I remember the first time I saw Michelle Pfeiffer in a movie. I thought she was the most ethereal, angelic creature ever to walk the planet. I wanted to look like her, with those delicate features and her extraordinary beauty. But I knew that was not possible. I don’t look anything like Michelle Pfeiffer. Not. One. Bit. But I still wished I could look like her. Maybe a little. Just because. I figured somehow my inner Michelle Pfeiffer would come out eventually. It was just hidden inside a face and body that looked nothing like her.
I’ve always wished I could be good at math. But I’m not. Not at all. Not in the slightest. I always have to ask one of my sons to help me figure out how much of a tip I should leave in a restaurant, or for the pizza guy when he delivers our Combo and BBQ Chicken Pizzas. It’s sad, really. I’m fifty one years old and I can’t calculate a fifteen percent tip for a pizza. I figure that’s why I was given smart kids, so they can do it for me. Until they leave to be on their own and then I will also be on my own, trying to calculate tips. Maybe deep in the recesses of my mind there is a mathematician waiting to be released. But I doubt it. I don’t think that is a wish I will ever be granted.
Then there are the things I wish for that actually come true. Like when I was in kindergarten and had a friend who could draw. Her name was Pam and she liked drawing cartoons. They were really good cartoons of worms and snails and stuff. I distinctly remember looking at one of her drawings and thinking, “I wish I could draw like that.”
Then one day in second grade my wish came true. During an art assignment I made a drawing of elephants and monkeys in a jungle. Why I chose that subject I don’t recall, but when I was finished, it was pretty darn good. I won an award for that drawing. The teacher praised me to the skies . I remembered that time in kindergarten when I wished I could draw like Pam. It startled me that my wish came true. From then on I was known as “the artist” in school. I got what I had wished for. I’ll never forget the realization that deep inside me was an artist that I did not know was there. It just needed to come out at the right time. When I was ready to see it.
I’ve always had a thing about black and white photographs. From the time I was a little kid, I always thought black and white images were deeply profound, almost other-worldly. I wanted to make black and white images like the Masters. When I was about ten or so, I took a photograph in a forest and when I showed that photograph to my mother, she said, “You have a gift. You are very good at composition.” That shocked me. She was so matter-of-fact about it, as though she already knew I had that ability, she could see it, but I didn’t know it was there. I couldn’t see it and I was intimidated by the Masters. I didn’t try because I didn’t really believe I could do it, even though I wished that I could.
As I got older I didn’t want to be a photographer. I simply wished I could make compelling photographs that were just a little bit different from the norm. Images that would make people feel and maybe see things differently. To think. But I resisted that urge to make photographs for decades until one day I was handed a Nikon and after five years of hard work I finally got my wish. I am not a Master by any stretch of the imagination, but I relish making my own brand of black and white images. It makes me happy and feeds my soul. I’m still astonished, though, that people like my quirky photos. I’m glad that they do and I hope that one day I, too, will be a Master. I’m working on that wish, but I try to not wish too hard for that to happen. I’m superstitious that way.
Wishes are funny things. Sometimes we want something so badly that it almost seems to push the wish away. As if we somehow send out a force field of “want” that becomes a wall that won’t allow it to be. Or maybe what we’re wishing for might not be the best thing in the long run, like desperately wanting to be asked out on a date by the good-looking, popular guy in high school. But he never notices you. Then a few years later you run into that same guy and he’s turned into a shallow, crude ass who lives in the past, in his “golden years” of high school. He never grew up. Then you realize how lucky you were to have dodged that bullet. Sometimes it’s for the best if your wish doesn’t come true.
On my last trip to Death Valley I went out on an excursion with my friend Amy. She said, “Why don’t I take you to Titus Canyon?” I’d never been to Titus Canyon. I was always afraid of the rough, rocky road you had to travel on to get there. The thought of getting a flat and being stranded out in the middle of nowhere alone was not high on my list.
So on a Saturday morning that had fluffy, white clouds in the sky, we set out for Titus Canyon. First we stopped in Rhyolite Ghost Town because I wanted to take some photos for a project I’m working on. While we ate lunch, we noticed that those fluffy, white clouds had turned ugly and dark. We could see streaks of rain coming down from the clouds in the valley below us. Then came the thunder and lightning.
“I want to get a picture of lightning!” I said, and placed my telephoto lens on her open car door. I waited. And waited. With each lightning strike I pressed the shutter, then looked at the LCD screen and saw no lightning.
“Come ON. I just want one picture of lightning. Can’t I get just one? PULEEEEZEEEE???? I want lightning. That would be way cool.”
Amy said, “I wish for rainbows. With all of this weather, there will be rainbows. I know it. I want rainbows.”
“I just want lightning. Come on, Universe, God, Allah, Whatever! I REALLY WANT A PICTURE OF LIGHTNING. NOW. Let’s GO!!”
A bolt of lightning would strike and I would press the shutter. Over and over again. But there was no lightning in my image. I began to feel like a loser. I wouldn’t get my wish for an image of lightning. Damn.
“I bet when you get back to your computer and you upload those photos, you will see that you got lightning. You already have it. You just can’t see it. Yet.”
I doubted her. But that’s just how Amy is. She knows stuff. She is calm, composed and deeply spiritual. I am not. Well, sometimes I am, but not when I want something badly. Then I get all “Type A” about it and stressed.
When the rain reached us, we gave up, got back into the car and headed to Titus Canyon, hoping the storm would not follow us. But it did.
All through Titus Canyon that thunderstorm was behind us, sometimes catching up and raining, always with lightning bolts that I could never quite catch with my Nikon.
Further down the canyon she stopped so I could get out and shoot rock formations.
“Rainbow!!! Rainbow!!!” I heard her scream. I looked behind me and saw a rainbow. Cool, I thought. She got her wish. But I had failed with the lightning.
“Go! We’ve got to go NOW!”
I ran back to the car and we continued on down the canyon in the pouring rain, realizing that being out in a thunderstorm in the desert, where flash floods take out people on a regular basis, wasn’t the best idea we had ever had. It was kind of exciting, though. I liked it.
But the best was yet to be. When we got down into Death Valley, that thunderstorm came up over the mountains and created the most incredible rainbow either of us had ever seen. It was like something straight out of Oz or a magnificent dream. A double rainbow with black clouds and lightning strikes behind it and rays of light coming up out of the ground that were like a fantasy. We got out of her car and shot photo after photo of those rainbows.
Amy’s wish ended up being much more than she ever thought it would be. It was like the heavens opened up and gave her a present. But I still did not have a photograph of lightning. Or so I thought. Afterwards we ate dinner in Furnace Creek where she helped me calculate the tip for the waitress because my inner mathematician had not yet come out of hiding. Then we drove back to Tecopa in the black of night, the desert illuminated by dozens of lightning strikes all around us.
“I know you got a photograph of lightning. You’ll see it when you upload your photos.” she said.
I got back to my hotel room and uploaded my photos, knowing there was no lightning. I ran them through Lightroom looking at what I had managed to shoot. And then I saw it. In one photo there was a slender, delicate bolt of lightning coming out of the clouds and anchored in the Earth. Subtle and ethereal. It was so pale and angelic I couldn’t see it on my camera, but it was there. I realized at that precise moment that sometimes our wishes are granted, but we just can’t see them. Yet.
Amy was right. What I wished for all along, I already had.
Then I remembered a luncheon I went to a few years ago where I was talking to a woman who suddenly stopped what she was saying, looked at me with a startled expression and said, “Do you know who you look like? Michelle Pfeiffer.”