3 Tips for Better iPhone Food Photography

Don’t you love a good slice of pizza?

If so, you’re not alone. Pizza appears to be the most photographed food on Instagram.

There was a time, before Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom shared the platform’s first photo (on July 16, 2010), when — believe it or not — we just ate food. We didn’t snap a picture and then share it to social media.

Now, 95 million Instagram posts are made every day. I don’t know how many of those are food posts, but if my stream and those of people I follow are any indication, food is a common topic.

Deciding to up my Insta photo game

I’m in a local Facebook “foodie” group. As our group grew and our common interests started becoming more apparent, our facilitator discussed the idea of a meetup where we could get some professional instruction on how to take better cellphone pictures of our food.

Enter the Tallahassee Foodies Cellphone Photography Meetup. The organizers secured a venue and an instructor (Emmy Award-winning Dave Barfield of Lonely Fox Photography) for the event, held on Sept. 5.

Better iPhone Food Photography
Photo credit: Tallahassee Foodies

Here are three takeaways I gained from the evening (plus a bonus, which is actually the most important point). I must share the caveat that it was a challenge to take notes, eat our food, take pictures, visit with all the fun people, drink tasty concoctions from the bar (optional, obviously!) and absorb all of Dave’s great information. Hopefully the pieces I did catch will help you if you’re trying to improve your cellphone food photography.

Room Lighting Matters

The light in the room can make a big difference in the appeal of your food picture, said Dave. He urged us to sit near a window when possible and take advantage of natural light, which is best for this type of photography.

On one issue (which I have, sadly, violated often with the “fail” that is to be expected) Dave was unequivocal. DON’T USE YOUR FLASH. There’s nothing good to come from trying to use your flash when photographing your food. I can attest!

We had a *ton* of fun with one of the pointers Dave gave us. I got more questions on this topic that I mentioned in my Instagram story than I did about anything else. A white napkin can be an effective device for improving your food photography.

Our fearless Tallahasee Foodies leader, Jennifer, captured the power of the white napkin better than I did (must have been when I was doing that cocktail thing): “If you have light on one side, and shadows on the other, you can use it to bounce light into the shadowy areas, or if you have too much direct light, you can use it to block/diffuse.”

Better iPhone Food Photography
Dave demonstrates the “power of the napkin” (although technically I think this is a piece of paper!)

Dave also pointed out that you can cover the phone’s flash with the white napkin and negate the flash’s detrimental effects, but I watched him do it and it’s not as easy as it sounds!


Dave described different ways to position your food and set the scene to make the image more compelling.

Thirds Photography’s rule of thirds at its most basic encourages photographers to use other options than positioning the subject right in the middle of the frame. The link I have shared has a good explanation.

3/4 view Dave described 3/4 view as “how you would see your food.” It covers holding the phone at an angle varying between 25 and 75 degrees in relation to the food, according to this article, which gives a great example of the difference between a camera held at 30 degrees and one held at 45 degrees, in addition to more information about why the angle matters.

Master view This involves holding the camera directly overhead (at a 90 degree angle). This is one I try often, because it does (sometimes) look more professional without needing much extra effort. I watched Dave coach a few people that evening, and I noticed that he pointed out the necessity of being at a true 90 degree angle. It’s an easy thing to not pay attention to in the midst of enjoying a meal with friends. There was also at least one hummus casualty in each class due to a dropped phone while going for this shot. Hold on to your phone!

Details Choosing to focus on standout details of your dish can create a great image, said Dave.

Context Try to capture something that identifies the establishment, recommended Dave (you’re going to want to tag them to give them some social media love, right?).

Burst mode Dave noted that burst mode can be effective for catching interesting images such flames at just the right moment.

Tap the screen where you want the focus to be This is one I was taught long ago. Obviously a simple tip, one many iPhone users know, but it bears repeating.

Better iPhone Food Photography
This is the sriracha carrot hummus, before (left) and after (right) trying some of the techniques Dave taught us. I cropped it, brightened it, added the vignette effect and removed some shadow.

Editing Tricks

Here are a few tips Dave gave regarding the editing process:

  • Avoid “weird diagonal lines”
  • Enhance the brightness
  • Reduce shadows
  • Warm tones are important
  • Always add a vignette to the corners, which darkens the corners slightly and brightens the center (here’s a good explanation)
  • Experiment with tilt-shift effects
  • Crop after editing
Better iPhone Food Photography
This is a ginger-braised short rib taco, before (left) and after (right) trying some of the techniques Dave taught us. It lent itself easily to the 3/4 rule. I cropped it, revised the shadows, added a warmer hue and added the vignette effect.
Better iPhone Food Photography
My classmate, Becca Lynne, deserves some major creativity points for using the brick wall behind us as a backdrop. She also did a great job of making the taco look more full of ingredients. It was great learning from each other.
Better iPhone Food Photography
This SoDough Banana Stand Pudding was easily the most difficult to photograph. I changed the brightness and shadows, added the vignette effect and experimented with the “tilt-shift.”

BONUS: Etiquette

Time for a small soapbox here (photograph it from whatever angle you prefer). I truly enjoyed the class and gained tips that I know I will use in the future.

However, as soon as I left Madison Social (the venue), I immediately felt hesitant to share photos of food on Instagram. “Oh crap what if it isn’t warm enough? (the photo tones, not the food!), What if I could have used the magic white napkin to make this picture more aesthetically pleasing?”

I found myself adding a caveat, especially within our Facebook group and with people who had been at the class with me. “Not edited/filtered, just a picture.”

The very first thing Dave covered was etiquette. Don’t stand on your chair to get the perfect master angle, he pleaded. Wait and edit your pictures after you eat. The chefs prepared the food carefully (usually at least!) and it is meant to be served at a certain temperature. Don’t let it get cold while you find the right angle.

