood on the shoulders of men like Martin Luther King and John Lewis.)
Because of you.

I have thought a lot about that moment since I read it yesterday. I have thought a lot about the words, ‘because of you.’ I think it’s worth a moment to ask ourselves what has happened in this world, or in our sphere of influence, ‘because of me.’

Silence means nothing will happen because of you. Negative comments about our president and those that enable him also mean nothing happens because of you. Actions we take, words we repeat, stories we tell, will build our ‘because of you’ legacy.
Will your ‘because of you’ build or destroy?

God I love the adrenaline rush I get inside when I see someone brilliantly taking down those that are my enemy in my country. A meme, a combination of words that cuts and devours. I feed off it. I know that it builds nothing – that moment of righteousness, and then forwarding it to create the same worthless ‘high’ for my likeminded friends. It’s a waste of time that could be better spent forwarding information about a great candidate running, or something that someone did that was building back that which we have allowed to be destroyed as part of the fiber of our country.

Because of Obama, and his oratory skills, and his amazing use of language, I have become a better person. Because of him. He reminds me whenever he speaks now, that there is no benefit in ripping things apart.

I will miss John Lewis and his rich history of taking actions that leave a legacy his future generations can hold in their hands with pride. I am grateful that I took a bit of yesterday and learned some things that I can use to emulate his fine example of how to be a great American.
I will strive moving forward to ask myself each night before I lay to rest what happened because of me today.

Categories
Government Movies & TV Politics

Corruptio Optimi Pessima

Corruptio optimi pessima-2“Corruptio optimi pessima. Corruption of the best is the worst.”

I’m a West Wing girl. I mean, I love The West Wing. I think it’s the finest show ever written for TV, bar none. I think Aaron Sorkin is a genius, and if I could have lunch with one person who is alive today, believe it or not, it would be him.

I love The West Wing because it has taught me more life lessons than anything I’ve ever watched. More than any piece of art. More than the movies. It’s The West Wing. I love that the characters are all flawed in many ways, yet spectacularly brilliant and caring in other ways. I love that we can forgive them their daily sins, the same way I would like my own to be forgiven. I love that they go in a room and say what they have to say and then leave. They never repeat themselves over and over again the way I do when I’m not watching.

Fourth of July is approaching, and I wanted to write something about my love of America, and about my realization that we are not living in the best period of our history. We are living in a dark time from which we may not recover. Benjamin Franklin said the government can’t work if everyone in government doesn’t respect one another. I think we can all agree that right now, no one on either side of the political aisle, in the men’s and ladies rooms, or in the parking lots of the Capitol respect one another. In fact, I believe that many of them have no self respect, either. And, truth? What’s that in the beltway?

So, what to write about my country on her fabulous birthday? A call to action for myself and the rest of us comes to mind. So of course I turn to The West Wing, Season 5, Episode 14, An Khe. Leo McGarry, The President’s Chief of Staff, is a Vietnam War veteran. He was shot down and saved by his friend O’Neill, who carried him through the jungles for three days until they were rescued. Leo is loyal to “the finest man I have ever called a friend.” His friend is now the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company that makes things the government uses to do bad things in other places. Specifically helicopters. Leo finds out that his friend has crossed to the dark side and bribed someone to get a contract. I have just made a long, fabulous story short. You get the picture. O’Neill has let Leo down and Leo is stunned.

Fast-forward to Leo alone in his office after his friend confesses. Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s version of “My Country Tis of Thee” starts to play in the background, and the president comes in to see if Leo is all right. Leo begins to cry and tells the story of that long ago day when his amazing friend saved his life in the jungle. Then he explains that others died attempting to rescue them. He says that he and the fallen CEO had an obligation to those who went before — those who died — to lead lives on honor and service that would make those men proud of them. And the President quietly says, “Corruptio optimi pessima — Corruption of the best is the worst.”

Corruption of the best is the worst. Corruptio optimi pessima. Never has this quote been more appropriate than this moment in time. Not just in the presidency but in all the halls of our government. All of them.

We all have an obligation to start checking our facts before we republish the propaganda that clogs our inboxes and our minds. We have an obligation to respect other points of view — and to ask for the data to back up those points of view. And if we are to honor those who gave up so much for our freedoms (and I do not include not wearing a mask as a right of citizenship), we must take action to ensure that every American can vote easily and have access to health care—and also that every American pays the taxes they are supposed to pay and works hard to better their lives and not just to get a free ride; these things and a host of others have gone by the wayside. We need to learn to take care of the environment, to understand the land the way those that were here first did. We are out of control as a nation, and this is a day on which we should take a moment away from fireworks and hot dogs and steaks and red, white, and blue linens, and commit to doing the right thing.

