Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This Year

(Vintage Bed, 2008)

This year was one that will stand out for the rest of my life, the kind of year you reference more often than others when telling stories of lessons learned, uncertain times, miles traveled, and amazingly unusual experiences. This year I met more new faces than I have in a long time and learned more about myself than I was aware I needed to.

In the last couple of years I have made my life much more of an open book, expanding my web presence and what I'm willing to admit about myself with various blogs, profiles, etc. Though I am a very private person, overall I think that it has been a positive experience in forcing myself to just put more of who I am out there. I'm not that bizarre of a person, don't have much to hide or many demons to conquer. The phrase I've used before is that "I'm just a simple guy trying to do my best." However, that isn't necessarily true.

Yeah, I'm a pretty decent person, but I don't try as hard as I should. Also, to be perfectly honest, I'm not that simple, either. When it gets down to it, I'm a pretty complicated guy, but thankfully what I want and need day-to-day are simple enough to not be too difficult for others. That said, just being easy to be around doesn't make you a good person. Though I don't really believe in the concept of "new year's resolutions", my goal is to do enough in the next coming year to feel like I'm being a better person. I don't think I'm aware of just how daunting of a challenge that might be.

Honestly, I don't know where I'll be this time next year. My guess is still living in Santa Maria near my family, doing what I do, hopefully a little more successful, hopefully retaining the perspective I currently live with. Listening to some others, however, the sky could be the limit. We shall see. No matter where I am headed, I just wanted to take a second to record my current view of things, give a nod to those new faces that stood out from the rest this year, some love to the loyal family and friends who have helped me along my journey so far, and a wish for all the best for you in the future.

Let's make 2010 a good one, shall we?

Here are a few of my other links:
My Twitter: For updates of new photo postings and unnecessary flippant observations.
My Tumblr: I reserve it for a bit more risque imagery illuminated with mainly mopey tales and lyrics.
My newer Flickr account: Contains many photos and my inspiration for them.
My older Flickr account: A censored profile with lots of photos, more risque images, and a whole lot of descriptions.
My ModelMayhem: A website for finding models in various locations around the country.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Dear Santa..."

Mark Velasquez Katie West
("Katie West's Pigeons" 2009)

After careful consideration I think I've finally narrowed down my Christmas list. This in no way means that these items are the only things I would like to have, but these are the things I could most immediately make the best use of. Here they are in no particular order:

-A solid ten hours of uninterrupted sleep
-Thicker hair in the front
-Thinner hair on my back
-A Fujifilm Instax Mini 7s
-Much better timing when entering peoples' lives
-Higher quality clown noses
-Peace in the Middle East. AGAIN.
-For this unfortunate knot in my left hand to go away
-A muse who prefers being naked but doesn't feel the need to be
-An intern who actually knows the things I need them to know
-Less "eye-baggage"
-Peace on Earth
-Good Will towards men
-Did I already mention the Instax?
-An in-house barber
-For that one guy to just stop with the nonsense already
-For that one girl to just chill out already
-A dictionary on my cell phone
-New models with no tattoos
-Old models with more tattoos
-More curiosity and less concern

I realize many, if not all of these are impossible to acquire, but even the attempt is nice. Sometimes it really is the thought that counts most. However, I hear Amazon is having a sale on the Instax...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Like a Piece of Meat

Mark Velasquez
Many over the years have called me a pornographer, a misogynist, or simply an objectifier of women. Having more respect for women than I do for myself, I've always been bothered by this while also trying to not take it too personally. I know who I am and what my intentions are in my photography, so if people don't get it, that is just their biased opinion. Thankfully, all of the women in my life trust me and respect most, if not all of the projects I work on and those who model for me love working with me on these projects.

Unfortunately, I think I am the exception to the rule. It doesn't take more than a few moments looking at sites like to realize that the majority of people who call themselves photographers are little more than horny guys wanting to see women pose in bathing suits or less. I can't tell you how many horror stories I have heard from models who have had photographers grope or attack them during vulnerable moments of a photo shoot. The modeling industry is just a microcosm of course, the tip of the despicable iceberg of countless unnameable horrors that women have to deal with daily due to certain males' lack of self-control. Just look up the statistics of sexual assaults in this country alone, or the fact that at least one in three women serving in the military are raped or sexually assaulted today. I can't really say I expect things to change, as human nature can never really be denied, though I'd love to see it at least try to evolve.

As a self-affirmed mama's boy and an uncle of nieces, I can't avoid thinking about these things, especially lately/ At the same time though I am sure my images are seen as only adding to the problem. Maybe that is correct, perhaps these images I present only contribute to the continued objectification of women. No matter what someone's intentions are when creating something, how that thing is understood by the majority matters much more. I'm not really sure anymore, but I'm trying to figure it out.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shades of Grey

Hope Springs Eternal
This week someone told me that I make a lot of declarative, definitive statements regarding most matters in the world and in how I perceive things to work, especially in these tough times. They didn't say it was a bad thing, just that it was unusual in this day and age, and how it was refreshing overall. Of course I was aware that I have very strong opinions about many topics, but I hadn't been called on it in a while and it got me thinking again about why I am this way.

It's no secret that I am an idealist, that I believe things should be a certain way and that I do my best to help anywhere I can along those goals. I'm sure many of my formative years reading comic books, where the line between offensive villains and defensive heroes was always clearly defined didn't help my idealized thought process. Nor did stories of knights, whip-wielding archaeologists, and George Bailey help in my perceptions of doing what needs to be done to serve "a just cause".

Still, I am left uneasy with the concept that I am a definitive person, that my opinions are absolute and unwavering. Yes, the notions of absolute "right" and "wrong" would be great if they were always clear and easy to define. However, as we all know the real world does not necessarily work in such a clear cut manner. Unfortunately, in the real world decisions are often made through reluctant compromise where sometimes, most times, no one really wins in the end, or at least not the "good guys".

I am abundantly aware of what shades of grey consume us on any given day, but that doesn't mean I have to be satisfied with them. We all make concessions every day to make the path easier, to lighten the load, to make others feel better, or when we are just too tired to put up a fight. It's natural, and in these tough economic times, people are even more afraid to stand up and take a risk. It is completely understandable, and if you don't get that, then you either haven't been watching closely or are untouched by the changing times.

The countless shades of grey that consume the world we all inhabit seem to fluctuate between lighter and darker shades depending on the weather, who is in power, what news network you watch, the intensity of your headache that day, and how much sleep you got the night before. Life isn't easy, but since when has it ever been? We have all done things at some point that we aren't proud of or that we regret in those quiet moments when the kids are asleep and the dog hasn't been fed yet, but that's okay, too.

All that said, the only thing that really bothers me about all of the struggles and uncertainties today is the lack of hope I see in people. A lot of people I know want things to get better but go through their days with a sincere disbelief that things can ever get better. Okay, maybe in certain instances they are correct, but no one ever lived a good life and nothing ever got better by thinking the worst. So sure, I freely admit that I may not always be the most positive person out there, but the one ideal I will always cling to is hope. That can never be a bad thing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Little Things"

Calendar: November 2009
(Tom's Take Out Calendar, November 2009)

So much of what makes us individuals is actually a string of small traits and subtle interests gleamed from others. Catch phrases, shared movies, television shows and books, certain ways we like our tea or the way we dress, all of these things stem from the influence of other people in our lives, even if they are only there for a fleeting moment.

Having lived what I see now as a somewhat sheltered life, much of the little things I've gotten into, words I often use, and inspirations that have enhanced my everyday life have come from places I am almost unaware of. These are all little gifts that I otherwise would never have known if not for someone's personal outside example. These small things have brought so much joy and comfort, and thus have helped make me who I am today, that there is no possible way I could repay the myriad of people who have guided me to this path.