As I said when I started this piece, my notes aren’t perfect. My pictures never will be. But I enjoyed good food with enjoyable people in an atmosphere that nourished my soul in a way that will last much longer than a few Instagram “likes.”

In fact, my favorite picture from the evening has terrible lighting, not a crumb of food and probably breaks many of the rules Dave tried to teach us. But what good is it if your picture is perfect if you’ve neglected picture perfect friends in the process?

Better iPhone Food Photography
My friend Paula O’Neill shared the adventure with me.

Thank you to Madison Social for hosting our meetup, to the organizer(s) and to Dave Barfield.

Five Minute Friday: TESTIMONY

Five Minute Friday Testimony


“I love the commitment to you just being who you are.”

The above quote is something American Idol host Randy Jackson said to contestant Haley Smith after her audition in 2012. She ended up “going to Hollywood.” Although she didn’t make the finals, getting to Hollywood was a big deal.

Haley did in a motorcycle accident recently. I ran across the story about her death (and her American Idol journey) when I went down one of the many rabbit holes I end up descending in my work as an editor for SmartBrief.

Many things about her story (her testimony, as it were) struck me. She was working three jobs at 18, one of them as a vegetarian in a meat-packing plant. I have always (it feels like) worked multiple jobs and had side gigs. I can so relate to the fear of not making it financially being something that propels a person to work, work, work.

Amid all that working, though, she had a spirit that she clearly didn’t waver from. Watch the original of the song she performed (Chaka Khan and Rufus’ singing Stevie Wonder’s “Tell Me Something Good), then watch Haley do it.



I thought back on the “scripts” I was taught as a young summer missionary for the Southern Baptist Church when I was 18. Although they were well-intentioned, I see things differently now.

It is in being truly myself, and living a life that demonstrates the things I used to try to explain in a rote script, that I best convey a message to the people around me about my values. Unfortunately, I have become sporadic in my church attendance, something I intend to rectify soon, but what hasn’t changed is my gratitude that I can be uniquely me. That’s a pretty divine gift. Randy was “on to something good.”

RIP, Haley.

Five Minute Friday Testimony

Welcome to this week’s Five Minute Friday. Our instructions, via creator Kate Motaung: “Write for five minutes on the word of the week. This is meant to be a free write, which means: no editing, no over-thinking, no worrying about perfect grammar or punctuation.” (But I can’t resist spell checking, as you can imagine.) 

Stories Worth Your Time: SmartBrief August 2019

“Busyness chokes deep thinking.” This quote, attributed to Todd Stocker, rings true to me. Our days don’t seem to afford much time for deep thinking, and that’s a loss for all of us. Do yourself a favor and think a bit more deeply about these stories I’ve curated from the SmartBrief newsletters I edited last month.

Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honorary

Hopefully, it is well-established among my readers that I am a passionate supporter of literacy, reading and all things book-related. This article in the Sigma Xi newsletter touched on one of the reasons why. Titled “Science fiction as a potent policy tool,” the article talks about the role of popular fiction in shaping policy.

Scientists should focus less on the possibility that citing fiction works will weaken the power of accurate facts and more on the way doing so can educate and pique interest, says Lindy Orthia.

August 2019 SmartBrief wrapup

UN Wire

The United Nations wants to end child marriage by 2030. This article, shared in UN Wire on August 5, introduces a series called “The Worth of a Girl.” UNICEF says more than 12 million girls per year get married by 18, many of them without the girls’ consent. As the mother of a daughter, I grieve all those girls who don’t get a say in their future.

August 2019 SmartBrief wrapup

The rest of the series is available through this link.

Reserve Officers Association

The fact that the Circle of Heroes underwater dive memorial is free to visit (for people who can dive) isn’t the most important part of the story shared in the ROA newsletter on August 7. The most important part, of course, is the fact that it honors veterans. It also has the potential to help veterans with physical disabilities and mental health challenges by providing therapeutic diving opportunities.

I found the sentence about the “first-of-its-kind underwater dive memorial [being] free and open to the public – at least to people who can dive” amusing for some reason, even though it’s accurate.

Mainly, I admire the tenacity of the people who have supported this project and provided yet one more way to honor those who gave all.

August 2019 SmartBrief wrapup
An artist’s sketch of the underwater Circle of Heroes Veterans Memorial.
Photo Credit: Brighter Future Florida

National Association of Social Workers

Occasionally, there are little snippets of insight-via-wordsmithing that take my breath away among the many things I read when editing. In the August 9 NASW newsletter, we shared an article about times when challenges provide reminders of the need for self-care. This particular article discussed the author’s leg injury and the recovery period, which necessitated her reassessing her priorities and letting go of her fierce independence.

Sometimes the fall is the path, wrote Erlene Grise-Owens. It’s so true.

August 2019 SmartBrief wrapup

International City/County Management Association

The ICMA newsletter had a story last week that is one of my favorite types of stories in this brief (and in life). It was the fourth most clicked story last week, and the most clicked once I excluded the leadership items, which often rank highest since they appear first in the brief.

The town of Christiansburg, Va., wanted to honor a deceased fire chief by flying the American flag at half-staff. They went ahead and did that at the mayor’s direction, but while it was flying at half-staff, someone said “you can’t do that — it has to be by order of the president or the governor.” The city did raise the flag again, but the issue did not die.

They still asked the governor (who said “no” after the fact … and after the town manager asked three times). The mayor spent $247.50 on fees to get an official opinion from the city attorney (who concurred that the death has to have happened on duty to warrant the president or governor authorizing the half-staff honor). There was apparently a “string of emails” obtained by the Roanoke Times that chronicled the discussions.

The town manager said, “The governors make exceptions when they feel like it and they all seem to operate under the ignore the request model so that they do not have to tell you no — I had to contact them three times to get told no.”

While waiting for the governor, the mayor pursued the town attorney’s legal opinion.

