No, I Can't Get It Out of My Head

This is what I'm thinking about right now:

  • A porterhouse steak, medium rare with a perfectly seared crust on the outside
  • A California burrito from Roberto's
  • Two scoops of Rocky Road ice cream
  • My old favorite sandwich from Rinaldi's: pastrami, melted mozzarella, mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and pepperoncini on a freshly baked soft roll
  • Falafel
  • A steaming bowl of kakuni ramen from Tajima
  • A Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, with barbecue pork filling
  • Sesame balls
  • Chashu bao
  • Spam musubi
  • Funnel cake
  • Pretty much every cholesterol-laden food that I'm not supposed to be eating.

I had plans to write something insightful tonight, but clearly that's out the window.

The Grapes of Wrath

By John Steinbeck

Considering that Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and that The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most studied pieces of American literature, you'd think I'd have long since read it. Maybe even more than once. I never took any specific courses in American lit, though, and in my personal reading I just never got around to it. Until just now, that is.

The first thing I was struck with--as I am always struck by Steinbeck's stories--was how deeply concerned with land the man was. Every one of his stories I can recall reading has begun with a description of a place. But "description of a place" doesn't really do it justice, because for Steinbeck, the places where his stories occur are characters unto themselves, and his descriptions are like songs, full of life. I sometimes wonder if a modern author could get away with openings like this, nearly devoid of action or hooks. I suspect they could, if they were writers of the same caliber as Steinbeck.

That's a big if, of course. And sometimes I wonder whether people really appreciate how skilled the man was. He's obviously hailed as a great and important writer, and his stories are read in classrooms from elementary school through university. But how many people actually look at his work for what it is?

Take a book like The Grapes of Wrath for example. It's a fairly simple story, told in straightforward language that makes it quite easy to read. Structurally speaking, there's nothing particularly surprising about the plot--the descriptions of the conditions that the migrant workers had to endure must surely have been shocking to readers of the day, but even at that, an attentive reader would have been able to guess the course of the narrative well before the last page. The morality is clear, even strident. The scenes border on the melodramatic.

All that apparent simplicity belies the subtlety and skill in Steinbeck's writing, though. Take another look, and you see themes developed and woven into the structure of the story, adding depth if you care to find it. And, of course, the characters themselves are so richly realized that you can't help but feel like part of the Joad family, yourself. And something about the way the book cuts back and forth between scenes and descriptive interludes brings it all home in a profound way, even though each individual portion might seem to be beating the reader over the head with message and melodrama. It's a masterpiece.

For me, one of the trickiest parts was in remembering exactly when it was taking place. Given the Joads' humble background and folksy speech, it's easy to picture them as belonging to the age of horse and buggy, possibly even as far back as the Civil War era. Yet Steinbeck wrote the novel in the mid-to-late 1930's, and he set the story contemporaneously. Consider, then, that by the time of the events depicted in The Grapes of Wrath, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had already been recording for over a decade. Benny Goodman was already the King of Swing. Hitler had already come to power in Germany. James Cagney, Mae West, Clark Gable, Walt Disney, and the Marx Brothers were all already household names. If anything, the abject poverty of the migrants is even more striking in that context.

The Grapes of Wrath was acclaimed a "great work" by the Nobel Prize committee, and has been both praised and damned by critics and readers for over 60 years. You may not have the same reaction to it that I did, but whether you're already familiar with it or whether it's new to you, I'd say that there's enough there to make it worth your while.

Started: 8/18/2010 | Finished: 9/1/2010

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My Little Superhero

My Little Superhero

We traveled home to visit family this weekend, and on Saturday we had a little get-together at my aunt's house. Jason was delighted to find that several people had brought belated birthday gifts for him, among them a "Superhero Starter Kit" that included a bright red cape. We couldn't get him to take it off for the whole rest of the afternoon.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX lens, in manual exposure mode. Aperture f/2.8, shutter 1/1600, ISO 400. Post-processing in Aperture 3: first, I applied the Daylight white balance preset. The shot was taken in the middle of a very bright day, though in the shade. I was trying to get the exposure right for his face, but I missed a bit, so he was a little dark, while the highlights were very bright. So I bumped exposure (+1) and recovery (+1.5), then used a curve to further recover the highlights and boost the midtones. I did a strong burn (0.6) around the outside, then a lighter burn (0.2) to just the shadows over his face and chest. Then I applied a very light dodge (0.05) to his eyes. Finally, I desaturated the reds (-15.0) and brushed that in just over the cape.

Thoughts for improvement: The main thing is to get the exposure right the first time. The focus is a little soft throughout, so I probably should have stopped down to f/4 or f/5.6, which would have been no problem since I had a very fast shutter. I should also have remembered to re-set the ISO back to 200 after I came outside, instead of leaving it at 400 from when I was indoors. Despite the fact that all that stuff meant I had to do a lot more work in post, though, I still think this may be one of the best portraits I've taken of him, at least in terms of matching the styles of the portrait & lifestyle pros that I've been studying.

A Couple of Completely Unrelated Conversations

"See that woman over there?"


