I want to tell you about my camping trip in Yosemite during the thanksgiving break.
Let me describe the experience to you: we first had a lovely family potluck at my uncle’s home. Lots of good food, laughs, and hugs.
For the camping trip, it was just me, my mom, Cindy, and my younger sister Anna. Me, my mom and my sister all love the outdoors— yet Cindy has never camped with us.
So we saw this as a good time to have some family time. We borrowed my cousin’s all-wheel drive SUV, loaded up the car with tents, warm clothes, tons of meat (10 pounds of Korean BBQ marinated meat, and 5 pounds of pork belly, lovingly prepared by my mom). We then embarked on a small little journey.
I drove the 3-hour drive to Yosemite— it was a lovely drive. We used the time in the car to reminisce about some of our nice times together (how my mom, Cindy’s mom, me, and Cindy traveled through Portugal this summer together), and also how much we loved nature. Funny enough— all the nice memories I have growing up is when my family had nice experiences together— in the last 4 years my family camping trips have been the most memorable (especially in the cold of winter, when you suffer a little bit together, and are brought together closer by the warmth of the campfire and delicious meat).
Cindy was my co-pilot in front of the car, constantly feeding me dark chocolate (85%) and coffee (my mom made a nice pour-over with the Hario Beehive dripper in the morning). We also took Anna’s dog (Jazz— which looks like a ‘tiger dog’).
Once we got out of the city (we spent the night at my mom’s house in San Jose)— the scenery started to change. The air became more crisp, the sky turned bluer, the temperature got chillier, and we saw more trees.
Once we really started to get close to Yosemite, my breath was taken away from the beautiful views. I could understand how Ansel Adams fell in love with the place— you feel so small in comparison to the beauties of nature. Huge rock cliffs (El Captain— except a lot more beautiful in real life than my laptop wallpaper), half-dome peeking over the mountain, and majestic waterfalls.
Seeing all of this nature made me feel small— and made me realize how small, insignificant all my problems in life are. At the end of the day, nature has been around for millennia— and will still exist. When I die and return to the earth, life goes on.
We arrived at our campsite, unloaded the car, and had fun putting together our tents (although they were summer tents, we wore lots of warm clothes at night).
All of our time was spent simply— we prepared a nice fire (I put my Boy Scouts skills to use), chatted around the fire, grilled some delicious meat (over a wood fire, made the meat nice and smoky— the meat was literally falling off the bones). We were engaged— none of us had our devices turned on. We were fully-present in the hours of conversations we had. I took no watch, nobody knew what time it was. In the mornings we woke up when we were awake, and at night we went to sleep when it was dark and we were tired.
The temperature was pretty good too— maybe 30’s during the day, and around 0-10 degrees at night. Cold enough that you suffer a little bit to make it exciting like an adventure— but not cold enough to die of frostbite or hypothermia.
My biggest takeaway from the trip was this: we only need 3 things in life to truly be happy:
- Warmth (or freedom from the cold)
- Food (preferably nice fatty meat cooked over a fire with wood)
- Love (from family, friends, and close ones)
Everything else is superfluous.
I know that I complain a lot— a lot of me writing on this blog is me whining (writing for me is self-therapy). So I apologize in advance for always sounding like a broken record talking about my “first world problems.”
I’m currently back in Berkeley, and I woke up at 6:30am naturally, took an icy-cold shower, had a shot of espresso, and read a book on the philosopher Epicurus and the “Art of Happiness.”
According to the ancient philosopher Epicurus — happiness isn’t having pleasure in your life. Rather, happiness is about being content with what you have, and subtracting from your life (worry, stress, anxiety).
After finishing that book, I moved onto another (paperback) book: “The Cynic Philosophers from Diogenes to Julian” (Penguin Classic). The school of “Cynicism” inspired a lot of the early Christian monks who lived an ascetic life (especially the Franciscan monks).