The situation took many twists and turns. I can’t begin to calculate the staff time it theoretically took to work through it. At one point, the mayor said, ” There’s no insinuation I’m more powerful than the president or governor “

Eventually, they decided “Hey! Let’s buy our own city flag [cost: $224] and we can do what we want!”


I’m a little torn regarding which story to highlight for BoardSource. We run lots of stories every month that highlight incredible philanthropic efforts, such as this story about organizations that help people with disabilities through surfing programs. However, I think the BoardSource mission, “to inspire and support excellence in nonprofit governance and board and staff leadership,” calls on me as the editor of this newsletter to share strategies to make that mission a reality.

Perhaps that need for sound strategy is why “Resignation-request policies are a good practice for nonprofits” was the most-clicked story in August. The article looked at recent issues such as the board membership of Warren Kanders at the Whitney. Protests ensued because a company Kanders owns manufactures tear gas that was used at the US-Mexico border. Kanders eventually resigned.

“Probably right now, many boards don’t have a policy around [resignation-request policies], but prominent nonprofits are going to have to. If they don’t, they’re risking future funding or they’re risking public protests like the Whitney saw,” said Melissa Berman of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Resignation-request policies may not be glamorous nor do they inspire in the same way many stories we share each month do, but that type of topic is essential to good board management, and good board management makes the inspirational stories happen.

National Emergency Number Association

We shared a story in the NENA newsletter last week that covered a lot of ground in one article (making it really difficult to condense into two sentences). The article addressed an issue somewhat local to Phoenix (dispatchers’ efforts to get the City Council to increase funding so they can get additional staffing, systems and access to therapy resources).

In addition to talking about how Phoenix dispatchers are advocating for themselves, the article also discussed the 911 SAVES Act, which proposes reclassifying dispatchers from the federal “administrative support” designation to “protective service.” This would help them get more benefits, better training and more professional respect.

Speaking of the 911 SAVES Act, here’s my most recent Editor’s Desk video for SmartBrief. In the one-minute video, I explain the act and why it’s so important to dispatchers.

NOTE: I would appreciate shares of this video. The act has passed the House but not the Senate. While it is not my place to advocate, but rather to help NENA tell their story, this issue seems like such a no-brainer. We will all need 9-1-1 at some point (or a loved one will). (And big gratitude to Steve Harrelson and the Consolidated Dispatch Agency in Tallahassee, Fla., where I made the video. If only one the emergency of that one piece of unruly hair had been dealt with LOL.

It has been a year!

August 2019 SmartBrief wrapup

Technically, this comment should possibly wait until next month’s wrap-up, but it really seems relevant for August. I got a manicure in late August of last year that approximated SmartBrief blue as closely as possible. I did that because I had a video interview on August 29 and — although no one would see my hands — I wanted a bit of encouragement.

The nail color choice (and my answers during the interview) must have worked, because I received my offer of full-time employment a couple of days later on August 31.

Although I didn’t transition from my freelance status (which had begun in January 2017) to full-time until September 10, that sequence of events in August and especially the offer on August 31, has always felt like the true turning point. I learned so much throughout four years of freelance work, but I am at heart a person who does better on a team, and I am particularly grateful to be on this one.

Openings on the team

I invite you to peruse this list of openings. I wrote in more detail about my experience as a SmartBrief employee here, which may help answer any questions you have. As always, I’m happy to answer questions and provide more information about the process.

Here are the advertised open positions as of 9/9/19:

If you are interested in applying, please list me as your referrer or email me so we can discuss further.

To Recap

To subscribe to one (or more) SmartBrief newsletters, including the “end of the work day” While You Were Working, for which I am a contributing editor, click here.

If you aren’t in a subscribing mood, you can still keep up with us on FacebookSmartBrief TwitterLeadership SmartBrief TwitterLinkedIn and SmartBrief Instagram. (There’s also a SmartBrief feature at The Muse.)

SmartBrief is designed for people who are in a hurry (aren’t we all). Each of these stories in one way or another made me slow down and absorb them in a deeper way than editing the story technically required. Each one matters, and each was worth spending the extra time.

(I’m linking up this week with Kat Bouska’s blog, for the prompt “write a blog post that ends with the word “time.”)

*Note: My opinions about the stories are my personal viewpoint; they do not reflect an endorsement by my employer.

Retrospect: Pace didn’t matter that much after all

I used to have a goal of running a 10-minute mile (to achieve a sub-30 minute 5K, which to be precise would require running a faster-than-10-minute mile pace). I’ve lost count of how many times I wrote about that goal, but here’s an example from 2010.

I had to set running aside for health reasons. It took me quite a while to make peace with that, but I’m getting there.

In honor of this week’s Five Minute Friday prompt (pace), combined with the Mama Kat prompt “list 10 things you love about the state you live in,” here are 10 places in Florida where I have run. In retrospect, although I’m sad about not ever achieving my goal, being able to spend more time on the road/trail may have helped me appreciate those areas more. Except for Tallahassee, which I left for last, they are roughly organized from south to north.

Miami Beach

When I went to Miami Beach for the Miami International Auto Show in 2015, I met up with @Koifla, a Twitter friend, for a run. That was my first trip to Miami Beach (hopefully not my last), and he brought me coffee he had roasted/brewed himself. What a great memory — both the company and the views along the beach.

pace didn't matter that much

Marco Island

Our family used to go to Marco Island when Wayne had to go to Environmental Permitting Summer School. Most of these trips took place before social media, but the last one was in 2009, so I do have a picture or two and a blog post. It was a gorgeous place to run (but so hot).

pace didn't matter that much

Clearwater/St. Petersburg

I have had several memorable runs in the St. Pete/Clearwater area, mostly involving my friend Diane. Our other friend, Amelia (from Gainesville) met us once in 2013 and the three of us shared a day of athletic activity. This particular day, we all ran to warm up, then Diane and Amelia went swimming while I ran some more.

pace didn't matter that much


My social media memories have been serving up a very special walk down memory lane, the day Diane and I did the Lowry Park Zoo Run Run 5K in 2015. Technically, I was her guide (because she is visually impaired). That’s sort of an oxymoron, though, because Diane is a champion triathlete and if anything I held her back. We still had a blast.

pace didn't matter that much


I have lots of great memories of running in Orlando. I had to go fairly frequently for work when I was with Healthy Kids, and also as Tenley was preparing for her Disney College Program. My biggest Orlando-based running memory isn’t very “Sunshine State” in nature.

