Thursday, October 29, 2009

Just the way things are

I’m in a house, working on a burglar alarm. Or a fire alarm, I can’t remember which. The house I will never forget.

Not so much the house—a house is a house is a house, no matter how simple or lavish, four walls, a floor and a ceiling, bathrooms, bedrooms, basements and hallways. Sure, some are nicer than others—I’ve seen some doozies, the kind where you lower your voice and tiptoe because you sense the envelopment of perfection—but in the end, a house is just a three-dimensional box.

This particular box was at the end of a cul-de-sac in a posh, exclusive neighborhood frequently patrolled by members of the Denver Police Department and private security agents. If you didn’t belong there, eyeballs tracked your every move. A sign by the front entrance advised that unless a compelling reason to enter existed, it would be best to go elsewhere. There were other signs, some advertising various security companies and, at the house in question, one by the street that forbade anyone other than the residents to park in the driveway. The owner, I was told, didn’t want oil stains desecrating its pristine surface.

The owner did not want us to enter the house wearing shoes, either. Her children could run down the street or cut through the neatly landscaped yard and blow through the front double doors without slowing, but we could not. Our shoes apparently contained diseases, microorganisms or filth picked up in less-stellar enclaves.

It was a trying place to work unless you understood your placement in the social strata of the greater metropolitan area. You were a human being when you walked up to the door; once past those portals, you were an object.

So it was no surprise that late one evening I’m working on the alarm when I overhear a conversation in the next room.

“Is someone here?” a woman asks.

“It’s just the alarm man,” the owner replies, and her tone, haughty with class privilege and the arrogance of one who segregates the world into those within her social circle and those without, is a lash that snakes around the wall to lacerate me where I stand. I wince at the impact and think of the French Revolution and how common people dragged the rich from their estates and stuck their heads on pikes. It’s a nice thought, one that warms me as I return to my task.

But decades later I will remember not just her inflection but the qualifying word that relegated me to a worthless thing.


I am me.

You are you.

I am just me.

You are just you.

One little four-letter word makes a quantum difference in significance. Among its diverse meanings and usages, the Oxford English Dictionary defines just, adv., as “No more than, merely, barely; qualifying a verb or adjective, or with a noun.” An example dating to 1884 goes: “Doris is not a Cleopatra ... she’s just a Highland lady Touched with an Eastern strain.”

She’s just. For such a common grammatical modifier, its inclusion is a verbal wrecking ball, demolishing pretense or worth or status, a ruthlessly efficient diminisher. One word, properly inserted within the structural integrity of a sentence, elevates one while simultaneously deconstructing another. It sets apart; it tears down; it puts others in their place.

Which is odd considering the noble lineage and uses of the word. Think of justice, justify, or justly, or any of the other uses it takes as a modifier; just a minute, it’s just as well, there’s just so much to do, we got there just in time. The word is a veritable chameleon, popping up here and there with a different outlook, a mood shifting effortlessly from dark to light and back by a simple rearrangement. Just is just, just is unjust. As a word, it’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all the way.

The unjust usage of just reared its head recently while I was at work wrapping up the morning’s chores. A new guard poked his head through the door and saw me.

“Sir?” he asked. “I have a guy here supposed to meet someone at five for flu shots.”

“I predict they’ll be here at 4:59,” I said. It was 4:40 a.m.

“You’re the only one here?”


The guard turned to a man standing outside and opened his mouth to speak, and suddenly it was as if time slowed to a sluggish crawl and we three balanced on the edge of possibilities and potentialities forever linked to what would come next, that the guard’s words would be the catalyst for transformation, for better or worse, even as I knew with unwavering certainty what would transpire, that my status as a person was damned to nudge a few notches into something approaching invisibility or uselessness, and I wanted to shout out for him to stop, to reconsider, that I was a photographer and a writer and a man who deeply loved his wife and children, a man who served his community and paid his taxes and lived a good and decent life, a man who loved wild bunnies and music and the brush of wind through dried cornstalks, and I couldn’t, the words wouldn’t come, I was powerless, I could only watch as he turned away and uttered the fateful word.

“Let’s look in the plant,” the guard said. “He’s just the janitor.”

