Sunday, November 23, 2008

Life Goes On

My Grandson, who seems to have earned some noticeable attention in the last few entries in this blog, sits next to me at the kitchen table, drawing an illustration for a book report. Most of the jelly-covered toast on his plate is gone, but a crumpled pile of scrambled eggs sits, getting colder by the second. Had we our beloved dog Cocoa, who died earlier this year, it would be a simple matter of spooning the leftovers into her bowl and the problem would be solved, leaving us with less guilt over dumping the cold eggs in the trash.

He asks me what I’m writing about. I defer with a reserved “Oh, nothing, just writing.”

“No, really, what are you writing about, Grandpa?” Cautiously, I read aloud the first paragraph of this entry. As he listens, he sips his hot cocoa and eyes suspiciously the leftover eggs, now frigid on his plate. Heisenberg is alive and well this Sunday morning, for I now suspect that whatever else happens today, the very act of Noah having observed the writing process will in some inevitable way change its outcome.

Minutes earlier I’ve scanned through the colorful ads in the paper, noting a discernible dearth in volume. I wonder if it’s the economy. Or perhaps they’re saving them up for later in the week, for the post-Thanksgiving lust-o-rama that is the Christmas Shopping Season here in America. I’ve had my own lustful thoughts about acquiring a new digital camera, but the one that has my eye is, of course, not in the ads, and is a bit pricier than the other brands listed. There is an immediate sense of guilt, as if I should just acquiesce to the incessant demands of consumer marketing and buy what everyone else is buying, but then that wouldn’t be the way that I do things, now would it?

Sitting on the kitchen table, just to the left of my almost empty coffee cup – my second cup this morning – rests another creation of Noah’s, a tableau composed of a small square of plywood, protruding from one edge a crucifix fashioned from a wooden dowel and scrap of craft stick, and three short wooden knobs attached by pieces of tape. It has the appearance of some mystical icon or altar, and I imagine Noah imbuing it with some special spiritual significance.

“It’s a ship,” he announces, after a protracted, slow motion swallow of now tepid cocoa. I’m not crestfallen, just jolted back to the reality that, despite my unrealistically high expectations for my Grandson (I am, after all, a doting grandfather) he is still a boy, in all the splendid boyishness he can muster. I can now see that what I mistook for a crucifix is merely a mast and yardarm, and the wooden knobs capstans used for the wrapping of line. I’m still proud of his attention to such nautical details, however.

They – my wife and Noah – have left for the grocery store, leaving me in solitude once more. I notice the capitals on my Royal Mercury are beginning to look like descenders, implying a visit to the typewriter repair ship is soon inevitable. Fortunately there are two such shops to choose from in my city. I also ponder whether such an adjustment, lubrication or cleaning is capable of being done by myself, perhaps saving a repair bill that could be better spent on that new camera I continue to lust after.

I suspect the beginning of the end of an era is at hand, photographically speaking, for I have spent the last 18 years or so immersed in the world of traditional silver gelatin black and white photography, swishing sheets of paper and film around in dimly-lit trays of exotic chemicals, and building primitively odd contraptions out of wood and cardboard and metal to be used as pinhole cameras. I have gotten used to seeing the world in the way that paper negatives see the world through a pin-prick-sized opening, more conscious than ever of the dichotomy offered by the limitless possibilities of the micro-aperture and that other world of images that such limited photographic tools can never capture, the faintness of fading light, the ephemeral, fleeting ghosts of figures on the street in motion. I hunger for more, for an expanded set of possibilities, yet not wanting at all to give up the oddly familiar methods I’ve grown accustomed to.

Perhaps a venture forth into the new frontier of the hybrid process is at hand, where digitally-captured images are printed onto inter-negatives that can then be hand-printed, using traditional methods, in the chemical darkroom.

There is an oddly refreshing uncertainty in the air this season, given the realities of a new era in politics unfolding before us, along with the challenges of economic uncertainty and the possibilities of looming global disasters both near and far. I wonder how this brave new world appears in the eyes of a 9 year old; just like, 45 years ago to the day, I was swinging on the playground at Mitchell Elementary, only three blocks away, when I first heard word of the death of President Kennedy. I remember crying, not certain why, since I didn’t personally know him, nor had my 6 year old political sensibilities been adequately formed to make a discerning political judgment about party affiliation. I just remember crying, as if that were the right thing to do at the time in such circumstances.

I’ve tried to explain to Noah over the last few years what the Cold War was all about; like when two people are enemies, but don’t actually have the courage to exchange blows, just pose menacingly at each other and exchange ominous threats instead. He asks me if I was “in the war,” as if there had only been one war – The War – that is somehow eternally ongoing yet mysteriously distant and abstract, never actually hitting home but affecting us in subtler ways, like taxes and the prices of food and gas. I explain to him about the Cuban Missile Crisis and later, in the 1970s, when I spent 6 years of my life serving our country in the US Navy, and what it was like then, maneuvering around the world’s oceans under constant threat from an enemy navy, living daily with the constant reminders of the inevitable holocaust, like nukes being wheeled through the chow hall on yellow dollies, guarded by M16-toting Marines, during training drills. I tell him about the mountain on the edge of town, over by Four Hills, that was supposed to be hollowed out and filled with bunkers of H-Bombs. I tell him about my Dad, who also passed away this year, who had helped build the then-secret Manzano Base, and later worked for a federal agency in the nuclear weapons field. I tell him about a world that didn’t feel so safe, and how, later, it felt a bit safer. And now, it doesn’t feel so safe again.

I am reminded of Orwell’s “1984,” within which Winston Smith knows that, only four years previous, Oceana had been at war with Eastasia, yet now Oceana was officially at war with Eurasia, and had always been at war with Eurasia. “The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil,” he wrote. “’Who controls the past,’ ran the party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

They’re back from the store, replete with bags of groceries, and Noah is seated once more next to me, working feverishly on his book report, while I’ve just started typing page 4. The day has warmed up nicely, and the afternoon promises a delightful time hiking through the forested paths along the Rio Grande, camera in hand, ever on the lookout for an Elusive Image of Interest awaiting capture. This last week we felt the first tinge of winter chill, yet now we once again bask in the afternoon glow of autumn in the desert southwest, waiting for the eventual frigid winter to arrive. We remain naïve, sentimental, purposefully, consciously so, determined to hang on to the last vestiges of our delightful autumn. The world and its problems seem abstract and distant, like the words in the newspaper are some fiction, written to merely amuse us.

“That’s the power of dark chocolate,” says Noah, his mouth full of the rich, chewy wafers. He’s finished his book report and I’ve begun to proof read it. I’ve already sampled several of the chocolates. I finish the proof read, making recommendations for several changes. “Writing is 90% editing,” I inform him, quoting my favorite writing-related saying. Already this first draft is splotched with irregular rectangles of correction tape, and the occasional red ink edits annotated between the lines.

Noah excitedly finds an empty shoebox in his closet that can be used for wrapping yet another present. There’s already a pile of them that he’s completed, ready to be squirreled away for Christmas. He’s humming a Christmas tune, and then abruptly asks why he never met his Great-Grandfather, my wife’s Dad, who died years before Noah was born. I continue to marvel at the world of thought swimming around in his head, into which he will occasionally permit us entry. Outside, life is settling in for yet another cold winter; the junipers are laden with an oversized load of berries that fall and stain the driveway with purple smudges and the inevitable bird droppings; but inside – in our home and inside Noah’s heart – life is constant, ever-changing, thriving.


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