Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mayday School

The translucency of years

The attack when it came was in direct relation to the old school. That much I understand. It’s the rest that eludes me, the reason memory puckishly glimmers away the years as if they were no more substantial than a dream, leaving me adrift in a moment of time long since forgotten, but only for a brief moment, and with a fractured, imperfect recollection that leaves me weak-kneed and yearning for more.

But for now we stood in an icy wind, complaining vigorously of the worsening conditions, the sullen clouds, the battering gusts, the cold. We walked across a muddy road onto short-cropped grass studded with the season’s first dandelions and hunkered in the lee of the building. Sheltered from the wind, the sudden silence rushed in like a shout. Opposite us, across barren gray fields as yet untouched by spring, a small group of bison ambled from behind a stand of cedars, their coats shaggy and worn, as darkling as the trees. A stone’s throw away two narrow roads converged, rough scrapes luminous in the waning light. I turned to the door and tried the knob, and finding it unlocked entered into a tiny foyer. It was like stepping back in time.

I have no experience in this other than the stories I’ve heard or read: a clapboard single-room schoolhouse alone on a prairie swell, kids of varying ages arranged in front with stern-faced teachers flanking them like jailhouse guards, the boys in denim overalls, the girls in skirts, the requisite pair of single-holers tucked away behind, a horse or two staked to the grass. It’s an iconic image of where prairie people began, of an era when the land was freckled with small towns, smaller farms and larger families, when Americans were connected to the soil in a way that will never be again. And now these neglected remnants stare hollowly out on empty fields stretching unbroken to the edge of the world.

Beyond the foyer the main room opened up. Rows of scarred desks led to a raised platform where the teacher’s heavy oak desk loomed ominously. Stretching the length of the back a green slate waited endlessly for the scrape of chalk. Above it a narrow banner spelled out the letters of the alphabet in a fine cursive script the likes of which has passed from existence. From the ceiling a globe dangled on a rope and pulley. Low benches ran the length of the sides. A piano stood in a corner. The flag mounted high on the wall held thirteen stripes, forty-eight stars.

Thus our abandoned history. It would a mistake to imagine this as a more innocent time, for not all was innocence—the numerous small headstones in the adjoined cemetery whitened the grass like lethal toadstools, reminders that life then was often hard, brutal and short.

One long shaft of light ran the length of the platform and up the side of the desk. Wood grain standing out like ridges of a fingertip seemed to emphasize the long decades of disuse. I snapped the camera to the tripod and framed the shot. This was why we had come, to capture some of time’s essence, and though the storm raged outside, here was a quiet calm that bespoke of long years of waiting.

Several days later I experienced one of those memory attacks where between the inhale and exhale I go from now to elsewhere. One heartbeat I’m sweeping the floor, the next I’m entering a schoolroom and freezing in midstep. Other kids jostle me as I gape at the neatly-arranged seats, the posters lining the walls, the windows slatted with wide ivory blinds, the expectant chalkboard. Nervous energy humming through my body, tense and scared from facing a new class.

At first I thought this was merely a recollection of someplace else—the yeshiva just off Sheridan and Colfax in the heart of the Orthodox Jewish section in Denver, where I occasionally worked on their burglar alarm, but I realized my angle of view was all wrong. I was seeing the room from a perspective unfamiliar to adults, lower, at a child’s height. So the memory was true, if not impossible to trace back to a specific place and time.

One of the biggest surprises was the smell associated with the schoolroom. Impossible to describe now—its tantalizing brevity was as pungent as it was ephemeral—it nevertheless proved the sudden time shift. Scent is the truest form of memory.

(But why the yeshiva? Was there a shadow where no shadow should be, as if I were in two places at once and the images juxtaposed haphazardly? Again, in a dark hall I paused in a doorway to a darker room where a blocky commercial refrigerator hummed softly and unfamiliar smells cloyed the air. My ears strained for the sound of movement. As I paused, I ran a finger across the surface of a scrolled mezuzah affixed to the doorjamb, lightly tracing the name of God. Yes, I was there, too.)

