A Matter of Degree

Island Life


“I can see by your coat, my friend
You’re from the other side
There’s just one thing I’ve got to know
Can you tell me please, who won”
From Wooden Ships- CSNY

As I sit here trying to write this with quirky orange sunlight once again streaming in the window, I note that there are still the lurking shadows of an unbridled pandemic, an economy that is teetering in its wake, and the persistent drip and drumbeat (and don’t forget the stench) of endless news reports of corruption and malfeasance creating a proxy pile of conceptual, analogous fecal matter as they all drip into the virtual septic tank that is this current Republican administration. As a counterpoint and a distraction, most every day I go outside and stare at the sky where the sun isn’t. On a sunny day, this is only common sense, but even clouds have their place in accepting a gaze and assisting an escape to elsewhere. From there, I walk around the yard, taking mental notes on what might make an intriguing subject to photograph. This is always- or almost so- influenced by the light. There are times when what I see demands the urgency of an immediate action. These are the times when, even on a run, I know that when I get back with my camera, the sun will have already moved on to other things, as well as finding different portals,  formed in and by the canopy of conifers overhead, to shine through. Sometimes I wait for the light to find another way through- other times I find that, with the inertia overcome and the camera out in the field, it is just as easy to move on to some other space that is now in the light.

While it does not make things right in the world, it does help to be distracted by one thing from another every now and again. At times like these I am reminded of one of my photo instructors- John Menapace- who gave us an assignment early on in the class to take our cameras away from our eyes and just point and click at something while imagining oneself saying to someone else, “Look at This!” I added the caps and exclamation point, as in some ways that is how I have come to make many of my photographs nowadays, not to mention that it is no longer necessary to put eye to viewfinder to see what one is doing. Back then pointing and shooting was a risk and a gambit because if you blindly missed your subject you were also wasting “valuable” film. As it is now, taking either one snap or a hundred pretty much costs the same thing in the end, where as back then in order to release the shutter you had to first advance the film, for all practical purposes, unless of course you were doing a double exposure. You did however have a mostly permanent record on film for your efforts, instead an imaged etched in the ethereal mysteries of digital zeroes and ones. I now make a couple of hard copies of bunches of these collections of electronic  images on discs, and sometimes on hard drives, which is good, but I’m still not sure if they will be around in fifty years like my black and white snaps from the sixties and seventies. And in the end, who knows if that really matters anymore?

A fascination with some of these past images had me wrapped up in a scanner frenzy of sorts earlier this year. It was actually the need to break away from that picture past and do something modern and current that lead me out into the garden. As it is, both the black and white visions of old, and the color renderings of present day yard plantdom, all have wound up being splatted onto the pages of the facebooks for all, or most, to see. And it was there on the FB that I found out that one of the people who appeared in these ancient black and whites (and a few rarefied color, celluloid spectaculars known as Ektachrome slides),  has just published a book that covers his whole life up to now (as much as a 300 page book can describe the entirety of fifty years). It was fascinating for me to sit down and see where he had been and gone in the interim, as he is one of the many people I had lost complete track of since we were handed our diplomas and expected to go out and be worthy of our heritage, whatever that meant. As it turned out, Bruce went on to become a major force in the world of the thirty second teevee commercial- something I never would have guessed in a million years, let alone fifty. But then again, I had no idea I would be writing about making plant portraits in my garden during a plague and economic disaster and political nightmare. I could have told you I’d be taking photographs all these many years on, but that would have been a guess more than a sure bet.

I believe it was John Lennon who said something about life being what happens whilst you are busy making other plans. As it is, I have always been a bit jealous of those who could at least have said that something else was in the works. As it was, I mostly had no idea where I was going with whatever I was trying to do, so I guess you could say that for me, life was happening while is was busy being alive. For some reason there is a line from a Pink Floyd song that has always left me a bit uneasy, and that line is this: “No one told you when to run- you missed the starting gun.” I can’t say that is totally biographical as far as my life, but it strikes a familiar and sometimes disturbing chord. Perhaps if there had been a gun or at least a starter’s whistle, like there had been in all of my swimming races, along with, say, a clerk of course to sort of say hey, you need to be here now and on those blocks in a few minutes after this heat is over, and nobody really gives a damn about your heritage.

As I believe I have mentioned somewhere here recently, the fifty year reunion of our high school class of 1971 is maybe or maybe not going to convene in June of next year. At least in normal times that would have been the case, but who knows these days? It was with that grand coming together looming that I started to get back in touch with classmates around the country. We were scattered from the start since we were brothers at a boarding school, and so the “home town” ease of contact did not exist for us from the start, and the finish of our time there. One of the things that has been fascinating to me as we “like” and comment on our collective posts in that FB is how many of us have landed in the liberal/progressive camp of political persuasion. Even though we were of the time of Vietnam and Nixon and Kent State, I was about as apolitical at the time as could be. My parents were Republicans, but I did not identify that way, as I did not really know what that meant. I knew there was something wrong with the war in southeast Asia, but I was not a protestor against it. When there was a march against it in the biggest small town near our school, a classmate asked me to photograph it. And as I worked to get most of the informal shots of the seniors for our yearbook, one of my two Black classmates asked and trusted me to take his picture in a white robe in front of a burning cross while he stood there with a his fist in the air in Black Power defiance. I wasn’t thinking of politics or social justice- he was just my friend and that’s what he wanted to do.

Another thing that I am remembering from those times is the discussion I had with another classmate about William F. Buckley Jr. In truth, I had no real idea who he was or what he represented. I knew he was a conservative with a patrician’s attitude and a New England accent with an English twist. In reading now about his basics, it seems he was one of the leaders in the modern, conservative movement. His television show- Firing Line- was one of those timely anachronisms of that era which dealt in spirited, intellectual debate. I recall my friend Malcolm talking about one debate Buckley had- I don’t remember who it was with although it could have been Gore Vidal, since their rivalry was legendary. It doesn’t matter who the challenger was, just that whoever it was was in the process of making some effective arguments in that particular contest, and Buckley recognized he was losing. It was at that point that he picked up the pitcher of water on the table in front of him and started pouring himself a glass. Instead of paying attention to the water going into that glass, once the pouring began Buckley instead turned his gaze to his opponent and fixated on what he was saying, all the while continuing to pour. As the water began to overfill the glass and flow out onto the table, a bit of mayhem ensued, and his opponents well crafted points were lost in the distraction of spilt water.

I thought about that last night, as the incumbent candidate for the President of the United States lobbed metaphorical hand grenades and Molotov cocktails, banged pots together, started a chainsaw and a leafblower and otherwise proved that, first and foremost, he is no William F. Buckley Jr. He also proved that he is not presidential material and should never have even remotely been considered for the job in the first place. Over the last fifty years, I would have hoped that we could have aspired to be on the way to a future that was portrayed in the original  Star Trek series, but instead what we saw last night was that we are heading down the road to Idiocracy. Perhaps there is a way out of this, but what is most disheartening is that apparently nearly half of this country thinks the right way is the way of Trump. It is time, more so now than ever, to vote, so hopefully Mr. Biden will have a chance to lead us away from this foreign land-far away, where we can laugh again. Otherwise, we will have nothing to do but stare as all human feelings die, at which point we may just have to leave, because you don’t need us. Apologies to CSNY, or not.