Monday, November 30, 2009

The Lion and the Lamb

Organ Grinder, 2001

There’s an old story that goes something like this:

In retirement following his term as Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger continues to make bold strides in peacemaking. He has convinced a lion and a lamb to lie down together in a manger in Jerusalem. Millions of people come from all over the world to see this scene of domestic tranquility in the middle of a region known for it anger, division and discord.

One day a newspaper reporter comes and asks, “Dr. Kissinger, you’ve been successful at bringing many people together who could not get along before. How did you do it? The lion and the lamb have been enemies for centuries. How did you bring them together?

Dr. Kissinger, answering in that deep, gravelly voice of his, “Vell, you see, we bring the lamb in first and make it comfortable. And when all is calm again we quietly bring the lion in and make it comfortable.”

The reporter takes a deep breath in realization of this great lesson in peacemaking she had learned. “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about how you do this?”

First looking both ways to make sure no one else is listening, Kissinger leans in close toward the ear of the reporter and whispers, “The truth is, we go through a lot of lambs.”

When you travel you become accustomed to seeing things out of the ordinary. For some people that’s upsetting. For others of us, that’s the whole idea.

One of the things you see in European cities more than you see in the U.S. is street performers. Some are official and authorized. Some are thieves. Some are beggars. Some are just what the British call buskers. Nearly every major public plaza in the most touristy areas of European cities has at least one person standing somewhere playing an instrument, singing, doing tricks, miming, or just standing in place while painted silver or gold. Most have a hat, a box, a guitar care or other receptacle for accepting tips.

The first time we saw the organ grinder, above, he was in a side street near Paris’ Opera Garnier. From a distance, we saw the organ. We saw the man turn the crank to make music. What we didn’t see was a monkey dancing around nearby. As we approached, all we could see was several stuffed animals in front of the organ. We didn’t think that made for much of a serious busking effort. But because a crowd has assembled, we continued to get closer to see what was going on.

That’s when we saw the little bed on the sidewalk beside the man. The dog and the cat slept peacefully beside one another. What that many people milling around—it was July and there were lots of tourists—either of the animals would have looked up. But neither did. We wondered aloud how long they would stay in bed together.

Later than afternoon we happened to be walking down the same street again. The organ grinder was still at the same spot. The dog was still asleep in the same position as we had seen it six or seven hours ago. But there was a different cat, nuzzled up against the back of the dog just as the one in the morning had been.

My wife and I stopped into a nearby café and asked the counter attendant what he knew about the organ grinder. My wife was incensed that the dog might have been drugged, and maybe the cat, too.

The counter man said he didn’t know much about the organ grinder, but that he had noticed that he does “use a lot of cats.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Further Personal Insight Dept.

7th Arrondissement Portal Perspective, 2006

Isn’t curiosity one of those little aspects of life that makes it interesting?

When I was younger and didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, I thought it would be neat to be a reporter. I’d lived a pretty sheltered life. So the idea of going places and meeting a lot of interesting people and asking them questions that if you weren’t a reporter would have earned you a good smack in the face seemed pretty appealing.

I didn’t end up applying myself to that pursuit any more than I did a half dozen others. But during my extended tour of college I did add to the requisites a mountain of hours in foreign languages, two areas of business and dalliances in architectural history, law and anthropology.

In short, I came out of school with a thin veneer of knowledge of a lot of things, but not enough in any one area to practice it convincingly.

But that was okay. In those days young men were expected to have a Renaissance-like command of art, culture, commerce, the classics and science. I could hold my own as a generalist. And besides, I didn’t want to be tied down to any of them. I couldn’t imagine being an accountant. During the years of the Cold War, if you didn’t want to work for the CIA or couldn’t pass the Foreign Service exam, the ability to speak Russian was only useful in esoteric literary circles and as a parlor trick.

It’s only fitting that I ended up in the research game. It was sheer luck, but good luck just the same. What better place could there be for someone with a lot of curiosity, who enjoys ramping up to learn about a category, but after that is ready to move on to the next one?

The founder of an ad agency where I was research director for about ten years used to say there were “agency people” and “client people.” The former thrived on new ideas, constantly changing conditions and demands and the serendipity of clients. The latter preferred to dig in somewhere and ride the slow conveyor belt to retirement. He used to shake his head in disappointment when an agency person would leave to work for a client, or vice versa. He’d been around long enough to know where that was going to end.

