Being There

When we moved into the house my parents built in 1958, it looked much as it does today. There were no trees, of course.  No roses had been planted and no basket of geraniums hung from the lamp post, but the shutters, the color of the siding and the roof shingles were nearly identical. Even the fire hydrant was there, blooming brightly red in the front yard, a reassuring token of suburban security. 

The hydrant was to become a focal point of our life, but if you’re imagining on-going struggles with neighborhood dogs or conflicts with the city over improperly installed water lines, you’d be wrong. The reality was quite different.  Placed conveniently across the lawn from our kitchen and dining room windows, the hydrant  became a stage for pure entertainment, as well as the source of a surprise or two. (more…)

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 7:33 pm  Comments (65)  
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Pens and Pics ~ A Cautionary Tale

The six words came first, like a little roadmap found crinkled under the seat of a car, or the sight of a curious, six-legged creature fleeing over the horizon.   Even the right word takes effort, I thought, the words so clear, so absolute and certain I looked around to see who might have spoken.  Seeing no one, yet possessed by a sudden, compulsive urge  to hold the words captive, to prevent their escape into the thicket of a mind overgrown with phrases like “don’t forget the milk” and “be sure to mail that check”, I looked around for tools to help me construct a cage.

The tools needed, of course, were paper and pencil, or pen.  Ubiquitous in human homes and offices, they can be hard to come by on isolated docks where language means the chatter and chirr of gulls.  Digging around beneath the birds’ inquisitive stares, I finally found a pen under the spare tire in my car’s trunk, laughing that I’d found one at all.  The pen, a white ballpoint imprinted with the LaQuinta logo, looked as though it had knocked around the car for some time, but it worked. Paper was less of a problem.   Junk mail envelopes in the car’s trash were abundant, as were the backs of  business cards , but there on the dock was all the paper I needed.   Pieces of used sandpaper five inches  square and smooth on the back were just big enough for those six words and the title which eventually presented itself: The Task at Hand.  Over the course of several days, words and phrases were added and removed, arranged and stacked and rearranged until at last I brought my little pile of sandpaper home and transcribed the words which gave this blog an identity and purpose.

The fact that I’d written my first poem on sandpaper didn’t seem in the least odd until I began attending a local writers’ group. A few members appeared at meetings with spiral-bound notebooks  and ball point pens straight off the drugstore shelf.   Far more had lovely, leather-bound journals or exquisite notebooks with covers of hand-made paper.   Filled with thick, creamy pages that absorbed ink in an instant or leaves of tissue so delicate they made the very act of writing seem an assault, they were perfect companions for pens far more elegant than my lowly trunk-dweller.  I hadn’t used a real pen in years, but here they were in abundance, their gold nibs, tiny enameled bodies, silver and gold engravings and perfect proportions luscious and appealing.

Before and after the meetings, there was as much talk of pens and paper as about words.  Writers talked about their trips to the stationers like explorers eagerly cataloguing acquisitions of rare butterflies.  Papyrus, vellum, marbeled or mulberry, the papers were rumored to imbue the most pedestrian words with weight and substance.  As for the pens,  it seemed one never was enough.  One writer used only a gold Cross pen for prose,  a Monteverde with purple ink for poetry and a nice rollerball for editing.  Montblanc was a favoite, Conklin esteemed, Montegrappa coveted.  My LaQuinta freebie hid in my purse, embarassed and chagrined.

Certainly there is legitimate pleasure to be taken in artfully produced journals, a paper smooth and heavy to the touch and the flow of ink, a sensuous pleasure that only increases when combined with good coffee, a little time for thought, a window from which to gaze.   When that pleasure slides toward obsession, as it can, it suggests something more – an unspoken conviction that if only one could find the right paper, the perfect pen, the perfectly bound notebook, writing itself would become easier, more fluid, more richly textured and memorable. 

The longing of some writers for these perfect tools is very much akin to the hunger for a perfect setting in which to write.   “I can’t write at home,” says one. “I see the chores needing to be done and become distracted.”    Another fusses, “I only can write in complete solitude.” Some can’t write at night, or in the morning, or in public or facing south.  Some need windows, or beaches or mountain cabins. Others prefer a cafe setting, or a certain, comfortable couch.  I once heard a fellow say, “When I retire, I’m going to have a teak desk, with a beautiful sheen, and a room in muted colors with natural fabrics, and no telephone.  Then, I’ll be able to write.”

