Thursday, December 31, 2009

We Are Quiet Now

We Are Quiet Now, 2006

It seems fitting on this last day of the year to go out with something calm.

It’s been a tough year for a lot of people. It’s been a loud year, too, with a lot of hateful shouting and discord. Like that glob of goo in the Ghostbusters movies, the culture seems to have fed more off the worst of our nature rather than the better.

But I'm an optimist, so I saw good riddance to all that! If we can’t look up, what’s the use of looking?

I took We Are Quiet Now several years ago after a busy Thanksgiving holiday. Before the first guest had arrived for dinner, there’d been bad weather, high waters and fallen trees.

Dinner was wonderful. We hated to see our guests leave. But it was a lot of people and a lot of confusion in a short period of time. After the last overnight guest departed, I looked out the window and noticed this quiet moment.

Whether your New Year's Eve is boisterous or quiet, I wish you a very happy and healthy (and prosperous, why not?) new year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Today We Talk Buildings

Lovell House, 2009

When I travel I try to see buildings that are interesting. Like a lot of guys, I once dreamed of being an architect. But I didn’t prepare myself adequately for that career and was rejected by the only architecture school to which I applied. That’s probably a good thing for mankind. To this day I can envision abstract 3-dimensional spaces, but I can’t build so much as a fence without getting the measurements screwed up somewhere along the way.

During a recent trip to Los Angeles, I had time for a drive-by of the Disney Concert Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels and the LA Unified School District’s dazzling new High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, the latter all the more exciting because it shows what can be done even within strict school system budget and functionality requirements. All three of these projects can be seen in this photograph.

I saved most of my time, though, for a few of LA’s older treasures, specifically three residences designed, respectively, by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and Wright protégé R. M. Schindler. Only one, the Schindler House, is open for tours. Wright’s Storer House and Neutra’s Lovell House are private homes and visible only from the street.

Schindler’s King’s Road residence is shockingly severe with its slanted concrete walls, particle board screens and low ceilings. Nearly ninety years old, it also looks like a stiff wind would knock it over. But in its own way, its human scale and innovative use of natural light make it a a thrilling structure, one that took me immediately back to my days of architectural longing.

R.M. Schindler House, 2009

Neutra’s Lovell House, is the most structurally thrilling, and arguably the sexiest of the three residences I visited. Built into a steep Hollywood hillside, it combines Neutra’s love of nature, technology—it was the first steel frame residence built in the United States—and modern cubist design. It’s an amazing design for something built in 1929.

Storer House, 2009

Wright’s Storer House is perhaps the most disappointing of the three residences because it, like the Schindler House, shows the most ravages of time. It underwent a painstaking restoration during the 1990s, but remains a small and somewhat difficult property. An architect who was also standing in the street taking pictures of the Storer House when I was there told me that Wright’s California residences have not held up well over the years because he used substandard grades of concrete and stone to mitigate cost overruns incurred during their construction.

We should all look so good when we're nearly 90 years old!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Little Behind, and Liking It

They Don’t Know She’s Dead in Dayton, 2006

Through the years my work has taken me to several places where people have cheerfully told me they’re behind “the coasts,” meaning that they’re way behind the tide of popular culture. In places like Roanoke, Virginia, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, they’ve told me they wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s dangerous, I know, to classify an entire city so summarily. But there really does seem to be something in the culture of places like Roanoke and Grand Rapids that makes people cling to the familiar more than most. People in these cities prefer to let other people work all the bugs out of things, smooth out all the rough edges and make sure all the new, scary ideas are, as those paper rings they used to put on motel toilet seats said, sanitized for their protection. They don’t want to make waves. They don’t want to impose their values on others.

Don’t take this as criticism. Some of the people I’ve met in such cities are among the most decent, caring and thoughtful people you could ever know. They don’t wield the mantle of “family values” like a sword, as some people do. They just live them.

My friend Tom used to say that in Detroit they didn’t know that Janis Joplin had died. It wasn’t just that they still played Joplin’s wailing on the radio, but that they talked about her in the present tense, as if she might show up for a show some week soon.

