The night Mapplethorpe took my hand

I’m not the best sleeper these days.  Falling asleep can be a challenge and sometimes even staying asleep doesn’t work like it used to.  So when I do get a good night’s sleep, it’s gold. When I wake up remembering a captivating dream, it’s even better.  But that rarely happens.

Late December, while reading Patti Smith‘s award-winning book Just Kids, I was introduced to American artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  Provocative, indecent, shocking and obscene are words that many critics have used to describe some of his work.  That being said, Mapplethorpe was an extremely important and influential artist during the twentieth century.

Some of his black and white portraits are strikingly beautiful.  The lighting, the composition, the honesty; they got to me.  Mapplethorpe got to me.

And then he came to me in a dream.

I was asleep in my dream until Mapplethorpe appeared in front of me, his quiet presence causing me to wake.  We did not speak.  He took my hand and led me down a hallway with walls that were pure white.  On the walls, spaced out perfectly, were large close-up photographs of my daughter Abbie.  Before I could even form the question, “Who took these pictures?” I knew the answer.

It was me.

Then I woke up.

The images of Abbie were vivid.  I could picture the lighting, the details of her face, the way her eyes were looking at the lens.  In essence, I saw each picture crystal clear in my mind and I felt a sense of responsibility; an urgency to compose these photographs, to make it happen.

Initially, I was afraid that if I waited too long to plan a photoshoot that the clarity of the images would drift away from my mind.  But they didn’t.  If anything, I was able to see more detail and even experience to a degree the emotions I wanted my pictures to evoke.

Sharing your art with others takes bravery and I’m not very brave when it comes to things like this.  But just as I felt compelled to take the pictures in the first place, I now feel compelled to put them out there for others to see.

Special thanks to Abbie for listening to my dream and letting me photograph her.  And thank you also to Mark, who first introduced me to Robert Mapplethorpe and highly, highly recommended that I read Just Kids.

I shot these pictures with my Canon 70D and used a 50mm lens and 135mm lens.

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Reflections, part II –

When I was 18, I felt like I knew everything.  I’m sure all college students aren’t like that, but I was.  Looking back, I knew el zippo.  As an adult, I have rediscovered the joy of learning and I know it is a privilege that many risk their lives to experience.

I just hop in my VW and drive the back roads listening to podcasts until I reach the Glen Garage.  No risk involved.  In an effort to apply what I’ve learned to my real life, I’ve taken notes throughout this semester.

So here goes…

Photojournalism I:

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Blue is my favorite color and it killed me to crop most of that sky right out of this picture.   This is pre-cropped.  Best to leave the Ukrainian dancers in. #croppingstinks

The most important thing I learned was how to capture both an action and reaction.  Going into the class, I was pretty confident that I was able to take pictures of people and events.  But I had never given much consideration to capturing the reaction of others.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds and it takes a lot of patience and moving around to get different angles.  As a photographer, you have to be mindful of what is happening all around you and you have to listen to others and anticipate what could come next and then have your camera set and ready to go.

The second lesson I learned is the value of cropping.  Removing excess sky or some of the foreground or that person on the right side of the photograph that looks bored (when it’s an exciting event), enhances the composition.  Again, this sounds easy, but I have a tough time removing a big portion of a blue sky that took my breath away when I took the photo.  And sometimes cutting one odd person out means others get cut out too.

My life/parenting takeaway:  Open your eyes and look around.  Don’t just focus on who is front and center; take note of those in the background.  These people are easy to miss because they are often quiet, content to be unseen, but they matter and they deserve our careful attention.  Cropping parts out of photos is tough for me, but what’s been tougher is having to cut out many other “good” things in my life so that I can focus on the most important things in this season.  It’s really OK to say “no” because that allows you to say “yes” to something else.

Ethics:

Under a young, brilliant, energetic, extremely gifted philosophy professor, I learned to wrestle with tough questions.  I felt tested on a weekly basis as he used stories, that by design, placed us at the center of what seemed like an impossible situation.  How would ethics help us make a good decision?

