Beyond Rangoon THEN…A Feather in Her Cap NOW

THEN: BEYOND RANGOON

APRIL 1989: Jeffrey and I have been together little more than four months when I get my first taste of what life is going to be like with him.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tianamen SquareFirst, if you’ll flash back with me briefly, you might remember that 1989 is a year of extraordinary change around the world—everything from China’s Democracy Movement to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Dalai Lama winning the Nobel Peace Prize to Gorbachev being elected Russia’s new president.

Another dramatic event taking place is that Aung San Suu Kyi is about to be voted Burma’s first democratically elected leader in nearly thirty years.

Jeffrey is in Bangkok finishing up an assignment for Newsweek when he receives a call from The Christian Science Monitor. “We have a project for you in Burma,” he hears.Those few words are all it takes before he agrees to the assignment.

Burma has been closed to the outside world for decades—at least to journalists—isolated by its brutal military dictatorship; Jeffrey knows this is an unusual opportunity.

At one time Burma had been the wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia and the largest exporter of rice, oil and teak. Its capital, Rangoon, often referred to as the “Queen of the East,” had been a vibrant metropolis brimming with a highly literate population. But a 1962 coup d’etat, followed by rampant corruption and the catastrophic economic plan, The Burmese Way to Socialism, turned this country upside down.

With Burma’s current economic bankruptcy and the UN’s label as one the least developed countries in the world, a tiny crack has been pried into this iron-fisted country, one just large enough to allow a handful of tourists to visit–along with their money. Jeffrey is one of them.

Abercrombie & Kent, one of the few tour companies operating in Burma, organizes a seven-day visit for Jeffrey, the maximum time allowed by the Burmese government. His itinerary will take him to Rangoon, Pagan and Mandalay, where his assignment is to capture the stark beauty of the country and the everyday life of people in this isolated land.

Photo of Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of a monk at Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of pilgrims praying in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of a watermelon vendor in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of vendors in Mandalay, BurmaPhoto of Pagan, BurmaPhoto of a monk at a temple in Pagan, Burma

Inside A & K’s air-conditioned Bangkok office, an employee, Ms. Too, hands Jeffrey his plane ticket, visa and itinerary. Then she says, “Mr. Aaronson, there’s just one thing: there’s been a terrible crackdown in Rangoon. Martial law has been imposed. The elections are coming up and Aung San Suu Kyi has been placed under house arrest by the junta to prevent an uprising. It’s not safe for you to go.”

The nervous employee, of course, is sharing this news so that Jeffrey will postpone his trip, but Jeffrey’s mind is working in the opposite direction.

“Is the airport still open in Rangoon?” he asks.

“They haven’t said otherwise.”

“Then I better get going.”

“Mr. Aaronson, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. No journalists are allowed.”

Jeffrey, not to be dissuaded, replies, “Who said anything about a journalist? Remember, I’m a tourist, going on vacation to visit the beautiful country of Burma.”

“If you must go, then please be careful,” Ms. Too says with pools of concern in her eyes…

Photo of matial law in Rangoon, Burma 1989

Read Part Two in my next post…Sorry, I don’t mean to leave you hanging, but even the uber condensed version of this complicated story is too long for one post. I hope you’ll check back to find out what happens. In many ways this improbable story epitomizes Jeffrey’s career, and also the beginning of our relationship.

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NOW: A FEATHER IN HER CAP

SEPTEMBER 2011: The events of 1989 were hugely memorable, but not be outdone, we also just experienced our own “big event” right here at our house last week. Our daughter, Olivia, got to have two feathers put in her hair.

I know, I know. It’s not exactly the kind of “big,” you might have imagined, but in the life of a 7-year old, it’s huge. Believe me.

photo of feather hair extensionsIf you’re trying to imagine what the heck I’m talking about, let me clue you in to the world of 2nd grade girls. The latest craze is having one or two…or several thin feather extensions threaded into your hair to add a splash of color and pizazz.

When our daughter first told me she wanted a feather like all the other girls, I have to admit I cringed. Really cringed.

I couldn’t imagine our sweet little bean with a Steven Tyler-like feather in her beautiful curly tresses.