I was reminded of this during a brief trip to Milwaukee. When I turned on the TV one morning looking for the news, the first thing I saw was a commercial for “Eddy Zee’s” replacement window and home siding emporium. The celebrity endorser was actress Mariette Hartley.

Mariette Hartley is one of those people you’d recognize, but maybe not know by name. She’s been a regular on television shows since the 1970s. She’s probably best known for appearing in a series of Polaroid commercials with James Garner.

But here she was in Milwaukee pitching for a tin man! I mean, really. Hartley has regular gigs on Law & Order and other contemporary programs, and yet she’s shilling for some home siding contractor in Milwaukee?

I’m adding Milwaukee to my list of places that are cheerfully behind the coasts. Almost all of the fifty or so people I interviewed and everyone else I encountered during my visit was born there and never left.

One of the other commercials I saw on television in Milwaukee proclaimed, “If you have time for but one Broadway show this year, make it Dream Girls!” as if Dream Girls is a hot new show.

As you may know, Dream Girls is a thinly veiled theatrical rendition of the story of Diana Ross and The Supremes. The original Broadway show premiered in 1981. A recent movie version was extremely popular and introduced the show to a new generation for whom The Supremes are probably about as relevant as Al Jolsen. The movie’s probably also responsible for reviving the traveling show that will make its way to Milwaukee twenty-nine years after the Broadway premier.

So let’s do the math. Dream Girls premiers in New York in 1981. The traveling show makes it to Milwaukee in 2010. Yep, that’s about enough time to make it safe for Milwaukee.

Monday, December 28, 2009


The 101, 2009

When I was in college and was going somewhere with friends who had cars there was usually a race to see who could yell “SHOTGUN!” first to see who got to sit in the front passenger’s seat. It wasn’t that we wanted to sit by the driver. Rather, it was more a matter of not wanting to be stuffed into the back seat of some tiny car with three or four other guys and no legroom.

For those too young to have known such times when everyone didn’t have his or her own personal car, there was once a time when maybe only one in eight or ten college guys might have a car. Gas was cheap and they didn’t really mind being everyone else’s ride. Proper etiquette, of course, mandated that girls be given the shotgun seat if they were the girlfriends of the driver. Otherwise they were tossed in the back seat with the rest of us, which was not such a bad proposition when you think about it.

I was thinking of those crowded days in the back of Shunky’s Chevelle or Tommy’s Corvair when I was driving down a freeway in Los Angeles recently. Hardly any car had more than one person in it.

Actually that’s not quite true. One morning when I was driving up the I-5 traffic was moving in fits and starts. After a while I noticed that there was really no reason for this. It was just that some cars never resumed the posted speed when things cleared up. As I worked my way through the traffic, I realized that it was just one car, a black Honda being driven by an older Asian man, that was holding things up. Regardless of the traffic in front of or behind him, this man drove at a steady 35 mph. And perhaps he shouldn’t have been driving any faster because the whole time he was driving he was also turned around facing and talking to two elderly ladies in the back seat.

Turning around and facing the back while driving seems to be a popular thing to do in LA. One afternoon a couple of days later I was driving down another LA freeway in a different part of town when a young man driving a late model luxury car decided to move over into my lane while I was still in it. When I gently tapped on my horn to make my presence known, that only seemed to increase the vigor of his desire to occupy my space. Not wanting to have to explain to Hertz that I’d destroyed yet another rental car (another story another day), I backed off and let him move over.

But that wasn’t enough for him. Once he got in front of me, the young man stuck his head completely out of the window of his car, turned around to face me and twisted his right hand into the shape of a pistol with which he pretended to shoot me, all the while driving 55 mph in a direction he was not facing.

I wasn’t too alarmed because I knew the young man’s hand wasn’t loaded. But still. Where I live, road rage is usually expressed with the middle finger, a few choice words or blistering looks of disgust.

After this incident, traffic proceeded along in fits and starts. Once again it seemed that traffic was slowing down for no reason. There were no accidents. The number of lanes hadn’t changed; they’d actually increased. Again it seemed to be a matter of a small number of drivers who, when traffic slowed, never resumed the posted speed.

And wouldn’t you know that when I finally worked my way up to where the obstruction was, it was that same Asian man in the black Honda who was still turned around talking to the ladies in the back seat.

What are the odds of that?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tis the Season

Retail Therapy, 2003

It’s the holiday season. By now you’re probably in the thick of it. Maybe you’ve even finished your Christmas shopping.

I’m not a big shopper. I don’t like to “go shopping.” I do like the art of retailing, though, and I do like to visit stores to see what they’re doing.

Early in my career I did a lot of research in support of retailers. Through this work, I came to meet and know one of New York’s finest retailer executives. Al was one of those people with whom you couldn’t walk across the street without learning something interesting. He could spend five minutes in a store and tell you five ways to make it more engaging to the customers and profitable to the owners. He knew the business of retailing. He also understood the theater of retailing.

Spending time with someone like Al really makes you appreciate a well designed and professionally staffed store. I remember the first time I went into Crate & Barrel’s flagship store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. I thought, “These people have done something really smart!” Not long thereafter, Nike Town opened across the street and raised the bar again for what a store could be.

People flocked to these stores not because the merchandise was new or different—most of it was well known from catalogs—but because it was presented in a new and exciting retail environment.

I don’t get the impression there are many people like Al in retailing these days. The Apple stores are a smart reflection of the brand. Target is probably the most inventive and successful of the old department store retailers in the way it transitioned from the stuffy Dayton’s into the modern Target. The Gap brands still surprise us from time to time. Macy’s plays with thoughtful advertising to let us know it’s not going down without a fight.

When I was in college I worked part-time for the company that owned two highly respected regional department store chains and the Brooks Brothers men’s store chain. This was the early 1970s. There were people in the organization who understood the narrow margins and cutthroat business competition of the time. But there were also buyers, artists and merchandisers who understood the theater of visual display and retail salespeople who knew how to provide the kind of service that brought customers back.

But even then I could see the onset of a different ethic. Department store chains were starting to move out of the hands of their founding families and into the hands of raiders and investors who had no interest in their core business and traded them like baseball cards. There were a few bright spots—Macy’s, again—but by and large performance was weak.

And so it has continued. In the absence of engaging store design, enthusiastic, knowledgeable salespeople and interesting merchandise, why should we pay attention to anything but price? Why wouldn’t we move to online shopping? Even an impersonal virtual “Shopping Cart” and checkout is more satisfying that some physical store where the surly, minimum wage clerk waiting on you doesn’t want to go to the back to check to see if they have your size.

Retail Therapy, above, was taken at an outlet mall in Williamsburg, Virginia, in what should have been its strongest season of the year. But this mall operator missed the boat when it came to creating an attractive, contemporary retailing environment. Other retailers right down the street were doing a booming business that day. This place was a ghost town.

And no, to finish my opening thought, I haven’t finished my Christmas shopping. If luck is with me, on the day this is posting I will have had the chance to take some time out from work to sit on a bench on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California, and photograph some of the crazy people walking by. I can finish shopping when I get home.

[“What I Saw” will be on vacation the week of Christmas. See you back on the 28th!]

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Like Red Sex

La Bella Macchina, 2003

We have a friend, a single woman and elementary school teacher, who works part time as a waitress at the little place where my wife and I have lunch on Sundays. We don’t know a whole lot about Diana, but do know she’s a hard worker and that she has a wicked sense of humor.

Last spring Diana started talking about how she was going to get a new car. Each week we’d ask her if she’d gone looking yet, and each week she’d make an excuse for not having done it. It was really none of our business what she did, but she seemed disappointed if we didn’t ask about it each week. So we continued to ask each week and then let it go after a while. She said nothing more.

Until last week.

We’d barely set foot into the café when Diana grabbed our arms and pulled us back out into the parking lot to look at a car she was thinking about buying. It was a cute little bright red Honda coupe with a spoiler on the back and all sorts of souped up features.

“It’s like red sex, that car,” she told us with a prurient wink. “After I drive it I feel like I need to smoke a cigarette.”