These disjointed memories are like light falling in empty rooms. Sometimes intense and hard-edged, merciless like a honed blade, at other times soft and forgiving, less illumination than a drapery of luminescence turning the years translucent, through which the past can be dimly discerned but never fully realized.

The years come and go, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’re allowed to go back. Maybe not for long, and maybe with imperfect results, and maybe even to several junctures simultaneously, confusing though that is. Though each of these instances turns me inside out, leaves me momentarily shattered and weak, in the end the past is all we have. I’d rather remember than forget.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The second silence

Three silences there are: the first of speech,
The second of desire, the third of thought.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The man came in and spent some time looking around. When asked if he was looking for anything in particular, he said no. “I’ll know it when I see it,” he said.

He saw it in a wooden display box. I knew this because of the way he stopped, stooped to peer through the glass, and straightened. His face wore a different look, almost puzzled, and a furrow on his brow.

“Can I see this lighter?” he asked. His eyes never left the case.

It was a metal Zippo embossed with a Barrett-Smythe stegosaurus. When I handed it to him he hefted it and turned it around and flipped the lid and sparked the striker and snapped the lid closed. His thumb traced the outline of the dinosaur. He stared at the lighter while his fingers roved blindly over its surface, but his sight had turned inward. I recognized the expression.

“I’ll give you some time to think it over,” I said, and quietly withdrew.

As the unofficial manager of my wife’s consignment shop in Blue Rapids, I’m becoming familiar with the shopping habits of people. Antiquers pore over the crowded shelves as if certain they’ll miss something, and specialized collectors, those looking for marbles, say, or wood-handled golf clubs or metal store tokens, rush through in a tunnel-vision sort of way, eyes unseeing anything beyond the shape of their desires. Some bluntly ask, others find pleasure in looking. Those who say they’ll recognize what they want when they see it are always men. Never women.

Collectors are driven. While a few are fun to talk with, most seem humorless, as if sure they’re wasting their time, that our quaint little shop could never harbor a rare masterpiece, and that at a ridiculously low price. But they have to stop and look to keep the demons at bay.

I wanted to be a collector once. My specialty was modern first editions, mysteries mostly, though my eclectic tastes ran to almost every genre but romance. The most I ever paid for a book was $75 for an autographed first edition, first printing of A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane. When I realized how much collecting was going to cost the desire began to wane. Now I see collecting as something that needs to be dusted. And I hate dusting.

I also see where the same book now goes for $350. Maybe I should reconsider. What’s a little dust?

After a long time the man placed the lighter back in the display. He seemed deflated, like a balloon with all the air leaked out. “Let me think about it,” he said.

A few weeks later he strode through the door and went directly to the case. There was an almost feral gleam in his eye. “Can I see this again?” he asked. I was already reaching for the key.

His fingers were restless, caressing the embossing, flicking the lid open and closed, stroking the metal case as if it were alive. This time I remained at his side, respectfully silent.

“I don’t need a lighter,” he finally said. “I just like it. It’s just—” He struggled for the right word, and all the while the lighter never stilled. “It’s different.”

In the retail trade these are the customers we enjoy. They arrive with no clear idea of what they want and leave with treasure. Besides the obvious gratification of a sale, their satisfaction is infectious, even vicarious.

His hesitation expanded into an uncomfortable silence. Slowly, slowly, the lighter grew still in his hands. “I’ll wait,” he said.

“It is the nature of desire not to be satisfied,” Aristotle said. While this applies to every facet of human existence, nowhere is it more applicable than in the ownership of stuff. There is stuff we have to buy, like refrigerators and washing machines and groceries, and there’s stuff we don’t need but think we do, like Zippo lighters with embossed stegosaurs or autographed first editions. The trick is knowing what stuff will remain priceless and what will tarnish the moment cash is exchanged.

I almost felt sorry for the guy, trapped between desire and reason. So much neat stuff passes in and out of the shop that I’ve learned to ignore it unless some obvious historic relic pops up. A handmade wooden checkerboard with stenciled hearts caught my eye, but I waffled until it was sold. Afterward I felt a trace of smugness, knowing it was hers to dust.