Eventually though, because Jeffrey and I try not be ogres (well, at least most of the time), we told our daughter that if she really wanted a feather, we would let her get one if she worked hard at a challenging personal goal she was trying to achieve.

We set a date, marked it on the calendar, and gave her several tools and suggestions to help her reach her goal. Then we set her free to do it.

Somehow it reminded me of when I was training for my first New York City Marathon, and the calendar I had made charting out my 16-week training schedule. It seemed epic at the time, and I had no idea how I’d ever get through my first 10-mile run, let alone get to the finish line of a 26.2 mile race. But having a visual chart made all the difference. It was a constant reminder.

The same held true for Olivia. Like marathon training, many days were tough, but at the end of the day, after she worked her hardest and did what she need to do, she put a check mark on the calendar, and each time we could see her confidence grow.

Well, last Thursday her calendar was finally filled with check marks. She reached her goal.

I never imagined that a hair salon appointment could ever turn into a family celebration, but that is exactly what it was.

Photo of hair feather being put in girl's hairWe took Olivia to the salon immediately after school to pick out her feathers . She chose her favorite colors, pink and red, and the stylist quickly crimped them into her hair. All the while Jeffrey took pictures with his IPhone and I blinked back tears as I watched Olivia’s pride glowing in the mirror.

Photo of Steven TylerNowhere did I see visions of Steven Tyler. All I saw was a sweet little girl who had kicked some serious butt and had grown in multiple ways along the journey.

I clearly never would have chosen a feather for Olivia, but now I adore the look because it represents her hard work, determination, and her ability to overcome a daunting challenge.

The piece de resistance is that she got her feathers just in time for her 2nd grade school picture. Now she’ll always be able to look back at her photo, see those feathers and remember that she can do anything if she puts her mind to it.

Here’s to the feather in Olivia’s cap…I mean hair. This mama couldn’t be prouder (in case you couldn’t tell).

We all need “feathers” once in awhile. I’d love to know what motivates you to stay on track and reach your goals, especially when things get tough. Leave me a comment and share your feathery moments!

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Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Thailand

Each Thursday I will be posting one of Jeffrey’s photographs from around the world for people who have subscribed to my blog via email or RSS. It’s my way of saying, “Thank you for your support and interest in what I’m doing.” I hope you enjoy this image and the brief story behind it.

Photo of monks in front of a Richard Gere American Gigolo Poster in Bangkok

Behind the Scenes:  It’s 1982 and dense golden light bathes the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. Jeffrey is in the city photographing the 200th Anniversary of this vibrant and complicated capital. As he walks through the downtown area at dawn, he spots a large hand-painted movie poster about to be erected for American Gigolo.

The billboard, laying on its side, is a visual feast, and the perfect backdrop for creating an image that represents the often-unusual contrasts found in East meets West moments. Jeffrey composes his photograph then waits until two monks begging for morning alms walk into his frame, capturing their curiosity as they stand face-to-face with American heartthrob, Richard Gere.

Photo of Richard GereSquint and turn your head sideways and you can almost see Gere’s resemblance in this Asianized version. If not, you may need to squint a little more!

This photograph was created with a Nikon FE camera, a Nikon 24mm lens and Kodachrome 64 film.

It has been published several times, acquired by private collectors, and has even caught the attention of Richard Gere.

Look for my next regular THEN and NOW post on Tuesday! And as always, I’d love to hear from you. Leave your comments or questions and I’ll be sure to reply.

       Thanks for being a loyal follower!

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PS: More of Jeffrey’s Thailand images can be seen by clicking on this link: THAILAND.

10 Things You Learn When The Love of Your Life Is a Photojournalist

When I originally started writing my book, I had planned purely to chronicle Jeffrey’s adventures around the world and not include myself in any way. But then several of my fellow writers, for whom I have deep respect, started nudging me to reveal what our life was like from my perspective. So this is for you, my friends. I’m branching out from my THEN and NOW format just for you.

When you’re married to a photojournalist…

1)  You confirm that Timbuktu really is a town in the West African nation of Mali and not just a place your mother threatened to ship you off to if you “didn’t shape up” when you were a kid.