God Bless America.

Post Script:

The plot line about the defense contracting controversy is apparently based on a real life incident. A 2003 lease agreement of 100 Boeing K-767  tankers by the US Air Force led to the imprisonment of a Pentagon staffer and the forced resignation of Boeing CEO Phil Condit. The main opponent of the deal was Senator John McCain – from Arizone like the fictional Senator Hunt; in addition, Hunt has been presented on the show as a maverick who is amenable to bipartisan projects, not unlike Senator McCain. McCain, when informed about the West Wing episode, was amused.

Very little is revealed about the title of the episode – An Khe. The only reference to the name is in the opening scene, when Leo, as a Vietnam War fighter pilot, tells ground control that he is approaching An Khe. An Khe was an actual base camp in Vietnam during the war.

Categories
Government Politics

MacArthur Park & Cake Out in the Rain

Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
’Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
Oh no!

The lyrics to “MacArthur Park” come to mind now as I realize that we left the cake out in the rain. We Americans treated our freedom, our success, and our ease of life without sheltering them, appreciating them, and it took so long to bake that perfect recipe that we can never get it back. Oh no.

Screen Shot 2020-06-05 at 2.56.13 PMI always turn to music, or Aaron Sorkin’s body of work, when I can’t stand it anymore. I think we can all agree that “MacArthur Park” is one of the greatest songs ever written. “No, no,” to quote that literary genius Anna Wintour, “it’s not a question.” It is the perfect recipe of lyrics and notes, it’s long and meanders, and it is precisely what we need right now.

So I turned to one of my favorite renditions of it. David Letterman brought the largest orchestra ever into the theater that launched the Beatles in America, and he added to the mix the composer Jimmy Webb, and bassist Will Lee on vocals. If you haven’t seen it, click here. If you have seen it, check it out again — but this time, instead of paying attention to the camera’s focal point, which is mostly Will Lee, watch Jimmy Webb, who is playing the organ, and Paul Schaeffer, who’s playing the piano. Watch the passion with which they do what they do. Take note of the other musicians and their commitment to the performance. Notice how each of them focuses on what they’re contributing to create what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest moments in music and late-night television. I love the talent and passion with which they are giving their all to their craft. That is what we all need to do right now.

We must ignore the diversionary explosions of the world around us and do what we can to change things. We cannot let anyone else, let alone our government, take from us that which our forefathers built. Nope. Not on my watch. Not today. Let’s get to work, each of us within our own power.

Watching this video twice renewed me. It reminded me that while we left the cake out in the rain, we can bake another one simply by doing whatever’s in our power to put back together the pieces of our broken nation, our shattered souls, and our aching hearts. Yes, turn to music or Aaron Sorkin. It works every time.

There will be another song for me
For I will sing it
There will be another dream for me
Someone will bring it

I will take my life into my hands
And I will use it
I will win the worship in their eyes
And I will lose it
I will have the things that I desire
And my passion flow like rivers through the sky
And after all the loves of my life
I’ll be thinking of you.

Categories
Government Politics

Memorial Day 2020

photo-1-300x225My stepfather was an Infantryman in the 11th Armored Division of the 3rd Army. We’re talking Patton’s army. He was awarded a Purple Heart after being injured in the Battle of the Bulge. He and I were not close (I say kindly), and while I knew he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, I never asked him about it. Like so many other missed moments, I’m so sorry I never did. My daughter Sarah did. And, she told me this story. I share it with you on Memorial Day with the hope it will move you to ask someone who has served our country to tell you their story before they are no longer able. Especially at this moment in time when we are all so vulnerable.

It was late on Christmas Eve, 1944, and George Ilse was lying on the ground with hundreds of others. He thought he was dying. I’m not sure what the injury was, but he was ‘tagged’ as not able to survive and left with whatever comfort they could give. He had a small compass with him that my daughter now has on a chain. He told her that his uncle gave him the compass for Christmas just before he was deployed. I have the Christmas Card that accompanied the gift and added it to this blog. It has the following message: To help you find your way home. Tom. According to George’s story, it had stopped working.

