Thursday, January 29, 2009

New sentence begun

I hear America singing.  – Walt Whitman

In the middle of a meeting a man blurts out, we might have a woman for president! or a black man! and the rest of us pausing study him to see if anything else is forthcoming. His look of desperation implores us to consider the possibility, to contemplate the dire ramifications, but none of us offer condolences or consolation. 

Finally, after a long uncertain pause, I say, rich white guys haven’t done such a good job of it. Maybe it’s time for a change. 

Another meeting, a man with small, fine teeth like a rodent chuckles and says, I hear he won’t last long anyway. The room grows cold as if someone opened a door onto a December gale letting it rush unopposed through the corridors and hallways to gather in the recesses of the room like an unseen presence, and his eyes dart from one to the other as the smirk on his face freezes in place like a rictus on a week-old corpse. 

You’d like that, wouldn’t you, I want to say, but hold my tongue and regret it immediately. As I yet regret it, and know with cold certainty that it will remain regretted for all time.

This is not the time to be silent. It is time to stand for what we believe.

The man’s a socialist, a McCain supporter tells a British reporter. Several other people standing nearby nod their heads sagely. 

What’s a socialist, the reporter asks.

It’s, it’s, it’s, he stammers. The others look away.

A black man on the radio says, I can’t believe this is happening. Not in my lifetime.

He says, women knew it was coming, they never had a doubt. They accepted it as a fact of life. We couldn’t. 

I’m gonna be there, he says. I’m going to D.C.

In our own ways, by one means or another, we all went to D.C. 

At some indefinite point in the future I suspect people will remember where they were the moment the first black president of the United States was sworn in, as how some of us of a certain age remember where we were when JFK was shot. I was on my way home from school, or I was sent home without explanation (which might have been the case, my memory clear as mud), and walked in on my mother who sat on the edge of the couch staring at the television, her hand over her mouth. 

That’s where I was: 3420 Palomas N.E., Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

On the morning of the inauguration I watch out the window as crows boil from the treeline like hornets disturbed from their nest, raucous, jeering, their dark winged shapes passing over the fields in regimented black phalanxes. The hill beyond shimmers in a frigid haze, the sky low and gray, a winter day but unlike any other. Though I have work to do I click on the Internet and set the streaming audio to run while I wrestle with verbs and nouns and phrases I fear make little sense compared to what’s transpiring halfway across the country. All those people swelling the streets and parks, the largest assemblage ever in that city, I’m told, an unimaginable throng of Americans excited about change and the prospect of hope, a fragile emotion, and one at odds with headlines and news reports. 

A friend says, looks like a new day dawning. I, for one, am finally finding some pride in my country. We haven't done a good job with our children, our native Americans, our race relations—the list goes on. 

Another man says, I’m afraid to watch, I’m afraid something bad will happen. And watches anyway.

For some reason I think bells should be ringing but I hear nothing but the crows. Looking out the window I see them littering the field like windlbown bits of black plastic, the world beyond reduced to a monochromatic landscape, two-dimensional, flat. 

For some reason, I think the sun should be shining.

Elizabeth Alexander, the inaugural poet, stands at the podium and tells the world, in today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

My sentences are going nowhere so I stop to watch the pageant. The scenes of our national leaders, the senators and legislators, the lawyers and hangers-on, leave me cold and a little disheartened, but when the cameras pan to the massive throng an electric current passes through me. Watching the faces I see raw emotion of a kind not witnessed in years, and I think, this is America, this is what it stands for, what it is. 

Within minutes the transformation is complete. I can’t help but feel our long national nightmare is over, and yet I know the real work begins now, and it’s not just the job of one man, it’s our job. We the people. Time to roll up our sleeves and get busy.

My friend says, will it go well, I don’t know. I can't believe some of the stuff I hear coming out of people's mouths. Many, very close to home. We haven't learned much, I'm afraid. Maybe, just maybe, we can make this work. I hope so

Outside, the clouds break apart. The sun comes out and a cardinal sings.

I start a new sentence. 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Can you touch it

What do I remember of it other than the bright hot sun, the glare radiating off the muddy waters of the irrigation ditch, the encircling featureless West Texas horizon, the stunted mesquites with lizards bobbing in their fitful shade, the laughter of friends and the explosive splashing as we hurled ourselves into the water to straddle the huge silvery suckers with their soft obscene mouths and goggle eyes, and, at least on that one fateful day, finding instead of slimy reptilian scales, the razored edge of a broken bottle. The feel of it slicing through my foot, the raw immediacy of rending flesh and shock that pulverized the very air, followed by a scarlet stain spreading outward like the blossoming of a rose, the bloody signal to an end of play.