We admired the car and gave her a hard time because she’d repeatedly told us before that she was looking for a good practical car she could “drive into retirement.”

Diana’s not a dewy-eyed 20 year-old. But my guess is she’s far from retirement. She’d been driving a nondescript hulk of a car she inherited from her late sister for at least twelve years.

We encouraged her to go for the fun car if that’s what made her happy. We’re of the belief that everyone ought to do a little something special for himself or herself now and then. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. But if your idea of a treat runs to a car, and you can afford it, then why not a shiny little red sports car?

When we pulled into the café this past Sunday, there was no red sex car in the parking lot. But over at the far edge was a brand new Honda Element with Diana’s license tags on it. People in the auto business tell me the Element is supposed to be for the Indie-minded young person. But in our neck of the woods it seems to be more popular among soccer moms who aren’t ready yet to throw in the towel and drive minivans.

When we got inside, we immediately pressed her for news about the car. “I just couldn’t do that,” she said. “I couldn’t get that red car. I couldn’t keep sex out of my mind when I drove it, and that just didn’t seem right for a teacher.”

That’s our Diana for you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Own Private Richmond

Starbuck Neck, 2008

“Society people are wonderful, but they have no rhythm.”

“Society” bandleader Meyer Davis

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Richmond, Virginia, was still very provincial. It was joked that Richmonders hadn’t gotten over the Civil War, and that maybe some day the editorial page editor of the city’s afternoon newspaper might be dragged kicking and screaming into the Twentieth Century.

I knew a bit about this before I went to Richmond to go to college. The summer before I started college I became smitten with a girl from Richmond. She was a year younger than me. We met at the beach. I worked there. Her family had a “beach house” more imposing than our year-round, and only, home. We went out a bunch and had a good time.

The night before she returned to Richmond, I showed up to take her out. She was already out with someone else. Her mother covered for her and welcomed me to call them when I got to Richmond, “because Betsy has many nice friends.”

Ouch! If you’ve gotten that line before, you know what she meant. (If you don't, it means, “Don’t bother asking my daughter out again. But maybe she has some friends with lower social standards.”) Betsy and I remained friends for many years. But that was it.

Later that year I met a college girl who was about to begin her debutante season. That sort of thing still mattered in Richmond then. I wasn’t on the official escort list, but my girlfriend’s parents saw to it that I was invited to a lot of these events. We laughed and played through a summer of mindless dinner parties and soirées. Imagine Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan with a Southern accent.

There was interesting fallout from all this partying with, as Bob & Ray used to say, “the socially prominent…in stately splendor far away from the squalid village below.” I witnessed homes and lavish lifestyles beyond anything I’d ever seen. I met doctors, tycoons, politicians, tobacco barons, people whose names were on all the big buildings downtown and some of those old “first family of Virginia” people who were intractably connected to the past, the ones who hadn’t gotten over the Civil War.

Turns out they weren’t so bad after all. Anachronisms? Yes. But the truth was they were little more than two generations away from the Civil War. That history was still very much in their blood because they descended from those ancient generals. They lived in ancestral homes on land where blood has been shed.

By the time Christmas rolled around and the debutante season ended, my girlfriend and I were over the high life. We drifted apart a year or so later. In the years that followed I had occasional reason to be back into the high society world. But I was never comfortable there and much happier when I came home to my own friends.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Into the Sky

Clouds 7-24, 2003

Is there any more accessible subject for painting or photography than clouds?

They’re almost always around. They’re never quite the very same way twice. They offer infinite opportunities for interpretation. They can look like clouds or like the bottom of the ocean or the ripples of the brain.

There’s a wonderful old Peanuts cartoon. It goes something like this: Charley Brown, Lucy and Schroeder are lying on the ground looking up at the sky. Lucy says something to the effect that the shapes of the clouds remind her of that moment in Da Vinci’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when God creates man. Schroeder comments that the clouds remind him of Bowlby’s hypothesis about maternal deprivation.

Charley Brown, meanwhile, thinks one of the clouds looks like a ducky.

That’s how clouds are, as deep or as shallow as you need them to be.

