Tuesday, December 25, 2012

When you’ll know when

         The process was as slow as it was detailed: select an image in Lightroom, transfer it to Photoshop, increase the canvas size one inch on each side, type the name of the person in the lower margin followed by the name or nature of his or her business, center the type, transfer the image back to Lightroom for resizing to approximately 12 x17 inches, and print. And wait. 

Waiting wasn’t difficult; I wait good. It comes from being a birder and a photographer where success is often attained only through Jobian patience. Sometimes I’d read from a Kindle propped up on the desk, and sometimes a hardbound copy of The Complete Peanuts. If I was really tired I’d cruise the Internet looking for information on fonts and font management, design, typography and other new interests. Or I’d go shopping for bargains. Sometimes I dozed off.

I was tired all the time. In the past month sleep was as elusive as coherence or the ability to piece together words into a cohesive whole, similar to writer’s block but much more debilitating. When people asked when I was going to write another column, I’d say, when I can think straight. But thinking straight seemed to be exclusively the domain of the Way We Worked Project, and little else. It filled my days and troubled my dreams. It propelled me from the warm confines of my flannel sheets, often at 2 a.m. And in December, the month of its finale, it allowed for very little else.

When prints ejected from the printer I’d inspect them for flaws before setting them out on a table for drying. The table was long and narrow and could hold only four images. Another, larger, table held five. The first table blocked the front door and the other the space between the bed and the chest of drawers. When the tables were filled I’d stop printing and do something else.

Something else might mean staring at the prints with equal parts critical analysis and awe. It wasn’t just that I was satisfied with the technical qualities of the photographs, the lighting, the composition, the subject, no, it was more the emotional rush each image triggered. That I had taken it, that I had been invited so openly and so graciously into the lives of complete strangers, that I spent a year striving to capture the diverse ways they worked whether for financial reasons or volunteerism, still astounded me. Sometimes I could not believe it was real. 

The deadline for the project was real, though, perhaps the only real thing in a world gone hazy with stress and the associated emptiness left in the wake of my wife’s crazy work schedule. I rose early and dropped late and in between teetered with exhaustion until the line between reality and imagination blurred. But while my exact positioning within those shifting borderlands was never precise, and changed from day to day, I didn’t need a GPS to know where I was. I was here in Blue Rapids, my adopted hometown. I was involved in the most important project of my life, and now, after twelve months, I was watching it slowly emerge into being. Each print was an exultation. More importantly, each print was a story. Our story.

They reminded me of something my friend the Shaman asked in early February. When will you know you’re done, he asked, and I said, I guess it’ll just come to me. I’ll just know. 

I still ask myself the selfsame question. Logic and reason would dictate that its ending would coincide with the end of the calendar year, and for most of the project that was my determining factor. I’d know it when December 31 rolled around. 

Now I’m not so sure. The turning of a year is nothing more than an arbitrary border created to manage time. And borders, as I’m discovering, are illusory. They exist only in the imagination or in lines on paper or pixels. When will I know I’m done? Maybe I never will be. Maybe I’ll glide across that border as if it wasn’t there. Maybe I’ll keep going. Nothing can stop me but myself.


Joel Sartore, the National Geographic photographer, addressed the Marshall County Leadership group last week, and since the meeting was held at our community center I weaseled my way in as a bystander. Lately I’ve resented anything that takes me away from the project but missing a chance to interact with Sartore was unthinkable. We’d met in early spring at another leadership conference, a memorable encounter that left me breathless with inspiration. Sartore is the most quotable person I know other than Mark Twain. His saying, “Go big or go home” became my mantra throughout the project. 

Sitting off to the side as unobtrusively as possible, I scribbled notes while simultaneously adapting his points to the project, to the historical society, to any and all upcoming projects that will follow the Way We Worked, and to life itself. That his points were applicable to such a diverse range said more about their timeliness than about their specifics. 

What struck me most was his insistence that our remaining days are not only numbered but unknowable. “We have less time than we can imagine,” he said. “There is no time to lose.”

And: “You can’t waste a day—there’s no promise of tomorrow.”

And: “The clock is ticking, and yet we go about our lives as if we have all the time in the world. We don’t.”

His outlook was colored by several things, most of which centered on his wife’s cancer. There was also the sobering thought that he’d been away from his family so much that he barely knew his children. On that we’re alike.

As an exercise, he had the group write down ten words that describe what they do now. It could be about their job, their role in their company, organization or group, their hobby, anything that says what they do. I’m a freelance photographer and writer, I thought. I dabble in fonts and design and want to know more. I crave sleep and the ability to concentrate. 

He told the group not to be too concerned if they didn’t come up with brilliant insights immediately. It took him three weeks to fill out those ten things, he said. 

“But,” he added, “this is critical. You can’t steer the ship if you don’t know where you are in the ocean.”

Next, he had them write ten words describing what they would like to do. “Remember,” he said, “your days are numbered.”

From those ten words he had them distill them down to the top three. “Be strategic,” he said. “Then write three sentences about those three words. Elaborate. When you have the sentences written out, that’s your mission statement.”

Adhering to the mission statement was our life’s biggest goal. Doing so would mean sacrifices and losses, and sometimes we’d have to say no even if it meant turning away money. “It’s a hard thing, but our days are numbered,” he reminded them. “There’s no stinking way around it.”

The project was uppermost in my mind, but at this stage, with a week or so left, I’m starting to look beyond it and question what could be its successor. Something big and grand comes to mind, though what that might be escapes me. And yet, there are few things grander in photography than panoramas. What if I learned how to overcome parallax shift to train my lens on the interiors of the magnificent edifices from former centuries, or to create wall-sized scenics of the northern Flint Hills and the small towns that dot the land’s surface—surely that would be a fulfillment of a big vision. The big view, I could call it. Or the wide view. And in many ways I could continue my project of photographing our adopted hometown in ways I’d never anticipated, and that nobody else could. 