With Thanksgiving Day imminent, I thought I'd take a second and make a list of as many things as possible that I never liked, words I never used, or attitudes I never appreciated until someone personally influenced me. Some of these things I actively and vocally decried, disavowed, or just plain wrote-off as dumb, useless, silly, or evil for some childish notion of the past, or simply never thought about at all. They are, in no particular order:

-the necessity and over-use of cell phones and all of their functions
-the love of certain consumables, including Ethiopian food, boba tea, edamame, tofu, balsamic vinegar and oil, udon noodles, sushi, and more
-the ease and functionality of digital photography, the fixed 50mm lens, UV filters
-the awareness and appreciation of "Alternative" music of the early to mid-'90s
(i.e. Pixies, Built to Spill, Soul Coughing, etc.)
-the awareness and appreciation of contemporary "Indie" music
(i.e. The Mountain Goats, The National, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc.)
-the ability to use Photoshop, Mac computers, etc.
-shooting in "RAW"
-the appreciation of plain white (not color-gelled) lights in photography
-a slightly more open-minded perception of certain drugs and harmless, though technically illegal activities
-being forced to go out after dark to socialize
-openness in discussing taboo subjects, including masturbation, bodily functions, personal nudity and bodily issues, etc.
-appreciation for "pin-up" styled imagery
-being able to ask for and accept a hug, neck and back rub, and a little bit of help now and again
-preferring a functional pick-up truck to some sporty, fashionably smaller vehicle
-taking the time to appreciate people who my first reaction would be negative of, including those unusual or questionable interests, body modification, personal associations, etc.
-the use of laptop computers in public
-using iPod vehicle adapters
-an almost complete lack of fear about taking a financial risk versus having an amazing experience
-appreciation of alcohol in its various forms (except beer), mainly whiskey, wine and tequila
-my overuse of the word "crazy" when describing something unusual
-the spiritual guidance of gurus such as Robert Smith, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Mike Doughty, Peter Gabriel, others
-being forced to use MySpace, Facebook, and, which led to amazing things and people entering my life

I am sure there are countless others, but these are the ones that have sprung to mind recently. With that said, I still have a long way to go. I find that I'm still painfully set in my ways in many regards, but I'm trying. To those who know me really well, honestly, truly, I'm trying. To all the Americans, have a Happy Thanksgiving, to the rest of the world, Happy Thursday!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"No one knows how love works."

Two peas in a pod.
I really enjoy Mark Morford's columns. He's insightful, witty, and pretty damn honest. Here is an article that I had cut out and taped in an old sketch book two years ago. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Mark Morford
San Francisco Chronicle
July 25, 2007

I am not married. I have never, to the best of my knowledge, been married.

I do not have any children of which I am right now aware. I am, in fact, recently single again for the first time in many years. Also: no mortgage. No debt. No daily array of behavioral meds (yet). No significant or particularly dangerous skeletons - none that can speak or call the CIA or reveal the location of the photographs buried on my hard drive, anyway.

This is a weirdly fascinating position to be in, and not only because many of my long-coupled friends think I must've won some sort of amazing social lottery, with the prize being a debauched free-for-all of sybaritic adventure.

No, when you're single and you've finally made it past the age when you've felt both love's deepest tongue probings and also its most random horror-flick slashings, what it means, at least for me, is that you get to become this odd sort of sounding board - a blank slate for love's warped potential, a reason for others to extrapolate on the nature of love and life and sex and how difficult/wonderful/impossible it all really is.

Which is merely another way of saying, I am learning something. Or rather, relearning. Or rather, knowing something everyone sort of knows but no one really talks all that much about because it's so damn obvious and also painful and fraught and wonderful, pounded back into my thick skull in a delightfully unexpected way.

Here is the big lesson, the thing that keeps coming at me, again and again and again: No one has the slightest clue how to make love work.

I know. Shocking. But truly, it's weirder that you might think.

See, singlehood at my pseudo-mature age can be a time of profound cleansing, of enjoying the moment as you ready for the new, of trying to figure out just what you're all about and what you really want and how to go about getting it, or not getting it, or letting it all go and not attaching to it so that it may find you, in the healthiest and sexiest and most honest way possible.

And so, you look around. And you ask. And you get feedback, comments, perspectives from all those in various stages of lovedom around you.

(Very few of my circle are single, and if they are, they're almost certainly seeking that special one to make it all make sense.) And that feedback ain't what it used to be. If it ever was.

For every happily married couple I know (and I do know a few), there are three more who are confused and tense and battling all sorts of doubt and crisis and regret. For every wedding announcement, there are two more separations. For every guy I know who's tremendously happy to be settled, there's another who wishes he could've had "just one more year" of unbridled freedom.

It goes on. For every woman I know who simply can't wait to have kids and who tears up in front of a newborn and whose biological clock is ticking like Dick Cheney's pacemaker in a gay fetish dungeon, there's another who has quietly realized that she should maybe never have become a mother.

Couples you think were rock solid and perfect have fallen apart, screamingly. Couples you thought wouldn't last a year have made it to 10 and show no signs of slowing. Couples who got together in college and were miserably mismatched took a decade off and had lots of sex with other people and then got back together and it's now the perfect, true thing. More or less. Unless it's not.

See, at a certain point, all the variants become so astounding, so dizzying, so universal, that you finally realize (yes, for the 1,000th time) there is no rule. There is no pattern. The exceptions are the rule. There is no approach that, overall, seems to work for most people most of the time. There's not even a hint of a possibility of a whisper of a rule, and anyone who tries to tell you differently, be it a church or a parent or a relationship guru, is, to put it gently, astoundingly full of it.

This is why God laughs. This is why the Fates roll their eyes and belch.

Because you think you have this crude set of boundaries and guidelines that you insist you will live by as you head into the uncharted waters of love and sex and attraction, and these silly notions grow and thrive and breed like drunken Mormons all through your 20s and 30s, when all your friends are hooking up and all the marriages are as fresh as squirted mother's milk and all the love is sweet and skittering and hot and everything seems aimed toward the positive, the right.

And then, time happens. Fights. Breakdowns. Crisis. Fertility issues.

Financial stress. Loveless marriages. Sexless marriages. Second marriages. Unwanted kids. Wanted kids who end up being the repository of all the angst of the loveless marriage. Divorce. Stepchildren.

Open relationships. Closed relationships. Polyamory. Experimentation.

Sperm donation. Therapy. Also: Cancer. Disease. Accidents. Death.

Rebirth. Morning breath.

Oh, and one more: infidelity. Oh yes. Here is perhaps the most fascinating topic of all, the soul's dirty little secret, the hottest of love's hot buttons. Because maybe you used to look at adultery and say, "Oh my God, no way, it's just so wrong, horrible, hurtful, dangerous." Maybe it was even your absolute rule. Unassailable. You simply do not cheat. Do not wander. Not ever. No no no no no.

Except, yes. Except when you get to know someone - or perhaps multiple someones - and for whatever unexpected reason and unquantifiable mutation of love and body and life, it becomes actually understandable. Justifiable. Encouraged, even. Still painful, hurtful, dangerous? Yes. But if you're honest, your boundaries will shift. Your definitions will blur. And what's more, you realize that this is how it has to be.

Maybe it's simply a case of the more you learn the less you understand. Maybe it's all about the wisdom of aging.

Me, I like to think it's simply because, for the most part, we're still just one big gaggle of spiritual infants, still love's little quivering carry-on Chihuahua: trembling and jumpy and sweet and trying to work through the infinitely frustrating, cruelly painful, orgasmically delicious variants of how the human soul can get its love on.

And baby, from what I can tell right now, we've got one hell of a long way to go.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Living well is the best revenge.

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
About two weeks ago I watched as a new friend of mine debated his failure at a personal goal against a group of people. After listening to a bit of well-earned self-pity about what the other people might think of him, this timeless line popped into my head: "Living well is the best revenge."

Personally, I try not to hold too many grudges in my life. Whether or not I'm successful in that endeavor, I can thankfully say that nothing I do as a result of a grudge involves a feeling of vengeance towards any wrong doing I've perceived directed at me. Sure, life is not easy and I'd be the first person to admit that. Unfortunately, too often people seem beaten down or fired up by their perceived lack of fairness in this world. Too much time and energy is wasted essentially shouting at the heavens for clarity, a chance at redemption, or answers when there actually aren't any to be found. What it comes down to is, at some point if a person spends their time focused on whether life is fair or not, as well as the concepts of winning and losing, they are probably wasting their best years. I have known countless people like that and have avoided those types of people as much as possible for years.

What seems like my now healthy perspective on fairness and winning came at a personal price, for I too was once wrapped up in years of long nights spent wondering the "hows" and "whys" of the universe. Finally, by the grace of some unnameable supreme being, I woke up one morning and realized it just didn't matter.

I've never been one of those guys who sought the highest highs of success, getting off instead on the adrenaline of "the doing", "the making." I've often received more excitement over the attempt than the idea of some anticlimactic "win", which felt like a brick wall of emotional let down. I can vividly remember looking at the winner of a class competition as a child and thinking "and now what happens to him?" Nothing. Life went back to normal for him and all of us, so why did it matter if we strived for the top prize? Of course, I can't say I don't enjoy being the best at something, nor am I ever not trying my hardest at a given task, but I'm never really too disappointed when falling short of perfection. There is usually someone who is going to be better at something than you are, but why beat yourself up over it? Growing up, whether I won or lost at something my dad always asked me if I had tried my best. When I would answer "yes", he would breathe a sigh and say "well then, that's all that matters" and never bring it up again.

