Thursday, December 25, 2008

The only Christmas photo I could muster--the festival of trees at the Hall of Waters in downtown Excelsior Springs, MO

The Sunday before Christmas

It’s the Sunday before Christmas and all through the house not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse.

Frankly, this surprises me. Usually this time of year the house is all but infested with rodents who have wisely determined that the balmy indoors beats the frigid outdoors any day, and the food is better, too. In preparation for their indubitable arrival, traps with their spring-loaded bars and touch-sensitive triggers were hung with great care (plus copious amounts of Jiffy peanut butter) in hopes that any uninvited mouseketeer would soon be dispatched to that other side which awaits us all. And then—nothing. 

Old Hiram Maxim would be disappointed. His design of the mousetrap as we know it has stood the test of time, even though over 4,000 patents in the United States alone purport to be a “better” model. Maxim, you might remember, went on to invent the machine gun, a fact that leads one to question whether it was due to a veritable plague of mice, necessity being the mother of invention and all. Thanks to Alexandra Fuller’s autobiography, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which graphically describes Fuller’s mother cutting loose on a cobra in their Rhodesian kitchen, her Uzi set on full auto, the “explosion of glasses and bottles and tins and a wild chattering of bullets...the dust, the splintering of still-falling glass, the whimpering dogs,” it’s easy to picture a berserk Maxim training his new invention on the invasive horde and squeezing the trigger. Unfortunately, it was only a short step from there to the trenches of Flanders and  Ypres.

Sheba is nestled all snug by her cage, visions of townhouse crackers and Doritos dancing in her head, while in the bedroom Lori lies asleep, the comforter spilling onto the floor like a waterfall, and I’m half-dozing at my iMac, dutifully hammering away at the keys when what I really want to do is to rejoin my wife in the slumber of innocents.

Across the street festive lights twinkle and sparkle in competition with the growing dawn. Were I to glance out the south window I’d see the doctor's house aglow with each window pulsing red, green and blue, and to the southwest another house afire with glittering white icicles and the illumined skeletal outlines of mammals cavorting in the snow. Only our house is dark.

It gets worse. Within our humble abode not a single holiday decoration or accessory is evident. No stockings hang from the chimney, no tree festooned with ornaments and tinsel, no pine wreaths nor candles nor any other thing to honor the season. It’s not so much a “bah, humbug” as it is an “ah-choo.”

A hacking cough and ribs that feel staved in. 

An incessantly dripping schnoz.

Gritty eyes.

Bone-deep weariness from lack of sleep.

Merry %@&% Christmas.

I tell myself it could be worse. My back is better after tearing it out earlier this month, so at least I’m mobile, more or less. We could have pneumonia, or the latest ice storm could have snapped power lines and trees and plunged us into that darkness we knew so intimately last year about this same time. The economy hasn’t hit us too hard as evidenced by a steady stream of brown-shirted men bearing gifts. Our kids and grandkids are healthy. We have jobs and a roof over our heads. Yes, it could always be worse.

But contemplating a Christmas-less Christmas has plunged me in a reflective mood, and try as I might I cannot shake it. For a while I stare out the dining room window where a deep burgundy sheen filters through the naked woods and rises into the eastern sky like a red tide, only to be captured in the ice and hoarfrost coating the shrubs and held there, each glazed twig and limb burning with its own incandescence. For a brief, fleeting moment the rising sun paints the brittle snow in pastel shades of the most delicate hues, ephemeral as thoughts, before swiftly fading to the coldest satin-blue. The thermometer reads five below zero.

And within these walls where I am drawn evermore inward there comes a mental shift that always occurs with the transition between night and day, as if time had been held in abeyance or slowed to a trickle and the shot of light over the horizon’s circular bow the muezzin’s call to action. I must get busy, I think, and then reminded of a treeless Christmas settle back in my chair and linger while around me the house grows yet more still and its creatures quietly sleeping. 

I wonder: can Christmas be Christmas without a tree, or gifts gaily wrapped? Are the trappings as important as the event? Ritual plays a large role in how we interact with the great mysteries of religion, society and myth. Rote enhances experience and perhaps even opens us to a deeper understanding. But is it necessary? Not necessary, no.

This, then, is my fate, one I grudgingly accept with full knowledge that the course is not irreversible. But in looking back on Christmases past what comes to me is not wrapping paper and strands of twinkling lights, not trees both real and artificial, nor even the dated Hallmark ornaments collected each year since our first together 35 years ago (has it really been that long?), but the laughter of children, the lunacy of cats and discarded paper, the closeness of family and friends, the sense of homecoming and warmth in a world gone cold, the joy of giving, an abiding feeling of thankfulness and blessings bestowed, the love in my wife’s eyes, a touch, a kiss, the intangible things that make our lives something to cherish, something to honor, something to give. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Found in light and shadow

Sometimes your life changes and you don’t know it until later, perhaps at a quiet time when your thoughts are your own and not held captive to some outside influence or imposition, your self laid bare under your own gentle scrutiny, and you get a glimmer, an inkling, of some subtle shift occurring in your thinking or vision or imagination, the way we see or imagine the world around us and our place within it. A little light switches on, perhaps dim at first but steadily growing brighter, and with Holmesian introspection and meticulous digging you trace the transformation back to its source. 