From “sir” to “just” in 30 seconds. The door swung closed with a whish of cold air. Behind me, the wall clock ticked away lost seconds in sonorous notes of unmitigated finality. In spite of everything, I laughed. So entrenched within our language is the word that offense should be taken only when warranted. The guard was blameless, and there was still work to be done and then the dark drive home to a place where I was anything but just a just.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Checkered white on autumn mums

My first attempt at sports photography...

Little steps

Everyone should have a cornfield to disappear into. Or a thicket. I imagine a deserted beach would be equally therapeutic with breakers rolling in from thousands of miles of sea surge, upwelling, undertow, equatorial light and calving glaciers, with imagination to fill in the blanks of a barren littoral scrape of sand. A mountain summit with endless vistas of serrated snowy peaks is too raw, too humbling, and usually too wintry to want to spend any length of time upon; peaks are made for bagging and bragging. Cornfields and thickets, deep hardwood forests, or even aspen glades on high mountain slopes, envelope in tranquility, embracing the troubled soul, both restorative and refuge, like returning to the dark, liquid ocean of the womb.

All of which I needed after a work-related mission that filled me with dread.

There were, as always, other things at play. A friend had asked for a dozen or so photographs to put on a Web site devoted to Kansas photographers, an act I found generous, exhilarating and not a little scary. So much of art is solitary and introspective that it seems contrary to go public, as if sharing somehow mars the inherent intimacy of the artist’s vision. Visibility also cracks the hard shell of solitude to expose the artist to the criticisms and critiques of outsiders, a fact that many artists find far too invasive.

I promised my friend the photos and set about deciding which ones to include. He wanted a representation of my work, something that defined my photographic perspective. It wasn’t easy. Some noted photographers specialize in landscape or wildlife, some are known by their black and white works or vibrant color washes, and others by portrait or architecture. I seem to be all over the place, capturing whatever I find interesting at the moment: dying peonies, landscapes, abandoned buildings and vehicles, ancient petroglyphs and ruins, and rabbits—especially wild rabbits. Nor can I seem to decide upon one medium, color or monochrome. I do a little of this and a little of that and usually go with what the image demands. Photographers will understand the concept.

Late Friday evening I uploaded what I considered a good cross-representation of what I considered my best, and apprehensively moved on to research something I never thought I’d do: photograph sports.

I keep hearing that artists need to challenge themselves, to go outside their comfort zones, as if it were a border where one passed from the ordinary to the extraordinary, or from Ohio to Idaho. While I understand the theory—it’s all about growing, after all—the execution leaves much to be desired. Like most things we find either repugnant or terrifying but which circumstances force us into, once we’re engaged we often find ourselves enjoying the experience, even if it’s the last thing we’d admit. And, of course, sometimes we don’t.

My mistake was in telling my editor I was free. And so it was that I found myself after a sleepless night entering a public school with no idea where to go, how to identify the proper teams, where to stand, what to look for, what camera settings to use, or even what was expected. I’m not a fan of sports of any kind, nor is school my forte. For me, going outside my comfort zone means entering the doors to a high school; being lost and feeling very, very alone just adds to the angst.

After my initial terror, I figured out jerseys and team colors and angles and managed to relax a little. I’m not comfortable in front of crowds, and carrying a huge telephoto lens definitely makes a person stand out. My captures were okay. Not great, but okay. (Sports Illustrated will not be calling to request my services.) I left the school with an enormous sense of relief. When I got home I found my e-mail filled with compliments on my photographic spread, but feelings of gratitude were swamped by a dizzying sense of vulnerability mingled with a dozen other stark emotions.

After a lonely supper I walked outside and into the cornfield and listened for a while to the wind in the dry crackling leaves, and then back into the yard where the evening sun fell through the thicket now more open and airy. I could see the neighbor’s white picket fence and Mr. Bun’s cairn and the light was golden-green. It drew me so that I crossed the yard littered with the leaves of redbud and birch and a few long tendrils of corn stalks and passed the garden now shriveled and browning, until I stood before a slight depression just within the trees. “Sheba,” I said, and a rabbit bounded away to my left.