Like a lot of people who travel by air, I’ve flown through a lot of clouds. Some were big benign cream puffs, barely noticeable as you passed smoothly through them. They’re entrancing in that the closer you get to them the more you realize that just about every part of them is constantly in motion, forever shifting and sorting and making new shapes.

Some clouds are treacherous and mean and can cause you, if you happen to be flying in a small enough plane, to wonder whether you’ll even live to get through them. I’ve been in enough situations in little planes, times when neither your eyes nor the instrumentation could tell you for sure whether you were flying forward, backward or sideways, to never want to be in that situation again.

Remember that scene in Amarcord when the villagers take their fishing boats out into the sea one night to see the majestic Italian cruise liner Rex as she passes by, only they fall asleep, most of them, and by the time the Rex comes into view the fog is so thick that all that can be seen is the soft suggestion of light from the ship’s portholes? One stormy winter night I was in a little plane in a tight holding pattern around Chicago’s O’Hare airport when, as I looked out the window, I saw those same kinds of soft lights and was startled to realize that 1) they were going in the opposite direction, 2) they were coming from another airplane and 3) they seemed close enough to reach out and touch.

I survived that night and all the other times I’ve been in scary situations in little airplanes. But really, in this day and time doesn’t it seem just a little silly, if not embarrassing, to die that close to the ground just because you chose to sit in a chair in a metal box that’s propelling through the sky using the same aerodynamic properties as a spit ball?

Yes, a spitball. And though I didn’t intend it that way, isn’t that about how we feel when we see a really great cloud? On second thought, maybe trees are the perfect artistic subject.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thank You, Ricky Skaggs

Glen Eagle Road, 2008

I don’t actually have any pictures of Nashville. I went there occasionally on business during the late 1980s and early 1990s and didn’t carry a camera with me in those days.

By why let that get in the way of a memorable night?

I’d flown into town the night before I had to meet my client. It was winter, rainy and cold. I was having dinner at some chain steak house on the edge of Vanderbilt University and had grabbed a local arts & entertainment tabloid newspaper to read while I waited for my meal to be served.

A small ad in the back of the paper announced that a cable TV show starring mandolin player Ricky Skaggs was taping that week at the Ryman Auditorium, and that on this particular night he would be taping shows featuring a variety of musicians, including country music legend Bill Monroe, Vince Gill, Bruce Hornsby and Bela Fleck. Tickets to the taping were free, but on a first come, first served basis.

I gulped down my dinner and ran downtown to the Ryman Auditorium. Taping had just begun. A friendly doorman said all the tickets were gone, but that if I could find a seat I was welcome to come in. That's Nashville for you.

The Ryman Auditorium is a surprisingly intimate place. The seats are uncushioned wooden pews arranged in an arc around the stage. The main floor was full, but I found a congenial group of people in the balcony who let me squeeze in with them.

Skaggs came out onto the stage and explained that they would record each performance twice to give them editing choices. He asked that the audience try to show as much enthusiasm for the second takes as they would for the first, and also said that they were going to tape the performances of the older musicians first so that they could get home to bed.

I don’t remember a lot about the older performers. I’d heard their names before and some of their songs. But I’ve never spent much time with country music. It was Hornsby and Fleck who I really wanted to hear.

Taping a television show never goes as quickly as you’d think. It was after 11:00 p.m. before Skaggs brought Bruce Hornsby out onto the stage. They played several songs together, making several takes of each one. Then he brought Bela Fleck out to play. Again, several takes of each song. They were thrilling to watch perform, no matter how many times they repeated each song. The audience loved them and showed its appreciation with long and spirited applause at the end of each take.

By 1:00 a.m., the place was so full of music that no one wanted to go home, even though some had been there for seven hours by that time. Little children were stretched out asleep across the laps of their parents. I knew I had to get up early the next morning, but there was no way I was leaving.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better and were beginning to preparing yourself for the inevitable end of the show, Skaggs surprised everyone by bringing all of the performers who were left back out on the stage. The cameras were turned off and the lights were turned down. Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Bruce Hornsby, Bela Fleck and assorted backup musicians played together for over an hour. There was no beginning and no end to anything they played. They jammed seamlessly on everything from old school country to modern bluegrass to jazz to rock & roll and Broadway.