When Tenley and I were there for her to audition once, I went for a run extremely early in the morning. It was also exceptionally cold for Orlando. Looking back on it, I see how deeply embedded in the running world I was to go out in that freezing weather. SO COLD. I like thinking back on that run, though, and reminding myself of the self-discipline I mustered.

pace didn't matter that much
PI can’t find the pic I took on the ridiculously freezing day, but here’s another fave from an on-property run. (Yes, I wore my Idiots Running Club shirt OFTEN, especially when traveling!)


I have done a few races in Jacksonville, most memorably the Gate River Run. This 15K race winds through Jacksonville, with a memorable ending at the Jaguars Stadium … into which you descend after ascending the Hart Bridge. This 2013 memory, with so many great running friends, is a keeper.

pace didn't matter that much

Panama City

The only in-state half marathon I have done was in Panama City, The Biggest Loser half in 2014. Another race and location made memorable mostly because of the incredible company. (Pro-tip: Doing a half marathon with a min-pin makes your group the hit of the party.)

pace didn't matter that much

St. George Island

Our extended family used to vacation at St. George Island every summer. Each one is a treasured memory, especially now that Wayne’s parents are both deceased. There’s also an annual race at St. George, the “sizzler.” It is aptly named, let me just put it that way. But St. George is a beautiful place, and running there was always a treat.

pace didn't matter that much
I don’t love this picture. It’s shortly after I started running again and it doesn’t really showcase the beauty of St. George. But in full transparency, it does represent the fact that running is very much a journey and (cliche time) … every step and every mile count.


Our running club has had a relationship with Gadsden Correctional Facility since 2012. Even though I have to walk our races now, I try very hard not to miss a GCF event. They’re my favorites. The lack of scenery is made up for by the passion and the reminder that running is its own kind of freedom.

pace didn't matter that much


I’m sorry I’ve ended up at 10 already, because there are quite a few things about running in Tallahassee I’d like to discuss. Since it has been on my mind as I’ve watched my running friends throughout the summer, though, I’ll note our incredible trails.

pace didn't matter that much
This pic doesn’t capture the difficulty of our trails, but it is a favorite! It’s at the end of a trail race. It became a key part of my efforts to raise money for Team in Training to run the New York City half marathon in 2015 in support of my friend Mary Jane.

I’m still disappointed I never achieved my goal of a sub-30-minute 5K. However, look at all the incredible people I met and places I went. All of it was time well spent.

Welcome to this week’s Five Minute Friday. Our instructions, via creator Kate Motaung: “Write for five minutes on the word of the week [obviously I completely fudged the five minute part tonight]. This is meant to be a free write, which means: no editing, no over-thinking, no worrying about perfect grammar or punctuation.” (But I can’t resist spell checking, as you can imagine.) 

pace didn't matter that much

Five Minute Friday: HOSPITALITY

Five Minute Friday Radical Hospitality


I want to write a comprehensive blog post about the power of a shower (full disclosure: I didn’t think up that phrase. It belongs to an entire organization).

The idea of a blog post about providing places for people to take showers who don’t have their own facilities has been germinating in my head for quite some time. It started when I included an article about mobile restrooms for women in Pune, India, in the International City/County Managers Association newsletter from SmartBrief, which I edit. The concept itself interested me, especially because it helps create restroom equity for women. I also recall the conversation I had with the copy editor about this article.

The copy editor said, “WiFi? Why do the buses need WiFi?”

This copy editor and I knew each other’s worldviews well enough by this point in our working relationship that it made perfect sense that I hadn’t batted an eyelash when reading that refurbished buses that had been turned into mobile toilets also had showers and WiFi whereas he wondered why WiFi mattered.

I said, “… in many developing countries, people rely heavily on smartphones, so perhaps because of that? Or because it’s meant to be a bit of a respite (the cafe, etc. [have I mentioned the buses have cafes?]). I guess life is hard there and it’s an attempt to make it a little less so?”

A friend with knowledge of the city of Pune said, ” WiFi makes sense to me. It’s ubiquitous now. Pune is a major city outside Mumbai. I don’t think class matters. Everyone uses the Internet everywhere….If they want people to spend time there (beyond just using the restroom) WiFi will make people stay longer. Similar to a coffee shop here. No WiFi vs. Free WiFi? Fugghedaboudit. [This perhaps ties in to the fact that the refurbished buses are still trying to determine revenue models.]

How Lava Mae is helping people in the US get showers

Closer to home I learned recently of an organization, Lava Mae, that offers free showers to homeless people in San Francisco. The organization has developed a toolkit to help other communities start their own, similar, projects.

While the project is all kinds of interesting, here’s the phrase that jumped out at me when I read it Friday: Radical Hospitality™.

Lava Mae’s material describes Radical Hospitality as “delivering an unexpected level of care.” In addition, Lava Mae says, “Radical Hospitality starts with how we treat and value ourselves and team members.”

My comprehensive look at mobile toilets and showers around the world as well as why they matter will have to wait. In the meantime, to honor my commitment to Five Minute Friday, here is my five-minute free write on the topic.

Five Minutes on Radical Hospitality

Two of my friends and I volunteer once a month at a local mission, helping prepare and serve dinner then cleaning up afterward.

