Friday, May 28, 2010

Where Does It Come From?

It Was a Dark and Storming Night, 2009

Inspiration, that is.

Someone asked me the other day where the inspiration comes from for all these blog posts.

If you’d asked me a year ago when I started this blog—today, by the way, is the one-year anniversary—I would have told you I intended to use this blog to tell the back stories of pictures from my archives. All it would take for me to get started would be to pull out a picture and talk about it.

But if such a grand thought seems simple when you first have it, it weakness becomes visible over time. Although I have thousands of pictures in the archives, pictures that had interesting stories petered out after a while. Or so I thought.

A year ago, I was, to be completely honest, unsure how long I could sustain this blog. I’ve been posting pictures almost daily at Fotolog and Flickr for seven years. But it was a real personal challenge to do this What I Saw blog. I didn’t know if what I was embarking on could be the basis of a book or whether it would just be a place for me to let my eyes and thoughts wander. So far I’m still wandering.

Most of these blog posts run between 500 and 600 words. That means that over the last 263 posts I’ve found 143,000 words, give or take, that I didn’t know were in me. They aren’t great art or literature, most of them. But as long as the idea burble up, I’ll keep doing it.

But to get back to the inspiration thing, I work the same way a writer works. I’m not so disciplined that I get up at 5:00 a.m. each morning like one friend and write for sixty minutes. But I do try to make a little time each day to work on these posts. It’s therapeutic in that it distracts me briefly from work and other things. I like my work, but even if you’re thick in work you like, it’s useful to give your mind a little mental sorbet from time to time. Once I train my mind to be on the lookout for inspiration, it usually isn’t too hard to find something to talk about.

Sometimes the pictures inspire the writing. Sometimes the writing inspires me to look for a picture that complements it. Sometimes a random mix of words from a dream will inspire something (like yesterday’s mention of the dream-induced name Chappy Ptoole Syrigian). Or I’ll hear someone say something that inspires some thought on my part, like this quote I heard the other day attributed to playwright Tom Stoppard:

“Age is a high price to pay for maturity.”

When all else fails, I go back to the original premise, using a picture as a starting point. When I don’t know where to find the picture, I used a random method for picking one. I don’t require myself to write about the picture I select, only to be inspired by it. If I’m stumped finding inspiration in a picture, I’ll close my eyes and open the dictionary and see where my index finger settles. I’ll pick a few words that way and see what they inspire.

The bottom line is that there’s almost always something that will provoke a thought or memory. Always.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

More From the Dream-Inspired Fiction Dept.

Bistro Vivienne, 2006

The American woman is sitting in a café in Paris with a cigarette tucked between her fingers and an empty glass in front of her. With an odd expression on her face, she seems totally lost in thought, oblivious to the photographer’s presence.

Finally she looks up. “What do you want?”

“You’re beautiful. I want to make a portrait of you.”

“What are you, some kind of creep?” she asks, crushing the cigarette out in the ashtray.

“I just want to photograph you. You’re beautiful. I want other people to enjoy your beauty.”

“What’s your name?”


“Chappy what?”

“Chappy Ptoole Syrigian.”

“What the hell kind of name is that? Put that camera down. I want to know more about you.”

“It’s originally Turkish. But you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it. You don’t have the right sounds in your alphabet to do it.”

“How do you spell ‘Ptoole’?”

“Just like it sounds,” and he spells it out for her.

“Sounds like you came up short when they were passing out names, eh?”

“Say what you want. It’s a name associated with monarchs in the old country.”

“So you’re trying to tell me you’re some kind of royalty? Is that why you’re wearing that funny scarf? What is it, an ascot to go with that fancy suit of yours?”

“It’s a foulard. I wear it as a sign of repentance.”

“Looks more like something you’d wear in a harem, if you ask me. What are you repenting?”

“You don’t need to know.”

“You’re pretty trigger happy with that camera for someone who wants to get up close, but who doesn’t think I need to know much about you.”