It was glorious, not in some spiritual way, but in the way that watching people who love what they do and love doing it together can impart enough energy and enthusiasm to fill a whole auditorium.

I took Glen Eagle Road, above, not long after arriving in Missoula, Montana. Living as I do in the flat coastal plains, the topography and big sky of this scene were as exhilarating to me as listening to those musicians playing was that night many years ago in Nashville.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Overheard While Boarding

Approaching Charlotte, 2009

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain….”

An elderly lady a few rows in front of me, on her way to Dallas: “Are you going to lose me? I’m not going to Charlotte. I’m going to Dallas to see my son.” Flight attendant: “Don’t worry, we won’t lose you. We just lose luggage.”

A blonde fashion model, still upset that there was no W Hotel in Norfolk: “Ugh! This plane is so dirty. And no first class! Who booked this!”

Flight attendant: “Please fasten your seat belt in the buckle…”

US Navy contractor sitting across the row: “We make computers for the military. Our computers don’t breathe. They’re rugged-ized. You can use them underwater….”

“…Your seat can be used as a floatation device. To inflate, pull the….”

Person behind me, talking to a medical resident who’s headed to Pittsburgh for a job interview: "Hey, I have a friend who’s a nurse at Pittsburgh General! Maybe you know her?”

“…There are two exit doors located…”

Man in front of me: “I headed to Providence and then to Wood’s Hole. F@!%ing Coast Guard! I’m going to spend the winter in a sleazebag motel in f@!%ing Woods Hole, Massachusetts!”

“…the Navy SEALS have their own computers. They take all the innards out and replace them with non-spec connections. That way, if they fall into enemy hands…”

“…Are you sure you’re not going to lose me?”

Across the aisle: “I can’t imagine living in Chicago. We used to go there to my sister’s for Thanksgiving. One year she left the turkey on the back porch and it froze so hard the kids got it and kicked it around the yard.”

“…It’s our pleasure to have you aboard today. If we can do anything to make your trip…”

Two ladies I can’t see: “I met him at a wedding in Montana. The family went there for the wedding and liked it so much they bought a ranch. He used to be a lawyer. Now he’s a—what do you call it?—oh, yeah. He’s a beekeeper.”

“I don’t work to make money. If I can break even I’m happy.”

“We’re based in Tulsa.”

“There’s a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico right where the Mississippi flows into it. The shrimpers used to be able to go right off shore there and fill their boats. Now they have to go out about 70 miles.”

“…The water temperature’s 32 degrees. But that’s not cold. If you want really cold…”

“…The other big dead zone is in the Chesapeake Bay…”

“Sit tight, honey. Daddy’s going to be there to meet us in Indianapolis.”


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Santa Claus and Scooby Doo, too

The Spirit of Christmas, 2004

The Spirit of Christmas was taken at a house located on a busy road not too far away from where I live. Each year they put these inflatable figures out on the lawn. Each year they have to come up with some new way of thwarting the teenagers who conspire to deflate the figures late at night.

If there’s anything sillier than these figure are in the first place, it’s the sad sight of them deflated on the ground in little red and green plastic puddles.

It seemed innocent enough when they put up the Santa figure. The next year they added the Mickey Mouse figure. Mickey Mouse?

The year after it was the Dallas Cowboy figure, which is also apparently meant to be a moose or some other animal. Maybe it’s because I don’t watch a lot of football anymore. But I don’t get the connection between the Dallas Cowboys and Christmas.

The next year they brought in the Grinch that Stole Christmas. Okay, I could see that one. The next year it was Frosty the Snow Man. That, too, made sense.

But then they brought in Scooby Doo. Yes, he is wearing reindeer antlers. But really, Scooby Doo?

Back in the 1950s, among the families we were close to was a Navy captain and his wife and their three daughters. The wife was the daughter of American missionaries. She’d grown up in Egypt and instilled in each of her daughters a piece of her own wanderlust. A desire to see the world also helped when it came time for the family to be uprooted to the various foreign ports where the Captain’s ship was based.