We touch the world and touching it understand more of its essence than through any of our other senses. Only through touch do we truly connect.

It’s an odd thought to be triggered through something so common as paper, but I’m discovering that paper is not just paper. Where have I been all my life to have missed this? Doing other things, apparently, absent in another reality. There is so much we do not know, so much that would enrich our lives, if we only knew.

I’m learning, slowly, and learning too that in this there are no graduation ceremonies other than the ultimate walk down that long black tunnel. Sometime back I was looking for small pocket notebooks and having a devil of a time finding anything other than the usual offerings, so I went online looking for something built tough enough to last longer than a few days. The wealth of journals and notebooks crafted with fine papers and exquisite bindings was a real eye-popper, something I had never dreamed existed. Suddenly my own inexpensive 24-pound bright white copy paper seemed not only lackluster but insignificant, reducing my words a few notches on the artistic scale. “Isn’t what you write worth the very best?” asked one advertising gem, leading me to admit that sometimes it’s actually not. Rephrasing the question might be warranted unless one’s audience is narrowly restricted to egotists. 

I did manage to find Moleskines, a Milanese brand renowned for its superior functionality and historic resonance, having as former users such luminaries as Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso and Hemingway. The little cahiers have 64 lined pages, a sewn spine and an almost indestructible cover, unless you run it through the laundry, which I did. After reading rave reviews and seeing the images on my monitor, studying the specs and calculating the extra cost—significant but not out of reach—I ordered several packs with the fatalistic idea that they would either be the best notebook in the world or just another in a long list of unrealized expectations. One touch and I knew I would never use anything else.

Description and detailed photos alone did not do them justice. I had to feel them, to hold them, to get the full benefit of the experience. And that has now translated to photographic paper, something I was mostly clueless about before buying my new printer and now am mostly clueless about because the number of art papers exceeds my financial grasp by several magnitudes. 

Like most people who have ever dabbled in photography I knew the basic types of paper available for prints: glossy, satin, matte. And like most, I had my preferences and my biases. Glossy was good, satin yuck, and matte was for black-and-white. Not being able to print my own photographs limited me to what professional labs offered, and while that’s evolving into a market with many more options, it’s one thing to read about diverse types of paper and quite another to feel them.

Art isn’t something most people equate with touch. Photographs and paintings aren’t meant to be handled for obvious reasons; oils and grime from fingertips are as corrosive as acid, something that the National Park Service belatedly discovered after allowing visitors to touch the living formations in Carlsbad Caverns and other caves. Great swathes of the walls and stalagmites near the trail are now cold dead stone, their vibrant colors faded to ashen gray hues. 

And yet, after opening several boxes of sample papers from various paper mills, I found myself swallowed in a tactile euphoria with each sheet presenting another impression, another emotion. I was utterly taken by the heavy matte papers, especially those made of cotton rag, their surfaces lightly textured, almost pebbled, some subtle and others more pronounced. Prints were crisp and sharp, and I found myself showing them to everyone I met, not to highlight my images but to show them the paper. “Touch it,” I’d say, forcing a print into their hands. “Can you feel the difference? Isn’t it amazing?”

My enthusiasm, I fear, was lost on most viewers. But it got me thinking about art and how of all our five senses touch alone is forbidden to us, how we’re supposed to distance ourselves from it, how we entomb the paper or canvas behind glass where its texture and fabric are nullified. To feel something is to bring it to life. And I remembered dipping my hands in the waters of the St. Vrain to feel the current, of reaching across a table and touching the hand of the woman who would become my wife, of holding our newborn sons for the first time, the sticky sap of pinyon trees, the dry cork grip of a flyrod, pages of a book that would break my heart, velvetweed’s satiny nap, the luxurious silken fur of our Angora rabbit, water, skin, paper, broken glass, how we know, how we remember our lives through our fingertips.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Swimming to the surface

In horse-trading and other one-sided swaps, there are winners and there are losers. I had no delusions to which category I belonged.

