Monday, January 31, 2011

Death and Revelations

Tinkling Springs Presbyterian Church, Fishersville, 2009

I suppose when you reach a certain age death is going to become a more constant presence. I don’t like to think I’ve reached that age, though. So the seeming omnipresence of death around me lately has been not only noticeable, but more than a little jarring.

Over the last several months my mother has teetered back and forth from death’s doorstep. Several friends and distant relatives have passed away. A beloved aunt died two weeks ago. Just this week two friends died and the mother of a third followed them. You have to wonder when a streak like this is going to end.

This past Saturday morning a combined funeral was held for my aunt and her husband, my father’s brother, who actually died last year, but whose service had been purposely delayed.

Funerals can be such iffy affairs. I’ve been to some that were incredibly touching and some that were unmitigated disasters. It might be hard to imagine how a funeral could be disastrous, but trust me, it can happen, and it doesn’t even have to involve any of the comedic hijinks you might be imagining. No caskets falling out of hearses on busy highways. No deceased persons poking their heads up from the dirt. It turns out a poorly prepared minister can trip into a minefield of horror the likes of which you’d just never think could happen.

The service for my aunt and uncle had none of that, fortunately. The minister clearly didn’t know the deceased. Their sons admitted that they hadn’t been much help in providing personal memories or anecdotes. This wasn’t a family known for the expressiveness of its emotions. But the minister got their names right and managed to piece together a series of thoughtful observations that dispatched the deceased off to the hereafter in good standing.

The real secrets came out afterwards. I’d never thought of them this way. But I’m gathering now that funerals are one of those occasions when, whether for vengeance or simple catharsis, people unload things they don’t know if they’ll have another chance to share.

Whatever the motives, and in this case I don’t think there was so much as a smidgen of malice intended, that’s what happened to me on Saturday. In the space of just a few minutes a woman who had never been any closer than four links away from me in relation, and that only by a marriage that has since ended, revealed to me two very important and personal things about my late father. Only one had to do with me directly, but both were events that if played out differently would have significantly changed the course of my young life.

But they didn’t. Dad’s been gone for fifteen years. And instead of this knowledge having enhanced my understanding of my father while he was alive, I only learned of them fifty years after they’d happened. I’m still trying to decide whether I’m glad I know these things now, or not.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Name So Smooth

San Gimignano View, 2002

I’ve never been to Montepulciano (Monte-pull-chee-anno). It’s one of the hill towns of Tuscany. I’ve been close, as in Sienna. And so far as Italian hill towns are concerned, I’ve made the requisite tourist trek to San Gimignano, which has its charm but is decidedly run over with tourists during the daytime.

But for pure mellifluence, what combination of syllables, consonants and vowels rolls off the tongue as smoothly as “Montepulciano”?

I’m not exactly sure what the name means. My weak Italian and check of the dictionary suggest something along the line of “Mount of the First Names.”

But who cares? I’m pretty sure I first heard of Montepulciano in E.M. Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread.” Montepulcano’s role in the book is to serve as the hedonistic Italian retreat of a repressed British widow. Or at least that’s how the repressed British in-laws of the widow look upon it. If you saw the 1991 film version starring Helen Mirren, you’ll recall how actress Judy Davis’ snit face in the role of the widow’s prim and ever so repressed sister-in-law set a standard so high that I can’t imagine that any other actors playing proper snit-faced British folk will ever measure up to it.

San Gimignano Wall, 2002

Of course, the truth is that Montepulciano is not a hedonistic place. It’s only when Italy’s languid stile di vivere is compared to the prim Victorian standards of England in late Nineteenth Century that it looks that way. (But what place wouldn’t?) British literature of the time is full of louche characters who slink off to Italy to misbehave. Remember Lord Marchmain in “Brideshead Revisited”?

I hope to return to Tuscany some day. Our stay there wasn’t nearly long enough. Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote a song that is a siren call to some of us. The first verse goes like this:

What if we went to Italy

A suitcase of books and one bag a piece for the summer

I don't speak a word of Italian

Except for Campari and soda for two, how much is a Lire

Yes, a villa will do and a breeze, in Tuscany please

You can hear the rest of it here.

