Hive minds

Columbarium_Blera.jpgEtruscan columbarium at Cava Buia, Blera, Italy.

We have seen how it is originally language which works on the construction of concepts, a labor taken over in later ages by science. Just as the bee simultaneously constructs cells and fills them with honey, so science works unceasingly on this great columbarium of concepts, the graveyard of perceptions. It is always building new, higher stories and shoring up, cleaning, and renovating the old cells; above all, it takes pains to fill up this monstrously towering framework and to arrange therein the entire empirical world, which is to say, the anthropomorphic world.

On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Frederich Nietzsche.

One of the most difficult things to cope with this past few years is the constant confrontation with death. Since my mother died, the most common question that pops into my head is “does it really matter?” I watched her lose her mind, unafraid of death for the most part and quite accepting of it. What mattered mostly were the little things, the little bits of dignity that so slowly slipped away from her. For the last five or six years of her life, I called her everyday. That is, until she could no longer stay coherent long enough to speak on the phone. I missed those calls, as they became less and less frequent before her death. I’d like to be able to say she slipped away quietly into a dream, but it was more like she just got lost in a nightmare that she never woke up from. It was chilling, filled with paranoia and delusions, and unsettling to the core.

In a profound sense, my world just collapsed. Her passing wasn’t “natural” to me the way my father’s was. My father simply drove himself to the hospital and died. My mother faced a long, slow, and unpredictable decline. I’d been thinking up to this point that my life was improving, moving ahead. I had more respect, had managed a more secure financial outlook, had a secure and satisfying romantic relationship and an intellectual project that seemed all-consuming; but what happened to my mother threw me. Is this what really happens? Are people inevitably reducible to (streamlining Earl Butz) to the desire for comfortable shoes and a warm place to go to the bathroom?

I’m finally managing to get some distance from the problem, but nothing seemed very important after that beyond simple human kindness. I put down my scholarly projects due to a deep depression and an inability to concentrate, and moved to other pursuits that were more tangible and bound to objective realities. I didn’t stop theorizing, so much as I directed my hive-building into other areas. For the first time in my life, I’m buying my own home. I disconnected my self from Universities for a time, and began a different sort of life that wasn’t centered on the catacombs of scholarship, in a hut as far away from it as I could manage.

Whereas the man of action binds his life to reason and its concepts so that he will not be swept away and lost, the scientific investigator builds his hut right next to the tower of science so that he will be able to work on it and to find shelter for himself beneath those bulwarks which presently exist. And he requires shelter, for there are frightful powers which continuously break in upon him, powers which oppose scientific truth with completely different kinds of “truths” which bear on their shields the most varied sorts of emblems.(ibid)


I hadn’t really thought about the time I spent at the University of Minnesota that much until the past week or so, when I started thinking about Vicky Mikelonis. I was excited to take her class on “Models and Metaphors.” We read deeply into metaphor theory, which I had first encountered in Paul Ricouer’s The Rule of Metaphor which I read alone at University of Arkansas. I had a lot of trouble with it, and there really wasn’t anyone there to ask about it. With Vicky’s help it made a lot more sense the second time around, as did the volumes of theory we read along with it.  Vicky used Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” as the capstone for that class. 

I hadn’t thought about it until lately, when a colleague at SU mentioned teaching with Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” The Orwell now horrifies me with its privileged white male perspective on language. I taught with it my first few semesters as a teacher and came to loathe and discard it quickly. It only took a few moments to remember the Nietzsche as a potential alternative view, with its major problem being that it would be incomprehensible to undergraduates while the Orwell is easily digested. Both see language as central to being human, tied to habit and convention and sometimes leading us astray. The difference is that Nietzsche accepts the inevitability of this rather than railing against it. The more I read the Orwell, the more I got Pete Townshend’s “Won’t get fooled again” stuck in my head. How barbarous to think that your own tired concept of language isn’t just as barbarous as any that has been used before? I haven’t been able to look away from the Nietzsche essay for the last week, and the more I looked at it the more I remembered Vicky.

The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself. This drive is not truly vanquished and scarcely subdued by the fact that a regular and rigid new world is constructed as its prison from its own ephemeral products, the concepts. It seeks a new realm and another channel for its activity, and it finds this in myth and in art generally. (ibid)

We read glorious theories in that class, which always have some sort of fatal flaw. Vicky passed away in 2007, and I always wondered why she never wrote much on the subject of metaphor outside of pedagogical applications. She taught technical writing, primarily, and the things she taught made a deep impact on the world and her students. She could walk through the air of complex theories, never losing sight of the real and grounded human potentialities behind them. One of her favorite comparisons about the moment at which we truly “get” a metaphor and see its aptness, as the same sort of “ah-ha” moment that we get the punch-line of a joke. She took these theories and applied them to how people learned, not in a dry way, but in a way that made you smile with the sheer humanity of it all. She seemed fascinated and interested in my comparatively arcane research agenda (19th century photography), and unlike most of the professors I knew at UMN was always available just to chat about strange and beautiful things. I knew she was sick, but I never thought about her dying. She was always too busy living to get dragged down by death. In a strange coincidence, she was also the only woman besides my mother to consistently call me “Jeffrey” even though I frequently protested. 

I haven’t read the Nietzsche since she passed, and since my mother passed. It takes on a new sense of urgency for me now, although the drive to compare, and shape metaphors was stronger then. Now, I’d rather build than write. I want to reshape my world, not conceptually but physically— and not as art, but as craft.

This drive continually confuses the conceptual categories and cells by bringing forward new transferences, metaphors, and metonymies. It continually manifests an ardent desire to refashion the world which presents itself to waking man, so that it will be as colorful, irregular, lacking in results and coherence, charming, and eternally new as the world of dreams. Indeed, it is only by means of the rigid and regular web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake; and it is precisely because of this that he sometimes thinks that he must be dreaming when this web of concepts is torn by art. (ibid)

Sometimes I feel like I’m drifting away, only brought back when I shape actual objects to fill my world with. It’s a struggle to be awake.

Magic Touch

Clio is a Stanley Jordan fan

Off and on for the last year or so, I’ve been trying to listen to all my LPs. It’s a major task, given that I’ve got a few thousand. But with my acquisition of a record cleaning machine it made sense. I’m doing it in alphabetical order, and I think today I’ll manage to finish “J”. I took a look through my archives, and I guess it’s been almost two years— I think I got the cleaning machine for my birthday in 2011. It seems weird, and sad, that in all the time I’ve been writing I’ve never said anything about Ken Hunter— I think of him from time to time, and it’s always with a smile. Ken was the one that got me listening to more jazz, and jazz of lighter varieties like Stanley Jordan.

I suppose one of the reasons why it becomes difficult to get up the energy or enthusiasm about writing is the fact that the majority of people that I’d really like to have as an audience are dead. Kenny was one of the first that I lost, and for the most bizarre of reasons. He moved away, a year or two before I left Bakersfield, to take a job as a prison guard on the coast of California. I heard, just after I arrived in Arkansas, that he was playing basketball one day and a blood clot tore loose in one of his legs and caused a heart attack. He died in the emergency room. He had just started a family, and the loss to them and his friends was devastating. It was one of those cases where you just can’t understand why such a young, healthy guy is just suddenly gone. I’m not sure he was even 30. I don’t think he was.

I met Ken when I was working at Leo’s Stereo. He was one of the stock people, along with Wilson Gambi, (a Nigerian fellow that I liked as well). When you stepped off the floor to take a breather, Ken was always there to talk music with, and though we didn’t always agree, we respected each other’s opinions. One of the things that defined Kenny was his faith, and he would always joke around with the sinners who worked in that industry with very little sense of judgement. Salesman, aren’t generally the most moral people, and for Ken even the most vile of us wasn’t beyond redemption. He tried to preach, in subtle ways, in every act of kindness that got us all through the day smiling. I wasn’t surprised that he moved on to being a prison guard. He wanted to make a difference in the world, and hanging out with the converted wasn’t what he considered to be the most important thing to do.

I wasn’t much interested in Christian music when I met him, and I suppose I’m still not that interested in it. But I was interested in Kenny’s music. He never really recorded anything much that I know about, though I suppose it’s possible since he was always in bands and some of those bands did go on to record. Mostly, I just went out to see him at coffeehouses and such.

Ken Hunter.jpg

I think about Ken every time I put on certain records. I cannot help but wonder how such a kind and sweet man could have just died like that, while so many of my less virtuous friends (including myself) seem to keep living. But thoughts of Kenny are always happy ones, because he simply wouldn’t have wanted it an other way.

Kenny, Cornell, Louis, and DailyKenny, Cornel, Louis, and Daily circa 1994

Heraclitus Shrugged

Writing always seems to be a reconstructive enterprise. My old friend Slim had a song about it: The Story of How It Got That Way. The fun thing about the song is that each time the chorus repeats, key descriptions become their opposites. I think it’s common to construct most messages as stories. Lists make for a boring read. The core problem is the shifting nature of description and emphasis that makes storytelling a constant stream of reinvention. The postmodern mode of thinking casts this as a feature, not a flaw: it’s simply the play of language.

The difficulty comes when you try to imagine a message transcending context. I remember one of the great problems I had when I first started writing in public was my strong tendency to get lost in writing an introduction to whatever message I was composing. At some point, I figured out that I’d been introducing myself – or, more accurately, aspects of myself- for several years. It’s hard to get much done at that rate. Hello- out of time and energy now-I must be going. Approaching writing as a craft, it becomes a core skill to simply throw those introductory “throat-clearing” pages away. Everyone writes them, and it seems cruel to expect others to read them. The real test of the writer as a craftsman is developing the stamina/patience to plow through that part to get to the good stuff.

Ahem. I didn’t start out as a writer. I started as a sorter; much like the early Internet fad “hot or not”, more often than not I found myself sorting things into piles: this is more interesting than that. The curious thing about this practice is that it insists on things to sort. Stories don’t sort easily; they are slippery. Images, at first glance, are much easier. I think that becoming a photographer seemed like the right move for me around the age of thirteen because it made sense to sort out the world. Photography is a curious vocation. The words art and craft tend to come up a lot. I was always a little uncomfortable with the label “artist” because it made the whole affair seem a lot more mystical and impractical than it really was. It was always more pragmatic than that. But craft makes it seem technical and less human somehow. There’s a tension here between unabashed subjectivity (“hot or not”) and genuine investigation. When I began, I was a child of Walter Cronkite. I really wanted to believe that if a photographer did their job well, you could say with some certainty “that’s the way it is” (or at least was).

One of the key things that I took for granted, as I pursued photography as a vocation for the first 25 years or so, was the idea that I was making objects. Photographs were, at least for the first 150 years or so, physical things. As things, they could be invested with a tangible sense of wonder and mystery- I wonder how that was made? Surface character is what always differentiated photographs from printed reproductions, though in a key sense photography is simply a different reproductive process than printing. Melding the two, bringing them together as ink-jet was for me perhaps the beginning of the end of thinking what I did was somehow “special.” The craft of photography, though it became many times more expensive (my current digital camera cost about 15 times as much as my favorite film camera), felt cheaper. The metaphoric shift really cements it though: instead of making photographs I just update my photo stream. Often, it feels as if I might as well pee in it for the difference it makes.

In a decidedly non-digital moment around 1996 in Arkansas, I reached pretty much the same conclusion. When I lived in California, I felt like what I did photographically had worth. People bought prints occasionally, and often asked me to photograph things they felt needed documenting. I had tried to pursue the same sort of documentary work after some major life changes that brought me to Little Rock. I felt privileged to see and photograph a local tribute concert raising funds for a Louis Jordan memorial. Jordan’s widow was there, and I had made a lovely photo of her holding Louis’ high school marching band coronet. It seemed like a beautiful thing on many levels. I printed it 16×20, and mounted it with several other pieces. The owner of the venue had expressed an interest in showing them, and I returned to show him and the promoter. He didn’t show up to see them. Neither did the promoter. In fact, no one there in the microbrewery had the slightest interest. I found myself standing on a street corner in downtown Little Rock holding images in a high wind buffeting around like sails. Even people walking by on the street didn’t glance at them. They were not worthy of even a moment’s interest. I think that’s when I started to identify myself as a retired photographer.

Inevitably, it might have been productive to recognize that I wasn’t special sooner. It took a long time to get that through my skull. One of my final experiences in California was closely documenting Slim, who eventually attempted suicide. My pictures had made no difference in his feelings of self-worth. I documented the scars of the attempt, just as I had so many other moments before, but I just couldn’t admit to myself that what I did was worthless. It took the episode in Little Rock to really drive the point home.

Worthless is of course too strong a word. Ineffectual, perhaps. I picked up my first digital camera a year or so later- a super cheap pen camera with the resolution of a web cam. I had broken my ankle and entertained myself by shooting pictures out the windows of my apartment. Then there was a little Fuji 2mp job. These things were never serious to me. The only things I saved were from a trip to San Antonio with Krista. An internet friend gave me a membership to Flickr a while after that, and I started “streaming” my travel glances. The innocence I once had is long gone, though.

I figured out a few of the problems along the way. My interest in art and craft has less to do with self-importance and more to do with durability. Art, as Walker Evans famously quipped, is useless. Some claim that art endures. On the other hand, craft has utility but is ultimately ephemeral— at least inThomas DeQuincy’s opinion. To me, though, durability seems to be a separate matter entirely. That’s where much of my research has focused these last two or three years. The death of my mother was a more recent catalyst. Death always leads you to question what matters.

I am resistant to identification as either a writer or a photographer these days because I think that both of these pursuits seldom lead to durable goods. I still want to understand the world better, to sort it out— but I harbor no illusions about writing or photographing my way there.

Overcomplicating matters

Building a cattle grate
Dad finishes up the cattle grate for his place in Summerfield, Oklahoma- photo by my mother.

Although my father apprenticed as a carpenter, his real core skill area was the torch. I’ll never forget the time I twisted off a tripod screw in the bottom of my first camera and my dad fixed it— with an oxyacetylene torch. Working next to springs and wires scarcely bigger than a hair, he delicately brazed a piece of rod onto the stub and twisted the broken piece out. No damage to the electronics of my old Canon FTb. I was impressed. I was more used to him welding old drill casing together into fence rails, or building gates. Much of my childhood was spent unloading his truck as he hauled old metal scrap home (at 20$ a ton, as I recall) to make the stuff that surrounded our home: irrigation systems, fences, clothesline poles, etc. He made jack-stands and A frames for hoists, virtually anything you could think of to keep a small farm equipped. Even after he retired, it would never occur to him to buy most things— he’d rather make them with scrap metal and fire.

My father was never picky about his tools. He was constantly on the lookout for things people lost by the side of the road, or things that broke at the shop he worked at in the oilfields. There were very few things in his tool assortment that hadn’t been touched by a torch. Some things worked better than the stuff you could buy, such as his heavy metal jackstands. Other things, well, not so much. After he died (about nine years ago) I bought my mom a new set of pruning loppers. Dad used a pair that had half-inch pipe brazed on as handles because the wooden handles had broken. He fixed them, but my mother could no longer lift them without him. Many of the objects he made are rotting in a collapsing house in eastern Oklahoma, along with his tools. He gave them to my brother Steve when he could no longer use them. Arthritis in his hands finally got the best of him.

When Dad died, I was engaged in symbolic work. I was never very good at the manual trades; my brother was much better. I’m pretty sure he’d be happy I work more with my hands now, but he’d also be chuckling at my ability to overcomplicate things. I think though, in retrospect, that I came by this tendency naturally. Exhibit A, a tiny (6″) pair of vise grips from my dad’s toolbox:

My Father's Vise Grips

The repair to the upper jaw is fairly obvious, but what doesn’t show at first glance his “repair” of the spring that holds the jaws open. Apparently, it was slipping off so my dad fixed it, quite literally.

My Father's Vise Grips My Father's Vise Grips

The third detail, which I didn’t photograph, is the way my father “improved” the screw threads on the main adjuster. The large screw at the back is threaded through an opening in metal that has just been folded together- a detail common to all vise grips. My father apparently felt this was weak, so he brazed the metal closed around the screw without damaging the threads. That’s the overkill/overcomplication gene at work, I think. To buy a new pair of vise-grips would have just been a couple of dollars, but why do that when this tool could be fixed?

Where Your Home Begins

Where Your Home Begins
C. W. Lewis Lumber sign, between Bauxite and Benton, Arkansas circa 1996.*

I went to great lengths quite some time ago to find this photograph. It exists only as a negative. As I recall I couldn’t bring myself to print it. After I started to really embrace my new home in upstate NY I shot the negative with a macro lens and worked on it a bit in photoshop because I don’t currently have a negative scanner. I really wanted to write about it, and the circumstances of its production. For better or worse, arriving in upstate New York was the culmination of a horribly twisted journey, and I have been hell-bent (even with my serious reservations about the place) on calling New York home.

California was my home for 37 years. John Hiatt pegged it though: there’s nothing to do but turn around. Just about the time the Internet was coming into everyone’s consciousness, I hitched my dreams to a sculptor in Arkansas. As everyone around me knew, but I wouldn’t admit, these things seldom end well. I found myself unemployed, penniless, divorced, and without a car struggling to make a comeback of sorts. My father spotted me the downpayment and signed for a loan to get me a car, and I secured a job while staying with of my soon-to-be ex-wife. As was/is my usual way of making sense of things, I often got into my car just to drive. Just past the turn-off to a road leading to the man that ultimately won the woman I loved (only fair, he was her husband after all) headed toward the place I thought I was going to call home I saw a sign in the woods.

I pulled over and wept. I took this photograph and wondered if I was ever going to feel at home again. Arkansas was a strange place that never really felt like home. It was close to my family, and I’m grateful for the time I got to spend with them before they passed away. I’m grateful to Arkansas for making it possible for me, at such an advanced age, to go back to school and try to find a new way to be. I never got the chance in California; I was too busy just being. I’m glad I turned around, though for better or worse I never would have imagined that I could end up in New York. Love found me in Arkansas eventually, and that part of my life is better than ever. In the end, Krista is my home, regardless of what place we live in.

*Apparently C.W. Lewis lumber is still there, though C.W. Lewis only ran the place from 1920-1928. The lumber yard around the corner from me here in New York is even older, over 100 years old. I suppose that home always does start somewhere in the trees. I noticed, also, that I actually started trying to resurrect this photo around a year ago. It took me that long to bring myself to write about it I guess.

Lighting the Living Room

The Light the Living Room Project

As I mentioned, I really want to make some progress on making the living room more welcoming. We ordered the second couch a couple of months ago, so by next month we should have it. I couldn’t wait to improve the lighting, though, because Syracuse winters are so terribly dark and grey.

It only took five days and around $300 to install the track. It started out innocently enough: just a little L-shaped track above the two couches which I plan to arrange in a L. Then, the L grew into a U so that I could get some light down where I’m planning to have the cabinets for all the records currently residing in white boxes. By the third day, it seemed obvious that I should remove the track I had installed on the wall above the turntable and move it to the ceiling completing the large gallery circuit around the perimeter of the room. Yet another wish fulfilled. My living room can now be lit like a gallery.

On the fifth day, I installed a Lutron Maestro dimmer because the standard three-way dimmers just seem wonky. Now, when you enter the room the lights sort of slowly come up to a glow. Not sure how permanent the paper lanterns are going to be, I might design some hanging fixtures eventually. But for now, the room glows pretty nicely. It’s wonderful to watch the sun go down listening to my Magnepans.

Minnesota Memories

I was researching Harvey Ellis a bit yesterday, and found some strange confluences. Ellis was involved in the design of several buildings in Minnesota, though what brought me to him was his inlay/design work with Gustav Stickley in Syracuse. Apparently, Ellis designed a dormitory for the Farm School in St. Paul (now University of Minnesota) in 1887, and I was trying to figure out where it was. As near as I can figure, it was destroyed probably not long after it was built, replaced by a couple of other dormitories (Brewster and Dexter Hall) that were also destroyed before the 1950s. I have really fond memories of the St. Paul Campus where I studied rhetoric. It was moved to Wesbrook Hall on the Minneapolis side, and rebranded Writing Studies just before I dropped out.

Ellis had nothing to do with Wesbrook, but he apparently had a hand in Nicholson Hall next door where the writing center was located. I always liked that building, it was really full of light. He also was a designer for Pillsbury Hall, around the corner, one of the oldest surviving buildings on the campus. Eventually, after several other stops, Ellis ended up in Syracuse too. I’m looking forward to finding out more about him. A Minnesota historian has written a rather difficult to locate book about Ellis and I’ve ordered a copy.


In other Minnesota news, I was surprised to see a story on Faribault Woolen Mills on the NBC news last night. I was suprised to find out it had closed in 2009. Krista and I had toured their factory store somewhere around 2007, and wanted to buy something but really couldn’t afford to. Locals have purchased the factory, just before the equipment was to be shipped overseas to Pakistan. They are currently employing 35 people, and hoping to expand next year. I went ahead and advanced ordered one of their revival blankets. I’m looking forward to that as well.

It dawned on me that Minnesota was the only place that I have really chosen to live. Most other locations have been happy or not so happy accidents, but I consciously chose to live in Minnesota.

The Anniversary Sink

The aniversary sink

For quite some time, I’ve been disgusted with the on-faucet water filters (Pur, Brita, etc.) that we’ve used. They always start to leak about a week after you buy them, and I’d estimate that we’ve bought and thrown away at least ten of them in the last three years or so. A couple of weeks ago, there was a failure of a different sort. I installed yet another new faucet filter and found that the spout on the faucet itself had failed. When the filter was engaged, the faucet turned into a sprinkler. I fixed it with duct tape, but I hatched a new plan.

The problem with plumbing makeovers is that they usually involve starting a project only to have ten ancillary problems crop up— touch one thing, and other things break. When I opened the cabinet under the sink, I was horrified to find that there weren’t even any water shut-off valves there. To fix the faucet, I would have to shut off the water to the house. Another issue with faucet replacement is that they sometimes refuse to come off the old sink, and laying on your back stuffed into a small hole does not encourage calm contemplation of stubborn nuts. Last time I did one of these projects (for my mother) I ended up removing the sink from the counter so that I could get the damn faucet off.

Digression: My second vocation (after darkroom worker for a string of photographers) was a night-shift plumbing salesman. I worked my up to plumbing manager under the tutelage of a couple of retired plumbers. I liked it, because you could enjoy the fun part of the job— troubleshooting and solving problems— without ever crawling under a sink or smashing your knuckles. Eventually, I worked my way up to assistant manager of the hardware store until I was fired one Christmas eve… but that’s another story.

I wanted to be smart about this little problem. Why not just replace the works? It was all original equipment on this forty-five-year-old house. I hated the sink, but without redoing the cabinets the options were limited. I located a deeper stainless sink though, and it was only around $140. The farmhouse sink will have to wait for another day.

A new single control faucet with pull-out sprayer (perfect for when I get around to that undermount farmhouse setup) was only about $80. What surprised me though, was that the silly drinking water faucet (that I could hook up to an undercounter water filter) was almost as much. There are cheaper ones available, but I hate crawling under counters so I wanted brass instead of plastic. The most expensive part to be replaced though, was the garbage disposal.

At first I thought I would just reuse the old Kitchen Aid disposal, but Krista was really taken by the POS display for the new quiet Insinkerator disposals. I always had great luck selling the “badger” disposals (the lower line), but when I looked at the Amazon reviews it seems as if the newer versions get far more mixed reviews. The new double-chamber sound insulated ones get raves, though. So I bought one. It was only a little splurge I guess.* Good thing though, because the old disposal was some sort of snap-lock arrangement that I still haven’t figured out how to disconnect from the old sink.

With new valves and such, the total for the whole job came to about $600. You can hardly hear the disposal with your head next to it. As an interesting side-benefit, it even quieted down the dishwasher. The job went off with only a couple of hitches. First, plastic and brass fittings just don’t like working together. I had to adapt from 3/8 to 1/4 for the drinking water faucet and the brass coupling leaked severely until I switched to plastic ferrules. Then, I discovered that I had left out a washer for for the spray hose causing it to leak when the sprayer was activated.

It was a mystery to me how I overlooked this. There was much cussing and crawling on my back to locate the barely visible problem area. Naturally, it was now after five pm, when I should have been going out to dinner with my lovely wife on our ninth anniversary (of our first date, not our marriage— we tend to celebrate this moment more). I had to go to a hardware store because I just couldn’t bear the thought of spending the night sinkless.

I met up with a nice former plumber who helped me troubleshoot the problem. Naturally, this washer was a totally non-standard part which was different on every faucet. He suggested using an o-ring of the approximate size of the connection. His solution worked, and we ordered pizza for our anniversary dinner.

Last night, the night after, Krista pulled a package from our bed riddled with teeth marks. “Was this what you were looking for?”

The missing part          Uh, yeah.

The culprit.

* It might be surprising to some that deaf people are remarkably picky about sound. Extraneous noises like garbage disposals are amplified by hearing aids, making it really difficult to communicate over them.

Villains and Redemption

Because when you find yourself the villain in the story you have written
It’s plain to see
That sometimes the best intentions are in need of redemption
Would you agree?
If so please show me

I gave up on photography to a certain extent when I left California (circa 1995). It seemed “hollow” to me, without real value in its truest sense. Getting involved with people and taking pictures of them for the preceding years hurt me in profound ways. In retrospect, I think its because I unconsciously felt complicit in the suicide attempt of a close friend. I had documented his life, and when he failed at suicide he called me up to document that too. The resulting photographs are powerful, yes, but at what cost? His life began an even more severe downward spiral just after that and I had to walk away. It wasn’t the only reason I left California, or even the main one, but it was a central event that pointed me away from everything I had ever known for thirty-plus years.

I never expected photography to be one of the casualties. In fact, after surviving another even more crushing failure to communicate my first move was to start taking pictures again and get a job in a photo lab. The attempt to suture up the wounds failed, miserably. I couldn’t play the thief any longer, because I had seen the cost of deluding oneself into believing that work as a documentarian was somehow “valuable.” I’m still working on that. You have to feel like what you do has value before you can commit yourself to it.

I suppose that’s how I came to study rhetoric/communications in the years that followed. Most turning points in my life resulted from a failure to communicate or understand the messages being sent to me.

Any photographer worth his salt is a kind of thief, for no matter what angle you consider it from, any photograph is a kind of theft. You must shoot without thinking, because the unforeseen will never present itself again. From the exposure of his first films, Cartier-Bresson was immediately aware that he was committing an act of violence as soon as he incorporated human beings and not just nature or the inanimate world of objects. What would a passer-by think if the photographer pointed his Leica at him? You could be as discreet, as rapid and charming as you liked, but this aggressive cyclops eye would strip the subject naked in his most intimate moments.

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 72

In Assouline’s story, Cartier Bresson is aware of the violence his photography visits upon its subjects. But he justifies it by intimating that to see people “naked” is something of value. I’m not so sure. It’s part of what I’m struggling with right now. Perhaps the line between erotic voyeurism and an addiction to pornography is not as sharp as aesthetes would insist.

Ego where I go

. . . I feel like I’m disappearing
      getting smaller every day

   but when I open my mouth to sing
   I’m bigger in every way

Tunic (Song for Karen) Sonic Youth

Kim Gordon’s homage to Karen Carpenter is deliciously polysemic, given that she died of anorexia. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the level of ego it takes to believe that you have something to day to the world. This has been a huge problem for me for the last couple of years. One of the side effects of graduate education is that you really begin to doubt that you have much to contribute to the global conversation. The “artistic” fall back is to think that your thoughts and feelings are unique and worth sharing. My talents are largely observational (visual and verbal I suppose) and only occasionally critical/judgmental. I think that’s why grad school was not necessarily the best choice for me, but I went that direction anyway. It’s difficult to return to that more “artistic” root: it’s hard to open my mouth to sing.

In the process of studying writing, I nearly forgot how to write.

But there is a more basic problem. Anyone who would take up the task of trying to communicate another person’s reality has to believe that their impressions have value: they are “true” in some manner to the reality under scrutiny. Sometimes it is hard to make that case. I taught Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to undergraduate writers as an example of that complexity. The more I parsed that book, nearly a sacred text to documentarians of the late twentieth century, the more I could only see it as a monument to ego. Evans’s photographs only incidentally reveal the reality of those tenant families; for him they are props in the creation of works of art. He has, as far as I can discern, no real warmth or feeling toward those people. In one sense, that makes them truer and less distorted as evidence of that reality. Evans is never deflected by sentiment. But in striving for an “egoless” photograph the work becomes a testament to his desire to disappear into the details of materiality. That denial of self becomes the ultimate egotism. Agee, on the other hand, screamed his feelings off the page at maximum volume. The combination, it might be argued, strikes a sort of balance through tension that makes this way of working a model deserving of imitation. That’s a hard sell, particularly to undergraduates. The towering ego involved in constructing such a text is hard to come by, especially for nervous young college students. No, that task is best left to the professionals, the “artists.”

I have difficulty picturing egoless writing. Some of the scholars I’ve followed seem to think of it as an idyllic possibility— wikis and collaborative enterprises where the individual writer is subsumed into a collective whole, like an army of Borg assimilating each task. I really fail to see how, except in very specific circumstances, such writing is sustainable. I mean, why bother to write if you aren’t singing your song? I can understand the choral argument, but I just don’t feel motivated to join in. That lack of motivation is what stifles me now.

I suppose, in the back of my head I always wrote out here in this public space to the people who I’ve known over the years that seemed to genuinely care about my observations. A sort of aggregate reader, composed of people from my past and present who had experience many of the same realities and personalities that I had. My shrinking motivation is due in no small part to the shrinking of that imaginary public. Almost everyone I have ever known or cared about is dead. There are a few left, but in the last few years most of the biggest characters on my life’s stage have exited with much drama, or by slowly fading away. Some are left that care, I know (don’t feel the need to comment to reassure me). It is a natural fact of entropy, though, that my world is shrinking every day. Without these characters, it’s hard to find motivation.

It dawned on me, walking away from this post, that it feels like I’ve written it several times before. Why keep repeating myself? Have I contributed anything new other than another layer of whinging? It doesn’t really feel like it. What I am concerned with (that seems a little new, at least) is the role of ego in expression/craft. I was thinking about the hunt metaphor in photography that I wrote about a while ago, and the permanent incognito that I wrote about recently. Somehow, I got derailed into a pityfest.

I’ll start again. The only take away from this digression is the question, right below the surface for any writer/photographer: what gives you the right to say/show that? Without an ego, you can’t answer.

Addendum 6/17 Re-reading Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater I was struck by this counterpoint to what I was thinking in this post:

That evening he and Sylvia went to the Metropolitan Opera for the opening of a new staging of Aida. The Rosewater Foundation had paid for the costumes. Eliot looked sleekly marvelous, tall, tailcoated, his big, friendly face pink, and his blue eyes glittering with mental hygiene.

Everything was fine until the last scene of the opera, during which the hero and heroine were placed in an airtight chamber to suffocate. As the doomed pair filled their lungs, Eliot called out to them, “You will last a lot longer, if you don’t try to sing” [emphasis mine]. Eliot stood, leaned far out of his box, told the singers, “Maybe you don’t know anything about oxygen, but I do. Believe me, you must not sing.” (34)