“You’re right. And up close you’re not so beautiful.”

n.b. The first paragraph was inspired by a description of a photograph by Graciela Iturbide in the Summer 2010 issue of Aperture.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Not at All Lost

Nassawadox, 2010

So it turns out that Lost, according to its producers, was never really about anything more than lost souls. All that stuff about the plane crash, the people who survived the crash, the secret research, the warped dimensions, the people who got off the island and then back onto it again...all about lost souls. It was never as literal as getting off the island. It was about each character either finding his or her purpose, learning how to relate emotionally to other people and being about to move on, or not.

Mind you, I never watched so much as a single episode of Lost. I have my wife and a few friends to thank for the ongoing color commentary. My wife was addicted to Lost for a few seasons, but gave up after the plot got too obtuse and the hiatuses between seasons too long.

Seems like television’s spending a lot of time lately repairing lost souls. I’m not thinking souls in the evangelical sense. Rather, I’m thinking about television shows like 24, another show that developed a fanatical following about finding truth and honesty in a chaotic world. (I didn’t watch 24, either.)

I read one analysis that suggested that the huge audience for Lost was a reflection of how many people feel lost themselves, that watching Lost is how they’re working through the process of finding their own purpose or emotional center.

I was talking to a friend the other day who was disappointed and complaining about the embarrassingly simplistic plot of the latest blockbuster action movie about how people who study myth, literature and music say there are really only a few basic themes and archetypes that track all the way through history. I don’t remember the exact number, just that it’s smaller than you might think. People who study the history of humor say the most popular jokes told today are similarly just variations on jokes told in ancient times.

Much has been written about how Lost and 24 were ending their runs this week. The night Lost was winding down to its final sunset, I was driving up the Eastern Shore of Virginia, that narrow, mostly agricultural peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. It’s planting season on “the shore,” as they refer to it there. Miles of fields along Route 13 are freshly prepared for the planting of tomatoes, soybeans and other summer crops. Migrant worker camps are filling with Mexican workers who have replaced the African American and Caribbean workers who used to work the fields when I was a kid.

I mention all this because as I was listening to the radio and reading online about all the attention given to Lost and 24, nothing could have seemed as opposite to that talk as the Eastern Shore, which for all of it problems and limitations, is firmly attached to the ground and not at all lost.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Word

Urban Language, 2006

If you’re interested in learning how to tell stories, you could do worse than spend your Saturday mornings listening to that old BBC radio show, My Word.

My Word began broadcasting in 1956 and ran until 1990. The premise was this: two teams, each comprised of two writers, attempted to best each other in a series of word games. At the end of the show, one person from each team would be asked to describe the origin of a famous line or quote.

I must have started listening to My Word sometime in the early 1980s. (There was also a sister program, My Music.) When my wife and I went to London for the first time in 1989 and I realized that the theater where My Word was broadcast was just around the corner from our hotel, I rushed around to see what there was to see. What I found was an abandoned, boarded up theater, leading me to believe that My Word had likely gone out of production long before then. (The show never had references to current time and the predilection of some panelists to mention people like Noel Coward in the present tense only reinforced this ambiguity.)

The whole show was fun to listen to. I’d never heard of some of the panelists; with the exception of Antonia Fraser, there were mostly aging writers, poets and the like from Britain who’d probably never had much of an audience in America. But their knowledge of literature was extensive and their humor wonderfully dry and clever.

The real meat of each episode was the part at the end where two panelists were each charged with explaining the derivation of a famous line. It was understood that a serious answer wasn’t expected. But the panelists each wound through lengthy and digressions before reaching their hilarious homonymic conclusions.

If you check around, My Word and My Music still show up in reruns on a lot of public radio stations.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Good Morning, LA

Downey Palms, 2009

One of the unexpected pleasures of iTunes is iTunes Radio. I used iTunes for a couple of years before I even looked to see what the radio feature was all about. Imagine my surprise when I found live feeds for hundreds of radio stations from all over the world and covering just about every genre you can think of.

I have friends who won’t touch iTunes out of contempt for Apple or because they’re convinced their credit card number kept on file at iTunes will be used to buy drugs in Columbia, or something equally scandalous. I can’t do much about that other than to say that I’ve never had a moment’s problem.

