A few thoughts on loss and learning to live with changes one doesn't like... Oh, and cameras.

Kenny Williams at Zach. The Ghost of Christmas Past.

I have been photographing Christmas plays at Zach Theatre for nearly 30 years. I loved taking pictures of the last three or four years of Zach's amazing and modern interpretation of "Christmas Carol." Many of the cast members have been friends for a long time. The music in the show has always been incredible and mostly sourced from current and recent popular music. It changes year to year.

I would leave the dress rehearsals of the holiday shows with easily more than 1,000 images per show and I'd love 90% of them. I have  photographed the productions with everything from Hasselblad film cameras to the current Lumix cameras, and every size and variety of camera in between. I've seen the images plastered all over newspapers, magazines and community circulars, I've smiled big, toothy grins when I pulled season brochures out of the mail box, and I've hung on to every holiday postcard Zach's marketing crew has produced with my images. 

By this part of the season, in normal times, I would have already photographed a few early rehearsals, some dance rehearsals, and now we'd be getting ready for this Tuesday's big dress rehearsal on the Topfer Stagefor a last non-stop run through before playing to a full house on the day after Thanksgiving. 

But not this year. No, with the increasing spread of Covid-19 everywhere, the Zach board made the decision not to have any indoor shows for the rest of the year, and well into 2021. I didn't think I would take it so hard but I seem to be having trouble accepting that one of my favorite productions of the season, the year, and maybe all time, will not be happening this time season. I won't get to sit in my special, reserved row with a bucket of cameras and boxes of lenses at my side, capturing the magic of it all. I won't get to see the triumph on the faces of the new, young actors as they get over their stage jitters, pull out all the stops and sing a song that makes the audiences jump to their feet to applaud. I won't get to laugh and be amazed by Serrett's incredible make-up art or the costume shop's imaginative costuming. I won't get to cry and get a lump in my throat when some wonderful, young singer stuns us with a particularly poignant version of the song, "Halo" while Bob Cratchit's family visits Tiny Tim's grave....

And I won't get to watch Scrooge have his Christmas Eve night spiritual conversion from selfish and bitter to joyous and generous. A transformation that in some ways never fails to touch our audiences where and when it's most needed. 

Zach Theatre has plans to do an outdoor concert instead. I'm sure they'll do a great job decorating the front of the theater and parts of the plaza. They're planning to have five of the subscriber base's favorite singers. Maybe they'll get lavish and have some dancers as well. But it won't be the cast of 50 or 60 we're used to. We won't have the magnificent stage lights and lighting designs or the perfect audio environment. And we'll be at the mercy of the weather. But if I go into this with just the right attitude (and the right gratitude...) I'm sure I'll leave feeling a little lighter, a good bit happier, and better mentally equipped to make the best of an odd and mostly depressing season/year. 

At least the artists at Zach Theatre are fully embracing the old, live theater motto: The show must go on. 

On the subject of living with loss I've been unable to shake the feeling, completely that my recent medical diagnosis, and the need for a bit of surgery on my beautiful mug is some kind of marker, tossed in by the universe, to prepare me for the realization that it's all down hill from here. I know that it's both true and emphatically not true but at the same time I'm just a bit anxious about....growing older. Of course aging is much preferable to the alternative of dropping dead; but I'm still uneasy about every new spot, wrinkle, stiff muscle and oddly forgotten reason I went back into the house to get something... I watched my father become fragmented and frail, and pass away in a process that came step by step. Nothing sudden and dramatic. Just little blows inflicted one after the other until the math of existence became unworkable. I understand much more clearly now that this will happen to us all. So, now is the time to make the most of whatever sum of time and health we have in our banks. 

Stuff I'm doing to make the other stuff more fun. 