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Contemplating life’s big questions makes you feel small – just like Matt in San Fran’s Muir Woods.

Just when I thought I had the “right” answer, it would be tested with another person’s perspective.  This would either shore up my own argument or send me back to the drawing board. We had class debates and even worked in small groups to create own own societies based on different ethical theories.

The readings were tough, but man did my professor bring that information to life for me!  I have two full spirals almost completely filled with notes from class; notes that I can look back and understand.  I won’t be tossing these.

My life/parenting takeaway:  Help your children learn to think critically.  Ask questions, don’t always resort to lecturing and try hard not to tell them what they are supposed to think.  Help them discover truth on their own, give them the tools they need, and don’t be scared if they are wrestling with believing certain things that you hold dear as a parent.  It’s really ok.  Respect their perspective.  When you’ve blown it with them, humble yourself and admit it.  This keeps the door for conversation wide open.  Lectures are often equivalent to slamming the door in their faces.  Just ask my kids.

Mass Media & Society:

Each week we looked at various media clips and sought to analyze and evaluate how different themes were depicted.  We covered young adults, body image, gender, sexuality, class, African Americans, violence, and indecency.  We had insightful class discussions and I found it eye opening to hear the perspective of the sea of Millennials that surrounded me.

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My daughter is my hero when it comes to befriending others, regardless of how they are different from her. #imwithher

My professor ranks up there as one of the most fascinating people I have ever met.  He is off the charts knowledgable in all things culture, and excited about what he was teaching.   Using framing questions, he challenged me to think outside the box and to back up what I believe with solid reasoning/evidence/proof.

Getting back a paper is more than just seeing your grade – you get a stream of conversation from him that starts in his mind and flows through his red pen that makes its way all over your paper in every direction.  It’s a true art form and deciphering the handwriting is a bonus challenge, worthy of a prize.  The feedback is helpful because he often asks insightful questions that make you think deeper and even consider other perspectives.

People often take this class because they view it as fun and easy.  It was fun, yes, but as I was face to face with recognizing my prejudices towards others different than myself, it was anything but easy.  It was humbling, but good and necessary.  And I’m still learning.

My life/parenting takeaway:  Make it a point to befriend someone very different than yourself.  Ask questions.  Listen, listen, listen.  And then listen some more.  It’s perfectly fine to have different opinions and hold to what you believe and still love and accept other human beings.  I think this is one of those things that is more “caught than taught.”  Our kids are listening to how we speak about others; they see our attitudes, probably more than we think they do.  I want to be a good model for them.  Am I exposing them to different people or is it just the same old, same old?

News Reporting:

This class gave me the practical experience of getting out there as a journalist.  We had to pitch story ideas, interview people, research, attend county/city council meetings, cover police reports, attend/report on events and of course write stories.  And with stories come edits.  Lots of red ink comin’ my way!

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Dr. Kirch, my professor, leading a panel discussion featuring CNN’s Brian Stelter, a TU graduate.

As a writer, I am so grateful for the detailed feedback my professor gave me.  Rarely does one get such specific and helpful critique from a professional.  I think my writing has improved but more importantly, the edits teach me how to be more concise, how to write a compelling lead, and what information can be left out of a story.  I hate cutting words.  Hate it.  My professor doesn’t seem to mind at all.  Yet he gets the struggle because he’s been there.

As an expert in his field, he brought that experience into our classroom by using real examples from his life and work.  We also learned a good deal about civics and politics.   Reading the news everyday from three online papers was required and it’s been a great practice.  I can actually have an intelligent conversation with my politics-loving mom!

My life/parenting takeaway: There is value in every story because every story is someone’s story. Listening and asking good questions is essential.  My professor went above and beyond making time to help me as a writer.  In many ways, he is more of a mentor; always willing to help, give advice, and in some cases, just listen to me ramble and then look for ways to encourage me as I tear up over a story.  Yep.  It’s happened.  My interactions with him have always left me inspired to keep doing what I’m doing and to be patient with the learning process.  As a human being and parent, that is what I want my disposition to be toward others. Specifically with my children, I want to commend more and correct less.  I want to inspire.

Doesn’t college sound like a blast?  I really should have done this when I was younger!

 

Reflections on being a full-time student and mom – part 1

As the semester wraps up, I thought a little reflection was in order.

We took the plunge when I registered full-time at Towson University this semester.  And when I say “we,” I mean me, my husband, and my four children.  Come to think of it, my going to back to college has even affected our dog and bearded dragon.

When Mom’s not around as frequently, life is just different.

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     A photograph that I took for my Photojournalism class.  My professor said it would have been great if a flock of geese had been flying by.  So true.

Going back to college at age 46, especially when you have four children, ranging from age 8 to 18, is certainly not for everyone.  But it can work if you have a game plan.

I thought it might be helpful to share some of the steps we took in reaching this decision and some of the pitfalls I have faced as a mom.

In Part 2 of this post, I will share some of the lessons I learned in my classes and how those lessons have trickled down into my personal life as well as my parenting.

Reaching the decision:

The most important thing is to make sure your family is on board and supportive of your decision to go back to school.  Before I registered for a single class, Matt and I sat down with our kids and we talked about the sacrifices each of us would need to make.  Be realistic with your children about what this will look like in their world.

Since I’ve never done this before, I talked with other moms who went back to school.  I listened so that I could learn and try my best to prepare my family for the inevitable changes.  If you do not have a complete buy in from your family – don’t do it.

Not getting home till almost 6 p.m. on certain days meant that Matt would have to help the kids with their homework.  NEWS ALERT:  Matt hates doing homework.  He’s hated homework since he was in first grade!  Nothing has changed since then.  This was a big adjustment for my husband and little guys, who know dad is not the “homework person.”

It meant that my older daughter would need to meet the younger kids at the bus stop, which sometimes affected what she could and couldn’t do after school.  She then had to babysit until Matt got home.

So basically, life looks different and everyone is giving more while I am seemingly taking more.   [more on this in Part 2]

My dog, Cooper, is sad when I put my backpack on and head for the door and even Blaze, our bearded dragon, has had to get used to a new cricket-eating schedule.

Pitfalls

When it has come to meal planning, I’ve missed the rope and fallen into the swamp.  The alligator has devoured me on more than one occasion.  The scorpion has stung me.

Translation:  My family has eaten lots of pizza, frozen waffles, vegetable soup (their least favorite) and yes, even cereal for dinner this semester.  Matt has bought stock in Chipotle.

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There weren’t many shining dinner moments, but this is one of them.  It’s the reason I documented it.

I started out great.  I had a little chart that I posted on the fridge and everyone knew what dinner was coming.  There was excitement for that baked ziti and anticipation as Taco Tuesday rolled around.

And then I had a news reporting story due.  And then I had to read a lengthy, challenging, paper by a wordy philosopher for my ethics class.  Oh, and then I had to watch a movie and write a paper analyzing certain societal depictions.  Did I mention that I am the slowest writer on the planet?

So instead of planning meals and making good, healthy, dinners when I was home and could, I chose a life behind my MacBook Air while my family scavenged for food.  This didn’t happen all the time, but it happened enough.

The good thing is, with better planning on my part, I can make it across the swamp next time around.  I won’t make it every time and that’s alright, but a little less vegetable soup will make everyone happy.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Eye-opener

As an International Studies major at Towson University, Aimee Ernstberger was aware that sex trafficking took place in other countries.  What she didn’t know was how prevalent this issue is right in her own country; her own city.  This all changed when Alicia McDowell, Executive Director of Araminta Freedom Initiative, came to speak to her anthropology class back in 2012.

