Sunday, September 15, 2013

Tolman Ethan: Newborn Photos

Earlier this summer, I had the honor of photographing our family's first baby—my "nephew", Tolman. I put "nephew" in quotation marks because he's my cousin's son, but we're close enough that I fully intend to earn my "aunt" title!

I'm admittedly biased, but he's just perfect—healthy, happy, strong, curious, and content. I'm so happy for this new family, and I was truly honored that they would ask me to photograph this momentous milestone in their lives.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

5 kinds of friends you can't live without

[Photo: Asparagus flowers, which most people don't see unless they go to the source—a garden or farm.]

This has been a challenging year for my family. Just since April, we've seen my brother take "Go west, young man" to heart and move to Colorado; we've dealt with scary health issues for my dad; I've had surgery myself; I've changed jobs; and the family animals (who are family members on four legs) are showing their age with health problems of their own.

Thankfully, things seem to be working out positively in nearly every scenario (knock on wood), but it's been a year of wondering, "How much more can we take?"

Through it all, these experiences have given me a new appreciation of friendship. While it's easy to be a friend when life is sailing smoothly, the more challenging times unavoidably reveal the true depth of a friendship. This year has revealed a lot, but it's also taught me to be a better friend myself. And that, to me, is one of the most valuable things that I've gained from this year.

I've realized that there are certain kinds of friends that everyone should have. Different people may fill these roles at different stages of your life, but we need these people around us:

1. The one who's actively supportive when you're having a hard time. This is the friend who doesn't shy away when you share bad news. It's difficult to know what to say or do when someone is under a lot of stress or is grieving, but I've learned that the "right" words themselves aren't that important. A simple hand on the shoulder with a look of understanding can work wonders for the person who feels alone. Receiving a text message or email a few days later that just says, "How are you? How is it going?" tells us that we've not been forgotten. Those friends who stick around and just show you that they care are invaluable.

2. The one who's really honest. Each of our friendships gives us something different. And while you should feel free to be yourself with every friend (the ones worth keeping, that is), some people are just naturally more at ease with that than others. My conversations with one of my girlfriends, who I've known for nearly 10 years, are some of the most honest exchanges I have. While interactions with other friends aren't untruthful by any means, this friend is just especially honest and open about what she's feeling, and that encourages me to be the same way with her. It reminds me of this clip from Sex and the City 2, and it makes me appreciate it more:

3. The one who asks tough questions. You could call this the "gut-check" friend. I'm a big believer in trusting and following your own gut instincts, but it helps to have some support outside your own head, too. This is the friend who challenges you to think of every angle, who plays devil's advocate, and who challenges you to not avoid a subject because it's uncomfortable. This friend asks questions others are afraid to ask. I have one girlfriend, in particular, who's marvelous at this, and it means that conversations with her are often very thought-provoking and cerebral. She brings an academic, and often progressive, point of view to the discussion. 

4. The one who's been there and truly understands what you're going through. Some people are very good empathizers, but nothing replaces the friend who's personally been there. Finding one of these friends may take dedicated effort when you need it, but it's worth it.

5. The new friend. While old friends are irreplaceable because they've seen you through ups and downs, and you know they're worth keeping in your life, I love the joy that comes with finding a new friend. You meet someone who matches you—whether it's in similar interests or experiences—and you can pass countless hours just talking and getting to know this new person. In many ways, it's a lot like dating, but without the awkward "So, where is this going?" conversations. You get to just enjoy each other. And eventually, this new friend may become a life-long friend. Awesome.

These kinds of friends have risen to the top this year, and I have come to appreciate each of them in new ways. I'm now challenging myself to learn from their examples and make myself a better friend to them, in turn.

What friends have you realized are invaluable, and how have they made you a better friend? 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Lean in: When doing the right thing means breaking the rules

[Photo: An amaryllis just beginning its life—appropriate for the fresh new direction my own life has taken recently.]

Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, has taken the technology and career worlds by storm this year. Her target audience—women—have particularly been talking about it. This Facebook executive encourages women to "lean in" to their lives, meaning they should take active ownership of their careers and decisions.

I count myself among the fans of this book and her philosophy. She echoes many of the ideas that I've believed for years, namely the fact that you should learn to trust your own gut instincts and actively work to change things for the better. And I believe that we should do these things for ourselves even when others may try to discourage us.

In the time since I graduated from college in 2006, my career path has taken a pretty traditional route: my first job out of school was in an area (PR and copywriting) that directly applied to my degree in Integrated Communications and English. I stayed there for two and a half years, until the company was experiencing difficulty and I knew my growth options there had run out.