"The book she's reading--I've read it. And it was really good."


"Do you ever... No, you probably don't."

"What don't I ever?"

"Um, do you ever see someone reading a book that you really loved and get a little jealous of them that they're getting to read it for the first time and you never will again?"


"Yeah, see, that's what I thought."

* * *

"Daddy, I missed you!"

"You did? Wow, what a nice thing to say to me, Jason. Thank you."

"I have a poop!"

"Oh. OK, well that's nice, too."



This guy was one of the volunteers at the Celebrate Dance festival last weekend. When we first got to the stage area, I noticed him walking around with a donations box. Later, he sat down to watch the performances near where Juliette, Jason, and I were sitting, and the reflections in his sunglasses caught my eye.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 55-200mm VR DX lens, in aperture priority exposure mode. Focal length 200mm, aperture f/5.6, shutter 1/320 sec, ISO 200. Post-processing in Aperture 3. My goal with the processing was to isolate the subject from the background, add a little more texture and pop, and make the reflection stand out. First, I used the Daylight white balance preset, then I reduced the saturation (0.81) and vibrancy (-0.1). I then used a curve to darken the shadows just a touch and bump up the midtones and highlights, also bringing in the white point a little. I then applied a reasonably heavy burn (0.6) to the background, then a medium dodge (0.4) to the highlights on the subject, and a light burn (0.1) to the shadows on the subject. To make the sunglasses pop a little more, I used the Intensify Contrast brush just on the lenses, with a relatively light setting (0.3). Finally, I added a little bit of edge sharpening.

Thoughts for improvement: I wish his elbow weren't cut off, but other than that I'm pretty happy with this one.

Sitcoms After Friends

The other day I found myself thinking about television comedies--I'm not entirely certain why--and specifically about the dominance of Friends in the late 90's and early 2000's. It was this huge phenomenon, and although there were shows that I liked better and watched more religiously, once Seinfeld ended there simply wasn't any other TV comedy--possibly any show of any genre--that competed with it in terms of broad popularity and cultural impact. And as I thought about it, I realized that I don't think there has been any show in the post-Friends era that has really come close to the same level.

Mind you, there are some very popular and very funny shows out there. Modern Family is excellent, and shows like How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory seem to have big followings. But all three of them still feel relatively niche, especially in comparison to Friends. The current show that I think probably comes closest is the NBC version of The Office, but even that feels more on a level with shows like Frasier or Everybody Loves Raymond, neither of which ever really got out of Friends' shadow, in my opinion, despite being pretty popular.

Even today, six years after the show ended, Friends remains a huge cultural touchstone. Along with Seinfeld, it's probably the sitcom I most often hear referenced in normal conversations, even more than shows that are currently airing.

But I wonder if that's the kind of thing that will last. When Jason is older, will Friends continue to be iconic, the way that I Love Lucy still is? Or will it be more a generational thing? Friends ended four years before he was born, and when I look back at shows that were popular shortly before I was born--shows like M*A*S*H or All in the Family--I don't find them particularly relevant to me. I am aware of their past popularity, of course, and I might even catch some references to shows of that era, but I'm not sure how much is due to a real, lasting cultural impact and how much is just because I have an interest in trivia and pop culture history.

Even the shows that I might have seen as enduring classics before, like The Cosby Show and Cheers, don't seem to really be much a part of the cultural fabric of people much younger than me. Try referring to someone as a "Cliff Claven" type in a conversation with a 20-year-old; I bet that more often than not you'll be greeted with a blank stare.

But maybe I'm way off base here. Maybe Friends was never as big a deal as I remember it being, or maybe there are a lot more shows from the past that continue to be a big deal now. What do you think?

My Latest at Life As A Human: What's Your Perfect Lunch?

"What's Your Perfect Lunch?":

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I got together for our final summer lunch together for the year. She’s a teacher, you see, so during the summer she has a lot more time to do things like take our son on fun outings, work on projects around the house, and meet up with me for lunch. As always, though, the summer has wound down, and she’s back to work again, which means no more weekday lunch dates for us.

Retro Girl

Retro Girl

This was one of the last shots I took during our trip to Balboa Park this weekend. This woman crossed the walkway right in front of us, and the combination of her umbrella, clothes, hair, and makeup turned both my head and Juliette's. I snapped several shots in a hurry as she walked by; I like this one the best because of the moment of recognition evident on her face.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 55-200mm VR DX lens, in aperture priority exposure mode. Focal length 200mm, aperture f/5.6, shutter 1/160 sec, ISO 200. Here again I did a fair amount of post-processing in Aperture 3. The original had a much brighter background and darker subject, so I bumped the exposure and recovery (each +1). I then reduced the overall brightness (-0.5). Then I added a strong bump to midtones using a curves adjustment and brushed that in over the woman and umbrella. To help isolate her from the background, I pulled back the saturation (0.8) and vibrancy (-.2) and applied that to the background and the man in the foreground. Then I burned the background and the man and dodged over the woman and umbrella. I wanted the background even darker, so I used the vignette tool (intensity 0.7, radius 0.92) and brushed it into just the top and right side. Finally, I used the Intensify Contrast brush on the umbrella to bring out the tones a bit more.