Poison ivy was a red flame licking at the base of the trees. I thought of rabbits and the feel of their silky fur and their wet noses and lustrous eyes, and of solitude that can be more like a prison. As the sun sank below the unseen horizon and the tasseled crests of the cornfield flared incandent before smoldering to ash, I thought of how we learn and grow, how each experiment only adds to our furthering, a necessary part of our blind journey. And I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of what I needed to do, and of how little I knew about doing it. How exposed I was. The wind strengthened and rattled the sheaves like sabers. Move, I thought. Move.

In motion, following the rabbit into the cornfield and along the edge of the thicket to the apple tree, sadly bereft of fruit, and along the back line of our property, the neighbor’s dog taking exception and yapping incessantly. The hay bales grown rusty and dark, slightly flattened, and beyond the thicket a clearing studded with small cedars. Seed heads glowed in the dimming light. I forgot about the dog and listened to the grass swish on my legs as I crossed our prairie patch and so came at last back onto our cropped lawn. Two bluebirds whistled and flew away.

If we’re lucky, I realized, we get one or two chances to make good. The chances don’t mean we will perform flawlessly or find success, only that we are given an opportunity that might never come again. Accepting that opportunity is what life is all about. It takes a measure of courage, even fearful courage, but like circumnavigating the thicket, or disappearing into the cornfield, we take our refuge the same as we take our chances, with little steps one after the other. It’s all about little steps.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Brantford, Kansas

It's always the same

During the night temperatures plummeted and a rising wind moaned through the trees. This wind was different than last week’s balmy current delivering wave after wave of swallows and swifts, pelicans, gulls, vultures and the lesser orders of dragonflies and monarchs, all hitching a free ride for points south. This wind had teeth, and it wasn’t afraid of using them.

Except for the faint glow of the clock and an aura haloing the electric blanket control, there was no sound but the dull beating of my heart and the susurration beyond the scrim of lathe and plaster an arm’s reach from the bed. Five minutes to midnight. I thought of the trees moving against the gusts, deep rolling surges like heavy surf breaking on rocky shoals, their golden leaves ripping free to glimmer the air and collect in sad drifts in the lee of the house. And too soon, early October yet and summer unceremoniously snatched away.

Under the wind’s assault the house creaked like old leather harness. New sounds intruded, a metallic rattle, a truncated thump that might have been downstairs or somewhere in the outer darkness. My ears picked up on it and strained to hear over the sudden quickening of my pulse and the incessant ringing. After a while I heard nothing else and relaxed and slipped off to sleep, but uneasily, with dreams of dark streets and eyeless faces peering from open doorways.

Later still, I awoke again to find Lori beside me. I thought it odd how I hear strange noises in the night but often completely space out my wife’s footfalls on the squeaky stairs, and wondered too at the man I am becoming. For most of my adult life I would have heard every sound, no matter how slight, partly due to a mostly-nocturnal career spanning 25 years where hearing was as crucial as sight. Every sound had an origin; my job, among other things, was to determine its relative innocence or menace. Several nights ago with Lori gone I roused to another thump, and listened for a while until it came again, and from what seemed a different location. Nerves tingling, I rolled out of bed and stood at the head of the stairs, and waited for a long time before starting down. The pistol’s night sights led the way, three luminous green dots sweeping the untenanted rooms before me, until I came at last to the basement and saw in the silver glow of a harvest moon dust motes dancing in the air. The rooms cold and empty.

It’s hard to describe what goes through my head when I come to the end of a late-night house search. Relief of sorts, and maybe a sense of paranoia which, I know, can be beneficial; a little silly, embarrassed to find that after all these years I’m still chasing ghosts.

Why that should be is a mystery I find both perplexing and, in some inexplicable fashion, comforting. These endless rhythms provide not only foundation, but familiarity. We have been here before; these are fields we know. That we have also managed to survive is tacitly acknowledged.

But not without scars to show for it. Some are visible, such as my melted shoulder or the waxy slice on my thigh, and others hidden, a few of which are buried so deep not even Freud could unearth them. In so many ways, some understood and others forever beyond our understanding, we march to a beat instilled within our most subterranean recesses, a beat that began at the dawn of time. We are our own expanding universe; we carry our own genesis.

Try as we might, no amount of transformative pretense can alter that. The nightmarish streets I inhabit in my dreams are merely cycles of some mysterious unfolding that I like to think will someday be revealed. Ditto with the arcane repetitive symbols that come and go unbidden: the WWI-vintage riot gun, the dark alleys, the long corridors with their dozens of closed doors.

Cycles are the nature of nature. Creation took seven days, the Bible tells us. On the eighth, the cycle began all over again. And now the equinox is past; the October skies gray and low and emptying of their avian hosts, and the hills tarnishing to rust and ochre and maroon. It might seem too early for autumn but it is not. This is the eighth day.

Migration, cycles and feelings of loss were on my mind when I came across a Peanuts cartoon dated Nov. 10, 1973. Charles Schulz was a master at depicting the neuroses of adults, cleverly couched in children such as Charlie Brown, Linus, Sally, Peppermint Patty and, though she would never admit to being anything other than perfect, Lucy. Using the simplest of forms in four-panel strips, his works are as elementary as they are eloquent. This particular strip began with Snoopy watching a leaf drift from a tree. It falls at his feet, only to be whisked away by an unseen breeze. “It’s always the same,” Snoopy thinks with a wry expression. “Hello and goodbye.”

The message resonated days later when I stood outside with a raw wind raking my exposed face, head tilted back to watch the season’s last chimney swifts swirl past. And as I watched them depart and the skies slowly vacate, there appeared coming down from the north droves of snow geese winging past in long ragged vees, their dog-cries shattering the wintry silence. Hello, hello, I said, and, as they disappeared over the southern ridge, goodbye, goodbye. And for every goodbye, another hello. They were leaving and I was staying and nothing I could do would change that. With birds, nightmares or bumps in the night, it’s always the same. Hello and goodbye. Such are the rhythms of our days.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The absolute best part

The lady at the custom frame shop placed a beige matboard sample against a photograph and carefully lined it up with the border of the image. The photograph was a stylized manipulation of an abandoned service station in Mountainair, New Mexico, a dark, brooding haunt with low scudding clouds and a sky the color of a purple bruise. A large crack spiderwebbed the facade from the crown to the front door. Dominating the photo was a strong fawn-colored tint with some dark ruddy green thrown in; the effect was something like an old postcard.

The beige she selected was meant to subtly emphasize the primary hue. My first impression was of a baby’s diaper. Filled.

“I like that,” she said.

I hated it.

I’ve always been a fan of white mats for artwork. They’re clean, unobtrusive and separate the image from the frame. I also like black metal frames for their similar traits. After all, the image is the key. Everything else is window dressing.

I also have, hanging on our walls, several photographs whose mats reflect a multitude of colors and patterns. For them it works, and very well. What I remember most about the colored matting was the lengthy, agonizing process of selection. It tested my patience but not nearly as much as that of the framer. It might have been just another challenge to her, but I think it drove both of us slightly batty. By the end of the ordeal I suspect we secretly questioned each other’s artistic taste and merits; had it continued much longer, we would have vigorously and enthusiastically hated one other.

I offset a rust-colored mat beneath the beige to create more contrast. The effect was dramatic but still lacked some indefinable quality.

“That looks much better,” Lori said.

I shook my head and frowned deeply.

“Do you mind?” I asked, and when the lady said no I began swapping mats with the wildly optimistic hope of inadvertently stumbling across a winning combination. I tried a muted forest green border with an ochre outer mat, and white with rust and beige with green and a mottled golden-tan with something else and then snorted and said, “I hate this.” The temptation to stomp my foot and pout came and, fortunately, went.

“You should be enjoying this,” the lady said brightly. “This is the best part of the process.”

Best part? This?

The preposterousness of her statement rendered me momentarily speechless. I vividly remembered standing in front of the service station, the streets practically deserted, the old swastika-engraved Shaffer Hotel at our back, the feel of New Mexico encompassing me like an old and familiar dream, the turquoise sky, the taste of the green chile breakfast burrito still piquant on my lips, and most of all how the station looked through the camera’s viewfinder a second before the shutter snapped. How I knew in my bones it was a good image. How I had this fantasy of buying the hotel and moving in, of opening a gallery on the main drag across from the drugstore/soda fountain, of my brother and I getting rich selling our art to tourists and living happily ever after in a land of junipers, piƱons and blue mountains on the horizon.

That, I knew, was the best part of photography. The capture, not the bewildering, maddening bog of matting and framing. And I watched myself open my mouth and tell the lady the very same thing, but even as the words formed I knew it was not the whole truth, that the best part was something else.

Our every activity has a different best part. When I used to hunt gamefowl, the best part wasn’t in making a killing shot, though that certainly was a high point, but in jacking a shell into the chamber and setting off into the field. Preparation coupled with anticipation trumped skill. In fly-fishing, the best part wasn’t landing a trout but setting the hook, which was a testament to my fly-tying skills as much as presentation. Birding was different in that finding the target bird was paramount to the endeavor. For some, just being in Costa Rica, say, or stumbling through the jungles of the Yucatan would be the best part regardless of which bird species were sighted, but for me I had a list of birds I wanted to see and by God if I didn’t see them I’d sulk like a spoiled brat. And yes, I’m still disgruntled about not finding the fabled resplendent quetzal; not even the Andean pygmy owl can remove that sting.

For Lori, the best part of spinning, weaving or canning lies in the completed product, whether a skein of yarn that twines into a perfect roving, the final clatter of the shuttle on the loom or the pink! of a lid sealing. Were I to follow that strategy, matting and framing would be the best part of photography, or print-making, at least. The fruit of my labors expertly mounted against a background subtly enhancing the image without being ostentatious, a perfect presentation complete in itself. But it isn’t.

After some thought, I realized that the best part of the photographic process was in the post-production workflow. It is there, in the digital darkroom, that the magic truly happens. Tone, color, white balance, exposure, clarity, contrast, all can be corrected to not only improve the image, but to make it a reflection of what moved the photographer to attempt its capture. After all, a good photograph isn’t simply a mirror image—it’s a visual experience.

Some might argue that manipulation degrades the purity of photography. I disagree. While standing in front of the Tomahawk Service Station, I hadn’t noticed the power lines cutting through the top of the frame, or the ugly steel shed several blocks away poking around the right side of the building. Why, then, should they be foisted upon the viewer?

For that matter, why stick to reality? Bruise the sky, burnish the clouds! Breathing life into the image is the absolute best part.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Thursday, October 01, 2009

An unnatural forest

Every journey begins with a single step, to paraphrase Lao-Tzu. This would be no different—could be no different—one foot setting force into motion, the bonds of inertia sundered, a path undertaken, a threshold crossed.

One step and I was engulfed in green. Two steps, three, I felt myself being hemmed in, the tall stalks parting before me only to close ranks behind. I felt a little like Frodo Baggins when he entered the Old Forest and found to his dismay trees not only living but sentient, and none too happy with his intrusion.

Five steps, ten. I glanced back and saw through an opening the front tire of our yard-art bicycle and, above the tasseled crowns of the cornstalks, the redbrick finger of the chimney. On all sides a phalanx of stalks each a mirror image of the other, row after row disappearing into a greener maze, crinkled leaves rustling and clattering like distant castanets, fibrous brace roots gripping the soil like tentacles.

My homing points were lost at twenty feet but I broke into a small clearing where corn failed to grow. The sudden openness was a welcome respite, though a curiosity, too: the soil appeared no different from anywhere else in the field, nor was there any sign of erosion. It was as if the farmer had neglected this patch, or—and the idea gave me an immediate chill—perhaps mysterious forces had carved symbols visible only from the heavens. Beyond the clearing the ranks of stalks grew tighter and more dense. Shadows gathered in their recesses.

The uniformity of the cornstalks was almost unnerving. Turning left or right or, as I eventually did, spinning in circles until my head swam and vision blurred, produced merely another view of identical tufted ears sheathed against identical thick stalks and identical sun-dappled blades. Cardinal directions devolved into inconsequentiality, with up and down the only real quantification. If not for the tallest crown of the catalpa, whose dark green mast thrust above the cloned tassels, I would have had utterly no bearing. And then I faced the thickest growth, hesitated a moment to summon my resolve, and plunged in.

Lao-Tzu, when illustrating his point of the singularity of a step being the catalyst for a journey no matter how long or short, chose as a measurement of distance a thousand miles. At the time he wrote those words in the sixth century B.C., it was an unfathomable distance, impossible to conceive of except in the most vague terms. A thousand miles could mean anything at all, or nothing. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, he wrote; mine took me farther than Lao-Tzu could have imagined possible.