I read the article about Radical Hospitality Friday, right after volunteering at Grace Mission Thursday night. I thought about the way my two friends model respect and compassion for every person who comes through the line.

I thought about my reflexive reaction when I had parked at the mission and one of the people who eats at the mission started talking to me. He wanted to explain that the headlight of my car would be less cloudy if I used toothpaste to clean it with. I thanked him and moved on, but I’ll admit I had been fighting internally against other, less thankful instincts. Did he mean me harm? Was I going to be able to get into the workspace safely?

It reminded me of the dilemma I always feel dealing with homeless people in New York City (and that I especially felt when I lived there). My strategy was basically to ignore them (and try to make up for it by doing my fair share of volunteer work). It didn’t get any easier to cope with when I would take my young daughter for a visit to the city. “Just don’t look at them.” “Just say no.” I have never been able to reconcile the way I navigated the city with the countless needs these people had.

One of the participants at Grace Mission asked for my arm Thursday night and put this sticker there. Perhaps sometimes the best teachers about Radical Hospitality are those being served.

Five Minute Friday Radical Hospitality

Welcome to this week’s Five Minute Friday. Our instructions, via creator Kate Motaung: “Write for five minutes on the word of the week. This is meant to be a free write, which means: no editing, no over-thinking, no worrying about perfect grammar or punctuation.” (But I can’t resist spell checking, as you can imagine.) 

Five Minute Friday Radical Hospitality

To be a kid again

To be a kid again


What wish would you make for a child who has come to mean something significant to you if the two of you were having to take your leave of each other after spending a year together, working closely?

One of my favorite young actresses, Cate Elefante, just finished her time as part of the Les Misérables US Tour. I have followed Cate since I saw her as “Little Lulu” in Waitress (December 2016). She and her family share generously on social media about her experiences. This has been nice, because I love all things Broadway, and it is fascinating to get a bit of a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how things work on a national tour.

Cate shared on Instagram the backstage festivities among the cast as she closed out her time. There is a point where Maggie Elizabeth May* is giving Cate a speech (it’s the fourth frame at this link). I saw this brief speech on July 28 when it was first posted, and I have thought about it so often since then.

“Most of these people have dreamed of being in this show since we were your age, but if we had a chance to do it all over again, and had a wish to be granted, we wouldn’t wish for one more show. We would wish to be a kid again. And that’s what you get to do and all of you guys get to go do. You get to go home to your garden, and your family, and your school, and your house, and you get to play the best role of all. We will have you forever in our hearts, Cate, but oh my dear girl. Go be a kid, and promise us to never grow up.”

I so envy people with acting and vocal chops. That’s partially because I love performing, and performing tends to attract audiences more when done by people who are good at it.

Although I envy people in theatre for their talent and their opportunities to perform so often, the other part of that life I’m drawn to is the togetherness and sense of unity. Of course I am sure there are dysfunctional casts/crews, everywhere from the 3rd grade end-of-year performance to the most popular shows on Broadway and the variations in between, but I think they are the exception.

Although I can’t equate my experiences as an extra and volunteer for FSU Film with theater, I suspect there are many commonalities. The sense of unity, the spirit of “let’s get this done,” the almost palpable love of the craft of making art is something I have rarely felt in other environments.

I did work with quite a few child actors in my time at the film school. I saw some truly remarkable talent. I don’t know that any of those kids stayed with it, but I often weighed in my mind what tradeoffs they were experiencing. Absences from school, being held to a strict work ethic, the pressure of being directed, breaks in routine. At what point did the attempt to reach the next level of acting success start to erode the benefits of a “normal” childhood?

I appreciate the adult actress acknowledging the tradeoff Cate and her family had made. The first time I watched the speech, I wondered what her finale was going to be. Would it be “I know you’re going to make it big someday”? “I wouldn’t be surprised to see you win a Tony when you grow up”? “Acting will never let you down”?

No. She reminded her that childhood is a precious gift. A gift that most adults who take to the stage nightly quite possibly would want to experience again.

When each of us adults is faced with life “on my own,” there are those moments when the lightness of being a kid again beckons.

Welcome to this week’s Five Minute Friday. Our instructions, via creator Kate Motaung: “Write for five minutes on the word of the week. This is meant to be a free write, which means: no editing, no over-thinking, no worrying about perfect grammar or punctuation.” (But I can’t resist spell checking, as you can imagine.) 

*If I have misidentified Maggie Elizabeth May, I apologize and hope someone will clarify. Thanks, prosopagnosia, for these little blogging speedbumps.

A Scientist Swallowed His Research and More: SmartBrief July 2019

Was July supposed to be a relaxing summer month? If so, I missed out on the relaxing. (I did sneak in a quick trip to Tampa to see Hugh Jackman in concert, though. What a treat to see such a consummate artist and spend time with a friend.)

July 2019 SmartBrief wrapup
A favorite image from my visit to Tampa.

I spent the rest of the month working as usual (and praying for our house to sell so I can afford to spend some time at a more laid-back pace during some future summer).

It’s a good thing I love working. July, as in all the other months, did not disappoint. We also created “best of” issues for the July 5 holiday. That was a fun project, and I’ll share a link to each one.

National Association of Social Workers

It’s no secret that homelessness is a chronic problem for many communities. The National Alliance to End Homelessness says 17 out of every 10,000 people in the US “were experiencing homelessness on a single night in 2018.” In the NASW newsletter, we shared the story of safe parking lots. Run by a nonprofit, these facilities on the west coast provide a safe place to sleep and access to social workers who help people living in their cars find stable housing. (As this post explains, the legality of sleeping in your car in public varies. The safe parking lots provide more stability and, as mentioned, case management that may help people find more permanent accommodations.)