Hillside Trattoria, 2002
Towers of San Gimignano, 2002

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Checking In

Around the Bend, Delaplane, 2010

An old friend of mine has fallen out of touch.

This shouldn’t be cause for alarm. It happens all the time. People get busy. They get distracted. They need some time off.

But there are some people I worry about when they disappear. They’re the ones who are dealing with marital or relationship issues, depression, codependency, career stagnation and failure. I’m no expert, but I think women can talk about these things a lot easier than men. We guys define ourselves too much by our positions, particularly what we do for a living. When that position is pulled out from underneath us like a slippery rug, some of us just step back to firmer ground. Others take a big fall. It’s even worse when you’re in your late fifties and the opportunities that once seemed boundless are harder to see and the doors that were always open look closed.

I try to be a good friend to friends who are falling. Sometimes that means being a good listener. Sometimes it means telling them to “Shake the f--- out of it!” And sometime it means just leaving them alone until they grow up some.

This all came to a head for me about fifteen years ago when one of my best friends from college committed suicide. The friend had been in much personal and professional turmoil—most of it, admittedly, of his own making—but I thought he was beginning to find some firm footing. He’d re-established contact. He was taking interest in a new job. He and his girlfriend had been down to visit us for a couple of weekends at the beach. All in all, my wife and I were beginning to feel pretty good about his condition. Then I got the early morning phone call announcing his death.

As those of us who’d know this friend in college sat around a restaurant table after the funeral deconstructing the last year of our deceased pal’s life, it was like a scene from The Big Chill. No one of us knew the whole story of his last year. But when we put our stories together the only question was why he hadn’t taken this terrible action sooner.

This all took place about the time Calvin Trillin’s book Remembering Denny came out. Trillin’s book examined how the “golden boy” of his class at Yale—a young man with looks, smarts, charm and all the success that they could create when combined—had come to take his life at age 55.

The combination of my friend’s death and Trillin’s books led me to pledge to never knowingly let a friend in such turmoil go unnoticed or untended. Since then I’ve stepped into several friends’ lives when it seemed they were about to go over the edge. I don’t have any special talent in this area. I couldn’t fix them or their problems. All I could do was be present for them. In two cases I think this might have made a difference. However, you never really know, and if you’re going to do it you have to go into such situations knowing that you can’t take personally what they decide to do.

And so it is that I’ll spend some time today tracking down this most recent friend who’s gone missing. He told me a while back he was thinking about going up to his sister’s farm in New England for a while. Maybe I’ll find him there, milking cows or painting barns. It doesn’t really matter what he’s going, only that he hasn’t given up.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Best Camera

Atlantic Street Reflection, 2011

Maybe you’ve heard this one before. An amateur asks a professional photographer, “What’s the best camera?”

The amateur probably expects to hear something about Hasseblads, Canons or Nikons, cameras that are sophisticated, expensive and just complicated enough to lend an air of knowledge and authority to whoever owns one.

But instead the photographer answers, “The best camera is whatever camera you have with you.”

Well, how useful is that? Just when you thought you were going to find an excuse for not making good pictures because you don’t have some fancy schmancy camera, the damned photographer says it’s not about the camera.

Or course, there are situations and assignments that require sophisticated camera lenses and technology. But more often than not, the most important variable is not the kind of camera you’re using, but that you actually have a camera with you.

I’ve written here often about the value of always carrying a camera with you all the time. You can’t take what might be your most satisfying picture of all time if all the right conditions assemble before your eye, but you don’t have a camera with you. The best camera is whatever camera you have with you. Simple and obvious, and true.

I try to carry a camera with me, especially when I travel out of town. But I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t always think to carry one with me when I’m running around town at home. I miss a lot of good pictures because of this, and as a result have come to appreciate the value of a good cell phone camera.

I’m not sure who it was who first conceived of combining cell phones and cameras. Perhaps there was a plan. I like to think it was more a case of a telephone designer walking through the lab one day and, noticing a teensy cheap photo sensor lying on a counter top, said, “What the hell. Let’s put them together and see what happens.”