A man walked by, stopped, looked at him and said, “Are you George Ilse?” My stepfather said he was and it turned out to be a medic from George’s hometown. He knelt over George and worked on him. He saved his life. He told Sarah that he took the compass out of his pocket while the stars shone over the snow covered ground later that night so long ago, and it was working again. He told her in that moment he knew he’d make it home.

I’m sorry I never thanked you for your service George. I do it today, on Memorial Day, 2020, so many years after that cold Christmas night. And, if I meet another person who has served in the future, I will ask them about their service rather than simply thanking them.

Categories
Personal Essays Relationships Women

Mother’s Day 2020

34edb4313fd81bb294b820721b41c629I got the following email from a friend.

Did I tell you about my mom?  She uses a walker, but for some reason decided to try the tread mill at her apt building last week, hit the wrong button, sped up, she went flying, got battered, had to have eye surgery last week for a torn retina ….laugh or cry?

I read it and started laughing with the image of this older woman on a walker headed to the treadmill, and then as I thought about it more and more, I started to cry.

What possesses a woman on a walker to head to the gym in her building and get on a tread mill? I’ll tell you what. A woman that hasn’t been given anywhere else to go to celebrate who she is today, that’s who. If you are not young and in shape, you are nothing. End of that story.

I remember traveling in France with H2 (second husband) in our early years (the early 80’s). Sunday was always a long luncheon, often outside at a restaurant like Pre’ Catelan, where the meal (it was four or five courses) began at 1 and lasted until 5. What brings it to mind now is that there were French families there; four generations sometimes and the elderly people were seated next to the youngest generation and everyone hovered around those elderly people. All afternoon. They seemed to hang on their every word. I think about what I see now – in this country – and there are only those meals on major holidays, and the distance between generations has grown significantly, with little or no contact. People visit their elders in assisted living and the assisted living takes care of the contact. Even before Covid-19 there were no four or five hours meals every Sunday in a sedentary way where an older person could rule. Or at least I didn’t see them.

But now, I see pictures of people visiting the elderly and talking to them through their windows, or on Facetime in a new way. A way that recognizes there is no guarantee that the opportunity to speak to them will be there tomorrow.

So, apres Covid, maybe it will be back to basics. Family. Time together to marinate rather than regurgitate. And, as for my friend’s mother. I have thought of her often over the past few years since I heard the story. I think of how you summoned your strength and add it as inspiration for my own journey. I honor you today on Mother’s Day, and I think you are one special lady.

Categories
Art Travel

Vacation in the Time of Corona; Actually Ten Years Earlier

Ten years ago I took a vacation to a National Geographic Photography class in DC. I had a great time. I realize as I’m cooped up now that I stopped taking pictures soon after this post from 2009. What a great time to start taking them again. I’m going to go out tomorrow and renew my love of taking pictures and see if I can capture some of what we are now seeing on our daily travels … short as they might be. Here is the post from April 2019…

I haven’t taken vacation in close to three years. It’s clear I have trouble relaxing. I decide in this Obama mania of Change, Change, Change that I will take five days off. What to do? What to do? I receive my National Geographic Expeditions catalog in the mail and decide to sign up for the DC four day photo-journalism expedition.

First, I can add simple numbers. It’s not four days. It starts Thursday night at 5:30 PM and ends Sunday at noon. That’s two and a half days. Duh. Ok, rise above accuracy in logistics and get with the program.

I tell my friend Paula about the trip, and she decides to join me. I love Paula because she always reads everything associated with anything she does, and I know she will have the whole thing figured out by the time we get there.

One Month Before My Vacation Expedition

“You have to get a Mac and download Lightroom.” Paula is on the phone after having received her kit in the mail that I received weeks earlier and haven’t read.

“Huh? It’s a photography class.”

“Yes it is, and you need Lightroom which costs three hundred dollars, and you should be on a Mac.”

I always follow Paula’s directions and order one Mac laptop, one major screen, one cordless mouse and keypad. I buy Lightroom and add $5,000 to the $2,000 cost of the trip. Well, I needed to move to Mac anyway; everyone who is really creative uses a Mac and after the class that will include me.

One Week Before the Class

I put my camera in the car and take it with me to be ready for a few practice shots on the days before the trip begins. You never know when the next Katrina can hit when you are driving to and from work the week before your first photo journalism class. My camera is stolen from the back seat of my car two days before we are heading to Washington.

