Sunday, June 28, 2015

Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy demonstrates that's he's a hero in more than one way

Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm, Oregon
Canon EOS 7D, 24-105mm, ISO 200, 1/50 sec/ @ f/8

Guest commentary published today in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

When I heard the news of the mass shooting in a historic African-American church in Charleston, I was overcome with grief and flooded with memories.

Three years ago, I was the police officer who arrived on the scene of a mass shooting in a Sikh gurdwara [temple] in Oak Creek. The gunman Wade Michael Page had just murdered six people, wounding many more, when I engaged him. Page shot me 15 times before turning the gun on himself.

Ever since that moment, I have thought about what makes people like Page and Dylann Roof carry out deadly acts. Both are white supremacists. Both committed heinous acts in houses of worship at a time when people had gathered in community and prayer. Both killed people based on the color of their skin.

It would be easy to shrug off any responsibility in what they did. But I believe that people who were near both of them must have witnessed their spiral into hate and violence. Someone must have seen and known, deep inside, that there was trouble ahead. Why didn't they stop them? As someone who has looked hate in the eye — and survived — I believe that we each have a role in changing the culture that produced Roof and Page.

It begins with calling out racism in our own homes and communities. We tend to overlook things that bother us, the racist slur or sign of bigotry. We try not to get involved with situations outside our comfort zone. We want to be treated fairly and justly and, yet, we deny that treatment to people we see as different. But the costs are too great to stay silent. In this moment, we must have the courage to reach out to our neighbors, because we desperately need to understand each other.

We can start by learning from the families who survive these mass shootings. The families' response to the horrific violence in Charleston is profoundly similar to the Sikh community's response in Oak Creek. Both did something that speaks volumes about who they are: They forgave. They forgave those who trespassed against us, men who killed in the most coldblooded way. They looked these killers in the face and prayed for them. Forgiveness does not mean that we forget. Forgiveness frees us from hate, so that we can change our hearts and lives.

Now is the time for each of us to forgive. We must forgive our own ignorance and the way we harbor stereotypes and prejudice. We must forgive ourselves so that we can become braver and better. Only then can we change how we treat the people in our lives.

Some suggest that the massacres in Oak Creek and Charleston reveal that no matter how we try, we cannot reach everyone. For me, acts of hate make the job of reaching people that much more urgent and necessary. People at their foundation are good. There is no one completely out of reach; we just have to try harder. By Roof's admission, he almost didn't carry out his evil plan because the people were so nice to him.

We can start with how we treat the person next to us. The simplest act of kindness and compassion can change a person's life. Start now, this very second. Be the person you always dreamed of being. Be a beacon of hope to our children. Let them know we are better than the actions of a few people who have denied themselves the ability to see one another as brothers and sisters. Let us emulate the behavior that God has asked of us. Let us welcome, respect, and love one another.

This is the best way to honor the lives lost in Charleston and Oak Creek. If we don't change the culture of this country, starting with our own hearts, we are doomed to repeat the past.

Lt. Brian Murphy was wounded in the line of duty when arriving on the scene of the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Oak Creek on Aug. 5, 2012.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What I Learned From Flying

Snake River at Oxbow Bend
Grand Teton National Park, WY
Canon EOS 7D, ISO 200, f/16 @ 20 sec.

My photography and faith buddy, Bill Fortney (, blogs incessantly about the connection between his faith and photographic pursuits.  One of those pursuits was his outstanding book America From 500 Feet which is a collection of images Bill took while flying an ultralight aircraft.  

Not sure I have what it takes to fly an ultralight but I have taken the stick of a Cessna 172 and a Dehavilland Beaver and an now beyond a Delta "Million Miler" frequent flyer.  But I've learned many life lessons from flying. 

I don't have time for the crap that holds me down.   My first flight in a Cessna 172 was from the Rice Lake Municipal Airport.  My instructor, Jim Maslowski, briefed me on all the things I needed to do but as soon as the propeller began spinning my head began spinning.  As the plane proceeded down the runway I was filled with dozens of crippling anxieties -- one of those "whole life flashing in front of you moments" -- of all the possible things that could go wrong superimposed on my own perceived inadequacies.  

The the truth hit me: this turkey has to get up in the sky or else we're going down in the lake.  Simple as that.  There isn't time to worry about all that crap.  Suddenly that which anchored me down instantly disappeared and the Cessna began its journey to Eau Claire.  