And sometimes it’s a slow evolution, the cumulative accrual of observation and experience. Looking back on it now from a space of several months as well as a hundred or so photographs, some tossed, some set aside as merely decent and a select few life-altering, I’m becoming aware of what began far away in another state and an old hospital, now museum, where sunlight filtering through gauzy curtains lay like time itself on the dusty coating of an ancient potbellied stove, or reflected off stainless medical instruments splayed on a table like tools of torture, or even of how a sliver of a hallway, laced by a crack inching toward a yellowed plastic light switch, seemed to hold the very essence of the structure in microcosmic completion. Indeed, my most memorable shot was so simple as to be impressionistic, a single shadow aslant down an unblemished wall with only a small hook to provide texture or dimension. Ultimately, what memories were captured or hauled off like booty were not of the museum’s entirety but of a few individual pieces that encapsulated, and perhaps defined, the whole.

Whatever the transformative process, whether sudden or slow, there were no angels singing when we closed the car doors in the parking lot at Missouri’s Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site and Park, no revelations from on high, no peals of trumpets. The lot was empty except for the vehicles of employees and a smattering of small birds filtering through the trees, a mixed flock of some half-dozen species. Low clouds played cat-and-mouse with a sun already lowering in the west while a slight breeze rattled the desiccated leaves like the faint stirring of castanets.

Lori seemed in awe of the visitor center, a sprawling megalith anchoring one end of the parking lot and a tangle of deciduous woods beyond hiding all else. “I’ve always wanted to come here but never thought I would,” she said.

It had been a trip hastily planned—minutes, actually, something unlike my normal plodding pace fraught with research and other diversions. When she mentioned the mill several nights before I’d leaped on the opportunity as part of Chase Jarvis’ admonition to go for the sake of art. So we went, taking time to close out the work week and make reservations for a hotel. I found much to like in the new and improved me.

I also found much to like in Watkins Woolen Mill, though it would be days and weeks before I learned the full extent of it.

The site encompasses a lavish interpretive center but once past the rear double doors the present falls away and one is back in the mid-1800s, when Waltus Watkins built his farm and mill. The latter, the only 19th century textile mill in the nation with its original machinery intact, stands several hundred yards down a dirt path shaded by overarching trees. Off to the side is the main house with its smaller smokehouse and summer kitchen, and beyond an extensive garden and orchards give way to distant woods. The place has an aura of being suspended in time and curiously emptied of its denizens, as if they’d wandered off and were expected back at any moment. No doubt our off-season arrival and the fact that we were the only visitors heightened this sense, but the pleasure was all ours in the personal attention provided by the staff.

We met our guide at the mill. So well has it been preserved that it appeared almost new, a massive rectangle of three stories and a towering chimney, its brickwork sharp and clean-edged. Stepping inside was another matter. Windows provided the only illumination, November light spilling onto the worn wooden planks in harsh angular shapes whose intensity waned and waxed with the interplay of sun and cloud, while in the corners the disturbed shadows seemed to shift and sidle under their own volition, advancing and retreating in an endless war of give and take. 

As Lori and the guide wandered off I was drawn to the ancient furnace. Several hand-hewn boards lay lengthwise inside the firepit on ashes long since grown cold. The metal casing on the heavy door was shattered from heat, the housing pitted and peeled away by rust. On this lower level light slatted through open framing and congealed on the uneven cobblestones at the base of the forge as if burned there by past fires. I centered the furnace and a portion of the hallway within the viewfinder and snapped several shots, varying the exposure to capture the confluence of luminosity and gloom, imagining as I did the scene in black and white. In this forever twilight there was no room for color.

And that should have been that, a simple exercise in making art, the pressing of a shutter and moving on to the upper floors and the eternal shades of night captured within the flywheels, gears and cogs of the machinery, the endless strands of thread dangling like spiderwebs, the preternatural silence swallowing our footsteps, the mote-filled air. But if Watkins Woolen Mill is as much in the present as it is in the past, so too are our lives, and somewhere within those shadows something more than the shutter clicked, something still in the gloaming but slowly, ever so slowly, coming into the light. What we take away we also leave.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Across the wide Missouri

Across the wide Missouri! I’m immersed enough in folklore and American history to grasp the significance of the phrase in the annals of western expansion, part jumping-off point, part immutable threshold, a liquid boundary separating the staid past from the propitious future, roll on, roll on, hail Columbia. Departing Leavenworth on its magnificent double-span bridge—itself the color of an autumn sky—brings to mind riverboats and paddle-wheels and a nation at its crossroads. Once when flying to Pennsylvania I looked down upon the broad Mississippi and felt its presence even at 30,000 feet. It truly is America’s river, writhing through our collective DNA, guardian to our most sacred myths and literature. Though the Missouri plays second fiddle, the fact that it originates in the West, flows through the Heartland and empties in the South, bridging the entirety of the nation, gives it a more western aesthetic. In that respect, the river and I share kinship.