This was back in the days when we were starting out in a new city and new identities, established and yet not, feeling the immensity of it all like a great hand squeezing the breath from our lungs, the mountains rising on the western horizon, the broad sweep of prairie rushing to greet the dawn, the city with its diverse permutations ranging from dark alleyways reeking of urine and overflowing dumpsters to the palatial mansions of Cherry Creek and their obscenely rich denizens whom I came to despise, though not from any deliberate slight, or not many, anyway. If I learned anything from navigating those two estranged worlds it was that we all have our place in society as in life, and ours was a work in progress. I can’t say much has changed in that respect though so much else has that I sometimes catch myself in wonder, or turning find the years glimmered away and some other land at my feet. Where once this sudden disjunction sent me cartwheeling into a black hole, I now try to accept it as a bewildering but harmless collision between then and now, reminiscent of the latest Hubble photos of galaxies scything through one another in the farthest reaches of space.

Being firmly ensconced within the confines of a lower middle class wage taught us the astronomical gulf between want and need. Bills came first and if anything was left over it went to savings or extras. Admittedly we weren’t good at saving in those pre-children years but we were just learning who we were, and who each other was, and the future was an incomprehensible abstract it was easy to ignore. So distanced were we from any concept of aging, so innocent, that we vowed to jump off a bridge when we reached forty, a number somehow equated with senility and, as it turned out, all too soon passed. Though we reset the date to the age of sixty, that too was nixed for obvious reasons. Now we’ve no detailed date of departure but I suspect we’ll know it when we get there, even if it means having to find an accomplice to tip us into the abyss from out of our wheelchairs.

Having few financial means meant being creative in terms of acquisition. Sales were a plus as were coupons and house brands for food, but beyond that everything else remained a scramble. After carrying a .38 Special revolver for several years, I scrimped and saved until I could afford a 9m/m Colt Combat Commander in satin-nickel finish, with two extra clips and leather. My timing was gloriously impeccable. The day I purchased it the city of Denver passed an ordinance forbidding anyone other than police officers from carrying semi-automatic pistols. Lori was not amused.

The pistol became material for exchange. Bartering, that ancient and honorable tradition uniquely geared toward have-nots, thrives to this day, notably in third world countries where the average daily wage hovers around fifty cents. The advent of computers and computer literacy has transformed bartering into a more lucrative venue, so that while the rich still buy and the poor still trade, for the rest of us there’s eBay.

I became interested in photography shortly after we married. Having a company discount facilitated a growing arsenal of camera gear, though each purchase included a stomach-churning fear of financial wreckage.  By the time I decided to develop my own photos, having had terrible results through commercial developers (my fault, not theirs, though I was too stupid to realize it), it was painfully obvious that outright purchase wasn’t an option. So I set out to find someone who wanted to swap.

It didn’t take long. Nor was I as selective as I should have been. A fellow employee unloaded a truckload of outdated darkroom equipment with little dickering or negotiation, but he was happy as was I so by that criteria alone the exchange was a success. 

I went home with a fresh roll of exposed film, taped shut the bathroom door, swapped the lightbulb and set up my trays and chemicals, the very model of a budding Ansel Adams but with none of the prospects or talent. For the most part, my pitiful efforts met in disaster but I kept hammering away at it with the sure knowledge that nothing comes easily, that practice makes perfect, and discovering in the process that we’ve been lied to. Sometimes our greatest efforts come to naught.

And yet none of that mattered when that first image floated to the surface of the emulsion, eerily lit by a single red bulb, itself lending an otherworldly air of mystery, almost seductive, the paper a blank slate without texture or detail one moment and ghosting into shades of gray the next. It reminded me of seeing snapping turtles surfacing in gravel pits near our grandparents’ house in west Texas, their shadowy silhouettes gradually materializing in the turquoise-green waters, subaqueous shapes lifting from the murky depths to stare at us through cold reptilian eyes, hesitating for a long heartbeat on the nether side of the thin meniscus before shattering it into a thousand shards of light. And seeing the same thing in my impromptu darkroom, images of broken windows and staved-in doors, the aftermath of burglaries I’d covered, emerging phantom-like in the liquid chemical bath, something from nothing, a conjurer’s sorcery. 

My darkroom days were few. But they were important, for they set the stage for what would follow decades later, a digital, computer-driven darkroom sans chemicals, red lights and blackened rooms. Though the transaction was one-sided, and I was surely hoodwinked—something my wife pointedly pointed out—what I saw in that emulsion fired my imagination from that day to this. For that, I wouldn’t trade anything.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Something like night

To drive without sight is to accept the unpredictability of existence. And, perhaps, to understand something of faith and the unknowable, which is whatever exists just beyond the blank canvas of darkness. At high speeds, the immediate world shrinks to a thin sliver of now, a two-dimensional presence with the honed edge of a razor, and every bit as dangerous. Back when I regularly made night trips between Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Albuquerque, the two-hour introspective indulgence quickly devolved into self-loathing, so to reorder my own little universe I would cut the lights and run silent with only the faintest glimmer of starlight to guide me past the sleepy villages nestled beneath their bulwarked mesas. After topping Glorieta Pass, where the lights of Santa Fe eclipsed the extragalactic panoply, an increased presence of state troopers mandated driving practices both safer and obligatory. For a while music played a crucial role in this unhealthy activity until late one night the car’s intractable 8-track player repeatedly embraced the heavy stock of a sawed-off shotgun, leaving it in tatters and me to my own singing, which was deplorable, and my morbid ruminations, which were worse. 