Photo of Mali

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, a couple hours southwest of Timbuktu

2)  You figure out how to fix things when they break, or more accurately, who to call when it happens, because inevitably it occurs when he’s boating down the Yangtze River or working in some remote village in Burma. Water heaters, computers, car batteries…you name it…they’ve all called it quits when he’s been gone.

Photo of Burma

Children making their way home after a day at the market in Burma

3)  You learn to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions on a flexible schedule. If the love of your life is in Papua New Guinea on your big day, you learn to pamper yourself anyway and enjoy it with aplomb…then celebrate it all over again once he’s back.

Photo of New Guiena

The Kambaramba stilt village on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea

4)  You stay in tune with what’s happening around the world. If your spouse is heading off to photograph Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in South Africa or Hong Kong’s handover to China, you try to learn as much as possible about the country’s history prior the event, then drink in the details of what it’s like when he’s there on the ground, experiencing history in the making.

Photo of Nelson Mandela's Inauguration

An exuberant supporter of Nelson Mandela shows his enthusiasm during Mandela's inauguration

5) You learn that if you go on an assignment with him, you are NOT going on vacation–even if it’s to Spain or Italy or Tasmania. You will be working your hiney off, getting up at the crack of dawn, chasing the light,carrying heavy equipment, zipping around from place to place, keeping track of all the film and captions, and barely remembering to eat. That’s what photographers do. Still, there’s nothing like it.

Photo of Becky and Jeffrey Aaronson getting on a plane

Jeffrey and I jumping on a plane in Denver. ©David Hiser

6) You learn to be patient with the airlines (well…mostly), even when they snatch precious moments of your time together with delays or mechanical issues. When your husband has flown well over a million miles though, and has been delivered home safely each time, you try to overlook the bad stuff and appreciate what they do. But you do learn to always call ahead before going to the airport to pick him up (even if you live across the street from the airport like we did for many years) because seven times out of ten, his flight will be delayed.

Photo of an airplane window

The view out the window at 38,000 ft. on an assignment we did together in Australia

7) You learn the art of converting a mind-numbing pile of Chinese taxi receipts from yuan to US dollars when billing clients, and you figure out ways to keep your sanity during tax season when wading through wadded up scraps of receipts that need to be converted from Moroccan dirham, Indian rupees or Bhutanese ngultrum.

Photo of a Chinese taxi receipt

A modern Chinese taxi receipt. Most of the ones I converted over the years were funky hand-written scraps that were barely legible.

8)    You learn that little things make a big difference to somebody who lives much of his life on the road. Tucking love notes into his suitcase or using special code words in faxes or emails, which are meaningful to him but leave the Chinese government guessing, helps you stay connected. Also stocking the fridge with all his favorite foods or organizing a massage when he gets home makes him dizzy with appreciation.

9)    You learn that distance really does make the heart grow fonder. Reunions after a month apart don’t get any more romantic.

Photo of an Aspen tree carved with LOVE

Aspen trees

10) Most importantly you learn to have a life of your own and not put it on hold until he gets back. You take advantage of solo time and fill it with all the activities and people you love. In fact, you learn to appreciate it so much that you feel sorry for all those couples who rarely have time apart.

These are but a few things that come to mind when I think about the gift of our relationship and our lifestyle. I’m sure it wouldn’t be for everyone, but for us, it has been a dream. Jeffrey often says, “I can’t believe people pay me to do this job,” and I say “I can’t believe I have the best of all worlds.”

I’d love to know what you think and welcome your questions or comments so I hope you’ll drop me a note in the “Leave a Reply” section below!

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Worlds Away THEN… Gratitude NOW

Photo of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, TibetTibetan pilgrim spinning prayer wheels in Lhasa, TibetTibetan Monk at the Jokhang Temple in LhasaTibetan Pilgrims at Tsurphu Monastery

Photos of Tibet: The Potala Palace in Lhasa, a pilgrim spinning prayer wheels in the Barkhor, a Buddhist monk at the Jokhang Temple, and pilgrims waiting to be blessed by the Karmapa at Tsurphu Monastery. All images ©Jeffrey Aaronson.