I hope he can.  And yet, I remember Annie Dillard’s words on the subject in her marvelous On Writing.  She says, “Appealing work places are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.  When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window…  Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder block cell over  a parking lot. It overlooked a tar and gravel roof.  This pine shed under trees is not quite so good as the cinder block study was, but it will do.”

While Ms. Dillard’s thoughts might be taken as the strange rantings of a mystical poet, William Zinsser is all prose, and his opinion hardly differs. In his introduction to the 2006 edition of the classic On Writing Well, Zinsser mentions a photograph of E.B. White which hung in his office.  Taken by Jill Krementz, it’s described by Zinsser in this way: 

 “A white-haired man is sitting on a plain wooden bench at a plain wooden table – three boards nailed to four legs – in a small boathouse. The window is open to a view across the water.  White is typing on a manual typewriter, and the only other objects are an ashtray and a nail keg.  The keg, I don’t have to be told, is his wastebasket.”   Zinsser goes on to add, “White has everything he needs: a writing implement, a piece of paper, and a receptacle for all the sentences that didn’t come out the way he wanted them to.” 

The willingness to imbue simple tools with mysterious powers and to confuse the process of creating art with the ability of its product to intrique, inspire and initiate dialogue is not limited to the writers among us.  A delightful parable of technology, vision, and imagination  comes from painter and photographer Michael Maurer Smith, who tells the story of Snapper’s Disappointment in his blog, Dissent Decree.  As Michael tells it,

Snapper figured if he bought the best he’d be the best. So he made the call and ordered himself one of the finest digital single lens reflex cameras money could buy. This puppy came with 24.5 megapixel full-frame capability, a magnesium body shell, a carbon fiber composite shutter, a 922,000 pixel LCD monitor, and it could shoot 7 frames per second.

Snapper took some time to familiarize himself with his new treasure, with all of its menus and buttons, but found himself increasingly anxious as he realized he hadn’t a clue where to begin taking actual photographs, or why he might choose one subject over another.  Eventually, Michael tells us, as Snapper searched for answers he stumbled upon Henri Cartier-Bresson and the amazements of a different sort of photography.

“Bresson had made his pictures using a completely manual camera—something called a Leica. It had no auto focus, auto exposure or zoom lens. The label also said Bresson rarely used flash. Snapper was dumbfounded. ‘How could Bresson make such stunning photographs using such simple technology?’…

…Snapper was disappointed. The advertising had promised him that the technology built into his new camera would assure great photographs with every click of the shutter. But after seeing Bresson’s work it sure seemed like there was a lot more to photography than just the camera.”

Indeed.  And in his own delightful way, Michael Maurer Smith not only shows us how Snapper resolves his issues, he uses the tale to drive home a point I’ve suspected all along.  The writer searching for a magic pen, the photographer waiting for the perfect technology, the painter constrained by the quality of light ~ all have forgotten a basic truth of the creative process.  It is grounded not in technology and technique, but in what Faulkner in his Nobel Prize speech called “the agony and sweat of the human spirit.”  It is pursued “not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”

As the logician would say, the tools of any art are necessary but not sufficient for beauty and meaning to emerge.  And however well we succeed, no matter how far short of our goal we may fall, the words of this slightly amended proverb hold true: it is a poor artist who blames the tools. 

You just have to live, and then life will give you photographs.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson

 

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And Many Thanks to oh! of WordPress and Sandiquiz of WeatherUnderground and Flickr, both of whom used the proverb “It is a poor workman who blames his tools” within a week of each other and thus started me down this road.  Welcome to Team Muse, and many thanks for your posts and comments!

Hanging by a Thread

 

From a certain perspective, the recent airline accidents that compelled the nation’s attention can be seen as a strange sort of matched pair.  One, the landing of US Airways flight 1549 onto the Hudson River, ended in miraculous escape for both passengers and crew.  The other, the crash of Continental flight 3407 into a residential neighborhood, was an unthinkable tragedy.