What I can tell you is that iTunes is an amazingly rich resource of information and entertainment. There’s music, of course. It’s not free. But you can’t beat the depth of its database and the immediacy of its delivery. Combine iTunes with the iPhone app called Shazam and you’ll never again have to wonder what a particular piece of music you heard somewhere and didn’t recognize was.

(There’s a lot of television programming and movies at iTunes, too, if that’s your thing.)

What really has me hooked, though, are the podcasts. For those of us with voracious information appetites, podcasts are a godsend. There are entertaining and educational podcasts for just about every interest. I won’t tell you how many hours of podcasts I download every week. Just suffice it to say that I never lack for something to listen to when I’m driving, walking, working in the garden and so on; everything from conversations about current affairs, the media, photography, travel, art and design to Harvard professors talking about philosophy and architecture. And all free! Is this great, or what?

Ever since I got back from Los Angeles last December, I’ve been in the habit of tuning iTunes radio to KUSC when I come into the office in the morning. KUSC is a broadcast service of the University of Southern California and claims to be the most listened to public radio and classical music station in the country.

That part doesn’t really matter to me. We’ve got two perfectly good public radio stations in our area. What I like about KUSC, though, is the time difference between the East Coast and the West Coast. When I come into the office in the morning, it’s still before dawn in LA. The music is calm. The on-air chatter is laid back and unobtrusive. Morning traffic reports out there haven’t gotten too crazy yet. As my morning on the East Coast becomes busier, KUSC keeps me calm. As my morning ends and I contemplate what has to happen before the business day ends, they’re just getting started in LA. I know it sounds silly, but this gives me the impression that the day is still young and full of promise.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Persistence and Patience

Waiting to Be Called, 2010

My friend Betsy suggests that I use this space to write something about patience and persistence. This may be because we’re working together on an initiative that calls for a lot of both. What I Saw has never been a blog-on-demand. But since persistence and patience are both important in the practice of photography, I’m indulging Betsy here.

My father tried to interest me in golf when I was young. What with all the variables of different courses, different golf clubs and different swing techniques, he admired that golf was a pastime that offered an infinite stream of opportunities for incremental improvement if you had a few good lessons to get you started and maintained a schedule of regular practice through the years.

Truth be told, I never got hooked on golf. I didn’t dislike it. But as I got older it got harder for me to justify the time for it. There was just too much other stuff I liked more. But because I didn’t always have a lot of opportunity to spend time with my father when I was growing up, I played and walked a lot of golf courses with him in my adolescence and teens. Up and down mountains. On sandy plains. On old courses with tricky trees, and on new courses with no trees. If there was a golf course between Virginia Beach and Roanoke, we probably played it.

Nearly fifteen years after Dad’s death, I still keep a old set of his practice clubs in the garage because whenever I decide to shoot a few ancient range balls out into the river behind my house I hear his voice guiding my stance, my address of the ball and the placement of my wrists on the club.

There are, of course, lots of parallels between golf and photography. I’ve written here before about how my lack of persistence has robbed me of the opportunity to get really good pictures I wanted. I don’t think I’ve written much, though, about how patience has paid off in the form of good pictures. But it has.

Like golf, photography offers an infinite variety of things to do. You can wander. You can focus on just one item that fascinates you or use some kind of random method to select a subject if your imagination if running thin. You can force yourself to see things differently by using a single lens, or just one you don’t use much. You can use photography as an excuse for traveling to new places, or you can use it as a way of seeing things you never noticed before in your own backyard.

Something I’ve been doing lately is forcing myself to be more patient while taking pictures. Last weekend, for example, I went down to the oceanfront to see what there was to see. I didn’t want to repeat pictures I’d taken before. I didn’t want to just drive around and waste gas. So I decided to park the car in one place and see what I could do with what was in walking distance.

Fortunately, but unbeknownst to me until then, there was a juniors surfing competition taking place on the beach right where I parked. I didn’t have the right long lens with me for taking pictures of kids surfing. So I decided to sit or stand in one place, be patient, and see what passed in front of me.