I'm going to be out of commission with stitches on my face and a stern advisory from my future surgeon that I WILL NOT be able to swim for AT LEAST SEVEN DAYS following the procedure. I figure that gives me just enough down time to watch all of Brandon Li's "Unscripted Studio" online workshop. It will be the first time I've paid full price to take an online workshop! Check out Brandon's YouTube channel and I think you'll see why I want access to what's in his brain when it comes to video production, video editing, gimbal work, and production planning. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3stPIuUoCDHG7COfwr0tEA I've been following his channel for a few months now and I'm always impressed by his teaching, his delivery and his attitude. I figure $500 is a decent investment if I can learn bunch of new film making techniques and also keep my mind off the swimming pool for a week or ten days. I'm not writing this because I'm getting anything for free from Mr. Li, I just wanted to let you know where my head is in the moment.... (that's a disclaimer...). 

Since I'll have time to work on technique I took advantage of my good friend, James's gear ADHD to pick up yet another gimbal. He's matriculated upward to the new DJI Ronin RS2 gimbal and he was ready to move his "older" Zhiyun Weebill S gimbal along for pocket change. I could not resist. The Weebill S was last year's "hot" gimbal. 

The Weebill S is lighter, much smaller and at least as capable as the Ronin S I've been playing with, and actually handles a heavier load than the older Ronin or the Zhiyun Crane V2 gimbal I started out with. I've charged the batteries but I'm  putting off working with it until I have time to really figure out all the features. That time should present itself this week as I no longer have parents I need to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for and no place we can think of to go that will be safe both "us" and "them." We're staying safe at home.

I'm renaming "Black Friday" "Weebill S Intro Day." Gimbals are wonderful tools for video production. I shot another video for my friend, Kenny at the beginning of last week and I just spent the weekend editing it. The gimbal made the shooting fun and quick. We did use a tripod....but only for about five minutes.

A few of my art friends have asked me why I've been sliding back into the GH system from Panasonic. The blame falls directly on gimbals. The camera and lens combinations of the GH system make it possible, because of their small size and low weight, coupled with high end video specs, to wring the most out of a good gimbal. I also like them. They are nicely familiar. 

The week ahead. 

We're staying close to home. I'm hitting Barton Springs Pool tomorrow morning, solo, to work on my kick and a few drills to lengthen and slow down my freestyle stroke. Tuesday and Wednesday we've got regular practices at the WHAC pool (my club pool) and then Thursday and Friday we'll celebrate the holiday and maybe Ben and I will do some running together. He's so much faster though that it's more like we're running in the same loose, geographic area at the same time. When Saturday rolls around I'll be back in the pool with the regular crew for our annual "Fat Burner" morning-after feasting marathon swim. However long it takes to burn off a big piece of homemade pecan pie is how long I'll be swimming that morning...

I'll save Sunday's swim as the antidote for all the mashed potatoes and stuffing.

Final note: After having lived in Austin (epicenter of laid back counter culture since forever) for the last fifty years I've finally broken down and bought my first pair of Birkenstock sandals. I went with the classics. The "Arizona." I will proudly wear them with socks as I break them in, and also on any days cooler than 50 degrees. I will be mercilessly teased for being "an old hippie" by my disrespectful, younger and cooler friends but I don't care. I want to discover why every millionaire and billionaire I've met --- who has dropped off the grid and checked out of corporate culture--- ends up swearing by their Birkenstocks (and the ubiquitous wool socks). Probably not recommended as winter foot wear for my friends in Calgary or Toronto...

But they sure feel comfy just hanging out on my feet, under my desk. 

Final, final note.  I am not given to depression or angst in long bouts. Those emotions hit me every once in a while, out of the blue, and today was just one of those times. Putting this down in words and sharing it helped me shift into a better mental space. We'll be alright. All of us. The holidays should be time for gratitude, and sharing our joy and privilege, not wallowing in our own erroneous pathos. Funny how exciting it was to buy and, at least for now, embrace the Birkenstock shoe culture. I blame photographer, Dan Milnor, for the Birks. He talked about them on his VLog over at YouTube and I've been thinking about those zany, German sandals ever since. Don't know Dan? Go here: https://www.youtube.com/user/SMOGRANCH

Jaston Williams as Scrooge. 