Cheapest and most effective therapy in the world.  Unless you want to wind up in the bottom of the lake, there isn't time to worry about all the crap that will keep you from soaring.

Delta isn't going to hold the plane for me if I get to the airport late.  It's been said that half of the key to success in life is just showing up.  I think you also have to be there on time or you just might miss out.

There are times in life when caution is appropriate if not indeed life-saving.  There are charlatans in our midst who would seek to pressure us to make hasty decisions that benefit them, not us.  And there is no guarantee against making a bad decision.  Obviously, to paraphrase the old Merrill Lynch saying, it's a good idea to investigate before you invest.

But indecision can also become a decision.  If you wait until the last minute to get to the airport and arrive late you're probably going to miss the plane.  The airline isn't going to hold it for you and doesn't care why you weren't there to board on time. You blew it and there's probably nobody else to blame.  Life doesn't always operate on my schedule.

Now we can get angry at the airline, the traffic, the airport and life in general but no matter what Delta isn't holding the plane.  We have no right to expect that they will.  Remember the parable of the three servants?  Did it ever seem odd that the one who was outcast was the one who didn't use the resources the master gave him?

Honesty is still the best policy.  There are many times when things don't work as I had planned. Maybe traffic was bad and I didn't get to the airport on time.  Sometimes there have been emergencies at home and I need to get back.  Sometimes I got busy and lost track of time.  

The best answer to "what to do" in those situations is simply to tell the truth.  No, Delta isn't going to hold the flight for me but there are times when it came to my rescue after I told the truth, even whey they weren't obligated to do so.  In fact, I never asked for emergency waivers if there wasn't one and I never had a "doable' request turned down.

Bad things still happen to good people.  As much as Delta has helped me in times of crisis they've also dumped on me, too.  Funny that as a customer Delta tells me all the wonderful things they're doing to "enhance" my experience bur as a stockholder the same executives talk with glee about how they're able to screw customers to maximize profits.  And the number of times I and other customers have been "enhanced" continues to grow.

There is no guarantee life will be fair, even if you are.  See the preceding paragraph.

When something doesn't go your way it may not be the worst thing.  I had an out-of-town meeting to make and was less than pleased that my flight to Chicago was cancelled due to fog and poor weather conditions.  I wound up driving to Madison. The airplane that was supposed to have been the connecting flight collided with another aircraft and ten people on the plane I would have been on were killed.  Sometimes be thankful for blessings in disguise.  See below as well.

When one door closes, another may open.  So many times I have been angry and hurt that something didn't happen as I wanted -- whether it be a job, a relationship, an investment or even a photo opportunity.  The first problem is that it was what I wanted.  Maybe God had a different idea and often the replacement plan was a better deal (although it rarely seems like it at the time).

I had a crappy fall shoot at Yellowstone and the Tetons.  The elk rut was disappointing (although the trumpeter swans were out), I got fewer shots in the Tetons than I had hoped for, the moose and pronghorn antelope were hiding from me and I was heading back with little to show for my time there.  Needless to say I was pretty disappointed (to say the least).

But as the sun had set and I was heading north out of the Tetons I turned to the left and saw the silhouette of a man fishing against the colorful sky.  I slammed on the brakes, jumped out, grabbed a camera and tripod and yelled at the man asking if he would please stay still for a few seconds.  He complied with my request and the result you can see below.

Snake River at Sunset
Grand Teton National Park, WY
Canon EOS 7D, ISO 250, f/8 @ 2 sec.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Charleston: It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm @ 157mm, 1/13 sec. @ f/16, ISO 200

The intolerable atrocity in Charleston, South Carolina has predictably resulted in more useless speeches, calls for legislation, finger-pointing and race-baiting as people struggle to comprehend this act of terrorism in a house of worship by a deranged young man full of hate.  Some say -- and the evidence suggests -- that he is a racist but on balance that's way too simplistic, way too convenient and way too incomplete of an explanation with no realistic answers.

This young villain is, unfortunately, neither unique or simple.  We've seen his ilk before.  We know that terrorists and bullies rely on shock and intimidation to bolster their cause, whatever it is.  And in typical responses we are often sucked into this tornado of hate.  But it doesn't have to be that way.

This tragedy has many analytical challenges.  We know this perpetrator is a racist.  But one can be a racist without being violent.  We know he's likely mentally imbalanced.  But there are many mentally ill people who are not dangerous.  We know that he singled out black victims, which suggests racism and a hate crime, but then it is carried out in a church, which implicates an additional level of deranged hate.

I am going to resist -- and I encourage you to do the same -- the temptation to offer knee-jerk reactions or solutions.  If we want to overcome this then we will need to work at it and I surely don't have all the answers.  But I do know that we've seen this before and we'll likely see it again and thus it calls to mind the old proverb that it's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.  In spite of prejudice, instability and hate there can be good triumphing evil and it can be ordinary people who rise to the occasion.  These are not platitudes but real world experiences that happened not far from us -- things that brought out both the worst and best of people.

Stuart, Iowa -- a small town of maybe 1700 people -- is a little west of Des Moines off Interstate 80 and just down the road from where I was a police officer nearly 40 years ago.  Stuart was the home of All Saints Catholic Church, an ornate and beautiful "cathedral on the plains" built by skilled immigrants in 1908.  It was an impressive work of art in a most unusual place -- the type of edifice normally found in some major cities.

All Saints was a house of worship, of course, and the center of the area's Catholic community for 87 years.  But the worst came on August 22, 1995.

A man consumed with deep rage for the Catholic church poured gallons of gasoline throughout All Saints, igniting an inferno that required the efforts of more than 20 fire departments from a 50-mile radius to suppress.  The beautiful copper dome was gone.  Police had to shoot out stained glass windows in order for firefighters to get their hoses in position.  

The arsonist, who boldly bragged of his deed, was arrested, tried and convicted, serving 13 years in prison before he was paroled.

The architects and insurance company said it was too costly to rebuilt All Saints, so the parish took the insurance check and built a nondescript new building on the end of town.  The insurance company, Diocese of Des Moines and parish council may have walked away from the old All Saints but the people of little Stuart, Iowa did not.

For whatever reasons -- maybe Iowa stubbornness had something to do with it -- it just didn't seem right to let someone get away with torching a church.  It didn't matter if you were Catholic, it still wasn't right.  Walking away from the old All Saints was tantamount to letting a terrorist win.  The people of Stuart didn't want that to happen.

Another team of architects went through old All Saints.  Despite the massive damage done to the church's interior, windows and dome somehow miraculously the shell of the 1908 structure remained sound and, ironically, the fire actually strengthened the steel beams in the walls. Consequently the repair estimate was revised dramatically downward.

It took years to raise the $4 million to complete the project but donations, grants and $1.7 million approved by the voters in this town of 1700 saw the Saints Center for Culture and the Arts open its doors in 2009.  Not only is the old All Saints a community center but it houses a museum devoted to religious tolerance.  

“We wanted to show that in the end, tolerance is much stronger than hate,” said Liz Gilman, who headed the museum project.

Probably most folks have never heard of Stuart, Iowa or it's just a dot on the map.  But the people of Stuart taught the world a lesson or two.  Tolerance is much stronger than hate.  And we're not going to let a terrorist destroy a house of worship.

History teaches us that the predictable reactions in the days, weeks and months following the despicable hate crime in Charleston will likely generate more heat than light, more anger than love, more problems than solutions.  We need to tune out these unproductive messages and instead turn to the people of Stuart who showed us not only that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness -- but also that it can be done by ordinary people who rise to the occasion.

The Emmanuel AME church in Charleston wasn't torched but it was nonetheless desecrated by a hate crime that left nine of its people dead.  It won't take years of fundraising to rebuild but rather perhaps the nation's churches could demonstrate that tolerance is much stronger than hate by delivering this message at home and staging pilgrimages to Charleston to stand in solidarity with the people of Emmanuel AME church.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Back To My (Photographic) Roots

Mount Hood at Trillium Lake, Oregon
Fujifilm X-E2, ISO 200, 18-55mm @ 29mm, f/16 @ .6 sec

I started in photography -- fourth grade, to be exact -- shooting black and white film in a $20 Sears camera that was so advanced it had "electric eye."  Color film and processing were very expensive at the time, especially for a kid.

Later when I moved to a series of more advanced cameras I continued to shoot black and white film because it was (1) cheaper, (2) I could process and print it myself and (3) it was considered the film of the artist.   The learning curve was fun, especially watching prints come to life in the tray under the safelight.  Photoshop wasn't around then so most adjustments had to be made up front.