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Photo provided by Aimee Ernstberger, Towson University graduate

Araminta is an organization in Maryland that seeks to engage in prevention, intervention and survivor services that bring healing and wholeness to trafficked individuals.  They accomplish this through education and equipping others to recognize ways that the culture distorts human dignity and worth.

“This was one of the most eye-opening classes,” Aimee said. 

Continue reading

Don’t look away

When it comes to an issue as immense as human trafficking, citizens can often feel like there isn’t anything they can do to make a real difference.  Donating money to reputable organizations that work on the front lines is always welcome, but are there more personal ways to get involved?

William Wilberforce, the 18th Century abolitionist,  lobbied to end the slave trade. For almost two decades, he introduced anti-slavery motions in parliament.   Much like today, fellow citizens of his time often turned a blind eye to this issue.  Wilberforce once said, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” Continue reading

Jackpot!

If you hit triple sevens at the casino, you’ve won yourself a jackpot.

But not all jackpots are created equal.  Running enthusiast Michael Brooks is living out his own version of triple sevens.  In the next seven days, he will be running seven marathons in seven different cities at age 70.

Unlike a gambler running on luck, Brooks is running for a cause: to raise funds for Camp Sunshine, the only camp in our nation that provides year-round programs for  families that have children suffering from life threatening illnesses.

Over the last decade, running for charitable causes has been on the rise.  Most have heard of Race for the Cure and Relay for Life, two established races that raise funds for cancer research.   There are countless options if you are interested in running for a specific purpose, and you don’t have to be as ambitious as Michael Brooks.

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Every word matters

If you are a journalism student on any college campus, you were more than likely informed by a professor that The Associated Press Stylebook  would be your new BFF.

I mean, who else could you turn to in those perilous moments of trying to figure out if you should write out the number nine or simply use the “9” on the keyboard?  And what about formal titles?  They can be a killer.  Should  you always capitalize the word governor or president?  Just ask your BFF.

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Image provided by Google Images

Recently, members of the American Copy Editors Society gathered for their annual conference in Portland, Oregon.  I’m sure this event is more fun than it sounds.  After all, attendees are among the first to hear about the changes being made to the AP Stylebook!

Since the average person may not know that such a book even exists, it is understandable that he/she would not comprehend how decisions and changes to this book actually have an effect on their life.  I admit that it sounds like a foolish notion even as I type the words.

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Sometimes you need a face

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Abigail Smith, 14, at summer camp in 2015.  (photo by: Tracy E. Smith/TU Student)

Let me introduce you to my 14-year-old daughter, Abigail.  We call her “Abs” for short.  It suits her.  Like most girls her age, she likes to hang out with her friends and family.  She loves horses and dogs and posting funny pictures on Instagram.  Getting up in time for school is not an art she has mastered quite yet.

In many ways, she’s just like your younger sister, cousin, friend, or perhaps even your daughter if you’re an older college student like me. 

Sadly, my daughter Abigail is in the age bracket that most girls are typically targeted and sexually exploited.  That’s a frightening thought.   Continue reading

One in 22,000: The Opera Singer

LaShelle Bray, Towson senior, balances a busy home life to pursue her musical dreams. (photo by: Tracy E. Smith/TU Student)

LaShelle Bray, a Towson senior, will graduate in the Spring of 2016 with a degree in Music.  (photo by: Tracy E. Smith/TU Student)

Can you imagine being a wife, a mother to six children, and a grandmother to two children, all while earning a college degree?   LaShelle Bray, a Towson senior, admits that it’s not easy.  However, she is learning to balance home and student life in pursuit of a dream.  To ready more about her compelling story, click here.

Studying abroad, an experience worth every penny

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Towson University student Amanda Shultz shares her thoughts about studying abroad over a hot cup of brew.  (Photo by: Tracy E. Smith/TU student)

Are you interested in earning credits toward your degree while experiencing another culture?  Consider the Study Abroad program at Towson University.  Don’t let finances stand in your way of pursuing what may be a life-changing experience.