CHANEL. As the Ghost of Christmas present and also a soloist.

Roddrick Sandford as Fezziwig, Marley and the Minister.

curious....What does everyone want (camera and lens-wise) for the holidays this year? What't the cool toy?

I'm not doing any top ten lists since we all read the same reviews. Your take is always different from mine though.... Maybe MJ will regale us with some unexpected choices....


Dick Barbour said...

I'm with you on the downhill blues thing, but then I'm at least 15 years older than you! A day at a time is still the best advice, I believe.

Thinking about gifting myself an S5, whenever they are available, but don't really think I'll get a lot better results than from my current m43 gear. Just something different to learn and play around with. Also not sure about the limited lens selection; not crazy about the idea of the kit 20-60, maybe the Lumix 24-105 would be a good match?


Dick Barbour said...

Whoops! I didn't think the S5 was actually available yet, having looked at just Precision and B&H, but I see they are in stock from some other sellers. Decision time...

Ronman said...

Getting older is certainly humbling, and in many ways rather scary. I've been active my entire life as a cyclist, hiker and regular sessions in my home gym. But age is inevitable, and time does make its presence known regardless of how active my lifestyle. But I do realize the benefits of remaining active, as it has mitigated the onset of issues suffered by so many far too early in life. That said, time will tell if it lessens the probability of some yet unrealized long-term ailment which defines my demise.
And I'm happy to hear you now have the Weebil S. I love mine, and like you enjoy it's very portable stature and ability to handle loads belying its small size. I'm using the 'Sling Mode' more than I thought I would. And if yours did not come with the quick-couplers, I definitely recommend buying the package of 2, which makes moving the handle between normal and sling modes a two-second affair.
My Christmas wish is for the Lumix S5 to arrive at B&H. It seems you and I are moving in opposite directions, as I sell off my APS=C gear and move towards having two FF Lumix S series cameras in the gear vault. But having the options we have these days is a blessing of riches, with great choices in all formats. Difficult choices such as these are definitely first world problems.

Paul Glover said...

I think we can all be forgiven a little for the occasional bouts of pathos. It’s been an odd bird of a year, to be sure.

Gear? After a decade of shooting mostly black and white film in various sizes of camera, and a couple of years in which I more or less abandoned most of that in pursuit of image quality above all hauling a 4x5 Sinar around and only shooting landscapes, I’ve realized that somewhere along the way I forgot why I enjoy photography. The breaking point was when I finally took some time to go out and shoot, only to get 2 photos, maybe, after much cussing and moaning and fighting with the camera; meanwhile the photos I shot using an iPhone, while technically not all there, were just enjoyable to make. So I started carrying my wife’s vlogging camera (a Panasonic G7 with the 12-60 kit zoom) around when walking the dog, and yep...I’m enjoying making photos of whatever I feel like again and planning to get back into digital shooting. It won’t be with “cool new toys” though. I’m looking at either a used Panasonic G95 or Fuji X-T2.

Craig said...

Thanks for this post, Kirk. It lifted my spirits as I anticipate the holidays without seeing my adult children.

I won't likely be getting anything new photo-related for Christmas, but my Sony SLT A-77 is getting really long in the tooth, and I'm looking towards a Panasonic G9 and their 100-400mm lens for some birding photography in the new year.

I went through the same low level anxiety about the squama cell carcinoma, but I was in and out within an hour and back to keeping an eye on the rest of my face (and now wearing my REI hat).


Craig C. - Minneapolis

Anonymous said...

Milnors youtube is good. Check out his website at http://shifter.media/ . Lots more very good stuff.


Richard Parkin said...

MJ embracing meat again is enough surprises for now ;).

Yoram Nevo said...

"Of course aging is much preferable to the alternative of dropping dead" - well ... is it ?
As someone said: this is THE question. And we have to ask it and give ourselves an answer every day.


crsantin said...