I go to the camera store and buy a new camera and lens that will serve as my “sure I know what I’m doing” calling card. $1,500. We are up to $8,000 for the trip. I’m realizing that perhaps there is a reason I never take vacation.

I’m ready to go. Bags packed. Check. New camera. Check. Batteries charged and ready to go. Check. DC here I come. On the way to meet Paula at the train station I make a mental note that I could be sent to Africa shortly after being discovered in DC as the best photo journalist discovered in a two and a half day class that so far costs $8,000.

Night One — Dinner with the Group

We head down to registration, drinks and dinner right on time and start to meet the group. No one talks about photography much, but instead get acquainted with where we are all from and what we do outside this trip. I look for those with indented shoulders thinking the professional photographers are worn from carrying bags, etc around the globe in their amazing assignments. Not too many are admitting they are photographers professionally. I start to relax.

We eat and then see a presentation by our PPL (Professional Photographer Leader), Mark Thiessen. He presents his work on fires and as he speaks I look around a bit wondering if anyone has the same thoughts as I do about how pyromaniacs love fires and perhaps the fact that for six years he pursued his fire story should be a tip off to the feds. That, of course, makes me wonder if we are going to shoot any FBI stuff and so the evening went.

Day Two: Really Day One After Night One

Everyone is stoked. We head over to National Geographic Offices. (Who knew they have three buildings and call Alexander Graham Bell their founder? Turns out that Bell left them a ton of telephone stock, and so they have plenty of real estate to call their own. I wonder what I will leave them when I win the Pulitzer for a shot I take after learning everything I need to know in the next four days, or two and a half depending on whether you are the payee or the payor.)

After breakfast we head up to the editing classroom we will be using. They tell us in the elevator that we are assigned seats. I say out loud, “Please let me be in the back row. Please let me be in the back row.” Everyone laughs but I know two things. You have to say what you want in life, and being in the back row means you can see what everyone else is doing on their laptops and know whether you should check out or not. We arrive, and no surprise to me I’m in the back row with some fabulous people.

backrowalley2-150x150Kate on my right and Martha on my left. Jack sits next to Kate, and they happen to have the same last name. We later dub our back row, Back Room Alley, and we know that we are the finest in the land for sure and support each other better than my Playtex bra in 1993 when I went through menopause and my breasts fell to my knees.

The morning is a presentation by Todd James, one of the editors at National Geographic. I’m sure he’s a very very nice man to have as a father. That said, his presentation was more a review of his favorite National Geographic stories over the past years (not sure but could be quite a few years).

He offered the following elements of editing:

Know your subject. Research Up; edit down. That was interesting. I’m not a strong researcher, but it makes sense. Learn about where you are going before going and then you will know the shot.

Find Meaningful Surprises. Are you kidding me? That’s like saying, “Make a lot of money,” or “Eat well and you will be thin.” How to find meaningful surprises would have been nice. Some examples of meaningful surprises would have been nice and how it wasn’t dumb luck (or was) would have been nice.

See what others miss. He’s kidding right? Todd, again, how does one see what others miss? How do you even know if others missed it?

Photograph what you feel. I have spent thirteen years in therapy trying to figure out what I feel. By the time I figure out what I feel darkness has set in and the shot is lost. But I know what he means. I do. I know that I need to shoot people not places because I feel people. M on my left who aspires to be a photographer and is one already shows me a shot on day two where there is a line of WWII vets lined up at the memorial, and I start to cry as she remarks, “You know they won’t be around much longer.”

Use photography as a language to tell your story. I like that one. I try it on, “I speak English and photography.” Yes, that’s it for sure. I realize it was worth the morning just for that. And, there were some shots over the weekend that did just that. One in particular was a line from the military at Arlington taken by John I think (will try and get it to upload). The soldier on one side is barking out an order and his mouth is in a perfect O that reminds me of the carolers that I put out at Christmas. I know he means that order big time, and I can hear the picture. I can hear it.

So, I’m glad that Todd, the picture editor who still prefers film rather than digital, spoke to us. I learned a lot and also I know I want to subscribe again to National Geographic.