Maybe overall I'm just not a competitive person by nature. Winning to me isn't all it's cracked up to be, and neither is losing if you learn a great deal from it. I've also learned that there is no weakness is discussing failure. All strength gained from lessons learned is a victory if applied timely and appropriately. So let's all go out there and do our best, take a deep breath, maybe stop for a drink afterwards, and enjoy the valid attempt. Sometimes that's all you've got.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"Forgive and Forget"

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
The adage "forgive and forget" could not be more accurate; one cannot forgive someone without essentially forgetting much of the pain from the transgression being forgiven. I have always marveled at people who could "forgive and forget" for the adage in my family has always been "Forgive but never forget."

I've been mulling this over lately with members of my family, essentially calling our version of the phrase into question. Gifted with very good memories, we don't forget much. As is typical, the thing remembered, whether big or small, is logged in a wrinkle in our brains where it lays dormant, waiting for the moment of necessary recall to strike. However, does that mean that I am incapable of forgiving anyone?

I can let things go, get passed certain frustrations or pains, get on with my life and be happy, but that doesn't mean I have forgotten the disappointment in someone or the pain they've caused. Sure, it's easier to cut someone directly out of your life cold turkey, getting a rare embarrassing Christmas card from them once a year, the ones you throw away after reading perfunctorily. But that isn't forgiveness, that's ignoring them. You still feel the twinge of sadness or anger that the offense has left behind, you've just moved on. That is not what this whole forgiveness concept is about.

I hear people all the time who are good friends with ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, saying they have forgiven them for the cheating and lying, etc., that they hang out and have a great friendship. Perhaps I'm too old, set in my ways, or immature, but that makes no sense to me. Maybe they're lying, and at moments the same sting of hurt boils up, though now that they're "friends" they can't do much but ignore it. It all seems like they are deluding themselves. Maybe it's just easier to say you've forgiven the wrongdoer, to ease the other person's guilt and to end the discussion, at least temporarily. I have definitely seen those same people go through bouts of jealousy and rage for other "new offenses", emotions only heightened by the memory of the past let-downs. It's all so very confusing.

Either way, as I've stated above, I'm not good at forgiveness. Mention a past hurt and the ache of disappointment will swell once again, though thankfully not to the level of the original moment, but still. So, perhaps another adage is more correct: Time heals all wounds. Well, I don't think it heals, it just puts a lot of new memories in to fill the gaps and soften the shock and power of the bad ones.

Anyway, this is what I've been thinking about. So if you've done something wrong to me and I say I've forgiven you, I'm probably just trying to make you feel better. Sorry, I'm trying.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Philly Cheese Steak Experience

philadelphia philly cheese steaks,Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
As I've already mentioned several times on my flickr accounts, Kacie was a blast. The eighteen hours or less I spent in Philly was more enjoyable than the several days I spent in one or two other places on my cross country trip (not West Virginia). Along with the six different photo shoot set-ups we accomplished into the early morning, we also made time to stop and compare the different philly cheese steaks offered by Geno's and Pat's, one of my goals from the very start.

They are both legendary places, and being across the street from each other made it even more convenient to take samples of each and compare in real time. Of course, first we did a shoot with Geno's as a backdrop since it was the more colorful of the two, all the while getting cat calls from loud drunks which Kacie handled by yelling profanities back at them. Only after that did we get sandwiches and fries from each place, found ourselves a table amidst the drunks, including the Toronto Blue Jay and Phillies fans who had just gotten out of their game, and began our taste test.

Not only is Kacie a perfect model, but with getting her degree in photography that week I could trust someone else to document me for the first time on the trip, which she did wonderfully.
Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography,philadelphia philly cheese steaks
I cleansed my palette as best I could between bites while Kacie took a much less scientific approach. Famished, she would take a bite of a sandwich, definitively stating that it was the best, then after eating a french fry she would take a bite of the other sandwich, seriously and definitively stating that now that one in her hand was the best. This went on repeatedly until they were both gone. Pretty hilarious.
philadelphia philly cheese steaks,Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography

Towards the end of the meal the peace and fun of the moment was broken by a throng of yelling and cursing at a group of girls walking past by another group of girls seated behind me. "Get the fuck out of here, you fuckin' Jersey Sluts! Fuckin' Whores! Goddamn Jersey Bitches!" I turned around expecting to see some type of tough, street hardened gang members, only to find four of the most innocent, sweet looking South Philly girls texting away, smoking their cigarettes and eating their sandwiches. Kacie and I looked at each other with amusement, though I am sure I had more shock and confusion on my face than she did on her's.
philadelphia philly cheese steaks,Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
Though she is from another part of Pennsylvania, Kacie has the tough, shitty attitude that is quite at home in the tougher, more run down area that is South Philadelphia. Once the group of female roughnecks saw Kacie posing for more photos a few minutes later, they immediately became young girls again, talking about photography and modeling, asking for my business cards and wanting to pose for me. With all of them being 15 years old I let them down gently, saying they'd have to wait a while. They were very excited when I asked to take their group photo though. How could I leave without documenting them?

So the conclusion on "The Philly Cheese Steak Experience": for one, Pat's had better fries, hands down. For the sandwiches though it was far more complicated. After much deliberation I had to agree with what someone had told me earlier in the week, that Pat's has better tasting meat but Geno's has better rolls. Together they would be unstoppable, maybe they should team up...?

Quite the intense night. I was pretty worn out from the trip so far, highly satisfied with the photos I had taken that day and with the company I was presently keeping, and yet was fully aware of the daunting hours, days and weeks ahead. I couldn't help but breathe a heavy sigh of unnameable meaning while smiling the whole time. Only a month after returning did I realize that the sigh was equal parts exhaustion, amazement at the task I had undertaken and was accomplishing, and extreme joy.

By the next day I would be once again sleep deprived, taking photos in a stranger's house in New Jersey, and by the afternoon travel to New York City and beyond.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
"Beat-Up, Eight Second Exposure Lit by Cell Phone, 2007"

I long for sleep. Every morning, on my fifteen minute walk to work through the dirty side streets and vacant lots I desperately look forward to later that evening when I can crawl into bed. Just the idea of a warm, inviting bed and a crisp, cool pillow has a calming effect on my constantly tense neck and upper back. This satisfaction ironically never happens when nightfall actually does come, at least not lately.

The last few weeks my sleep schedule has been more erratic and confusing than ever before. I've never had the reputation for being the most fit and sound sleeper in the world, but lately I've begun to even worry myself. Going to bed at 9:30pm will cause me to wake up at 2am with an inability to go back to sleep. Other nights, forcing my tired and restless self to stay up late, my 1am bedtime will only leave me tossing and turning hazily until the sun comes up. I've tried several different physiological experiments like drinking a fair amount of alcohol, working long hours with few breaks, and intense exercise. All of these were done in the hopes of wearing myself out to the point of exhaustion in the vain attempt to get eight quality hours of sleep. No dice.

I'm not one for making long term goals or plans, mainly because in an ever changing world they never work out the way you intend. But a year or even six months ago I could have made a rough sketch of a minor goal I was trying to attain or a basic frame work of what the next few weeks or months would hold for me. Not so any more. I honestly can not foresee what I will be doing next week or where I might be.

It seems since I've returned from my month long trip I've been in a daze. It would be nice to think I'm a smart enough guy to give a little rudimentary psychoanalysis to the situation and be able to personally figure out what this is all about. Am I actively or passively trying to figure out some complicated problem in my life? I don't think so. Am I worried about my abilities in some uncertain task or future development? No, not really. Is there someone I can't get out of my mind? Of course, but that hasn't changed for the last year or more. Given the answers to those questions, I am left searching elsewhere.

It's been said that most problems faced by modern man are internal. As a species we are used to working hard and dealing with intense adversity, eking out an existence watching for predators while trying to survive in harsh environments. With thousands of years of aggression and determination hardwired into our chemistry, who could blame us for finding it hard to adapt to a relatively calm and peaceful world of collared shirts, expressways and Netflix?

Personally, I've always functioned better in a challenging, frenzied environment where I questioned if I was going to be able to continue on. In that situation I know full well that I have every confidence in my ability to handle even the craziest of times and situations, and that in turn kept my body moving and my mind occupied. Often in the drudgery of my every day life, I now go out of my way to put things off until the last minute simply because the tasks I would have to perform would be too mundane otherwise. All of this directly stems from my month away. Sleep deprivation, mixed with hourly, daily, and weekly goals that were not only expected but proudly achieved, pushed me to an extreme, almost laughable level of exhaustion and accomplishment. It was an almost maddening state of constant flux and I loved it. Sure at times I wanted to quit, but whose brain wouldn't want to hit the pause button from time to time when faced with a life of perpetual motion?

When I got back, friends who wanted me to visit them a few hours away were afraid to ask, saying that I must be sick of driving. On the contrary, after driving over thirteen thousand miles in a month I was conditioned to the life of a trucker. The first several days back I found it hard to stay still, fearing I had someone waiting for me eight hours away whose time I might be wasting by sitting alone in my home. I miss meeting new people, seeing new environments, not knowing what was around the next bend. I miss the unknown.