THEN: WORLDS AWAY (Part One)

August 1988: I don’t know my husband, Jeffrey Aaronson, yet. He’s photographing on the Roof of the World in Tibet. I’ve just graduated from college in Portland, Oregon, and when I’m not working at my job as a bookstore maven or sending out resumes trying to wrangle a real job in the fields for which I’ve just spent a bazillion dollars earning my degrees, I’m tossing back beers with friends, listening to U2 and training for my first Olympic-distance triathlon.

Jeffrey has called Aspen, Colorado home for the past decade, but spends most of the year traveling around the world, living his dream as a photojournalist. I don’t even know what my dream is yet for sure, but the restless pull of life has me aching for adventure. And the tug of my pen has me writing it all down in journals. Even though I would never call myself a writer at this moment, I do realize that I cannot not write; that I’m compelled to dance with words in some form or another, even if I’m just scribbling down musings for myself.

During that hot summer of 1988, Jeffrey’s and my worlds are so far apart—both literally and figuratively—it’s impossible to believe that they will ever collide. But then something so improbable happens, the only way to look at it is fate or kismet…or any of those other sappy words we hate to admit make our skin tingle…

  • Read Part Two in my next post from THEN. I promise I won’t leave you hanging each time—that’s way too annoying. If you’re interested though, stick with me and you’ll soon find out how this improbable couple met.

NOW: GRATITUDE

August 2011: I don’t know whether to be horrified or humored, but more than two decades later I’m still tossing back cocktails with friends, listening to U2 and training for triathlons.

Becky Green Aaronson at the Santa Barbara Triathlon

My biggest little fan after the 2010 Santa Barbara Triathlon

Well, at least in between being a wife and mom, a domestic goddess and a social coordinator for my family…and when I’m not being tortured by Justin Bieber as I taxi sweet Olivia back and forth to camp or play dates…or when I’m not trying to heal a nagging back injury which has left my running shoes in the closet for the last five months (but that’s a whole other story).

And then of course, there’s the writing. Though it has taken me much longer than I care to admit to finally jump into the world of writing professionally, here I am…at last…a writer…writing my book, The Art of an Improbable Life, as well as magazine articles, and now this blog.

Jeffrey Aaronson driving Mabel, his 1959 Rambler station wagon

Jeffrey and Mabel

Jeffrey has been on too many wild adventures to count, but has magically circled back where he started—immersed in an art project about Tibet, trying to use the power of his photography to make a difference in the world. That is when he’s not feeding lettuce to our daughter’s tadpoles or cooking a fine meal for his family or tinkering with Mabel, his 1959 Rambler station wagon.

So much has happened in the last twenty-odd years—from the life changing to the banal, from the heart wrenching to the absurd—I get vertigo every time I think about it.

But one thing for certain, Jeffrey and I know we are living the dream, and we don’t take it for granted. We are both filled with gratitude for all the things that have happened in our lives—from the extraordinary people we’ve met to the friends we’ve made, to the nutty and loving families we have supporting us on both sides, to the numerous improbable moments that have swirled into this life we call our own.

Even on days when my greatest challenge is picking up yet another pint-size pink clothing item off the floor or answering a mind-numbing mountain of questions, I know I’m lucky. Ridiculously lucky. It’s all about gratitude, and appreciating that the improbable has happened for a reason, even if that reason isn’t always clear.

Portrait of Jeffrey and Becky Aaronson

Improbable

Improbable: Unexpected. Not likely to happen. Events of rare coincidences. Hundred to one. Outside chance. Rare. Slim. Unimaginable. Fanciful. Incredible.

As Madame de Stael once said, “In matters of the heart, nothing is true except the improbable.” And nothing could be more accurate when describing my life or that of my husband’s…and even more so, the life we have created together.

As a young college graduate, it was an improbable moment that changed the trajectory of my life and sent me on a plane heading to Aspen, Colorado. And it was another improbable moment that dropped my husband, Jeffrey Aaronson, onto my doorstep and launched me into a career I never could have imagined. And yet another improbable moment that inspired Jeffrey to trade in his job as a biochemist and cancer research specialist to become a photojournalist.