Crossing the Missouri has another connotation, that of traversing borders. Something about leaving my home state appeals to me though I can’t say why. It might have something to do with being raised smack-dab in the middle of New Mexico, which meant a fairly extensive journey to get to other states. Ditto for living in Denver. Now we’re just a short haul from Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa, so that within 30 minutes of leaving home I can crow with absolute delight, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

But on Highway 36 there was no sky-painted bridge to sail across, no graceful arches leading the eye. Rather, and to my dismay, a squat steel platform discharging us into St. Joseph and a bewildering maze of highways, speeders and impatient truckers. Lori had suggested sightseeing in town but neither of us were prepared for the sudden acceleration, rude and baffling after the somnolent backroads of northeast Kansas. White-knuckled and tense, I asked which sites she wanted to see and which exit would be best. “I don’t know,” she said. “I never had time to look.”

The major distinguishing characteristic separating the sexes can be summarized in how men prepare and execute and women expect sudden revelations. Maybe it’s because men tend to be pessimists (“realists,” my father would say) and women remain eternal optimists. With vague recollections of the Pony Express Museum and some fancy cathedral being downtown, I whizzed off the first exit with that designation and found myself heading north along the river. Before us unfolded a panoply of massive limestone structures, architecture from another era built on a grand scale the likes of which we will never see again.

“It’s beautiful,” Lori said. Indeed it was but possibly more so for the passenger. The driver was engaged in other matters, mostly keeping us alive and charting a course based on wishful dreams. Helpful signs directing us to historical sites loomed ahead so we followed them into a warren of ill-marked one-way streets rising and falling precipitously with the contours of the loess hills. Angling toward the spires of the cathedral with cars hard on our heels like a pack of wolves, I managed to spot an empty parking lot and whip in. The relief was staggering. I know it was my imagination but it seemed that the cars snarled as they sprinted past, furious at our escape.

Next to us the twin spires of the former Church of the Immaculate Conception rose to the heavens. I’d read somewhere that it’s one of the most photographed buildings in town, but if so I couldn’t see how. Even with a superwide it was impossible to frame that magnificent structure without getting tangled with power lines and lens distortion, and after trying a few angles I grew bored and walked across the street to a shuttered derelict with November-hued vines clinging to the brickwork. Two quick close-up shots and I was done with St. Joseph.

Cities are no doubt a necessary evil on the road but whenever possible I try to avoid them. Years ago I when drove to Texas to bury my grandparents I charted a route straight south, 1,700 miles roundtrip of backroads and small towns and, once past the Texas border, a frightening number of Baptist churches. I religiously kept off interstates and made a complete bypass of Oklahoma City, preferring the open country to the crazed speedways, and in so doing arrived much later but also more mentally balanced, refreshed, in fact, from experiencing some of the loveliest country on earth. That stretch of road north of Possum Kingdom State Park in Texas is as lovely as it gets, which is why we travel, I guess. 

The sad reality of the open road is that the nearer to cities one gets the more expensive the houses are. Only when paint on the wayside homes began showing signs of peeling and the barns sagged from extreme old age did I begin to relax. For a while the land unfolded into plowed fields and I drove in a state of suspended animation, and then we turned south and skirted an interstate and the fields gave way to rolling hills and sheltering woods. Several times when we looped above the highway we saw a stream of vehicles clotting the lanes while ours was an empty two-lane bereft of traffic. Not much later we turned off onto an even narrower road and entered the state park. The road was strewn with fallen leaves and the afternoon sun slanted through the naked boughs like spectral fire, and every twilit fold had a tiny rill or creek reflecting the light. If there are gods they exist in shadows and moving waters. 

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Interregnum for a Black Friday

Most of the Black Friday sales were advertised for days in advance so shoppers knew where to find the best bargains. Universally, judging from comments, the “bargains” elicited yawns more than yikes. As many commentators put it, “Is that the best they can do?”

My sentiments exactly. I was ready to shop but hadn’t found anything worth spending my hard-earned cash on, and so gave the online ads only a cursory glance as I started my day.

My Black Friday day.

4:30 a.m., five grafs into my next column, more in my journal, and an ad pops up on my screen. I study it, searching the fine print for discrepancies or stipulations. I can’t find any. It says for today only, 7-7 Pacific time, customers receive 40% cash back for any product from HP.