I appreciate the creativity involved in this solution, and the effort to be respectful to the homeless people. Veterans are among this group, and they especially deserve respect and help.

This is the NASW July 5 “best of” issue.

Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honorary

A scientist reached conclusions regarding the possibility that Florida’s Tamiami Foundation demonstrates evidence of an ancient meteorite strike. He and his team reached this conclusion, because fossilized clams dating back to that period contained “tiny, silica-rich glass spheres” that most likely were created as the result of a meteorite.

Although the story was interesting enough, there were two things about it that stuck out to me and elevated it to my monthly roundup. First, the scientist said he had 83 of the glass beads and “just kept them sitting around in a box for more than a decade.” It seems as though this theme arises often in scientific writing. A fossil was in a museum for decades, then someone took a new look at it and discovered a species or made some other riveting discovery. Sometimes it just takes new eyes to make a discovery.

The second thing that resulted in a double-take from me about this story was the scientist’s description of how a paintbrush moistened with saliva is the perfect implement for picking these tiny beads up. (Can you see where this story is going?) “I did accidentally eat a couple of them,” he said. Bon appetit. Don’t eat your evidence!

This is the Sigma Xi July 5 “best of” issue.


All of us are imperfect at best. I admire people who make the effort to reexamine their own choices and to make choices that are more fair and accepting. Northwest Area Foundation President and CEO Kevin Walker writes about a story he used to tell from a humorous standpoint about a time he was detained briefly by Canadian border officers after a momentary decision that led him to be on Canadian property without going through proper procedures. Would he have been treated the same if he “were a person of color? An immigrant? A tribal member from Turtle Mountain instead of an executive from St. Paul?” Please read this important story to find out his conclusion. I have also added a link to my We have to talk about white privilege post, as I do with the pieces I find that speak to the topic of white privilege in a powerful way.

This is the BoardSource July 5 “best of” issue.

International City/County Management Association

The top story for ICMA in July was this July 8 entry about the $5,000 reward police offered for information regarding John Wooner, the McFarland, Calif., city manager who was missing. Wooner’s body was found July 28, submerged in the Kern River in his city-issued car.

I can see why this story was so compelling to readers. He had been missing since May 14 by the time we shared the story. There were concrete details (such as the fact that his last known stop was at his estranged father’s grave) and other squishier pieces of the story (had he been engaged in malfeasance?). From an editorial standpoint, I am torn regarding whether it makes sense to include an item about his body being found or if that’s more feeding a curiosity than giving readers closure. Mostly, I acknowledge that he has a family left with questions and grief. What a difficult summer they must have endured.

This is the ICMA July 5 “best of” issue.

UN Wire

I love El Salvador. Therefore, a story about a woman charged with murder after giving birth to a baby (who was either born dead or died after being born — the story is a bit unclear about this) she says was conceived during a rape. The story goes on to say that women who miscarried have been routinely charged with murder.

A dense story with much to consider, but this one left me sad and questioning.

UN Wire did not have a July 5 “best of” issue.

Reserve Officers Association

Stacy Pearsall is a veteran. She has a goal; she plans to take 7,500 pictures of veterans, covering all 50 states, by Veterans Day of this year. She started the project in 2007 as she recovered from a combat injury. “I want people to realize that in every uniform is a human being with a heart and a soul, people they love, history and baggage,” she says.

I love this story, and I especially enjoyed reading about Pearsall’s service dog, Charlie.

ROA did not have a July 5 “best of” issue.

National Emergency Number Association

I wrote in my June wrapup about the 911 SAVES Act, a piece of nonpartisan legislation that proposes to reclassify dispatchers from “administrative support” (a federal clerical designation) to “protective service.” This stands to make a big difference for dispatchers in several significant ways. The Act passed the House and is on to the Senate.

I have worked with this topic for almost a year now; I am convinced this Act is a necessary change and I hope it passes.

While I’m on the topic of NENA, here’s a story of why our town is so great (almost always). I love being able to experience the things I write about, not just read about them. I decided to do an Editor’s Desk video about the 911 SAVES Act. I contacted the director of the Tallahassee/Leon County Consolidated Dispatch Center to ask about making the video there so the background looked more realistic. I heard back from him within 24 hours, and within a few days got a tour of our center and got all my questions answered. The director even said, “here — make it in my office so it’s quiet enough.” I could not have asked for a more generous interaction. The video is still in the works, but here’s a screenshot. I *really* appreciate the gentleman walking by with EMS on the back of his shirt. It’s as if I planned it that way!

July 2019 SmartBrief wrapup

NENA did not have a July 5 “best of” issue.

While You Were Working

I had the opportunity to “drive the ‘While You Were Working'” bus for a week in July when our editor, Sean, was out. Because WYWW has a different vibe than almost every other SmartBrief newsletter, it is simultaneously thrilling (because we have more flexibility) and scary (because editing without guardrails feels so risky). It certainly helped that my week coincided with the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary (YAY SPACE).

I have a hard time choosing a favorite story from that week. The July 19 issue was fun in many ways. We shared that crazy “Cats” trailer that had everyone agog. My colleague, Cathy, debunked the idea that astronauts ate “space ice cream.” We covered joyineering (it’s a thing, at least for one father and daughter). And to cap off the Apollo 11 celebrations, I shared this memory of visiting the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building. Every astronaut who has lifted off from Kennedy Space Center walked through this door. I’m so grateful to NASA Social for the opportunity to visit and learn.

July 2019 SmartBrief wrapup

This is the WYWW July 5 “best of” issue.


I had an opportunity to edit SmartBrief on Leadership for a couple weeks in July. This is my favorite brief to edit as a fill-in (and the most nerve-wracking). Although I do have favorite stories, I want to share something different — a feature we have added. I don’t know if it will always appear, but #FridayReads is a pet Twitter habit of mine, so I want to share!

