March, 2016

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The proud Dad blog

I’m allowing myself a moment to be a proud Dad today. This time it’s not about dance for a change. LoLo has just finished a year-long project as part of what is involved in being in Class 8 in her school. It also involved putting on a big play, and culminates with a month-long exchange to Germany in June. Abbi had the pleasure of the same three big events within a few months when she was in Class 8, but that predates my blog so I will note only that she is currently in Germany visiting her oldest friend (they met when they were babies), having got herself from school to the airport, onto the right plane and to an airport in the middle of nowhere (well, it was Ryanair).

Her project was on black and white film photography (and yes, that meant we were learning alongside each other – I was definitely about two weeks ahead of her in terms of experience). She was using mainly an old Olympus rangefinder camera (as they were so cheap, we bought two so we could use the same type of camera on holidays and compare and contrast results), which meant she had to learn to focus the camera as well as try to work out what would look good (a) as a picture as opposed to what her eye saw and (b) as a black and white photo. And of course she had the joy of developing her films using the chemicals that have in common that they stink, just in different ways. And we learned that one of them is also very effective at staining anything it comes near.

To begin with, we were developing a lot of photos of – what was that meant to be exactly? – largely out of focus. But the point of the project is to learn a new skill and she started coming back with one or two decent photos (cue relieved father), then her success rate started to go up significantly. When the snow came (and I allowed her to use an autofocus camera that even wound the film on for her) we were outside, cars spraying us with hard slush as they shot past, and we discovered that LoLo loves trees. Or at least photos of trees.

So here are some of the better ones. And later ones. For most of them, she was entirely on her own, she just went out with a camera in search of something. The one of the rowers remains my favourite. I couldn’t believe it when that one showed up on a roll of film! It really does show that it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer.

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July

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And here she is taking a photo of the texture of the bark of a tree (her idea):

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And her bark photo:

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Myths and reality

I was thinking about myths this week, by which I mean stories, legends or fables (not the other meaning of a widely held, but false, belief or story).

Every culture has its myths, the stories that are handed down through the generations, in some cases for thousands of years. Many of those myths concern where we came from, why we are are, and lessons on how we should live our lives. Many of us will have grown up with the Norse myths of Odin, Loki and Thor, or with the Greek and Roman myths that live on and are retold or re-created in literature, film and television programmes today.

Human beings sometimes tell stories to explain something in a way that can be more easily understood. We tell our children stories to help them understand birth and death, happiness and sorrow, kindness and cruelty. We tell stories to help each other make good choices in life. Some of those stories are true, in the sense of based on something which actually happened. Others are entirely fictional in terms of the facts, but not necessarily in terms of the truths they can impart to us.

I finally watched the film Bridge of Spies recently. The bridge in question is the Glienicke Bridge between Berlin and Potsdam, where spies were exchanged during the Cold War. I missed the part at the beginning which indicated that it was based on a true story, and so was surprised at the end when we found out what happened to the real people who had been portrayed in the film. So it was based on a true story, but I’m fairly sure the dialogue was not what the “real” people had said, and they got some things wrong, like how elaborate the Berlin Wall was portrayed as having been in 1961 – they were out by quite a bit. But that portrayal of the Wall is how we have it in our minds now. The desolated death strip with mines, anti-tank structures, spotlights, high towers with guards and guns, dogs barking. Not in 1961 though. Does it matter? I don’t think so. The film was telling a story, and the story is about two men on opposite sides of the Cold War who got to know each other. They tried to understand each other, learned to see that they shared similar principles, even though those same principles were applied in the service of different causes. Stories are not about the bald facts. Sometimes the facts can even get in the way of what the point of a story is. So we embellish, edit and elaborate to tell the story that matters, the story beyond the facts.

I grew up surrounded by Bible stories. And Dick Turpin. And Jack London books. And a whole lot of other stories. I can’t think of a better way to grow up, a childhood of stories. I remember being cross when I was required to get out of bed on a Saturday morning when I had decided to read an entire Dick Turpin book before setting a foot on the floor. I might have forgiven my mum for that, but I haven’t forgotten. Maybe I didn’t learn the proper lesson there.