Over the years I’ve had the chance to meet and interview a lot of “high performance” individuals. They include doctors and scientists, entrepreneurs and business leaders, artists, musicians and actors. As we’ve talked about their lives and their interests, more than a few of these people have quietly confided in me the belief that they probably would have been diagnosed with attention deficiency had such diagnoses been around when they were kids. Instead, and undulled by medication, they were given enough space by their families, schools and mentors to become high performing adults.

Curiosity is a big part of the make up of a lot of these people. They aren’t content with what they already know or what is already known about something. They’re driven to see more.

This is how 7th Arrondissement Portal Perspective and a whole lot of my other photographs came to be. I’m not one of those high performance individuals. But when I walk down a street I make a game of seeing what unexpected things I can find among the mundane. In a city like New York, that usually results in just looking into a lot of alleys. But in older cities like Paris and Rome and London where many of the old residence blocks were built fortress-style, one occasionally gets a glimpse past an austere façade into the oasis of a landscaped interior garden. This scene above wasn’t all that verdant. But in an otherwise cold, gray block, it was an oasis just the same.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Dark and The Light (not to be confused with b&w)

Fluid Dynamics #14, 2005

I feel like I’ve been from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other over the last few days. Last night I conducted focus groups among people whose financial condition and outlook are, by their own definition, “very poor.” They are a weary lot, heavy with guilt, disappointment and defeat, narrow of scope and desperately short on hope.

They want to look forward. But for many the farthest they can see into the future is the next payday, and making it to even that juncture requires a capacity for creativity in eking out the remaining financial vapors from their last payday.

If you’ve ever been in this condition, you know it’s debilitating. You know it takes a toll on your body and soul. You know you’re scared to answer the phone or the door or go to the mailbox. You can’t begin to feel confident enough to adopt an optimistic outlook, much less visualize a sky of any color but gray.

Contrast those feelings with the mood of the crowd I was in last Friday. On that day I attended a conference put on by NASA in the style of TED, the international nonprofit that promotes “ideas worth spreading.” The audience of roughly a thousand people attending TEDxNASA, as the event was called, was composed mostly of aerospace engineers and climate scientists. There were a few educators and students, a few aerospace contractors, a few nonprofit representatives and a few business people like me on the prowl for commercial and institutional inspiration.

In striking contrast to the debt-ridden members of last night’s research study, a defining characteristic of the TEDxNASA crowd was that they were almost entirely focused on identifying and exploring possibilities. They were all about potential. They asked What if? Why not? and How could we? They’re not trying to dig themselves out of a hole. Their work and their passions provide them with the freedom to be limitless in their thinking about both the here-and-now and the world of fifty or a hundred years from now. (Here’s a clue: they’re looking beyond planet Earth.)

Two sets of people living in the same community. One hopelessly mired in a swamp of debt so profound that they see no way out, the other almost completely free to explore new ways to live, work and interact. Just as citizens of 1909 could no more have imagined how different the world would be in 2009, the TEDxNASA crowd assumes that many of the social structures, technologies and health and social norms that frame the way we live today will have been replaced by new technologies and cultural norms a hundred years from now.

What does this have to do with photography? It has to do with making space to be creative and taking whatever physical or cognitive steps you need to take to make yourself part of and cognizant of the wider environment around you. I think I’ve mentioned before how sometimes when I go out to make pictures I have to shoot a bunch of photographic equivalents of what writer Anne Lamott refers to as “shitty first drafts” before my photographic eyes really get into gear.

For many of us, the allowance of freedom to express doesn’t come easily. Still, even those of us who fancy ourselves as Observers or who focus, as I do sometimes, on the “small moments” need to kick ourselves occasionally into new orbits. The greatest opportunity we who fancy ourselves as makers of creative gestures can waste is the opportunity to look forward and outward and, in doing so, warm up and stretch our perceptive muscles.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Meet Molly

Molly, 2009

Regular readers of my Flickr page may recall my last foray into the world of human-bovine communications. In short, whenever I approached a herd of cattle up near Luray, Virginia, they ran away from me. And whenever I withdrew from the fence, they returned to check me out. Any one of them could have crushed me without a moment’s thought. Yet, they ran from me like elephants from a mouse. I noted then:

We must have done this back-and-forth dance a half dozen times before I accepted that my charm doesn't work on cows.”