In last Friday’s issue, for example, you’ll see the last item (except for the quote) is “What are you reading today?” Clicking on the item takes you directly to the tweet, and you can share what you are reading. I enjoyed thinking through the small details of adding something that looks so simple, but there are always steps in the process to check off the list, such as whether the image that has been chosen is a fit, who is going to update a nonevergreen item for future uses, and more.

If you don’t subscribe to our leadership newsletter already, please feel free to do so by visiting this link.

July 2019 SmartBrief wrapup

This is the Leadership July 5 “best of” issue.

Here’s another reason July was not “slow”

SmartBrief closed out the month of July with some big news. The company was acquired by Future plc. Learn more about the acquisition in this release.

How you, too, could stay busy with SmartBrief

I invite you to peruse this list of openings (3 are in DC, 1 is DC or remote depending on the candidate and there’s a part-time position). I wrote in more detail about my experience as a SmartBrief employee here, which may help answer any questions you have. As always, I’m happy to answer questions and provide more information about the process.

Here are the advertised open positions as of 8/8/19:

If you are interested in applying, please list me as your referrer (for the full-time positions) or email me so we can discuss further.

To Recap

To subscribe to one (or more) SmartBrief newsletters, including the “end of the work day” While You Were Working, for which I am a contributing editor, click here.

If you aren’t in a subscribing mood, you can still keep up with us on FacebookSmartBrief TwitterLeadership SmartBrief TwitterLinkedIn and SmartBrief Instagram along with Life at SmartBrief Instagram. (There’s also a SmartBrief feature at The Muse.)

Here’s to finding news (and career opportunities) that keep you informed, even when life is busy.

*Note: My opinions about the stories are my personal viewpoint; they do not reflect an endorsement by my employer.

Flash Fiction: Late-night Snack

Late-night snack


It felt like he had been asleep for hours. Ben rolled over, looked at the clock on his phone, and realized it had only been half an hour. Would sleep come again? He contemplated checking on the kids, remembered he had a monitor that would take care of that. He thought about reading a book, decided not to engage his brain that much.

A snack was always an option. Why did it seem to make sense to grate fresh parmesan at 11:30 p.m.? What happened to the days when dreams carried him until the sun broke through his window? The idea of freshly-grated parmesan would not let him alone, though. Is that what it comes to as one approaches middle age, he wondered?

Slip out of bed. Question his rationale. Open the refrigerator door. Grate cheese. Steal a few slivers. Dinner tomorrow night — which seemed a very long way away — would be pizza, clearly. As tiny feet approach, realize that the opportunity to sneak parmesan wisps with your kid may turn out to be the beginning of a favorite story.


This story was a response to the SITS Girls prompt, “Flash Fiction: Write a short story about a clock.” I’m also linking it up with this week’s Five Minute Friday, which had “middle” as its prompt.

I was also inspired by MicroFlashFic on Twitter, which I strongly encourage you to follow. Three stories a day, and I am often astounded at how much one author can pack into a tweet. The truth of today’s blog is that I couldn’t decide what to write about. I wrote about a heavy topic, abortion rights, last week, and I was eager to lighten things up.

I was trying to fit in the “middle” idea. I had read an article recently about team-building exercises. It described how a team came together more effectively by a structured exercise that involved pairs of team members answering progressively more self-disclosing questions (rather than something like mountain biking). I decided to use the 36 questions, find the “middle” group, and let a random number generator choose what I would answer. Believe me, when I got “How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?” I knew I had not landed on “light.” That has to wait for another Sunday (or never).

I still wavered when I toyed with a flash fiction piece. I definitely have wandered farther and farther away from fiction as my writing has evolved. I had poked around the Curious Cat of the @MicroFlashFic creator, though, and was reminded: “The surest way to make yourself more imaginative is to make creation compulsory” and that “creativity is a muscle.”

It’s true, so I took five minutes to leave my real world behind and try to enter someone else’s.

<<This may be a good time to say I created a Curious Cat account. Not sure I’ll keep it, because goodness I have enough to keep up with already, but we’ll see. Here’s the link to my profile. Ask me something there so I don’t have a naked account!>>

Five Minute Friday Name

Abortion rights: 5 minutes, 3 choices, 1 result

A 19-item bulleted list containing fun things Margot has to look forward to, such as the prom and a trip to Hawaii.

The list is what appears on the whiteboard in Margot’s room in the film “Five Minutes” by Darby Wilson.

Margot’s list of important things rapidly shrinks to the one result she’ll find out after making a trip to the drugstore for a test, waiting five minutes and mulling three options.

It’s difficult to discuss further without spoilers, so here’s the 13-minute film.

Do our own stories matter when discussing abortion rights?

I saw a meme in May after multiple states had passed the heartbeat bills mentioned in the credits of this film. I wish I could find it, but its point was “Don’t assume your personal experience gives you any more or less credibility when you are telling me your opinion about this.” It was said in a catchier way than that, and had some colorful graphics, but hopefully you get the point.

*self disclosure warning ahead*

I don’t disagree with that meme in theory. Someone would probably take my advice to hydrate well and use sunscreen if the weather was hitting this week’s heat wave temps whether I could sign an affidavit confirming I had been dehydrated or sunburnt before.

It’s different, though, when the topic is abortion rights. I have had sex with one person in my entire lifetime. I didn’t have sex at all until I was 25. We used protection every. single. time. until we were trying to conceive.

I guess that could lead you to ask what I could possibly know about the fear Margot expresses in this film. I suppose it could make you doubt my knowledge base about the array of relationships, choices, temptations, mistakes, options, dysfunctions and satisfactions in the world.

While I don’t expect my children (who are now in their 20s) to make the same choices I did, it matters to me that my personal choices were centered around my individual conviction (which is one person’s opinion, not what I would ever impose on anyone else) that intercourse is as much about our minds and hearts as it is about mechanics. (It’s also, in my case, about how much of myself I give away emotionally; I know I am incapable of separating emotions from my intimacy choices. I didn’t want to put myself in the position of breaking my own heart.)