And then the croquet balls arrived.

There were seven of them, one larger than the others, very old, hand-painted with bands of slate blue, ochre, weathered burgundy and a pale green like you’d get if you strained avocados through cheesecloth. Three were smooth and four were grooved along the outside curve, with a few nicks and scratches from use. They were beautiful.

I set them on the counter where I could see them. Now and then I’d pick them up, one by one, and roll them in my fingers. The way they felt in my hand was indescribable.

Several customers looked at them, and each time I felt a wave of panic. The price was more than reasonable, it was a steal. Some remarked on the grooves, how unusual they were on croquet balls. I spent some time on the Internet looking for old croquet balls and found little, and none that were grooved. There was nothing else like them.

Maybe they’re not croquet balls. I really don’t know what they’re for. I’m just drawn to them.

The man returned and bought the lighter. This time there was no hesitation. “I don’t know why I like it,” he said. “But it’s too cheap to pass up.”

I took the balls home and set them on my desk, but within a day they had lost their allure.

“Why did you buy them?” Lori asked.

I couldn’t say.

The next day I returned them. I put them on the counter so I could see them, and occasionally I’d reach over and pick one up. Everything about them appealed to me—their color, their odd shape, their heft—but I couldn’t make up my mind.

“Life is made up of desires that seem big and vital one minute and little and absurd the next,” Alice Caldwell Rice wrote. “I guess we get what’s best for us in the end.”

A vendor brought in an egg-shaped vase decorated with scenes from Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, and perched atop the lid was a three-inch statue of Peter himself. I bought it on the spot.

Desire is a funny thing. I don’t claim to understand it, but I know what I like, especially if the price is right.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

One more of the car

Surprising colors on the Mayday School wall

Morning light at a one-room schoolhouse

Door latch at Winkler School

The defunct railroad bridge at Bala, KS

Old car and truck in Waterville, KS

Since my editor bumped this week’s column in favor of a car care section—barbaric, I know—I figured I’d better inform my readers on the election results. The final tally was in today’s newspaper—belated news indeed, as the city clerk swore me in last night for a second term on the city council. I see where my opponent picked up two additional votes, making the total 59-46.

So the good news is that I’m allowed another four year term to serve the good (and some not so good) citizens of our small town. The bad news is that I’m allowed another four year term to serve the citizens of this town. What this immediately equates to is a loss of sleep, as last night’s meeting extended nearly to 11 p.m. Since I go to work at 3:30 a.m., that didn’t give me much time to snooze.

Interviews for news articles fell through today, giving me a much-needed break. What I did to fill my time was watch videos on Adobe’s new photo processor, Lightroom, and to put the trial version of the software to the test. I downloaded images from my camera and tweaked them, first processing the raw files—digital negatives—and saving them as .psd files for further processing in Photoshop CS3. With Lightroom it’s a snap to compare similar images and pick the best, run them through a host of different tones and filters, and then optimize for black-and-white or color. I now have a handful that I consider winners. When I have more time I’ll go over them with a Wacom pressure-sensitive tablet and finalize the images.

I guess this is my way of admitting to “manipulating” photographs. I’ve heard people say that they never modify images, as if that somehow makes them less pure. Hogwash and balderdash! Every digital photograph needs some measure of fine tuning, even if only to sharpen it a bit. Since I tend to think in black-and-white this means I have to convert my photos to grayscale and find the right tone and contrast for each color channel. And then there’s the cropping and sharpening to do. It takes a while for good images, but it’s worth it.

I sound like I’m rambling. Sleep deprivation can do that. It’s getting on late in the afternoon and time to start roasting a chicken. I’m also keeping a close eye on the skies because hawks are migrating and yesterday I saw an adult Golden Eagle, a fairly rare bird for these parts. I’ll post a few photos and then start supper.