My greatest fear is one that seems to be coming true, that there are no more challenges left here for me at home, or at least none that I find worth taking on. Even creatively I am dry. Aside from documenting my family or a few paid gigs for loyal clients, I've essentially stopped taking photos. The few shoots I've lined up with my reliable models I've cancelled days in advance because I just don't have the heart for repeating myself, even in the attempt to keep my skills sharp.

All of this is good, I suppose. In the life of an artist, it's been said that one needs a period to create and a period to live life and recharge one's batteries. It's an ebb and flow, a yin and yang, a delicate dance in which one can easily lose the beat. So how do all of these realizations help my sleep pattern? Hell if I know, but I'm doing my best to figure it out. At least I'm catching up on a lot of crappy late night television I've missed.

Friday, August 7, 2009


Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
Beware dear friends, that you may not fall victim to that most wretched and vile of body parts, the Great North American Female Nipple. Even the most meager mention of those words sends a shiver down the straight, moral spines and bulging trousers of those most important lawmakers and purveyors of all that is righteous and pure, those protectors of our society at large and our individual souls in total!

Take warning children! Gaze not upon its warm and swollen eroticism! For even the briefest of glimpses will render the instantly corrupted viewer with surely nothing short of an unquenchable lust and moral laxity! The power of it in its engorged, aroused state has wrecked countless ships on rocky shores and sent otherwise good and decent men out into the cold night bellowing indecipherable nonsense up to the unforgiving heavens!

At all times should those disgusting protuberances of condensed sex be hidden beneath shirts and sweaters, as much cloth as the bearer of such burdens can withstand. They must be restrained and contained so as not to tempt the weak of heart and mind! Surely, no one, especially the poor female souls forced to ferry these delicious and provocative mammaries of misfortune, should ever be in danger of being forced to experience such a wicked display!

Not one of you lucky few who have yet to fall victim to this evil should even be given the choice to witness or not such a ruinous enterprise as the luxurious and sublime spectacle of those toggles of titillation. There is no hope left for us unlucky few, the initiated who have beheld one, if not a mouthwateringly matched pair, of these insipid swaths of demonic flesh. Our eyes would best be plucked out, though even the faint memory alone of the round, tanned dermis will surely guarantee our eternal damnation in the deepest corners of Hades!

The world needs constant diligence if we are to remain secure within our sanctity, safe out of reach from the terror that only exposed female flesh can create. Never shall supposed art forms, filthy and unsanctioned, ever be allowed to be shown to the masses for fear that millennia of culture and learning should be brought to it's knees by the mere hint of aureola!

May those who have the power, nay, the responsibility to censor and protect their fellow countrymen every tarry from their task, remaining earnest and true in this most holy and honored rite. Surely in most other parts of the world the aversion to this forbidden flesh is lessened only due to the fact that the power of the native born American teat is imbued with far more sexual intensity, therefore much more capable of bringing down society as a whole. Envy those fortuitous European reprobates, for they know not the dread and consternation of knowing that in every dark corner lurks those warm, sweet disks of destruction!

I pray each night that we have the strength and courage to hold steadfast to the core values that this nation was founded upon, to reject, destroy, and denigrate all that is shameful and ungodly: the naked, human form. May we all be so blessed as to survive in a loathsome world where these woeful bits of skin still exist. May God have mercy on us all!

(Author's Note: Forgive the frustrated rant, please. This diatribe was written after having the cleanest of my images become censored on multiple websites in a few short days and after having read "Fahrenheit 451" twice during the same time period.)

Friday, July 31, 2009

"What do you want for your birthday?"

("Coke Whore", Lawrence, KS 2009)

Thankfully, I am at a point in my life where if I really want something I can just go and buy it or easily save up and purchase it myself. The last few weeks people have kept asking me what I want for my birthday this coming weekend, a question that is tiresome before it leaves the person's mouth. Though I appreciate any and all intention people have in wanting to get me gifts, sadly 90% of the gifts I've gotten in my lifetime have been of entirely no use to me, not-applicable to me personally in any way, or confusing as to why someone would think of me when acquiring the item in the first place.

Admittedly I am a very difficult person to get gifts for. Unfortunately, my practical side tends to lend itself to a perception of rudeness. Truly, rather than wasting money on a gift that I am not going to like and never use, I would prefer a thoughtful hug, a chuck on the shoulder, and the knowledge that you were thinking of me. However, this response never goes over too well.

One or two friends of mine are pretty consistent with making me little cards or weird art packets filled with collaged notes and scraps of papers or books that they think I will like, which I always do, but they are the rarity. Wonderfully, the last few years I have been honored to get really thoughtful, hand made gifts that required complex packaging or FedEx drivers to deliver, which I must embarrassingly say was pretty surprising and magical. Again, these types of gifts are few and far between as I guess they should be.

(As a side note, I love surprises. The good kind, not the "surprise, I gave you herpes" kind.)

For as much as cash is always appreciated and can go a long way, the idea of people making things is a much more special gift than anything that can be purchased from some store. I personally go out of my way throughout the year to send handmade postcards of varying degrees of labor in them as well as other random fabricated, painted pieces of art. These go out only to those people I deem truly important in my world for no other reason than I was thinking about the individual and took a few moments to make whatever thing it is.

Still, even at moments of my most honest and selfish, when asked what I want for my birthday, I can't just say "a well thought out item that took you time and effort to create knowing I will appreciate it on multiple levels," though that really is the truth.

So I guess my official answer is nothing. Whatever you want to give me would be fine, but its the thought that counts. Thanks so much for asking, I really appreciate that. When is YOUR birthday? And what is your mailing address...?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Absurdity in America

Onikaa Celebrates America, Mofo!!! Grand Ledge, MI
(Grand Ledge, Michigan 2009)

People have accused me of not being able to live fully in the moment and usually they are right. Thankfully though this trait of mine to constantly feel like an outsider is perfectly suited for being a photographer and recorder of life. My dad always makes a big deal about documenting family events, recording the dates and times things happened, again instilling us with the motto to "Be observant".

One of the coolest things is that he used to turn a tape recorder on at large family gatherings in unknown spots, so now we have these great little snippets of audio tape where my cousins and I are talking as children, people are laughing and telling stories without censoring themselves, wives are yelling at husbands, grandparents cooking in the kitchen, etc. True windows into a life and time that is no more. I value such things as priceless.

All of these examples have led me to do what I do. Though it may get exhausting to constantly be documenting life, I am always thankful a week or a year later when I look back and can remember with fondness the experience more fully because of those images. Along with the photos I take, I also write down absurd, odd quotes I hear. In context they are funny or interesting, but with no description I think they might be even funnier. Here are a few I gathered from my trip with brief descriptions:

"If you're a girl from Colorado and can't pee in the woods you've got a problem."
-Model in the mountains outside of Denver during a bathroom break

"There's shit all over the place!" "Yeah, smells like money!"
-Two indians at a cattle round up on an indian reservation outside San Diego

"I don't remember what religion they are, but whatever it is, they're very THAT."
-A friend describing family members in Kansas

"Baby, I need some cootchie medicine."
-Model in Florida who got her period earlier than expected, talking to her boyfriend

"Great, just what I want to do, hang out with bells all day."
-Sarcastic teenager's comment after being told by his mom to stand by the Liberty Bell for a photo-op

"Keepin' it tiled, baby."
-Discussing whether "the carpet matched the drapes", a model in Philadelphia replied thusly to my "you probably have hardwood" comment

"Its blacker than the inside of a cow."
-West Virginia native describing the night

"You can't go wrong with a nine dollar bottle of wine."
-Drinking at a friend's house in Seattle

"My eyebrows are only partially on!"
-A Florida friend whose photo I wanted to take though it was a little too early in the morning

"You're as cool as a microwavable hot pocket."
-Neff's description of me at a bar in NYC

"I was on the floor barking with a pomeranian!"
-Waitress in Brewer, Maine describing the effects moonshine had on her years before

And my personal favorite...

"Enjoy it."
-Megan McIsaac's response when asked what she was going to do with the rest of her day

I'm sure there are more quotes spread randomly amongst my various notebooks, but these are the best ones available for now. There is a daunting amount of data for me to review, edit, filter, and disseminate from this trip. The last couple of days looking through it all has given me a chance to relive my time on the road in a much more relaxed, free way than when I originally experienced it. It has been a blast. More coming soon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A little analysis.

megan mcisaac,Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
(Self-portrait, I-5 outside Stockton, CA)

I've discovered a few things about myself from my thirty-three straight days traveling around North America. Many of them have to do with what I can handle, what I am willing to fight and strive for, what I am and am not willing to finally put up with, and the things I need to do to make myself consistently more content. Being away from my "real life" has given me a fresh perspective on a few universal truths regarding beauty, the insecurities and flakiness of others, and the inevitable measure of time.

