Some people can size up a person pretty quickly by the way they dress or the company they keep. But I think you never really know a person until you see what kind of vacation pictures they take.
For instance, when my friend went to Europe last summer, instead of snapping photographs of the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower or Stonehenge, she brought back 32 rolls of ... cathedral ceilings. Ceilings. For the 10 years I've known her, I had never suspected that she was this passionate about stained glass.
That's not all. Another friend, who has no children of her own, has three photo albums filled with pictures of cats, all taken during vacations in Venice. (I've always been a big animal lover and all that, but this....)
Still, one of the best things about such pictures - despite their obvious narrow appeal - is that they can't help but tell us a great deal about the people who took them.
So I shouldn't have been surprised when I got the roll of film back from my 5-year-old son's first camping trip. I opened the envelope, naively expecting to see pictures of the nightly campfire, the sun setting over the forest, and possibly even a deer or two.
Instead, I saw an off-center picture of tennis shoes. Not even his tennis shoes, mind you, but a pair someone had lost and left in the cabin. Mystery shoes. And that's not all.
As I went through the stack, I found that my son had also taken a picture of his sleeping bag, a penny he found in the gravel next to the car, a leaf, an orange sock, a bag of marshmallows, a close-up of his father's ear, the tree outside his cabin from six different angles, a burned hot dog, something blurry, the back seat of the car, a Power Ranger toothbrush, his thumb, a piece of gum, and himself.
There was barely one sign of nature in the whole stack. I couldn't help thinking that if he'd wanted pictures of assorted junk, it would've been cheaper had he spent the weekend in the backyard taking pictures of the sandbox.
At least that is what I thought until I showed the photographs to my ceiling-snapping friend, the mother of three teenagers, who said simply, "There's nothing wrong with these."
But of course, this is just the type of answer you'd expect from someone who photographs ceilings.
Then she told me about the time her daughter went to Yosemite Valley and returned with dozens of rolls of film, all filled with photographs of the hotel, restaurant, and gift shop.
She also told me about the time her son took his camera to a Major League Baseball game and returned with 24 pictures of cloud formations.
I had a feeling she was just trying to make me feel better.
Then again, to a 5-year-old boy, finding a penny is more exciting than seeing a squirrel. And why would he waste good film on something like, say, a herd of endangered water buffaloes, when he could take a picture of cool tennis shoes? Or his shiny new green sleeping bag?
Face it: Things like beautiful sunsets and campfires can't compare to a bag of extra-large marshmallows.
So I did what any good mother would do: I marked the date on the back of the pictures and slid them into our family vacation photo album - right after the five pages of ice sculptures I took last year on our cruise to the Bahamas.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor