Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Tending of Our Souls

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Life Goes On

My Grandson, who seems to have earned some noticeable attention in the last few entries in this blog, sits next to me at the kitchen table, drawing an illustration for a book report. Most of the jelly-covered toast on his plate is gone, but a crumpled pile of scrambled eggs sits, getting colder by the second. Had we our beloved dog Cocoa, who died earlier this year, it would be a simple matter of spooning the leftovers into her bowl and the problem would be solved, leaving us with less guilt over dumping the cold eggs in the trash.

He asks me what I’m writing about. I defer with a reserved “Oh, nothing, just writing.”

“No, really, what are you writing about, Grandpa?” Cautiously, I read aloud the first paragraph of this entry. As he listens, he sips his hot cocoa and eyes suspiciously the leftover eggs, now frigid on his plate. Heisenberg is alive and well this Sunday morning, for I now suspect that whatever else happens today, the very act of Noah having observed the writing process will in some inevitable way change its outcome.

Minutes earlier I’ve scanned through the colorful ads in the paper, noting a discernible dearth in volume. I wonder if it’s the economy. Or perhaps they’re saving them up for later in the week, for the post-Thanksgiving lust-o-rama that is the Christmas Shopping Season here in America. I’ve had my own lustful thoughts about acquiring a new digital camera, but the one that has my eye is, of course, not in the ads, and is a bit pricier than the other brands listed. There is an immediate sense of guilt, as if I should just acquiesce to the incessant demands of consumer marketing and buy what everyone else is buying, but then that wouldn’t be the way that I do things, now would it?

Sitting on the kitchen table, just to the left of my almost empty coffee cup – my second cup this morning – rests another creation of Noah’s, a tableau composed of a small square of plywood, protruding from one edge a crucifix fashioned from a wooden dowel and scrap of craft stick, and three short wooden knobs attached by pieces of tape. It has the appearance of some mystical icon or altar, and I imagine Noah imbuing it with some special spiritual significance.

“It’s a ship,” he announces, after a protracted, slow motion swallow of now tepid cocoa. I’m not crestfallen, just jolted back to the reality that, despite my unrealistically high expectations for my Grandson (I am, after all, a doting grandfather) he is still a boy, in all the splendid boyishness he can muster. I can now see that what I mistook for a crucifix is merely a mast and yardarm, and the wooden knobs capstans used for the wrapping of line. I’m still proud of his attention to such nautical details, however.

They – my wife and Noah – have left for the grocery store, leaving me in solitude once more. I notice the capitals on my Royal Mercury are beginning to look like descenders, implying a visit to the typewriter repair ship is soon inevitable. Fortunately there are two such shops to choose from in my city. I also ponder whether such an adjustment, lubrication or cleaning is capable of being done by myself, perhaps saving a repair bill that could be better spent on that new camera I continue to lust after.

I suspect the beginning of the end of an era is at hand, photographically speaking, for I have spent the last 18 years or so immersed in the world of traditional silver gelatin black and white photography, swishing sheets of paper and film around in dimly-lit trays of exotic chemicals, and building primitively odd contraptions out of wood and cardboard and metal to be used as pinhole cameras. I have gotten used to seeing the world in the way that paper negatives see the world through a pin-prick-sized opening, more conscious than ever of the dichotomy offered by the limitless possibilities of the micro-aperture and that other world of images that such limited photographic tools can never capture, the faintness of fading light, the ephemeral, fleeting ghosts of figures on the street in motion. I hunger for more, for an expanded set of possibilities, yet not wanting at all to give up the oddly familiar methods I’ve grown accustomed to.

Perhaps a venture forth into the new frontier of the hybrid process is at hand, where digitally-captured images are printed onto inter-negatives that can then be hand-printed, using traditional methods, in the chemical darkroom.

There is an oddly refreshing uncertainty in the air this season, given the realities of a new era in politics unfolding before us, along with the challenges of economic uncertainty and the possibilities of looming global disasters both near and far. I wonder how this brave new world appears in the eyes of a 9 year old; just like, 45 years ago to the day, I was swinging on the playground at Mitchell Elementary, only three blocks away, when I first heard word of the death of President Kennedy. I remember crying, not certain why, since I didn’t personally know him, nor had my 6 year old political sensibilities been adequately formed to make a discerning political judgment about party affiliation. I just remember crying, as if that were the right thing to do at the time in such circumstances.

I’ve tried to explain to Noah over the last few years what the Cold War was all about; like when two people are enemies, but don’t actually have the courage to exchange blows, just pose menacingly at each other and exchange ominous threats instead. He asks me if I was “in the war,” as if there had only been one war – The War – that is somehow eternally ongoing yet mysteriously distant and abstract, never actually hitting home but affecting us in subtler ways, like taxes and the prices of food and gas. I explain to him about the Cuban Missile Crisis and later, in the 1970s, when I spent 6 years of my life serving our country in the US Navy, and what it was like then, maneuvering around the world’s oceans under constant threat from an enemy navy, living daily with the constant reminders of the inevitable holocaust, like nukes being wheeled through the chow hall on yellow dollies, guarded by M16-toting Marines, during training drills. I tell him about the mountain on the edge of town, over by Four Hills, that was supposed to be hollowed out and filled with bunkers of H-Bombs. I tell him about my Dad, who also passed away this year, who had helped build the then-secret Manzano Base, and later worked for a federal agency in the nuclear weapons field. I tell him about a world that didn’t feel so safe, and how, later, it felt a bit safer. And now, it doesn’t feel so safe again.

I am reminded of Orwell’s “1984,” within which Winston Smith knows that, only four years previous, Oceana had been at war with Eastasia, yet now Oceana was officially at war with Eurasia, and had always been at war with Eurasia. “The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil,” he wrote. “’Who controls the past,’ ran the party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

They’re back from the store, replete with bags of groceries, and Noah is seated once more next to me, working feverishly on his book report, while I’ve just started typing page 4. The day has warmed up nicely, and the afternoon promises a delightful time hiking through the forested paths along the Rio Grande, camera in hand, ever on the lookout for an Elusive Image of Interest awaiting capture. This last week we felt the first tinge of winter chill, yet now we once again bask in the afternoon glow of autumn in the desert southwest, waiting for the eventual frigid winter to arrive. We remain naïve, sentimental, purposefully, consciously so, determined to hang on to the last vestiges of our delightful autumn. The world and its problems seem abstract and distant, like the words in the newspaper are some fiction, written to merely amuse us.

“That’s the power of dark chocolate,” says Noah, his mouth full of the rich, chewy wafers. He’s finished his book report and I’ve begun to proof read it. I’ve already sampled several of the chocolates. I finish the proof read, making recommendations for several changes. “Writing is 90% editing,” I inform him, quoting my favorite writing-related saying. Already this first draft is splotched with irregular rectangles of correction tape, and the occasional red ink edits annotated between the lines.

Noah excitedly finds an empty shoebox in his closet that can be used for wrapping yet another present. There’s already a pile of them that he’s completed, ready to be squirreled away for Christmas. He’s humming a Christmas tune, and then abruptly asks why he never met his Great-Grandfather, my wife’s Dad, who died years before Noah was born. I continue to marvel at the world of thought swimming around in his head, into which he will occasionally permit us entry. Outside, life is settling in for yet another cold winter; the junipers are laden with an oversized load of berries that fall and stain the driveway with purple smudges and the inevitable bird droppings; but inside – in our home and inside Noah’s heart – life is constant, ever-changing, thriving.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why We Still Need Recess

“It’s the uphill struggle against the laws of thermodynamics.” We were sitting at the kitchen table, discussing why we never went to an art showing, when I posited the theory that, left to itself, one’s life becomes a thing of drudgery and toil and heartless monotony.