Any product. 

This catapults me into my research mode, reading reviews, finding examples, sizing images in Adobe Lightroom, my editing software. It’s all motion and emotion as I contemplate a 13”x19” semi-pro printer I’ve always wanted, one that will print superb black-and-white as well as color. Think of it: prints as cheap as $2.50, and this on Hahnemuhle or Moab rag papers. Of course there would be the other expenses, the paper, the inks, the little things that jack up the final cost. I’d have to learn about paper profiles and calibration and all that. A similar-sized print (or thereabouts—none of the large photo labs uses that size, the nearest being 12”x18”)—runs between $10 for regular black-and-white paper to $21 for fine art paper. The savings are enormous, even factoring in the initial costs. What a deal. What an idea.

Just for grins, say I save $16 for each fine art print. I’d only have to print 20 images before breaking even. When looked at that way, it’s a steal.

Were I selling images, it would be a no-brainer. But I’m not.

On the other hand, this would make marketing and selling my photos much more profitable. 

And the price is right. The printer retails for $550 so the savings would come to $220. That is a big, big deal.

Plus free shipping! And no tax!


It’s the very first time I’ve seen that printer for less than $500. That’s how big this is.

It’s not the way I wanted the day to start. Cloudy and cold, with the chance of rain or snow showers, Lori home this morning, a column to write, an easy glide into the inevitable loneliness of an evening minus my life’s companion, and now this agonizing rumination on printing, art and making money at photography. It was assuredly easier to order a Dremel tool. Or a 16GB flash drive, which I’m still looking for. But a printer? I’d all but given up on ever being able to print my own images, and here’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Literally.

Maybe the link is fraudulent. Maybe it won’t work. I guess there’s nothing I can do until 9 a.m. when it goes live.

Until then, I float, my words for the next column as flat as the light outside, as colorless, as gray. And I click the link to see what happens.


10:15 a.m. and the HP site is down. Hammered, no doubt.

The good news is that the link is legitimate.

The question is whether it’s really 40% off everything or only on selected items. If it’s the latter, it’s a flagrant scam. I’m getting peeved at the uncertainty. C’mon, servers, handle the load! Jerks.

Lori said I should buy it for Christmas. But think of the expense! It’s like many things in the hobby world, the upfront costs are daunting. Any (theoretical) savings come later. I must return to my column. I have to get something done today to prove my worth as a wage-earner.

Noon. The column sucks. I’m unsure if there’s any redemption or if I would be better to delete the entire thing and start over.

The link is still broken. How am I supposed to concentrate with this distraction? One question that concerns me is whether after this much time and effort, if the link opened and actually worked as advertised would I buy the printer or walk away. If there’s any chance of the latter, I should give up now and focus on work. Walk away and forget it. After all, I’ve resigned myself for the most part to never being able to do my own printing—it’s that “for the most part” that nags at me. If photography is about the final image (and it is), then by not printing my own images I’m relegating to a stranger the single most important part of the process, the thing people actually see, the image itself in all its glory. Is that what I want, or do I need complete control? (Without sounding like a control freak, naturally!) So: if the link works, what will I do? 

I wish there was a way to express the long, drawn-out pause following that question.

I’ll buy it. That’s what I’ll do. Like I said, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime offer. I’d be a fool to let it pass.

I just don’t want to get my hopes up only to have them dashed.

On to work! 


4:35 p.m. and still no go, though the last few minutes I’ve at least been directed to the site before the screen dims and a little popup windows goes “oops!” Oops my ass, just get me there and I’ll do the rest. 

I’d like to say I’m in a spending mood but I’m really not. Funny how a printer isn’t sexy like a new flash or lens, more a service thing, like getting your oil changed or a new refrigerator. But the idea of printing my own images and having total control—final control—is captivating, possibly because I’ve never had that ability. Strange that I can spend so much time in my digital darkroom and never finish the job. 

In desperation I call HP and ask if the offer is online only or if they would help a poor bugger like me. Nope, can’t. So sad for the trouble. 

I cook dinner and eat alone, knock down a beer, put the dishes in the dishwasher and clean off the table. Night falls gray and cold and I begin to understand that there will be no new printer for me. It’s strange how you can go from not thinking about something one minute to craving it the next. These past few hours have been an evolution and I’m not sure how I see myself at this point. Frustrated, certainly, perhaps a bit depressed. Maybe a smidgen happy that I’m not spending money.

A friend sends me a news article about a Wal-Mart worker getting lethally trampled by eager shoppers. My revulsion quickly turns to reflection and a sudden queasy recognition. 

I click the refresh button and wait a few seconds while it thinks, and receive the oops window.

I click the refresh button.

I click the refresh button.

This is my life, clicking the refresh button.