Thoughts for improvement: I still need to work on getting the exposure right the first time so I don't need to do as much work afterwards. I think I may have actually overdone the post-processing here--it looks a little too played-with.

Booty the Beese

I've been meaning to write a post about Disney's Beauty and the Beast (or, as Jason calls it "Booty the Beese") for a while now. Three months ago it was one of Jason's favorite movies, and we watched at least a few minutes of it several times each day. As always, though, procrastination managed to steal away the relevance of the topic to my daily life, and now Jason is much more into Cars and Toy Story.

I had a bunch of little bullet points to develop, but the main idea I had for the article was to talk about how unsettlingly close to a Stockholm syndrom sort of scenario the movie is. Need to find a woman to love you so you can undo your pesky curse? Easy enough: just grab the first pretty face that comes by, hold her prisoner with no hope of escape, scream at her, and threaten to starve her and she'll come around. Yep, that definitely sounds like "the most beautiful love story ever told."

You can imagine my dismay, then, when I saw this video linked by one of my Facebook friends this afternoon:

Same point and funnier than I could have done it. So I guess that idea is out the window. All that's left is a few of those leftover bullet points:

  • Somehow, the animation in Beauty and the Beast doesn't seem to hold up as well as the animation in The Little Mermaid, despite--or perhaps because of--the fact that it's so obviously more technologically advanced. The ballroom scene, of course, seems pretty dated now, but even the more traditionally animated scenes seem less impressive than their older counterparts. If nothing else, the cels seem to stand out more from the backgrounds.
  • I do have to admit, though, what they accomplished with the backgrounds in terms of parallax processing and simulating a rotating camera is pretty darn impressive.
  • Comparing the two movies again, it's interesting how much more like a Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast is than The Little Mermaid, both in terms of the songs and the voice acting.
  • Angela Lansbury's performance of the title song may be the best, most affecting song performances in any Disney movie. She was 65 when that movie was in production, already over 40 years into her film career and more than 80 credits under her belt. It's a pretty song to begin with, but hearing the age and experience in her voice adds a poignancy that gets me in a way I wasn't able to understand when the movie was new. I tell you what, Peabo and Celine have got nothing on her.

I Love You, Too

I Love You, Too

I mentioned before that we went out to Balboa Park on Sunday afternoon in order to let me shoot. Despite the fact that the light wasn't great and I couldn't get a good angle on any of the actual dance performances, and even despite the fact that I didn't really get any particularly great shots, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and interesting shoots I've done recently.

They say that photography is the art of seeing. For me, what that has meant is really being aware of what's going on around me. As I've developed my eye, I've found that I'm nearly always composing a shot in my mind, and I've started noticing interesting people and things everywhere.

What was really great about this shoot was that for the first time, I felt like Juliette and I were on the same wavelength. Oftentimes, I'm paying attention to the photographic possibilities while she's paying attention to what we're actually doing, which can lead to us clashing a bit. (I don't blame her, either. A few weeks ago someone at a party said to me "It must be nice to have a photographer in the family," to which I replied, "Well, it's nice to have the photos, but it's also nice to have a husband who's actually involved in what's happening instead of just taking pictures of it.") This time, though, she seemed to be seeing the scene the same way I was, even surprising me by pointing something out at the exact moment I had noticed it.

That's what happened with this photo. We were headed back to the car and noticed this mom and her son walking just ahead of us, and we both recognized the moment simultaneously. Juliette had just started to turn to tell me to snap the photo, only to find me already sinking to one knee to get the angle.

There are a lot of ways to feel close to your spouse, but I particularly love times like that where our thoughts and awareness seem to be completely in tune. I'm smiling now just thinking about it.

Technical info: Shot with a Nikon D40 and Nikkor 55-200mm VR DX lens, in aperture priority mode. Focal length 86mm, aperture f/4.5, shutter 1/4000 sec, ISO 200. I did a fair amount of post-processing in Aperture 3: first I applied the Daylight WB preset, then bumped the exposure (+1) and recovery (+1). The sky was way overexposed, so I brushed in a curves adjustment over the sky, pulled way down. I then used the Orange Filter B&W conversion preset. I dodged the mom and son, then burned the entire ground. Finally, I added some vignetting (intensity .51, radius 1.01), mainly to change the focus of the lighting.

Thoughts for improvement: The main thing here is that there was way too much contrast in the scene for a good exposure--I was shooting almost directly into the sun, so the sky is very bright and the subjects were in shadow. I ended up splitting the difference, mainly trying to avoid blowing out the sky and figuring I could brighten up the subjects in post, but it might have been better to shift brighter in camera, instead, as the subjects are still pretty dark. There are also some halos around the treetops and the tower that resulted from brushing in the curves adjustment, which I couldn't get rid of. Finally, I wish I had gotten just a slightly better angle so that the top of the tower weren't cut off.

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