I also believe life begins at conception. I am sure it did for the two children I lost. But that doesn’t change how I feel about every woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.

While I believe the history I bring to any discussion I have about abortion rights matters, I also believe wholeheartedly that no woman’s life narrative takes away their right to make this legal choice, in a way that is affordable, safe and protective of their dignity.

The complex reasons behind abortion

First and foremost, abortion is still legal. If you are in a state that restricts abortion access, here are resources to help.

A study found “almost four” reasons, when the mean is calculated, leading women to decide to have abortions.

The top reasons include being unprepared financially, an unplanned pregnancy, relationship issues and the need to focus on existing children. The other reasons, and an analysis, are here.

In addition, reproductive coercion, which the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists defines as ” behavior intended to maintain power and control in a relationship related to reproductive health by someone who is, was, or wishes to be involved in an intimate or dating relationship with an adult or adolescent,” is a thing. Women or adolescents who have need abortions for a pregnancy related to reproductive coercion should be able to get them. Here’s more information about reproductive coercion.

Why I advocate to keep abortion legal and accessible

A few months ago, the University of Alabama returned $26.5 million Hugh Culverhouse Jr. (who is not a Democrat or Republican) had donated. Alabama asserts the returned donation (and the removal of Culverhouse’s name from the law school’s facade) were related to inappropriate interference on his part in university matters. Culverhouse says it’s because of his stance on abortion and his objection to a bill passed in Alabama that makes it a criminal act to have an abortion.

I am not in a position to figure out why Alabama made its choice to remove Culverhouse’s name, but I agree with him that “taking away a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body isn’t about politics … it’s an act of oppression.”

In closing

I don’t have to have chosen an abortion myself to support another woman. I don’t have to have experienced any of the four primary reasons women choose abortion. I explained by telephone how to use a condom to countless men over the first few years of the AIDS crisis without having any experience of sex between men (obviously) or how to use a condom. Hopefully, I helped them make choices that would keep them alive.

A wise Episcopalian priest once said to me (about an entirely different topic that was the most pressing issue in the national church at that time), “I am personally very conservative on this, but it’s my job to shepherd this flock through finding their way and making up their minds.” I wish I could convey his tone of voice, his intellect, his ability to separate the two things in a respectful manner at that moment.

In the case of abortion rights (and me), it all comes down to respect for the other individual, understanding that life is never one size fits all, empathy and respect for the law.

Abortion rights

A Few Notes about “Five Minutes”:

Becks Edelstein directed the film.

Megan Walsh was the cinematographer and editor.

Darby Wilson wrote it, in addition to playing Margot.

If the film inspires you to act, Darby suggests you donate (and/or volunteer) to Planned Parenthood or the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Eyes Don’t Always Have It

“Eye contact is a powerful force.” John Millen says this in Why eye contact matters so much.

Millen has a point. He explains the importance of making eye contact (for American culture) in presentations and face-to-face meetings. He also provides tips for improving eye contact skills, such as maintaining eye contact until you finish making your point.

Millen does caution against assuming all cultures value eye contact the same way. Eye contact in China is construed as anger, for example.

If I could sit down and talk about this article with Millen, these are the other considerations I would encourage him to make, however.

Other skills besides eye contact should factor heavily in hiring/promotions

Discussing people on the autism spectrum is a bit fraught, because every person with autism experiences life from a very individual perspective. However, eye contact is frequently an area where they may behave differently than neurotypical people. One study said, “first-hand reports suggest that simply avoiding to attend to the eyes of others is one common strategy [to avoid discomfort].”

Terra Vance of The Aspergian compiled comments from several people on the spectrum regarding their thoughts about not making eye contact. Here’s an example:

Because it’s as comfortable as pushing two polarised magnets together. – Shay from Portland, Ore.

Having difficulty making eye contact does not take away all of the other capabilities that make these people excellent workers.

In 2019, eye contact is potentially divisive

Watch the video of this 2015 traffic stop in Ohio:

John Felton, the Ohio motorist in the video, was driving to his mother’s house when he was pulled over by a police officer. Although the officer’s reason for pulling Felton over was that he did not apply his turn signal early enough, the officer went on to say his reason was really, “Because you made direct eye contact with me, and you held on to it while I was passing you.”

The CNN report says the two end up going to mediation rather than a hearing. I wonder how that turned out.

Besides Fenton’s situation, eye contact is often interpreted in different ways by different groups.

Writing for Facing History and Ourselves, Binna Kandola says a failure to make eye contact is a “micro-incivility” that makes a person “[feel] invisible and excludes them from the group.”

On the flip side (or at least a different angle), the National Review contends, contrary to Oxford University’s opinion, that eye contact (or lack thereof) shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of racism. “Talking to someone who won’t look at you is an experience that everyone in the world has had, regardless of race, and arbitrarily assigning racial motivations to something so universal isn’t going to help anyone,” writes Katherine Timpf.

Why putting too much emphasis on eye contact matters

Millen’s points were valid and useful. Like I said, the conversation needs to be extended to acknowledge the neurological factors that influence why we do or do not make eye contact, as well as the differences in how people of various races interpret eye contact expectations, especially in the US.

I am married to someone who doesn’t make eye contact especially well (yet has been successful professionally). My son wasn’t big on it as a kid; the expectations of educators and other adults that he do so seemed to place an undue burden on him. As a faceblind person, I have had my share of being misunderstood as aloof or forgetful because I failed to immediately recognize someone who had every reason (based on our past history) to think I would.

We understand more now about human behavior and the way the brain functions than we ever did before. We should use that understanding to bring more people into the fold of our organizations rather than close our eyes to their potential.

Beyond eye contact