You have to purposely make room for the things of creativity, even if you’re just a consumer of art, rather than a creator. “Where did the string go,” my Grandson asks, continuing his seemingly never-ending quest to fashion the plethora of post-consumer detritus into imaginative constructs that we, his proud Grandparents, would like to call art.

I can see a pattern in my life where many of the things I enjoy the most were initiated or inspired by events in my childhood. This I believe to be universally true, both for the good and the bad in people’s lives. For this reason we have been careful to be as supportive as possible of our Grandson’s creative adventures, which has resulted in him beginning to develop a real style all his own. I am realistic enough to know that this may just be a passing fancy of childhood; something one outgrows once puberty commences. But there is also the real possibility that this creative urge in him has been nourished and fostered enough such that there will be from henceforth an endless, ceaseless urge to create. That is my hope.

The urge to create is pandemic to the species, the evidence of which is strewn across millennia and miles, from the cave walls of France to the tranquil lava fields of the lunar highlands. Indeed, it is no mere exaggeration to speculate that the urge to create may be genetically determined by the long-chain proteins within the human cell. Ironically, our culture seems to be in mass-denial of such a possibility, the evidence of which can be seen by the ceaseless process of dumbing-down and conformity at all levels of society, transforming the limitless potential of the human imagination into the drudgery of the wage slave. We must not forget that in the struggle for survival that was the life of early man there was sufficient time and energy to carve and paint and create. Surely we can find the time now.

I have found the activities of photography and writing to be a constant source of pleasure and fulfillment in my existence. Not that there is a qualitative measure of excellence in what I do, but more in the sense of some inner need being satiated. Specific to photography, I find myself a mediator in the process of exposing a light-sensitive surface or device to a scene or setting. I do not see myself as the creator of such images, any more that I can take credit for the light-sensitive nature of certain silver salts, or the specific properties of electromagnetic radiation that permit an image to be formed through diffraction or projection. As mediator I bring together disparate elements possessing specific properties that, combined in certain orientations, produce some desired effect.

Actually, it’s a lot less scientific or predictable in actual practice than it sounds. That, too, is in the nature of the mediator. There remains a permanent sense of mystery about the materials and process one chooses to work with, regardless of one’s time, talent or experience thrown into the mélange. The unexpected is always to be expected. Otherwise it is an experiment in duplication, not discovery. I find this to be especially relevant to photography, whose recent explosive dissemination, due to technological advances, has given rise to much speculation as to the health and status of the medium.

The essential question of photography that has captured my recent interest is in the realm of genre versus morphology as it applies to the photograph as an essentially abstract image. We have been trained, through experience and indoctrination, that photographs represent some direct analogy to the objective world – what we would call “reality.” The convenience of this concept is essential to the bipolar relationship between commercialism and culture that pervades our modern life. The proscription of reality upon the photograph is essential for it to function as the principle medium of information, transformation and propaganda that is required in order for global capitalism to succeed. Nevertheless, those of us who have studied the photograph know that it is anything but an objective representation of reality. Its power lies in its deft ability to mimic objectivity while simultaneously remaining an entirely abstract medium. The fact that fields of line, tone, shading and color can be mapped, with some degree of precision, in correspondence to objective reality belies the fact of its essential abstraction. Photographs pretend to depict, this pretension being essential to their power to deceive.

One essential outgrowth from the pretension of objectivity is the idea of genre, which implies that the depiction of reality can further be subdivided into scientifically organized subunits, such as fashion, sport, documentary, journalism, landscape, street, snapshot and portraiture. Conversely, it can be directly posited that to deny photography’s objectivity we must therefore question the very concept of genre.