Go big or go home. The idea appealed to me. The equipment would be sizable investment—a friend, Harland Schuster, said it was made from “unobtanium” on account of its prices—but so what? Our days are numbered. We have less time than we can imagine.


Three a.m. and sleepless. I rework several images but the monitor keeps swimming in and out of focus. Instead of another cup of coffee I elect for a quick trip outside hoping the cold will shiver me awake. 

Stars burn cold and frigid. Overhead the luminous arc of the Milky Way links horizons like a bridge, northeast to southwest, ten million suns sailing the solar winds. On our own tiny speck of space dust a great horned owl calls in the distance, its solitary query answered by another near the gully. Owl-night, our very existence questioned by golden-eyed birds of prey. Who indeed? The question now is where to? What now? Time is running out. Our days are numbered.

In that pellucid emptiness a meteor streaks to its fiery death. More follow, soundless and serene, their origin almost directly above me. There are so many that it seems the galaxy itself is falling to earth. It’s the Geminids, I remember, but with coyotes suddenly kicking up a ruckus to the west and a barred owl caterwauling from the woods it’s easy to believe the Mayans were right, that the world is coming to an end. If so, too bad that half of humanity lies sleeping unaware. 

After a while the cold drives me back inside where the clock keeps ticking, the universe expands a few more million light years and the coffee jumpstarts my brain. When will I know I’m done? With 65 of the projected 75 prints already bagged and sent off to the framer, I’m almost there. According to the calendar, a handful of days.

So why don’t I feel almost done? 


A friend asks, what are you going to do next, and I said, sleep. 

No you won’t, he said. You’ve invested too much of yourself to walk away. You’ll find something else. You can’t stop.

Well, I don’t want to stop, but the project stops whether I like it or not. To paraphrase Jim Harrison, the days are stacked against us. 

This is increasingly becoming evident as I approach the midpoint of my 59th year. I have bad knees and bad hearing and worse teeth. On the Friday before the extended Christmas weekend another tooth crumbles leaving a jagged edge cutting into my tongue. My only recourse is to take a metal file to the tooth and whittle it smooth. 

But then I’m standing in the faded opulence of the State Theatre of Kansas—the Jayhawk in downtown Topeka—abandoned for 40 years but hoping for an afterlife, taking its measure and perhaps my own as well. Lori asks, where do you start, and I say, I don’t know. Somewhere.

It really doesn’t matter where I start, only that I do. I swap the 24-70 for the 14-24, mount the camera to the tripod and attach the remote cable release. My eyes settle on nothing, take in everything, the huge gilded arch with its rampant jayhawks, the circular mural high above the stage, the flanking organ lofts, the putrid green sodium lights, the sickly orange tungsten lights, the shadowed recesses, each and every one a challenge I must overcome. But then, life is all about challenges and how we handle them. How we face them. There’s really only one way, of course, head on, face first, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. There can be no mincing in the game of life. Go big or go home. 

About then, or maybe a little later when we’re deep in the bowels of the theater setting up strobes to throw back the darkness, the answer comes to me. When will I know I’m done? When I’m too blind to see my way forward, too busted up to get out of bed, too weak, too old or too sick to lift the camera or tap the keyboard. Or dead. 

Stopping is not an option. There’s no stinking way around it.



shoreacres said...

It took me years to figure out that people like Sartore can be both right and wrong. At one time in my life, his approach nearly killed me and nearly killed my creativity.

Here's what I know. We don't need to stop, but we need to pause. We need to be attentive to our own rhythms. The body needs rest. Fields need to lie fallow. Chronos can't dictate to Creatos. Turning the creative process into an almost absolute duplication of corporate life seems crazy to me.
But of course I've never achieved much, so who am I to say?

I know this - if I kept thinking "my days are numbered my days are number my days are numbered" I'd go crazy. I feel a whole lot more comfortable with Annie Dillard's way of putting things: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives". I'll take it a day at a time and at the end - well, who knows?

There's one thing I do know. You most certainly can steer a ship if you don't know where you are in the ocean. You just may not be able to predict where you'll end up. ;)

k said...

Bravo, Parker.

Tom Parker said...

Linda -- Point taken. However, this is less a corporate lifestyle than the simple need to get things done. Plus I'm a glass-three-quarters-empty kind of man so that dovetails with Sartore's realistic--some might say pessimistic--outlook.

I've been wrestling too many things that I can't control. I feel like I'm winding down like a clock, and sometimes it scares me. But I want to fight it--I do--and will as long as I can.

shoreacres said...

Hmmm... Your point taken, too. It may well be that this is one of those situations where both/and does better than either/or.

I don't have physical problems that can bring on an "the end is nigh" kind of attitude, but I do worry about money, and resent the heck out of the fact that I can't stop working. So, it may be that he has something to say to me, too. I'll think about that.

I do know that Tennessee Williams had something to say about all this. I'll try and find it.

But I do think once you get TWWW finished up, things are going to get clearer. When I've taken on a boat job that's too big for me, I find that the job "grows" on me. The more I sand, the more wood there is. And then one day, it's done and it's beautiful. And I take a day off. ;)

Carol said...

Tom, you've done a spectacular job on The Ways We Worked project. I'm in awe of your talent--and have been for years.
This column, and your writing skills, are also awesome.
Whatever you do next will be awesome.
I haven't gotten a reminder of your weekly input since you finished your Sadie grouping. Please keep me on your list. I'm just busy enough to need the reminders.
Happy 2013! Our regards to you and Lori!

Carol said...
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