I don’t know that I distinguished in any great degree between the stories in the sense of which were true and which were made up. I don’t think it mattered to me. I liked the story of Noah and his ark – what child doesn’t? – but I didn’t stop to say ‘wait a minute, that can’t actually have happened,’ because it never occurred to me that it mattered if it was a factually correct story. Likewise an army marching around the walls of Jericho, which promptly fell down when trumpets were blown on the seventh time round. I didn’t stop to think ‘wait, these people were told to go in and kill everybody in the city, that’s terrible, who would tell them to do something like that.’ Because it was a story. And Daniel’s friends wandering into a furnace and him being literally thrown to the lions? – great stories. It doesn’t matter if it didn’t actually happened. I learned about standing up for something, that it’s OK to have a different point of view, that things don’t always go to plan.

From these myths have come a treasury of literature and thought. I personally have no need to believe that they are an account of factual events that happened thousands of years ago. If they are, it might be the first time a people have willingly written down accounts of the genocide they carried out.

Those are just a few of the stories I grew up with, and have undoubtedly influenced how I view the world today. As an adult, I am able to understand both that I would have different stories if I had grown up in a different culture and that these stories are not all exemplars of how I should behave today. Lessons, certainly, sometimes of what not to do. But taking it all literally – I don’t think so.

Bible and Coelho

We haven’t stopped creating myths. They are different now, but they continue to be stories that seek to bring some truth to life through the medium of story. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is a modern day myth, and there is a reason this simple story has sold so well. It teaches us something about the human condition. Here’s a short story he also shared:

‘I was talking to a Catholic priest and a young Muslim man over lunch. When the waiter came by with a tray, we all helped ourselves, except the Muslim, who was keeping the annual fast prescribed by the Koran.

‘When lunch was over, and people were leaving, one of the other guests couldn’t resist saying: “You see how fanatical these Muslims are! I’m glad to see you Catholics aren’t like them.”

‘“But we are,” said the priest. “He is trying to serve God just as I am. We merely follow different laws.” And he concluded: “It’s a shame that people see only the differences that separate them. If you were to look with more love, you would mainly see what we have in common, then half the world’s problems would be solved.”’

Stories should bring us together, show us how much we are alike, and how our differences can create diversity rather than division.

Some days, I think the world’s problems started when we decided that the stories we grew up hearing were true. And that the different stories other people grew up hearing must be false. As for me, I don’t think woman was created from a man’s rib any more than I think lakes and rivers were formed when a Rainbow Serpent tickled the bellies of frogs which were heavy with water, making them laugh and the water gush out. But I love the stories. All of them. And they are all true in their own way.

A year of photography

The other project I’ve had on the go in the background has just passed its one year mark. My dalliances with black and white film photography have been fun, even if I haven’t taken quite as many photos as I optimistically planned to at the outset. But this is strictly for fun and learning so it doesn’t really matter. It has, however, helped that LoLo decided to do her class project around the same thing so we have been spotted in similar locations with similar cameras throughout the year, even if she has gone over to the dark side and embraced autofocus, auto exposure and auto winding on, leaving me with the manual everything camera. I’ve now taken to referring to her current favourite camera as ‘that piece of plastic junk you keep using’ just so she can remind me how much better she finds it. At least I’ve managed to ensure she puts a decent (non-zoom) lens on the front of it so at least she has to think about where she’s standing instead of just zooming in and out.

Anyway, a year on and I’ve had one of the cameras with me a lot of the time, including trips to London and Berlin. It was supposed to be one camera for the whole time, but I got a second, different one, so LoLo and I had the same one for a while and it was so inexpensive it would have been silly not to get it. Plus it’s brilliant.

My hit rate has increased from 4 or 5 per roll of film to a much better ratio. There are still some duds in there where I think ‘have I learned nothing?’ and others where I’ve consciously tried something different and it hasn’t worked quite as I had hoped. The picture you see in your mind is not always what the camera tells you is actually there. In some ways, digital is good for that in that you can see the results immediately and try something else, but I find that I end up thinking more about the shot in advance, taking it and then moving on. None of this instant replay business. I like the surprise when I find a film and realise I haven’t developed it for several months.