My second job, as an account executive at a full-service marketing agency, was a great next step. I continued to use my degree (which seems to become more rare the further you get from school), I found an incredible boss and mentor, and I learned skills that are applicable in any field: customer service, organization, time management, etc. I stayed there for nearly four years, until I again realized that my opportunities for growth had run out.

That leads me to last November. I found a new job at a company I'd admired for years—a company that is a thought-leader and pioneer in the digital marketing industry. I knew I'd find many new growth opportunities there! I was overqualified for the position, but in talking with the hiring managers, it sounded like I could make it my own—and I wanted to get my foot in the door at the company. Sandberg wrote in Lean In that a great piece of career advice she once received is that the number one factor in choosing a new job should be potential for growth. In other words, "If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don't ask which seat, you just get on board." This company fits that bill.

Unfortunately, I realized after just a few months that this particular position at the company wasn't a good fit for me long-term. The environment and opportunity wasn't what I'd expected after my interviews and first days on the job. While I knew that the team had been working hard and had a big undertaking ahead—launching seven websites, in five languages, on one day—I didn't expect chaos and 70-hour work weeks. Over the years, I've learned to recognize that stress affects me physiologically, whether it's through spontaneous sweating, digestive turmoil, hives on my skin, or daily tears. Those negative symptoms were showing up again.

Wanting to improve things, I talked with my two managers about my unhappiness and concerns. One of them initially seemed supportive and encouraged me to give it more time (about a month) to calm down and become more "normal," while the other wasn't so supportive and essentially gave me an ultimatum: I could either get used to it or move on.

At that point, I reached out to HR for support and connected with a great colleague there. She encouraged me to give the job more time and supported my interest in learning about other opportunities within the company. The company's official policy is that you need to work there for at least one year before applying to transfer to another position—but I knew that if things didn't improve soon, I wouldn't make it that long. Nevertheless, I wanted to do things as "by the book" as I could, and working with HR was important.

I took the next couple months to get through the intense period of launching those websites and network with other people in the company. I had coffee with people in my department and other departments and asked them about their working environments, work/life balance, what they enjoyed, and what had been difficult. Finally, around my five-month mark at the company, I knew I'd given my initial job enough time and effort to improve, and I'd discovered another position in a different department that I felt would be a better fit for me. I had support from my HR ally, who agreed to help me "break the rules" and attempt to transfer. Even though employees have an advantage in the fact that they're already familiar with the company and its products, we still have to officially apply and interview for a new job.

Leaning in: applying for a new job

I sat down with my two managers and shared my story: I'd given this job more of a chance, but I knew it wasn't right for me, and I'd found a different position I wanted to apply for. They were initially quiet, wanted to take a couple days to consider my decision, then we met again the following week.

At that time, they told me that they would sign my transfer request and wouldn't block it—but my last day with them would be May 24, whether I got the new position or not. If I didn't get the new job, I would be expected to leave the company. (Luckily, my HR contact had given me a heads up that this might happen—otherwise I would have been taken by surprise.) One of my managers, who'd been silent in that conversation up to that point, then stepped in to air his grievances. He told me that by expressing my discontent so early—both at my 90-day mark and now, at five months—I had disappointed them and invalidated the investment they'd made in my position. He also underhandedly threatened that this move would be detrimental to my career at the company and elsewhere.

This is a point where trusting yourself is more important than ever. I knew I was in a situation that didn't work for me, and following "company policy"—waiting until the one-year mark to make a change—would be bad for both the company (because they'd have an unhappy and therefore less productive employee) and me. I acknowledge that I'm at a point in my life where I can make decisions like this, because I don't have a family depending on my employment if I were to end up jobless. Not everyone has that freedom. I've learned over the years to trust myself and have confidence in my decisions, even if it's not popular with everyone.

I spent my final four weeks in that position interviewing for this alternative role, and it wasn't until I was four days from joblessness that I got the new job and accepted their offer. (A little close for comfort!) My direct manager, during that time, was cordial, but the other, who'd made his disappointment so clear, hardly spoke to me or acknowledged my presence in meetings. And since then, when I've passed him in the hall or on the street, he's given me a brief nod or has turned his head the other way.

And here's the great news: I've been in my new role for a month now, and I know I made the right decision. When someone asks me, "How was your day at work?" I can now answer, "Great!" with complete honesty. It's been a long time since I had that feeling. The department (with its processes and organization), my new manager (with his hands-off, mentoring style), and the role (that lets me actively use my brain in solving problems with a purpose for clients) are infinitely better for me.

