Monday, August 30, 2010

Time to Consider

"Let it Marinate or Let it Slide", Madrid, New Mexico

There seems to be something seasonally affective about summertime, when the call of the great outdoors tempers one's (well, my) writer's self-discipline. There always seems to be something necessary to do, some urgency about getting projects of one sort or another completed, that prevents me from taking the "down time" necessary to becoming more internally focussed.

Thinking, at least for me, requires a dedication of time. It has to be "pencilled in" on my virtual calendar, given a certainty of importance amongst a myriad of other distractions.

There was a story recently about mental downtime, and the positive affects upon one's brain and psyche from just letting go of the constant torrent of inputs; shutting off the radio, TV and Internet, for instance, just taking the time to immerse oneself within the inner life of cogitation.

I find this hard to do, sitting in a quiet spot, without mediated inputs, just thinking. The first thing I usually think about is The List. We all have our own personal version of The List, with which we pummel ourselves to the point of guilt over our mutual inattentiveness. We are trained from early age to maintain The List, onto which we begin to add, not only the usual assortment of school-age tasks and responsibilities but, later in life, all manner of other incomplete items of our daily lives, be they family, work or personal. The urgency of The List urges me to not "waste" the few precious moments I have out of my busy life to sit still and "do nothing."

The season of summer is fast waning into early autumn. One senses this in the tempering of the daytime heat, and the cool evening air, and the deep, deep blue of the late-summer's north sky, opposite the sun, that gains a richness of color unique to this time of year. It is in the autumn that I've found myself suddenly reawakening, as if from a long sleep, year after year in a regular cycle of summer's slumber followed by autumn's balmy renewal. Oh sure, it's most likely something psychological; certainly the cycle of nature suggests winter's impending eve to be when life goes dormant for a season, rather than reawakens.

Here in New Mexico, the autumn brings with it the year's best weather, the seasonal harvest, hunting season, the aroma of roasting green chiles and pinon firewood, and the color and whoosh of hot air balloons in the cold, early-morning air, before arctic storms blast the Southern Rockies for another bout of winter. This is a time to consider the value of each solitary moment as a priceless gift that cannot be horded away for another day, but must be spent here and now.

We are reminded in Scripture about the "still small voice" that consoles, advises, warns and comforts, if we would but take the time to listen. I wonder why this voice is "still small," especially given the caliber of spiritual walk the early disciples practiced. One would think they, of all people, would be especially attuned to the inner life, that over time the voice of The Spirit would be louder for them.

Perhaps the point is that the contemplative life one never fully arrives at, but instead it becomes a life-long journey of permanent seeking, asking, knocking, and especially listening.

I am reminded of that maxim from the 1960s, "tune in, turn on, drop out." My variation would go something like "drop everything, turn it all off, and tune in." I think this is good advice -- at least for me -- which I expect will be good (and tasty) medicine for the soul.

(Posted via Alphasmart Neo)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Wrapped Up in a Continuum

"Sun on Water", pinhole camera image, 30 second exposure

I see a man, walking toward the coffee shop, carrying an Etch-a-Sketch. He's with a small group of other people. They, the Etch-a-Sketch entourage, enter and queue up in line at the counter. Everyone else, they have either computers or paper and pen. Or nothing at all. It's a fine Sunday morning, still a bit cool but promising to heat up later on. I'm seated at a corner table by the window of Winning Coffee, near the jungle of potted plants. The coffee roaster guy is finishing up a batch of beans on the roasting machine, a forest-green, brass and aluminum contraption, steam-punk-like, sporting the emblem "The Java Works of Sedona."

I could imagine blogging with an Etch-a-Sketch. Text would be difficult, unless you did it in cursive, where you're using a continuous, unbroken line. Would this represent the ultimate expression of penmanship (sketchmanship?), in a display of two-handed simultaneous coordination to produce, not just legible but, superior quality script?

And then there's the matter of actually sketching. Artwork. I suppose one wouldn't have to be a "real artist" with the Etch-a-Sketch to produce functional illustrations for one's blogs. But there's a big difference between being a hacker at Etch-a-Sketch and some of the finer works being made.

Like most people of my age, I was well-exposed to the Etch-a-Sketch as a kid. But it wasn't until years later, as an adult, that I picked one up and found it relatively easy to produce continuous-line art that was as good as what I could do with pen on paper. I'm not saying I'm any kind of whiz with the Etch-a-Sketch, but that I somehow found it more accessible as an adult than as a child. Which begs the question, how many other devices are like that, originally intended for kids, but somehow reappropriated for different usage models later in their product life-cycle? I can immediately think of one, the Fisher-Price Pixelvision. I'm sure astute readers will provide ample examples of other such devices.

The thing I'm not certain about in this impromptu fantasizing about blogging with an Etch-a-Sketch is how easy it would be to scan the resulting image. I suppose I'd have to go out and buy one in order to test it out, but one may end up having to photograph the resulting image with a digital camera, if scanning proved less than adequate. The knobs, that's the problem with scanning, unless they could be temporarily removed for scanning, then reattached.

This leads, of course, to the notion that perhaps soon, in the near technological future, someone will introduce a digital Etch-a-Sketch, able to record to memory card, or output to a display screen, the results of one's scratchings. The device itself could simply employ two digital axis encoders, connected to the device's knobs, generating an electronic fascimile to the mechanical version of the device.

My cup of Americano is nearing empty. I pick an opportune moment, when the line at the counter is short, to power off the Alphasmart Neo, cover the remains of my breakfast bagel with a paper napkin, and get a refill. On the way back to my table, carefully balancing the cup in near-perfect alignment with the local gravitational field to prevent the almost-full cup from sloshing fresh drippings onto the well-worn oaken floors, I pass the table where Etch-a-Sketch guy is seated. He's making a wonderful portrait of the lady seated across from him. I stop and chat a moment. He's planning on a gallery show of his work, using "real" sketchings. I asked about how he records his sketches, he said that he sometimes photographs them.

Meanwhile, the day is getting warmer, my second cup is rapidly disappearing, and a guy has sat down at the adjoining table with an iPad fitted to a three-ring-binder style of holder, where the holder flips open to provide a conveniently slanted viewing angle. Elsewhere in the common room there's someone reading the Sunday Albuquerque Journal, pages stewn about their table, and a few others are on their laptop computers. Now the Etch-a-Sketch people are looking at something on their 3G cell phone. And a while ago there was a guy seated at another nearby table who was writing with a pen in a notebook, of the paper kind.

It's this diversity of usage that fascinates me, further reinforcing the notion that, as time and technology advance, we don't really lose hold of the past as much it becomes wrapped up in a continuum, becoming part of our heritage, our cultural genetics.

At the counter by the coffee roaster there's a young boy playing Scrabble with an older man. The man is engaged in a conversation with a friend seated next to him, distracting him long enough for the young lad to use his cell phone to look up possible word combinations for his turn at the game.

The time is now. I pack up Alphasmart, bus my table clean, and head out for a fine day of motorcycling.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Upper Shelf

"Dry Leaves"

Were I to brave the upper shelf in my closet, next to the row of three-ring binders, stuffed to overflowing with large format paper negatives from two decades of work, I would discover a small assortment of composition books, the kind with the stiff cardboard covers mottled in black and white, within whose stitched signatures of college-ruled paper would be found page after page of mechanical pencil scrawl and technical description (blogging, of sorts, before the term "blog" was coined), mostly dating from the mid-to-late 1990s, and which covered a variety of subjects, but mainly that of photography and video art theory.

It seemed at that time I had developed an interest in the arcane outer boundaries of video art; low-resolution, sub-consumer grade, surveillance quality pieces along the lines of Fisher-Price Pixelvision; inspired by such work as Eric Saks's "Don From Lakewood", and by having regularly attended Basement Films shows, a local, mobile micro-cinema.

Keeping in mind that this was the mid-1990s, when the concept of jumping off the Technology Treadmill had hardly occurred to anyone, the idea that bigger, better and faster wasn't, well, bigger, better and faster seemed revolutionary to me.

It has recently struck me that the Age of Good Enough has finally arrived; point-and-shoot cameras, cell phones and micro-video devices are all "good enough," provided one's intent, rather than being on the five-minute-long Bleeding Edge of Technology, is rather to use these devices as tools for expressing one's creativity, documenting one's world and communicating to a global, Internet-connected audience. Network journalists are now documenting war reportage with Flip video cameras, for instance.

The Equipment Junkies (I confess that I'm still recovering) can continue their endless arguments over which camera can absolutely "kick major butt," "totally demolishing" the competition, but quite frankly I'm tired of all the nonsense. From the sound of it, you'd think they were discussing some cheesy Saturday night professional wrestling TV theater, wherein the Canon 5D MkIII jumps off the top rope and body-slams the Nikon D700, to the roar of the approving crowd.

But really, thumb through any photography anthology from the best of the 20th century's photographic imagery and you'll discover that skill, vision, technical mastery of the medium (and a bit of luck) were all supremely paramount (could "kick major butt") over any thought of what camera or film was used in the creation of these masterpieces. Sure, the latest Canikon Wunderkamera could "run circles around" the gear that the Old Masters used; but true creativity has never been about just technique and equipment. To be sure, Master Craftsmen have always had definite opinions about the merits of their particular tools, which you'd have to pry from their cold, dead hands; but it takes more than a velvety-smooth red sable brush to paint like Rembrandt.

You see, I'm not Rembrandt, or even very artistic, but I'm astute enough to know that we live in an age when we have available to us tools of creative expression far better, in almost any conceivable metric available, than in any preceeding age. You want to print with hand-laid type on artisanal paper (like Gutenberg, in 1439)? You still can. You want to make wet-plate collodion portraits? You still can. You want to create 3D interactive cybernetic art spaces? You can, too. It's not like we've abandoned the past to make room for the new (although it can seem that way through the myopic refractory of popular culture), but rather that there exists an evolutionary continuum in the relationship between man and his tools, a world that, despite opinion to the contrary, refuses to exhibit the properties of a Zero Sum Game. Knowledge is additive, not subtractive. The world of art, technology and culture is open-ended, synergistic even.

So what will our descendants read when they dust off the equivalent of our composition books, high on the upper shelf, and read (or watch, or experience) for themselves the works of our present age? I would hope that they would find us not so obsessed over the cleverness of our own brain-spawn that we had failed to make that essential leap from mere toolmaker to true artist. Our progeny requires a heritage more profound than the merely technological.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Da Boyz

Da Boyz, we meet most Sunday afternoons at the cigar store. We smoke, watch some TV, laugh, cry, complain about life, the government, crime, taxes, the cost of living; no subject is exempt from our examination.

Ed's been working at the store for a few years, oscillates back and forth between the front counter, where he plays helpful cigar store employee to the ever-present, new-to-cigars customer ("I need a good cigar for my boyfriend/husband/father/brother"), then rejoins Da Boyz for another few minutes of humorous quips, wise-cracks and one-liners, until the bell over the door rings with the arrival of another customer.

Some of the necessary aethetics: analog watch and a good smoke.

Michael, son-in-law of the other Michael, joins us this afternoon. He prefers to relight using wooden matches. Others, they prefer the fancy gas-filled torches. Me, I use a Zippo. I like its metallic snick and mechanical simplicity. Each to their own.

The other Michael, the group's most faithful participant. He can be deadly serious, but also deadly funny. Jokes-a-minute; humorous observations about every aspect of life are nonstop.

Today, while watching Nascar, the subject of Bob Seager's song "Night Moves" came up. Naturally, Michael pulls up the YouTube video on his Blackberry, serenading the smooth-talking announcers on the tube.

Like some kind of aroma-emitting hourglass, our time spent together is measured in inches.

There's no set meeting time, each participant shows up at their personal appointed time. Now we find Dave's joined us for a smoke. We switch the TV back and forth between golf and Nascar. Quaint cultural cross-references between the two sports fly back and forth, zingers penetrating the ever-thickening haze. Tears, of laughter, are wiped away during the brief moments of respite.

And then, at his usual later in the afternoon time, Dennis joins us, taking the seating spot from where Michael Jr. departed.

Now things are rolling; our guts are aching from the laughter. We ponder the improbable, like what would happen if Nascar culture were transplanted onto the staid, groomed and cultured fairways of the PGA.

Closing time nears, just a few of us die-hards remain. Dave dons his shades, preparing for the glare of the afternoon sun. We've smoked our stoggies, shared our jokes and stories, and somehow life seems a bit lighter. This will have to take us through the rest of the week until, next Sunday, Da Boyz regroup for another go-around.

(All photos captured with the micro-4/3 Lumix G1 camera, ISO1000, using a manually adapted Minolta MD 50mm lens at f/1.7, and also the stellar-performing Lumix 20mm pancake lens, also at f/1.7.)