I am the same man today though barely. Where before when I set out I’d toss a .45 auto on the passenger seat and pop the first of several cold beers, barely concerned whether I’d live to see the next dawn, now I’ve evolved into the very model of respectability, if, that is, being respectable includes annual nocturnal jaunts in search of owls to serenade, or harass, depending on your perspective. I’ve traded the pistol for a Sony cassette recorder and the beer for a thermos of coffee, and still find the night a refuge of sorts, from what I can scarcely recall. It’s easier to hide when nobody can see you.

This night road is like turning a page and finding only an unexpected lacuna where nouns, adjectives and verbs once lived. Street lights are ineffective haloes punching holes in the fog, the town shrouded and eerie and silent, and summarily vanished as I jounce across the railroad tracks and start climbing the hill leading out of the valley. The effect is at first startling but the unbidden past sweeps in to fill the blanks. It’s never as far away as we think, loitering on the periphery like a friend whose name we’ve forgotten, eager to step in and reintroduce himself. Hi, remember me, and suddenly I’m driving blind with the windows rolled down the summer stars pinwheeling above the faintly luminous crest of Santa Fe Baldy, the beer cold on my teeth, and I am armed, half-drunk and invincible. 

Maturity—a vile word—lets us dissect our personal histories as though they were dead frogs pinned to a board. What I thought was invincibility was in fact nothing short of imbecility in a life short on brain and long on an undeserved charm, as if someone or something were interceding for me. That it all comes back so sharply denigrates the human notion that time can be measured like ounces or grams, or even months and years.

I’ve lost the confidence I once had though it was actually more an unqualified bluff. My speed drops until I’m all but crawling, inching up the incline with only a few feet of pavement for guidance. There are deer and other creatures roaming the night though at this speed avoiding them should be easy. What worries me is other drivers, perhaps even young men hellbent on living dangerously, though to my credit fog was never an equation. Also the question arises of how I’m supposed to find the reputed barn owl at the farmhouse south of town when I can’t see five feet. There’s always my hearing but barn owls aren’t known for their vocalization, nor do I have a tape of their calls. Once the road levels out I watch for a place to turn around, and in defeat swing the truck about and begin my descent. Curses, foiled again.

The relief of entering town is short lived. I take the highway north and creep across the bridge, the rusty girders wet, reflective and all but invisible. Where does the river start and where does it end? Our geographies are never so clearly defined. I mentally trace the tributaries and confluences of the Big Blue on its journey to the Kaw but end up at the Pecos River outside of San Jose. There’s a fleeting touch of vertigo as the bridge vibrates beneath the tires and then I’m across and swallowed in the gloom and rising. Edging around the curve blindly I blindly advance, taking note of the bisecting roads until I locate the second on my left and turn onto wet gravel. With an effort I relax and lessen my deathgrip on the wheel. 

Slowly, slowly, I find the cemetery and pull through the gates. Opening the door blinds me further and I stumble onto the spongy grass and wait, but my eyes do not adjust. Cannot adjust. I blink and close them and reopen them and find no difference whatsoever, find no silhouetted cedars or pale sky or anything other than an unrelieved darkness, the irreducible world reduced to sounds alone, the engine ticking as it cools, the distant query of a great horned owl, a barred owl’s querulous response, and me, heart thudding, ears ringing, gritty-eyed, tired, left index finger on the pause button and the right on the spotlight’s trigger, as if one million candlepower could reveal anything in that devouring cloud, as if it could reach through the decades and show me how I got from there to here, how I came to stand in the fog with ears straining and a certain home just down the hill and across a river that is not the Pecos but another, as if it had that kind of power, as if it would.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Last ride of the codgernauts

Afterward, as I flipped through the 250 or so images I’d taken on our jaunt through north-central Kansas, methodically weeding out the worst ones by hitting the X key to mark them for deletion—and finding far too many so designated—I couldn’t help but question my skills as a photographer, a sort of internal lambasting and blame-game in which former Independent Baptists are so fond of indulging. I imagine penitentes of the southwest do much the same though their preferred method of flagellation involves glass-tipped whips and cactus-studded sandals. Conscience can be such a nag at times.

It wasn’t until later that I learned I wasn’t alone in feeling dissatisfied. Both of my companions, Chod Hedinger and Jim Mayhew, ended up tossing more photos than they kept, and of the latter very few were real keepers. Perhaps Mayhew expressed it best when he wrote, “What you’re seeing is Kansas. It's just not something to write home about when you’re taking pictures. But it was fun.”

Fun it was, and strangely unsettling. 

Our intent was for a final trip to close out the year, an exploratory birding and photographic trek through the heart of north-central Kansas. Our only imperative was to avoid pavement at all costs except where necessary. Chod drafted a route using a DeLorme Atlas as a guide, transcribed into a long, rambling series of directions that were impossible to follow. I know, because I tried, using the selfsame map. Once off the beaten path roads usually hew to the square-mile grid devised by Thomas Jefferson, at least where the terrain allows, so that no matter which road we took we would theoretically be heading in a cardinal direction. As long as we remembered which direction was which we couldn’t get lost. Naturally, we left our compasses at home.

Minneapolis was our jumping-off point and the last hard-surfaced road we’d see for most of the day. It was mid-November, the sun barely lifted above the horizon. In the shadow of the Ada Grain elevator we parked by the railroad tracks to stretch our legs, and I lifted the camera to try for a hopeless shot of the full moon balanced on the upper girder of a trestle, an impossible composition with my equipment and the time of day, but I reasoned that pixels are free and so snapped the shutter thrice. And in so doing perhaps cursed the remainder of the trip to mundanity, as if inadvertently having offended the gods of creativity. We snaked around the elevator and trundled across an old bridge and headed west on an unmarked road.

Coming as I do from a megalopolis whose edges forever radiate outward, it still shocks me how quickly the trappings of civilization vanish in rural areas. No sooner had the elevator disappeared behind us than the fields opened up into miles of what can only be described as nothingness. The first few towns passed unremarked and fell away without a trace of memory, forgotten almost before the next undulant rise revealed yet more miles of November-gray woods bordering the mute creeks and abandoned homesteads, the shattered windmills and dusty lanes branching to the right and left without marker of any kind. 

Surprisingly, the land was wetter than normal, creeks filled, pastures damp and fringed by an unlikely green, ponds overflowing, scintillant under an azure sky, riffled with a whisper of a breeze. Everywhere the land lay fallow, prairie grasses bleached to pale shades of gold and rust and dusty along the roadways, coated in a fine powder, fields disked under or freshly shorn, stubbled and unkempt. And empty, almost incomprehensibly so.

Capturing that emptiness wasn’t easy. Jim Richardson, a National Geographic photographer whose traveling exhibition of the Flint Hills still tours the state, admitted as much in an interview. “These are low, rolling hills, and every time you pick up a camera and point it at them, they kind of get small in the distance,” he said. “They aren't like the Tetons, which are big enough to fill a 4x5 frame."

There was so little to fill any frame, or even to focus on, as if the eye or the imagination couldn’t find a reference point to land on. At one point we bounced down a rutted two-track to the ruin of a limestone house and erupted from the truck eager for something greater than sitting and staring, and as I approached the front door, tilted askew on one hinge, a barn owl blew out the doorway and flashed past me like a pale ghost, its wings almost brushing my face. Other than cows it was the first sign of life we’d seen in hours and served only to heighten the desolation. Walking back to the truck I gazed down the road both ways and it seemed to go on forever and nowhere, the far horizons etched with its solitary tracing, a faint and fading artifact on a land impossible to tame. Less a ruin than the once and future Kansas, a harbinger of a time not very distant when vast portions of the state become virtually uninhabited.

Angling north and west until dropping down into a country inhabited by rolling tumbleweeds and ghost towns and towns barely alive, the few shotgun-toting strangers eyeing us warily, we traversed a bewildering maze of gravel roads, some marked, most not. It’s a mystery how Chod, who was driving, kept his bearings. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was as surprised as us when he finally crested a ridge and saw the cobalt waters of Wilson Lake glinting in the sun.

By then lengthening shadows introducing a third dimension and we stopped for several more photographs. Or attempts, I should say, for the low rolling hills withdrew into the distance until all that remained was a vast featureless sky and the impression of windblown ridges marching away to infinity, and a dawning realization that some lands can only be briefly experienced and then left behind.