They once lived in Naples for several years. They loved it there. But the girls missed home around the holidays, so the parents would work doubly hard to make their Italian home into a little American home-away-from-home.

Part of the ritual of living as they did was to immerse themselves the local culture. In Naples, they found a little trattoria they loved. It was run by an elderly couple who took the American family in as if they were their own family. They bought gifts for the girls’ birthdays. They taught them how to cook authentic Italian meals. But as Christmas approached, the elderly couple couldn’t think of a way to help the girls to get over their holiday homesickness.

Then the old man got an idea. When the family was next there for dinner, just a couple of days before Christmas, the elderly couple insisted that the girls go out into the terrace behind the restaurant and see the special “American Christmas Lights” he had put up.

The girls raced to the back of the restaurant. As they passed through the kitchen they had visions of strings of colored lights strung over one of the olives trees in the garden, or maybe outlining the edges of the building.

Imagine their surprise when they got out to the terrace and found no strings of brightly colored lights, but rather a manger scene where the usual cast of characters—Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the Three Kings and assorted livestock—had been replaced by life-size figures of the only “American” characters the elderly restaurateur could find; namely Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

You have to give the old man points for trying.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Synchronicity of Friends

Hieroglyphics, 2007

Through the years I’ve been fortunate to meet many interesting people. Some came and went from my life quickly. Some became friends that I see regularly. Some are “consequential strangers,” people who hover constantly at the edge of my life. I don’t know a lot about them. But they’re a regular presence.

And then there are the friends who are real soul mates. Now that I think about it, I have more of them than I thought. Each one is rooted in some deep personal connection. Each is different from all the others and each one makes my life richer. One of the things that defines them is a commitment to friendship that doesn’t require regular physical presence.

These are the kinds of friends you might not see from year to year. But when you do get together, it’s like you never ended your last conversation. You just pick up and carry on. Invariably, you find that your lives or moods or circumstances have been whirling in similar but not intersecting orbits.

About five years ago I found out I had a common chronic disease. It isn’t life threatening. But it could become so over time if I didn’t take better care of myself. This included getting more exercise. The only way I could figure out how to fit the necessary exercise into my day was to start my day a little sooner. So for several years I got up at 5:30 a.m. each morning and walked five miles. It wasn’t something I wanted to do. But there was a certain amount of fear-of-the-alternative that kept me going. 

During the years I was doing this, I much preferred the dark mornings of winter to the humid dawns of summer. I don't handle cold very well any more. But there were fewer distractions in the dark. It was easier to concentrate on keeping one foot in front of the other while I worked on other things in my head.

One spring I realized there was a whole lot going on in the path I walked each morning. The streets were full of hieroglyphics, it seemed. One morning I took my camera with me when I walked and chronicled some of these marks and colors and rifts in the earth. They became a series I called “At My Feet.” You can see it here.

During the summer of 2008, I had a chance to catch up with my friend Mike McDermott. We became fast friends about twenty years ago when we were presidents of different chapters of the same professional society. We both later became national officers of the organization. We are about the same age and have interesting similarities in our life stories. We're both parents of daughters. Mike's a marketing guy for a large federal agency. In his spare time, Mike writes poetry (and novels and screenplays).

The day we got together I told him about my return to photography. When I told him I’d gotten so involved that I’d even taken to taking pictures of things I found at my feet, he practically jumped from the table and told me, “I’ve got just the poem for you.”

And he did.

Herewith, “Cement Block History,” by Mike McDermott

It was cold, the walk back.

On the way, I looked down

and counted the blocks . . .

One, two, three –

boring cement blocks they seem

only if you count them.

A story was there

underneath the footprints

on the cement blocks:

“DM + CR”
“Kathy is a . . .”

cracks, old brittleness,

rough new cement,

a smashed worm after the rain,

broken Pepsi bottle –

the pieces seeming to last

the length of the journey.

Blocks still to be there

after the journey’s done,

there to be the way

of another journey begun.