One genre that has captured my interest is that peculiar type of public document known as the street photograph. This genre supposes to represent the candid, spontaneous public activities of the common man on the street, interacting in visually interesting configurations that wait to be frozen in an instant of time. This is a most precarious type of photography, poised between the requirement to capture a fleeting glimpse of the private lives of people in public, and the ever-widening fears of surveillance and terrorism on the part of the individual and the Security State. As a genre it is also the most precarious because of the high degree of ambiguity found in the frozen image of people interacting in public. The poise, posture and expression of people caught in mid-sentence or mid-stride is the most ambiguous of images. Is their conversation one of jovial comradeship or guarded tension; is his stride fleeing in avoidance or seeking in earnest; is her expression one of casual interest or heightened awareness? One becomes aware of the need to read into the resulting image what one finds most interesting or compelling. This raises the implication of the theatrical aspect of the street photograph, as if those individuals isolated in the frame of the camera were in fact on some virtual stage, playing a role of which they were entirely unaware.

The ambiguity of the street photograph mirrors that of photography in general. In an attempt to explore these areas I have begun to collect images taken with less than purposeful intent and more or less at random, holding the camera in hand at waist level, pointing it merely in the general direction of some suggestively interesting scene, with little or no concern as to the rules of composition and the geometrics of the photographic frame. I am suspicious of the Established Rules of Good Photographs, just as I am about the Ordered Hierarchy of Genres. My desire to produce a free-form image is a result of some inner cogitation over the theoretical set of all possible photographs, which seems to be limited only by the established rules of composition and acceptable visual order. This purposeful exploration of the random image is only now practically possible with the ready availability of the point-and-shoot digital camera and large-capacity memory card. The product of this work I hope to be able to sort on strictly visual terms into categories based on morphology of the image, rather than into genre-based assumptions.

“I haven’t had chocolate milk in a long time,” my Grandson announces between bites of salad. He has just come inside from rolling down the street atop his handmade cardboard car, a contraption of old box cartons, tape and string, poised precariously on an old, weathered skateboard. The table is strewn with the product of last night’s and this morning’s art work, along with the implements of my typewriting. We discuss the attributes of Honey Crisp apples, and the lack of genetic diversity of those found at the market. We discuss an old school chum, now living out of state. We discuss wisdom and smarts and listening in school and enjoying learning.

We discuss the problem that the older you get, the less recess. We agree that everyone, adults included, should get recess. That would give us time to walk, to play, to draw and paint and take pictures. That would be so cool.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The iPod Generation

I’m sitting at Winning Coffee, in the University area of Albuquerque, on Election Day 2008. I had just motorcycled from a mile up Central Avenue, in the Nob Hill district, where I finished off a roll of slide film on the street life around the Obama campaign headquarters.

Whereas Nob Hill is eclectic in a sort of up-scale yuppification (boutique shops and restaurants,) the area around the University of New Mexico, especially south of Central Avenue (and known as the Student Ghetto) is more like bohemian-meets-grunge. This is especially true in that last great bastion of bohemia, Winning Coffee, where the aroma of fresh roasted espresso grind is tinged with an aura of the unwashed, both literal and figuratively. Here is to be found a unique-to-Albuquerque sidewalk café culture of students, low-rent minions, street beggars, cyclists, eccentric intellectuals and bohemian wanna-bes (such as myself,) smoking hand-rolled and otherwise, drinking coffee and having a bite to eat.

I really don’t fit in, at least in theory. I earn a middle class income, live across town in an established suburban neighborhood, own my own house, make no car payments, and come downtown on off days to soak up a touch of street culture, what little there is to find in this most conventional of western cities.

Like most communities that experienced explosive growth post WWII, the infrastructure of Albuquerque is built around the automobile. This is in contravention to the kind of condensed urban environment required to produce the sort of vibrant street life that writers, photographers, artists and bohemians of all ilks have gathered to for generations.

Lest we forget, ideas such as Marxism also arose out of the bohemian café culture of mid-18th century Europe, along with most of the seeds of modern art. The stew of culture that is the bohemian café society is a true melting pot of social intercourse, giving birth to entirely novel conventions of thinking. This is in direct contrast to what we in contemporary America have come to call “popular culture,” which has nothing to do with true culture because it is not a melting pot of human social intercourse, but rather a marketing experiment for Corporate America.

