In May of 2009 I had just about reached my breaking point again. I had been in the IT industry, in one capacity or another, since months after the Y2K scare. Initially, the only reason was because I needed a job badly, and my girlfriend’s mother who worked for IBM could land me a low level position.
As the years went by, the pay increased with each new position and in turn, so did the demands on my life. It was never my plan to stay in IT. But as the paychecks grew, my lifestyle expanded accordingly. Taking a cue from the mistakes of my parents, I never lived above my means. I can’t say I lived below them though either. While I was saving some money, I was living right to the very last penny. Over the years, this lifestyle became the norm and I was now tied to the pay this industry provided. I had convinced myself that we were indeed living humbly. The fact that we needed this paycheck just to maintain, meant that there was no way I would be getting away from this job anytime soon.
My health was deteriorating. I was doing a lot of 2nd and 3rd shift work. I was eating terribly, not exercising enough, and good sleep was a thing of the past. I was now on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I was sleeping, and I use that term loosely, with my Blackberry on my pillow. Even when I was not technically the guy on call, it was now instinct to check my email obsessively. There was never any down time. But at least I would be able to retire a few years early. Then I can travel, and relax, and really enjoy life, right?
The end of my daughter’s school year was approaching swiftly. Being that she was only 7 years old and that my wife works full time as well, our daughter was going to have to be placed in daycare. Daycare is by no means a death sentence, but it is in no way, shape, or form, something my daughter wanted to participate in. It was about this time that I started re-working our budget. With the support of my wife, it had been decided that we were going to make a quality of life decision for the betterment of our family. I was quitting my job.
I would be lying to say that we weren’t a little bit scared. This decision also drew more than one sideways glance from those that thought quitting your job in this economy wasn’t the act of a sound mind. I held steadfast in my belief that we were doing the right thing. The problem was that as the weeks turned into months we were backsliding financially, and I needed to start bringing in some cash in short order.
The plan was to make a run at being a photographer. Since moving to the Northwest, we had enjoyed family hikes and driving through the Columbia River Gorge quite a bit. I was now to become an avid hiker and take great photos of the places I visit. The problem with the plan was that being a photographer in this part of the country is much a kin to being an actor or actress in Southern California, everybody does it. Truly, for every amazing photo I got of a wildflower meadow set beautifully against a cascade peak, there were 20 or more photos I saw from other photographers that put mine to shame. It was clearly time to step up my game and get serious about taking some real money shots!
The bread and butter prints for many a landscape photographer in Oregon, are of frozen waterfalls. They’re majestic. On top of that, tourists aren’t out in force when the temperature is in the single digits. The second week of December provided a string of days when the waterfalls would be crawling with photographers. I had gone out and risked frost bite with many of them during the first day of the cold spell. I captured many of the popular Gorge waterfalls in all their frozen splendor and took the next few days off. It was all I could do to leave the warm cocoon of my bed on what was supposed to be the final day of sub freezing temperatures.
I wanted to go to Abiqua Falls, but damn if it isn’t a two hour drive from home. Add that to the fact that in order to get the good “morning light”, I would have to get out of the house mighty early. Oh and I did mention that it’s 15 degrees outside right? I loaded up my gear, my coffee, and my dog, and headed off into the hills. There was a chance I wouldn’t even be able to reach the trailhead if the road was too iced over or in any other way inaccessible, which is not uncommon. But this was my chosen profession now, so it was stiff upper lip time.
During the long and often painfully slow drive to Abiqua, I began to question my decision making ability. It was now December and I wasn’t close to scratching out a living. We were now paying for groceries with credit cards and while my wife still supported my decision, I could tell her patience was wearing thin. Was it time to give up? How long could I keep doing this before I drive us headlong into financial ruin? For everybody who chases a dream, there comes a point where you have to let go at some point if you haven’t attained it. It’s one of the great life decisions that many people are forced to make at some point. How much longer do I grind it out in AA Baseball before I call it quits and finish my degree in accounting? How long can I keep playing in this band without having enough money to buy more than Ramen noodles?
These decisions aren’t all tied to grand aspirations either. Somewhere along the road to adulthood, most of us come to grips with the fact that what we are going to do in life is nowhere near as fun or important as we had hoped. For some strange reason, I was running my career path out of sequence. I didn’t give my dreams a chance out of high school. It went straight into the military for 8 years, then 8 more in the office world. Mid to late thirties seems like an odd time to start doing what you love for a living.
I was able to get to the trailhead and scurry my way down the un-maintained trail with relative ease. I reached the falls and they were absolutely more breathtaking than I could have ever imagined. I un-holstered my camera and began to take as many “classic” shots as I could. I would reset quickly and shoo the dog out of frame every time he dared to step into my field of view. After about a half an hour I packed my camera and started to make my way back up the trail. Only the dog wasn’t leading the way down the trail as he is prone to do. He was standing back in the basalt amphitheater looking at me quizzically.
This was my first time visiting Abiqua as a “photographer”. I had been there, and many other places in the past with him as, a hiker. It seemed as though he just couldn’t understand why we were leaving so painfully soon. I looked back past him up at Abiqua without my camera in hand, and I didn’t understand either. This was after all, one of my favorite places in the world. Photography, sadly, had turned into work. I had just spent a half hour taking pictures I thought other people would want to see.
I started back towards the falls, which instantly sent my dog into a long tongued gallop around the currently frozen splash pool below the falls. We played, with no camera. I sat, looked, and listened. I released the stress that had compounded over the last few months from financial worry. I then pulled my camera back out and began taking pictures of my dog, pictures of icicles, and pictures of curious ice patterns in the creek. I was taking all the pictures I would have taken when we moved here three years ago, just with a more expensive camera.
There were a number of revelations that occurred to me over the next two hours. I had left a high paying job I hated, to turn one of my most pleasurable hobbies into a low paying job that was quickly headed down the same road. If I couldn’t enjoy the positives of this “quality of life decision”, what good was it? I had just spent an amazing summer with my daughter that consisted mainly of hiking, backpacking, and sleeping in. I had to find a way to enjoy these things and still pay the bills. The answer would be balance.
We continued to downsize our lives. We found great pleasure in saving money here and there, without ever sacrificing to the point of discomfort. The amount of money I needed to make in order for us to get by continued to shrink. At the same time, our satisfaction with life was becoming more robust.
I was so narrowly focused on making a living out of my favorite pastime that it never dawned on me that there are many things I enjoy which could earn a modest living. Are you sacrificing your dream if the work you’re doing is enjoyable, even if that job isn’t your dream job? I would continue trying to market the type of photography that I enjoy. I would also however, seek out employment of any sort that seemed like it would be fun and enjoyable. Perhaps someday photography will pay the bills and perhaps it won’t. The thing is, I will still be taking photos as well as whatever else I’m doing because I enjoy it.