Here’s a few I quite liked from a trip to London (yes, this was the film I found a few months later).

We came across a lovely garden hidden in the middle of Hackney. Turns out pumpkins aren’t just about their colour:

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I liked the juxtaposition of the crumbling bricks, the stone carving and the addition of the modern art:

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I was guessing the light and therefore exposure all the time and this one should probably have been a bit lighter, but I quite liked how the black stands out (it was actually the middle of the day!)

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And this one was a surprise – I really wasn’t sure how it would come out but the texture of the wood and the different shades caught my eye. The way the leaves stand out was not what I had anticipated – sometimes it turns out better than you had thought!

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And you can imagine how happy I was to find this structure outside the Gherkin. A good way to burn half a film. The last one is my favourite. Black and white is great for patterns.

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The food container hovering in the middle was pure luck – I think there’s a hand holding it (all right, there must be one there) but it helpfully blends in to the background.

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The original idea was to do the project for a year and then either carry on with it or sell the camera. Anything except leave the camera lying in a corner unused somewhere. The beauty of a Leica is that, while it does cost a lot to buy, it doesn’t lose any appreciable value, so you can think of it as having the use of a Leica for free for a year. And the Olympus only cost £50 to begin with. I’m hanging on to them. I am still having fun with this and every once in a while, the Leica just bowls me over. When I get the focus, exposure and composition right, at least. But that’s down to me.

Of dishwasher tablets and reading

We ran out of dishwasher tablets at the weekend. A sure sign that I haven’t managed to get to Costco for a few months. Or that I forgot the list if I did go. Dishwasher tablets are not something on the top of my mind usually.

My brain must have been bored or I was meant to be doing something I didn’t want to do, because I was hit by the impulse to check out Which?’s review of the best dishwasher tablets. Maybe I was just getting tired of buying the same ones every time, like washing powder, washing up liquid and cornflakes. But I was conscious that I couldn’t remember ever having bought a different brand, except in a dire emergency, and that when house sitters, unable to discern where we had left the ten boxes of tablets (I did say we got them from Costco…), had bought a different type, we tried them once and went back to what we knew.

I’m not sure if I was entirely surprised to find the brand we always used about two thirds of the way down the ratings, so far off the best buys that it was embarrassing. And own brand alternatives topped the chart. At about half the price. I was almost excited to buy the new, better, and cheaper ones. Almost. At the end of the day, they’re dishwasher tablets.

Dishwasher

My generation seems to have been pretty susceptible to advertising. I’ve just been spending twice what I needed to on an inferior products. But surely the more expensive ones should be better? Clearly not.

We grow up “knowing” a lot of things that, on proper inspection, turn out to be more suspect that we might like to admit.

Take shoes. We should get shoes for our children that have arch and other supports. Everyone knows that, don’t they? Hmmmm. I’ve been wearing flat shoes (you think men’s shoes are flat? – have a proper look) for a couple of years now. As an experiment, I recently wore a pair of worn-in “normal” shoes, with arch support and “properly” made, for a day and had parts of my legs hurt for two days afterwards. So they are back to gathering dust again, even though I suddenly noticed the almost extra inch of height they gave me. It turns out I haven’t shrunk with age after all, I’ve just lost an inch of heel on my shoes.

Dishwasher tablets and shoes are pretty trivial really. But we go through life picking up a heap of assumptions, beliefs and opinions which are sometimes based on not a lot. We might spend some of our teenage years rebelling against our parents, but by that time, we’ve already picked up enough from them without being aware of it, and a lot of it will stick. As a parent, it can be a scary thought. As an adult, it can be worrying to wonder how much of what I think is based on anything other than what I’ve picked up along the way. Or what advertisers have told me is good.

I find that reading can be a good way of seeing something in a different way.

Reading the considered views of someone who we don’t instinctively agree with might not lead us to change our minds, but I find that it can at least help us to see that there is an equally valid alternative viewpoint that isn’t built on stupidity or malice. It’s just a different perspective, perhaps based on a different hierarchy of principles or values.

Fiction is a wonderful way of allowing us to view the world through someone else’s eyes. As Harper Lee says in To Kill A Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Funnily enough, that was the line that has stuck with me since I read it thirty odd years ago. It might have been because an English teacher drummed it into us, of course, but it’s the only thing that has remained from all those years of English.

I hope that reading all those books can lead to some empathy with others which might otherwise not be there. If nothing else, it can certainly be a good reminder that people are fascinating. Even the ones trying to get me to pay more for my dishwasher tablets than I need to.

Temptation

This was the first week in a long time that I seemed to have the most recent copy of the New Yorker in the right place at the right time. Normally, it’s the thing I never quite get to reading, despite it being my favourite magazine.

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One thing that was different this week was that, while flicking through to see the cartoons (I read it for the articles, honestly) I kept seeing headlines that really caught my attention. A new generation of airships, a look at the leadership industry, a profile of Justin Peck (a rising star in the world of choreography), Edvard Munch, and an article of a guy calling himself Mr Money Mustache.

You have to read that one, don’t you? Mr Money Mustache. Really?

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His real name is Peter Adeney and he retired at 30. Well, retired isn’t quite the word, but he did manage to spend, save and invest in a consistent manner that allowed him (and his wife) to leave their paid jobs. These were no millionaires. They just chose to spend less money than most of us and build a lifestyle consistent with that. I browsed through some of his website, laughed a fair bit, thought “yes, but” a few times, but found that I agreed with the principles of what he was saying. Why spend more than you need to? Think of what you need, not what you want. And have some fun along the way – as you cycle instead of driving a car all the time.

My generation has grown up being told all the time that what we need is the newer, improved version of what we already have, even down to our washing up liquid, and if we don’t have something, we ought to have it, and preferably the best there is. But as Erich Fromm said, “Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being.”

We, however, have grown up in a “growth is good” world and growth means buying more, even if we don’t need it. And even if having that new possession has larger consequences on our planet than satiating our current desires. It’s worryingly like an addiction, the need to buy more and more. And it’s neither sustainable for our little planet nor beneficial for us.

Here’s a recent example of the temptation that is presented to us. I have a few cameras. I like my cameras. By and large, each has a specific purpose, but maybe I just tell myself that. All right, I just tell myself that, although in my defence, most of them are second hand and I do use them. And then I got an e-mail from Olympus. Nothing wrong with Olympus, they make some great cameras. They wanted to let me know about a new camera, naturally inspired by an old one, the Olympus Pen F. The old ones look great. So does the new one. The thing which stood out for me – aside from the price tag of £1,600 with a lens – was the new feature that emulated Tri-X black and white film. And I do love my Tri-X.

So there it is. A must have. A digital camera that can emulate black and white film. For £1,600. And the film-emulation thing is a big marketing feature.

I already have an Olympus. It’s about fifty years old, cost about £50 last year, and it is simply amazing.

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It also emulates black and white film… no, wait, it USES black and white film. That comes out like this:

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Not bad for its age – the camera, not the musician, he was great.

That film costs about £5 a roll. Add in some developing costs (seriously cheap if you do it yourself, pennies per film), and I reckon I can burn through somewhere around 300 films before I get up to the cost of the film-emulating-camera. 300 films – that’s over 10,000 photos. And if you really want to drop £1,600 on a camera, you can get a beautiful (old, of course) Leica with a stunning lens for that much, and in a year, two years, ten years, it will be worth as much. Actually, it might even be worth more. The digital camera? At best in a corner somewhere, maybe even binned.

So I am never going to need to replace my ancient Olympus that is super easy to use, super simple, and just a lot of fun to use. Because to do otherwise would be to confuse consuming with contentment.

I learned this from my dad. You can only spend money once. Now or in the future. Some we have to spend now. But often not nearly as much as we choose to. And what we don’t spend now is still there for the future. We don’t have to go as far as Mr Money Mustache, but then he’s the one who retired at 30. Reading some of his website reminded me that he’s really just got back to something we all knew, if in a more extreme way. Money does not buy us happiness. Time well spent does.