As I listened to conversations about each event, I was amazed by the similarities.  Speaking of the US Airways flight a friend said, “They lucked out.”   A man from the neighborhood where Continental 3407 went down said in a radio interview, “They drew the short straw.”    Off-handed or considered, many remarks shared the same tone of bemused acceptance and resignation common to such occasions: “It was his time to go.”  “It wasn’t her time.”  “It was meant to be.”  “Things happen.”  “You never know…”

That tone reverberated through my childhood.  It represents a world view Doris Day trilled for us over and again during those growing-up years: “Que Sera, sera, darling.  What will be, will be.  There are blind forces abroad in the land and they hold your life in their hands.  However well-intentioned they may be, your poor, impoverished efforts to grasp and reshape your destiny will be futile.”

Perhaps it was post-WWII ennui.  Perhaps it was a response to increasing Cold War anxieties.  It may have been nothing more than an entire nation exhaling, wishing  to relinquish responsibility just for a while.  In any event, there’s no question that, even as my parents and their friends struggled to provide the better life they envisioned for my generation, they lived with an acute sense that at any moment it all could disappear.  (Click here to continue reading)

The Tombstone Follies

 

Since beginning to blog, I’ve become a bit of a child again: grasping and sometimes greedy, ranging through the aisles of the cyber-store pulling down sites, programs and possibilities like so many penny candies.  With my basket already full of images and words to play with, I want more.   I want to design my own site.  I want to learn html and master CSS.  I want to frame images, create smooth, fluorescent lime-green buttons and carve out text like so many Roman columns.   I’ve seen people chrome-plate cherries, make ordinary ponds shine with shimmering light and turn Tom Cruise into an alien.  I want to do those things, too – just for fun.

Luckily, there’s a site where I can learn to do all those things: Worth1000  I affectionately call it “Photoshop Run Amok”.  Whether you’re ready to learn, drool in the presence of striking images and photographs or simply are curious about what’s out there, it’s a terrific site, capable of dissolving hours of time.

Roaming around the site one evening,  I came upon one of the funniest images I’ve ever seen.   Created by Andrea Guglielmi for the Celebrity Tombstones contest, it’s entitled “Pacman”.   Even non-gamers recognize PacMan, and I burst into laughter at the visual joke: 

After the first giggles had passed, I kept laughing because the image recalled another, quite real cemetery experience that reduced an entire carload of mourners to near-hysteria, the kind of laughter that leaves you  unable to breathe, with tears running down your face. 

At the funeral of a friend, I was invited to join some family members on the trip to the gravesite.  We chatted and reminisced as we drove through quiet San Antonio neighborhoods, until we reached the cemetery entrance.  As the driver paused at the gate, six people saw the sign at the same time:  NO PLANTING WITHOUT PERMISSION.  Surely the administrators meant only to discourage unofficial geraniums and mismatched petunias, but their ill-considered phrase couldn’t have been funnier, even given the circumstance.  As we gasped for air, the driver grinned and said, “Don’t worry about it.  Happens to everyone.”

Certainly death is a serious matter, but more often than we admit it also can be an occasion for high hilarity.  When a dear friend in Salt Lake City was dying of cancer, she talked freely about her wish to be cremated.  She seemed to enjoy pondering possibilities for distributing her remains but one day, apropos of nothing, she announced, “Whatever you do, don’t sprinkle me over water.”  She loved the water, but to our great amusement and her own laughing chagrin, she admitted her reluctance was grounded in the fact she couldn’t swim.

A few years later, cremation again became the subject of conversation at a party in Houston, when a group of friends began talking about cremation vs. burial.  Eventually, the talk turned to tombstones.  One of the men asked, “Well, if you were buried, what would you want your epitaph to be?”

We sat and pondered the question through another bottle of wine, until an entomologist with the Texas Department of Agriculture suddenly erupted in great peals of laughter.  “I know!”, she exclaimed.  “I know exactly what I want on my tombstone – You Can’t Bug Me Any More !”

It was the beginning of a delicious evening.  After a little more time and a little more wine, a couple who both enjoyed successful careers in television news designed a double tombstone with two matching, blank television screens and the words, Stay Tuned – We’ll Be Right Back.

A woman whose husband died only a month after abandoning her for another woman giggled and giggled before gaining the courage to admit she wanted her stone to say, Buried Single, But We’re Double Dead.  She enjoyed the sentiment so much she took the next step and created a full parody of Barbara Mandrell’s song.  I hear she still sings it now and then, under the right circumstances.

I wasn’t varnishing boats at the time, but now that the career change has been made, there’s no question what would be on my own tombstone: a bucket, a brush and the phrase, She Varnished From Our Sight. 