Before we wax excessively on the apparent aesthetic freedom of 21st century American Bohemia, let us be reminded that a sizable percentage of the customers at Winning sport retro-grunge-pseudo-non corporate-branded clothing, designed to appear off-grid and disconnected from the mainstream of consumer culture; laptop computers both PC and Mac; Bluetooth enabled cellular phones; ear-bud-sprouting MP3 players and other detritus of mass-marketed consumer culture. This is a generation that has taken to the products of 21st century manufacturing technology with an unbridled zeal that is wholly ironic compared to the gaping dichotomy between what they profess to believe and what mass-consumption-driven consumerism implies. This is not the hippie generation of the 1960s, the children of those who fought WWII, who were prepared to truly go “off-grid,” roughing it in communes and geodesic domes planted on some hillside far removed from the conveniences of modern urban living. These neo-bohemians eschew the values of corporate America that engineered and built the mechanized civilization that they take for granted, assuming that these systems have always been here and will ever be, like some law of nature; no maintenance required, no cost necessary, provided for the social benefit of all by the omni-present Supreme Deity whom they, en masse, deny. This is the naiveté of socialism with none of the realism.

One gets the feeling that what is needed is a good, old-fashioned, totalitarian crack-down to bring this naïve generation to their senses and make them realize that nothing is sustained with little or no effort; that civilization in its truest sense is a precious, fragile, precarious thing whose mere existence is in contravention to the laws of nature and thermodynamics. Left to it, the world is in a continual process of decay; creativity alone can reverse the tide of degradation, if only for a moment.

What I do find refreshing in the spirit of many of the youth I see represented at Winning is a healthy skepticism of the dominant paradigm. Yes, they are quick to embrace some new trend or fad; that is the mere folly of youth. But they also can look upon this rock-strewn cultural landscape and see many of the same pitfalls that my generation was too reckless to avoid.

The culture of the Baby Boom generation has been documented, dissected, researched, strained, sifted and every thread torn asunder in an attempt at understanding. It is now time for the Baby Boomers to make that supreme sacrifice: we must quit gazing into the mirror long enough to pay some attention to our offspring. They are desperate for our attention.

Those who are entrusted to write our cultural history hold as it were the very keys to civilization itself, for if a culture forgets its past then it is nothing, it is done for good. Culture by definition is a continually evolving process of ever-changing contexts, whereby the future becomes the present becomes the past; new futures always on the horizon; new presents ever appearing; recent pasts always in flux. Culture therefore is a method agreed upon by which the ever-changing present is kept in continual focus. In order for this to continue functioning there has to be some direct comparison with the non-present, the past. Social and cultural historians are entrusted to document these changes, ever reinterpreting the past in light of an ever-changing present, while simultaneously being faithful to permit the facts of the past to speak for themselves.

Those who fail in this task, either intentionally or by accident, become by default propagandists, whose only usefulness is for those with empire-building agendas.

As I finish my coffee and scone, and prepare to depart for more errands to run, I reflect upon this eclectic cultural mix found at Winning. These neo-bohemians: who will speak for them? Have they no voice? Who will be the documentarians of their culture? Or will they merely be known to historians as anonymous consumers of popular culture, the iPod Generation?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Sunday After Halloween

You can cut a chicken’s head off, and it will run around for a little while longer. So, why aren’t ghosts just energy left over from people’s bodies? Like chickens without their heads? We discussed this around the kitchen table after breakfast.

My grandson has a friend at school that claims to have ordered ten school busses from the Internet, and then jumped them with his bike.

He told me this after he awoke this morning and recounted a bad dream he had, one about dummies in the closet, scary ones like from an R.L. Stine movie. In his dream we (him and I) got out our guns – his a .22 and mine a .45 -- and blasted them.