By nature, I'm a rule-follower. But I know that by "breaking the rules" in this instance, I made the right decision for myself, my health, and my happiness. What do I hope you'll take away from my experience?

  • As Sheryl Sandberg says, lean in: Take ownership of your life and career. Make decisions for your own health and happiness, even if they're against standard company policy or don't fall in line with someone else's timeline.
  • If you're miserable, do something about it.
  • And above all, trust yourself. Trust your gut instincts. When they tell you something isn't right, tune in to that signal and listen to it. If we can't trust ourselves, who can we trust? 
I feel my spirit and optimism returning—so I'm looking forward to being back here, writing and photographing, a lot more soon.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Crocus: a sure sign of spring

Over the years, I've come to realize that though small and unassuming, crocuses are some of my very favorite flowers. I think it's mostly due to the fact that they're the first flowers to appear at the end of a long, dreary, colorless winter. They draw me out, bundled up, to crouch down with my camera and shoot them from every possible angle.

These just appeared this week, and I couldn't have been happier to see them!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A chicken education

The average American consumer may expect to open their carton of grocery-store eggs and see a dozen uniform specimens: all the same color, all the same ideal egg shape.

Me? I love opening a carton of farm-fresh eggs and seeing variety.

I stopped by my neighbor's farm on Friday to buy a couple dozen eggs from her, and an hour later, I'd met the hens who lay the eggs I was about to enjoy.

Each visit to this farm is an education. She keeps a couple different broods of chickens; one hardier, larger brood remains outdoors through more of the winter and produces the eggs I enjoy for breakfast. These chickens are large, and while she has many different breeds mixed together, they look like what I think of as a textbook chicken, with smooth feathers and an iconic silhouette.

All those different breeds mean that each egg is different. A carton of eggs includes at least six different shades of brown, in addition to some that are more rosy or even green, and each has its own unique shape.

My neighbor's second brood of chickens stays in a garage through most of the winter, where they're kept warm with heaters and lamps. I find these incredibly interesting—before last summer, I'd never seen chickens like Seramas and Silkies. They're each a third the size (or less) of the hardier egg-business birds outside. The Silkies are particularly striking: contrary to their name, instead of smooth, silky feathers, they instead look like they're covered in soft, fluffy fur. And they're covered in this plumage from the crowns of their heads to the tips of their toes. When you do get a look at the body beneath the feathers, their skin is black and their earlobes are royal blue. Silkies are also known for their sweet, loving temperaments.

A special treat for my visit: I got to hold a couple chicks that were only a week old. They fit in the palm of my hand and only weighed an ounce or two.

I'll be going back to the farm sometime this spring with my camera, for sure. I'd love to photograph these beautiful, interesting birds, in addition to the herd of alpacas that roams outside.

Until then, I'll just be enjoying some delicious omelettes and frittatas!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Seeing winter, dreaming of spring

As I write this, central Indiana is bracing for a record-breaking snowfall: 5-10 inches, to be exact. Last year's winter was unusually mild, so I think we're just paying for it this year. Hopefully that means next year will be normal, and March 24 will actually FEEL like spring.

Until spring actually arrives, I'll keep dreaming. And making big pots of warming soup. Last night's was a delicious Italian Wedding Soup from Eating Well. I'm trying to get past my aversion to handling raw meat, so making the meatballs for this soup was a test of that self-education.

Let these photos of a flower bouquet put a little spring in your heart, no matter what Mother Nature is doing outside.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Buster gets a haircut

It doesn't take long to realize that I adore this little dog. (Just take a look at the fact that I have a tag devoted to Buster, and you'll see dozens of posts over the years.)

At nearly 13 years old, this little Bichon Frise has been a furry, four-legged member of our family since he was six weeks old. Bichons marvelously don't shed, but the trade off is that they require more grooming than many other breeds. Buster needs a haircut every couple months.

Every dog owner probably has their unfortunate groomer experiences to relate, and Buster has had his share. On his last trip to the groomer, she sheared the skin behind his ear and didn't notify my parents. The resulting, hidden wound got so severely infected that Buster had to spend a couple terrifying days at the vet, under observation while getting intravenous fluids.

After a heart-wrenching week, Buster thankfully recovered. Ever since then, Mom has understandably been reluctant to take him back to (a different) groomer, so she's undertaken the task of trimming him up herself. He verbally complains, but he knows she's the boss, and he behaves for her.

You can tell he's looking at me and saying, "Do we really have to do this again?"

He may not enjoy the grooming process itself, but he does love the freedom that follows. As soon as his feet hit the floor, he sprints through the house, leaps on the couch, and joyfully gets his revenge by rolling from one end to the other.

And then he's happy.