Their school was more or less founded by a philosopher named Diogenes— and to him happiness was “simple contentment.” There is a story (probably not true) of Alexander the Great meeting him on the streets while Diogenes was basking in the sun. Alexander laughs at Diogenes and calls him a fool— for living like a hobo (Cynic philosophers only wore 1 dirty cloak, didn’t wear shoes, would beg for food, and essentially lived like wild dogs). Alexander then says something like, “Diogenes— I pity you. How about this, I will give you anything in life you want, because I am so rich and powerful.” Diogenes (being a joker) says, “Sorry— can you get out of the way? You are blocking my sun.”
Alexander isn’t amused. He then brags about how rich and powerful he is— and how he conquered the world. Diogenes then tells Alexander: “Alexander, I have one thing you can never have.” Alexander than says, “What are you talking about? I own the world— from Asia to Europe.” Diogenes responds: “Enough” and then closes his eyes and continues to bask in the sun.
Life is simple, and “simple contentment” is probably the quickest shortcut to happiness. Not buying that new car, that bigger house, getting that raise at your job, or getting that new fancy camera.
Happiness is looking at all the stuff you have, the loved ones in your life, and your lifestyle and saying, “Thank you God for all the blessings you have given me— this is more than enough. I am happy. Thank you.”
Even if you’re not religious (I am a pretty bad Catholic)— simple contentment doesn’t need to be religious/spiritual/woo-woo or whatever. Simple contentment is simply to have peace of mind, to not want anything else, and to be satisfied.
Material things and money are funny things. No matter how much we have, we can never have enough. The ancients knew this— even if you had a house with gilded gold ceilings, ivory tables, masses of slaves, the fanciest horses— you always goaded after more.
The Cynic/Stoic philosophers say: “Nature’s needs are limited, unnatural desires (desires constructed by men) are unlimited.”
For example, our bellies can only hold so much food. What is the purpose of food? Not to be a foodie and to check-into Yelp and Instagram your cappuccinos, but to nourish your body and not starve to death. With food (no matter how fat you are)— there is a certain point in which no more food fits into our stomach. There is actually a point where we are “full” or satisfied with our food.
However with money, we are never satisfied. Why not? We can keep accumulating those 0’s in our bank accounts, without it physically weighing us down.
However imagine if money were just given to you in golden bricks. If you were a millionaire, imagine how much of a pain in the ass it would be to travel with all those gold bricks with you, and the paranoia and anxiety it would cause (people might steal from you). This is kind of like how driving a luxury car (brand-new BMW) in a shady neighborhood (with hipster coffee shops) can cause paranoia— someone might break into your car (happened to me), steal your car, or scratch/dent your car. Or kind of like how the downside of owning an expensive camera (Leica) is that you are paranoid about walking through the streets (or travel abroad) with $10,000 worth of equipment— and worry that someone will steal your camera.
And with modern homes, we are blessed (and cursed) with having bigger closets (to store more physical things), and now with this monstrosity of the multi-billion-dollar industry of “Storage” — we have unlimited space to store all of our shit.
The most humbling thing in terms for me is to travel, especially for long periods of time (3+ months). Why? You can’t take all your shit with you. Well, you can— but it is miserable. Have you ever tried traveling with a huge suitcase with all of your shit— and how much of a pain in the ass it was to check it in (wait in that long line), worry about your luggage being overweight (extra baggage fees), and then having to lug it to your hotel room?
When I travel, I try to stay as light as physically possible. At the moment, all I do is travel with a backpack (ThinkTank Perception 15, God I love this backpack— and yes, I did buy it with my own money), a laptop, smartphone, chargers, one camera/one lens, and just 1 extra pair of clothes (ExOfficio Boxer Briefs, Uniqlo Airism V-Neck shirt, Drymax quick-dry socks).
I have to admit— trying to travel and be a “minimalist” is also kind of a douchey trendy thing— where you look down on those “fools” who travel with a lot of shit. But this is another form of elitism (Eric— you need to stop being so judgmental). Besides trying to look cool, I try to be a minimalist when traveling because it is simply a lot less stressful.