I can foresee some of these personal conclusions being lauded by many and a few not being terribly liked by several others, though frankly I don't care about either reaction. I am clear-headed, focused, resolute, tired, and smiling. Though there are personality traits I will never fully conquer such as not being able to live fully in the moment or getting over my "home-body" comfort zone, in the last month I have squarely kicked those traits asses, though maybe only temporarily. It was grand.

I was reminded of things I love, made aware of things I hate tolerating, and was pleased to rediscover so many of my strengths that lay dormant in my daily life. Across forty states virtual strangers made me feel like a part of their family, as well as funny, intelligent, clever, desirable, reliable, and trustworthy. Feeling special is not something I have ever been comfortable with, but the last few weeks have been a constant reminder that others think I am. That was nice.

I also learned about my country and my fellow Americans. There really are no such things as "red" and "blue" states. There are only hard working Americans of various ethnic and economic classes that are trying to better themselves and the qualities of their lives, raise their kids well, pay their bills promptly, and get laid as often as possible. Thankfully, some Americans are still optimistic and hopeful. Many have dreams, and a few even have plans on how to achieve their dreams, though sadly those individuals are few and far between.

Most Americans think that their lives are nothing special, not all that terribly exciting. In many places across this country, citizens think there isn't much to do, that they would probably be better off somewhere else. We as a society are just not that satisfied. I'm not sure if the myth of the great and invincible America, where anyone and everyone should be able to succeed and thrive no matter how high the cards are stacked against them, is doing more harm than good. Life is not a Little League, not everyone gets to play their desired role or deserves a medal for showing up. Life is hard, and those with the most skill, talent, and work the hardest don't always get the awards. There is a sad lack of entitlement that so many of us cling to as a floatation device in the rough seas of the world and it is an illusion. Yet that doesn't mean we should stop chasing our goals, we should just be aware of what could or could not happen and be prepared for that.

Thankfully, I did get to see a wide variety of both positive and negative aspects of my fellow citizens. Witnessing a white couple in Kansas refuse to be seated next to a black mother and son left me speechless and terribly confused, while seeing countless acts of kindness by Good Samaritans on the roads, in restaurants, and in every state I visited filled me with hope.

I don't have any conclusions or helpful advice other than the phrase I have uttered before: Do your best and enjoy the moment. I have essentially been sleep-deprived and sore consistently for the last thirty three days, pushing myself, constantly on the move, living out of a bag, unsure of where I was going to lay my head the next night. That lifestyle is not for everyone, and at some point it wasn't my favorite thing either, but in the end it was well worth it.

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography,megan mcisaac
Here is the last photo taken of me on the trip, a portrait by one of my favorite photographers, Megan McIsaac, in Portland, Oregon after she modeled for me. I think it is an accurate description of the dualistic aspects of my personality as well as showing my exhaustion and readiness to go home. Now I am left with about twenty thousand images to sort through, as well as a month's worth of stories to record, edit, and regurgitate to family and friends. Thanks again, North America, it was great getting to see you again.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

American Strength

(or "What is it about Mexicans and Borders?")
American Strength

Here's another long tale of my trip...

Leaving the lovely and talented Katie West in Toronto around 8am, I headed off to Lansing, MI as fast as I could to meet up with a fun model named Leyna. While Neff was with me a few days previous, we had crossed the US/Canadian border in Maine/Nova Scotia with little to no hassle. Since we had gotten through even though Neff had forgotten his passport, I didn't expect much of a problem this time since I had all my important paperwork. To remain consistent with the previous twenty seven days I'd been traveling, I took photos of the "Welcome to Michigan" sign while driving across the bridge that eventually led to the official border guard post. After waiting in line for a while, when it was my turn the guard gave me a hand sign to stop where I was in line rather than advance like everyone else. After a few minutes of being confused, I was relieved when he finally waved me forward. I shouldn't have been.

When I pulled up, the officer looked far more stern and no-nonsense than the previous guards I had dealt with. The first things he asked were for my ID and if I had taken photos "coming in", to which I answered "no" because I thought he meant coming into the border post. He immediately put on that authoritative "gotcha" tone of voice, saying they had surveillance footage of me taking photos on the bridge and asked for my truck keys and for me to "stay put." While trying to remain calm and in good cheer, I complied without hesitation.

He walked behind my truck and got frustrated when he was unable to open the latches on my camper shell. I yelled out which key it was to unlock it, and after rummaging through my various suitcases and duffle bags, he came back to his kiosk, still with my passport and keys in hand, slammed the door closed and got on his walkie-talkie. I watched nervously as he mouthed heavily articulated words for several minutes before he wrote something down. He came out, handed me a slip of paper, along with my passport and keys, then directed me to pull off to the side for further inspection. My heart began pounding unsteadily.

My dad always says if you've got nothing to hide you should feel confident when questioned by the authorities. In this case that gave me very little comfort. I parked where directed, being greeted by three other agents, and was told to leave my phone and all my other belongings in the truck except for any identification papers. Inside I stood amongst several Canadians, East Indians and Germans talking in various languages, guessing that they were saying all the frustrating, nerve-racking things that were on my own mind. I finally looked down at the slip that had been handed to me. On it was written "Two points: Check out his story. Women's clothes in bags." Uh oh.

When called, I was greeted by a new investigating officer who looked younger than the last, about twenty five years old. His demeanor was slightly more relaxed and jovial than the previous agent's, the difference being the same between a glacier and an iceberg. He asked me several questions about where I had just come from, where I was going, where I had been, etc., often asking me the same questions over again in different order, obviously in hopes of tripping me up somehow. Unfortunately, it seems the more answers I gave, the more questions he had:

"Why are you driving across the country shooting models? Who are these women? Is this a hobby or a business? How could you take a month off of work? You work in a restaurant? I thought you just said you were a photographer? How can you afford this? How long were you in Canada? Why were you in Canada a few days ago and are now back? Why are you on the move every other day? Traveling alone? Who was with you?" And on and on. I remember jokingly telling him that even though my way of life might sound a bit weird to him, even some of my closest friends don't get it. No reaction. Uh oh again.

I was still fighting a cold that started last week, hadn't really slept well since then, and was feeling the strain of being gone so long from home these last few days. All of this only added to my confusion over exact dates and times on the road, which of course added to their disbelief of my story. I showed my business cards, offered to go grab my journal with polaroids from my fully documented trip and more. They reviewed my websites, then Neff's website, then our site, all in an attempt to catch me up on some lie. I was asked to sit down and then come back up to the counter to answer more questions about four times over the course of the hour, along with being asked to go out to my truck to retrieve my camera and any cash I had in the vehicle. When I went outside, supervised of course, I almost laughed at seeing the entire contents of the back of my truck being rifled through by two men wearing latex gloves. I can only image what they were thinking while sorting through the odd combination of clown noses, a straight jacket, various styles of panties and knee high socks, my dirty laundry and lighting equipment.

At some point I was informed that taking photos while on the bridge was illegal and that I had lied to the original border officer. By this time the original agent was inside helping process other "offenders", and when I tried to say I misunderstood what he had meant, things got even more tense. I said that I had assumed that I was being asked if I had taken photos of the border post itself, which immediately prompted the original guard two stalls down to lean back and say defiantly "NO! I SPECIFICALLY ASKED HIM if he had taken photos on the bridge, and HE SAID 'NO'!" Upon saying this he immediately returned to what he had been doing and didn't look back at me the rest of the morning. I started to feel a bead of sweat trickle down the back of my neck, which if seen by them would have confirmed any last doubt of my guilt.

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
My young inquisitor, obviously a military man, began shuffling through the business cards I had provided him, and when he got to my "American Justice" image, he looked at me quite frustrated. "You think its okay to put American flag hoods over the heads of half-naked women?" he asked angrily. I hesitated for a moment debating the repercussions of my possible answers, then I finally just said "Um...yeah." His silence and look of disdain told me I was treading on thin ice. We reviewed together the ten or so images on my camera that were taken on the bridge, mainly various wide and narrow shots of the Michigan sign with the scaffolding behind it. I offered and he commanded me to delete those images, but I refused to delete the whole CF card like he originally suggested. He said "You've heard of September 11th, right?", which I all but ignored. When I brought up that there were no signs saying it was illegal to take photos on the bridge, he ignored me right back.

At this point I had been there about forty-five minutes and could feel myself getting much more frustrated and vocal with this guy. My patience was dancing on that fine line between defending my rights and not sounding like a confrontational ass. In a moment of clarity I smiled to myself, remembering the blog I'd written wondering what kinds of authority figures I would have to have patience for on this trip before I left.