Well, that was then. This past weekend I met Molly. She’s a young dairy cow living at Full Quiver Farm near Suffolk, Virginia. The farm is run by an earnest looking couple and their nine children. (Yes, nine children.) It’s the kind of place where the kids are probably home schooled and have lots of chores helping out with the care of the farm animals and vegetable gardens. It’s the kind of place that despite the presence of a hard working, Bible-believing mother and father and nine children all old enough to share in the labor it still has a chronically disorderly look that says this family has far less than reality television show wealth and far too many other things to worry about then how their farm and home look.

The turkeys at Full Quiver run loose in a large open pasture. (It would appear, though, that turkeys don’t like to keep their own solitary contemplative company, all Thoreau-like, but instead cluster together along the sunnier edges of a corrugated shed in the middle of the pasture.) The chickens have their own pasture and sleep in an old RV. The plump layers have a hen house cobbled together from wire, old sections of wooden fence and stray pieces of aluminum that look like they may have been salvaged from the side of the road.

All of the family’s kids were pressed into service on Saturday, the official pick-up day for Thanksgiving fare. The older kids were hustling bagged turkeys, chickens, slabs of fresh bacon and vegetables back and forth from a refrigerated case in the slaughter shed to the makeshift cashier’s counter under a tent. The middle-school aged kids were sent out to one of the adjacent fields to pick collards. The youngest manned a little table at the edge of the tent where they served apple cider and ginger cookies to customers lined up to pick up their orders.

While my wife stood in line, I checked out the customers and the livestock. The customers were an interesting mix of dedicated locavores, pretentious foodies and people who just like to know where their food comes and that it doesn’t come from factory foods.

The livestock are pretty laid back, too, in keeping with the overall tone of the place. Dairy cows wandered here and there on a large pasture. Young calves stayed close to their mothers or mingled among the customers. In one area I found Molly, shown above. Unlike the steers up in Luray who were so leery of me, Molly wanted to be my friend. When I approached her enclosure, she approached me. She let me pet her. She wanted to see what my camera was all about. When I talked to her she turned her head demurely, as if to say, “Aw, shucks,” so that I could rub behind her ears. When I started to walk away, she mooed at me. You might have interpreted her move differently. But I would swear she was smiling when I turned around and came back and rubbed behind her ears some more.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Autumn Leaves

Autumn Leaves, 2003

“No two people see the same thing the same way.” Maybe it’s just me, but it seems I always hear that a negative context, as if two people seeing something differently means there's going to be a fight. I like to rephrase it to say, “Any two people makes for two opportunities to see the same thing differently.” I think there’s far more potential in that, and the prospect that someone else might find a perspective you didn’t see.

One of the most transformative professional experiences I’ve ever had was to spend a day with Edward de Bono, who made a name for himself decades ago as the father of “lateral thinking.” If you spend a day with the de Bono, you will repeatedly insist that you make decisions based on a fresh, objective criteria rather than a synthesis of all the decisions you’ve made before. Meanwhile, de Bono will repeatedly prove to you, so far as the way your brain works, that it really is as if the only tool you have is a hammer and all the problems you see look like nails. In short, we see things, form perceptions and make decisions based on very worn neural paths.

The bottom line with Edward de Bono is that there are always alternatives in any situation, and rarely only one “right” solution to a problem. However, our brain is conditioned during childhood to form and thereafter look for, and make anything new we see conform to familiar perceptions and logic patterns. This makes for good linear learning, but not for the exploration of alternatives and new ways of seeing things.

In photography, there are always choices. I get a kick out of seeing how two photographers will interpret the same place or event. Some times when I look at the results of a day when I’ve gone out shooting with another photographer our records of the day are so different that you’d have thought we were in different places.

Every now and then I think I’ve exhausted the possibilities for pictures in my own back yard. Then I turn my head and see something I’ve never seen before. Autumn Leaves, above, was one of those times. I was walking the dog one chilly December morning and happened to look up and see the leaves blowing. Leaves blowing are not an unusual event in our neighborhood. But something told me these leaves would be different. I rushed back to the house to grab the camera and come back and created a short series of pictures of the flying gold and red and I saw that morning.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Silks, 1996

Silks shows a pair of manikins that stand in front of a store on the Campo Franceso Morosini in Venice. My sister came home telling us about them after her first visit to Venice in the early 1990s. She’d seen them in the window of a shop there (the shop was closed) and wasn’t quite sure what was being sold. On a subsequent trip five years later--her husband and my wife and I were along for this trip--we all went to the shop to see the manikins and again found the shop closed.

My wife and daughter and I visited Venice in 2001 and found the shop open. It sold silk attire, mostly underwear, that looked like it was best suited for a flamboyant gay clientele. If the scant fabric and sequins weren’t enough of a tip-off, the word “SEX” woven into most of the items made it clear that these shorts weren’t intended to be hidden behind pants.

Needless to say, the shop and its titillating array of merchandise was a popular stop for chaste tourists whose visit to Venice had to that point consisted of a sober diet of churches, museums, glass furnaces and lace shops.

One of our guides knew the owner of the silk shop and explained that the owner had been involved in some of the more flamboyant Venetian parties of the early 1990s. At that time, she related, high government officials liked to get away from Rome on weekends and party in Venice.

These weren’t country parties in the oh, so proper British sense. Rather, our guide described them as bacchanalian celebrations of food, alcohol, art, music and sex, not always in that order. The silk shop owner was in charge of organizing the parties and procuring pretty girls (and boys) for the adult entertainment. In return for his services, he was allowed to operate his silky sex shop in an otherwise Disney-fied stretch of Venetian tourist real estate.

When the partying government eventually fell, the next government leaders to come along felt the need to set a slightly higher moral standard. There would be no more parties in Venice, or at least none organized by government officials. The silk merchant quickly fell out of favor, though his shop remained in the Campo. Perhaps someone who has been to Venice more recently can tell us whether it’s still there.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Walter's Lighthouse

Charles’ Lighthouse, 2003

My neighbor Walter [not real name] and his wife came to our area in the late 1960s to start a medical practice. They built a home and raised four children on a gorgeous wooded point on a neck of land that pokes out into the Lynnhaven River. At that time, the hundreds of acres around his home were heavily wooded. Walter landscaped the grounds of his home lavishly. His children kept horses and rode in the woods and nearby fields. Walter planted azaleas and camellias along the narrow lane that would later become a public street.

Over the years the parts of our street that Walter didn’t own were subdivided and gradually sold off. You could tell that Walter took it personally whenever a tree had to be removed to make room for a house or the shrubs along the lane pruned back some. Luckily, the newcomers only took out what was necessary and took pride in the maintaining the floral shrubs along the lane.

In 2003, in preparation for a party which I described here, Walter bought a length of floating dock to replace a smaller, older pier. Walter's buddies from the Knights of Columbus, appreciative of his kindness through the years, built a miniature lighthouse which they installed at the end of the floating dock.

At the same time this was going on, an old hunting lodge across the river was being renovated into a home. The new owner of the property added a pier that extended some forty yards out into the river. Because it was so close to the deep water channel, the new pier required permanent safety lighting. And because the homeowner happened to be in the marine construction business, the pier was not only substantial and well built, but also fitted out with the latest commercial-grade lighting.

One of the floodlights on the pier shined right across the river into Walter's bedroom. His wife was content to close the shades, but Walter was having none of that. He rang up the homeowner on the opposite bank and asked that the light be turned off, away or removed altogether. The owner did not take Walter's call kindly and refused to make any changes.

Then, while out raking leaves a few days later, Walter spied the lighthouse at the end of his floating dock and had an idea. He had his gardener/handyman install a powerful floodlight in the lighthouse that would shine across the river into the new people’s windows.

It was an effective, if hostile, strategy. The first night Walter turned the light on it took only a few minutes for the new people across the river to call and complain. If Walter would turn off his floodlight, they quickly offered, they would put a shield across the part of their floodlight that shone into Walter's house.

Had they waited any longer there probably wouldn’t have been an agreement. What the people across the river took to be Walter turning the light off to give them some relief was actually the floodlight blowing out all the circuits in Walter's house and plunging the whole property into darkness. The failure of the handyman to make sure Walter's house could handle the increased electrical demand of the new floodlight had inadvertently solved the whole problem.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

She Wanted Out

Colorado 31, 2007

[Inspired by a few recent conversations.]

She wanted out. She wanted it to be over. To be ended. No more. History.

She hated to say so, but they had been right. It was a stupid idea. Always had been. She’d known it, too, but wasn’t listening to her inside voice. Instead, the outside voice said, “Sure, whatever.”

They’d been together and broken up several times over two decades. At first he wouldn’t leave his marriage because his children were young. That made it easy because she didn’t want another marriage anyway. She already had a daughter to raise on her own and a career worth pursuing.