Our worlds blissfully collided more than twenty years ago from this series of unlikely events, and soon after inspired us to begin working side-by-side in the field of photography. As an international photojournalist, Jeffrey traveled around the world on assignment for many of the nation’s top publications—everyone from Time, Newsweek and the National Geographic Society to Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The New York Times.

Time Magazine CoverNewsweek Magazine CoverNational Geographic Book CoverSmithsonian Magazine CoverGEO Magazine CoverNewsweek Magazine CoverTime Magazine CoverNewsweek Magazine CoverTime Magazine CoverTime Magazine Cover

While Jeffrey was off gallivanting around the globe on assignments, I ran our busy stock photo agency, Still Media (formerly named Network Aspen before relocating from Aspen to Santa Barbara). As Director of the agency, I focused on all the marketing, sales and promotion, and also oversaw the staff and coordinated assignments. On a few occasions I also managed to jump on planes with Jeffrey, learning first-hand the challenges involved in not only getting an assignment done, but getting it done well, and on time.

Photo of Jeffrey Aaronson taking picturesPassport scan

During those two decades, Jeffrey flew over a million miles crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of photographic stories. His passports (all four of them) quickly became colorful art pieces, with stamps from every corner of the world. From the shores of the Pacific to the high peaks of the Himalayas to the heart of the Sahara Desert—he pursued Komodo Dragons in Indonesia, boated down the Yangtze River in China, outmaneuvered the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and ventured into some of the most remote regions of the world. He also photographed everything from China’s Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square to Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in South Africa to life behind North Korea’s Iron Curtain.

Photo of Moroccan woman in a burkaSouth African woman with new flagPhoto of Japanese woman in Kimono, TokyoPhoto of Kim Il Sung statue in North KoreaPhoto of Evzones in Athens, GreecePhoto of Buddhist monk in Lhasa, TibetPhoto of boy with AK-47 in CambodiaPhoto of Muslims praying in VietnamPhoto of Moscow, RussiaPhoto of the American SouthwestPhoto of Rice Paddies in Sichuan, China

We shared both an exhilarating and exhausting life—one that was not only fast-paced and unpredictable, but also deeply gratifying. We breathed news, cultures and world events and felt the pulse of the media through the many talented editors we worked with on a daily basis.

Even though it wasn’t unusual for Jeffrey to be on the road for weeks, if not months, at a time. we still managed to live a completely normal, deeply romantic, and rich life together. Well, normal, I suppose if you consider it normal for a wife to count her lucky stars that her husband wasn’t arrested or killed by an oppressive regime. Or that the airplane he was flying on didn’t go down during a hell-on-earth thunderstorm in the Himalayas, or the duct tape on the antiquated Russian helicopter in Cambodia didn’t fall apart in mid-air. Or simply that he didn’t contract malaria or dysentery while working in one of the many hot spots of the world like Africa or East Timor. Or if you consider it normal to master the fine art of suitcase-packing and airport departure routines, or learning how to speak to each other in code when communicating via phone, fax or email in countries in which it wasn’t safe to talk openly.

Portrait of Jeffrey and Becky AaronsonThis blog, The Art of an Improbable Life, is meant to be a head-spinning look back at the simply complicated, fortuitous, improbable life Jeffrey and I have shared  in the world of art, photography, writing, and more recently, parenthood. On many levels it’s a love letter to my husband, a celebration in words and pictures of all the extraordinary moments we’ve experienced together, and those he’s captured through his lens as a photographer; and all the stories he’s planted deep in my heart after coming home from assignments in far-flung locations.

My blog will contain moments from THEN that are worth re-telling—particularly some of the improbable moments that helped Jeffrey create several of his most important photographs—and moments unfolding NOW in the lives of two creative types trying to chisel out time to write, create contemporary fine art photo projects, and raise a young child with the same amount of love and tenderness they’ve always given each other and their work.

Thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you enjoy the adventure as we travel to foreign lands and navigate through exotic cultures and historic world events. I also hope you’ll join in the conversation by posting your comments, questions or thoughts.

–Becky