We have lunch and head off to our first assignment. We are split into two groups; one goes to Dupont Circle and the other, including Back Row Alley, heads to Adams Morgan neighborhood. We are told to capture the culture of the neighborhood. The only thing I remember about Dupont Circle is in the movie An American President, when she keeps getting stuck in Dupont Circle, and I never heard of Adams Morgan. We are told that they are culturally diverse and that’s it. Now, I am a learner, and we were just told that we should research up and edit down, so I know this is not going to go well but I decide it’s all in the attitude. I put on my Geo hat (that’s what all the cool people at National Geographic call the company, and since I’m a photo away from my African assignment, I’m sure it’s ok to join them), hop in a cab with Y whose bag weighed more than I do and head out. I leave her at destination Adams Morgan Neighborhood so I can hear my feelings and stand on a corner for awhile waiting for my feelings to hit me. “Shoot what you feel. I speak Photographer. Editing down from researching up (liar!).” That goes on for quite awhile and I am starting to panic.

merserc_day1_-11-300x225I see it. Four thug young boys walking down the street. They turn the corner away from me. I’m desperate. I call after them “Hey tough boys, walk toward me. You can kill me when you get here.” I swear to God. Desperation does something to a person. They turn. I start clicking. And, it worked. One of the four kept walking the other way, but the other three turn and start walking toward me with a mixture of tough and fun on their faces. I love them and will pay for their college education. Now we are up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for this vacation depending on whether or not they choose Ivy institutions.

I spent some time talking to them. It was great. Promised I’d send the shot which I will do shortly.

We arrive back for the editing process and everyone is shaky – wanting like Sally Fields to really have their shots be liked. It was all very touchy feely during the review process and no real input from the professionals on what should have been done or what makes a good picture etc. I realize that two hours to edit (really meaning pick out four pictures to show the class) borders on a new level of narcissism. We in back room alley finish up in a half an hour and chat amongst ourselves as others painfully look at each of their shots over and over and over again to figure out which one pops. Truth is I only have one worth showing – my boys in the hood – but I feel good about it. Quality over quantity if you ask me.

Kate starts doing some work on her laptop, and I see she is in pharmaceuticals. I tell her I’m all about the drugs, and she doesn’t offer anything under the table. Martha and I talk about her sherpa husband and the class.

We see each other’s images, and the next day’s assignment presented. We are to go to the Lincoln Memorial at dawn, shoot in the new light and then get shots of tourists and meet back for “editing” after lunch.

A group of us walk to a nearby place for dinner and decide to meet in the lobby at six to head over to the Memorial. I take to heart the research first editing remarks and Google Lincoln Memorial at dawn images and see that the light appears to come from the left hand side. I tell everyone that the next morning. Turns out it doesn’t come from the left, but no one suggests that I was sending them astray on purpose.

shapeimage_1My shots of the memorial are not memorable. Martha, however, nails it with a shot of the Memorial with a man mopping the area. Kate and I compliment her shot, and we all marvel at Kate’s shots too. I have asked her to send me some to show.

I am grateful for the morning and my encounter with Reginald in the park. Paula and I go into the park near National Geo after the Lincoln Memorial, and Reggie is sitting on a bench. I know he’s not all ‘there’ but there was something about his face. I sit down next to him and realize that part of being a photographer is that you are not really you. You can do things like sit next to a schizophrenic on a bench and feel like you have something to say to him.

I hand him my large lens as I’m switching to something smaller, and he and I become friends. Reggie is trying to stay in the real world and in his mind is a great basketball player. He demonstrates his techniques which if I’d read the directions on how to work my camera I could have shot with repeat shutter controls, but of course I haven’t and so I am stuck with Reggie in one still.

p10102352-225x300I give Reggie twenty dollars. I tell him he earned it for helping me with my lenses He was so happy that he gave me a hug and a kiss. I won’t forget him.

When we got back to the editing room, our leader Mark gave a lecture on elements of good picture taking. It strikes me that having it at the END of the expedition was sort of strange, but whatever. he also shows us pictures from his personal collection. They are awesome. Kate notes that the Halloween Jack-O-Lanterns are all about the candles in them. The birthday cake picture is also all about the fire. She is so smart that Kate, and I tell her so, but she still doesn’t offer me any free drug samples.

We have our wrap up dinner and the helpers put together a video presentation (they are sending it to us and I’ll upload it when they do). I realize that we all learned a lot. I took my first vaca in years, and I realized that it’s about getting out of the house, away from technology. I intend to do it more often.

Paula and I skip the last morning tour of Mark’s lab; I doubt we will be using it in the future. We have a nice leisurely breakfast and talk about our favorite shots from the group. Great wrap. Great weekend with my friend. I will research applying for Pulitzers when I get hope. Research up. Edit down.