He was older and rich and famous and traveled a lot. Sometimes she traveled with him. She’d travel to his city. Every now and then she’d get fed up with him and ashamed of herself and swear she didn’t want to go on like this.

But they did. His children grew up. His wife eventually left him. Her daughter grew up and went off on her own.

Then he got sick. Really sick. The doctor said he probably had just a few months. She took a leave from her job and went to live in his city and sit with him in the hospital. They talked about what could have been, both knowing that the fantasy they painted was something neither of them wanted. Part of the allure of their relationship had always been that neither really wanted anything more than what they had. But talking passed the time. She did love him. She held his hand. She cried as his condition worsened. He said he worried about her.

One day he proposed to her. He didn’t want to take chances that she’d be made to leave his side for wont of a legal connection or be ignored when expressing his desires as his death approached. He told her again that he loved her and held out the prospect of the prestige that having his name could provide.

She said, “Sure, whatever,” being neither interested in his name nor his prestige. She’d never wanted to be married to him. But she did want to make him happy. The hospital chaplain married them that afternoon. It seemed to lift his spirits.

Her daughter thought it violated everything her mother had ever taught her about being independent. Her girlfriends thought she was crazy to take this distracting matrimonial detour in her career. Her mother said she was kind to not leave him alone at this lonely stage of life, but asked whether marriage was really necessary.

As the days dragged on, she began to occupy more of her time planning how she would resume her life and her career after his death.

Only he didn’t die. His condition did get worse. They were trying lots of things on him, and at one point the doctor did say it might be a matter of days. Then it got better, enough that he could be moved from intensive care to a regular room. Two weeks later he could stand up and walk. He still had the disease, but for now the disease wasn’t going to claim his life.

Everyone was happy. He was going to have more time for life, for the work for which he was famous, and for his new marriage.

That’s when she decided she wanted out. She didn’t want to move to his city and be his wife. She wanted their old relationship back. She wanted her own life. She wanted to be his occasional companion, not the woman who cooked his meals and washed his clothes.

A friend suggested an affair with another man. She didn’t want out of the marriage enough to be unfaithful. She decided that a divorce couldn’t be her fault even if it was her desire. It would be easier if he were the one to be unfaithful, which given his tattered record for fidelity wasn’t such a far-fetched idea. But it seemed unlikely now that this would happen, what with his new found lease of life.

All this she thought about as she rode the plane home to collect her things.

Monday, November 16, 2009

We're all adults here, right?

Me, 2006

We’re all adults here, right? What follows isn’t for the prudish.

I get two classes of junk mail. One is trying to sell me watches, specifically replicas of expensive designer watches. They claim a new designer watch will give me a whole new look and make me classier and more attractive to women. I don’t know why I get these come-ons. I’ve never paid much attention to watches and haven’t actually worn one in several years.

The other class of junk mail falls into the “male enhancement” category. I’m not sure why I get these, either. Do women get this stuff, too? Is there a parallel world or “female enhancement” spam? A lot seems to come from what we used to refer to as “Eastern bloc” nations. So the factories that used to turn out all that “sofa-sized art” are now churning out an endless barrage of poorly translated e-mails promoting sex aids?

I used to create all kinds of elaborate mail “rules” to screen this stuff out. But the spammers got onto this quickly, and started misspelling words in order to get past the spam filters. Staying ahead of all this became too time consuming. Now, nearly all of my non-client/friend e-mail now goes directly to a “junk” file that I check a few times a day to make sure I’m not missing anyone.

As I was going through the junk file the other day I was reminded of the Monty Python “Dead Parrot” skit, arguably the five most memorable minutes of modern comedy. Eric Idle has said that the skit was written originally for a used car, but changed to a parrot to heighten the absurdity. When they were stumped over how to describe a dead bird, Idle says they simply went to a thesaurus and plucked out all the synonyms for death. “Ceased to be.” “Deceased.” “Passed on.” “Bleeding demised.” “Is no more.” And so on.

Thinking now back to the male enhancement spam, it seems they’ve been similarly plumbing the depths of carnal synonyms. How else can you explain these e-mails subject lines?

Recipe for hotter lust.

Solid gun for having fun.

Hoisters for your pork lever.

Have a concrete thing in pants.

Become her drillasaur.

Ideal for bed marathons.

For frequent getting busy.

Extend your male might.

Hit her in all poses tonight.

Your favorite ardor hoister.

Power for all the girls.

Make it point to roof.

For continuous flight.

Give your [deleted] bulldozer power.

Sink it inside her.

Pack full of night drive.

Enough weenie’s limpness.

Wang Up.

Solid gun. Pork lever. Drillasaur. Bed marathon. Ardor hoister? It would appear that they’re not only reaching for new and inventive language to evade spam filters, but also a basic grasp of the English grammar. Don’t they know it should be “Make it point to THE roof”?

This has gotten me to wondering whether I really should be paying attention to all those spam messages about replica watches. I suppose there could be a time when I might find myself needing to know whether it’s been four hours or longer or wanting to know the correct time during a bed marathon?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Beauty Touched by Life

American Sculpture Gallery, Chrysler Museum, 2003

You’re just going to have to bear with me while I work through Look at the Birdie, the new collection of previously unpublished short fiction by Kurt Vonnegut. Every page reveals something that sticks with me.

In the story “Ed Luby’s Key Club,” Vonnegut describes Claire Elliot, who with her husband is being turned away from a fancy restaurant where they have splurged to dine on each of their fourteen wedding anniversaries when they learn that the restaurant has been turned into a private club. The mobster who owns the place has just made fun of Claire’s dress, saying, “Halloween or something? Tonight’s the night people put on funny costumes and go knock on private doors till the people inside go nuts?”

Then Vonnegut writes:

“The crack about funny costumes was obviously meant to hit Claire Elliot squarely—and it did. Claire was vulnerable—not because she looked funny, but because she had made the dress she wore, because her fur coat was borrowed. Claire looked marvelous, as a matter of fact, looked marvelous to anyone with an eye for beauty, beauty that had been touched by life.”

“Beauty that had been touched by life.” What an evocation.

Vonnegut continues:

“Claire was still slender, affectionate, tremendously optimistic. What time and work and worry had done to her was to make her look, permanently, the least bit tired.”

I know a lot of people I consider to be beautiful. Some have a beauty that has been unquestionably “touched by life.” But if that experience has changed their complexion or turned some of their sinuous facial curves into short lines, I think it only makes them more beautiful and worth knowing. Affection and optimism should never be undervalued.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Adventures of the Spirit

Avon Country Lane, 2002

The other night I started reading Look at the Birdie which, despite the title, is not a book about photography. Rather, it's a collection of previously unpublished short stores by the late Kurt Vonnegut. I’m a longtime Vonnegut fan and not above reaching into the grave, as it were, for more. Reviewers have questioned whether these stories went unpublished because Vonnegut didn’t think they were any good. I’m sure someone will also claim the book's a last ditch effort to make a little money off a dead author. (There's a similar posthumously published collection of work from William Styron also just out.)

I’m willing to take that risk. So far it's been worth it. I read Slaughterhouse Five in school and from there quickly worked through the Vonnegut oeuvre. I usually enjoy his work so much tha I ended up passing the books along to friends. I have no idea how many copies of Breakfast of Champions I’ve bought through the years to give away. (Not enough, it seems, to have a copy left for myself.)

I say Look at the Birdie isn’t about photography. But there on the first page of the first story (“Confido) is a reference to a character who “had been content with inexpensive possessions and small adventures of the spirit.”

“Adventures of the spirit.” I like that idea. In Vonnegut’s story the character so described lives a closely prescribed life. “Adventures of the spirit” is used almost to belittle that life. But doesn't every artist hope to create an unusual, possibly exciting experience?

For as long as I can remember I've been an armchair traveler. I poured through decades old encyclopedias when I was a child. Sure, some of the listings were outdated. Borders changed between 1942, when the encyclopedias were printed, and the mid-to-late 1950s when I was looking at them. But the pyramids are the pyramids, right? Later on I used Ordnance maps from Britain and Michelin touring maps to plot imaginary drives from the Highlands of Scotland down to Cornwall and across Europe from Brittany eastward to the edge of what was then known as the Iron Curtain. Armed with maps, red Michelin guides and the occasional National Geographic, I tasted the history, the culture and the food of all these places, if only in my mind.

These days, I can still be captivated for hours by Google Earth and Google Maps. The perspective's a little funky at times, but I can still see the Taj Mahal. I can see exactly where on the map some of my Flickr friends who live in little towns in faraway countries are. This may not fit the classic definition of a thrill. But it makes me feel connected to these people and places in a way that is exciting and real. If that's not an adventure of the spirit, I don' t know what it.

