Sunday, December 30, 2012

Resolving (Happy New Year!)

The end of a calendar year is a time of self-reflection and goal-setting for many of us. Everyone talks about New Year’s resolutions—losing weight, exercising more, finding a new job—but who is still resolving in February? Real Simple magazine asked its readers to list their top-three things on their lifelong to-do list. The results, published in the July 2008 issue, included ideas like these: learn to can tomato sauce without Mom’s help, study German in Germany, and learn to juggle. This was inspirational for me--life is short! Pick something and do it! Since I love to learn, I decided to choose a topic or skill to explore as thoroughly as possible each year and probably beyond. This kind of focus on one new thing created deeper learning as I explored from various perspectives. My first area of study was writing itself.

Without intending it to be a resolution or goal, I took a winter writing course at the local community college. They called it “Turn Your Passion into Profit”. I had always wanted to set aside time for writing and this class got me going. I worked on my topics in class and out of class and tried to match up my finished articles with paying markets. I bought books on writing, took online courses and One-Day Intensives at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan. I attended every author talk I could and listened with envy as Carolyn See, Amy Tan, Mary Higgins Clark, Salman Rushdie, and David McCullough described their writer’s lives. (I envied Rushdie’s talent, wit, and success, but not so much his life.) It grew into something just short of obsession, but has stayed a part of my life. Isn’t this a better kind of resolution—incorporating a new skill or knowledge into my consciousness?

The second year of life-changing study was the year of re-learning French. I was planning a trip to Paris in the summer and wanted to be able to communicate, watch French TV, and even eavesdrop on French conversations. Self-guided book study and page-a-day calendars hadn’t worked in the past, so I signed up for eight-week classes taught by native speakers at the Alliance Française in Philadelphia. I endured a humbling placement test but settled into a class with a wonderful, patient teacher. My classmates were educated people who also enjoyed European travel. We practiced on Wednesday nights, but I needed more. I rented movies in French and even watched my favorite DVDs dubbed in French. I discovered a great film called “Paris, Je t’aime” in which five or six (half-dozen) directors tell stories set in Paris. One of these, to my delight, was about a middle-aged woman blowing her savings on a dream trip to Paris. It was narrated in her halting French mostly learned twenty years ago in college. Hmm. My own trip to France was a success, and I was even able to meet Marie Montet, a real Parisian, for dinner at a café.

Margie and Marie
 I first learned of Marie in a most unusual way. I had been getting some of her email by accident as we both had addresses that started with “mmontet”. An email from a former suitor of hers, Joel, was the first to land in my inbox by mistake. I carefully wrote back to him in French explaining that I wasn’t the “mmontet” he thought I was. We became unlikely pen pals once we discovered we were both really English speakers. I explained that my French wasn’t good enough for me to know exactly what I had read. He explained the mishap to Marie, referred to as Ma Princesse in that original missive. I got to meet Joel in New York a few years earlier, and finally now I would meet Marie in Paris. We dined at a lovely café in the Tuileries Garden adjacent to the Louvre just as the sun was setting. Marie, a lawyer, was the quintessential chic French woman: slim, naturally beautiful, and wittily intelligent.  We didn’t look alike, but shared something more than the brown hair and brown eyes from some long-ago French ancestors. Never abandoning my quest to improve my French language skills, I asked Marie to help me learn to pronounce chantilly (whipped cream) and grenouille (frog), words I find troublesome. My memories of that evening actually glow as if candle-lit.

Hamilton-Trenton Marsh
All the while I was continuing to write (and publish) but my accompanying photographs were decidedly amateur. I designated the next year The Year of the Photograph. I worked on my photography skills while assessing what features I needed in a more sophisticated camera besides the double-digit megapixels now standard. New books on digital photography were acquired. I subscribed to Popular Photography. I went on an early spring nature photography tour in the local marsh with David Simchock, a New Jersey photographer and photography teacher. We shot young unfurling ferns, swans on the lake, beaver dams, nascent water lilies, a rotting tree trunk with the face of an old man, and an unsuspecting fisherman from across the lake. “Margie, you’re going to have to stop shooting in auto mode so that you have more control.” “Be aware of your depth of field and blur the background to make the subject in focus pop.” He was very patient with me and helped me identify what features I needed for my purpose. 

As directed, I mentioned his name when I visited his recommended shop to finally purchase the handsome Nikon D80. “Oh we charge people more when they mention HIM,” said the young helpful guy behind the counter. “It’s because we have to deal with him.” I told David this when I went on his Center City Philadelphia photo tour with my new gear on a beastly hot day in July, and not till the end of the day did I add that they had thrown in a free memory card, too. David is a teaser, but I tease back.  I’m still learning the buttons and switches on the D80, but now I have three lenses to shoot with and my photos have indeed improved. My travel photos from a tour of Germany this year were so much better than photos I’d shot in the past, and I was even successful with some holiday night shots at Rockefeller Center.

Ospreys in their nest
“Off the starboard side of the Skimmer see the osprey stand: the female is in the nest—you can see her head—and the male is sitting next to it!” Captain Bob showed us many varieties of shorebirds that day on the Salt Marsh Safari, but he seemed most enthusiastic about these ospreys. We were gliding along the shallow marsh water on a flat-bottomed boat called a skimmer. Herring gulls, laughing gulls, terns and oystercatchers are residents of this marshy area between Cape May and Wildwood, New Jersey. “Over there! Look at that grassy part of the peat bog! That’s a snowy egret!” Click—I was most appreciative of the snowy egret sighting because it posed majestically for my camera: its sleek white feathers and yellow beak against the spring green grass.

Snowy Egret in the Salt Marsh

It was on this Salt Marsh Safari that I realized bird watching is not as mind-numbing as I thought it would be. As a writer now of all things Cape May, I knew I could no longer gloss over this most important feature of the region’s identity. The World Series of Birding happens here! I had to get out there, look at birds, photograph them, and learn how birders bird. To my surprise, I was completely captivated by the Salt Marsh Safari, start to finish. Birding, I declared, would be my Thing for 2009.
Over by the Cape May Point Lighthouse one late summer day when my camera was still new, I wandered over to the hawk watching platform where all the birders meet. I was shooting non-specifically at the lake in case anything interesting flew by. At this point in my birding career, most birds would have to wear a nametag for me to identify them. “Are you shooting the glossy ibis?” a birder called over to me.

“Uh no. Where exactly…?” He let me look through his rather gigantic scope attached to a sturdy tripod. Through the scope’s powerful lens I saw the most incredible and exotic black bird with a red sheen and yellow beak. The same bird had been invisible through my camera lens. “Oh yeah,” I thought, “I’m ready for this birding thing.”

The word ‘resolution’ doesn’t seem to fit my yearly endeavors anymore. I’m amused at how they’ve grown from the first intended dalliance with writing to what would more accurately be called adventures. These endeavors are dovetailing and overlapping and informing each other in a way I hadn’t imagined, creating a whole new side to my life. Although way out of my comfort zone then, I have had the most unique experiences meeting Joel and Marie, learning real photography with David, and starting to recognize the birds I see at the shore. More recently I've practiced Latin and crocheting, and attempted to read the works of Charles Dickens. Not every choice sticks, but  I don't think I'll ever tire of these pursuits. So what's on tap for 2013? I'm going to work on boosting my freelance stuff (writing, photographing, speaking, consulting), starting with a magazine query mega-blitz. I already got some great new business cards that promote all four branches of my favorite pursuits.

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