But the 1990's began a new era where people saw things in color and learning color photography was a new, steeper learning curve -- especially with digital imaging.  Dynamic color was expected.  Pretty much been the same thing ever since.  Mostly.

I am probably a Pacific Northwest guy by heart.  Some of my favorite photography hotspots are there, including Mount Hood which is about 90 minutes, give or take, southwest of Portland.  On a good day when the wind is light, the sky is colorful and clouds cooperating the photography can be exhilarating.  But on a lackluster day…meh.

My last trip to Trillium Lake to photograph Mount Hood started out with promise but turned more or less to lackluster.  The "mojo" just wasn't there.  What would Ansel Adams have done?

I'm not sure I can accurately guess the answer but most of his work was in stunning black and white.  So I pretended I was shooting with a red filter, sharp polarizers and was printing on Agfa Brovira Speed and what was "meh" turned into "it wasn't such a bad day, after all."

Life is like that, too.  Sometimes we start out along a path we think is correct but things don't work out as planned and it turns to a "meh" day.   That's when I think it's helpful to consider whether it's possible to turn a lemon into lemonade.

Does that always work?  Nope.  But sometimes it's worth a shot.

Pun intentional.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Back to Blackwater Falls

Blackwater Falls, West Virginia, May 16, 2015
Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm @ 27mm, 1/2 sec. @ f/16, ISO 200
In March I made the three-hour-or-so drive from Washington, D.C. to Blackwater Falls which is located in the West Virginia state park of the same name.  I was disappointed that dangerously icy conditions made it impossible to make it to the lower viewing platforms.  Even more disapponting: the lodge was closed for repairs which meant no trip to the restaurant for its buffet breakfast.  

Returning last month the lodge was open as was the 200+ steps to get to the lower platform.  There aren't a lot of shot possibilities in the park but those that exist are worthwhile.  Ditto for the breakfast.

Another good time for a visit is in October where there may be fall color.  West Virginia has a great state park system -- free admission -- with lodges in some parks.  Nearby Canaan Valley is often a great fall color spot in October and a ski destination in winter.  And there's also a buffet breakfast!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Where -- and what -- is your church?

Sunrise, Foothills Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm @ 148mm, ISO 200, 1 sec. @ f/16

Pope Francis has a lot to say about what the Church -- big "C" -- and the little "c" as well -- ought to be.  "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security," he wrote. "I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures."  

He added: "More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, 'Give them something to eat.'"

I was moved a lot by this and by his call for churches to be hospitals for sinners as opposed to museums for saints.  This, of course, is nothing terribly new.  In the early 19th century the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote: "The church bells call to prayer, but not in a temple made by human hands. If the birds do not need to be reminded to praise God, then ought men not be moved to prayer outside of the church, in the true house of God, where heaven's arch forms the ceiling of the church, where the roar of the storm and the light breezes take the place of the organ's bass and treble, where the singing of the birds make up the congregational hymns of praise, where echo does not repeat the pastor's voice as in the arch of the stone church, but where everything resolves itself in an endless antiphony."

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Fujifilm X-E2, ISO 200, 50mm, 6/10 sec. @ f/16

And so I struggle with my own church -- the small "c" -- which is embarking on a capital campaign to "finish" the worship space which is not carpeted and parishioners sat in chairs until the recent addition of hand-me-down pews and kneelers, a throwback to the "Good Old Plastic Jesus" days.  How do I reconcile this with what the pope is calling for these days -- a church that is frugal, humble and out in the streets?

My parish held its first Mass nearly 17 years ago in a school cafeteria which we quickly outgrew. We then went into the gym for a few years until the banks let us build a worship center which had high ceilings, huge doors and a big debt in a troubled economy without the money to "finish" the project.

But despite the financial stress in the ensuing years there was something special about the "unfinished" church because it did, in fact, symbolize that building the church was a work in progress.  Our faith didn't need high ceilings or pews or kneelers.  We were a church active in the community, reaching out in social ministry despite our own troubles.  The church wasn't a building but rather the people.

