As a consequence of the Seattle Times spider article and the mere click of a button on Facebook, James became a most unusual and fascinating part of my life on the 2nd of September, 2010.
The article had already been published for a few days and I had decided at that point to welcome new people into my life, random folks who shared an interest in spiders and nature, specifically.
James had actually taken the time to introduce himself when he requested friendship, which was not typical among the new requests. I was a little bit surprised by his apparent formality and wondered how he’d come across the article. Anyhow, I was thrilled to discover that a wildlife photographer managed to see the article at all. James definitely piqued my curiosity, mostly due to the fact that I’d always been keenly interested in photography and it was neat to see that he knew a thing or two about wildlife at large.
Initially, we didn’t really interact a whole lot and I didn’t really mind. I was still trying to figure out the angles on a lot of these new people I’d recently befriended!
One day, I’d uploaded a series of photos I’d taken at a reptile zoo and noticed that James was identifying creatures left and right with scientific names. He even riddled me about a particular species name, which I never did guess. (Expecting a bit much there, James! I hardly knew a thing about reptiles at the time!)
Despite my failure, I thought that interaction was really interesting – A guy who knows what the hell he’s talking about! I’ve always appreciated that kind of feedback and was more than happy to have befriended someone with a serious interest in the things I knew little of.
Things continued that way for a bit of time, until I noticed that he was beginning to comment on a greater diversity of things I’d put up. It wasn’t just spiders and nature-type things he was elaborating on, but me! At the time, I thought that was slightly weird.
It was somewhat clear to me that James was curious about me in a manner different from when we had first became ‘friends’, but I didn’t really know what to do in response to it.
I remember him sending me a private message, asking me if I’d gone to eat sushi. (I was often declaring my obsession for the stuff) When I responded (I really wasn’t certain as to what he was getting at) he revealed that he was interested in going out together to eat some. That threw me into a panic! I was not interested in going on a ‘date’ of sorts with someone significantly older than myself. Actually, that was only a part of it, the other aspects revolved around the anxiety I feel when socializing with people in general.A natural recluse, I’d had little experience or fondness for ‘going out’ at the time, even though I was single and admittedly open to the possibility of a relationship with someone, friends or beyond. How could I hope to relate to someone so much older? It was challenging enough for me to relate to people my own age! Unfortunately for him, I’d recently encountered similar social proposals and my feelings on the subject hadn’t changed. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, and the idea genuinely creeped me out, so….I cruelly ignored him.
I hoped that he’d get the hint that way…
Now, on the other hand, the problem was that in other instances, he’d comment on something that was very important to me or give feedback that actually shocked me with its thoughtful depth and detail.
They were classy, well written and intelligent responses. Here and there, he clearly understood and elaborated on things I presented in a way that gave the topic a whole new dimension of value. James was always supportive, optimistic and generous in his praise of me. I found our exchanges highly rewarding and often looked forward to his opinions and ideas…contradicting my superficial assessment that our age difference was an impossible obstacle to overlook. In spite of the obvious positives I was discovering, a part of me was ever wary and most definitely conflicted by our interactions. Really, the last thing I wanted to do was encourage him and I seriously debated deleting him from my friends list to make it easier, but couldn’t justify doing so because he was so knowledgeable, kind and interesting. Funnily enough, I figured with time that he’d lose interest in me and wander on to someone else. Perhaps I was a bit paranoid, but during this part of my life, I was skeptical of men and their intentions and although James never really fit the bill, I assumed with time that he’d conform. Once that happened, I’d be justified in deleting him and the problem would be gone!
…But boy, was I wrong!
It wasn’t far into the month of December when James surprised me with an offer of a sincere birthday gift. Had anyone suggested such a thing a few months earlier, I am fairly confident that I would have turned it down in an instant, but recently, a new sort of curiosity was growing inside me and I wondered what he had in mind. I tried not to think too much of it and gave him permission to mail it. In my mind, it was simply a nice gesture of our friendship.