Finally, after sitting back down for another few minutes, he called me back up to his counter, saying that I was in fact guilty of lying to a border officer, which is a federal crime. He was giving me the benefit of the doubt because the rest of my far-fetched story checked out, handing me back my edited camera and passport. Lastly, he got out a slip of paper and wrote three words I was very happy to see: "Free to go." I handed the slip to the officer guarding the door, got in my truck and left.

I realize it is better to have our border be too secure than not enough, so I'm trying not to hold a grudge, and I'm not. That said, not only did they cost me an hour of my drive, but later in the afternoon I found that they had cracked the rim of my ring flash, a $500 studio light. Again, the flash is still functional and fine, so not that big of a deal. At least it is a great story to tell and I'm sure I will retell it for years to come, but from now on I will definitely be far more cautious when entering or leaving a border. Sheesh.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tall Tales of West Virginia

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
"Talking With His Hands" 2009

There are just so many great experiences that I could relay about this trip so far, I almost don't know where to begin. One of the truly great and probably most unexpected to many people would be my stop in West Virginia. I spent over three days there last week and am still trying to take it all in.

Mike Adkins, a photographer born and raised in Huntington, contacted me last year some time, one of the first people asking to be a stop along my cross country trip. He was hoping I could give a talk about my photography to his local camera club, of which he is president, as well as visit some of his favorite spots of the state, all of which sounded great to me. Little did I know just how great it would really be.

When I finally arrived late in the afternoon, Mike immediately made me feel at home with his extreme hospitality, openness, and excitement to have me there. While giving me a tour of the enormous house he had personally built from the ground up, he continued to reinforce his love of my work, repeatedly asking question after question. It was equal parts embarrassing and amazingly flattering. He has lived enough life for three lifetimes, is an entrepreneur, family man, jack of all trades, Vietnam Vet, and seems to have the respect of everyone he knows.

There are simply too many highlights of the time spent with Mike Adkins and his friends, so I will just touch on a few. First off was our lunch at Hillbilly Hot Dogs, a favorite lunch spot that has been featured on the Food Network and has it's very humble origins starting in a local dilapidated bus off a back highway. They specialize in food challenges, like this monstrosity called "The Home Wrecker", which if eaten in under twelve minutes gets the unlucky connoisseur a free "I Eat Home Wrecker" t-shirt. The dare devil in this case was a twenty-nine year old named Clint, though I had to have him pronounce it at least twice to understand what he meant when saying "Cleent". Just FYI, he ended up taking home about a four inch portion that he couldn't get down. I encouraged his friends to tease him mercilessly about it, of which they very willingly indulged me.

Next was the dinner and photo talk for the camera club. Most of the members are nature photographers from the Huntington area, so I was unsure of how my work was thought of. Originally Mike had assured me that there were a lot of fans of my work, but as the start of the party neared I got a sense that it was going to be a much more "guilty until proven innocent" type of situation. Everyone was of course polite and welcoming, but I did feel a bit of pressure since all they knew about me was my work. The sense of hesitation from them was palpable, and instinctually I found myself stepping up my wit, charm, and self-deprecating jokes to diffuse the situation. I was pleased to find that all the men there, like me, are Eagle Scouts, which immediately gave me a bit more credibility in their eyes. Then, my mentioning and showing pictures of my nieces, along with my continued referencing of my close family ties, helped my standing with most of the ladies. By the time we were done eating I felt confident that my work was finally being understood in the vein of irony and thoughtfulness that I intend, instead of just as pseudo-pornography. Thankfully though, there was a range of opinions present, from one woman I clearly could not convince that I was not a horribly despicable person, to a nice guy who thought I was the coolest dude around. I enjoy both types of opinions for various reasons.

The day after the party Mike took me up to the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains where he and his brother share a cabin with a few friends. Over the next two days we toured various natural wonders, from Black Water Falls, pictured above, to Seneca Rocks. At Dolly Sods, a lovely outcropping of rocks overlooking the entire Canaan Valley, we had quite the adventure fishing his GPS unit from out of a deep crevice as we balanced ourselves on the tenuous, jagged position. It sounds weird but the teamwork and ingenuity required in that hour or so was a whole lot of fun to me.

Lastly, what probably was the most fun of the entire time in West Virginia was also the simplest. After eating dinner in town, we drove back up to the cabin to hang out with his older brother. Roger is a fun loving, deep thinking, passionate and sincere guy, the kind that seem to be in increasingly short supply these days. He is pure West Virginia, likes to drink, smoke, and tell stories. When we showed up the cabin was pitch black due to a freak power-outage. Although I was really looking forward to a shower after the intense day we had survived, the electric pump from their well was obviously out of order as well and thus thwarted my desires. So, instead we opted for sitting out on the front deck. Mike and Roger made a fire, we drank whiskey and homemade cherry schnapps from a neighbor, ate junk food, and just shared hilarious, personal, and unbelievable stories from each of our lives. We talked politics, religion, sex, and food. I had mentioned several times that day just how exhausted I was from not only my two constant weeks of traveling but from all the exercise I'd gotten recently, and yet I didn't want the night to end. Finally, around 2AM or so as the fire died down, I excused myself and for the sixteenth night in a row fell asleep in a bed that was not my own. In the morning I felt refreshed, renewed for my next big adventure.

All of my friends and family have made jokes about West Virginia whenever I have mentioned it, the same "white trash/inbred/redneck" jokes that I'm sure everyone tells. Only when you go somewhere and truly experience the place and it's people, deciphering what is stereotype and what is not, can you really talk about it. I can honestly say that I will defend West Virginia and my new friends there from now on, knowing both it's limitations and it's grandeur. Thanks Mike.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Rude Traveler

"She drank WHAT?", DENVER, CO
I pulled into Salina, KS late this afternoon excited to finally be back in a city that I remembered so fondly from years ago. I stopped at the first affordable looking hotel I could find, not realizing it was the exact same one I had stayed at years ago until I drove around it later. As I walked into the lobby, I was immediately confronted by a wall of loud, vitriolic attitude.

A mother of three tween-agers, who looked about seventeen herself, was using the desk clerk's phone to scream at some faceless booking agent. She was making quite an embarrassing spectacle of herself, causing an awful scene in an otherwise empty hotel lobby. I felt bad for the two poor attendants behind the counter who tried desperately to appease her while trying not to roll their eyes in disgust.

Apparently, from what I gathered by the woman's blaring public declarations, she had booked a room at the hotel through some faceless agent only to discover upon her arrival that the pool was out of service. This was completely unacceptable to her, a total deal breaker, making her insist that she be comped a room, get a full refund from the agent, etc. Interestingly, her children stood quietly, conveying much more tact and patience than their mother could seem to muster.

Listening to all of this while getting my own room, I couldn't help but joke with the clerks, rolling my eyes and sharing knowing smiles with them. All the while, the woman was insisting on blowing things out of proportion, exaggerating how upset her kids were and how this one incident was ruining their entire vacation. I was reminded of just how many Americans act like this when traveling abroad, which just adds to the list of things that cause us to have a bad reputation in the world. Maybe I'm too easy-going, but Jesus Christ, a lack of a pool is not the end of the world. I'd hate to see how this woman handles a real crisis.

I finally got my key and was about to head up to my room when I turned around quickly in the doorway, making sure the upset woman could see me. Sounding completely sincere, I innocently turned to the clerk and asked loudly, "Is your pool open today? Y'know...never mind." As I walked out I heard the clerks begin to laugh out loud, the tension finally being broken.

The Endless Drive.

Inevitably there comes that wonderful time in a long, all night drive when I have to sleep, whether by reaching my destination or knowing I am too fatigued. The level of adrenaline that has allowed me to get to this point is usually too much to overcome so I will continuously roll over in a vain attempt to get comfortable. This can last a while.

At some point, whether in my own bed or reclining in the driver's seat of my little truck, I will always begin to laugh uncontrollably, hysterically. Maybe I am amused at the absurdity with which I have just pushed myself that day, driving for a dozen hours or more through the night. Perhaps its the silliness of why I am making the trip in the first place. Almost without exception though, this laughter ends as abruptly as it began, with the idea of my dad's voice saying "You did a good job, you've done enough."

It is at this point that I am consumed with the need to cry, illustrating the range of emotions that exhaustion can elicit. The desire for tears probably stems from what such a statement means to me in my relationship with my dad or perhaps some other deep seeded psychological reason. Either way, in that instance I've still as yet never shed a tear.

Oddly, it is at that unlikely moment that I finally, thankfully dose off, knowing I will awaken feeling more worn out than ever. I foresee this happening a lot on this month long trip.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"And walked off to look for America..."

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Santa Maria CA California Photography
Tomorrow I leave for over a month on a 10,000 mile driving extravaganza to the four corners of the continental U.S. (and parts of Canada). It is an adventure I have planned for almost a year now, though in truth it has been about fourteen years in the making.