The first cell phone cameras were pretty lousy. Over time, though, the quality of cell phone cameras has improved remarkably. I’ve even heard urban myths about famous magazine publishers who used cell phone camera photos because nothing else was available.

I had to go to a meeting the other day in downtown Norfolk. I’d meant to carry my DSLR because I’d hoped to have a few minutes on either end of the meeting to take a short photo walk. But I forgot to bring the camera. When I found myself on the seventh floor of a parking deck looking out on the warped reflections shown above, I had no option but to depend on the iPhone camera. I’ve actually taken a lot of interesting pictures with the iPhone camera. I wouldn’t think of publishing them. But when all else fails, the iPhone camera is the “best camera,” thank you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Simple Change of Mind

Detroit Airport, 2003

I used to be one of those people who looked upon business travel as a necessary evil. It took up a lot of time. Fellow travelers could be annoying. Delays got on my nerves.

In late 1984 I had a chance to study with Dr. Edward de Bono, the “Six Thinking Hats” guy who first became famous for popularizing the idea of “lateral thinking.” One of de Bono’s precepts is that the way to fix a pesky problem is to “surround it with a bigger solution,” to change the paradigm.

de Bono liked to tell the story of how under Peter Ueberroth’s leadership the City of Los Angeles actually made a profit hosting the 1984 Summer Olympics. Up to then, the working assumption for any Olympic host city was that losing lots of money was a given. Ueberroth challenged that assumption. He asked, “Why can’t we make money on this?” and went on to create an Olympics for Los Angeles that did just that.

I didn’t have a summer Olympics to run. For me, the mind-over-matter realization was that business travel didn’t have to be an ordeal. Instead of looking upon travel as something to be endured or upset by, I decided to mine it for material.

House Phone, 2008

Some people make up for the frustrations of air travel by treating themselves to trashy magazines, Cinnabons and 10-minute back massages. I started with a camera. If I had time between flights, I didn’t plop down in a seat near my gate with a book. I walked around and looked for pictures to take. The picture above, for example, was taken in the underground passageway at the Detroit airport, a regular haunt of mine in those days.

The more I got into it, the more I started looking upon airport delays as opportunities to explore. A lot of my “traveling life” pictures are about the banality of air travel. But the fun of looking for photo opportunities is anything but banal (even in US Airways’ hellish Terminal F in Philadelphia).

Hurry Up and Wait, 2006

More recently, I’ve started writing down things I hear people say in airports. Some of these find their way into the “Overheard” columns in this blog. Others I stick aside in the hope that I might have some use for them later on.

The places I go are still usually more interesting than the airports I go through to get to them. But by making the conscious decision that the travel part of the trip doesn’t have to be an ordeal, not matter how arduous or frustrating it might be, I turned a negative into a positive and became a lot easier person to be around in the process.

You could apply this to any number of things. Because I’m convinced that photographic subjects are always at hand if we just work hard enough to recognize them, you might take some task that you really don’t like and turn it into a photo opportunity. Speaking as someone who’s found beauty in the soapsuds in the kitchen sink, I can tell you this is easier than it sounds. Heck, my friend Chuck Rose once made a twenty-minute documentary video about replacing an old toilet. It was riveting viewing. (Or at least that’s what we let Chuck think.)

Waiting on a Snowy Morning, 2008

Monday, January 24, 2011

Interiors II

Tulips in Winter, 2011

You can do this photography thing for a long time and begin to think you’re getting the gist of it and then take a picture like the one below and realize you don’t know anything.

Yesterday we drove a couple hours down into North Carolina to celebrate the seventieth birthday of my wife’s aunt. The affair was held at The Inn at Gray’s Landing , a circa 1790 residence-turned-B&B in the town of Windsor. The Inn is one of those places working hard to capture Ye Olde Gracious Southern Charm. Its owners and staff are gracious. On a summer day the spacious screened porch would be a most welcoming place to talk, read a book or have a cool drink.

Yesterday, though, the temperature was hovering in the low twenties. A home built in the 1790s, even a grand one, isn’t likely to have much in the way of insulation. The Inn’s owners have installed storm windows and doors. But the place is still drafty and one of the determinants of how much you enjoy a meal in the Inn’s dining room is how close you’re seated to a fireplace.

But that’s not what I started to tell you about. The birthday girl chose the location for her luncheon. The food was wonderful. We had a good time. (Our table of seven was so boisterous that we apparently offended the local rector who was dining across the room with one of his parishioners.) And truth be told, I’ve always enjoyed visiting and photographing old places like this.

What I’m finally realizing, though, is that I’m not very good at is photographing their interiors. I do well with close-ups. I can even get away with purposely distorted wide-angle shots from time to time. But making good photographs of an interior space can be tricky.

The gist of it is this: if you’re not careful about what you’re doing, your lines go all over the place or take on unnatural shapes. In The Library Suite, below, my eye was drawn initially to the curves of the settee and the shades of red in the settee, the rocking chair and the rug. Though there may be a half dozen other sins in just those portions of the photograph, the real sin is in the lines of bookcases.

The Library Suite, 2011

I didn’t even realize it at first. I was worrying about how to get the reds right. Then my eye pulled back and I realized that the warped proportions in the bookcases were making this scene look as if it was shot on a boat rather than in a room that has surprisingly sharp right angle corners and a level floor.

These errors demonstrate a couple of things. For one, I was using a cheap lens with more inherent distortion than I’d realized. It does pay to use good lenses.

Second, and more important, I was not holding the camera level—that is, keeping the plane of the photo sensor exactly parallel to the opposite wall of the room—therein increasing the distortion. I was making a mistake beginners make all too often; namely, holding the camera where my eyes are, looking down and expecting the camera to make the same proportion corrections in the photograph that our brain makes for our eyes so that we don’t walk around in the world seeing every straight line as a curve.

There might be other problems in this photograph. But these are the ones I can at least work on for now. Until I get better at this, I don’t expect House & Garden’s going to be calling me to photograph interiors. (Actually, they won’t be called anyone since they ceased publication a couple of years ago.)

Tulips in Winter, by the way, was shot in the guest lounge at the Inn. I got to like the tulips a lot because a fireplace is just to the right out of the camera’s view.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sometimes You Show Up Just in Time

Menemsha School, 2005

Those of us who like to take pictures know that light and timing can make or break a picture. I’ve written before about pictures I was too lazy to take and then couldn’t take because the lighting had changed or because there were changes in the scenery itself.

Well, here’s one I managed to get right.

For many years I’ve been driving past the old Menemsha School on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. It may not be a genuine one-room schoolhouse. But there’s no way it could have more than a few rooms altogether. It’s a small shingle-style building just down from—for those who you who like places with colorful names—Beetlebung Corner. There’s a little café a little ways up the hill from Menemsha School. Woods surround the other three sides. If you could stand on the roof—and you know someone has to have done that over the years—I suspect you could look southward over the trees to the Atlantic Ocean.

I’d wanted to photograph the school for years. There’s something about its simplicity that always spoke to me. But like a lot of things I’d wanted to do, I never managed to get around to it.

One sunny September day in 2005 I finally did it. I took the picture shown above. The sky was a brilliant blue. I decided, though, that the blue was distracting and converted the photo to black-and-white. I think it shows better this way.

I wish I could have captured the sounds of that moment. You could hear a teacher inside talking about reading. Children at recess played in the dusty yard next to the school. I can still hear the squeak of the old swing set.

The wisdom of my timing became clear the next time I visited the Vineyard a year later. During my absence, a brand new elementary school had been completed across the street and the former Menemsha School had been turned into the headquarters of the Menemsha Police Department. The police haven’t changed the shape of the building. But it now sprouts so many antennas and signs that the effect I was looking for in this picture could never be achieved again (or at least without substantial PhotoShop chicanery.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Big Question Mark

The Empty Frame, 2008

Walker and Cathy Jean looked every bit the perfect couple. They had two lively children. Walker’s business was a success. They were leaders in their church. Cathy Jean was the sweetheart of her friends, a woman of strong will and the instigator of all things social among their friends. Walker and Cathy Jean were the picture of happiness, stability, responsibility and conscientious parenting.

Then one day Walker said he needed some time out. He couldn’t be more specific than that. He needed to go away and did, first across the country to a place he’d never been before just see a famous church, and then to Mexico “to think.”

No one could understand it. Walker had no explanation. Cathy Jean was clueless, torn between hurt, anger and uncertainty about the future. Life was just one big question mark to her.

When Walker returned he moved out of the house. He went on about his business. He saw his children regularly. Walker’s guy friends were concerned, but knew no more than anyone. They wondered quietly among themselves whether some kind of midlife meltdown was to blame. They knew from their own experience that even stand-up guys sometimes trip and fall. But there was no obvious explanation, no sign of mental breakdown. Walker had nothing to say it. There was no sign of another woman in his life or anyone, for that matter, to blame. Walker had no harsh words about home, Cathy Jean, the children or life.

This went on for weeks, then months, then years. Cathy Jean kept the home fires burning in the hope of Walker’s return. In time, she became resentful, then hostile. Her friends surrounded her to keep her from coming completely unhinged. Unable to understand their parents’ condition, the children took refuge in the confidence of other parents. Every now and then they got their hopes up when they saw signs of what looked like reconciliation. But that was just their imagination fooling them, letting them piece together signs that realty didn’t add up to anything.

In time, Walker asked for a divorce. He dated some and then married a woman not at all like Cathy Jean. They settled nearby, made new friends and seem happy.

Cathy Jean had a few relationships of her own after the divorce. She’s still trying to find herself, to fill her time, to get from one day to the next. She is close to her now grown children. Her friends still surround here. But how do you have closure, much less move on, when you never knew why what you thought was durable love failed you?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

You Call This Swag?

Word From Shenzhen, 2011

Regular readers will recall that I sometimes joke that if Nikon would like to send me a new model D3 DSLR I’d be absolutely shameless in my mention of it here at What I Saw. I mean, really. My daughter gets offered free trips to places around North America and across the ocean to Europe in the hopes that she’ll write about the destinations in her blog. (As a matter of policy, she doesn’t accept these offers.) She gets sent dozens of review copies of cool new books. Nike once had her join a group that was going to design a new sneaker. Kate Spade invited her to doll up a Kate Spade purse.

There is a little difference, of course, between the Design*Sponge audience and that for What I Saw. For one thing, my daughter has something like 60,000 readers a day and I have, well, fewer.

A few days I wrote about my new iPad, a Christmas gift from my wife. Not knowing what kind of protective cover I might want for it, she left that choice up to me. Just after Christmas I ordered a plain black cover from the Apple online store. I could have driven to the nearest Apple store and bought one of the shelf. But that’s about a 40 miles round trip for me. The gas alone costs most than the $4 Apple charged for shipping.

I figured the Apple store would ship this cover from a warehouse in, say, Memphis or Louisville, major hubs for UPS and Fedex, respectively. But when they sent me a shopping confirmation and just for fun I started tracking the shipment, I found that the shipment would originate in a factor in Shenzhen. China. I’ve never been to China, but I envisioned one of those mega factories that Edward Burtynsky photographs so well.

Fascinated by the trip this shipment would be taking, I immediately went to Google Earth and found Shenzhen. It’s about fifty miles north of Hong Kong. Over the next week, I followed the package as it went from Shenzhen to a Fedex sorting center on an island near the Hong Kong international airport. From there it went to a U.S. Customs clearinghouse in Anchorage, Alaska, and then to several points across the United States before ending up at my doorstep.

No bad for four dollars, eh? (But a little irritating when you figure that Fedex charges me $26 to send a single page document to Philadelphia.)

By the way, the return label on the package listed a California address.

I thought that was the end of the story. I put the iPad in its new protective cover and went about my business.

Until this morning.

I opened my e-mail and discovered an e-mail message from “Cindy,” the PR manager at an outfit called that is based in--you guessed it!--Shenzhen, China. Cindy mentioned that she’d seen my "AWESOME" website.

(Maybe in my quest to achieve the kind of critical mass readership that would compel Nikon to seriously consider sending me that new model D3 DSLR I should be casting my net in the direction of China? Lord knows there are probably millions of people there anxious to find wisdom in my avuncular style of writing.)

Cindy’s note suggests that I might like to pick something from their inventory and review it.

Like the $5.06 Tissot leather band wristwatch?

The $1.49 mini Flexible microphone mic?

The $1.58 stainless steel mini hacksaw keychain?

The $2.56 “Cute Hello Kitty Compact Plastic Make-up Vanity Mirror”?

If I’m going to shill for swag, it really ought to be for something worth more than the cost of shipping. Are you listening, Nikon?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

La Fille du Regiment

Lemon Chicken, 2009

This one takes a few links to work. So please hang in with me for a moment.

It starts here:

In the years before I was born, my mother was secretary to the son of the famous psychic Edgar Cayce. Cayce started his career as a photographer in a small town in Kentucky. He had “spells,” though, during which he took on powers of insight beyond his knowledge. People came to him from around the world for practical advice about life, health and unexplained phenomena. The “readings,” as they came to be known, were physically and emotionally taxing. But Cayce was successful identifying homeopathic remedies, helping people find things and, in his later years, delving into matters biblical and mythical.

After Cayce’s death in 1948, his son Hugh Lynn took over the leadership of the foundation that continued Cayce’s study of ESP and other paranormal phenomena. It was a small organization in those days, held together by a few hundred members and a small headquarters staff, which included my mother.

Over the years many hundreds of thousands of people—perhaps millions—have found their way to Virginia Beach to visit the Cayce library. Some are serious scientists, learned scholars, theologians and others curious to compare notes. Some are spiritual seekers. Some are just kooks of the first order who don’t fit in anywhere else and hope they’ll find a home here.

Because of my mother’s connections with the place, various of these people passed through our home as I was growing up. My personal connection with the place, though, is no more exciting than that when I was baptized Hugh Lynn Cayce stood as my godfather and before I was old enough to work anywhere else I mowed the grass at the foundation’s headquarters.

Part Two:

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll recall how the fast food chain now known as KFC was once known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, and how its founder and figurehead was a portly white-haired gentleman in a white, three-piece suit named Colonel Harlan P. Sanders. It was Colonel Sanders who came up with the special recipe of “twenty-one herbs and spices” that made his fried chicken so tasty.

[For those unfamiliar, the title of “Colonel” is an honorific bestowed by Kentucky’s Governor and Secretary of State on individuals in recognition of their “noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service” to the state.”]

Part Three:

One day when I was in my early teens, a woman driving a sliver Rolls Royce with a portrait of Colonel Sanders painted on the driver’s door drove up to the Cayce foundation. A lot of celebrities visited the place, so this wasn’t such a big deal. The woman turned out to be the only daughter of Colonel Sanders. She came as a seeker, decided to stick around and bought a house a few doors down from us.

Part Four:

One quiet winter afternoon, I was walking down to the beach when I happened upon the portly Colonel himself, white suit and all. There was a brief introduction. We shook hands. It was like meeting a cross between Santa Claus and Boss Hogg.

And to bring some closure:

Many years later I worked for a man who hailed originally from New York City. John was a proudly outspoken Italian-American, an expert in his field and great fun and inspiration to work for. He was always known among staid Richmonders, and not always politely, as “that New Yorker.” But despite the social exclusion he sometimes experienced, John still maintained a curious fascination with things Southern. One of his greatest pleasures was getting chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken or, as he referred to it, as getting chicken from “the Kentucky Colonel.”

[Sorry, I couldn’t find anything better with which to illustrate this than a picture of lemon chicken.”]

Monday, January 17, 2011

When You Get Older

MJB Triptych, 2011

(Click on picture for larger)

When you get older, your bracelets are made of plastic and are more about instruction than about decoration. Gravity tugs at you a little harder. You don’t get upset about a bad haircut. Making it through the day without pain is reward enough.

While my mother kept teetering back and forth at death’s doorstep, I kept thinking I should be taking some thoughtful photographs of her. My Flickr friend Debra Ripley, whose mother is on a similar path, has taken some wonderful and poignant photographs of her “mum.”

It was hard to do this when my mother was confined to bed. Most anyone photographed against a pillow stands a good chance to looking like a one-dimensional flesh-colored Lima bean on top of a pillow. No matter what your age, it’s not your best look.

The real problem, though, was my mother, who was always known among her peers as quite the beauty. She was the Queen of the May in her junior high school, back when they did such things. In her teens she was the pretty girl who sang with a band. She and my father were once referred to in the newspaper as “songbirds.” She was married twice and had at least one serious suitor when she was in her sixties. Even in her late eighties, such elderly gentlemen at the assisted living facility as could raise a little sap liked to catch her eye.

When you’ve had that kind of attention throughout your life, you tend to be a little vai…no, let’s just say “conscious” of your appearance, especially when, as my mother puts it, you start “lowering your standards” out of convenience. The old dressing table that used to be covered from edge to edge with mirrors, lotions, creams and various tools of the trade is reduced now to but a hairbrush and a pair of tweezers.

For years she wouldn’t let me photograph her. The shots I could sneak weren’t very good. She didn’t want to be seen as a fading beauty. She’d already pointed me to the photographic portrait, made when she was young, that she wanted to have used in her obituary.

One of the benefits of dementia is that you stop sweating the small stuff, if for no other reason than that you can’t remember what the small stuff was. So it was on the occasion of a visit my sister and I made to our mother’s nursing home the past weekend that we both carried cameras, ostensibly to take a few pictures of the three of us together. I also managed to catch a few candid shots while my sister occupied our mother with conversation.

All things considered, it’s amazing that my mother is still residing on this side of the turf. She still has a lot of health challenges, but is at least able to spend some time each day sitting up in a wheel chair. To our surprise, she also displays a quick wit the likes of which my sister and I saw no evidence when we were growing up. It’s like we’re getting to know a new person.

My sister has an interesting theory about this. She wonders if perchance we’re seeing the woman our father married? Are we getting a glimpse of the humor and good nature that drew him to her long before things went sour?

There’s no one left who can answer this question. But as I look at these pictures it also occurs to me how much the profile of my face is like that of my mother. So if there’s a chance I’m getting a glimpse of a personality from more than sixty years ago, I’m pretty sure that I’m also getting a glimpse of my own face thirty years from now.

Friday, January 14, 2011

On the Occasion of the 411th

Looking for New Material, 2010

Who knew?

I started this blog a little over a year and a half ago. I had several ideas in mind for it, some of which I’ve since discarded. At first, it was a challenge, to see if I could do something every weekday. Then it became a challenge to see if I could make it to one hundred posts. That seemed ambitious at the time, but had something to do with one of the original goals.

Now I notice that I’m writing the 411th post to What I Saw. I don’t know exactly what I had in mind at the start. But I sure never would have envisioned that I’d make it to four hundred and eleven.

I write a lot for work. But it never occurred to me that I might have the quarter of a million or so words of rambling prose and fiction I’ve offered up here thus far.

I was listening the other day to an interview with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim in which he described the joy of creation. The joy he had in mind, though, was not the result—the song or tune, in his case—but rather in the time during which he was creating them. As an example, Sondheim described sitting down one night after dinner to see if he could create a board game for a friend.

“I started about 9:00 p.m. with a pencil and paper and the next thing I knew the sun was coming up outside. Certainly I must have stopped sometime during those hours to get a snack or go to the bathroom. But I didn’t remember anything of it.”

Most days that’s how it is with me and this blog. The therapeutic aspect of it—and that’s how I look at it, the part that seems to be the payoff for me—occurs during the generative phase, the part that challenges me to do something that is hopefully interesting enough to be worth sharing.

The part that comes after that is the gravy. That’s where you come in.

I’d probably keep doing this even if there were no audience. It’s gotten to be a habit that's good for me. But there’s no denying that I enjoy your company when you take a moment to stop by. I’m always grateful for your comments.

The current (1/17/11) issue of The New Yorker magazine includes a fascinating piece by David Brooks about how “the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life.” As a researcher, I’m always trying to learn more about why we do what we do and how we become who we are.

There are a lot of interesting ideas to think about in Brooks’ essay. But one of the thoughts that particularly resonated with me was this, mentioned in the context of a discussion of what makes people happy:

“Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection.”

I didn’t think I was doing this blog for the connections. But like a lot of people, what I don’t know about myself is probably a lot more than what I do.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.