The result is not great art. But I found an interesting array of things to capture with the camera. Just by being patient.

Fins to the Left, Fins to the Right, 2010

The Old Boys, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Yoots, 2003

Every now and then, such as when someone on television ridicules the lack of knowledge of current affairs or history among a group of young people, I wonder about our future. I suspect every older generation throughout history has worried that the younger generation would screw things up. But I’m not one of those pessimists. If I didn’t believe the future held opportunity and promise, I’d see no need to get out of bed in the morning.

I recently attended a panel discussion about “brain drain.” This isn’t a new idea or one that’s unique to the area where I live. The promise of opportunity has created massive migrations of people across oceans and continents for hundreds of years. Restless young people have always wanted to get away from home to make their mark. Talented young people have always felt the tug of larger, more tolerant cities.

Ironically, I had a conversation with the headmaster of my old prep school about this issue just a few days before the panel discussion took place. We expressed pride at the many interesting things graduates of the school were doing all around the world. But we also expressed disappointment that there was not enough to draw their talents back here.

The panel discussion was a valuable glimpse into why this is happening. The panelists were five bright young “creative class” individuals: a newspaper reporter; a human resources manager; a university economics professor; the founder of a nationally renown design firm; and the co-founder of an alternate online news and culture “zine.”

The group displayed all the understandable hubris you’d expect of young, ambitious people. But this particular group was impressive not only in their intellect and ambition, but also in their commitment to be part of shaping the future of our area. All five are the kinds of people any organization would want to employ. All could probably find greater and more rapid success in other places. But they have made a commitment to this area, even if that means they will carry more of the burden of making it into the kind of place they want to live than they would have to anywhere else.

The other impressive thing about this panel discussion was that the audience was full of other young people with similar talents and similar commitment to this area. I wasn’t the only person over the age of fifty present. But the preponderance of people there were probably somewhere between twenty-five and thirty. They were lively, asked good questions and as enthusiastic in their commitment to this area as the panelists. As a group, they’re taking it upon themselves to create opportunity.

One of the most prescient comments of the evening, and one that I wish more people could have heard, came from a young man who moved here from Connecticut a little over a year ago to pursue an advanced degree. He’d lived in New York and also in Europe. He admitted that after moving her he’d quickly fallen into the trap of making fun of how backward this area is compared to some of the country’s more progressive precincts.

But somewhere along the way he realized that he could either continue to whine or else take it upon himself to be part of making this area into the kind of place he’d like to live.

So that’s that this young bunch is doing. They’re making a commitment to stay here and to be part of the future. When it would be easier and cheaper for them to set up shop in the suburbs, they’re buying old buildings and drawing other talented people who want to be involved in something exciting back downtown to work, live and play. Their presence attracts other young talented people. Bright minds want to be around other bright minds.

I’m feeling better about the future already.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why is Travel Such a Valuable Experience?

We're the Bakers, from Indianapolis, 2005

I was chatting the other day with a friend who just came back from almost three weeks overseas. We got to talking about the impact travel has on us. How it opens our eyes and reminds us that our way of living, nice though it may be, isn’t the only way people can chose to live. Travel, we agreed, forces you to question your assumptions about people and life. You might end up only more confirmed in your beliefs or you might change a little.

For many of our parents, international travel was inconceivable. Few American had the time or money it took to cross the ocean by ship, see the sights and get home within a two-week vacation. There was meaning in “overseas,” a term which probably no one even uses any more, because that’s how you got anywhere and it didn’t happen quickly.

A lot of people didn’t care to travel outside of the country. Those who’d fought in Europe and in the Pacific on what my brother-in-law refers to as the “big gray ship tour” had seen enough and wanted no more of it after witnessing the horrors and deprivations of world wars. For them it was understandably hard to justify spending hard-earned money to go back and visit people who’d only recently been shooting at you.

This has all changed, of course. We have live news 24/7. We learn about political uprisings and earthquakes via Twitter. Our children think nothing of hopping a plane to Berlin or Hong Kong. Or picking up a phone and calling someone in India or Japan without mentally toting up all the long distance charges.