This is the kind of trip that one can't be completely prepared for, and I like that. Who knows, any series of unlikely scenarios could befall me. Some of the ideas that have been floated by myself and others are:
a) getting arrested in the deep South in a drunken haze
b) finding God on some extended sleep deprived leg of the drive
c) fathering some illegitimate scion in an orgiastic free-for-all in Appalachia
d) being involved in a horrific fiery interstate pile-up or
e) simply changing my name and never returning
Only a few of those sound interesting enough for me to spend any amount of time pondering, but in truth I can't foresee even the opportunity for most of them to happen. Dang it.

It is impossible to fully describe the emotions I'm feeling about this grand undertaking. Sure, I'm excited and anxious, yet have also been far too busy with the concerns and responsibilities of the normal life I am leaving behind. Mostly though I am overcome with a feeling of total readiness. Not a readiness to leave, though there is a lot of that, but a sense that I can handle pretty much anything that might happen to me on this adventure, and I welcome it. For the next month I will be in a constant state of having to be everything I have ever been, a concept I have referenced often in these blogs and one which I thoroughly enjoy.

Examples of this include, but are not limited to:
-putting strangers at ease enough to pose for photos that must look and feel intimate while in strange, new environments
-be diplomatic with personality types in roles of authority that I would otherwise choose to steer clear from
-remain humble and gracious at my most pissy and flippant moments and
-be confident and professional while at my most weak and vulnerable state

Don't forget that I will be rushed under a traveling deadline when all I'll want to do is relax and quietly explore my new surroundings. Most importantly, however, I'll be forced to retain my focus and productivity under the most exhausting and uncomfortable circumstances. Yes, this is how I define a vacation.

When discussing the ramifications of what I may or may not learn about myself or anything else along this trip, a friend recently stated to my enjoyment, "If you come back the same person that you left, that's going to be a waste of a trip." I wholeheartedly agreed.

It is no surprise that I love a challenge, being pushed to my limits and forced to doubt myself and everything I am capable of, getting to a point where I'm wanting to quit, turn tail and slink home. I laugh at myself often. Maybe all this makes me an extreme weirdo, and I think it might, but I'm never satisfied with what I think I can handle. I constantly want to be made a believer again, have my faith reaffirmed in myself and my fellow countrymen, be shown something that I'm afraid to see and be forced not only to handle it, but to thrive.

I guess the only real way to comprehend the contradictory calm yet ready-to-pounce feelings that have overwhelmed me the last several days is through music. Do me a favor, take a second, close your eyes and nod your head knowingly to the almost seven minute version of Shiela E's "Love Bizarre", circa 1985. It has the necessary undercurrent of sexiness, excited positivity, and a consistent, unrelenting beat that makes you want to groove on to the next chapter of life. If that isn't your cup of tea, maybe a more apt track would be a more traditional one. Join me by putting on Simon and Garfunkel's classic "America".

Sit and listen to it on repeat as I plan on doing tomorrow afternoon for as long as you need to. Then, at some undetermined moment, I'll stand up, lock the door and leave my everyday world behind for destinations unknown, trying desperately not to look back.

Yeah, that's some good stuff. Will let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Measure of a Man

Milky, the Club Kid.
Any man worth his salt must evaluate his place in the world from time to time, taking stock of his established titles, skills, achievements, and goals not yet attained. I can't say I'm fully satisfied by where I am at in life, but I can say that the things I have seen, accomplishments under my belt, and stories I can tell from first hand accounts are all things I am pretty proud of. Though day to day our lives seem fairly straightforward and mundane, sometimes its necessary to total up our bill, make a tally of the high points, give ourselves a personal, final grade.

Like every one, I have been described by many differing names and adjectives, from hard-worker and talented artist to lazy, contrived asshole. Some have called me the best person they have ever met, others have dubbed me a cold, unfeeling bastard. I've been labeled a dear friend, a good son, an honest leader, a healthy eater, and most recently a racist "Jive Turkey". I have easily performed shows in front of thousands, sung my heart out in front of hundreds, stumbled drunkenly in front of dozens, and been loved by several.

To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, 'I don't care what's written about me so long as it isn't true.' Maybe it says something more about my personality than I'm aware, but I've never put much weight in anything people have said about me, whether positive or negative, because I have rarely agreed with any of it. To my constant surprise, countless people have congratulated me on my strong character and ability to "not care what others think" of me. To this I always strongly disagree.

More so than anyone I know, I care deeply about how I am viewed by others, it just depends on who is doing the viewing. I can stand up in front of just about anyone in the world, make a complete ass of myself, and continue on with my life without giving it a second thought. However, in many unseen moments known only to me, my opportunities and actions are undertaken with extreme forethought and caution. I'm all too aware that what I do in my private life and the ramifications of those actions will be seen at some point by those lucky few whose opinions of me I love and respect more than anything else. It is in those instances, more often than not, I decide to err on the side of temperance and restraint. This is not easy to do, especially repeatedly over most of the years of my life, and even more so in the last few years of almost constant temptation, but I silently do so.

To be fair, I haven't suffered a whole lot in this life. Grew up middle class, good education, loving family, doting parents, supportive infrastructure, responsible role models, strong work ethic, etc. I wouldn't change a thing. It seems to me though that growing up in this way almost makes one feel guilty for having it so good. I think this is why so often those are the types of kids who want to wear black, listen to Nine Inch Nails, get drunk and high, and hate their parents while searching for something to rebel against. I wasn't one of those kids.

Instead, I was artsy, sat alone in my room reading comic books, drawing, listening to R.E.M. and trying to figure out the meaning of life. Perhaps I have been looking, in a vain attempt, for a way to help those who haven't been as lucky as I. After almost thirty years of lonely nights longing for useless things and unnecessary people, all the searching led me to one final theory on how to live life, or at least a theory that works best for me:

"Work hard, do your best, enjoy what you can, as much as you can, and shut the fuck up."

Truly, it sounds simple, but oh, Lordy how it is not. Its taken a few special friends who have led by example to show me how to live happily day to day, and for this I owe them more than they can know. Yes, no one is perfect and we all have our tough times, but handling bad times with calm, grace, and a little bit of patience is pretty much all it takes to get to a level of peace and harmony in the universe.

So, what's my own self-imposed grade? I'm not sure. If this were a pass/fail course, I think I'd be squarely getting ready for the next step of prerequisites on my path to success, but frankly I don't think life is that easy. There is no black or white, only those constant, unfortunate shades of grey. I think I'll delay my grade pending further data.
Griffin the Golf God.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Will the Real Mark Velasquez please stand up..."

This is going to seem like more of a vain blog than normal.

For the most part, I am a pretty private person. I don't enjoy sharing too much about my inner thoughts or personal feelings, which might sound odd to those who are familiar with all my writings about my photography on sites like Flickr. Honestly though, for as much as I enjoy discussing my opinions on a variety of topics, you won't often get details about my personal life unless you are one of those lucky few who receive a handmade postcard from me in the mail every so often.

I was in the process of writing such a postcard tonight when I realized that I needed to do more. The topic I was writing was about my needing to be more open and forthcoming in my thoughts, to not be afraid of sharing them and owning them publicly.

One of the simplest ways to begin is by revealing my face which I'm definitely not a big fan of. Hell, it took the repeated suggestion of a good friend to force me to do so on my required MySpace account, though I still did so reluctantly. Maybe my hesitancy has to do with wanting to be somewhat mysterious and have my work be judged for what it is instead of who I am. Or it could simply be a basic feeling of self-consciousness and dissatisfaction with my appearance. Who is to say? Either way, when I do share images of myself, I feel the need to have fun with it or make my face only one part of the photo's focus. This is always intentional.

So, for those who have not seen them before, here you go, images of my countenance with a bit of commentary. First off, my love of clown noses. I've never found clowns to be funny nor particularly scary. I just like the noses. Here are a couple of pics I sent to a friend when they were having a bad day.
Next, I always try to take a shot with the models once each individual photo shoot is done.
Here is when I shot the terribly icon shattering photo about what Santa Claus does with the rest of his year.

Then of course my Raggedy Ann and Andy shot.
My now infamous Black KKK member. I remember I uncharacteristically wore black that day. Hmm.
And lastly, Nataly and I with her boyfriend Zach, from the band Portugal.The Man.
Did I mention that kids love me?

And did I further mention that I used to be adorably cute? What happened to that, eh?
This was back in 2005 covering the Michael Jackson Trial in my hometown of Santa Maria, CA. Man, I look funny with hair.

Also, my holiday cards have become quite legendary amongst my friends and family.
Christmas 2006

Christmas 2007

Easter 2008

Lastly, an image of my reality. This was taken by a fan from Britain named David Edmondson who had stopped by the Central Coast to meet me while on his way up to San Francisco and beyond. Photobucket
This is me at my most common, working at Tom's Take Out. Come by sometime and have a milkshake, I hear they're delicious.