Somehow that began to fade a bit and now there is a focus on "finishing" the worship space.  This doesn't seem to square well with what Pope Francis is telling us to be.  Yes, we need a "base camp" for our ministries which is what I would add to the papal call for us to be a hospital for sinners.  But that's what our churches should be -- hospitals and base camps, not monuments,  We are expected to get (at least figuratively) bruised and bloody in the streets, not comfortable inside.

It's a delicate balance.  I always liked the idea of the "unfinished" project as a symbol that our mission is a work in progress, reinforced by our simple chairs and concrete floors.  We were a community of faith and a beacon of hope when we were in the cafeteria.  The building doesn't make the church, the people do.  And the presence of God is not necessarily confined to a structure of stone, concrete and steel beams.  It can be experienced in the solemnity or simplicity of outdoors and in the grace of His people.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Patience: A Virtue I Wish I Had More Of

Photography is often an instruction manual for life skills.  Patience is one of them.  Sometimes I wish I had more of it.

Much of the time photographers must react quickly because of logistics.  The shot might not be there if you wait or safety or weather concerns narrow the window of safe opportunity.
Blackwater Falls, West Virginia
Fufifilm X-E2,, ISO 200, 16-55mm @ 34mm, 10 sec. @ f/16

This winter shot of Blackwater Falls was a quick study because of weather and safety conditions.  Icy conditions left only a portion of the trail open thus restricting the view.  So I had to make the best of what I was handed at the moment.

Sometimes, though, waiting and having faith that there will be a better opportunity is the best course of action.  Such was the case this winter when I waited for a sunset opportunity at Montara Beach at Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco.

Pacific Ocean at Montara Beach, California
Fujifilm X-E1, ISO 200, 55-200mm @ 86mm, f/16 @ 5 sec.

I wasn't sure if it was possible to come back with a good image given the conditions and the logistics but, again, I tried to make the best of the situation.  This was also true in April when I was searching for a good sunset opportunity in the Seattle area which isn't always an easy task.

I wound up south of the airport at the waterfront not far from Anthony's Restaurant in Des Moines, Washington.  The area was crowded but as the sun was going down few people remained.  Those who did were rewarded for their patience.

Puget Sound, Des Moines, Washington
Fujifilm X-E1, ISO 200, 55-200mm@ 172mm, f/16 @ 2.5 sec.

I am often one of the least patient people in the world.  But there are times when I have to wait and have faith that the wait will be worth it.  It usually is.

Mike Royko's Finest Column: A Love Story

Minnehaha Falls
Minneapolis, MN
Fuji X-E1, 55-200mm, f/16 .7 sec

The late Mike Royko wrote this column to his readers more than two weeks after his first wife, Carol, died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. The Chicago Sun-Times published the column on Oct. 5, 1979. 

It helps very much to have friends, including so many whom I've never met. 

Many of you have written to me, offering words of comfort, saying you want to help share the grief in the loss of my wife, Carol. 

I can't even try to tell you how moved I've been, and I wish I could take your hands and thank each of you personally. 

Others have called to ask when I'll be coming back to work. I don't know when. It's not the kind of job that should be done without full enthusiasm and energy. And I regret that I don't have much of either right now. 

So I'm going to take a little more time off. There are practical matters I have to take care of. I want to spend time with my sons. And I can use some hours just to think and remember. 

Some friends have told me that the less I look to the past the better. Maybe. But I just don't know how to close my mind's door on 25 years. That was our next anniversary, November. 

Actually, it was much longer than that. We met when she was 6 and I was 9. Same neighborhood street. Same grammar school. So if you ever have a 9-year-old son who says he is in love, don't laugh at him. It can happen. 

People who saw her picture in this paper have told me how beautiful she appeared to be. Yes, she was. As a young man I puffed up with pride when we went out somewhere and heads turned, as they always did. 

But later, when heads were still turning, I took more pride in her inner beauty. If there was a shy person at a gathering, that's whom she'd be talking to, and soon that person would be bubbling. If people felt clumsy, homely and not worth much, she made them feel good about themselves. If someone was old and felt alone, she made them feel loved and needed. None of it was put on. That was the way she was. 

I could go on, but it's too personal. And I'm afraid that it hurts. Simply put, she was the best person I ever knew. And while the phrase "his better half" is a cliche, with us it was a truth. 

Anyway, I'll be back. And soon, I hope, because I miss you, too, my friends. In the meantime, do her and me a favor. If there's someone you love but haven't said so in a while, say it now. Always, always, say it now.