Every now and then I think of those epitaphs, and I’m just as amused.  They don’t seem improper, twisted or frivolous. They’re funny; they help to put a human face on an inescapable reality: the experience of death.  According to family legend, my Great-Aunt Rilla used to travel out to the cemetery to gaze on her own little plot of ground.  Questioned about it, she’d dismiss the impertinent soul with a wave of her hand and one of her favorite malapropisms: Tempus Fidgits.

The truth, of course, is that time flows its inexorable, mysterious way while we are the ones who fidget, unwilling to accept either its course or our own inevitable end.  As people knew centuries ago and as Annie Dillard so eloquently writes today, the memento mori – a reminder of death in the midst of life – focuses the attention and clears the eye, enabling us to accept the world and our place in it with a degree of realism and serenity.

Dillard’s essay in the November, 1973 Atlantic, later included as a part of her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, makes the point in a manner both eloquent and true:  

The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. It is a covenant to which every thing, even every hydrogen atom, is bound. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountains and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death. The world came into being with the signing of the contract. A scientist calls it the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A poet says, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age.” This is what we know. The rest is gravy.

 

Copyright © 2008 Linda L. Leinen.   All rights reserved.
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Published in: on July 9, 2008 at 6:24 am  Comments (2)  
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The Surprise of Tiny Purple Things

 

Texas beaches have their charm, but it can take time for Floridians, or Californians, or even nice people from Illinois or Montana to appreciate them.  Some never do.  Muddy waves and coarse brown sand aren’t as innately appealing as palm trees and turquoise lagoons.  Pickup trucks huddled at the water’s edge blaring an unearthly combination of Master P and Travis Tritt aren’t to everyone’s taste, and hundreds of people casting lines into the surf – or each other – can be a little unnerving.

But even on Memorial Day weekend, with the beaches packed, the coolers and propane cookers stacked three deep and children, dogs and drunkards running free, it’s still possible to find some enjoyment at the beach, a sense of a world that moves to its own rhythms beneath the cacophany of human life.  I don’t often travel to the beach on holiday weekends, but this year I took the opportunity to spend time with friends in Port Alto and Matagorda, two little towns close by one another on the Texas coast.

Matagorda was my second stop.  My friend and I spent most of our afternoon walking the water’s edge.  Passing through party-goers on our way to the pedestrian beach, we strolled down to the cut where the Colorado River flows into the Gulf.  Sometimes we stayed on the flat, hard sand.  Other times, we ventured like kids into swirling, spumy water that washed away our footing as waves pulled sand from beneath our toes before receding out to sea.

Walking along, we let our eyes skim the dunes, the tideline, the hard, reflective sand washed by the receding waves.  Like all Texas mid-coastal beaches, it was littered with Portuguese men of war, sargasso weed, a sea bean or two and the occasional bit of styrofoam.  There were shells everywhere: angel wings, bay scallops, lightening whelk, coquina, disk and duck clams.  Most were damaged from their tumbles along the shallow bars reaching out into the water.  But despite nipped edges, faded colors and the occasional hole, there were plenty of children ready to fill yellow, red and blue plastic buckets with their treasures from the sea.

Away from the water, little dunes had formed, with lovely sea-grasses anchoring them.  Pockets of fine white sand reflected the bright sunlight more brilliantly than the water, and strong south winds drifted the loose sand as it threw incoming waves against the granite jetty.  The tide was out, and the water so shallow sandbars were exposed nearly to the rocks.  As we edged our way toward the jetty and away from shore, my eye was caught by a bit of purple – a tiny dot of brilliant, intense color no larger than a pencil eraser.  I thought it must be plastic – perhaps a shard of child’s toy, or a broken fishing lure – but as I bent down to look, I saw it was a shell: a tiny, perfect snail shell. 

Whorled at the top, lightly ribbed around its sides and absolutely symmetrical, it was beautiful.  I’d never seen anything like it.  Calling to my friend, I said, “Look.  What is it?”  She’d never seen one either, and remarked on the deep, pure color.  Picking it up, we found  an equally tiny creature inside.  Neither of us is inclined to collect homes that still have residents, so after another moment of admiration, we put the shell back onto the beach, at the edge of the tide-washed sand.  Immediately, a tiny foot emerged and began to burrow.  Looking at the tiny purple speck trying to escape into the sand, there was nothing to do but laugh with delight at the huge determination of a creature so small it nearly wasn’t there.

Continuing down the beach, we speculated on what we’d just seen.  We remembered a shell had been used to make purple dye, but thought it was the whelk rather than a snail.  Besides, one tiny snail per lifetime didn’t seem enough to support the production of dye.  The discussion waned, and we’d begun to talk sailing when we suddenly saw another shell, caught at the edge of some sargasso weed.  This one was a bit lighter, and even smaller.  It seemed to have bubbles coming from its shell, and when you touched them, they didn’t break.

 It was only later, after I’d returned home and spent a bit of time with my friend Google, that I learned we had found Janthinas – common purple sea snails.  Finding them is unusual, because they have become pelagic, and live out their lives floating in deep ocean waters.  They can travel hundreds of miles, steered by the currents, but they make landfall only when they get washed onto beaches during storms or by especially strong, constant winds.  They range around the globe in temperate zones, and have been found in areas as widely separated as Australia and the Caribbean.  Near the US, they float on Gulf Stream currents, and have been found as far north as Massachusetts, but they are most common in southeast Florida and the Keys.  As my friend and I now know, they sometimes appear in the Gulf of Mexico.

Janthinas feed on Portuguese Man of War and Velella, or “By the Wind Sailor”, which has a floating sail which allows it to tack with the wind.  Some attach themselves to Velella, floating and feeding on the creature.  If Velella isn’t available, they float by building a raft of bubbles with air captured from the surface of the water with their foot.  The bubbles provide enough lift to keep the shell on the surface of the water, but if the raft is broken, the shell sinks and the animal dies.  Some species lay their eggs under bubble rafts, but the most common, Janthina janthina, broods its eggs inside its body until the tiny shells emerge and make their own rafts.  That’s what my friend and I found on the beach: a pair of baby Janthina janthina, “toddler” purple sea snails that had been forced to land by the winds and tides, separated forever from the sea which sustained their lives.

Colonies of Janthina as large as 200 nautical miles in length have been reported.  It may have been one of these rafts that grazed the beach at Key West in 1883 when Charles Torrey Simpson, Florida’s answer to John Muir, came upon a sea of violet-colored shells floating in on the tide and quite literally turning the sand purple.  Simpson, a wonderful naturalist and collector extraordinaire, filled his pockets, his hat, and his handkerchief with thousands of shells.  When he got back to his ship, he found he had 2,000 perfect specimens.

If I could have conjured Charles Torrey Simpson on the beach last weekend, I suspect he would have made the perfect companion for my friend and me.  His 1920 book, In Lower Florida Wilds, suggests that two thousand shells or two would have made no difference to him:

I do not want to investigate nature as though I were solving a problem in mathematics.  I want none of the elements of business to enter into any of my relations with it.  I am not and cannot be a scientific attorney. In my attempts to unravel its mysteries I have a sense of reverence and devotion. I feel as though I were on enchanted ground.  And whenever any of its mysteries are revealed to me, I have a feeling of elation.  I was about to say exaltation, just as though the birds or the trees had told me their secrets and I had understood their language – as though nature herself had made me a confidant.

But Simpson also understood one of the basic realities of life – mysteries are there for anyone to see, and nature reveals herself to those who take the time to look.  The shells that my friend and I discovered weren’t hidden.  They weren’t buried in sand, caught in driftwood, or tucked deep within piles of sargasso weed.  They were lying on the sand, in plain sight.  All we had to do was look.

 Annie Dillard, a keen observer in her own right, talks about the gift of sight in her wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises.  The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny?  If you…crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way?

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.  But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.  It is that simple.  What you see is what you get.

Indeed.  More than computer jargon, WYSIWYG – “what you see is what you get” – is a naturalist’s rule of thumb, and a reminder to beachcombers, sightseers, and life-travelers in general that open eyes and an attentive spirit are prerequisites to the encounter with mystery.

The fact is that this very minute, on uncharted waters in uncounted oceans, great bubbling, purple colonies of sea snails are streaming and drifting their way through life, sent hither and yon by currents and winds.  Whether they’ll ever make land, as our little babes did last weekend, we have no way of knowing.  But something is coming, and I’m keeping my eyes open.

 

 

 

 

 © Text Copyright Linda Leinen, 2008
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Published in: on May 29, 2008 at 11:29 am  Comments (12)  
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