So what is it about adventures of the spirit that's cheap or worthy of ridicule? After a brief flirtation with a magical invention that connects her to a richer, fancier life, Vonnegut's character concludes that the device is really a pipeline straight to her worst impulses and settles happily back into her dowdy housecoat to fix dinner for her family.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Introducing the Strocks

Fight House, 2004

William Faulkner has his Snopes—Ab, Bilbo, Doris, Eck and the others—of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. I had the Strocks of Tennessee and Arkansas. Faulkner created a whole county full of families. I crammed all my efforts into just one, and trust that when I am laid to rest they may be looked back upon as among my finest fictitious creations.

They started innocently enough and spun out over the better part of 2007 like good fictitious characters do, in response to the changing circumstances around them. My friend Wally Torta, who actually goes by several names to protect his standing in the Witness Relocation Program. (Oh, hell! Have I just blown his cover? Probably not. There must be lots of Tortas in the Suffolk phone book.) Anyway, Wally has posted a drawing of a lawn chair at his blog.

I can’t even remember what the deal was about the chair. Probably Torta complaining that the chair wouldn’t hold him, his MacBook, his scanner, his Wacom tablet, his stack of moleskin journals and his 48-state collection—if you know Wally, you know he’s never acknowledged Alaska and Hawaii—of keepsake coffee mugs from Hardee’s.

Whatever it was he said, it deserved a response from someone official. And thus was born “Wardell Strock, General Counsel” of the “Xiamen Division of the North American La-Z-Daze Leisure Industries.” Strock took Torta to task for using the chair improperly.

That should have been it. Wardell should have said his peace and quietly slipped back into the Chinese shadows. But then Strock’s estranged wife, Bernice Flanagan Strock, caught wind of Wardell’s comment and felt compelled to set Wally straight about her ex. Along the way, she informed Wally:

“I'm too much of a Christian woman to tell you about Wardell's so-called ‘secretary.’ Let's just say that if you were to look at her kids, their eyes slant a little more American than most China babies.”

Wardell caught wind of this and responded:

“I apologize for my wife's unruly outburst. I called the accounting department. She got her check. The children got their Christmas presents.”

From there it only got worse. Before long, Wally's blog became the place where Wardell’s extended family, which by this time also included his son Flippy ("who doesn't know that all children don't have webbed feet"), an unnamed daughter, his Chinese secretary’s children Jamoon and Yeeha and his barely literate, NASCAR loving, proud son of Tyronza, Arkansas, father-in-law Vernon Cheswood Flanagan, worked out its issues.

When Wally started complaining about the incessant chirping of a cricket sharing his abode, Wardell, ever the vigilant legal counsel, advised:

“You must have one of those cheap American-made crickets. The Song of Summer crickets we make at the Jinggangshan Factory #4 of North American La-Z-Daze Leisure Industries are designed to gently lull you to sleep when it gets dark and lift your spirits into the new day when it gets light again. (Batteries not included. Do not kiss product on lips. May contain lead.)”

Wally responded by naming the cricket Wardell.

When Bernice criticized the toys Wardell sent his kids for Christmas, Wardell responded:

“We neither accept nor acknowledge any problems with the Tumblin' Great Wall 'O China play set, when used properly. This product was extensively tested by my secretary's children, who were dazzled by the infinite number of ways they could move just a few building blocks to transform the Wall into, among other things, a Kitka doll, a bust of Kim Jong Il and a 4GHz dual processor.”

If Bernice wasn’t giving Wardell a hard time, Vernon Cheswood Flanagan was admonishing Wally to feature some NASCAR footage to boost his blog’s readership. (He did, too. If you don’t believe me you can see it here.)

When one of Wally’s readers doubted the veracity of NASCAR having put a man on the moon, Vernon quickly responded:

“I see you're not a man who believes in the word of the lord, Billy Bob. I know there's a moon because I know in my heart that Dale Earnhardt is sitting right up there beside Jesus hisself. I got a '3' decal with white angel wings on my truck to prove it.”

When the sheer energy of keeping this train wreck of a family drama alive finally got to be too much, I outed myelf as their creator to Wally, but not before, as faithful readers of Crackskull Bobpants will remember, Torta named his cat Bernice and she summarily ate Wardell.