But still, a startling number of Americans have never traveled abroad, or even widely within their own country. Those that do don’t always make you proud, either. We’ve witnessed scenes of such appalling American arrogance and insensitivity that we wanted to crawl under a table and tell people we were from Canada.

Mama, Do These People Know Jesus?, 2005

One of my neighbors is a very accomplished, but also exceedingly conservative fellow, the kind of guy for whom a conversation of any length will eventually include some kind of diatribe about oppressive government, social welfare and intolerable taxes. He also believes America is not just the best, but the only civilized place to live. So when his college alumni group took a cruise in the Baltic Sea a while back, I couldn’t wait to hear his impression of the Scandinavian countries, those beacons of high taxation and cradle-to-grave social safety net.

People with ideas as entrenched as my neighbor’s don’t always change them very easily. But my neighbor’s eyes were at least opened a little. “You know,” he told over the fence not long after getting home, “they seem pretty happy over there. I would have never imagined that people so oppressively taxed could be at all happy. And yet they are.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure he viewed what he saw as anything more than an anomaly, something that takes place in far away lands among people with strange customs. Before long, he was back out in the garage helping his wife paint Tea Party signs.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What Makes Italy So Appealing?

Boboli Palace, 2002

It seems like every third person I know has been to Italy recently. A recent travel magazine said Italy’s a favorite destination for travelers from many countries. So what is it, then, about Italy? Other places have history, art, music and cuisine. What is it that draws them all together and charms us so in Italy?

I’ve been fortunate to go to Italy three times. The first time was on a cruise in late July of 1996. It was hot, humid and crowded. We were moving quickly, one day each in a lot of places. Italy 101, I called it. I don’t recommend this.

We returned to Rome six months later, in late December. It was bitter cold. But we had more time just to wander, mingle with people in the neighborhood where we stayed and just watch and listen.

The next visit was in late May, about five years later. We spent a week in Florence and another in Venice. We scheduled tours most mornings and just wandered around in the afternoons. It was a gloriously relaxed trip, full of unexpected pleasures.

Before I ever went to Italy, I wondered how Italians could be so complacent about living in a country that goes through governments about as quickly as Americans go through rolls of toilet paper. (Bad analogy, I know, but you get the gist. Until recently, it was nothing for Italy to have two or three governments rise and fall in a single year.) It took a while, but I finally concluded that that Italians deal with constantly changing governments and economic conditions by essentially not caring about them.

Of course, there are people who care. Italians are not fools. But living amidst such consistent inconsistency—governments, corruption, organized crime, geological upheaval, wars, etc.—Italians have adapted by not sweating the little things. There are a lot of things they can’t control. But they can give attention to living life richly with vivid relationships and good food, art, design, clothing and music.

The other day I heard Frances Mayes, whose Under the Tuscan Sun and other books have charmed people for twenty years now, interviewed about what it is that makes Italy so special. Turns out Mayes and I aren’t all that different in our take on this question (only she, being the writing professor, puts it more articulately).

“They’re very relaxed about time. They don’t fight it. They don’t invest it. They don’t race against it. They don’t bargain with it. They don’t spent time regretting it. They enjoy it. They make a point of savoring it. They live in it. They believe time is a river that you can float on.”

There, in a nutshell, was what I like about Italy. Through wars, occupations, governments good and bad, dictators, popes and whatever else history throws at them, Italians choose to embrace life, float above the tide and enjoy every moment of it.

San Gimignano View, 2002

Monday, May 17, 2010

Murph Takes a Swim

Murph, 2000

This is Murphy, formally known as Bonney McMurphy of Alanton, but better known as Murph.

She was our second Scottish terrier and lived with us from 1992 until her death in 2005. When she was just a puppy we learned that Murph had a compromised immune system. Her survival was touch and go for the first year or so, with lots of unpleasant treatments. During that time we learned that there is a canine dermatologist in our area and that the same amount of heartworm medicine that’s given to a half ton steer on a monthly basis will not harm a 25-pound Scottish terrier when given daily. In the end, it was that daily dose of Medicine that kept Murph alive for thirteen years. Better living through chemistry.

Murph had every right to be a mean dog. Among other things, she endured twenty-four mange dips and at least that many skin tests before she was a year old. She was, to be sure, your typical stubborn terrier. But Murph was also very sweet and protective. She didn’t want to be in your lap. But she always stayed close by. Even in her last days, when her hearing had gone and she spent most of her time asleep on her dog bed in the middle of the family room, she’d rouse occasionally and look up to make sure you were still there. They she could rest her head again and sleep.

Murph loved to ride in the car and went everywhere with us. For years she spent her days at the little antique shop where my wife worked, entertaining shoppers and keeping a watchful eye on things.

Murph was a regular on our vacation trips to Martha’s Vineyard. She particularly enjoyed the year we stayed in Edie’s cottage on the harbor at Edgartown.

There was a sluice—a narrow boxed canal—running beside Edie’s cottage that connected the large herring pond behind the cottage with the harbor. At high tide there might be as much as three feet of water in the sluice. At low tide it was almost dry.

The water in front of Edie’s cottage, on the other hand, was calm. Murph wasn’t much of a swimmer—even dog paddling seemed foreign to her—but liked to wander up and down the pier and wade along the water’s edge with the two terriers from the neighboring house.

One afternoon I was in the shower when I heard a series of shrieks. One of our housemates had been casually looking down into the sluice, watching the schools of herring swim back and forth with the tide, when she noticed a large black blog in the water that finally registered in her mind as Murph.

“Oh, look,” she called without much other thought. “Murph’s in the sluice.”

My wife immediately jumped up from her chair nearby. “Murph doesn’t swim!” she shouted. When she looked down into the sluice, Murph was struggling, bouncing on her back paws to keep her nose above water.

By the time I got out of the shower, my wife had jumped down into the sluice and rescued poor Murph, who by the time I got outside was sitting nonchalantly on the beach nearby drying off, grinning in that way that dogs do and catching her breath as if nothing had happened.

Friday, May 14, 2010


Brims, 2007

Brims, she called them. “Bring me my blue brim from the bedroom, Honey” she would say, “the Easter egg blue one.”

Finding a hat in Fanny’s bedroom, even one Easter egg blue, was not easy. There was little space in the small, dim room to get around the bed and Uncle Horace’s dresser. Every available space was used to store the hat boxes that contained a full spectrum of colored hats made from silk, taffeta, and muslin, all done up with flowers, feathers, fox fur, buttons and costume jewelry. A few looked like birds’ nests, close fitting, petite and formal. But most were more like beekeepers’ masks, grand contraptions with wide brims, fancy ribbons and vast galaxies of netting that required pins, ties and an assortment of clasps to keep them together and in position on Fanny’s head.

Some women pride themselves on having new hats for Christmas and Easter. Fanny had them for almost every Sunday. When the girls were little, her three daughters trailed behind Fanny like ducklings as she promenaded down Bellevue Avenue to God’s Holiness Forgiveness Temple on Sunday mornings. Each daughter would be festooned in a different color, smaller and less flamboyant than their mother’s, but each one still a precise creation of local milliner Gladys Harmon.

Uncle Horace made a good living working for the County. But long after their modest home was paid for and she could have retired from taking care of other people’s homes, Fanny still did “days’ work” to support her ravenous appetite for stylish hats. Some women swore she never wore one twice. At the very least, she helped keep a local hat shop in business long after the younger women had stopped wearing picture hats, and kept Horace busy adding closets and finishing the attic to hold all the hatboxes.

When Fanny passed away and their father sold the home, her daughters did not quibble over her modest estate, but instead deliberated at great length over the distribution of her hats. Norma believed her first-born status entitled her to first choice. Suzie, the middle child, refused to accept that and brought in her husband, Earl, to break the impasse.

Earl wisely avoided a lifetime of complaint by suggesting that his wife and her sisters “pray on it for a while.” In the end, each chose one of their mother’s hats and the rest were given to the church for ladies whose circumstances did not allow them to purchase such lavish hats. In this way, Fanny’s presence was felt in the congregation at the Temple long after she was gone.