Almost ready to go...

ca california,Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography("I-90/I-5 Interchange", Seattle, 2002)

Man oh man, almost a year of preparation has paid off! it is now less than two weeks before my whirlwind month-long cross country trip and I'm almost ready to go. I can feel the excitement and anticipation coming over me like a warm blanket. There's no denying it, I am smack-dab in the middle of "Vacation Mode"

I'm distracted at work, spending money without a care in the world for things that I both need and don't need, and have begun spoiling myself rotten with things I would never buy for myself at any other time. Its kinda great.

This is not to say that I've gotten careless, oh no. I am unavoidably intent on getting all my ducks in a row, saving up, paying my bills ahead of time, and making all the necessary preparations. All the important, mature junk that's been accomplished in the last several months allows me to be as foot loose and fancy free as I am feeling right now. I like to "earn" my reckless, carefree times with unabashed responsibility.

Just keeping you informed. Thanks!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The simple pleasures of life.

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
Its pretty difficult to get a Velasquez male to slow down, relax, and enjoy the simple things in life. Though I've gotten better at it than my brother and dad ever have, I still lack the instinctual response to take a second to myself, to appreciate the subtle moments and quiet times as much as I really should. Mostly, the small things I do appreciate are so unknown to even the closest of my friends and family that I've been wondering if anyone knows about them at all.

A perfect example of this is a new, fresh-out-of-the-box bar of soap. When the time is right, usually just an afterthought in my week, when the rotation time hits, its magical. In that brief few seconds it takes to have the hot water come down the shower pipe, I stand there with a new bar of soap in my hand, smelling the crisp scent, appreciating the jagged cast lines along it's circumference still left over from when it popped out of its mold. The upraised letters and logo are still sharp and defined, which will last only seconds before it is called into service and the erosion begins. Yet still, for that brief moment, it is a perfect little object in my possession.

On a tangential note, I'm not one of those "antibacterial soap" kind of guys, simply because it doesn't make sense to kill off ALL bacteria. Overuse of those products has been found to cause sensitive bacteria to evolve and become resistant to their antibacterial qualities. So many modern children's immune systems are being done a disservice by not being allowed to have exposure against bacteria so as to build up a very basic and important immunity. I have heard many health professionals be concerned about this, so I know I'm in good company, but I digress...

I guess the reason I like it so much is because it is as pure an object as you can get. It's sole purpose is to clean, to wash away the dirty, hard parts of your day and prepare you to start again from zero. It has no downside, it's only job is to help, and I adore that idea.

Sure, some environmentalists would argue that the bubbles are going down the drain, thus oozing into the oceans and killing off immeasurable Nemos and Dories. Okay, yes, our sanitation system like most human endeavors is not perfect, but again, slow down. Let's not detract from the utter power and inspiration we can gather from the common bar of soap.

Just another small insight into the way my goofy little mind works. Thanks for listening.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Not for the Faint of Heart

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
Woo-boy. This one's a long one.

The last month or so has been controlled by a busy, complex series of emotions in this little noggin of mine. I guess the same can be said for most people, but sadly all I can know for certain is what happens within me, which is what this whole blogging thing is supposed to be about, I guess. Though one would think my preoccupations would be easy to figure out, the least of these emotions are based on my month long trek across this great country of ours this coming June. That being said, making preparations to both put my "regular" life on hold for a month, and also planning to explore alien territory while relying on the kindness of virtual strangers, has been no easy task.

Suffice it to say, whenever I do seem to be busy getting ready for something big in my life, I will often actively seek out more projects and obligations to complicate my life further. Over the past few years I've met several people who also take on more projects the busier they are, so thankfully this doesn't make me feel like the complete mad man that it used to. So in the last few weeks, on top of the usually light work load at the Take Out and prepping for my travels, I've taken on a few unexpected photo shoots, gone on short weekend trips to Fresno and Los Angeles, started a six foot long commissioned painting that I said I would finish before I leave, and lastly, helped create the first official Tom's Take Out eating challenge.

The "Triple Quad Challenge", as my brother titled it, began simply enough. A couple of weeks ago a 6'3", 360lb. man named Brandon Howe came in and ordered one of our new quadruple patty cheeseburgers, bragging soon after woofing it down that he could easily consume three of them. Sensing a bit of a braggadocious nature about him, a quality I've never been too fond of in people including myself, I humorously said that if he could eat three, along with three large bags of french fries in under twenty five minutes, I'd buy it for him personally. If not however, not only would he have to deal with failing to meet his goal, he'd also have to pay the almost thirty dollars that the meal would cost. This caused an immediate reaction of excitement and inspiration from my brother and dad who began cheering him on. Within minutes we all figured out the terms of the official agreement and made preparations for the call from Mr. Howe telling us of the first Saturday he would be free. Once we got the nervous call this last Monday, the wheels began a-turnin'. For most of the week there seemed a pretty good chance he'd back out, so the passion for making concrete plans was definitely lacking. By Thursday however, with his coworkers excited and egging him on, we finally were convinced that he was going to show, and that's when the excitement, and pressure to host, finally began to heat up.

As usual, it was a family affair. I was of course in charge of designing the promotional posters and making several trips to the dollar store for decorations and props. My sister-in-law was in charge of getting the word out to the media, stealing moments at work to e-mail local radio stations and newspapers. My brother pitched the idea to every customer that came in, and even my dad provided a nice galvanized bucket, that I eventually spray-painted gold, in case of any last minute regurgitation on the part of our participant. Lastly, my mom provided all the necessary worry and concern for the lot of us, as usual. All of this took place while we also got ready for my nieces' third birthday party, which was the night before the eating challenge. As I said above, we like to complicate things.

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
So finally the day arrived. After another last minute series of visits to the store, the decorations were in place and the nervous anticipation set in. At 1pm the contestant showed up, wife and two young kids in tow, while about twenty five spectators awaited the unknown. Just as we had positioned him outside and dad was about to start cooking, a last minute Mexican customer named Joe said he was willing to have a shot at it, too. The more the merrier!

I cleared a spot for him at the table we had set up outside, had them both sign the liability release forms I had drawn up the day before, and with megaphone in hand, I incited the crowd to cheer them on. At 1:11pm, the first official Triple Quad Challenge began. Joe, standing up in some vain attempt to have a better digestive ability, began tearing into the meal, while Brandon, who had obviously much more time over the course of the week to mentally prepare for the struggle, began slowly and methodically chomping away. The crowd's reaction was a mix of excitement, disdain, nervousness, curiosity, and disgust. I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
My whole family was there, my mom watching the spectacle with a sincere smile on her face as my nieces ran around, corralled by my sister-in-law and our friends. I was the ring master of the events while my dad, brother, and his god-daughter took care of actually keeping the place operating as the affair took place. Ten minutes in, the zeal with which the participants had started the challenge had quickly changed to a nervous, obvious concern, as they both handed each other napkins and each had a look in their eyes that can only be described as "Dear God, what have I gotten into?"

About that same time a reporter and a photographer from the Santa Maria Times showed up to cover the event. I answered all of their questions, giving a brief overview of the Take Out's history and the origin of the the day's activities, all while calling out time updates to the candidates. It should be no surprise to those who know me to say I was completely in my element. I love those kinds of situations, which definitely make me miss my old performance art days back in college, which I'm sure I'll mention here in a later installment. Soon after my little interview, I looked over to see Joe placing the golden bucket on the table, which I hoped wasn't a foreshadowing of nauseating moments to come.
Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography

With a little less than ten minutes to go, the first real signs of quitting had begun. Brandon began giving his wife little shakes of his head that he wasn't going to be able to finish. Joe was sitting with his eyes closed and his head down, silently giving a thumbs up whenever someone shouted out a call of concern. Five minutes to go, they were essentially done. Brandon had all but given up, yet Joe, God bless him, kept taking smaller and smaller bites of his second quadruple cheeseburger, placing a lonely fry in his mouth now and again.

By the time I blew the final whistle, with the crowd giving them one last round of applause, both contestants looked pretty haggard. All of the promises we had made to them if they had finished, like naming the burger after them, giving them free food for a month of Saturdays, etc., were thankfully null and void. They both were whipped and they knew it. All that was left was putting their money where their mouth was, literally.

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography

Yes, its a pretty silly thing to do, not only to participate in such an event, but just to have the challenge in the first place. I'm reminded of all of the spectacles and odd events that were popular during the Great Depression, keeping the struggling people occupied with any kind of entertainment possible to take their minds off of the realities of life. I sincerely doubt that things are that bad right now, but I also know that people are definitely looking for a distraction from their troubles. Maybe we helped a little bit in that department for a day.