It was only a day later that he made a second offer – again, a proposal to go out together, to discuss common interests and to dine, something he’d been keen to do before the year expired. Again, I found myself in a panic.
What do I do now? Staring at the computer screen and reading the message, I deliberated on a course of action with a feeling of burdensome dread.
I couldn’t ignore him this time around, as I genuinely respected him too much to be so impersonal. I was, in all honesty, profoundly grateful for his friendship. There was only one thing I could do. Contemplating it all, I gave him the bad news and carefully explained that I wasn’t ready to entertain the reality of dating someone much older than myself. I couldn’t get my head around it! Just why was he so keen on me? Suspicion and doubt about such an arrangement proved too much to overlook. I had not yet been convinced it was plausible. I sent him a short message, not knowing what would happen next.
To my surprise, he wasn’t bitter, but it was very clear that he was seriously disappointed. I read his response with a heavy heart, realizing only then how serious he had been about the whole prospect. Truthfully, I couldn’t understand how he’d gotten to that point. We’d really only talked a few times!
James clarified his perspective. It only made me feel that much more disconcerted. He’d been all over the world, experiencing the unimaginable, with all sorts of people in all sorts of conditions. In my mind, I’d done nothing to be worthy of his unique affection and was certain that he’d realize this sooner than later. I told him this. In response, this earnest man promised to remain friends. He went on and said some things I hadn’t expected to hear from anyone, let alone him. A part of what he’d said was a reflection of my own deep beliefs, but I could hardly begin to believe that a ‘modern’ man could feel and act this way…ending the proposal on a respectful, somber note.I felt like I had broken something special, and at the very least, I was firmly convinced that overall, I had been quite wrong about him. The conversation was important. It made me realize a few things about myself that I wanted to work on. In my mind, James deserved someone much better than me. What I hadn’t known at the time, was just how out of touch with myself I’d really become!
I left it at that and avoided Facebook for a few days in an attempt to help him ‘move on.’ I felt terrible to have pulled the plug on him.
It wasn’t until a week or two later that I was able to pick up the gift he’d sent me in the mail. My Mom and I were out in Downtown Renton, running an assortment of errands. We picked the parcel up near the end of our list of tasks.
For a moment, I sat in the car alone and opened the box, which turned out to be a bit heavier than I had expected. Inside the box were two books and a wonderful little card. I was secretly thrilled, as James had given me a book titled Linnaeus
, about the biologist and explorer that organized animals and plants by assigning them two scientific names. The father of taxonomy! I remembered him mentioning Linnaeus in response to a drawing I’d put up. I was warmed by the memory. He’d written up something about my drawing that put a big smile on my face.
Biology of Spiders by Rainier Foelix
was the other book, one of
which I’d actually been very interested in purchasing myself. I read the card and the things he’d written inside and was thrown back into our recent series of rather heartfelt messages. In the quiet, I looked over the books and meditated over the feeling and significance of it all. I was excited to let him know how pleased I was. I was honored to be given something so thoughtful.
James continued to impress me. Oddly enough, he’d turned out to be an exceptional man who was genuinely drawn to me by our shared interests, as well as kindly enlightening me to other topics I knew less about. This distinguished exchange was unusual to a reclusive and skeptical Shannon. Ever more, the idea that he was an average-Joe merely hellbent on getting in my pants was crumbling away, and in giant blocks. There was little evidence to support that angle and I felt a bit guilty for having been so cynical. It was a hard thing to shake!
In spite of this new evidence to the contrary, fear and past experiences still whispered doubts. There was an unshakable suspicion of his kindness and I wondered when my glass half empty projections would be proven correct. I was waiting for him to say something upsetting, stupid or crass – but it hadn’t happened yet.
The new year arrived and some weeks passed before I heard from James in my private messages. We’d sporadically talked about this and that, including a ‘pretty pink tarantula’ he’d photographed previously in Mindo, Ecuador.
When I did hear from him through the inbox, I heard from him on a truly epic scale.
13th of January, 2011
“Field Internship – Mindo, Ecuador 2011” was the title.
My heart skipped a beat from reading the title alone. I knew the words meant something tremendously exciting, so I clicked on the message and was perplexed to see a vast wall of text and a series of lists. I didn’t dare read it paragraph by paragraph in order, at first. I was astounded, daring but not wanting to believe that what was written was real. My eyes raced over the screen, above and below, picking up brief bits of convincing information. After a minute or so, I finally settled down enough to take the writing seriously.
I wanted to scream! James was offering me an opportunity to do everything I had ever dreamed of doing. He was responding to a conversation we’d had a while before where I expressed the desire for an experience like his – photo expeditions into far off forests surrounded by wildlife.
My brain was buzzing – Everything he asked of me, I was more than willing to do. I’d help him with his wildlife photography by giving him an arachnid perspective, learn a thing or two about digital SLR photography and explore a foreign country, among other things (including the much desired experience of eating spiky fruit, which he actually listed as a benefit. Ha!) He explained everything in vast detail – it was totally crazy.
I thought he was crazy. I knew I was crazy because there was no way I was going to say no!
I couldn’t believe the offer was on the table. Every fiber of my being wanted to be a part of his team, to do the hours of hiking in the mountains within towering cloud-forest jungle, to see a variety of alien-like arachnid species and to experience something that seemed so unlikely.
I was SO ready for it! I had a little bit of money which I’d been saving for snowboarding, to take with me. (2014 Note : I’ve still never hit the slopes. Lame!) Thankfully, I had been working out with particular fervor, so I considered myself fit for the physical tasks and was positively raring for the unfamiliar.
Right away, I told him I’d like to go. I only had to let my Mom know about it all.
I thought I was dead, or dreaming…opportunities like this didn’t happen to people like me.
Although wary, she was supportive and arranged a list of things we’d need to do to be sure I’d be safe. At this point, I’d refused to meet James in person, so she was understandably concerned. In her protective maternal mind, he was more likely some crazy killer guy than a proper gentleman! I vouched for James here, mentioning how nicely he’d handled some rather upsetting news in the past. That wasn’t enough, and she’d only be satisfied by other means. After some investigating of her own, she was satisfied.
We’d have to meet James in person. It was finally going to happen.
We arranged for him to come to our place on the 15th of January, to chat and eat. I was fantastically anxious. There was aspects about James that I didn’t really know, little details that come only with having seen a person in the flesh and blood. I remember my Mom and I wondering how tall he was. I had no idea, but we thought he’d be on the shorter side. I also didn’t know what sort of vehicle he drove…but I entertained myself by imagining him driving something rugged, like a Jeep. I didn’t know what he sounded like, either.
That mystery was soon solved when James called my house to ask for directions to our home.
The problem with this is that I don’t even know how to give directions on account of the fact that I don’t drive. I’ve already mentioned that I am not the most social of creatures, so no one comes to pick me up, either.
Anyways, I answered the phone, expecting to hear an older, sort of nasal (Because, of course, extremely intelligent people should automatically sound like social outcasts 😉 ) formal voice (formal because James writes that way!) but was surprised…
In fact, James’s voice was pleasantly deep, full of unique energy, with traces of benign strength and a fluid sense of humor. A handsome voice – that instantly changed a good chunk of my mental image of him. And, it was a boon to my overall confidence.
I suppose it’s a bit weird, making judgments like that in only a few seconds, but I believe that a voice says a lot about a person and that it can quickly convey a lot about an individual’s personality and tendencies.
I must have stuttered out some nonsense about being useless with directions, and when my sister figured out what was going on, she insisted on taking over for me. I was relieved and more than happily gave her the phone. She set him on the correct path..
Not long after, an evergreen colored vehicle pulled up to our house. It was close to what I’d imagined. I didn’t see James in the process of getting out of his car when I went to answer the door, so his appearance was still a surprise until I opened it for him. I’d been wrong about a lot, and again, had to make adjustments to the mental picture because there was James – flesh and blood!
Standing before him, I felt exceedingly short. James was fairly tall. Not only was he tall, but he looked reasonably prepared for the out-doors. I have a vague recollection of what he was wearing. There was plenty of khaki colored this and that, with pockets all about and shoes that looked durable. Funny, I hadn’t given it much thought – what his clothes would say about him and how important that really was! I was very much relieved to see he wasn’t in jeans and sneakers and a T-shirt…I’m certain that it wouldn’t have inspired much confidence in my family or myself.
Again, it was the subtle stuff that painted the picture and roused my ever-deepening curiosity. Aside from towering over everyone and everything in my house and certainly looking the part of someone I’d be hiking into the foresty unknown with, he moved differently than other men I’d met throughout my life. James exuded an air of ruggedness, a type of sophistication unfamiliar to me or my family. I’m not sure if he was tense, although I’m sure to a degree he must have been, but there was a certain rigidity to his posture – I suppose ‘disciplined’ is a way to describe it. When he sat, he wasn’t slouched all over the place – he was respectful. And, he looked quite happy. In the first few minutes I’d seen him, I’d been a bit intimidated. How would we get on face to face? I was reminded of the cavernous differences in life experiences between us. Once we started to talk, though, that unbalanced feeling began to melt away.
Nature Photographer James A. Christensen, Obstruction Point, Olympic National Park, 2012
Not long into the meeting, we all packed into my Mom’s car and headed to a familiar Chinese restaurant to settle down, to get to know him and to discuss his plans. This part consisted of me sitting across the table being typically shy, observing my sister Kimberly as she began interrogating James on specific aspects of the trip – security type questions, which I thought he answered quite eloquently. I kept expecting James to do something that would cross that ‘professional’ line, because of how he said he’d felt about me previously, but it never happened. I was quite satisfied with that.
My family seemed to relax and I could tell that he was making a good impression. In regards to his unique personality, I remember my mom saying he reminded her of “A British person.” I knew what she meant, and it really was tricky…he didn’t fit any familiar types and right away he proved to be exceptionally cultured! He elaborated on his life experiences and revealed that he’d been a soldier. It put a lot of his behavior in context, thinking about it. I have a long and thriving admiration for military men, a deep respect for soldiers, so, this was only a super good thing in my book. I’d never met anyone like him.
I can’t recall everything about that first visit – I don’t remember how long James stayed, but I think we spoke one on one for at least a few hours. Not being a terrifically social person, I wasn’t used to having extended conversations and I actually had a difficult time responding coherently at times, as my mouth kept going dry from talking and my energy level was plummeting fast. Interacting with other humans was exhausting! Those few hours, in the end, proved to be some of the most engaging and remarkable conversation I’d had in many years.
And James was really funny. He was charming when he spoke, and there was no doubting the sincerity of his smile and laugh. It was curious, the way his eyes lit up when he’d recount a particularly interesting story, and I deeply enjoyed hearing him tell it. He seemed so alive! That energy was infectious and the more he told me about this and that, the more excited I became about the whole adventure. I found that his personality was swiftly wearing down the walls of my paranoia and that he was gaining my trust with alarming rapidity.
He left as it became late in the day. It was his first of two visits to my home before he headed off for Ecuador alone. I learned a bit more about him with that visit because there were other people at my house, and they asked him a variety of questions – LDS Missionaries and my Mom’s friend Dave, who I’d asked to come to see what his impression of James would be (for extra reassurance purposes.)
I learned from that visit that James had little interest in sports, was unfamiliar with much of popular culture (but was a wealth of knowledge in other respects!) and wasn’t terribly keen on small talk among big groups. But he was still funny, superbly sweet in a subdued sort of manner and continued to cultivate a robust amount of confidence in him from me. We were no longer strangers, or merely friends who’d never met…
It was true, I was going to spend 3 weeks in the forest with him, in a faraway land!
But the real adventure was yet to come…