I used to travel with tons of electronics (laptop, iPad, smartphone, e-reader) and shit— it was a pain in the ass charging all that crap every night. And when I’m stuck on a plane, I’m jumping from one device to the next. Not only that, but the night before my 15+ flight to Australia or Manila, I’m furiously downloading games on my iPad because I have a fear of being bored on a flight.
But all that stuff stressed me out and weighed me down. Now I prefer to travel with either one e-reader (Kindle Paperwhite) or better yet— one or two light paperback books (as much as I love hardcover books, damn they are just too big and bulky).
All my clothes are black— kind of like a “uniform” like Steve Jobs— it just means less stress (and if you spill coffee on yourself, nobody notices).
When I am traveling— I am content. I realize I don’t need much in life to be happy— some basic food, coffee (okay I am a slave to caffeine, but fortunately coffee is easy to get anywhere), and some good company with friends. And a wifi connection (accessible even at a $2 Pho restaurant in Saigon).
My days are simple. I wake up, drink coffee, do a little reading, do a little bit of writing, walk around and take some photos, meet a friend for lunch, walk around some more (and read some more), have a nice relaxed dinner with Cindy, read some more in the evening, and then pass out at night (and go to sleep excited to drink coffee the next morning).
After a long journey, I come home and look at my closet full of all my clothes and “stuff.” I then wonder why I have all this superfluous baggage— and why I didn’t miss any of it when I was abroad.
I think the solution is to just purge everything— donate it all, give it all away, and better yet, have someone else do it (so I don’t become attached).
Simple contentment in photography:
- Appreciate the camera you already own (remember how excited you were when you first bought it, and all those reviews you read before you bought it?)
- Appreciate not living on Mars (seriously, watch ‘Interstellar’ and you will appreciate so much living on Earth with fellow human beings, or perhaps watch that one Tom Hanks movie where he gets stranded on a desert island and makes a volleyball his only friend)
- Having a digital camera (as much as I love film, I wouldn’t have ever learned photography without a digital camera. And how blessed we are— digital photography is essentially “free”— you can process all your photos and share them for free on social media. Photographers 100 years ago would have died to have this technology— just think of all the functions your smartphone has)
- Social media (I have a love/hate relationship with social media, but the benefit is that it connects us with anyone from around the world, and is a free place for you to publish and share your photos. Before social media, your chances of being exhibited in a gallery? Good luck.)
- Realizing your camera is 100x better than any camera that existed 50 years ago (the fastest lenses people had back then were f/3.5 and ISO 100— I might have the details wrong, but our modern cameras can shoot ISO 1600+)
- Having gift of vision (seriously, the most valuable gift)
- Having legs (even if you are in a wheelchair, you can still transport yourself, be mobile, and have the freedom to explore and make photos)
- Public transportation (one of the best places to shoot street photography is on a bus, subway, tram— one of the benefits of not driving in a car)
- Access to the best photos online (for free) — just go to magnumphotos.com and look at all the great portfolios of history (all of their photo books are available online for free too)
- Having a curiosity to make images (I think “creativity” is just having a combination of curiosity to make art. If you are interested in photography consider yourself blessed— I think about all the miserable accountants who have no passions/hobbies)
How to be Content
I don’t have the answers, as I’m not 100% content with my life— even though I have enough money to pay rent, enough to eat and not starve, enough coffee to keep me up at night, and a beautiful partner and loving family.
However I know what makes me discontent.