For as I batted my way into the heart of the cornfield, I remembered a time in Costa Rica where we traversed another kind of unnatural forest, the tropical jungle beset with a swarm of army ants whose numbers eclipsed the stars. Every leaf, every blade of grass, every tree limb and mossy stone was submerged under their relentless passage, and as we stood at the edge of their flow the guide looked back at us and said, “they won’t hurt you,” and turning walked into the current. We followed, our feet disappearing beneath the swarm, not daring to breathe, eyes riveted to the sweaty back of our guide, our ears attuned to the preternatural silence beneath which thrummed an undercurrent of static.

There were other alien forests, coastal swamplands in South Carolina, alligator-infested scrub along the Texas coast, live oak thickets and gum trees in Mexico. And yet they possessed a randomness that seemed, if not haphazard, then regulated somehow by powers beyond our reckoning. Nature is messy; trees grow where seeds fall, with no more intent than the erratic flight of birds or a wayward gust of wind. In the cornfield, growth was reason enforced by mechanical engineering, a monocultural colony where variance was unnatural and subjectively disallowed. And not without its own sterile beauty, though cold and too patterned for my tastes. Feeling claustrophobic, I fought my way out of the cornfield and emerged into blessed sunlight.

Next time, I’ll stick to woods I know.

To walk in corn

My wife said, “What are you going to do tonight,” and I said, “I’m going to walk through the cornfield.” I’d called her at work to ask where she kept the plastic freezer bags.

“The cornfield?” she asked. “Why?”

I shrugged, though I knew the gesture was lost on the phone. “Just something I want to do,” I said.

For several days the corn had called to me, in that way inanimate objects do when they want to get your attention. Or maybe something else was at play, something as simple as novelty: we’d never before had corn growing in our little one-acre plot, and the long palm-like leaves swaying in the breeze were mesmeric, the way they caught the sunlight and refracted it, the variegated shades of green, the silken textures, at once smooth, crinkled, veined, tasseled.

To tell the truth, I hardly recognized the place. We’d taken a week to tour the badlands of New Mexico and as always I immersed myself so deeply in the food, culture and geography that it was difficult to remove myself fully upon our return. So much had changed in that short span; temperatures more like autumn, skies bluer, birds flown, and the corn more than doubled in height.

Before disappearing into the cornfield, though, there was work to do; work away from home, work at home, work on the home. But always, always, my eyes crept from whatever I was doing to enter, if only vicariously, those endless emerald corridors.

Something about the shadowed recesses between the unevenly-spaced stalks appealed to me. I’d never walked through corn and wondered if the experience was like entering dense woods hung with spider webs, or a bewildering maze where every direction is a clone of the other, as if looking into a mirror that reflects only what is behind you. I wondered if the sound of the leaves rustling was like that of quaking aspens, or cottonwoods.

The doorbell jarred my reverie. A friend come by to ask about an upcoming meeting, questions about scheduling, chitchat. I glanced at the angle of the sun; low in the west, weltering into a burning haze.

When she was gone, I slipped out of my sandals and into my hiking boots. As I weighed the merits of taking the camera, there came a knock on the door. This time it was a resident seeking advice on zoning regulations and animal ordinances. I tried answering his questions but fumed at the delay. Dusk settled with a preternatural suddenness. A mosquito buzzed around my face. I swatted it away and looked behind the man at the shadows darkening the field. It was like a rising tide, swamping the lower ground and spilling onto the lawn. The man spoke about racing pigeons and lofts. Darkness was complete by the time he left.

Not for the first time, I wondered why it’s so difficult to find time to do the things that complete us. Tomorrow, I promised, I will walk in the corn.

Lightning played on the southern horizon when I rose to go to work, and by the time I returned home I felt exhausted and laid down for a short nap. By the time I awoke for the second time the sun was high and I watered the garden and weeded and washed dishes and handled several business concerns that were overdue. Followed by more work, a nagging deadline, and a rash of phone calls that made me want to rip the phone off the wall and hurl it into the field—the cornfield, to be precise, and then to follow it on its journey.

Late afternoon. I prepare for a meeting, find the necessary papers, study to refresh my ailing memory, make a pot of coffee for the jolt. A cool breeze flows through the open windows. The corn shimmers and dances as if beckoning.

Someday, while it remains, I want to walk in corn.