The guy at the archery shop is mean. Or merely being instructive, we’re not sure. But one thing is for certain: there’s something out behind the old barn, cloud-like, not quite human.

If you only had enough money for a face-lift on one side of your face, would you have to talk to people sideways, hiding the saggy side?

It’s “fall-back day.” Time to stop the clocks and wait one hour. Is this just wasted time, waiting to restart all the clocks? I feel cheated, like we don’t really get to use the extra hour any way we want. Maybe there are no extra hours.

The works of Edgar Allen Poe at the kitchen table, along with the writings of art photography criticism and images, found in Aperture magazine, inspiring ideas of miniature sandwich board photographs, the size of slides, distributed non-randomly and disturbingly around the interior of the domicile. One is simultaneously intrigued and unsettled, not sure if this represents a joke, or has more serious intentions.

You can lead a kid to a bucket of water and fleece scrubbing mitt, but you can’t make him Wash the Car Your Way without the intermittent dispersion of angst across the driveway, like water trickling down the curb from a leaky hose.

But you can load a sheet of grade 2 resin coated black & white photo paper – preflashed under a 7.5 watt lamp for 10 seconds – into a pinhole box camera and lead same said kid out to a sunny corner of the rear yard to make a 40 second exposure, in the gentle autumn light, of some visually interesting setting; and then lock ourselves into the dim, red-limned darkroom, shoe-horned into a corner of the garage, and proceed to process said sheet of paper through the Three Trays of Chemicals to reveal the negative image upon the glistening paper’s surface. First the developer, a dark brown, faintly vile-smelling liquid, like a mixture of stale coffee and urine; then the stop bath, a yellow-tinged vinegary elixir; and on to the fixer, a clear, water-like solution with a funny metallic smell that hits you in the back of the throat; and finally into the rinse tray, overflowing with fresh aquifer water from deep under the base of the nearby mountain range, at the south end of the Rockies, down the sink and out the hose on the side of the garage where it is found to be watering the nearby shrubs, soaking into the soil, returning from whence it came.

Later that afternoon my grandson fell asleep in the back seat of the car, his angel-like face warmed by the afternoon autumn light, as we drove down into the north valley of Albuquerque, to purchase some lavender-scented potions from Los Poblanos farm and explore the lush grounds surrounding the Bed & Breakfast, where we happen upon fairy-like structures magically hidden within the underbrush and hanging from dry tree branches, bird-house-like but disheveled, like the fairies are now gone for good, perhaps wintering in Cozumel or Sun City or Yuma.

We said goodbye to the fairy houses; the chicken coop; the pigpen with Hardy & Lardy; the lavender shop; we drove our grandson back home, where he prepared to attend a Day of the Dead parade in the heart of Albuquerque’s Hispanic south valley. I wish I could be him, nine years old, all of life unfolding before him, still full of innocence and the hopefulness of youth, still afraid of shadows at night and what’s in the closet, not burdened down by the weight of life but able to fly free, free, bird-like freedom as he pedals his bike up and down our street, across the sidewalk and up into a neighbor’s driveway, not disturbed by any notion of privacy, the whole world his to explore, his feelings open and free and right up front, not stifled and submerged and covered over in some veneer of learned sophistication.

Whatever else we may believe to be true about the afterlife and eternity and heaven and hell and judgment and nirvana and death and decay, one thing becomes true when you are in the company of your grandson, and that is you can sense a part of yourself, ephemeral and nondescript, transferred into his tender heart, living on in the life of that generation to come. This is our way of settling the issue of that Final Great Question: our Fountain of Youth is found to be in our family offspring, into which we impart our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows, our expectations and disappointments, our idiosyncrasies and our greatest attributes. We die a little bit every day in order that we may live on in their lives, whether through fondness or regret, so that the common thread of our humanity may continue.

In the failing light, the dry, yellowed cottonwood leaves erratically scratch and pirouette and rattle across the roads in the gentle, warm breeze, warning us of the winter to come.