Here are things that make me discontent (the solution to be content is simple; simply do the opposite):
- Look at gear review websites, forums, blogs, and gear rumor sites (I then think the camera I own isn’t ‘good enough’)
- Hang out with people richer than me (their Leica Monochrom makes my camera look cheap)
- Eat lunch at my desk when I had a full-time job (instead of using that time to just walk around the block and make a few photos)
- Constantly checking social media (even now, my “average” amount of likes on Instagram is 500, if I get anything less than that— let’s say ‘only’ 300 likes— I feel disappointed)
- Going on Facebook (people only share the good things that happen in their lives, and you feel like your life is shitty by comparison. Solution: install “News Feed Eradicator” for Google Chrome)
- Read magazines (filled with advertisements trying to get you to buy shit— essentially don’t read any sort of media whether blog, newspaper, or watch television that has advertisements)
- Go into an Apple store (I suddenly want to buy a 27’’ iMac, iPad pro, 12’’ Macbook, Beats headphones, etc)
- Go to the mall (one of the hazards of living in Socal— you go into a mall to get a coffee, and then you suddenly leave buying crap you don’t need and $100 poorer)
- Go to hipster coffee shops (you suddenly want to buy $200 raw denim, buy $300+ ‘Filson’ bags, to be more ‘sophisticated’)
- Listen to the opinion of others (nobody knows you and well as you know yourself)
And friend— trust me, I am still not content in my life. But these are some few solutions that have (partially) helped me. I want to just provide some practical tips that can perhaps help you.
Go on a walk
Whenever I am in front of my laptop late at night, looking at the new Ford Mustang 5.0 GT, looking at the Subaru STI, at the Apple.com website, or whatever— I just go on a walk.
I then look at the trees, do a few chin-ups at the playground near my house, and then look at the sky— and appreciate the simple joy of being alive.
Just take photos
I am always dissatisfied with my camera whenever I am on my computer.
The solution: go out and actually take photos. I never feel dissatisfied with my camera when I am actually taking photos.
Another tip— don’t refer to your camera as “my camera”— but rather “the camera”— which makes it less personal, so you don’t become attached to your stuff.
Even with the Leica MP I shoot with— I try not to call it a “Leica”, but just a “film camera.”
You know if someone is a brand-whore (myself included) if they refer to their physical possessions by the brand name (for example, if your friend says “I can pick you up tonight in my BMW” instead of saying “I can pick you up tonight in my car”). Similarly— photographers who caption their photos and tell you what camera and lens they used. It is as silly as a cook adding a caption under the dish on the menu telling you what frying pan and pot they used to cook it with.
Lock away your camera
You don’t know what you appreciate until you lose it.
Have you ever lost a wallet, phone, or laptop— and then somehow you miraculously recovered it? Do you remember how euphoric you felt?
I try the same— to figure out whether I really like/need something— I lock it into a drawer and then wait until I have the urge to take it out.
For example, I locked away my iPad in my drawer (thought it was distracting). I then didn’t take it out for 5 weeks. Lesson? I don’t need it.
When I had a Ricoh GR (digital), I locked the Leica MP in my drawer. I didn’t miss it at all.
For my clothes, I put all of my old clothes I no longer wore in a gym bag. If I missed a certain shirt, I would take it out. If I forgot about it, it was superfluous— and I just ended up donating it to the Red Cross.
If you are like me and you feel like you are a slave to your stuff (instead of your stuff being your slave)— try to purge all of your physical possessions.
Give them away, sell them, whatever.
Purge everything— your laptop, smartphone, car, clothes, camera. Then start with a blank slate. What would you re-buy, and what you would you not re-buy?
I’ve been thinking about my camera a lot— the Leica MP. Do I use it because I really love film and prefer it over digital? Or do I use it because it is expensive and I have owned it for so long? Or I use it because it makes me look more “legit”?
Because to be frank; if I started photography all over again (today) — I wouldn’t buy another film Leica or 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH lens. I would just buy a Ricoh GR II, keep it in “P” mode, ISO 800-1600, center-point autofocus, and just take photos for fun. I wouldn’t deal with the hassle of film — especially the cost.
I’m still working through my “stuff” woes— will keep you updated with this in future posts.
The moment is the only thing you own
You don’t know if tomorrow you’re going to get hit by a drunk driver, whether you find out you have cancer, whether you have a heart attack, whether you get killed from a terrorist, or whether your plane disappears into the ocean.
Not to be sensationalist or scare you— but remember life is uncertain.
Live in the moment. Enjoy your life right now. Be appreciative of the camera you have right now. Appreciate your friends, family, and partner.
Nothing is perfect. Nothing will ever be perfect.
You can be a billionaire surrounded by all your Bently’s, Maseratis, BMW’s, Mercedes, Porsches, private jets— whatever, and still be miserable (comparing yourself to the guy who has 10 billion, while you only have 1 billion).
You can own 100 Leica’s and every single Leica lens known to man and be stressed out what camera/lens to shoot with today. I shot with the Leica 50mm f/.95 lens (costs about $13,000) and shit, it is so heavy, cumbersome, and impossible to focus.
You can be in Paris, and still be miserable (you can complain that the waiters are rude, that nobody wants to speak French with you, and that you are jet-lagged. Or even worse— you can be a coffee snob and say their espressos aren’t very good).
You can have a pornstar wife, and still be pissed off that other guys stare at her. Or she isn’t as “sexy” as she used to be.
You can have a million+ followers (Justin Bieber) and still be jealous of the other celebrity who has more followers/has sold more albums (Adele).
You can be president, and be frustrated that you can’t take a nap or go anywhere in public with your family and just enjoy a nice breakfast.
You can own the entire Prada store, and still envy all the supermodels with their hour-glass bodies and their alien-like heads.
You can be a Buddhist monk, and still be jealous of the other monk who is more “enlightened” and “minimalist” than you.
Shit— I just want to be happy.
And I am.
Everything is perfect right now, in this moment— the smell of freshly roasted coffee in the air (at Allegro at Whole Foods in Berkeley), I’m standing next to the love my life, listening to some Kendrick Lamar ‘How to Pimp a Butterfly’, typing “in the zone” on my laptop on iAWriter. I am invincible— I will never die in this moment.
So friend, don’t delay your happiness anymore. Be content with all the stuff you have and make art.
If you ever wanted to start that blog? Fuck it, go to wordpress.com and start one right now. Right now. No seriously— right now. And what to blog? Just upload your favorite 5 photos, and send a link to a photography-friend of yours.
If you wanted to have a photography book? Go to blurb.com and order the cheapest book full of your 20 favorite photos. Ship one to yourself, one to your mom, and one to a friend.
You want to have an exhibition? Put your favorite 5 photos on your smartphone, go to your local coffeeshop, ask to talk to the manager, and ask if they’d be interested in exhibiting your work on their walls (they pay nothing, you do all the printing on mpix.com and get all your cheap frames at IKEA). Why would they refuse you?
You want to travel? Before you go overseas, just drive to a part of town you don’t visit often, park your car, walk around and just take some photos. If you really really want to travel— go to kayak.com and find the cheapest ticket to somewhere you want to go. Just go for a weekend. Then book a place to crash at via Airbnb.com. Pack just 1 backpack (you’re only going to go for 2 days anyways), and enjoy yourself. Why delay your happiness?
You want to start becoming a professional photographer? Put up an advertisement on Craigslist.org and say you will shoot a wedding for $500 (I know this is really cheap, but everyone needs to start somewhere).
You want to be more “recognized” for your photography? Don’t seek to have more followers on social media— even having 1 follower who really likes your work is sufficient. Start that relationship by giving them constructive feedback/criticism on their work, and they will respond in kind.
You want a new camera? Fuck that, use the one you already own. Even a smartphone with photos processed on the “VSCO” app (I recommend the free “A3” preset) looks fantastic. And just share your photos on Instagram.
Sorry friend, I think I got a bit “ranty” there. But it comes from a place of love, I believe in you. I don’t want you to make excuses and hold back your creativity and potential.
Just do it. Right now.
Friday, 12:08pm, Dec 4, 2015.
What’s up for today
Cindy is cooking some delicious Pho (our apartment smells amazing). It is around 12pm, and I’ve already had 3-4 espressos (I’m tapped out from the caffeine). We’re going to grab some Indian food for lunch today in Berkeley (Groupon), maybe I’ll take a nap at home, do some more pushups, read a bit more — and try to seek more contentment in my life.
Free download: Photography 101
For a friend, I started writing a photography guide (for beginners). It is still in-progress; but if you have a friend or someone you know who is starting off in photography, you can send this to them: