It was a big restoration, a true panoramic group shot from the thirties, over one hundred people, with about thirty heavily damaged (or even missing) faces. One does what one can, borrowing a hairline from one person, a nose from another, eyes from a third, a mouth and chin from a fourth. Working with a hundred megabyte file, thank goodness I could go monochrome and restore the color later. After 6 hours of work on it (off and on) I got to "know" those people in the photo fairly well. I started to imagine what they would have been like, how their lives had been shaped by their work. I wonder how many could have foreseen that in only a few years they would be over two thousand strong, building ordinance and military machinery for use in World War II. But in this picture, taken on a summer's day in 1937, all of that is far over the horizon. They seem to be glad to take a break from their jobs, some clown a bit, several are smoking. I start to think of my own work experience- pushing pixels around is a lot cleaner, and easier, but it too becomes tedious after a while.
Later on in the week, after I'd finished the restoration and printed the image, the man who ordered it came in. He was overjoyed with the results, luckily I hadn't altered his likeness; he spent a good deal of time telling the counter person about his life and work and some of the other people in the group. He was only a teen-ager when the picture had been taken, now he was in his late eighties. The photograph wasn't entirely real, but it was real enough to rekindle the memory of a old man.
A weekend foray into the urban wilderness of the Uptown Area in Minneapolis found me prowling the racks at Magers and Quinn booksellers. I don't know if hey really have half a million titles, but they certainly have enough to keep one's mind pleasantly diverted on a cold Saturday in January. In the nether regions I found these old volumes:
Crumbling leather bindings, mostly 19th century periodicals bound for posterity, although it appears that posterity has finally caught up with them. They were being sold for "designers and decorators", for as little as a dollar. Not to read, or, realistically, not wanted to be read by anyone.
In the front of the store, I noticed that the art books were displayed on what appeared to be an old hardware store's bench:
So the display fixtures as well as the books have a second life, hanging on to existence by dumb luck, a limited usefulness, and a quaint charm. I should be so lucky.
For the second time in a fortnight, fantasy and reality have merged in my consciousness, this time in the form of a movie, Pan's Labyrinth by Guillermo Del Toro (El Labirinto del Fauno). In it a girl, Ofelia, along with her pregnant mother, find themselves in a rural Spanish military garrison in 1944 with her stepfather- one of Franco's more sadistic captains. The girl discovers an ancient labyrinth and meets a faun who convinces her that she is the reborn princess of the underworld, and persuades her to undertake three quests to restore her to her former life. Meanwhile, her cruel stepfather battles rebel fighters as her mother deals with a difficult pregnancy.
A girl on the verge of adolescence, her dead father, the mysteries of childbirth and the reality of war all mesh seamlessly with the girl's imagined (real?) fairy-tales. The movie explores these themes, often with a brutal realism both above and below reality's surface, and the often arbitrary cruelty that exists in both places.
Fantasy is sometimes said to be a way to introduce children into the harsher realities of the world. This brilliant and disturbing work shows, in a modern historical context, just how effective these kinds of tales can be, although this is not a movie for children.
The mysteries of antiquity are myriad. Only a few on earth remain visible, exposed to the elements. At one time Stonehenge, on the Salisbury plain in South-Central England, was open to all, so any intrepid scholar-seeker-tourist could walk among the monoliths, stroking them in the same fashion as the ape-men in 2001, A Space Odyssey (aping the apes?), receive "vibrations" or take close-up photos. Being young and impressionable, I made the pilgrimage in 1973. I had read the current crop of popular metaphysical books, I was intrigued by Casteneda's Don Juan, I studied "Lay Lines" superimposed upon British Ordnance maps. Of all that "New Age" bluster and hokum, this site alone has made a lasting impression on me. It is, ultimately, unknowable in its entirety. But it is real. It represents more than just an arrangement of shaped rocks. It was not only a cultural artifact of an extinct civilization, but it was arguably the pinnacle of that society. To walk among the stones gave me a thrill, it was almost as if the ancients were present, whispering their secret knowledge in my ear.
After that epiphany, I took the tour bus back to Salisbury, and then the train back to London. My traveling companion, who disdained such foolishness and had abandoned me at the Cathedral, was waiting in the station, learning a bit about modern British culture from a solicitous local "lad" on the make. Another form of psychic initiation, perhaps.
I returned twenty-two years later, with family in tow, and although the monument was still there, the nearest one could approach was about 30 meters. I heard voices that day as well, but they were from the hundreds of tourists all around me. The boys enjoyed it, however, and the Stonehenge T-shirts they got there were worn proudly for years.
The World's Oldest Hippo
She was standing under a misting spray in a concrete shed under a steel roof. Thought to be possibly the oldest hippopotamus in captivity, certainly far older than any hippo in the wild, she was miserable. Arthritis is common among all aged mammals, when it acts up she becomes especially cranky and prefers to stay in here, where the water is cool and fresh and the sun does not beat down. I wondered, as I looked in through metal bars, if this creature was thinking about her past- memories, regrets- was the ideal of a life lived free in a wild river her day-dream? Or had she spent her entire existence in captivity, content to ease her pain in this little shack? She glared at me, a hippo usually is not friendly with the hairless apes. I sensed that she had lived enough, and yet still lived on, watching and waiting for the end. But it would be foolish of me to project those human thoughts and desires onto a different species. Perhaps it was that she had seen enough of me.
Illustration derived from a photograph by Kim Kessler
Mona Lisa Smile
"...Is your smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa,
or is this the way you hide a broken heart?"
Two lovers, in a photo.
Two faces, side by side.
His, smiling joyfully, upside down.
Hers, right side up, with a quieter smile.
So quiet as to suggest:
A moment of emotional stillness.
A respite from the struggle.
One quarter-second of serenity.
Is he the one?
The Missing Photos
Archiving the family photographs, unless one is exceptionally diligent, always is a bit of an imprecise endeavor. Albums are big and heavy, hard to organize, and, because they are somewhat expensive, have a tendency to "edit" those pictures that may not "make the grade." Shoe boxes, while inclusive and simple to use, also tend to "bury" a wanted photo- "Let me think, was it '97 or '98? It's here somewhere..." Digital storage is the newest option, certainly more compact, but as the number of image files grows, it too becomes unwieldy. Its fate in long-term storage may be susceptible to other pitfalls as well.
But none of these issues address the situation of deliberately destroying photos that may be deemed "unseemly" in the context of family history. In the early sixties, my parents attended a "neighborhood" party. A group of couples converged for an evening of socialization and cocktails- no children present. A camera was present and evidently after several drinks pictures were taken of various couples in passionate embraces. These couples were not married. To each other, that is.
These pictures were processed and remained in the bottom of the family's photo shoe box for many years. I would look at them from time to time, wondering just what our parents had been thinking. And then, they were gone. There isn't any chance of my children finding a similar cache- we barely know our neighbors. Perhaps it is better that those pictures have gone missing. What were no doubt innocent party games in the "soaring sixties" have grown in the imagination to something more exotic and daring...
... on the other hand, perhaps they're already on Flickr?
Yesterday Once More
The call came while I was in the Flippist Archives recording studio, rearranging gear, (actually I was trying to decide what to get rid of- it hasn't been used much lately.) The voice on the line was an old musical associate who was putting together a fund-raiser for his children's middle school band a few weeks from now. He needed a sound man for the eight-hour marathon. Having been "retired" from the music biz for several years, I told him I'd think about it.
There are some conflicting emotions at play here. Doing sound- setting up, running a mixing board, getting into the arrangements, going with the flow of the performers and audience, then tearing down- it was my way of life once. What was fun at 25 = half as much fun at 50? The equation doesn't exactly hold, besides, I'm 56! The best part of running sound is also the worst part- you have to listen to the music. It's as good as the players + chemistry + audience + venue will allow; the converse is true as well. When it's bad it's like a love affair gone wrong. There has been a load of bad Karma picked up over the years.
But this gig should be OK. A bunch of survivors, all good folk, with more than a couple of ringers. There is even a childhood connection in there. The cause is right, and the venue is as close to a "clubhouse" as this group of people gets.
Perhaps this will be the gig which will finally pay off all those old Karmic debts.
So I said yes.
What the Professor thought merely an internet infatuation soon turned into something altogether more serious...
Recently I wrote about the small world I inhabited on my recent travel abroad. In that post I mentioned several coincidences that concerned an old graveyard. Recently, on my Flickr account (see sidebar) I posted a few more pictures of that same locale for I had spotted a Flickr group centered around that topic and thought they might appreciate my modest contribution. Just for fun I searched the group for other photos of that cemetery. There were a few, including some night scenes like my post's picture. Checking it out further, I notice that this one was looking out at the spot where I had been looking in. I then noticed the date it was taken- October 23, 2006.
The same night I had been there...
The Cloak of Responsibility
"Clothes make the man" - old adage
Fantasy stories are known for "magic" charms, spells and such. A popular motif is an item that, when worn, makes its user invisible- the "Ring Of Power" in the Lord of the Rings is the most well-known of its type. There is one non-magic charm that remains invisible, most of us don it from time to time- responsibility, first for your self, then your family, community, country and even the world. This "cloak" isn't easy to put on, it may fit poorly or be uncomfortable, and once put on is nearly impossible to take off. It could be said that it is just growing up. some people grow up in a hurry, others never do. It may be invisible, but it is one charm that, for good or ill, is very real.
I seldom shop for groceries after work. "Never shop for food when you're hungry" is what I've often heard said. The crowd has a noticeably different composition. No kids, people in dressy work clothes, those who have no time for any foolishness- "WE'RE HUNGRY! MOVE IT OR BE EATEN!" My needs are few, I have my plan put down on paper (shopping list- in store order, thank you) and I breeze through to the check out. I scan the lanes, and then I see her, my favorite check-out clerk, the consummate pro, Angela. She was but a girl when I started shopping here, seventeen years has made her middle-aged, it has made me just aged. No ring on her hand, her eyes hidden behind her thick glasses, she is very self-conscious and shy; I don't make small talk or too much eye contact, she will blush at the slightest interaction. Still, she is the best, always knows her produce, knows the coupons (and if she has an extra flyer, she'll cut out an deduct a special that you didn't even know about) and sees to it that that conveyor moves. She gives me the total, I hand her my Icelandair MasterCard. As she looks at it with wonder a smile crosses her face for a second- as if it were some rare artifact from another ciclization- her joy is quickly extingushed as she hands it back. I try to smile in my most non-creepy old man way as I say "Thank you..." I don't say her name, it's on her name tag, because if I did I might misspeak and say "Thank you... Angel."
This Christmas at the Batty house found a shiny new 30GB iPod making its appearance under the tree. With my name on it! This was a gift totally out of the blue, never having expressed an interest in one previously, this was a thing that needed a commitment on my part; to fully appreciate it required a learning curve steeper than my usual gifts: socks or a sweater. So, with some trepidation, I unboxed it, charged it up (that much I could figure out), and then...
...what? Put all my CD's on it so I could listen to them ALL THE TIME? Hmmm. This might be a problem. "Just make playlists," said the older son. More choices. "ON-THE-GO" was the default playlist. A good title for a meth addict, I'll just delete it... Uh Oh. No can do. I'll just go lie down for a while.
I come back to iTunes a few days later and find that some "helpful' person loaded it up with Tom Waits songs. Oh dear. Maybe I'll make a playlist entitled "ON-A-BENDER." I try deleting it on the computer, then try pressing buttons on the iPod itself. No such luck. I get frustrated, and really started hammering on the menu wheel. Solitaire comes up. More random button pressing results in songs that play for six seconds then go to a random selection for six more seconds- and it's all Tom Waits!
Fast forward two weeks. I wipe out everything and start anew. I load up iTunes with a collection of my goofy CD's. I try to listen with those "sexy" little ear buds. Evidently they are designed for a different species of animal than human. So it's down to the musty basement to dig out my taped-up Sony MDR V600 headphones. I soon realize that some tunes are really not suitable for casual listening. Back to iTunes, delete, clear iPod, plug, unplug, something happens, little wheel icons turn on the computer screen. Suddenly a light bulb goes on in my thick cranium: I was trying to figure it out logically and only got confused. When I let it do its own thing, it worked.
Now do I really have to listen to it? I wonder what's on the radio....
The last year of Sunday School was, for me, seventh grade. In eighth grade we went on to junior confirmation, going to the regular service and taking notes on the sermon, but we "tweens" still had our own service with the little kids, followed with a short Bible study with a mother or dad or, perhaps, a college student. And so it was that I found myself on one cold winters' morning in the basement of our church with all those little kids, me- a "cool" seventh grader who was way beyond the ritual of putting birthday pennies in a lighthouse. It was the early sixties, and our church, like most institutions of that Kennedian Golden Age, was trying some "new" things, one of which was "witnessing." I looked at this new development with a wary eye- wasn't that what the heretical Jehovah's Witnesses did?
The "Witness" this week was a woman, I didn't recognize her. She was with her two sons, one about my age, the other a little older. There was something wrong with these boys. The director of the Sunday School, the pastor's wife, was a woman named Ruth. She gave the woman an introduction, telling about the trials of raising what evidently were mentally-disabled children. The witness then began to speak, telling us that God had a plan for us, telling us that he would not give us a cross too great to bear, telling us to trust in Jesus, and...
...and then she broke down, sobbing. Her boys were oblivious to her suffering, each boy trapped in his own world. Ruth comforted the woman, and led her and her boys away. The rest of us remained quiet. Finally, the assistant director led us in a hymn, and then we went our respective grades' classes. I didn't answer any questions during the Bible study that day.
"...Laura, where are my glasses?"
-"I'm not Laura..."
"What the... you're Saddam! I thought you were hung?"
-"You thought right! Ha Ha, sorry for the old Blazing Saddles joke, it is one of my favorite movies."
"What do you want? Where's Laura? Where's the secret service?"
-"Don't worry about them, we have each others' undivided companionship for the next few minutes..."
"W-w-what do you want from me?"
-"Just to offer you my congratulations on your speech tonight. I couldn't have done it any better."
"Now don't try to compare me to you, you had thousands of your people killed, just to prove your own power!"
-"A point I believe we have in common."
"Your systematic use of torture..."
"You're a madman! The only thing you believed in is war, killing, and more war."
-"Yet another point!"
"We're going to win this war! Just you wait and see! I'll be a hero to the Iraqi people!"
-"I already am a hero. I believe you've made my point, so I must bid you adieu..."
"Wait! You're wrong, I'll..."
-"George, who are you talking to? You look as if you've seen a ghost!"
"Laura! It's Saddam! He's back from the grave!"
"Don't be silly, honey! There's no one here but you and I. You've been working on that big speech too hard. By the way, what was your 'new' plan for ending the war? I must have missed it."
"More war. That's the only way. I'll show 'em all- Saddam, Lieberman, Kennedy! I'll show Daddy, too."
"That's nice dear, now come to bed; in the morning everything will be all right!"
Sometimes a Great Lotion
One of my earliest memories of gender differentiation was of my mother's use of hand cream, or lotion. If I recall correctly, she used Pond's, an iconic brand of the mid- 20th century in the United States. It was vaguely floral, innocuous. Today, there is a wide range of creams and nostrums, all designed to make a person's skin feel a bit more comfortable. Those of us living in a cold climate, especially with forced-air heating, almost have to "lube- up" as a matter of course (I find cracked, raw skin most unpleasant.) For those of us afflicted with too much oil, a course of astringents and drying agents are sometimes used. I once had a roommate who, upon retiring, used "Bonnie Bell 10-06" (a vile, industrial-strength solvent), to "cleanse" her pores. Not exactly an aphrodisiac. The scent of some lotions are definite turn-ons, as long as they aren't too strong. As for me, I'll stick with Neutrogena hand creme. Thick and scentless. My wrinkled hands won't be doing any modeling anytime soon, and Lord knows I'm not hunting for any "stray stuff"- but even an old crab like me likes a softer shell once in a while.
Lost: Ein Translator
Around and around it goes.
Yesterday the Weaver had commented on the fine language in her current reading material, World Light by Halldór Laxness. She wondered about the translation, how it seemed to capture the humor and authenticity of that strange and beautiful novel. "Magnús Magnússon, Icelandic born, raised and educated in Scotland, a BBC television personality and prolific translator and author in his own right." My tendency toward blurbiness had never been so accurate or concise. Later in the afternoon, I read ECS's current post about her recent trip to the Snæfells peninsula. That inspired the quote from World Light (Magnússon's translation, of course) that graced my post last night.
After I had written that, I read Alda's latest post and there, near the end, was a note stating that: "... Magnús Magnússon, one of the best-known Icelanders of all time, has died in the UK. May he rest in peace."
It isn't often that a translator gets a big obituary, he was far better known for hosting a TV game show. But I find that as I look through my humble library his name appears on nearly a dozen books. A translator has a unique role in human communications. His or her mind must become the bridge between languages, between cultures, between people. Magnússon's television career will be a forgotten memory within a generation. His work with Laxness, the Icelandic Sagas, and his own Icelandic histories should last through the next millenium and beyond.
My day was a series of coincidences, to be sure, but ultimately not happy ones when they are connected to the passing of a person who touched many lives.
Magnús Magnússon, October 12, 1929 – January 7, 2007
More on Halldor Laxness at Laxness in Translation
Where the glacier meets the sky, the land ceases to be earthly, and the earth becomes one with the heavens; no sorrows live there any more, and therefore joy is not necessary; beauty alone reigns there, beyond all demands.
- Halldór Laxness, World Light
Transition point. Where ice becomes water, or directly sublimates into vapor. Where the line between earth and sky vanishes can heaven be any closer? No wonder the lure of frigid terrain is so strong for some. The qualities of cleansing, light, purity, solidity, silence, mass. The mystery of existence in its most elemental form. And when the glaciers' retreat is complete, then what will become of our inspiration? There are other earthly delights: the sea, the plains, the deserts. The rain forest in all its noisy, verdant glory. All majestic, yet none equivalent. We are water.
More on Halldor Laxness at Laxness in Translation
It was a bitter, scary-cold night. The type of night when everyone should stay home. But the restless human spirit knows no peace. The need for a little action perhaps? Or was it only loneliness; a smile from a stranger at the bar, an invitation, and then it all went wrong...
...the pounding on the door was relentless.
"Please let me in. Please, please, I'm freezing."
Against my better judgment I got up, got dressed and went to the door. There had been people dumped in my seedy neighborhood before, usually drunken Johns, rolled for their paycheck and beaten, but this was a different scenario. At twenty below it only takes a short while for exposed skin to freeze, and not a whole lot longer for a lightly dressed person to succumb to the elements...
"What do you want?"
I looked out the front window and saw that she was young, and alone.
"Please, I have to make a call."
"There's no phone here."
"I'm freezing, can I come in and warm up?"
I opened the dead-bolt, undid the chain, and opened the door. The blast of cold air made me cringe, and my night visitor came in. She was in her early twenties, wearing only a light jacket over a short dress. Her shoes were thin flats, her pantyhose had been torn. I didn't have to ask what had happened. She was shaking violently. "Sit here, and I'll turn up the heat." There was a chair next to the floor furnace grate. She sat with her head down and turned so that her hair covered her face, she was ashamed of her situation and would not look at me.
"I really don't have a phone, but there is one down the block, is there someone who could pick you up?"
She shook her head:
"No but I'll call a taxi."
She had stopped shaking, she was bent over the furnace grate, soaking up the heat, slowly warming. After about a half hour she was able to talk a bit, she thanked me for letting her in. I had an old jacket that I offered her, she declined it, but then asked if she could "borrow" it when she made the call. She left, came back a few minutes later and waited for the taxi. Waiting by the window, when the taxi drove up she just said "Thanks," and then was out the door, into the car and gone.
A fresh fall of heavy, sticky snow followed by a clear day creates a fairy-world of ephemeral beauty. Sunlight reflected off the now-blanketed ground softens shadows, filling in worry lines and erasing wrinkles. Such was the stage that was set for my New Year's day trip to the feral cat colony. Some left-over smoked fish that no one at my house could get much enthusiasm for was to be the kitties' holiday banquet. The dog walkers were on the trail, the buzz of my knobby bike tires on the crusted trail gave warning to the happy canines who frolicked in the snow.
As I rounded a turn by the oak grove I spotted a neighbor, walking with her deaf collie. I slowed to a crawl to prevent startling them, I knew from past experience that that old dog could hardly hear a thing. "It's only me" I said to my neighbor. We had met many times on this path, she was active in the neighborhood watch and local politics. "Hello," she smiled back, surrounded by snow-ermine branches; the direct rays of the sun were diffused by the trees over head, the river in the distance glowed with a white incandescence. Her usual cheerful demeanor and attractive features were, to say the least, amplified by the surroundings.
"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
Beautiful? Stunning is more like it, but this beautiful world is but a picture frame for the image of loveliness that is you...
"It certainly is."
T'was The Week After Christmas...
It's so sad when a good Santa goes bad.
The new year's "out with the old, in with the new" phrase also holds true for the Flippist library, I'm afraid. There is only so much space, and those books that never will be read again, (or had never been read) will end up in a thrift store, orphans looking for a reader. And what new books will take their place? Mysteries? Romances? Biography? History? It's hard to say, although a look at what remains might give a clue- folk tales, mythology, sagas, art and photography. The classics of fiction, writing and essays, reference and, of course, Shakespeare. Some unfortunates who didn't make the cut include Anias Nin (erotica- not the diaries!), Biography (Sorry- Clapton, Tesla, and Marx...brothers, not Karl), and a bagful of childhood-abuse-personal histories (not the kind of thing one might reread and cherish!)
And what will remain on the "virtual shelves" of the internet, what will be swept aside in a decade, or a century, or a millennium? The great library of Alexandria was destroyed in a fire, although I suspect that cultural stability, rather than physical integrity will determine the ultimate fate of the words stored on the internet.
That and the existence of a reader- if anyone will still read in the future, much less reread and cherish. At least we'll be spared the mildew and bookworms...