Tennis got taken away from me again this week, for how long who knows? I got back to playing in October and I was just starting to get all systems back online...back, knees etc. It takes a few months to get everything going after a long layoff. Now we've shut down again until some time in 2021 I would imagine. It's going to be tough bringing my body back from another extended period of no court time. I'm trying to be active so the atrophy isn't too bad but stopping is never good.

pixtorial said...

Interesting about the Birkenstocks. I'm a Keen guy, I have sworn by my Keen Newports for some fifteen years now, I simply won't wear any other sandal. And yes, I'll happily wear mine with socks. But I know plenty of people are equally set on their Birkenstocks. Enjoy your sandals!

This Holiday season, no new cameras or lenses. The goal rather is to get out and find some time to go shoot with the gear I have. I have some specific ideas for still photos of my kids as they continue to grow up before my eyes. And I want to get back to trying to get my head around the basics of cinematography. We've got all the necessary gear (Crane gimbal, Black Magic monitor/recorder, "old" Fuji X-T2 bodies that are still more capable than I am). So time to get back on the road of mastering it.

Wish you the best on your surgery, Kirk, and that you, Belinda, and Ben have a lovely Thanksgiving together.

Luke Miller said...

Based on your experience with the GH series of Panasonics I'm looking at the yet-to-be-released Panasonic BGH-1 "box" camera. Appears to be a GH5s repackaged into a pure, video only, body.

I hear you on aging. I'll be 80 next birthday and considered myself to be in excellent health until age 76. Now experiencing non-life threatening issues, but still having fun. If you can keep your spirits up you will be OK.

I've had numerous Basal and Squamous Cell Carcinomas removed due to a misspent youth in the Navy. Think I've experienced every surgical technique in the book. I think the scars provide character and take attention away from my thinning gray hair. Goof luck with your procedure.

Chris Beloin said...

Thanks for your thoughts Kirk -

Photography plans - Perhaps that new Olympus 100-400 to complement my 12-100, if the price goes down. I know that most of Olympus is dead going forward, but I do like my current kit.

I might add an additional Nikon Z50 + FTZ adapter if pricing comes down - this combo + Tamron 18-400 had added so much to my photography life at the long end.

Shoes: Rocking the Isotoner Zenz for indoor use - Keen H2 Newport & Teva Terra Fi when pricing allows to add. Overall quality has declined in most shoe production options, but that is the world we live in.

Thanks - Chris

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Luke, Good thoughts. I earned any scars I get from a lifetime of swimming outdoors in Texas. Two things, if I could go back in time to work on: floss more, sunscreen religiously.

Chris: Never worry about getting great m4:3 lenses you can switch over to the "dark" side of the format and start using Panasonic cameras. They just keep getting better and better.

CRSantin, You know you have my sympathy on that. We're still swimming with precautions and I think some of the safety comes from the nature of the club and the sheer desire to swim which makes even "pandemic sceptics" tow the line re: distancing, masking right up to the edge of the pool, etc. I thought I'd never be able to get my swim fitness back after a two month shutdown this Spring but I'm finally swimming strong again. It just takes time....

Abacus Photography said...

I think you are being too negative, Kirk. Don't write yourself off. You are fit and well and will recover quickly from your operation, think of it as a minor blip. I'm sure none of us see any sign of decline in your mental condition, your blog is as sharp as ever. You should also consider what the alternative is, not working I personally feel, will bring about the decline you fear, much faster. I'm five years older than you, suffered a major heart attack whilst out for a run three years ago, had a triple bypass and went back to work within three months (and running). I now face the prospect of a month's daily electron beam therapy for a minor cancer starting on December 3rd (hey what a great Christmas I'm going to have, though they are giving me Christmas Day and Boxing Day off!) and am looking forward to getting back to work afterwards. I went for a planning scan last week and had the chance to see some of my fellow sufferers in the waiting room, and believe you me, there is no alternative to working and staying active! All the best with your op.