As always, thanks for reading. More polished work will follow next week.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

In the limbo between now and the vote

Voters in Blue Rapids have to ask themselves this election if this is the kind of man they want representing them on the city council: Too cheap to pay the five dollar filing fee, waited till the last minute to submit his petition and had his application swiftly rejected due to incompleteness. By my count two of the seven deadly sins were broken and perhaps one or two others. Ordinarily such ineptness, if not outright wickedness, would be grounds for disqualification in my eyes, but I hope my fellow citizens vote for me anyway.

It seems an unlikely thought on such a fine day. Looking out the open door I see the fruit trees in full bloom, the grass, once dull as weathered boards, now green and lush—some would say too lush, since mowing has already begun, and this only March!—and the distant redbuds a vivid spray against a rapidly greening backdrop. Thinking of politics casts a dark cloud across the cheery sunlight, but such is the case, for what had been an uncontested filing is now a contested race.

As Winnie the Pooh would say, “Oh, bother.”

Indeed. That I’m in this position is more Twilight Zone-ish than reality, because I never set out to become a politician, nor do I feel comfortable calling myself one.

Nor, at this stage, do I relish the idea of becoming an ex-politician. The irony is delicious, but such, alas, is the nature of politics.

By the time you read this the matter will be settled. I will be either councilman or citizen. Until then I’m engaged in campaigning, a new experience for me, and one I’m uncomfortable with. When I first ran for city council four years ago the seat was being vacated and nobody wished to fill it, so I stepped in more from embarrassment than any latent desire to perform my civic duties. Our sister city to the west had eight people vying for three seats, and we had zilch. At the time I told people, “It’s a dirty job but somebody has to do it.” I had no idea.

This election was similar except that during the past week I picked up a challenger. And what I discovered was surprising—where before I’d thought to relinquish my seat if the right person came along, now I’m fighting to retain it. Which also brings a raft of complicated emotions I can barely decipher.

There’s a certain heady allure of being privy to the innermost workings of the machinery that is a city, and of being in a role to chart its course like some great ship navigating unexplored waters. But there’s also a lot of work involved, a lot of time expended for neither profit nor gain, and, of course, a great deal of drudgery. Being the tiny town we are, the post is voluntary. There is little glory in it. As I confided to the mayor several months ago when the two of us first started mulling over our willingness to commit to another four years, “I like the idea of being a councilman more than I like being a councilman.” He understood.

Maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. Can a voluntary council seat be considered political in the normal sense of the word? After all, we run on no platform other than name and reputation; Democrat, Republican, Commie, Green, Conservative, Liberal, Wacko, those designations have no meaning in so slight a form of government. There are no campaign funds to be appropriated, no expenditures other than an occasional small ad in the local newspaper, no stump speeches, no (thank God) babies to kiss. If we’re elected we serve, and if not we stay home, sip a beer and watch the sun set on our civic lives.

I’m trying not to look at it as a popularity contest, but that’s exactly what it is. On a national or regional level an election is often decided upon a perceived lesser-of-two-evils rather than an elevated estimation of a single candidate. It’s not that way in small-town races. Here we count on friends and relatives for votes with the realization that the vast majority of others will stay home, hopelessly indifferent.

Having an opponent changes everything, though. My nonchalance has been subsumed by a burning desire to retain my seat. Partly this is due to wanting to oversee a housing grant we received to refurbish homes, though admittedly a great deal involves the simple fact that I enjoy working with my fellow council members and would miss them.

Campaigning is hard work, especially if one has neither experience nor desire. I fumbled around vainly for a witty motto until a fellow councilman quipped, “We could do worse!” It was a light bulb moment, and so my campaign platform was unleashed.

Unfortunately, I ran into immediate trouble when presenting it to my campaign manager. Lori was unequivocable in her demand that I not even think of saying such a thing.

So I didn’t. Instead, I printed up cheesy fliers with a portrait of my ugly mug and a reminder to vote and pasted them all over town. A close friend paid for an ad in the newspaper. It wasn’t much, but it was all I was willing to do.

Henry Adams said, “No man should be in politics unless he would honestly rather not be there.” Well, that’d be me. But it wouldn’t make for a good campaign slogan. And so, bereft of any clever catchword or phrase, I stare out the open door on this perfect spring day and wait. It’s all I can do.